Staffs of Stars: Charleston and Tampa

It has been a long time since the Yankees could call any of their minor league squads "loaded" with promising young arms. But, that is the case with the both full season A ball squads in 2005. We caught up with pitching coordinator, Nardi Contreras to assist us in previewing those staffs.

Despite the glaring lack of depth in the Yankee farm system, these guys are the strength that make it tick. Who are they? They are the projected members of the Tampa and Charleston pitching staffs. Not only are these young arms filled with talent but they also bring hope to the future of the system. But, with all this talent bunched in the lower levels of the system, where do they all fit in? It certainly is a beautiful problem to have but it is important to remember that it is also vital to place these young hurlers intelligently, following a strong player development program.

It is always a delicate process, assessing players before the regular season and deciding where they will begin their new campaigns. But, as the season gets closer and closer, the Yankee Minor League coaching staff, headed by Nardi Contreras, Pitching Coordinator, begins to develop a better idea of how these starting staffs, in particular, will shake out. Nothing will be certain until spring training comes to a close, but a clearer picture is beginning to emerge. We had a chance to chat with a busy, Nardi Contreras to discuss possible projections for the two A ball pitching staffs. While nothing is "set in stone", the pitching coordinator was able to give us a better idea of what is expected, what decisions are yet to be made and the future of all these young pitchers.

In baseball, it isn't too often that anything is called "a lock", but in this case, that is where we are going to start. Starting with low A Charleston, we asked Nardi Contreras who looks cemented into the rotation. "The only guys you can say that for are Phil Hughes and Christian Garcia," he assures us. "They are our two top high school arms and that's where we see them going at this point. I can confidently say that those guys will be on that staff." Well, that is two down and three to go in projecting the 2005 Charleston staff. Next, we come to Jesse Hoover. Although he is not an absolute lock for Charleston, it seems the organization would rather be sure that he can master any form of full season ball before he heads to High A Tampa. But, first thing's first, is Jesse a starter? "Yes," says Nardi Contreras. "The changeup he has been working on is coming along very well so now he has three strong pitches." Even with that developing third pitch, Contreras confirmed that his most likely destination to open 2005 is Charleston. "Charleston looks like the most likely option for Jesse right now. I mean, anything can happen in spring training, but if I had to project it, I'd say it will be Charleston for him."

As Nardi Contreras reminded us throughout the discussion, "nothing is set in stone." Although some of the pitchers named above are much closer to set in stone, two pitchers we will look at now, Brett Smith and Jason Jones, are the farthest things from that. However, going by the projected Tampa staff we will hear about in a few moments, it appears more likely that both these pitchers could be ticketed for Charleston. "Jones is on the bubble and honestly, his placement is going to have a lot to do with how he performs in spring training," Contreras tells us. "But, certainly, that Tampa staff is going to be loaded so he'll have to push his way in if he gets in there."

At this point, some may be reading on, realizing that we have now covered all five potential spots in the rotation. So, going strictly on projection, the Charleston RiverDogs staff could include Phil Hughes, Christian Garcia, Jason Jones, Brett Smith and Jesse Hoover. Projection, yes, but this is certainly a firm idea of what the staff could look like come opening day. But, for some who follow the system closely, you may notice some omissions. However, this does not go without explanation. The two surprises that may come to mind are Jason Stephens and Maximo Nelson, both of whom are highly touted and had strong 2004 seasons. We asked Nardi Contreras what the deal was with them, beginning with Nelson. "Maximo is looking more like a reliever, I think," he said. "We like him and he has a great arm but the bullpen looks like the better spot for him." Then, he spoke about Stephens. "He is one of those guys that, if he wants to make that Charleston staff, he'll have to force his way in. He has a lot of guys ahead of him so he'll have to really earn his spot but it just comes down to having guys ahead of him"

Now, that we have a firm idea about the pitching staff situation in low A ball, let's take a look at the high A Tampa projected pitching staff. Rather than beating around the bush, we asked Nardi Contreras if he could give us the "locks" for that staff in 2005. "Well, there is Tyler Clippard, Abel Gomez and Saidel Beltran and they are all very, very safe bets to start the year there. I see no reason why they shouldn't. We really, really like Beltran because of the pitching experience he has in international competition so we're confident that he's ready to pitch in High A ball." But, the staff still has two spots yet to be covered. Although Contreras didn't specifically mention him, Eric Abreu is also an apparent lock for the staff. But, who holds the final spot? "I think Jeff Marquez definitely has an outstanding chance to pitch in Tampa," says Contreras. "Like I say, nothing is ever set in stone. But, that is kind of the plan right now, for him to be in Tampa. So, right now, I'd say he has a better chance of Tampa than anywhere else."

So, there you have it. You won't find a guy closer to the action than Nardi Contreras. Although none of this is set in stone, you won't find a more accurate pitching staff projection. All of the pitcher's mentioned have big time potential to be Major League players but their placement is a key part of their careers. In other words, where they begin their path to potential stardom is nothing to take lightly.

Pinstripes Plus Top Stories