A modest proposal

With legitimate concerns regarding Teix (is he possibly turning the corner or just showing a “hot flash”?), the health of A-Rod and Posada, and the volatility of the bullpen, it seems silly to harp on an under-performing bench. Make no mistake, like all teams, the 2010 New York Yankees aren’t going to be sending up world-beaters off the bench. They’re bench players for a reason. Any tinkering will ultimately have minimal impact on the team and its win-loss record.

Nevertheless, a few changes to bring in some fresh blood may yield some positive dividends for the team. This doesn’t mean promoting Jesus Montero or Austin Romine to the big leagues – that would be foolish. It means taking a hard look at Kevin Russo, Chad Huffman, Ramiro Pena and some of the weaker links in the bullpen. In short, the guys that haven’t “earned the right” to keep their spot when they aren’t performing and better options may be looming. On this beautiful morning, we’ll focus on the hitters.

I’ll admit I’ve never been a true believer of AAA SS Eduardo Nunez. He walked less than Stephen Hawking, was reported to have poor defense, had a BABip 60 points higher than anything he’d been at in his previous two levels (Charleston, Tampa) and I wasn’t sold on his power being more than a fluke. Yet he still threw up a combined line of .313/.343/.421 in just under 500 PA’s between Trenton and Scranton in 2009, so he couldn’t be entirely ignored, either. This year he’s largely shut me up. Offensively, at least. On the year in Scranton he’s posting a line of .320/.359/.410. That’s damn good. He’s hitting more line drives this year (up six percentage points to 17.6%) and his HR/FB rate is crazy low at roughly 2.5%, suggesting power should rebound a bit. (Last year’s rate was 8/150 – around 5%.) While I don’t know much about his defense, Nunez, 23, might just be ready for a cup of coffee in the big leagues.

As of now Ramiro Pena is the backup shortstop and the team (appropriately) seems to value his glove’s versatility. He can capably man all of the infield positions and can also play the outfield in a pinch. Herein lies the problem – for a guy hitting .190/.235/.210 (and little indication he’ll ever be even an average hitter), he really hasn’t been very good with the glove this year. Granted, it’s an extremely small sample, but even the eye test seems to indicate Pena’s been fairly pedestrian with the leather. Per UZR at Fangraphs, he’s negative at all positions thus far. Using B-Ref’s metrics, he’s also been underwhelming. On the year, Pena’s RAR is -4.8, his WAR -0.5 and he’s had a negative WPA in almost half of his games (12 out of 30).

Do I think he’s a poor fielder? No, not at all. But when as a player you’re all-glove, no bat, playing in limited bench time, it’s important that you reach defensive expectations. That hasn’t happened and given that he has options, I can’t think of many reasons to keep him around. Yes, he’s been victimized by an extremely low BABip of .220 and his defense should be better, but how much can he reasonably contribute? Nunez contributing average offense and below-average defense in limited time would be more valuable to the team than above-average defense and well below-average offense from Pena.

You’ll probably get poor defense with Nunez. I’ve heard a few Nunez fans say he’s much improved with his glove this year. He has good tools (and a great arm) but it’s never quite come together. Maybe he has; I’ve yet to hear anything myself, but it’s totally possible. He does, however, lead SWB with 7 errors. Even if his defense is poor, I think it’s reasonable to expect he could give you .270/.300/.350 in the big leagues. Of course, I also thought that Russo would provide that, so perhaps that expectation is unreasonable. Still, if nothing else, with Russo and Cervelli often in the lineup due to apprehension to push Posada and A-Rod (justifiably so), having a Nunez at least provides a better shot that there won’t have a complete black hole when an infielder needs a rest. Because I have no doubt Pena will always be a black hole in the lineup.

While Kevin Russo was a fan favorite early on for his “clutch hits,” he’s been dreadful offensively for the team. For the Bombers Russo is “hitting” .196/.260/.239 and even worse in June, checking in at a paltry .136/.240/.136. The good news is he’s been really hurt (like Pena) by a BABip of .225, has what appears to be solid hitting skills (if the minors are any indication), has been good with the glove and there’s really no one in the high minors that can play a utility role like he. There aren’t better options available in house. With Pena, I think there are.

As I’ve said, the difference between Pena and Nunez in the grand scheme of things –as a backup infielder getting spot duty– is likely to be small. This doesn’t mean you stand pat. If the move is made and Nunez is the inverse of Pena (average hitting, unbelievably poor defense), you probably end the experiment and return to the previous set-up. There’s really not much downside to a switch. With both players having options, the bottom of the lineup very often being an automatic out with injuries and necessary rest for starters, and Nunez potentially having some value to the Yankees (or another team via trade) in the future,it’s a move I think needs investigating.

Hi-A prospects: Tampa

This is the third installment of our four-part What’s going on with some of my favorite minor leaguers? series. Today, we head down south to Tampa, Florida, where the Hi-A Tampa Yankees might actually be the most popular baseball team in town, which is really actually kind of sad. (I know the Trop sucks and it’s a hassle to go to, but c’mon Tampa fans, please watch your team play baseball. They’re really good. /unrelated rant)

Tampa features the most intriguing pitching staff in the Yankee farm with Adam Warren, Andrew Brackman, Graham Stoneburner and fan-favorite Pat Venditte. Among hitters, only Bradley Suttle and Corban Joseph really stick out at you, although Melky Mesa is also a fairly well-known name. I know he’s a fun novelty item, but I just don’t see Venditte (or Mesa) as a real prospect, so the list will only include Warren, Brackman, Stoneburner, Suttle and Joseph. We’ll start with the hitters.

