I recently sat down and exchanged emails with Chad Jennings, author of the brilliant Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees blog. Chad’s site is one of the truly great baseball blogs on the internet, and his analysis is always insightful, accurate and entertaining. If you haven’t already bookmarked his site, well, what are you waiting for?
I asked Chad a bunch of questions about the Yanks’ minor league system, and he was kind enough to reply, in record time no less. Let’s get to it…
Prior to the Yanks coming to town, the Phillies occupied the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre market. With all due respect to the Phillies organization, they aren’t the Yankees and the buzz just isn’t the same. How different were things around the team this year with the Yanks compared to years past with the Phightin’s?
CJ: Even last winter, in the months after the affiliation swap and the months before the first pitch, this area was already buzzing. People were buying hats and shirts and tickets faster than anyone expected. When the season rolled around, the buzz didn’t stop. The team set a franchise record for paid attendance, but the actual attendance had to be a record as well. The place was pretty full every night, and the crowd was into every pitch. Add in the new grass and a few other improvements around the stadium and it really was a whole new atmosphere.
What was it like when Roger Clemens came through SWB during his “Spring Training” stint? I’m sure it was an absolute circus.
CJ: It was a zoo, but it wasn’t chaos. The place was big enough to handle all the media — and there was a LOT of media — and Clemens did his postgame press conference in the Yankees indoor batting cage. It all ran pretty smoothly. As for the crowd, it was outstanding, predictably the best of the year. Standing room only fans lined the wall above the lower level, and those fans got to see Clemens pitch well, got to see the Yankees win, and got to see it all in a little more than two hours. Couldn’t have asked for much more.
A baseball game that didn’t last four hours; what a novel idea. While we’re on the subject of big leaguers, how did Ron Villone and Andy Phillips take their early season demotion? What about Kei Igawa and Brian Bruney later in the year?
CJ: Villone and Phillips were outstanding. I always worry about those big league guys who barely miss 25-man cut, but those two could not have handled it any better. Villone is, honestly, one of the nicest guys I’ve met in this game. He never seemed upset, always seemed optimistic, and mixed well with the younger pitchers. You’ve probably heard all about what a nice guy Phillips is, so let me be one more person to say it’s true. He probably had the most reason to be upset but he never showed it. Every time I asked about it, he found a positive spin on being back in Triple-A. Good guys, both of them.
Igawa and Bruney, it was harder to tell with them. Igawa obviously has the language barrier, but he seemed generally upbeat and he never shied away from questions. Bruney wasn’t around for very long. I got the feeling he was mad about the demotion, but for the most part he seemed to just go about his business. I can’t really complain about any of those four. As for the rehab guys, all of them were accommodating. Giambi was outstanding and Mientkiewicz was quiet but easy to talk to. There really weren’t any bad guys in that clubhouse.
You got to see some of the Yanks’ great young pitchers this season, albeit briefly. What were your impressions of Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, both on the field and in the clubhouse?
CJ: On the field, all three lived up to expectations. I know Hughes had some down moments in the big leagues, but in Triple-A he was pretty dominant. Chamberlain blew people away and Kennedy looked like a big league veteran the way he mixed pitches and hit his spots. All three were a lot of fun to watch.
Off the field, all three were pretty different from one another, but I found each to be easy to get along with. Hughes is kind of quiet and seems to shy away from all the attention. That said, even one his less-than-terrific days he was willing to answer every question. Good guy, just not an attention seeker. I actually wonder if he’ll do better with Chamberlain to take some of that prospect buzz off his shoulders.
As for Chamberlain, he’s easily the loudest of the three. He has an over-the-top personality that seems to fit with the stereotype of a closer’s mentality. Go figure. As for Kennedy, he just strikes me as a nice guy. I’m not sure how else to describe him. I talked to him a lot pregame, postgame and a few times away from the stadium and he was always the same. He’s smart, well-spoken and humble. His personality seems very different from Chamberlain, but those two seemed to be great friends. I think Kennedy could fit in anywhere with anyone.
Speaking of young pitchers, what was Chase Wright like in the aftermath of his 4-HR episode at Fenway? Did he seem shell-shocked or anything like that?
