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(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

With a win last night courtesy of an absolute gem by Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees’ record stands at 69-47.  Despite their recent stretch of mediocre play, the Yankees are in great shape.  The win puts them a game and a half ahead of the Rangers for the best record in the American League, and a comfortable six games ahead of their closest competitor for the division, the Rays.  The Orioles are also hanging in there at six games back, surpassing the expectations of many (yours truly included) who thought that their hot start was a mirage.  The Red Sox, who I figured would be the Yankees’ biggest threat coming into the season, have been far from that.  Those of you with Schadenfreude may enjoy reading Jeff Passan’s sensationalistic account of the clubhouse problems facing Boston this season, and in particular, their star players’ discontent with Bobby Valentine.  As for the last place Blue Jays, they have been decimated by injuries this season, and were never really a factor.

Considering the position of the other teams in the division, the Yankees are sitting pretty.  While a six-game lead is a nice margin, it is still close enough that the Yankees (and Yankee fans) shouldn’t get complacent.  As we have seen in recent years, the stretch run can be a crazy time of year, and the large number of in-division games remaining can cut into the seemingly most secure leads.  While I am usually optimistic in my writings and ruminations, today I decided to take a look at the reasons the Yankees shouldn’t get too comfortable in the catbird seat.  Just to make things clear, I do think the Yankees will likely win the division, but I wanted to explore a few of the potential barriers that remain.

 Injuries

The Yankees are missing a number of key contributors, including Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, and CC Sabathia.  Sabathia’s injury is apparently not too serious, and he should be back relatively soon.  There may be a little rust, but if his elbow is healthy, he should be the reliable ace the Yankees have depended on since he signed.  While Rodriguez and Pettitte are on track to return before the end of the season, it may be optimistic to expect them to be in midseason form down the stretch.  Given Andy’s advanced age and the location of Alex’s injury, I expect the Yankees to take it slow with both of them, and ensure that they don’t run them out there until they are fully recovered.  Consequently, they may not be in peak form for some potentially big series coming up.

The Yankees have been fortunate that the replacement players have filled in capably for the injured stars, but it may not continue.  Eric Chavez has been a revelation this season, looking like the Chavez of old at the plate and showing that he can still pick it a 3rd base.  However, given his well-documented injury issues, overuse is a legitimate concern, as the extra playing time could cause him to break down or become less effective.  Jayson Nix is OPS’ing nearly 100 points over his career average, and while I think some of that has to do with effectively platooning him to face primarily left-handed starters, there is room for regression.  While Kuroda has been a rotation anchor (and a great Twitter meme), the rest of the Yankee rotation has shown the ability to toss up the occasional stinker.  The inconsistency of Hughes, Nova, and Garcia, along with the youth and inexperience of Phelps, could create the potential for a rough stretch if they all blow up at the same time.

The Rays

The Rays may be six games back, but coincidentally, they have six games remaining against the Yankees.  Their strong pitching staff could give the Yankees fits if they start firing on all cylinders, which is certainly a legitimate possibility.  Matt Moore has turned it on of late, posting a brilliant outing last night, and looking more like the up-and-coming ace he was predicted to become after his strong debut in 2011.  The trio of David Price, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson are all capable of keeping the Yankee offense in check, and sometimes, absolute dominance.  Evan Longoria, Tampa’s best offensive threat, recently came back from a long absence due to injury, and his return could energize Tampa’s lineup and provide much-needed punch in the heart of the order.  If Longoria gets off to a hot start, his production combined with Tampa’s pitching could put them on a run (like their seven-game win streak that was snapped last night).

The Orioles

Yes their success to this point seems somewhat fluky and hard to fathom, but the fact of the matter is that the Orioles have hung tough all season.  They have gotten offensive production from their key players, most notably Adam Jones.  The recent callup of stud prospect Manny Machado (who has raked in his first four games since making his major league debut) could add some energy and punch to a lineup that featured Wilson Betemit as the everyday 3rd baseman. Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel have been solid in the rotation, but the other three starters have been pretty mediocre.  The Orioles have covered for this weakness very effectively by having a strong, deep bullpen.

The Machado callup was a fairly aggressive one, since he just turned 20, was in AA, and wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire there.  By rushing Machado to the majors, Baltimore is sending a pretty clear signal that they are going for broke this year, and are going to do whatever it takes to earn a playoff spot.  This may include calling up another phenom in 19 year-old Dylan Bundy, who was recently promoted to AA.  While there is substantial risk inherent in relying on two minor league callups with limited upper level experience, strong debuts by both could make the Orioles a very dangerous team come September.  The Yankees play them four more times, and should look to at least split the remaining games in order to avoid losing ground.

Despite my discussion of some pessimistic themes in this post, I think in all likelihood the Yankees should take the division.  Boston’s struggles this year have definitely given me an added sense of security about the Yankees’ path to the playoffs, but the fact is, Baltimore and Tampa are both close enough to make things interesting if they get on a hot streak and play the Yankees tough in their matchups.  The injuries to several key players on the Yankees does create some uncertainty, and the Rays and the Orioles are in decent position to capitalize on a Yankee slump if some things break their way.  I’m hoping none of the things I am concerned about in this post come to pass, but regardless, it should make for some interesting September baseball.