Hitters:

Bradley Suttle, 3B

Drafted as an above-slot bonus baby in the 4th round of the 2007 MLB draft, Suttle was known for two things – 1) He had a fantastic hit tool, maybe the best in that entire draft; and 2) he also happens to be this man in disguise:

Suttle, before practice in 2010.

Suttle has Type-1 diabetes. Since coming into the system, he’s been pretty up and down and his time has been largely marred by injury. In 2008 at Charleston he put up a line of .272/.345/.457. I wouldn’t call it a bad season, but it’s not eye-catching either. You’d ideally like a bit more out of a guy considered by many to be the best pure hitter in college coming out of the draft, but he didn’t totally struggle either. Still, it seems odd that a guy known for great plate discipline would notch 91 strikeouts and only 42 walks in 372 plate appearances.

But where Suttle really struggled was against southpaws – he hit .219/.323/.324 against them while at Charleston. For a guy without a great defensive reputation, with average power and mediocre athleticism, that sort of thing isn’t what moves you up the levels. Still, all things considered, Suttle had a fairly decent season.

But ut-oh! 2009 was entirely missed due to multiple shoulder injuries, including labrum surgery. Not great for a guy that might not have profiled as a 3B anyway. Arm strength is kind of critical. So we fast forward to 2010. On the year, Suttle is hitting .242/.306/.327. As you can see, he’s not hitting for any power but he’s also hitting 46% of balls into the ground. If you don’t have very good speed, you’re not going to see a lot of those fall in for hits. He’s also struck out 44 times in 165 AB’s and walked 16 times. That approach will get you nowhere if you don’t at least make solid contact when you do hit the ball. As I’ve said, he doesn’t. But there are some bright spots. He’s hitting left-handers better this year at .317/.344/.362 but that’s also aided by a BABip of .404. Considering his age at the level, the injury issues and the regression in on-base skills, it’s hard to see Suttle going much further. Hopefully he’s still feeling the ill-effects of surgery and will bounce back and at least show off great hitting skills.

2010 season at Hi-A: .242/.306/.327

Last ten games: .206/.293/.206

Corban Joseph, 2B:

Corban Joseph Multi-Pass was the Yankees’ fourth-round pick of the 2008 draft. Originally drafted as a shorstop, it seems most people didn’t believe he could stay there, including the Yankees, who moved him to second base. He also rated negatively (per Total Zone on B-Ref) at Charleston in a limited sample, but he it’s unlikely he’d develop the power to play at a corner, so 2nd would likely be a position he’ll have to pick up to move up and be a big-league player at some point. But he was solid at the hot corner, so maybe the team would direct him along the path of Kevin Russo. Who knows.

Now, that said, CoJo can hit. Last year in Charleston he was one of the more consistent hitters, throwing a line up of .300/.381/.418. He had a line drive rate of 25% and was pretty even with his strikeouts to walks ratio (61/49). He did have a crazy-high BABip over the last few months which made up for early season struggles, so it really was a tale of two seasons. So what has 2010 looked like for the Tennessee native?

He’s again one of the better hitters on the team and still a young player at 21. He’s hitting .303/.354/.415 and has two home runs on the year. I don’t know how his defense has been on the season, but his stick has again been very solid. He’s really the only hitter I can see on the Tampa team realistically continuing to move up with a real shot in the show. At this rate anyway. Still, the defense will have to really improve.

2010 season at Hi-A: .300/.381/.418

Last ten games: .343/.425/.371

Pitchers

Adam Warren, SP

What can I say about Adam Warren that hasn’t already been said? The dude has just been straight rolling though Hi-A hitters. It’s not even fair. Selected out of the University of North Carolina (go Heels!) in the 4th round of the 2009 draft, Warren should be a guy that advances quickly. He was a polished college senior, had an uptick of velocity (hitting 96) and has the potential to impact the big club possibly as early as 2011. Last year at Staten Island he ran over New York Penn League hitters, holding them with an ERA of 1.43 and solid peripherals.

In Tampa, he’s thrown 54 innings with just 14 walks and has registered 40 strikeouts. Batters are hitting .235 against him, which jumped considerably due to a poor outing on Friday. Per MILBSPLITS, Warren has gotten tons of groundballs (60%) and has kept the ball in the park (3% HR/FB ratio). I’m not sold that will look the same in Trenton, but there’s nothing it seems Warren needs to learn here at Hi-A. Expect to see him in lovely Trenton very shortly. If anyone knows how his velocity has been and the look of his secondary pitches this year, please let me know. As you can see by his last two starts, he finally ran into some trouble this year. Hey, it happens. He was lopped for 5 runs in less than three innings before exiting the game. No biggie. He’ll be fine.

2010 season at Hi-A: 54 IP, 2.67 ERA, 48 hits, 18 runs, 40 K, 14 BB, 2.43 GB/AA

Last two starts: 7.2 IP, 7.83 ERA, 8 hits, 6 Runs, 3 K, 0BB

Andrew Brackman.

