Brackman Kicks Off HWB

2007 first-rounder makes pro debut, finally

Out in Hawaii Winter Baseball, Yankees' 2007 first-round draft pick Andrew Brackman already has his eyes on grabbing a surfboard and hanging 10.

Well, that and finally launching his pro career come Saturday night.

"It was a great feeling to get the hell out of Tampa," Brackman said and, yes, he meant Tampa, not Dodge.

Sixteen months since throwing his last pitch and then strengthening his surgically repaired right elbow at the team's Tampa facility, Brackman finally takes aim on scaling the organizational ladder and showing why he commanded a $4.55 million guaranteed major league contract that included a $3.35 million signing bonus.

He'll be thrown into the fire immediately, too, as Brackman is scheduled to pitch in the circuit's opening night Saturday for the Waikiki Beachboys against the Honolulu Sharks, whose roster includes Phillies outfield prospects Michael Taylor and Dominic Brown.

And how fitting that Brackman's debut comes in a week when the Yankees mourned the passing of Yankee Stadium and then the end to a 13-year playoff run that, more or less, kick-started auditions for the 2009 season, particularly the unpredictable starting rotation.

While the unofficial beginning may have launched on Wednesday night in righthander Phil Hughes' sizzling start against the Blue Jays, it's Brackman who strikes the opening salvo to the Yankees' offseason.

Of course, that he has not pitched since May 2007 places Brackman on the longshot list to crack the Yankees' Opening Day roster. But given the drama of the past summer with the big league rotation, Brackman could work his way into the picture at some point next year.

If his path sounds familiar, it is. Joba Chamberlain made his pro debut in Hawaii in 2006, and it was more or less the same that year for Ian Kennedy, who made one late-season start after signing before heading to the islands.

First, however, Brackman has much to prove, and not just to make up for lost time. The Yankees have tweaked his wind-up, incorporating a hands-over-the-head approach, and a changeup is now in Brackman's arsenal.

It could be an even more menacing approach from a pitcher who is a listed 6-foot-10, 240 pounds and was touching 96 mph in a recent intrasquad game.

"We want to see Brackman get his feet on the ground," farm director Mark Newman said, listing off a number of benchmarks the Yankees hope he meets, including getting a feel again for pitching and even changing speeds with his arsenal. "If he's doing that, we'll be happy. The competition's great, so the numbers won't mean a lot to us."

Glad To Be Here

Brackman, the 30th overall pick in 2007, turns 23 in December and clearly understands the onus is now on him. An emergency appendectomy performed four months ago severed a month of his recovery.

"It would be a dream come true to be considered in that picture," Brackman said by phone from Hawaii. "But I have a long way to go. There is an opportunity within the organization to work my way up fast.

"It's an exciting time to be a Yankee. And I think next year the big club is going to be re-loaded."

The Yankees' offseason is expected to veer into the C.C. Sabathia sweepstakes, and some news outlets have reported that Yanks boss Hank Steinbrenner would insist on pursuing Blue Jays righthander A.J. Burnett if he becomes available by exercising an out clause in his contract.

For a team that suffered in part because of an unpredictable rotation, it's no surprise. And so an interesting offseason looms. Veteran Andy Pettitte is expected to announce next month whether he will return or retire, and the team also will await a decision from veteran Mike Mussina, who needs a win this weekend to secure his first-ever 20-win season.

But they were the only constants in the rotation.

Rotator cuff tendinitis forced the shutdown of Chamberlain in August, and his future role—frontline ace, setup man or closer—remains a topic of fierce debate. Chein-Ming Wang suffered a partial tear of a tendon in his right foot and didn't return after June 15; and oft-injured Carl Pavano can't be counted on. Add in the early season struggles of Hughes and Ian Kennedy and the picture only worsened, with he Yankees even turning to veteran journeyman Sidney Ponson for 23 starts.

With that in mind, it's no surprise that the offseason spotlight will follow Brackman as well as Hughes.

Brackman touched 99 mph in the Cape Cod League two years ago and was consistently at 94 his junior season. However, his development was initially slowed because Brackman stepped away from baseball in the winters in his freshman and sophomore years, when he played basketball at N.C. State.