Categories : Musings
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Aug
13

Heathcott makes up for lost time

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(Mark LoMoglio/Yankees)

2009 first-rounder Slade Heathcott has had to overcome a lot of adversity throughout his life, both on and off the baseball field.  A knee injury in high school and multiple shoulder surgeries have set back Heathcott’s on-field development, and may have robbed him of some of the explosiveness that made him such a tantalizing prospect in high school.  Then of course there are the personal issues, ranging from his unstable family life, his battle with alcoholism, and whatever it was that led him to start a brawl last year after being hit by a pitch.  Given everything he has faced, it would be easy to write Heathcott off as a bust, and assume that his injuries and personal life would prevent him from realizing his prodigious talents.

The second shoulder surgery had me fairly bearish on Heathcott coming into 2012.  I ranked him #12 in the system on my personal top prospects list prior to the season (around where my other Yankee Analysts colleagues had him), and Mike ranked him at #13.  It was kind of low for a prospect with Heathcott’s talent and draft pedigree who had held his own, but given all the risks involved, he could have easily been lower.  Heathcott has fallen behind prospects such as Mason Williams and Tyler Austin in the organizational depth chart, and needed to come back strong this year to stay on the radar.

And come back strong he has.  After a short rehab stint in the GCL, Slade was aggressively bumped up to high-A Tampa, where he had only played one game previously.  In 41 games in Tampa, Heathcott has raked, batting .306/.387/.517, and flashing both power (five homers) and speed (13 steals).  He started out primarily playing DH (most likely to protect his shoulder), but has been eased into outfield duty.  If there is a silver lining to the unfortunate shoulder injury suffered by Mason Williams, it is that it will give Slade the opportunity to get more reps in center field than he otherwise would.  While the numbers have been tremendous, Heathcott has also impressed scouts (or at least one scout).  ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel recently observed that Heathcott was flashing impressive power and speed, and that he still profiled as a center fielder in the future.

Despite everything that Heathcott has been through, he is not far off the normal development track.  He’ll be 22 in September, and is at a fairly appropriate age for his current level.  Obviously all the injuries have caused Slade to miss significant playing time, but the fact that he is looking so good so soon after returning from injury is encouraging.  If he stays healthy the rest of the season and finishes strong (which would be somewhat ironic given all the injuries facing other Yankee prospects), Heathcott should move up the organizational list.  Top 10 seems like a virtual certainty, and top five is not as far-fetched as it may have seemed previously.  As of now I’d have him jumping Adam Warren, Dellin Betances, J.R. Murphy, Austin Romine and Dante Bichette Jr., and possibly Ravel Santana and Ramon Flores.  This would get Slade up to #6 in the system (behind Banuelos, Williams, Sanchez, Austin, and Campos).  Sustaining this level of production could also get Slade some looks for the back end of a minors-wide top 100 list, provided the scouting reports continue to be positive.

In a year where so much has gone wrong for the Yankees’ farm system, Heathcott’s successful return to the minors stands out as a major bright spot.  I will definitely be following to see if he can sustain this production (and health) through the rest of the season, but it is hard to not be impressed with what he has done so far.  Slade has re-established himself as a potential impact player, and is a nice addition to the Yankees’ crop of position player talent that is moving up through the system.  With Slade, Mason Williams, and Ravel Santana, the Yankees have an exciting trio of toolsy center field prospects.  Assuming he finishes 2012 healthy, Heathcott could be the opening day center fielder in AA Trenton, which would put him just two steps away from the majors.  Considering all he has been through, it is remarkable that Heathcott has made it this far.  But if the season so far is any indicator, Slade is capable of even more.

Categories : Minors
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The 2012 season has been an up and down year for the Yankees farm system, fitting given the extreme variability and uncertainty inherent in following the minor leagues.  While a number of prospects have taken big steps forward, injuries to several top prospects have overshadowed the farm’s 2012 successes.  Injuries to Manny Banuelos, Jose Campos, and Mason Williams, likely three of the Yankees top five prospects, will prevent them from playing again this season, and both Campos and Banuelos have already missed substantial time.  Since the news on Banuelos and Williams is fairly recent, I figured it would make sense to take a look at how the injuries will affect their prospect status, and projected ascent through the minors.

(Roger Peterson/MiLB.com)

Mason Williams

Williams was recently sidelined with a tear in the labrum of his left (non-throwing) shoulder after diving to catch a ball in the outfield, and will miss the remainder of the season.  Williams’ aggressive play in the outfield put him at risk of further shoulder dislocations if the tear was not repaired, so he went under the knife.  Mason likely has several months of rehab ahead of him, though since the tear does not appear to be a very serious one, it is believed that he will be back in time for Spring Training in 2013.