Andrew Brackman, SP

Maybe one of the more hated prospects in the Yankee system, Andrew Brackman has had a strange season thus far. Signed as a classic bust/boom player as the Yankees’ 1st round pick in 2007, I don’t think anyone really expected what they saw out of him last year. Plagued with wildness and diminished stuff last season, he needed to show some positive signs of development this year. And he has. Brackmonster started the season off as we saw him in the throes of last year: 20 runs in 16.2 innings. Still, despite the crazy amount of runs, he walked one batter in that time frame. I can’t begin to tell you how unbelievable that is.

And check this out: he’s gotten much, much better since that bad stretch. Brackman has had only one start since then in which he’s given up more than one run. The walks are still minuscule at 5(!) in 38 innings and he’s notched 29 strikeouts this year. That’s pretty good. But the weird thing is it hasn’t fallen in with his scouting report. Kevin Goldstein reported that he’s been in the low-90’s (touching 94) with bad breaking balls. I don’t quite know how someone is able to put numbers up like this with two bad breaking balls and a fastball in the low 90’s, so I’m thinking maybe Goldstein saw him earlier in the season when he was getting bombed.

In May, which sandwiched a few rough starts with the rest of his good starts, Brackmonster has gotten hitters to ground out in 58% of at bats, his FIP is a crisp 3.24 and he wasn’t getting battered by a BABip of .455 like he did in April. Yeah, .455. Wow! I’m not going to say he pitched very well in April, but that’s an unbelievably high BABip, even in the minors. His FIP in April, after all, was only 4.20. He really wasn’t as bad as the box score would indicate.

The stuff is perhaps more important than the results. If Brackman is hitting 96 with his nasty hammer curve (two pitches that once hit 80 on the scale), I’d rather have that than weak stuff but solid results. Andrew Brackman just isn’t a prospect without a great fastball and breaking ball. At best he becomes John Rausch, who while a productive baseball player with similar size, relies on control. Andrew Brackman has never featured that. It’s totally possible he could, but I wonder how far he could get without great stuff. I’m hoping he’ll regain that velocity and feel for his curve. If Brackman does develop (a huge if), that’s easily the best pitcher in the system in terms of talent. Definitely my favorite guy to watch not named Jesus.

2010 Hi-A season:

38 IP, 5.92 ERA, 48 hits, 28 runs, 29 K, 5BB

Last two starts: 12 IP, 0.83 ERA, 9 hits, 1 run, 9 K, 2 BB

Graham Stoneburner, SP

One of the overslot signings of the 2009 draft, Stoneburner, featuring a plus-name and a lot of potential, has unequivocally been one of the best pitchers in the Yankee farm this season. You may remember he started the year in Charleston, where he stole batters’ lunch money and did donuts in the faculty parking lot. He brutalized them until being promoted in mid-May. How’s he looked in his promotion?

Well, there’s such a thing as a free lunch still in Tampa. Stoneburner, in 22 innings, has an ERA of 3.68 and has struck out 24. He does have 10 walks and had two very sharp starts and two rocky outings, so the consistency is not quite completely there at Tampa. In Charleston he was able to use his heavy sinking fastball to register a GB% of 55% and it’s particularly high against righties. Lefties seem to fare better against Stoneburner. In Tampa they’ve racked up 7 runs in 9.2 innings and 8 walks. That’ll need to improve but there’s a lot to like about Stoneburner’s hot start this year. He has a great arm and he continues to rack up strikeouts and limit walks. Spare a couple poor outings, Stoneburner’s been unreal this season. He might end up a reliever if his breaking balls don’t fully develop, but even in that role, he could be a good one. And one that rises quickly.

2010 Hi-A season:

22 IP, 3.68 ERA, 11 hits, 9 runs, 24 K, 10 BB

Last two starts: 12 IP, 2.50 ERA, 6 hits, 3 runs, 13 K, 4 BB

Ok folks, that’s all from Tampa. When I get back from vacation we’ll do Charleston. You can check out some of my other work at http://www.mystiqueandaura.com/

What’s up, ZZ?

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Remember when the year started? We began in Boston with Yankee ace Sabathia throwing the first game. Well, CC didn’t do so hot. He was bludgeoned with 5 runs in only 5 1/3 innings. We saw him struggle to start the year in 2009 as well. No reason to panic, right? By the end of April, fans and sportswriters were calling for Sabathia’s head on a pike. Well, as you may also remember, after the Boston series, Hey ZZ did fairly well, blowing out the Rays in April with an oh-so-close no-hitter that wasn’t. He followed it up with a gem of a game against the Rangers with nine strikeouts in 7 2/3rds of 3-hit ball. Things were looking good. And then the outings started to drop a bit. Oakland saw him issue six walks, Baltimore hit him 11 times and each successive game seemed to feature Sabathia “gritting” out a victory but not looking too sharp, or getting tagged for 5 runs in 5 or 6 innings. Over his last five starts, Sabathia has only had a positive WPA in one of them (the start against Boston on the 18th).

Let’s take a look at CC’s peripherals and see if we can figure out what’s at least changed, even if there’s nothing to worry about. What exactly has gone wrong?

