League champions look to improve for 2010

Brendan Bianowicz

After claiming their 27th World Series title, the Yankees are in the calm before what is sure to be a frenzied spending storm. Though General Manager Brian Cashman has stated that the Yankees won’t spend as liberally as they did last off-season, the possible holes left at key positions (and the free agents available to fill them) could suggest otherwise.

Left fielder Johnny Damon, World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, backup outfielder Xavier Nady and starting pitcher Andy Pettitte all face free agency, and from the look of this year’s free agent crop, the Yankees may re-stock their roster with better, younger talent. This year’s best available free agent, Matt Holliday, would fill the spot of an aging Damon in leftfield and give the Yankees a formidable 3-4-5 of Holliday, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira; or, for a slightly thriftier alternative, Jason Bay, Rodriguez and Teixeira.

If Nady and Matsui are not brought back, expect Cashman to go after utility men that could easily start for any other team. Possible options would be Chone Figgins, Rick Ankiel, Marlon Byrd or Coco Crisp; all are athletic, can play multiple positions and would come cheap. Though they have strayed away from designated hitter types in the recent past, the Yankees might take a chance on Vladimir Guerrero, whose contract has ended in Anaheim. Guerrero is still a capable right fielder and would see a power revival with a move to the new Yankee Stadium.

The last question for the Yankees would be their rotation. If Pettitte stays with the team (which is almost certain unless he retires or returns to the Astros), he will remain the third starter behind C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and he would be placed in front of former staff ace Chien Ming Wang. The Yankees could try to fill in the rest of the rotation with internal options (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes) or look to the free agent market. With the salaries of Damon, Matsui and Nady off the books, there could be enough funds to go after a pitcher to sandwich either between Pettitte and Burnett, or Pettitte and Wang. The top starting pitcher on the market is John Lackey, and though the Yankees may make a run at him, they will most likely come to terms with someone less expensive. Don’t be surprised if Rich Harden, Erik Bedard or Randy Wolf is in pinstripes come spring training.

Their 27th World Series championship is the first the Yankees have won with over $100 million in payroll. If the Yankees fall short of a championship next season, expect their already record-high payroll to balloon even further. In the five years following their 2000 World Series win, the Yankees’ payroll grew at an average rate of 15 percent each season, escalating from $93 million in 2000 to $208 million in 2005.

As for the Yankees opponent in the most recent Fall Classic, after a hard-fought but disappointing end to their World Series run, the Phillies look to tweak their roster. Unlike the Yankees, a $200 million payroll is not an option, so they must improve by signing minor free agents and drawing from a farm system that is a bit shallow after the acquisition of Cliff Lee. The Phillies main off-season questions lay in the bullpen, in the rotation and at third base.

Though the Yankees should be credited for their timely hitting in the World Series, the Phillies’ bullpen looked anxious and apprehensive. Brad Lidge, though he can be spectacular at times, is easily rattled. If he is not pitching flawlessly, he has trouble working out of a jam. If no internal solution can be found (i.e Brett Myers or Ryan Madson) the Phillies will look to free agency either with former closers J.J. Putz or Billy Wagner.

With his poor performance in the third game of the World Series, and poorly thought out sound-bite following it, Cole Hamels has given Philadelphia fans a reason to doubt their former ace. However, Hamels is not the biggest concern in the rotation.

After Lee, Hamels, Happ and Blanton, options are somewhat unreliable. Those options include: an overpaid 40-something (Jamie Moyer), an inexperienced farm-hand (Kyle Kendrick) and a hopeful gem far too young to be considered (Kyle Drabek). If the Phillies want to take full advantage of a roster full of players in the prime of their career, their best option would be to resort to free agency. With little need for another lefty, Bedard and Wolf would leave the rotation unbalanced.

With slots 3 through 5 interchangeable, the best option would be a right hander along the lines of Harden or Brad Penny.

However, the best high-risk, high-gain option would be signing pitcher Ben Sheets to an incentive-laden contract with a low-base salary. If his surgically repaired arm is healed, then the Phillies would be playing with an ace on the mound three out of five games; if he performs worse than expected, or gets injured again, he’ll be paid based on his performance.

Pedro Feliz has proven to be a stellar defensive third baseman, but since signing with the Phillies as a free agent in 2008 his offensive production has been disappointing. If he is not resigned, the Phillies have a perfect replacement waiting on the free agent market. Adrian Beltre would provide Philadelphia with a third baseman of Feliz’s defensive caliber in a younger package and with a 50-home run season under his belt. His right-handed power bat would fit nicely behind Ibanez, and the Phillies’ defensive infield would, at the worst, stay the same.