The injury likely won’t affect Mason’s prospect status in any substantial way, as he should be fully healed by 2013, and showed his stuff over a strong 2012 season.  He will still be a consensus top 50 prospect, and likely rank no lower than #2 in the Yankee system (depending on how bullish one is on Gary Sanchez).  However, it could slightly slow down his timeline to the Majors.  I think missing the last month or so of 2012 increases the likelihood that Mason begins 2013 in High-A Tampa rather than getting pushed to Double-A Trenton.  My guess is that he spends 2013 between Tampa and Trenton, starts 2014 in Triple-A Scranton (making his Major League debut late in the season), and joins the Yankees outfield full-time in 2015 (barring a trade).  Ultimately, it’s not a big difference unless you were expecting Williams to be in the outfield in 2014 (when the austerity budget kicks in), but it shouldn’t have much of an effect on his long-term value.  The injury likely decreases his trade value in the offseason, so if you were hoping that the Yankees would deal Williams in a package for Justin Upton, you may be out of luck.

Manny Banuelos

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Yesterday, it was announced that Banuelos, who hasn’t pitched in nearly three months because of elbow and back injuries, was going to be shut down for the season.  News like this often would ordinarily lead me to assume the worst, that the Mexican southpaw was facing imminent Tommy John Surgery.  However, Mark Newman downplayed the severity of the injury, comparing it to a “bone bruise,” which leaves open the possibility that Banuelos could pitch in winter ball this year.  He reportedly has been throwing, which likely indicates that he may not need surgery (assuming there aren’t any major setbacks).  Either way, it has basically been a lost season for Banuelos, and he still has a lot of work to do to prove that he can hold up under a full starter’s workload.

The injury likely ensures that Banuelos will spend the vast majority of 2013 in the minor leagues.   He hasn’t accumulated enough nnings for the Yankees to feel comfortable giving him a rotation spot, and he needs to prove that he can get his command back to where it was prior to 2011.  Banuelos hasn’t exceeded 130 innings in any minor league season, so I imagine the Yankees will try to get him up to 150 or so next year, putting him on track to join the 2014 rotation if all goes well.  If Banuelos were healthy in 2012, he could have made a push later this season to join the rotation, or at very least get the opportunity to earn a spot in Spring Training 2013.  Banuelos probably would have been a top 50 prospect this year had he been healthy and effective, but his injury (validating the concerns of skeptics that a pitcher of Manny’s stature may not be durable) likely reduces his prospect status somewhat.  He will still be one of the younger pitchers in the Triple-A International League next year, and has plenty of time to figure things out and become an effective major league pitcher.

There has been virtually no news on Campos and his mysterious elbow inflammation.  The lack of news is always disconcerting, though it goes with the territory in the lower minors.  However, if there isn’t any serious structural damage, Campos could come into 2013 fully healthy and in better shape, which could allow him to have a successful season and re-establish himself on the prospect map.

While these injuries may set back Williams and Banuelos’ timelines somewhat, neither of them are serious enough to merit worrying too much about their long-term future.  While labrum injuries can be death for pitchers, the fact that Williams’ injury was reportedly not very severe, and on his non-throwing shoulder, bodes well for a complete recovery.  As for Banuelos, the lack of structural damage in his elbow is encouraging, and assuming there are no other problems that we haven’t heard about yet, he should enter 2013 fully healed and ready to rock.  The rehab process required to get Williams and Banuelos back to normal will be a test of their dedication and work ethic, but ultimately, they will have to overcome much bigger challenges if they want to become successful big league players.

Categories : Injuries, Minors
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Aug
02

The next great Yankee reliever

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(Kate Thornton/The New York Times)

While the Yankees’ development of starting pitchers has been considered a weak point for years, there is no doubt that the farm has produced some impressive relief arms.  In recent years, this includes Tyler Clippard (who came through the system as a starter), Mark Melancon (who struggled early this year, but was impressive last year), George Kontos (who has been impressive since being traded to the Giants) and of course David Robertson, once described by a scout as a “the baseball equivalent of a sociopathic murderbot from the future.”

Evaluating relief prospects is often a tricky proposition, and going just on minor league statistics can mislead as much as it may inform.  There are plenty of examples from the Yankee system of organizational arms who posted silly minor league numbers, but never amounted to anything in the majors. Colter Bean, Josh Schmidt, and Edwar Ramirez (one of my all-time favorite prospects) are several examples of this phenomenon.  Bean and Schmidt were sidearmers who largely got by on deception, while Ramirez was a one-trick pony, relying heavily on a changeup that is perhaps the best I have ever seen (I kid you not).  Since most relievers are failed starters, draft pedigree is not often informative in determining which prospects to follow, and who will have success in the majors.