The first thing you’ll probably notice with CC’s year thus far is his strikeouts and walks. He’s striking out less than seven batters per game (6.81 k/9) while giving up more walks than we’ve seen since 2004 (2.90 BB/9). His groundball rate is an oddly high 49% on the year, up 7 percentage points from 2009. Still, he threw up a GB% of 49.5 in 2004, so it’s not completely unheard of. And we’ll get to more of that later. He’s also benefited from fairly good defense and luck. His BABip is .272, which is the lowest it’s been at any point in his big league career.

CC's K/BB ratio taken from Fangraphs.com

He’s currently outperforming his peripherals with his ERA, which comes in at 4.16 on the season. His FIP in 2010 is a decidedly un-CC-like 4.46. The rub here though is his xFIP, which basically normalizes home runs and adjusts the FIP. Here we see CC fall in line closer with his ERA, notching a 4.11 xFIP. Why would this be? Well, his HR/FB rate is a wacky 13%, easily a career high by a fairly wide margin. This is not to say CC’s pitched like the guy we know he can, but he’s definitely been burned by the home run, and trends suggest it likely won’t continue at such a rate.

But here’s where it gets weird: you know how we talk about pitchers using all of their pitches effectively and mixing up counts to stymie hitters? Sure you do! Generally we say it about Hughes and his proclivity to  go fastball-cutter-fastball-cutter. Or Joba and the guess-what-3-2 slider. Well, Sabathia hasn’t fallen down that path. No, he’s gone the other way. Generally a guy known to throw his potent four-seamer 60% of the time, Sabathia has been throwing it 48% of the time this year. Instead, he’s been relying on his two-seam fastball 18% of the time, up from 3% last year. Unfortunately, no data is available (that I’m aware of) to suggest a trend or an outlier, but whatever the case, it’s clear that CC isn’t as comfortable with his primary fastball this year, unlike that of the recent past. Could it be that he’s feeling some tiredness due to his extreme workload the past few seasons?

On the year his velocity has been down by about 1 mph on the fastball. We’re only on the doorstop of June so as the weather heats up, we should expect it to rise in line with what we’ve seen in the past. Take a look at his average velocity through this point last year and in the two previous seasons. He’s been consistently higher in velocity, even in his first 10 starts of the season (where we’d expect the weather to be of similar natures). But it hasn’t been by concerning numbers. Remember, we’re talking about 1-2 mph and many pitchers go through periods of variation. Luckily, CC doesn’t seem to have much issue with velocity. He was consistently hitting 95-96 yesterday, though many of them were fouled off and the pitch count ran high. So the velocity issue may be overblown.

From March to June in ’08, Sabathia averaged 93.4 on the fastball, threw it 60% of the time and saw hitters swing at the pitch 45% of the time, whiffing 5% of swings. He had great movement, too. His fastball had 9.11 inches of vertical rise and it moved horizontally 6.66 inches. In ’09 in the same time period Sabathia averaged 93.9 on the fastball, threw it in 57% of the time, saw hitters swing 46% of the time and miss 5.3% of the time. He averaged 9.41 inches of vertical movement and 5.45 horizontally.

In 2010, he’s averaging 93.1 on the fastball, throwing it for less strikes and getting less whiffs on the pitch, down to 4.6%. The movement has registered at 9.28 inches vertically and only 3.81 horizontally. Slower and less movement.

So according to this, his fastball hasn’t been what it should be, even when only looking at the colder beginning months of the last two seasons (where PitchFX data is available). And I think he knows it, which is why he’s throwing it less often. Well, what about other data points we can get by the pitches themselves? Fangraphs has a nifty little pitch values chart, which essentially rates how effective pitchers are with their offerings and how hitters fare against them. His fastball this year rates as a negative pitch (-1.8) while his slider and changeup both rate as positives (3.2 and 3.5 respectively). So what about that two-seamer he’s been so fond of lately? Well, I believe that’s included in the overall fastball rate. Per Texas Leaguer’s Pitch FX data, it seems like it’s been effective for him. He’s getting 8% whiffs on it, has thrown it for strikes and often elicits groundballs.

The two-seamer seems to explain the uptick in groundballs, now approaching 50% on the year, as I previously mentioned. We know that pitchers need to evolve as they get older, so getting more groundball outs could be a way for CC to put less strain on his arm and adjust to hitters that see him many times over the years. Or it could be that he’s thrown it in the past but they haven’t classified the pitch as a two-seamer (or in TX Leaguers, a sinker). Hard to say.

Another odd point in the year is that lefties are hitting an extraordinary line against the big Californian, known to be death to lefties. A career .236/.297/.358 against southpaws, he’s been lit up for a line of .283/.377/.472. That absolutely cannot continue for the big fella to be a successful ace in New York. That’s almost Gaudin-ian.

Lastly, the plate discipline. CC isn’t getting batters to chase as many pitches he’s thrown but they’ve made contact at higher rates than we’ve seen in a while, checking in at a 79% contact percentage. His swinging strike percentage is also down to 8.5% – he’s usually in the double digits.

