Is it time to panic?

(J. Meric/Getty)

Not so long ago, I wrote an uncharacteristically pessimistic post that was admittedly a bit trollish in its conception: exploring the problems and challenges that could face a Yankee team that at the time enjoyed a comfortable six-game lead over its division rivals.  While the Yankees had several hurdles to overcome, I concluded that the division lead along with the talent gap between the Yankees and their pursuers should allow the Yankees to cruise to a division title and playoff berth.

I still believe that to be the case, but the events of the last few weeks have increased the likelihood of an different outcome.  The combination of poor play by the Yankees and strong performances from the Rays and Orioles have whittled the Yankees’ division lead down to one game.  In Wild Card race, the Oakland A’s have gone on a tear, and currently hold the same record as the Bombers.  Suddenly the possibility of the Yankees losing the division or even missing the playoffs doesn’t seem so remote.  The specter of a monumental collapse a la Boston in 2011 looms over the collective psyche of nervous Yankee fans, who fear karmic payback for their schadenfreude of yesteryear.

Since the folks here are mostly rational, I thought it would make sense to analyze which contributors to the Yankees’ struggles seem likely to persist, and which ones may be resolved going forward.  I’ll take a look at some reasons for why Yankee fans should be concerned, as well as some reasons why things are still looking promising.  Feel free to add your own to the list if I leave anything out.

Reasons to panic

Death by bullpen:  Outside of Rafael Soriano and David Robertson (who have had their occasional slip-ups), the rest of the Yankee bullpen has been unreliable of late.  This has at times caused Joe Girardi to make multiple pitching changes in a single inning, delighting binder-joke aficionados worldwide.  It has also made keeping leads in the middle innings a difficult task.  Cody Eppley in particular seems less effective than he was earlier in the season, Joba Chamberlain has struggled mightily since returning from the DL, and Derek Lowe has been awful since the Yankees acquired him.  Boone Logan has continued to hold down the fort, but his heavy usage could take a toll on him.

Injuries: Although Alex Rodriguez just returned, the Yankees are still suffering injuries to several important contributors.  Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched a rehab outing yet, Curtis Granderson has been hampered by hamstring tendinitis, Mark Teixeira is still out, and Robinson Cano may have tweaked something in his hip while going after a ground ball in the 9th inning yesterday.  These injuries have forced the Yankees to rely heavily on their bench.  While some bench players (Eric Chavez in particular) have been up to the task, others (I’m looking at you Andruw Jones) have struggled mightily.  The Yankees have gotten by so far in 2012 with solid contributions from their bench, but their recent offensive woes (wRC+ of 74 the past 2 weeks) show the effect that losing several middle of the order contributors can have on overall offensive production.

Reasons to relax

Help is on the way: Alex Rodriguez’s return instantly lengthens the Yankee lineup, adding some desperately needed right-handed power to a team that has been punchless of late.  Mark Teixeira, Andy Pettitte, and Ivan Nova are on the road to recovery, and could provide some much needed depth to an anemic lineup and struggling rotation respectively. 

Slumpbusters: Of late, the Yankee lineup has struggled offensively.  Only three members of the Yankee lineup have posted above league-average production over the last 2 weeks: Robinson Cano (146 wRC+), Derek Jeter (137 wRC+), and Nick Swisher (128 wRC+).  While this trio has been carrying the offense, the rest of the offense has been putrid.  This includes (skip this section if you have a weak stomach) Russell Martin (56 wRC+), Curtis Granderson (36 wRC+), Eric Chavez (40 wRC+), Ichiro (10 wRC+), Andruw Jones (-8 wRC+), and Raul Ibanez (-25 wRC+).

With only one third of the lineup performing anywhere above the league average or near their career norms, there is no wonder that the Yankee lineup has had trouble scoring runs of late.  It seems improbable that this horrific stretch can continue, and eventually some of these guys can turn things around.  While several of these guys have been horrible all season, there is enough talent there for a few of them to get things going again.

Look at the schedule: While the Yankees’ schedule for the beginning of September is tough (two more games against the Rays and four against the Orioles), things soften up for the Bombers after the big rivalry games.  There is one more three-game series against the Rays, but otherwise, the Yankees’ opponents include the Twins, Red Sox, and Blue Jays.  A few years ago this would have been a formidable slate, but at a collective 51 games under .500, the Yankees shouldn’t have too much to worry about.  This is especially true if the Yankees get some of their starters back and contributing by then.  Baltimore also has a light schedule (though a three-game series against the suddenly-good A’s could prove challenging), while the Rays have some tougher matchups remaining, including the White Sox and the Rangers.  If the Yankees can survive the games against Baltimore and Tampa with their lead intact, they should be able to hold their ground against some weaker opponents down the stretch.

