Yanks to decide who stays, who goes

Yanks to decide who stays, who goes

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the first of several planned group conferences, members of the Yankees' decision-making team gathered this week at Legends Field, attempting to feel each other out on the remaining issues that press the team's camp.

Much of the veteran Yankees roster has been set, with a number of players who reported to Tampa in February's second week already guaranteed a place on the baseline when the season opens on April 2 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

With just 10 Grapefruit League games left before trucks are loaded and planes are boarded, the Yankees have several unsettled issues to tackle.

That's why manager Joe Torre, general manager Brian Cashman, the coaching staff and administrative personnel, such as special advisor Gene Michael, gathered on Tuesday to hammer out the remaining questions in a roundtable format.

"The best part of these meetings," Torre said, "is not that the manager says something and has other people agree. You want everybody's opinion. The manager will be the last one to talk after each individual. I've got some great minds, as far as I'm concerned, on my staff."

Now that right fielder Bobby Abreu has returned to action following three weeks on the sidelines with a strained right oblique, it's realistic to project that the Yankees' Opening Day lineup will be just as it was when pitchers and catchers reported on Feb. 13. From Johnny Damon on down, the order has endured no major setbacks.

Likewise, the pitching rotation has not been altered in any fashion, though Andy Pettitte's brief battle with back spasms this past week raises the possibility that changes could be necessary at some point.

For the moment, the Yankees have not tabbed their Opening Day starter, but speculation reigns that 19-game winner and American League Cy Young Award runner-up Chien-Ming Wang will receive the nod, matching up against Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir.

Pettitte would be the likely No. 2 starter, with Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano and Kei Igawa, who dodged speculation of opening the year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with a fine outing on Tuesday against Philadelphia, filling the final three slots.

That leaves Torre, Cashman and the rest of the Yankees' minds to ponder how to fill out the rest of New York's 25-man roster. Step one toward whittling down the remaining 45 nameplates hanging in the home clubhouse at Legends Field began on Tuesday, with imminent reassignments to the club's Minor League complex on Himes Avenue.

"In all likelihood, there are going to be more names than spots," Torre said. "There are no rules on this one. We're going to see how many guys are thinking the same way."

Among the major issues that must be tackled before April 2:

Bullpen: The Yankees plan to carry seven relievers to open the season, and five of the spaces can be projected in ink. Mariano Rivera returns as one of the premier closers in the game, having spent his spring toying with a changeup, a pitch that raises eyebrows as an additional weapon for a pitcher who compiled many of his 413 career saves on the strength of his legendary cutter.

Setting up for Rivera will be right-handers Kyle Farnsworth and Scott Proctor. Farnsworth's first season in New York was a feeling-out process, and Torre believes that he has learned how to better manage the hurler to maximize his efficiency. Proctor led the American League with 83 appearances last season and wears that badge of honor proudly, hoping to approach that level of trust in 2007.

Right-hander Luis Vizcaino, 32, was acquired from Arizona in the Randy Johnson trade and has appeared in at least 70 games in four of the past five seasons. The Yankees are especially intrigued by Vizcaino's success against left-handed batters -- he handcuffed them to a .163 batting average in '06 -- which could negate the need for a second left-hander behind specialist Mike Myers.

"The thing I like about the bullpen is we have a lot of choices," Torre said. "If we [ran] into some problems in past years, you'd scratch your head and wonder where we're going."

Ron Villone, a non-roster invitee who appeared in 70 games last season for the Yankees, opened eyes earlier in camp with his velocity, but he has tailed off as the finish line nears. The 37-year-old Villone has shown signs of overthrowing, which could open the door for fellow lefty Sean Henn, who has quietly held opponents hitless and scoreless in five appearances this spring.

"You can't ignore what he's done here," Torre said of Henn.

The Yankees also project to carry a long reliever and spot starter, with right-hander Jeff Karstens stating his case most convincingly up to this point.

Karstens had pitched the equivalent of a shutout this spring -- nine innings, no runs, no walks and nine strikeouts -- before allowing four runs in his start on Monday against the Blue Jays. Right-hander Darrell Rasner has also had a solid spring, doing little to hurt his standing.

Other candidates figure into the mix, such as right-hander Colter Bean, who has struck out eight in 6 2/3 scoreless innings. Bean leads a group that appears more likely to begin the year at Triple-A, being among the first to be summoned in case reinforcements are needed.

Right-handed first baseman: When they signed Doug Mientkiewicz to a one-year contract in the offseason, the Yankees also envisioned carrying a right-handed-batting first baseman in a platoon situation at first base.

That sparked a spring-long competition between Andy Phillips and Rule 5 Draft selection Josh Phelps, though in fairness, Phelps spent much of the spring uncontested when Phillips had to return to Alabama, tending to his mother, Linda, after a serious automobile accident.

Phelps has taken advantage of the opportunity, batting .481 with one home run and seven RBIs in 23 at-bats, chipping away at a "slight edge" that Torre said Phillips held because of his continued service in the Yankees' system.

The team does not want to penalize Phillips for attending to his family, but the absence cost him vital playing time, and he has been in a scramble to make it up with just 12 spring at-bats through Wednesday.

Backup catcher: Catching instructor Tony Pena predicts that Jorge Posada, 35, is primed for one of his best all-around seasons. That may very well be the case, but he'll still need a little help every now and then.

The race for the honors of backing up Posada has been split mostly between 40-man roster member Wil Nieves and 40-year-old Todd Pratt, though Raul Chavez has crept into consideration.

All three candidates have had injury problems this spring, with Nieves most recently returning from a sore right forearm. Pratt missed time with plantar fascitis in his left foot, and Chavez started behind due to a broken left hand suffered while batting in winter ball.

The Yankees like Pratt's veteran presence -- third-base coach Larry Bowa, who managed Pratt in Philadelphia, raves about him -- his ability to pop a home run and his New York experience in five seasons across town with the Mets, most of it spent as an understudy to Mike Piazza.

But Pratt has just two hits this spring, which could cost him in the race. Nieves only has two hits as well, but he's considered to be a superior defensive catcher. Given his status on the Yankees' 40-man roster, Nieves could hold an advantage as the final days of camp approach.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.