Now this could all be nothing. Again, when he got off to a poor start last year, people echoed similar concerns. “He’s thrown too many innings,” “stuff just isn’t the same” and the like.  But it’s too early to say anything is awry. Sure, we haven’t seen his struggles extend so far into the season yet, but CC has never been known as a 1st half pitcher. Maybe he just needs an extra month (like Teixiera?) to get hot and he’ll start looking like the CC we saw last year. The home runs will come down, the velocity should move up and it looks like he’s now relying on a pitch more to get grounball outs. How he approaches left-handers and the look of his four-seam fastball should be large factors in how CC does moving forward. He needs to be the ace on this staff.

AA prospects: a status report – what Trenton makes

Last week I took a look at how some of the better AAA prospects were doing over the course of the season, but more importantly, how they’d performed over a 10 game sample, their long-term prospects of helping the big club and some things they need to work on. One important thing I learned: for some inexplicable reason, people just love Eduardo Nunez. He’s sort of like Michael Cera to me. Nice potential and has some good strengths but ultimately is overhyped and inconsistent.

Anyway, this week we head down to lovely Trenton, New Jersey to check in with Austin Romine, David Adams, David Phelps, Hector Noesi and D.J. Mitchell. We’re going to leave out Jeremy Bleich, who’s likely getting shoulder surgery, but I’ll simply note here that he’s been a huge disappointment this year. Feel better, Jeremy!

Austin Romine, C

Much has been written about Romine’s hot start. It’s easily one of the best developments of our higher-end players in the system. From what I’ve read, Romine’s defense has already been called “big league ready” and has improved in each of the past three seasons. He has a very strong arm and he’s improved his footwork and receiving skills. This isn’t very shocking – he already had a good defensive reputation, so enough of that. Let’s get to the offense. Romine was considered to be a good-contact hitter with a solid eye but more of a gap power hitter than someone expected to pop over 20 home runs a year. In 2010, he’s increased his contact skills, hitting .323, far above last year’s mark of .273 in Tampa. Unfortunately, his BABip this year is an Austin Jacksonian .392, or close to 90 points higher than last year’s mark. That won’t continue, but there are promising signs. Romine, not fleet of foot, is knocking in a line drive rate of 20% (up from 12.8 last year) and decreased his groundball rate to 38%.

But it would be nice to see Romine bring his walk rate up and his strike out rate further south. On the year he’s striking out 21% of appearances and walking 9% of the time, but overall, it’s hard to have much to complain about Romine’s season. His power is again looking pretty good (.512 slugging percentage) and he’s sprayed 6 doubles in his last 10 games. The Yankees can afford to take things slowly with Romine, and if he hits this well and continues to improve his defense at catcher, we could very well be watching the team’s future backstop sooner than we might expect, perhaps as early as 2012.

AA Season: .323/.386/.512

Last ten games: .308/.341/.462

David Adams.

David Adams, 2B

Aside from Austin Romine, Adams is easily my favorite player to keep tab on in Trenton. According to Mike’s Prospect Profile of Adams, the second baseman was rated as the top prospect in Virginia and the 102nd best overall in the 2008 draft (per Baseball America’s list), eventually signing with the Yankees as their 3rd round pick. He started 2009 off in Charleston, where he hit .290/.385/.393, displaying a good approach at bat but not showing much in the power department. A promotion to Hi-A Tampa quelled power issues – he knocked in 7 home runs in 67 games, posting a slugging percentage of .498.

Interestingly, it seems Adams may have changed his hitting approach with the move up to Tampa (or simply went back to his old approach in Virgina – couldn’t find college splits to see GB/LD/FB numbers). His ground ball rate dropped from 46% to 38%, his line drive rate from 22% to 16% and he knocked fly balls at a 44% rate, which explains the uptick in home run. It looks like he went from a gap-to-gap hitter to a swing with a bit more loft, and it was largely effective. He also maintained a solid walk rate and lessened strikeouts.

In Trenton – a jump that usually weeds out guys who took advantage of less advanced pitchers – it’s been fun seeing Adams continue his success. His power has remained (.510 slugging percentage) and his on-base skills still look good (.395 OBP), though he’s benefited from a high BABip rate of .373 (his career rate is .339). I’m a bit concerned he isn’t hitting line drives at a percentage you’d like to see (it’s at 11% currently) and striking out 21% of his plate appearances against right-handers is a tad high. But it’s still early and these are knit-picky things. Adams is mauling lefties (.400/.489/.650) and might already be prepared for Scranton offensively. The question is if he’s progressed with his defense. Adams should have the defense to stick at 2B, and his contact and on-base skills certainly make him the best middle infielder in the high minors with a good chance to contribute to the (or a) big league club. I’d put him above Kevin Russo, whom he has a higher ceiling than, though less versatility. Adams was recently injured sliding into a base but assuming this is a minor thing, he should be back in no time. He’s struggled a bit of late, but he’s looking every bit the possible 1st round pick he was hyped to be after finishing his sophmore season at UVA.