CJ: I’m not sure Chase Wright has ever been shell-shocked. He’s too laid back for something like that. When Wright came to Triple-A, fans would show up at the stadium and ask him to sign the Sports Illustrated picture of him giving up the fourth homer, and Wright never seemed bothered by it. I remember one night, Steven White was joking with Wright about never getting out of the record books, and Wright just kept laughing. I’m sure the home runs bothered him, but he moved on. He even wore No. 4 when he got back to the minors. He said it was because his brother wore No. 4, but he laughed at the irony of the number. I don’t think the episode in Boston is going to have any longterm impact on Wright’s career. He just needs to stop walking people. Once he gets over that, he’ll be fine.
Everyone seems to be really down on Eric Duncan nowadays, but he did tie for the team lead in doubles (26) and HR (11), and was second in walks (48). Does he seems to be down on himself at all? How has he looked overall?
CJ: We’ve heard Eric Duncan’s name for so long now, it’s easy to forget that he’s not yet 23 years old. True, the numbers have been disappointing, but there are those moments when Duncan drives a ball the other way or comes up with a big hit in a big moment and you see everything the Yankees saw when they drafted him. It seems to me that he was moved too quickly. Expectations were sky high and unless he got to New York by the time he was 22, he was never going to meet them. Duncan is a standup guy. He takes the blame on the bad nights, but he never seems down on himself. I still peg him as one of the better prospects in the system, not necessarily top 10, but certainly top 25.
You’re just about to wrap up your Prospect Watch series, where you rank the top 8 Yankee prospects at each position. Which players are you most looking forward to seeing come through SWB in the near future?
CJ:I want to see the relief guys. Cox. Melancon. Sanchez, who I think needs to move to the pen. Whelan. Those guys are all really interesting to me. This idea of developing relievers and not just converting starters is sort of new. It’s nice to see legit prospects working out of the pen.
Obviously Austin Jackson and Jose Tabata are worth seeing, and I want to see if Alan Horne can keep moving forward. I want to see the same thing from Steven White, who I’m really high on. Lower in the system, I want to see some of these infielders the Yankees are starting to stockpile. Snyder. Sublett. Suttle. Laird. Pruitt. Hilligoss. It should be interesting to see how that shakes out.
We all know the book on Brett Gardner: he gets on base a ton, runs really really fast, plays a good CF, but can’t drive the ball to save his life. Is he a slap hitter, or is it just a case of being unlucky or not strong enough? Did you notice a change in the team’s offense once he started hitting leadoff? Is his head really this big?
CJ: I’ll be honest, I never really noticed anything about the size of Brett’s head. I’ll be sure to check that out next year. As for his bat, he’s a lead-off guy. He does what lead-off guys are supposed to do. I’m not sure that hitting for power is something he tries to do. He gets on base and changes the game once he gets there. His speed really is outstanding, and he runs the bases well. On base, that’s probably his biggest advantage over Justin Christian. I’m not sure which one is faster, but Gardner strikes me as a better base runner.
As for Gardner’s ceiling, the way baseball is these days, it’s hard for a guy who shows no power to get much of a chance. Look at the terrific numbers for Michael Bourn, who couldn’t get off the bench in Philadelphia and was seen as a marginal player in the Brad Lidge trade. The trick for Gardner will be to get to New York as a reserve, then do enough things that the Yankees can’t take him out of the lineup. He makes an offense better — he certainly did that here, even though his numbers weren’t all that great — and he could surprise a lot of people. Even if he does settle in as a reserve, he’s a hell of a reserve to have around.
Let’s go from one guy who may have to settle for being a reserve to another. All we heard about Alberto Gonzalez after the Randy Johnson trade was how great he is defensively. Is he really that good? Is there any one play of his that really stands out to you?
CJ: He is absolutely that good. My eyes were opened in spring training when a hard-hit grounder bounced off the third baseman (Baldiris) and shot into the air. Gonzalez grabbed it out of the air with his bare hand and fired to first for an out. One of the best plays I’ve ever seen. During the year, he went behind second base one time, all the way to the first base side of the bag, to make an outstanding play. I also remember him charging a ball behind the pitcher for an impossible out. He’s just outstanding. And his bat was much improved after his demotion to Double-A. He makes all the routine plays — I believe he only had nine or 10 errors — and he makes the dazzling, did-you-see-that plays. If he can hit, at all, he’ll be a nice player, at least in a utility role.