With all these caveats in place, it’s still hard not to get excited about what Mark Montgomery has done this season.  Montgomery, the subject of a prospect profile back in November, has exceeded the loftiest expectations.  He is an 11th-rounder out of Longwood University in 2011, works in the low-90′s with his fastball and boasts one of the best sliders in the minors that is already considered a plus major league pitch.  Because of that nasty slider, Montgomery’s Twitter handle @snapdragonmonty is especially appropriate.  On the season, his first full one as a professional, Montgomery has been flat-out dominant.  Between high-A and AA, he’s put up a 1.34 ERA, with 13.8 strikeouts/9 and 3.6 walks/9.  The strikeout rate is impressive, and evidence of how he has overmatched hitters thus far, and the walk rate is not bad for a power pitcher.

Because of his strikeout dominance and rapid rise through the minor leagues, David Robertson is probably the most appropriate comparison.  On paper, the numbers are very similar.  Throughout his minor league career, Robertson posted a 1.28 ERA, 12.6 strikeouts/9, and 3.5 walks/9.  Montgomery has posted a 1.41 ERA, with 14.7 strikeouts/9 and 3.4 walks/9.  The numbers are very close, favoring Montgomery slightly on the peripherals, though it is worth noting that he has only reached AA.  However, Montgomery is on a slightly different trajectory than Robertson because he debuted at 20 in his draft year, while Robertson didn’t make his minor league debut until age 22 (the year after he was drafted, because he received an overslot bonus).

D-Rob was fast-tracked to the majors, spending less than two years in the minors before making his big league debut, where he quickly became a fixture in the Yankee bullpen.  Montgomery looks to be on a similar path, and he could be in the bigs as soon as September if the Yankees are interested in really pushing him.  With the return of Joba Chamberlain from injury, the incentive to push Montgomery to the majors may be reduced, since Joba fills a bullpen hole, and Montgomery would likely be reduced to pitching low-leverage innings on the big-league roster.  However, if the Yankees think that Montgomery could be an asset during the playoffs, I could see them swapping out Cody Eppley to give Montgomery a try.  Realistically, however, Montgomery will likely start 2013 in AAA, and if all goes well, could be knocking on the door to the bigs fairly soon.

Mike Ashmore and Josh Norris (the dynamic duo of Trenton Thunder beatwriters) have some great video of Montgomery embarrassing some AA hitters in a recent 4-strikeout outing.  I highly recommend checking them out, and thanks to Mike and Josh for all their hard work in acquiring them.  The nasty slider is definitely on display, and the Altoona hitters have no chance.  It’s pretty clear from the videos that Montgomery is not getting by on gimmicks and trickery, but rather, bona fide major league stuff.  I don’t know when Montgomery will make his Major League debut, however, if I were Brian Cashman I would have to think long and hard about giving Montgomery a taste of the majors to see if he could be an asset on the postseason roster.

Categories : Minors
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(Jeff Golden/Getty Images)

The trade deadline passed yesterday, and as usual there were a number of deals. While blockbuster trades for the likes of Justin Upton, Cliff Lee, or Matt Garza never happened, there were still a number of impact players that changed teams  Contending teams looked to bolster their squads for the stretch run, while the teams who are out of the playoff hunt dumped assets to save salary and strengthen the farm.  In this post, I will take a look at the moves made by the Yankees and their competition, both within the division and within the AL, to see how these deals will impact the 2012 playoff picture.

Yankees

As has become customary for the Yankees this time of year, Brian Cashman and crew did not make any big, splashy moves, citing the excessive costs demanded in prospects and players.  However, they did make a few moves to improve the team’s depth, fill holes created by injuries, and set the Yankees up for a deep run in October.

The Ichiro Suzuki acquisition was one where the hype and excitement is probably disproportionate to the expected impact of the player.  Nonetheless, it was an important acquisition, giving the Yankees speed and defensive prowess that they have missed because Brett Gardner has missed most of the season, and shows no signs of returning anytime soon.  While Ichiro had had a disappointing 2012 so far, anything the Yankees can get from him offensively is gravy.  I think he still has something left in the tank, especially against right-handed pitchers, and he can be an effective table-setting presence from the bottom of the order.

The swap of Chad Qualls for Casey McGehee served two purposes.  Not only did the trade rid the Yankees of an ineffective bullpen arm to clear a spot for the return of Joba Chamberlain, it also brought in a backup corner infielder with some right-handed pop who can fill in for the injured Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, and give the notably fragile Eric Chavez some extra rest.

Red Sox

While Boston is 7.5 games out and just 2 games over .500, the team is too talented to count out.  However, they didn’t do very much at the deadline in terms of either buying or selling.  They re-acquired lefty reliever Craig Breslow, but they didn’t make any moves to deal underachieving pitchers Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, as some speculated they might.  Rob Bradford of WEEI reported that they did discuss a blockbuster deal with the Rangers that included Josh Beckett, Kelly Shoppach, and Jacoby Ellsbury, but nothing ever emerged from those talks.  While the Red Sox did not wave the white flag by selling off any impact players, they didn’t exactly do anything significant to improve their team.  This indicates that they think that they will improve naturally as their players get healthy and start playing better, or consider them too worthwhile to give up long-term assets to increase the small likelihood that they make the playoffs (though they are only 3.5 games out in the Wild Card).

