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Background: Johnson's smooth progression up the Yankees' development ladder and the steady improvement of his skills and performance make predictions of what he might accomplish in Triple-A in 2000 a bit scary. Johnson, whose uncle is former big leaguer Larry Bowa, led Double-A with a unique triple crown last year--batting average (.345), walks (123) and hit-by-pitches (37), resulting in a minor leaguebest .525 on-base percentage. Strengths: Johnson's offensive strengths are his approach and patience. He starts straight up in the middle of the batter's box but steps and leans in as the pitch is delivered. His quick hands and trigger let him wait until the last instant to commit. When he moves down and into the pitch, most of his hits go up the middle and to the alley in left center. Pitchers' attempts to bust him inside have only resulted in his being hit by 74 pitches the last three years. He has no problem with lefties, either, hitting .376 with seven home runs against southpaws in '99. Defensively, Johnson is smooth and savvy, with soft hands and good balance. With the lack of quality American League first basemen, he could challenge for a Gold Glove as a rookie. Weaknesses: Johnson's home run totals for his three full seasons (16, 17 and 14) aren't bad for a young hitter but are below expectations for a top first-base prospect. But the same technique that allows him to hit for average--moving down and into the pitch and waiting to commit--effectively locks him out of pulling most pitches, especially fastballs. His spike in power against lefthanders is a result of slow breaking balls he can time and jump on. Comparing Johnson to Mark Grace, as some have done, isn't appropriate. If Johnson adjusted his approach against some pitchers, as Sean Casey did in 1999, the power would come at the cost of some of his other skills. The Future: Tino Martinez' contract runs out after 2000, when Johnson will have a full season of Triple-A experience. With Martinez noticeably slipping the past three years, there's a perfect opportunity to prepare for the transition to Johnson. If Martinez rejuvenates his bat, he can move to DH, making way for Johnson's better glove and agility.
Background: After a dominant Eastern League first half, Soriano was being called perhaps the best prospect in the minors. A minor injury and struggles against higher-level pitching hurt the buzz only slightly. Strengths: Soriano's combination of speed, quickness, bat speed and surprising strength is exciting. He also could develop above-average power as he recognizes pitches better. His athletic ability and quick release make the spectacular play at short look easy. Weaknesses: Soriano's consistency on defense doesn't match his tools, causing routine-play errors. After the initial success, he often swung wildly at early-count pitches. Despite 4.1 speed to first, his baserunning needs work. The Future: Because of Derek Jeter, Soriano could move to second, third or even left field. The Yankees dismiss the outfield but don't mention another possibility--a trade for starting pitching.
Background: If Soriano's status is highlighted by Jeter, then Jimenez has been largely obscured by both of them. It's worth noting that it was Jimenez, not Soriano, who played more for the parent club in late September. Strengths: Jimenez has solid tools across the board, as well as excellent instincts and skills. His combination of switch-hitting skills, line drive stroke, plate discipline and above-average speed make him an ideal No. 2 hole hitter. Defensively, Jimenez is steady at short. He has extremely sure hands and an accurate throwing arm, and he could easy adapt to second or third. Weaknesses: Jimenez is primarily a contact hitter righthanded, with little power. Despite other good instincts, his baserunning isn't particularly good. The Future: Jimenez would project as the starting shortstop for eight to 10 major league teams, so the Yankees know they have a valuable commodity. However, his versatility and switch-hitting ability might land him a utility infield role with New York.
Background: Although it may sound trite by this point, Westbrook is with his third organization. A 1996 first-round pick of the Rockies, he went first to the Expos in the Mike Lansing deal, then to the Yankees for Hideki Irabu and two players to be named. Strengths: Westbrook's bread-and-butter pitch is a hard, sinking two-seam fastball he throws in the 89-92 mph range. When he's down in the zone and busting hitters inside, he's capable of getting 15-18 ground ball outs per game. As a fastball pitcher with excellent command, he's durable, throwing 170-plus innings each of his three full pro seasons without missing a start. Weaknesses: Westbrook's low strikeout totals indicate a lack of an effective breaking ball. He throws both a slider and curveball, but they're complimentary pitches. Both must improve before he can take the final step to New York. The Future: Westbrook is likely a year away from challenging for a big league job, but he fits perfectly into the Yankees' plans to supplement their aging starting rotation.