Let’s do a lightning round; how about I throw out a name, and you tell me a little about the guy. Let’s start with Ross Ohlendorf.
CJ: Smart and engaging. That’s the first thing I think of when I think of Ross. You asked who I’m excited to see, and I’m excited to see Ohlendorf continue to develop out of the pen. When he started hitting 97 on the gun, I thought it was a mistake. Thing is, you don’t want him to lose that natural sink in favor of a few mph of velocity. If it’s a matter of adjustment, Ohlendorf seems better equipped to adjust than most pitchers.
CJ: Make or break. I asked Butch Wynegar [Triple-A Scranton’s hitting coach] about player’s swings once and he kept coming back to Sardinha. Such a sweet, natural stroke — and he hits the ball hard quite a bit — but he has to do more with it. He has a very laid back attitude and he might need to get more aggressive, but that’s just speculating. Bronson’s another stand-up guy, the Yankees seem to have a lot of those in the minors, but he need to get some results in the upper levels. No longer a top 30 prospect.
It still amazes me that Sardinha made the postseason roster. Jose Veras?
CJ: Forgotten. Even by me and I saw the man pitch quite a bit. Veras wasn’t that great when he came to Scranton this year, but he has that mid-90s fastball and the Yankees obviously like him. Why else would he get one of the first September call-ups? Thing is, if he’s no more than a back-of-the-bullpen pitcher, then he would be better off in another organization because the Yankees are loaded with guys who can fill that role. He has to prove he can pitch the seventh or the eighth.
You can never have enough relievers though. What about TJ Beam?
CJ: Also forgotten, but this time I’ll say not by me. I actually thought Beam would get a September call-up ahead of Veras last year, but his wife was having a baby so Beam went home. He was awfully good after he came back from that strained lat, and I think there’s still a lot to like about him. Last year, though, was a bad time to get hurt. He was right on the verge of the big leagues, now he’s just one of several legitimate upper-level relievers.
CJ: Overshadowed. Not only is he trying to work past being an undrafted guy signed out of independent ball, but he’s also trying to work past Brett Gardner, who is a very similar but younger player. Christian was terrific in Triple-A and made a huge impact at the top of the Yankees lineup, but next year he’s got to outshine Gardner (who’s a similar player) and Sardinha (who already has a spot on the 40-man). Not easy to do.
CJ:I don’t have a one or two-word answer for DeSalvo. He’s an interesting guy — all the stories of him being a deep thinker and heavy reader are true — and on the mound he is what he is. He doesn’t overpower anyone, but he hits his spots and mixes his pitches and he gets results. He was terrific this season, and anyone who’s that good at Triple-A can never be counted out of the big league picture. Like Christian, though, DeSalvo has some bigger names ahead of him in the pecking order.
What about everyone’s favorite lefty, Sean Henn?
CJ: I have no clue what to make of Sean Henn, and I’m not sure the Yankees do either. I still think he can be a viable big league lefty, but he can’t be jerked around. What was he last year? Was he a lefty specialist, a long reliever, a spot starter, a middle reliever, a Triple-A starter? He did all of those things and I think being jerked from one role to the next hurt him.
CJ: Lightning in a bottle. After that red-hot start in Triple-A — he was unbelievable during that stretch — Francia came back to Earth in a big way. I just looked up his stats: He hit .167 in August and .250 in September. Granted, he wasn’t getting many at-bats, but still. Even without many middle infield options, I’m not sure Francia is a solution.
Let’s wrap this up with Angel Chavez, a guy who’s been with four organizations in the last three years.
CJ: Should bring him back [he’s a free agent]. His defense is well above average at second, third and short and his bat has some pop. I’m not sure he can ever be an every day player in the big leagues, but I don’t doubt that he could eventually play a utility role. Aside from Alberto Gonzalez, the Yankees have no reliable middle infielders in the upper levels of the system. Guys like Angel Chavez are exactly what they need.
A big thanks goes out to Chad for taking the time to answer my questions. I enjoyed it, hope you all did too.