Rays and Orioles

The Rays are 6.5 games behind the Yankees in the division and 2.5 games back in the Wild Card standings, and the Orioles are a game ahead of the Rays.  Nonetheless, neither team showed a sense of urgency, as they didn’t make any trades that would increase their likelihood of winning the Wild Card or catching the Yankees.

Angels

The traditional thorn in the Yankees’ side made one of the biggest moves of the trading period, acquiring RHP Zack Greinke for Baseball America’s #55 prospect Jean Segura and 2 others.  Greinke, who was having a strong season with the Brewers, adds another frontline-caliber pitcher to an Angels rotation that already includes Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Dan Haren.  With Greinke in the fold, the Angels’ deep rotation becomes even deeper, and that quartet of starters could prove formidable come playoff time.  As a Yankee fan, it’s hard not to be nervous about a Weaver-Greinke-Wilson-Haren rotation come playoff time, especially when paired with Yankee-killer Mark Trumbo and 20 year-old superman Mike Trout.

Rangers

The Rangers, the current AL West leaders, made two moves to improve their team in expectation of a trip to October.  They acquired RHP Ryan Dempster, who was also connected to the Yankees, Dodgers, and Braves in trade rumors.  Dempster is currently #2 in the majors in ERA, and while few expect him to finish that well after moving to the AL and Texas’ hitter-friendly park, Dempster should be a big addition to a pitching staff with some injuries and question marks. They also added catcher Geovany Soto, who will improve the Rangers’ defense behind the plate and allow them to use Mike Napoli at DH or 1st base more often. These two moves strengthened an already-formidable team, and while the Rangers still have questions in the rotation due to injuries, adding Dempster will provide some important stability.

White Sox

The White Sox own a 2.5 game lead in the AL Central and made some additions at or around the deadline. While GM Kenny Williams reportedly tried and failed to acquire Zack Greinke, he did make a cheaper addition to the rotation in the form of Francisco Liriano. While Liriano has had an uneven season and injuries have kept him from fulfilling his incredible potential, he is talented enough that if he figures things out, he could be a major force in the Chicago rotation. Although the deal happened well before the deadline, the Kevin Youkilis acquisition has already paid dividends for Sox.  He provides their lineup with some power and patience, and can adequately fill the 3rd base slot that was causing the Sox problems earlier in the year.

As we can see, almost all of the Yankees’ playoff competitors made significant improvements this trade season.  The Angels adding Greinke is the move that scares me the most, but Texas’s acquisition of Ryan Dempster also provides a major upgrade to an already-strong team.  The Yankees’ divisional competition didn’t do much to improve, which bodes well for their chances to win the division.  While the Yankees failed to make any flashy trades, they filled some holes and should be well-positioned to win the AL East and enter the playoffs as a World Series contender.  Healthy and effective returns by Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte will be of utmost importance here.

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Jul
26

How to handle David Phelps

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(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Going into the 2012 season, David Phelps was considered valuable rotational depth, with a chance to work his way onto the big league roster as a long man.  Phelps was part of an interchangeable trio of prospects, including Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell, who were expected to fill the swingman role that Hector Noesi occupied in 2011.  While I appreciated his polish and fastball command, I never really thought he had a chance of holding down a rotation spot for the Yankees long-term.  I am still leaning in that direction, but Phelps has done a lot of late to demonstrate that he may have been undervalued in the past, as Ivan Nova was a few years ago.  With injuries to the Yankee rotation and bullpen, Phelps has divided his time between spot starting, long relief, short relief, and several minor league stints.  Phelps has handled himself well in all of these roles (particularly over the last few weeks), but the Yankees’ usage of him has raised questions about how he should be best utilized this season.  There are several routes that they could take, each of which has positives and negatives.

Replace Freddy Garcia, take over the #5 spot

Freddy Garcia has bounced back from his nightmarish start to the season, showing that he still has something left in the tank.  Since returning to the rotation after Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia went on the DL, Freddy has given up 13 runs in 30 innings (about a 3.90 ERA) with 27 strikeouts against 9 walks.  This performance hasn’t given the Yankees much reason to make the switch, since there is a bit more uncertainty associated with Phelps (even though he has pitched well of late).  While Phelps could bump Garcia if he goes through another rough patch, the Yankees don’t seem especially interest in flip-flopping their roles.  If the Yankees have any interest in trading Phelps, giving him the opportunity to prove himself as a full-time major league starter is not a bad way to build value (assuming he succeeds).

Build up innings in AAA

Since Phelps’ long-term role is likely a starter (whether in the Yankee organization or elsewhere), it could make sense for the Yankees to let him get the opportunity to start every fifth day in the minors.  This would allow him to build up his innings, work on his secondary offerings, and allow him to experiment/tinker without too much concern about the outcome.  If he is going to earn a spot in the Yankee rotation next season (a big if), having no innings limit would be very helpful to the team.  The downside is that Phelps has already demonstrated his ability to succeed at the AAA level, and pitching in the minors may not provide enough of a challenge, possibly leading to stagnation or regression.