AA Trenton this year: .311/.395/.510

Last 10 games: .212/.366/.333

David Phelps, SP

Not considered one of the team’s high-impact pitchers down the farm, Phelps has continued to throw up really impressive numbers. A groundball-inducing extraordinaire, Phelps isn’t afraid to throw any of his pitches in any count, keeping hitters off balance, according to a scouting report at Yanks Daily. He doesn’t give many walks, issuing only 11 in 42 innings, and has pretty good strikeout rates for a finesse pitcher with 37 in 41.2 innings. A 14th round pick out of Notre Dame in 2008, Phelps has been one of the best players of the class (a class that includes Jeremy Bleich, David Adams, Corban Joseph, Kyle Higashioka and Brett Marshall), and 2010 is no different.

Hitters have been stymied by an FIP of 2.80 (and a corresponding ERA of 1.73), a groundball rate of 46.5%, and as already mentioned, an improved K-rate. Unfortunately, Phelps is outpeforming some of his peripherals. Hitters are unlikely to continue hitting only 2.8% of flyballs for home runs and his .256 BABip is significantly lower than last year’s mark of .317, though there’s certainly a correlation with his grounball rate from a year ago being 52%, compared to this year’s 46.5%. Phelps will need to work on his off-speed pitches to compliment his low-90’s fastball and some of his peripherals seem unustainable, but he’s been a very good find and hasn’t had any problem with AA hitters.

AA Trenton this year:

41.2 IP, 1.73 ERA, 29 hits, 37 K, 11 BB, 1.34 GO/AA

Last two starts: 12 IP, 3.00 ERA, 9 hits, 9 K, 5 BB

[Update: Phelps pitched today and threw 7 innings while giving up 6 earned runs. He had 5 strikeouts and 2 walks.]

Hector Noesi (Photo Credit: Ashley Stephenson)

Hector Noesi, SP

After blowing through Hi-A Tampa in eight starts this year, the brass decided to jump Noesi to Trenton, where he’s received one start. Noesi definitely has the stuff to succeed; the question has always been about his health. He’s been sidelined by injury a few times but rebounded to slice up Sally League hitters with a SO/BB rate of 7.09. He then hit Tampa and worked in an eye-popping 10.00 SO/BB rate and an FIP of 2.69. Frankie Pilliere, scout for AOL Fanhouse thinks Noesi has the chance to be a #3 in the big leagues, noting that Noesi had an improved curveball that could develop as a true out pitch. He’ll still need to work on his changeup and stay healthy, but he’s an unheralded guy with good upside (although he’s a bit old even for AA at 23).

His first start in Trenton wasn’t fantastic (he gave up 5 runs in 6 innings), but Noesi may move quickly if he resembles the guy we’ve seen in 2009 and 2010. There’s not a whole lot of data I can pore through that will really expose issues Noesi has had this year or last. His peripherals were all very encouraging, his BABip wasn’t freakishly low, his FIP and ERA were reasonable. He was just really good, though his HR/FB rate was low at 4.9%. So, instead, I’ll simply stress that the key to Noesi will be working on his off-speed pitches and not injuring himself. Otherwise, he could be a good edition to the team sometime in 2011 or 2012, probably the bullpen if he can’t develop a changeup that will keep big league hitters honest. His command and good-but-not-great stuff would be quite welcomed in such a role.

Hi-A Season: 43 IP, 2.72 ERA, 35 hits, 53 K, 6BB, 1.08 GA/AA

AA Season: 6 IP, 7.50, 7 hits, 4 K, 2 BB, .075 GA/AA

D.J. Mitchell, SP

Mitchell was one of the arms the Yankees took in the 2008 draft out of Clemson University. While Mitchell can certainly hold righties’ heads below the water, he gets decimated by left-handers. They hit .287/.381/.316 against Mitchell last year and took 20 walks in 58 innings. D.J. didn’t get enough strikeouts on lefties to limit the damage, either, knocking 5.59 per nine down on strikes. So here’s where it gets weird. Remember how I just said that Mitchell can’t get lefties out but he’s really good with righties? You should, it was mere lines ago. Here’s a fun one, guess which side Mitchell has thrown this line against: 19.1 IP, 2.79 ERA, 15 hits. Ok, how about this one: 22.0 IP, 7.36 ERA, 32 hits. The former is against left-handers, the latter against righties. I don’t understand. It’s just…what? Anyway, his numbers against lefties aren’t really that fantastic beyond the surface. He’s issued 11 walks to them with 9 strike outs and not a single fly ball has gone for a home run. So there’s no reason to get too optimistic – he won’t be a LOOGY out of the bullpen.

The utter collapse against right-handers is perhaps more interesting. He’s helped his strikeout rate against them a bit with 18 in 22 IP, but the walks are still persistent. He’s issued 11 to righties, and they’re hitting him for an average of .344. Good news is the BABip is .423 and that will almost assuredly go down, plus the stats are skewed a bit by one really poor outing (4.1 IP, 9 earned runs and five walks). He’s still getting guys to hit the ball on the ground at a very impressive rate (60%) and he’s limited the big fly. Armed with a fastball that sinks more than Derek Bell’s houseboat, a Nardi-fied curveball and a poor changeup, with only four years of total pitching experience, Mitchell has had a very strange season, full of great luck and terrible luck. How he does against left-handers with his changeup will be very interesting to watch as the season progresses.

