November 28, 2007

Studying The Santana Menu: New York Yankees

When it comes to teams potentially being in the mix for Johan Santana, the two keys are money and young talent. Any team trading for Santana would be doing so with an eye toward locking him up to a long-term contract extension that figures to approach $150 million or more, which significantly limits the pool of suitors. Beyond that, any team trading for Santana would likely be sending the Twins an impressive package of young talent in return, which again limits the potential landing spots.

There are some teams that have plenty of money and some teams that have plenty of young talent, but only a handful of teams that can claim both. Among that select group of teams, the Yankees stand out as perhaps the best fit to acquire Santana. Not only would the Yankees have little problem handing Santana a $150 million extension, they have a strong collection of young players both at the big-league level and in the minors. In other words, they can pay Santana and they can pay the Twins.

On my annual "Top 50 Prospects" list, published way back in mid-March, Phil Hughes ranked as the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball behind only Royals third baseman Alex Gordon. At the time I wrote that Hughes was "a near-perfect pitching prospect." Since then he posted a 1.91 ERA in 37.2 minor-league innings and then had a 13-start stint with the Yankees in which he went 5-3 with a 4.46 ERA, 58-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .235 opponent's batting average in 72.2 innings as a 21-year-old.

Hughes' minor-league track record is nearly flawless and the former first-round pick has overpowering stuff, which the Rangers experienced first-hand when he no-hit them for six-plus innings before leaving his second career start with a hamstring injury. Short of cloning Francisco Liriano or convincing the Mariners to part with Felix Hernandez, Hughes represents the best chance the Twins have of replacing Santana with an early-20s pitcher capable of being a true No. 1 starter.

He's a young, MLB-ready stud who could step right into the rotation for Santana and won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season. No 21-year-old pitcher is a sure thing and literally replacing Santana will be nearly impossible, but Hughes is as good a bet as you'll find. He's also not alone. The Yankees also have Joba Chamberlain, another 21-year-old former first-round pick who blitzed through the minors with a 2.45 ERA and 135-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88.1 innings.

Chamberlain then joined the Yankees' bullpen and posted a 0.38 ERA, 34-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .145 opponent's batting average in 24 innings down the stretch. Despite his tremendous early success in the bullpen, Chamberlain still projects as a top-of-the-rotation starter who could fall back into being a dominant late-inning reliever. He's perhaps less polished, but like Hughes he's also an MLB-ready 21-year-old with No. 1-starter upside who can't become a free agent until after 2013.

Amazingly, the Yankees' collection of impressive young arms doesn't stop there. Ian Kennedy isn't on the same level as Hughes and Chamberlain, but he's another former first-round pick who posted a 1.89 ERA in three starts with the Yankees as a 22-year-old. Kennedy's minor-league resume includes a 1.87 ERA and 165-to-52 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 149.1 innings, but he projects more as a Kevin Slowey-style No. 2 or No. 3 starter thanks to less than overpowering stuff.

While top-notch young pitching is always nice, the Twins have plenty of that on their own and are in need of young bats. New York is pretty well covered there too. At the big-league level, Robinson Cano is a 24-year-old second baseman who's proven to be better than expected defensively while batting .314/.346/.489 in 414 games. He's one of the best second basemen in baseball already and has three more years before hitting the open market, but will begin to get expensive soon thanks to arbitration.

Melky Cabrera is a switch-hitting center fielder who's batted .275/.340/.388 in 286 big-league games through the age of 22. Reviews of his defense are mixed and it remains to be seen how much power he'll develop long term, but Cabrera could immediately replace Torii Hunter while likely giving the Twins at worst league-average production at the position over the next four seasons. Dipping down into the minors, the Yankees also have several big-time hitting prospects.

A toolsy outfielder who was taken out of high school in the eighth round of the 2005 draft, Austin Jackson batted .304/.370/.476 with 13 homers, 52 total extra-base hits, 33 steals, and a 109-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 128 games between two levels of Single-A as a 20-year-old. He's several years away from the majors and is far from a sure thing, but Jackson has tremendous potential on both sides of the ball and could be the long-term answer in center field.

At 18 years old Jose Tabata is even further from the majors than Jackson, but he batted .307/.371/.392 in 103 games at high Single-A in 2007 and carries a .305/.375/.406 career hitting line in 233 pro games. Tabata's a right fielder, so his long-term value depends largely on his ability to develop significant power down the road, but what he's accomplished as a teenager playing against far more experienced competition shows the ability to become a star.

There are some other intriguing prospects in the Yankees' system (Allan Horne, Daniel McCutchen, Dellin Betances, Humberto Sanchez, Brett Gardner, Tyler Clippard, George Kontos), but for the most part Hughes, Chamberlain, Kennedy, Cano, Cabrera, Jackson, and Tabata represent their best young talent and the players who a potential deal for Santana would seemingly be built around. As for which combination of those guys the Yankees would part with for Santana, that's much more difficult to say.

GROUP 1: Hughes, Chamberlain, Cano
GROUP 2: Cabrera, Jackson, Tabata, Kennedy
GROUP 3: Horne, McCutchen, Betances, Sanchez, Gardner, Clippard, Kontos

While certainly not a perfect way to examine the possibilities, the Yankees' young talent can probably be broken down into three groups. Group 1 represents players who're either already stars (Cano) or can potentially become superstars (Hughes, Chamberlain). Group 2 represents players who're either already above average (Cabrera) or can potentially become stars (Kennedy, Jackson, Tabata). Group 3 represents players who can potentially become above average.

While Twins fans would no doubt love to get Hughes, Chamberlain, and Cano as the haul for Santana, that's realistically never going to happen. At the same time, Yankees fans suggesting that the Twins might accept a handful of Group 3 players for Santana is equally far-fetched. A middle ground would seem to be one player from Group 1, one player from Group 2, and a couple players from Group 3. Of course, there are indications that the Yankees have no interest in trading Chamberlain or Cano.

That would leave Hughes as the lone member of Group 1, which is fine given that he's a perfect player to build a trade for Santana around. Start with Hughes, add Cabrera, Kennedy, Jackson, or Tabata, and then pick two from Horne, McCutchen, Betances, Sanchez, Gardner, and Clippard. It's only speculation, of course, but that would seem to be a palatable trade for both sides. From the Twins' point of view, it's not the no-brainer package that fans are surely hoping for, but it's plenty of talent.

General manager Bill Smith will have no shortage of appealing options for trading Santana and can put together dozens of different packages from each team. Because of that, I'm hopeful that he views the starting point in each potential trade as one truly elite young player who's at least 3-4 years away from free agency. It might be tempting to take quantity over quality with an eye towards re-stocking the farm system, but acquiring someone like Hughes (or Chamberlain, or Cano) should be the priority.

If that's not possible--there obviously aren't a whole lot of young players who fit that description and even fewer of them are available--then settling for anything less than a trio of Group 2-caliber players would seemingly be a mistake. After all, if Santana can't fetch at least one Group 1 player and a Group 2 player or three Group 2 players, then the Twins can simply keep him for 2008 and get a pair of draft picks when he leaves as a free agent.

Even if there's zero chance of keeping him in Minnesota long term, Santana's 2008 season has a ton of value to a Twins team that could easily be in playoff contention and there's a good chance that they'd end up with a pair of solid prospects from the draft picks. In other words, there's no reason to trade him without getting elite young talent in return. With that said, if a team like the Yankees is willing to build a package around Hughes while also including Cabrera, Kennedy, Tabata, or Jackson, it's time to listen.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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