Some year-end grades to close the books on 2006:
Derek Jeter -- A: Just an amazing performance. I try to grade tough, which is why no A+ for the Captain. The lack of that extra-credit plus isn't an indictment of Jeter's leadership, for failing to embrace Alex Rodriguez or for any other reason. Outlook for 2007: Another performance like this would be a miracle, but here's hoping he comes close. Although I don't put much stock in clubhouse chemistry (usually it's an after-the-fact thing that accompanies winning) I think Jeter's biggest challenge--if he really is the "leader" on this ballclub--might be to end the nostalgia culture that consumes the Yanks' press and a few of the remaining players from the glory days. Despite the fact that Cashman is trying his best to re-build the 2001 Yanks' starting rotation, the championship Yankees of 1996-2000 are gone, and someone needs to make the "Paul O'Neill's not coming through that door!" speech to convince everybody to stop looking towards the past and just play in the present, with the players at hand.
[The best thing about the "Paul O'Neill's not coming through that door!" speech is that since O'Neill works for the YES Network, he would probably choose precisely that moment to walk into the clubhouse. You know, "Hey, guys! Why's the door closed? Anybody want to get Chinese food after the game? Why's everyone so quiet?"]
Robinson Cano -- A-: Went from being a middling infield prospect to being a guy who's in the batting race in the last week, over the course of just over a year and a half. Only deduction to his grade comes for time missed with a hamstring injury. In the second half awards we didn't give out, Cano would have been a strong contender for best hitter of the half, with a .365/.380/.635 performance and 11 homers after the All-Star Break. Outlook: Hitting .342 means you're guaranteed a place in the Yankee lineup--just not necessarily in the top five spots. That's how good this offense is.
Jorge Posada -- A-: Usual, rock-solid year with the bat, with bonuses for dramatically improving his throwing, and doing so at an age when many catchers are looking at the end of the road. Outlook: How long can Jorge keep this up? If there's more performance like this from Posada, the Yanks are going to have to look hard at another contract extension. If not, they'd better hope that the Johnson trade we all keep hearing about brings them a catcher that's not too far away from being major league-ready (Miguel Montero, anyone?).
Bobby Abreu -- A-: Hit .330 as a Yankee, with 10 steals and a beatiful OBP; good enough to chase Gary Sheffield out of town. The only downside was the fact that he struck out in one fifth of his plate appearances. Outlook: A lot of people criticized his effort in Philly, he seemed a man reborn when injected into the middle of a pennant race. Will he be able to maintain that energy level now that he's starting the season in pinstripes?
Johnny Damon -- B+: Gave the Yanks almost exactly what was expected of him--good teammate, better centerfielder than the incumbent, good hitting in tight spots. His performance against Boston in that August five-game series was almost worth taking on his contract, all on its own. Actually had the second-most homers (13) of any Yankee in the second half. Outlook: The big question is, will the nagging injuries continue, or was a lot of that fluky bad luck?
Melky Cabrera -- B+: One example of how we grade on a curve, sometimes. Is Melky the sixth-best player the Yanks had? Did he have the sixth-best season? No, but he definitely made some exciting moves in '06--picking up a spot in the Yankee lineup at the tender age of 21--which brings us the hope that he could mirror Cano's unexpected success as a sophomore. Outlook: Sadly, Cabrera's blocked by the all-lefty outfield (Matsui/Damon/Abreu) so the big challenge will be to find him playing time. I hope Melky's working on his D in center, because he's at his most valuable if he's filling in at all three outfield spots. I suppose it's being sentimental, but I really hope he's not traded.
Jason Giambi -- B: Wrist injury caused him to fall off big-time in the second half--he only hit 10 homers after the break. The term irony could be defined in the fact that some of the same writers who refuse to vote for Mark McGwire for the Hall of Fame due to his suspected steroid use, are now hailing Giambi as a team leader for calling out A-Rod in Sports Illustrated. Outlook: Looks like the team's finally convinced that he should DH full-time; we'll have to see if the change improves the Giambino's health and performance.
Hideki Matsui -- B: Hit .396 after coming back from the DL, with a few homers to tell us that his bat's intact. Still it was only 43 AB. One indication that fate laughs at our plans is that Matsui sat out from Japan's winning WBC team to keep himself in top condition for the Yankees, then missed most of the season with a freak injury. Outlook: One of the more interesting suggestions I've heard (I'm sorry, I don't remember where) was the idea of moving Matsui to first base, to get more playing time for Melky in the outfield. It's something that should absolutely be tried in Spring Training--this team needs all the flexibility it can get, and Matsui's the slowest afoot of all the Yanks' outfielders. If anyone's capable of learning first base well in a short time, I would expect that it's Matsui.