Overall, the Yankees do have some real concerns to address down the stretch.  Getting some injured players back could help, but the fact of the matter is that this team has looked lifeless over the past few weeks.  A combination of crappy hitting, sloppy fielding, and poorly-timed pitching meltdowns has resulted in some frustrating losses recently.  Two thirds of the lineup needs to either get healthy or remember how to hit, and the Yankees will need to get some big performances from their starters to prevent the bullpen from getting overexposed.  I still think this team has too much talent, especially when compared to Baltimore and Tampa, to lose this division.  The favorable schedule also helps in that regard.  But as they say, these games aren’t played on paper.  A number of players will have to start living up to the numbers on the back of their baseball card if the Yankees are going to make a run into October.

The evolution of Phil Hughes

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

It has been fascinating, and at times frustrating, to watch Phil Hughes develop from a prospect into a rotation mainstay.  At the time he was drafted, Hughes was a big kid who projected to have solid fastball velocity and a good slider.  Within a year or two, he developed a true plus curveball after being forced to shelve his slider, and used the hook along with impressive fastball command to carve up his minor league opposition.  His ability to develop the curveball into a dominant pitch after not using the pitch much in high school was impressive, and indicative that he had a good feel for pitching (whatever that means).

After a dominant minor league career, Hughes made his major league debut at the tender age of 20, and tantalized Yankee fans in his second start with 6 1/3 no-hit innings against the Texas Rangers.  In that outing, Hughes looked like the future ace many of us hoped he could become.  He commanded his fastball well, and made good use of his curveball and changeup to keep hitters off balance.  In particular, I remember him making future teammate Mark Teixeira look silly on several breaking balls. Then of course came the infamous, possibly career-altering injury.  After striding too far in an attempt to get a little more oomph on a curveball, Hughes badly injured his hamstring, limped off the field, and never really achieved that degree of dominance again.

The rest of Hughes’ Major League career has been consistent only in its inconsistency.  His velocity and weight fluctuated, he suffered several injuries, and otherwise struggled to fulfill his potential.  His curveball regressed, becoming a loopy creampuff instead of a snappy strikeout pitch.  The changeup didn’t really develop as hoped, leaving Hughes primarily as a two-pitch pitcher.  Consequently, Hughes faced countless long at-bats as hitters were able to sit on his fastball and foul off pitch after pitch, driving up his pitch count and tiring him out.  He also frequently pitched up in the zone, causing him to allow fly balls at a high rate.  Particularly in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, these fly balls had a high probability of turning into home runs, and this problem has plagued Phil in recent years.  He also tried to add a cutter to give left-handed batters a different look, but it never became an effective out-pitch for him.

Despite the inconsistency, Hughes has been an important fixture in the Yankee rotation over the last few years.  He has had his successes, including a sparkling stint in the bullpen in 2009, an All Star appearance in 2010, and truth be told a pretty solid 2012 (even though his FIP and xFIP are less impressive than his 4.02 ERA).  2012 has been an interesting season for him because he got off to a rocky start, giving up four or more runs in three of his first five starts.  Thereafter, Hughes has only given up more than three runs four times.  While he may have tired a bit as his innings count rose, he has been a fairly reliable piece in a rotation that suffered injuries to three starters.

It is interesting to see how Phil has tinkered with his approach throughout the season, rather than just sticking with his regular repertoire and hoping that things will fix themselves.  Michael Eder of The Yankee Analysts has some great posts (complete with gifs) documenting this transformation.  Early in the season, Hughes scrapped the ineffective cutter and began featuring the changeup more prominently.  He started making use of a sharper 11-5 curveball that featured more horizontal movement, resulting from a lower arm slot.  And just in his last start, he resurrected the mythical slider, which served as an effective weapon against same-sided batters (who have been giving Phil trouble this year).

There are certainly positive and negative spins that one could put on Hughes’ constant changes to his repertoire.  On the negative side, one could point to the inconsistency of his secondary pitches, and his inability to develop any one of them into a reliable above-average offering.  The fact that he has to keep tinkering is evidence that his regular repertoire is not good enough to be a consistently effective big league starter.  The flip side of this is that Phil is hard-working and resourceful enough to constantly add to and modify his repertoire, which gives us hope that he may continue to make adjustments in the future.

Hughes is still somewhat of an enigma, but I think at this point in his career Yankee fans know what to expect from him.  He is a solid #3-#4 starter who can eat innings, is capable of the occasional awful outing if his fly balls are leaving the yard, strike batters out at a respectable clip (about 7.5/9 this season), and keep them off base by limiting his walks.  While he is unlikely to morph into the ace we dreamed he would become, it is nice to hear that he is still working to hone his craft, and try to become the best pitcher that he possibly can.  Considering he is only under contract for one more season after this one, it will be in the Yankees’ interest to track Hughes’ evolution closely, to see if he can find a mix of pitches that will allow for more consistent effectiveness.