Long relief/swingman role

Phelps has proven himself capable of filling the niche that Noesi occupied last year, as he has the ability to work multiple innings to save the rest of the bullpen during a blowout.  He also can make a spot start should injury suddenly befall a member of the Yankee rotation.  The concern here is that Phelps’ usage could be sporadic (especially because the Yankees don’t get blown out too often), and the lack of work could hurt his performance and trade value.

Short relief

While the Yankee bullpen has been strong this season, there are still some areas where they can improve.  For the beginning of the season, Cory Wade held down the 7th-inning role very capably, but his recent struggles caused him to get demoted to AAA.  Clay Rapada, Boone Logan, and Cody Eppley have all exceeded expectations this season, forming a strong bridge to David Robertson and Rafael Soriano.  However, all three guys (with the possible exception of Logan) are best utilized in matchups against same-sided hitters, which limits their flexibility.  Phelps would likely not have the same platoon disadvantage, and could be used in middle relief roles against both righties and lefties.  This could provide some stability for the 7th inning, or any earlier important situations that the Yankees may come across.  When Joba Chamberlain comes back (which should be pretty soon), Phelps’ utility in this role will likely diminish, but until then this could be a good way of getting him some work in high-leverage outings.

As always, the concern exists about whether repeatedly switching Phelps between starter and reliever will cause him any long-term harm.  While many have blamed the Yankees’ treatment of Joba Chamberlain in this fashion for his subsequent injury problems, I’m not sure the connection is so clear.  Regardless, I don’t think Phelps is anywhere near Joba’s class as a prospect, and even with his recent improvements, his ceiling is probably that of a #4 starter.  Consequently, I have no problem with moving him around to help him fit the team’s biggest present need.  At the moment, that is in the major league bullpen.  I’d probably keep Phelps in a high-leverage short relief role until Chamberlain comes back, then shift him to more of a long-relief/swingman role (but try to get him some regular work so he stays sharp).  If Freddy Garcia falters before Andy Pettitte returns, Phelps should be able to step in and hold down the fort.

Phelps’ emergence this season has been a pleasant surprise, and his versatility will be important for the Yankees’ pitching depth this season.  He has put himself in the rotation mix for 2013 if Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda do not return, and potentially boosted his value to bring back a useful piece in a trade.  Joe Girardi will likely utilize Phelps in a variety of roles between now and October, and I would be surprised to see him go back to AAA anytime soon.  Whatever role he occupies, Phelps should be a useful piece for the Yankees’ pitching staff this season.

Categories : Musings
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Jul
19

Lessons from the Lin saga

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Reuters Pictures

As a New York native, I was disappointed to hear that the Knicks declined to match Jeremy Lin’s offer sheet, allowing him to sign with the Houston Rockets.  Watching Lin’s emergence out of obscurity to become an impact player (and the phenomenon that was Linsanity) was one of the more exciting things to happen to the Knicks in recent memory for this tepid NBA fan.  I figured it was a no-brainer that he would be re-signed by the Knicks, especially after the arbitrator ruled that Lin (and Steve Novak) would be granted “Bird Rights” that would allow the Knicks to pay them more than what their cap situation should allow.  On top of all the promise Lin showed on the court, his off-court financial impact seemed like sufficient incentive to keep him.  Maintaining fan enthusiasm would seem to be an important priority with the Nets moving to Brooklyn this year, and looking like a possible contender.

The main justification for the decision seems to be the third year in Lin’s contract, which would pay him about $15 million and cost the Knicks a lot of money in luxury tax.  There are certainly a number of angles to this story, such as whether the decision to let Lin go was a financial move, a basketball move, or the result of petty machinations of a petulant owner.  I won’t claim to know enough about the Knicks or the NBA to single out one of these as the decisive cause, but you can consult Moshe if you want a more informed (and impassioned) take.

While there are certainly major differences here, the Lin decision brings to mind some tough choices that the Yankees may have to make in the near future if they are serious about getting their payroll below $189 million in 2014.  The impending free agencies of Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and Derek Jeter are interesting parallels.  As has been discussed extensively on this blog and elsewhere, if the Yankees are able to get their 2014 payroll below $189 million, they will be able to save a ton of money.  They will do this by resetting their luxury tax rate and having a portion of their revenue sharing payments refunded, the latter of which is particularly compelling because that money subsidizes their small-market competition. Read More→

Categories : Musings
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(MiLB.com)

After signing for a $300,000 bonus as a 16 year-old out of Venezuela, it feels like Jose Pirela has been in the Yankees system forever.  At the time of his signing, Pirela was considered to be a player with a good chance of sticking at shortstop, his natural position, and projected to be at least average in all five tools (speed, hitting, power, arm, defense).  He made his debut at age 17 in the Dominican Summer League, and put together an impressive season.  Pirela posted a .746 OPS, flashing impressive plate discipline (34 walks against 36 strikeouts), a little power (4 homers), and decent basestealing ability (15 steals vs. 5 CS).  While these were not eye-popping numbers, that kind of production from a 6-figure bonus baby with a chance to stick at shortstop was nothing to sneeze at, and put Pirela on the radar as a prospect to watch.