Alex Rodriguez -- B: What hasn't been written about the trials of Alex, yet? One of the projects I've been working on this winter has to do with him, so I'm not going to repeat that analysis. A-Rod had a fine second half--leading all Yankees in homers (16) and RBI. Outlook: Could we start again, please? Forget all the "batting eighth against the Tigers" trouble, the SI article, all that crap? On the field, the biggest challenges for Rodriguez are his defense, which was shockingly unreliable, and his strikeouts. The question is, are those problems physical or mental?
Gary Sheffield -- B-: The Iron Sheff left town on a sour note, fumbling around first base and not hitting well at all in his late-season comeback. I'm sad to see him go, but the trade that sent him to Detroit sent a couple of strong messages to the world: 1) the Yankees are rebuilding the farm system, and 2) Brian Cashman's in control, here. Outlook: Traded to a rival in the AL, Sheffield could really come back to haunt the Yanks in '07. He's always been fueled by anger, and I'm sure that throughout the year we're going to hear about ways that the Yankees "disrespected" Sheffield--that's just the way he motivates himself.
Bernie Williams -- B-: I confess, I overgraded Williams at mid-season, giving him a B despite his .323 on base percentage. He hit better in the second half, perhaps because he was used more against lefties than he had been before Melky Cabrera got cemented in place. Outlook: I'd rather he quit, just because I think the Yanks' bench needs something different, and because I'd rather not see him in another team's uni. If that's selfish, so be it.
Aaron Guiel -- C: Decent glove, low batting average, but a little bit of pop. That's a good description for a utility outfielder--sadly, the Yanks are stocked in the outfield going forward. Outlook: Could be the fourth or fifth outfielder for 20 or so teams. [UPDATE: But as pointed out by BubbaFan in the comments, Guiel's headed out to Japan to play for the Yakult Swallows.]
Nick Green -- C-: Small sample, but he outhit Andy Phillips and Craig Wilson, while backing up the skill positions in the infield. That's about all you ask of your utilityman. Outlook: Last seen looking for a job at the Winter Meetings. We wish him good luck. The Yanks could do worse than offer him another minor league deal.
Andy Phillips -- D+: Coughed up his big chance. He should bear some responsibility for the fact that he didn't perform when given the opportunity; he's blameless for the fact that he was kept in the minors for so long. Outlook: Fair or not, he's 30 now, and pressed up against the bad side of the defensive spectrum. There's nothing to indicate that he'll hit enough to justify a roster space--he may be the Yanks' best defensive first baseman, but it's not like he's Keith Hernandez with the mitt, either. The sick thing is, after taking all this time to convince the Yanks to give him some playing time, now Joe Torre is familiar with him--this means he'll get more chances than he could back when he was a younger, better hitter.
Craig Wilson -- D: This grade only covers Wilson's time in pinstripes. Had a shot at playing time in the postseason; instead, he made Gary Sheffield a viable option at first base. That's ugly. Outlook: Wilson's New York stint may have killed what used to be his considerable value. Well, that and the former catcher's tendency to get injured. Now a free agent, will likely sign somewhere well below market.
Miguel Cairo-- D-: He was just plain bad. Once upon a time the Yankees could afford to have no-hit defensively limited utility infielders. Not any more. Outlook: All told, probably re-signs with the Yankees, despite his limitations. I just hope he gets a minor league deal.
Kelly Stinnett-- F: The Bombers don't expect much from Posada's backups--look at John Flaherty, fer Heaven's sake--but Stinnett failed to satisfy even those meager requirements, and was released in late July. Outlook: As long as it's somewhere else, I don't much care.
Bubba Crosby -- F: Like Phillips, Crosby had a big chance to establish himself, a chance that passed him by in favor of Cabrera. Despite the failing grade, Crosby's a guy I thank for the memories, and wish well, so long as he isn't standing in the Bombers' way. Outlook: Was signed away from the organization by the Reds, he could have some opportunities given Ken Griffey's always-injured status.
Incompletes: Kevin Thompson (shows promise, could do a decent job as a fifth outfielder), Sal Fasano (couldn't even hit as well as Stinett--or most pitchers), Terence Long (a really, really, bad idea), Kevin Reece (how does he get a shot with Thompson in the organization?), Andy Cannizaro and Wil Nieves (we barely knew either of ye).