More thoughts on the Boston fire sale

So the guy with the $140M contract is going to play for a guy that used to manage in Japan? Come on!
(AP)

A few days ago, the Red Sox and Dodgers completed a potentially franchise-altering trade.  Boston sent underachieving malcontents Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez (who is actually still pretty good) plus Nick Punto to suddenly-loaded LA.  In return they received several solid prospects, the thoroughly mediocre James Loney, and most importantly, massive salary relief.  It was shocking to see a wealthy big market team unload all this talent for pennies on the dollar, truly a fire sale that only Tobias Funke could properly dramatize.

The deal will have a major impact on the Red Sox and Dodgers for years to come, and the reverberations could be felt throughout the league.  The Red Sox significantly increased their flexibility by shedding some $260 million in future contract obligations, allowing them to be big players on the free agent market in 2012 and in upcoming seasons.  While the 2012’s free agent class is not considered a stacked group, they could have room in the budget to sign several impact free agents.  These could include such notables as Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, both incredibly talented players (albeit with risks attached).  If the Red Sox choose to spend big this offseason, it could be reminiscent of the Yankees’ spending spree in the 2008-2009 offseason, in which they signed Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett.

As we remember, these signings contributed heavily to the Yankees’ 2009 World Series title, so a similar splurge by the Red Sox could have them back in contention in a hurry.  However, failing several big acquisitions, it is difficult to see the Red Sox being serious playoff contenders in 2013 and possibly 2014.  While they have some talent remaining on the team and some intriguing players down on the farm (Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes, and Jackie Bradley Jr. especially), it is hard to see that roster being a serious threat to win the AL East.  Consequently, they will need to decide whether they are doing a full rebuild, or a Yankees-esque reload.  If they go big on the current free agent class, they risk burdening themselves with the types of big expensive contracts that got them into this mess in the first place.  However, a rebuild will likely doom them to non-competitiveness for several years, and this may have significant financial ramifications.

Assuming Boston doesn’t go for the full reload in 2013, the Yankees should be the AL East frontrunners, with the Rays as the main competition.  This is especially the case if Baltimore comes back to earth after a 2012 season that seems somewhat fluky.  Toronto will likely not have the same number of injuries again, but I don’t think that team has enough impact talent to be a competitor yet.

The defanging of the Red Sox definitely helps the Yankees in the short term, but how about the long term?  A lot of that depends on how the Red Sox end up deploying their newly-acquired flexibility.  The Yankees likely won’t be huge spenders on the free agent market over the next two years if they are serious about adhering to the austerity budget.  If Boston hasn’t loaded up on big free agents after 2012 or 2013, they could be serious competitors for some big name players that could hit the market in 2014 , most notably Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez.  The trade could also put Boston in the position to build a sustainable powerhouse if they are more fortunate with their free agent signing and hit it big on with a few of their prospects.  One question, however, could be whether Boston’s willingness to dump players recently signed to long-term contracts shows a lack of loyalty, and could make it difficult for them to attract free agents.  I think money talks ultimately, but that could be a tie-breaker.

While they are not in the same league as the Yankees, the sudden willingness of the Dodgers to spend big to acquire impact players should draw the attention of Yankee fans.  We are largely used to a unipolar landscape where the Yankees are the dominant franchise financially, capable of outbidding all comers to acquire their choice free agents.  There have been some exceptions to this paradigm of late, most notably the Yankees’ failure to sign Cliff Lee, but it largely has held true.  Seeing the new-money Dodgers throw that kind of cash around  begs the question of how much they are willing to spend to make their team a World Series contender.  Could they even outspend the Evil Empire?  After this big trade, they are pretty close, and if they are willing to spend even more money, they could be a force to be reckoned with on the free agent market.

Ultimately, the Yankees will be fine, but there is no doubt that this deal is a potential game-changer.  The Yankees may not be able to count on being able to sign all the best free agents to fill their holes, as fewer top guys have been hitting the market, and more teams have the financial resources to compete for the ones that do.  The Red Sox suddenly have huge flexibility to bring in new impact players, while the Dodgers showed a willingness to spend at Yankee-esque levels to become relevant.  In the short term, the Yankees should maintain their hold on the AL East, but they certainly can’t get too comfortable at their perch.

Why the Yankees shouldn’t get too comfortable

(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.

Heathcott makes up for lost time

(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.

Injuries’ impact on prospect development

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.

The next great Yankee reliever

(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.