AA Season: 41.1 IP, 5.23 ERA, 47 hits, 27 K, 22 BB, 2.07 GA/AA

Last two starts: 10.1 IP, 5.80 ERA, 17 hits, 8 K, 6 BB

Late and close, some haven’t delivered

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens (AP)

It’s difficult to come up with too many criticisms of an offense that’s put up a .363 wOBAbest in all of baseball – which is all the more amazing considering the team has seen a number of starters miss significant time due to injury. Unfortunately, as we saw in last night’s game and in Tampa, the team, even with a high-scoring offense, seems to strand runners in critical situations. A team with great on-base skills and featuring some of the top hitters in baseball will see a lot of situations with men in scoring position. Of course, the more opportunities the team has with runners in scoring position, the more often we’ll see them fail. It’s just a numbers game. But considering the talk of how last year’s team “was so clutch”, it might be interesting to see how the players on this year’s roster are doing.

In 2009, the team hit .272/.370/.433 with RISP. They overall hit well with bases occupied, almost regardless of how many outs there were, and .316/.403/.542 in late and close situations also looks great.

In 2010, with runners in scoring position, the team is hitting .279/.380/.458. Hmm…well that overall doesn’t seem to be a problem. Ok, what about 2 outs and RiSP? .286/.381/.418. Again, it’s not that. Well gee whiz, that’s pretty good. What about high-leverage situations? .283/.370/.473. The numbers say the 2010 Yankees are a fairly balanced offensive team. They hit well in tie games, ahead and behind. They hit with bases loaded, they hit well with no outs, kill teams the second and third time through the lineup, hit with RiSP and actually do well in what are considered “high leverage” situations. So maybe this whole notion that the team just isn’t “clutch” without Matsui and Smooth Johnny is frankly, bull crap.

But wait.

Look again and you’ll find the team seems to have issues with runners on second and third and in late and close situations. The team, with men on second and third, are hitting only .184/.353/.237 this year, with Posada, Jeter, A-Rod having hit one run in (via sac fly) combined over 17 plate appearances. And although the team is bashing pitchers in innings 4-6, too many players are dropping like flies in innings 7-9. Derek Jeter, Winn, Swisher and Teixiera have all had varying struggles in those innings. Add the Bullpen Adventures and you see a nasty witches brew in the cauldron.

The second issue is in “late and close” situations, where the team is hitting .223/.315/.392. When we’re in the 7th-9th and it’s close, Swisher, Winn and Teixiera have just killed their team’s chances of coming out ahead. Teix is hitting a paltry .056/.150/.056, Winn checks in at .125/.125/.125 and Swisher is staring at .143/.143/.143. In fact, if not for Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada and Marcus “The river giveth, the river taketh” Thames, the team would be entirely dreadful across the board in such situations.

As we can see, Randy Winn – possibly the most hated Yankee on the roster (high five, Boone!) – has struggled enormously. It seems that every time a key situation is brewing late in the game, he’s up. And the rally is over after he’s late on an average fastball. Well, the numbers seem to bear it out. On the year, Winn is striking out 25% of his at bats but over 30% of his PA’s late in the game.

Nick Swisher is hitting very well in high-leverage situations at .450/.500/.900(!), but isn’t doing so when it’s late and the game is on the line. He’s hitting .238/.304/.310 in innings 7-9 and has struck out in 5 of his 14 late and close PA’s. Jeter, whom I’m sure we’re all hoping is just greatly slumping and not declining as a player, is hitting .180/.212/.300 in innings 7-9 and .222/.263/.444 late and clutch.Teixiera might be the most interesting player to study. His slow starts have been well documented. But this start in particular is fairly awful and he just hasn’t been there when called upon. Your #4 hitter can only be so futile for so long in those spots before it costs the team ball games.

Luckily, possibly other than Winn, the talent level suggests these players will certainly be hitting well in no time. There’s no magic “clutch” concoction we can give these players. As they compile more plate appearances in such situations, they’ll start to produce. The 2009 team wasn’t some amazing mix of heart, guts and clutch-itity that separated them from all teams before and after them. They hit well enough to be called “the comeback kids” and had some good fortune (which some might call an anomaly). That’s it. Less than 20 plate appearances (in some cases) is by no means a good number by which we should judge a player’s aptitude in any given situation. All this says is that thus far, the team has had some players slumping at the most inopportune of times. It happens to every team. As we move closer to the dog days of summer, we should expect some of those numbers to improve. And for a team currently featuring a number of AAA players and bench players in their starting lineup due to injury, that’s a scary spot for the rest of the league.

AAA prospects: a status report

Photo Credit: Cataffo/ Ny Daily News

Mike does a great job compiling all of the stats and happenings across the Yankees’ minor league system in his nightly Down on the Farm series. From Staten Island to Scranton, we have a pretty good sense about how our players did, even if we mostly only care about Montero, Romine, ManBan, Ramirez, Warren, Z-Mac, Stoneburner and a handful of other players.

But after a while we sometimes get “stuck” in the numbers — we forget how the guy that’s just gone 0-5 with 4 K’s during last night’s game is very often the same guy that went 4-5 with two home runs the night before. So I’m going to be doing a recap of how some of the AAA farmhands have performed thus far, all of which came from milb.com or minorleaguesplits.com. Many of the players on this list are on Mike’s Preseason Prospect List, where you can get a better look at their long term prospects. In this AAA installment I chose to recap players that are actual prospects, most of which will likely (if they haven’t already) see major league action this year. Not too many are interested in seeing Amaury Sanit’s progress, though I’m betting we’d all love to find out if Kei Igawa sleeps with those awesome sunglasses on (I’ll do some digging and try to find out for you all).

