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Background: Part of Johnson's baseball upbringing comes from his uncle, former big leaguer Larry Bowa. Though he was named the Yankees' No. 10 prospect after the 1997 season, Johnson was largely unknown before he emerged to dominate the Florida State League in 1998. Only midseason arthroscopic surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder kept him from amassing triple-crown numbers. Strengths: Johnson has experienced a huge surge in his power potential since signing. The Yankees feel the intensive work he has done with strength and conditioning coach Shawn Powell has transformed him into a player with 40-homer potential, rather than a Mark Grace clone. Johnson is unique as a young hitter because he combines great bat speed with excellent pitch recognition. His 68 walks in 1998 project to 113 over 500 at-bats. Defensively, the comparison to Grace still holds. Johnson has Gold Glove hands and actions around first base. Weaknesses: Johnson has below-average speed, normal for a first baseman. With almost all young hitters there is a normal amount of organizational caution about how they will react to more experienced pitchers with better stuff and command. The Yankees seem to have none of this concern with Johnson. They will be completely shocked if he doesn't develop into a strong major league hitter. The Future: Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez will be 31 on Opening Day 1999 and has led the Yankees in RBIs for three straight years. Despite this, the Yankees clearly consider Johnson their first baseman of the future. It will be a matter of when he is ready, rather than of when the position is open, that determines when he will take the job. Statistically, Norwich's Dodd Stadium is the second-most difficult home run park in Double-A, so Johnson's home run numbers likely will not jump out in 1999. There is no reason to rush him with a top quality first baseman already under contract. The clock is ticking, though.
Background: Bradley pitched 27 innings in the New York-Penn League in 1997 but shot through the Yankees system to reach the major leagues by August. A closer in college, Bradley was moved to the rotation to get more innings this year and flourished. Strengths: Bradley came to the Yankees as primarily a two-pitch pitcher--a low 90s hard-sinking fastball and a plus split-finger. Short-season Oneonta pitching coach Steve Webber and pitching coordinator Billy Conners taught Bradley his new out pitch, an excellent slider. Weaknesses: Bradley's control deserted him in Triple-A and New York, a sign the more experienced hitters laid off pitches out of the strike zone. Lacking experience, Bradley has yet to make the adjustment. The Future: With three quality pitches and above-average athletic ability for a pitcher, starting would seem to be Bradley's best path. He will be a longshot to make the 1999 Opening Day big league roster.
Background: Japan's Hiroshima Toyo Carp signed Soriano at their Dominican academy when he was 16. He sat out 1998 while "retiring" from Japanese baseball. The Yankees outbid several teams by giving Soriano a $3.1 million bonus and sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he excelled. Strengths: Soriano is a polished player who lacks only U.S. experience. He is a spectacular fielder with silky smooth hands and extremely quick feet. Offensively, Soriano showed surprising power in the AFL. Weaknesses: Soriano's swing can get long and allows pitchers to get in on his fists. It also leaves him off-balance coming out of the box, making him only an average runner to first. His speed underway is above average. And the Yankees are set at shortstop with Derek Jeter. The Future: Soriano is too good and will be too much in demand to sit and wait his turn like many Yankees prospects have, especially if he gets off to a fast start in 1999 at Norwich or Columbus.
Background: Melian endured tremendous personal tragedy in August when his parents were killed in a auto accident while accompanying the Greensboro team bus to a South Atlantic League game. He has recovered spectacularly on the field, excelling in instructional league camp and in winter ball in his native Venezuela. Strengths: The raw physical tools that earned Melian his $1.6 million bonus two years ago have continued to develop. He runs a 6.5 60 yard dash and won all the Yankees home run hitting contests during instructional league. Melian's throwing arm is top of the scale, and his speed allows him to play center field with ease. Weaknesses: Melian still needs work on basic fundamentals and get repetitions. Worries about his pedestrian Greensboro numbers are tempered by his youth. The Future: Melian appears to have the emotional strength to overcome his parent's tragedy. The Yankees refer to Melian as a "Jeter-type player with a Latin accent" for his overall tools and makeup. Tampa is his next stop.