Fortunately for him, Brackman got a head start on dusting off his pitching in a recent intrasquad game at the Yankees' Tampa, Fla., facility. Newman said Brackman touched 96 mph with his fastball and also showed a quality curveball.

"The stuff was good. The command was so-so," Newman said. "But that comes with game competition. He's healthy now. There's not going to be a lot of restrictions on him."

Hawaii Winter Baseball, now in his third consecutive year after nearly a decade hiatus, offers the Yankees a creative avenue to jump-start Brackman's career. Better than placing him in the instructional league, the righthander should see more experienced competition, even on his own team.

Others To Watch

Waikiki includes catchers Buster Posey and Austin Romine as well as lefthander Jeremy Bleich. Posey starred at Florida State and was the fifth overall selection in the June draft, by the Giants. Romine was a second-round pick of the Yankees in 2007, and Bleich signed for $700,000 as the Yankees' first-round supplemental pick this past June.

Bleich, 21, was the Yankees' first-round supplemental pick—their highest pick to sign because 29th overall selection Gerrit Cole, a client of the Scott Boras Corp., instead decided to enroll at UCLA. Bleich worked just 33 innings as he battled an elbow strain at Stanford but did get in a three-inning start late in the season at short-season Staten Island.

Hawaii also offers Brackman a getaway from the monotony of the Yankees' headquarters. He worked out and rehabbed his elbow six days a week for the past six months. That's why the surfboard and the beach is so appealing.

"I'm anxious," Brackman said of pitching. "I haven't been able to compete for the past year, and I consider myself a very competitive person. You don't really compete when you throw BP or long toss. I've got a lot of things to work on."

His time in Tampa was not all boring. Brackman crossed paths with Pavano, who taught him a different grip on a changeup—a pitch Brackman will incorporate. He didn't have the pitch in college. "I feel like I can throw it for a strike now and it doesn't cut," Brackman said.

The Yankees are hoping the new windup in which he brings his hands over his head will avert another elbow injury. Brackman had a tendency to drag his arm. The new windup should allow him to break off his hands earlier and keep his shoulder from tipping down ahead of his release.

"I'm not going to judge my performance out here on ERA or anything like that," Brackman said. "I'm going to judge it on how my arm feels after I'm done throwing."

Meanwhile, Hughes took a positive step Wednesday night as he pitched eight innings, yielding only two runs on five hits in a no-decision. He also struck out six and issued a walk.

It was an encouraging sign for the 22-year-old, who suffered a stress fracture of a rib on his right side earlier this season.

The injury kept Hughes out from April 30 to July 29. But he was only 0-4, 9.00 in April with the Yankees, a disappointment considering Hughes was 5-3, 4.46 in almost 73 innings last season in the majors and was off-limits in the Johan Santana trade talks last winter.

Newman is optimistic that Hughes will make a turn for the better after a late-season, month-long stay at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, where Hughes struck out 31 and issued just nine walks while going 1-0, 5.90 in 29 innings.He also struck out 23 and issued eight walks in 13 innings in the International League playoffs. Command had been an issue in April, as Hughes had only 17 strikeouts but 15 walks with the Yankees.

Jeff Marquez, a 2004 first-round pick, and Humberto Sanchez, acquired in the Gary Sheffield trade, also will pitch in Arizona.

Marquez was shut down from June 16 to Aug. 6 but will pitch more in relief in the Arizona. Sanchez was a mid-September call-up despite throwing only 14 1/3 innings this year, all but three in the Gulf Coast League. He had Tommy John surgery in 2007.

"Those guys are upper level guys," Newman said of Hughes, Marquez and Sanchez. "They need to refine (their pitches)."

Other notables Yankees farmhands to follow this offseason include catcher Austin Romine and outfielder Damon Sublett.

Romine, who turns 20 on Nov. 22, hit 10 home runs and drove in 49 RBIs in 407 at-bats at low Class A Charleston. All 10 of his home runs and 42 of his RBIs came after May 31.

Sublett missed time after he injured an ankle.