The next few seasons were up and down for Pirela, as he made his stateside debut at 18 in the Gulf Coast League.  However, he struggled offensively, managing an OPS above .700 just once across his next 4 minor league seasons.  Despite the weak offensive performance, the Yankees continued to advance Pirela one level every season, leading him to Trenton in 2011, at the age of 21.  The 2011 season was an erratic one for Pirela on both sides of the ball.  On defense, he committed a league-high 39 errors (37 of them came while playing shortstop), and on offense he posted an anemic .239/.292/.353 line.  This was certainly a low point for Pirela’s prospect status, as neither his offense nor his defense looked capable of becoming major league quality.

This season, Pirela is back with Trenton at age 22, and his season got off to an inauspicious start.  On April 11, Pirela was beaned by a fastball from Chris Martin of the Portland Seadogs, causing Pirela to miss six weeks due to concussion symptoms.  As The Trentonian‘s Josh Norris described in a June 10 story, when Pirela came back from the injury, he was a different player.  According to manager Tony Franklin, Norris wrote, Pirela began making adjustments in the second half of 2011, and carried over the positive momentum into 2012.  After struggling mightily at shortstop last season, Pirela was given the opportunity to play more of a utility role, getting playing time at 2nd base, 3rd base, and left field.  While he has seven errors in 11 games at 3rd base, he has only one in 23 games at 2nd base and none in 19 games in the outfield.  This might indicate that his defensive problems were primarily related to throwing, and switching to 2nd base (and outfield) alleviated some of those issues.

The move from shortstop may also have helped Pirela’s offense, perhaps by letting him play positions where he is more comfortable.  After weak offensive production throughout his career throughout his career, Pirela began hitting the ball with more authority in 2012.  On the season, he is hitting .322/.390/.503 with seven homers (one short of his career high for a season).  He has also cut his strikeout rate and improved his walk rate, both encouraging trends.  Yes he is repeating the league, and yes at 22 he is not that young for the level, but an .893 OPS from a middle infielder in a pitcher-friendly park and league is impressive any way you slice it.

Prior to this season, Pirela had pretty much fallen off the prospect radar.  He was not on Mike’s top 30 prospects list (or any other organizational list, to my knowledge).  If Pirela continues to hit like he has so far in 2012 (and sustains this production whenever he hits AAA), we will probably have to start thinking of him as a prospect again.  Definitely not as a top-tier guy, but as a back-end prospect who has a shot at making the major leagues at some point.  It will be interesting to see how the Yankees handle Pirela going forward.  His value would be greatest if he could stick at shortstop full-time, but his usage this season may indicate that this ship may have sailed.

Pirela may be most valuable as an everyday second baseman, but that is a pretty stacked position for the Yankees at the upper levels, with Robinson Cano in the majors, Corban Joseph in AAA, and David Adams in AA.  Nonetheless, like Ronnier Mustelier in AAA, Pirela could still have substantial value in a utility role, playing 2nd, 3rd, and the outfield (and probably handling shortstop in an emergency if necessary).  Unlike the 27 year-old Mustelier, Pirela likely still has some room for development and improvement.   He could also have some value as a trade chip for a complementary piece (like the inclusion of Jimmy Paredes in the Lance Berkman trade in 2010), or as a throw-in with some upside in a deal for a possible outfield starter.  Even though Pirela is never going to be a star and unlikely to be a starter for the Yankees, he may still have some value in the right scenario.  The improvements that Pirela has made this season will definitely increase that value.

Categories : Minors
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Jul
14

Second-half storylines

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Mercifully, the All-Star break is over and Yankee baseball is back.  It has been a tumultuous season so far, featuring serious injuries to several important contributors and maddening underperformance with runners in scoring position, but also plenty of pleasant surprises.  Despite everything that has gone poorly for the Yankees this season, they are in great position to make a playoff run.  At 53-33, the Yankees own the best record in the majors, despite playing in a division where no team is below .500, and they are eight games up on their nearest competitor.  They lead the league in home runs and wRC+, though they are only 6th in runs scored.  Despite injuries to Michael Pineda, Andy Pettitte, and CC Sabathia, they are 2nd in the league with a 3.71 xFIP, largely driven by the pitching staff’s 8.45 strikeouts per 9 innings.  With this strong first half in the books, I figured I would take a look at some of the storylines to watch for the second half, which will play an important role in determining if the Yankees can hold on to their division lead.