Background: Lowell has changed himself from a slow middle infielder to a powerful third baseman through extensive strength work and tremendous maturation as a hitter. After hitting nine home runs his first two seasons as a professional, he has slammed 56 the last two years. Strengths: The closest major league comparison to Lowell is probably Scott Brosius, 1998 vintage. Lowell, like Brosius, has the ability and experience to play all four infield positions. The Yankees also praise his professionalism and maturity on and off the field. Weaknesses: There appear to have been enough small, nagging concerns about Lowell's game--speed, on-base percentage, even power potential--to convince the Yankees to re-sign Brosius for three seasons. The Future: By most accounts, Lowell's name should be included in discussions of the current crop of outstanding young third basemen. It is evident, though, that his future will not be in New York unless unforeseen circumstances develop.
Background: Ledee made his major league debut after eight minor league seasons. Injuries had held him back more than once, but until the 1998 postseason, the Yankees' glut of outfielders had been just as significant a hurdle. Strengths: As the World Series demonstrated, Ledee is a quality hitter who has no trouble handling power pitchers. He has untapped power potential and could be a 30-home run hitter if given the opportunity. Ledee has also shown he can take pitches and work a pitcher for a walk. Weaknesses: Ledee has played center field extensively in the Puerto Rican League, but his range probably limits him to the corners. Like many young power hitters, Ledee can be streaky with the bat and chase pitches out of the zone. The Future: The Yankees have been given plenty of opportunities to trade Ledee and have resisted them all. Ledee should find himself in an ideal platoon situation in left field with fellow rookie Shane Spencer.
Background: Baseball America's 1998 High School Player of the Year, Henson set a new all-time high school home run record. He fell in the draft because he was considered an even better quarterback prospect and signed a two-sport bonus worth at least $2 million. He's a freshman at the University of Michigan. Strengths: Aside from having only average speed, it would be hard to exaggerate Henson's overall tools. He has enormous power potential and bat speed, and enough arm strength to throw 70-yard passes or 95-mph fastballs. Weaknesses: The list of top college and professional quarterbacks is dotted with former baseball players. A parallel list of major leaguers contains very few former college quarterbacks--especially those who signed out of high school and tried to play both sports on two different levels. The Future: Henson represents a very high-risk, high-return type of gamble, the type that the Yankees can afford and don't mind taking. One thing is certain--he will have a longer career in pinstripes than John Elway did.
Background: Rivera made his pro debut in 1996 in the Dominican Summer League then spent 1997 in the Venezuelan Summer League. He narrowly missed the Gulf Coast League triple crown in 1998, leading the rookie league in home runs and RBIs while finishing fourth in batting average. Strengths: Rivera is a tools player with a classic resume for right field: plus bat speed, easy power to all fields, above-average throwing arm and solid overall defensive skills. His strikeout and walk numbers were impressive for a young power hitter. Weaknesses: If there is a weakness in Rivera's tool set, it's that he is only an average runner. He signed at an older age than most Latin players. The Future: The Yankees already had one phenom Venezuelan outfielder, Melian. Now they have a pair, though Rivera is more than a year older and has not played above Rookie ball. If Rivera can handle the jump, it wouldn't be surprising to see the two together in the Tampa outfield in 1999.
Background: Always a patient hitter, Spencer blossomed in 1998, raising his batting average 81 points from 1997 while maintaining his power. Spencer's September power display and postseason heroics are already a part of Yankees lore. Strengths: Spencer's power has been evident for some time, as his 119 minor league homers attest. His 1998 improvement resulted from staying back and using the entire field rather than trying to pull everything. Spencer's work ethic and hard-nosed approach fit in perfectly in the tight-knit Yankees clubhouse. Weaknesses: Spencer is strictly left field material, with playable range and a below-average but accurate arm. The Yankees tried him at first base late in the year with poor results. The Future: Is "The Natural" for real or is he the next Kevin Maas? Yankees fans were captivated by his power and innocence and will undoubtedly demand that Spencer get a full opportunity in 1999. A platoon with Ledee seems like an ideal alternative.
Background: Jimenez already was moving through the Yankees system quickly when injuries forced New York to bump him straight up to Columbus in May. Instead of struggling, Jimenez held his own offensively and shined in the field. Strengths: Jimenez is an excellent athlete whose tools are average to above-average across the board. He showed surprising power against older Triple-A pitchers, along with excellent strike zone judgment and discipline. Jimenez' defensive tools are good enough to play shortstop in the major leagues. Weaknesses: Despite above average speed, Jimenez is a below average baserunner and not a strong threat to steal. Otherwise he would be ideal as a leadoff or No. 2 hitter. There is also the problem of having Jeter and Soriano ahead of him. The Future: Jimenez has much better physical ability than many current big league shortstops. Because of his athleticism and offensive skills, he might make an ideal utilityman until a starting opportunity opens up.