MVP candidate Cano

Robinson Cano is having a monster season for the Yankees so far, and is well on pace to eclipse his career highs in a number of offensive categories.  He has slugged 20 home runs with a wRC+ of 150, and his fielding is significantly improved according to UZR (small sample size warnings apply).  All this combines to make Cano the 7th in the majors with 4.3 fWAR at the midway point.  If the season were to end today, Cano would be a strong candidate for AL MVP, along with usual suspects Josh Hamilton and David Ortiz, and rookie phenom Mike Trout.  Cano’s 2012 production has been very impressive, and it will be interesting to see if he can sustain this form going forward.  Recent history suggests that it is difficult for a Yankee player to win the award unless he is far superior statistically to his competition, and right now, Cano is not in that position.  Nonetheless, if Cano continues to mash and some of his competition begins to fall off (such as Trout) or get hurt (Hamilton), Robbie would be in good position to win his first MVP.

Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova: for real?

Coming into the season, significant questions abounded about Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, and whether they would be able to stick in the rotation as consistent contributors.  Michael Pineda’s Spring Training shoulder injury weakened the Yankees’ rotation depth, and put increased pressure at least one of the Hughes-Nova duo to emerge as a solid mid-rotation starter.  Hughes got off to a poor start to the season, and both players have had serious problems surrendering the long ball, but of late, both have settled in.  They’ve shown the ability to strike batters out (8.31/9 for Hughes, 8.16 for Nova) and limit walks (2.08 for Hughes, 2.69 for Nova) a combination that limits the numbers of runners on base when the inevitable longball comes.  Both have been able to pitch deep into the game, which is important for keeping the Yankee bullpen well-rested and effective.  Hughes and Nova have shown that they can pitch in the low-4 ERA range, and with the Yankee offense, they will win a lot of games.  However, it remains to be seen if they can improve their statistics by cutting down on the home runs.  They were surrendering them at an unsustainable pace earlier in the year, but have improved in that area recently (particularly Hughes).  While both have looked very good of late, Hughes in particular has teased Yankee fans throughout his career with strong performances only to regress significantly, and hopefully he can avoid that outcome.

What will Joba bring to the table?

While most of us gave up on Joba Chamberlain being a 2012 contributor after his awful trampoline-related ankle injury, his impressively quick recovery has him in position to return to the Yankees sometime in August.  Chamberlain, looking noticeably svelte, was recently clocked as high as 97 in his first outing in the Gulf Coast League, a sign that his velocity has returned following Tommy John Surgery.  The velocity bodes well for his ability to be a successful bullpen contributor this year, but command could be a big question.  Joba never had pinpoint control to start with, and it is often said that command is the last thing that comes back to a pitcher who has had Tommy John.  Joba’s willingness and ability to use his devastating slider is another question that he will have to answer.  The pitch is his primary 2-strike weapon to earn strikeouts, but often pitchers who have Tommy John will cut down on their slider usage, to avoid putting additional strain on their elbow.  If Joba does have to throw fewer sliders, he may need to have another offering to flash so hitters can’t just sit on the fastball.    I don’t expect Joba to be back to his old self right away, but the good news is that in a bullpen with Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, he won’t be relied upon to pitch in high-leverage situations immediately.  If he earns those innings with his performance, great, but if he has some struggles as expected, they will hopefully be in fairly low-pressure situations.

Is Russell Martin this bad?

Russell Martin’s offensive production has fallen off across the board compared to 2011, and he is currently batting below the Mendoza line with an anemic .181 average.  After being exactly league average in 2011 (100 wRC+), Martin has fallen to being 20% worse than the average hitter (80 wRC+).  Outside of a strong couple of games against the Mets, Martin really hasn’t put together a strong stretch this season that might give hope that he is starting to come out of it.  The unfortunate sign is that Martin’s struggles have actually lasted longer than this season.  He started strong in 2011, but his numbers dipped dramatically after the first two months.  When we see a player struggle for this long, there is always concern about whether the player is in decline or injured.  While the 29 year-old Martin seems too young to be over the hill, the physical toll of catching every day could accelerate this decline.  I am hopeful that Martin can improve, but not optimistic that he will.  If there is any consolation here, it is that his contract is up at the end of the 2012 season, and the Yankees caught a break by having Martin turn down their 3-year extension offer in the offseason.  This also means that the Yankees will likely be in search of a new catcher for the 2013 season.

Categories : Musings, Players
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Hello readers, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm reception.  It is truly an honor and a privilege to write for such a passionate, dedicated group of fans, on a blog that I have been reading since its inception (not to mention reading Mike, Ben, and Joe prior to that).  It’s also fantastic to be reunited with my former partners-in-crime Moshe, Larry, Matt, and (briefly) Stephen.  I look forward to getting to share my thoughts on my beloved Yankees, and will likely write on a wide variety of topics.  My goal while writing here is not only to produce quality content, but also to interact with the RAB commentariat, so feel free to leave comments on this or any other piece I write here.  I can’t promise I will get to reply to every one (other commenters can likely answer certain questions better than I could), but I will try to get to as many as I can.  Also, feel free to hit me up on Twitter (@Eric_J_S) where I talk baseball, and a variety of other topics.  And away we go…

Mark Teixeira swinging 2011

Flickr photo (by Keith Allison)

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Categories : Analysis, PITCHf/x
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