Next week we’ll take a look at how some of the AA guys are looking. Also, because there’s a Montero Watch present in the sidebar and most DotF are comprised of MonteroTalk, we’re going to leave him out on this one.

AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre

Kevin Russo, 2B: With the big league club having apparently suffering a pandemic of Mets-itus, a few AAA players have seen some promotions. Chief among them, and for good reason, is utility player Kevin Russo. Russo, a former 20th round draft pick out of Baylor in 2006, had hit .302/.383/.425 as Scranton’s second basemen before jumping to Massachusetts after Robinson Cano was hit by a Josh Beckett fastball. He got only two plate appearances but Russo’s versatility – he can at least play three infield spots and man the corner outfield positions – defensively, his solid on-base skills, and good contact ability make him a good candidate to stick in the big leagues for a long time. With Ramiro Pena‘s mounting struggles with the bat (which was inevitable, really), Russo may take him over as a super-utility guy at some point. He’ll have to show he can at least play SS passably, though, and there’s no guarantee of that. Bonus: if there are minors fantasy leagues that exist (I’m hoping they do), he’ll soon have CF eligibility, too. He’s played there of late.

Season line in AAA: .301/.388/.416

Last ten games: .310/.383/.405

Time in New York: .000/.000/.000

Eduardo Nunez, SS: Most people saw this coming. Nunez got off to a torrid pace, as Greg Fertel and even RAB’s own Mike Axisa have noted in his DotF postings. Consequently, Nunez has really tailed off, displaying why we shouldn’t fall in love with early season small sample sizes. With a few middle infielders ahead of him in the pecking order and poor defensive skills (albeit with a great arm), Nunez is unlikely to see any big league action this year. If he does it will because of ghastly circumstances. Poor defense, weak power, unrefined on-base skills with very good contact ability, plus speed and a wonderful arm. That may translate to some modicum of minor league success, but I don’t see it happening on the major league level for a middle infielder (and really one in name only).

Season in AAA: .321/.371/.400

Last ten games: .244/.262/.268

Juan Miranda, 1B: Miranda was a big-money IFA signing of the Yanks from Cuba back in 2006. You may remember he was once considered the future first baseman of the Yanks. While that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, Miranda, in his final option year, is playing for a contract for a big league club next year. The book on him was that though he really nails right handers, he struggles with lefties and his defensive play is by no means great, even for a first baseman. Last year he took positive steps in correcting those problems, hitting lefties with a triple slash of .291/.367/.507. So far, in AAA, he’s continued that pace, hitting .313/.389/.563 in 33 plate appearances (note: this is according to minorleaguesplits.com, which is a bit behind in their stats). Oddly, he’s struggled against righties, hitting .222/.354/.364 in 66 plate appearances. He’s been in New York for a few games, and with Nick Johnson possibly out for a few months, Miranda may stay in New York as a DH. Considering Johnson’s injury history, the team couldn’t be caught too surprised by that. This may be make or break for Miranda.

Season line in AAA: .260/.371/.438

Last ten games in AAA:.250/.357/.417

Time in New York: .143/.250/.286

Photo Credit: Mike Ashmore

Ivan Nova, SP

Nova’s rocketed up Yankee top prospect lists over the last two years as he’s finally started to harness his very good stuff. He’s been up in New York after the injury bug hit and he’s largely impressed, though he’s probably the guy sent back down with Park coming back from the DL. In his first appearance, Nova, signed by the Yanks and returned after being selected as a Rule V from the Padres, came in and threw two scoreless innings and in today’s game he again looked fairly good. With a likely ceiling as a back-end starter in the AL East (which really isn’t all that bad when you think about it), Nova is very likely to be the first guy up again with another injury, first because he’s already on the 40-man roster, and second because a groundball pitcher with good stuff is always a valuable commodity. He also has an outside shot at a rotation spot next year depending on how things shake out.

AAA season: 37 IP, 2.43 ERA, 35 hits, 32 K, 12 BB, 1.78 GO/AA

Last two starts: 13 IP, 3.84 ERA, 17 hits, 7 K, 4 BB

Time in New York: 3 innings, 0.00 ERA, 4 hits, 1 K, 0 BB

Zack McAllister, SP

Z-Mac has had an up-and-down in his first run at AAA. Arguably the Yankees’ top pitching prospect, McAllister ran into some issues in late April, early May, giving up over 6 runs in two of three starts. Still, he’s sprinkled in some good games and has strung two consecutive 7-inning performances of good ball. A polished groundball pitcher, McAllister may wind up trade bait or perhaps in the rotation as early as next year. He, like Nova, has back rotation or possibly #3 starter potential, but he’s going to need to get that groundball rate up again. A 34% GB ratio is not going to work at the big league level for a guy with his skill set. It wouldn’t hurt to develop a true out pitch, either.

Season in AAA: 45 IP, 4.40 ERA, 52 hits, 32 K, 9 BB, 0.52 GO/AA

Last two starts: 14 IP, 2.14 ERA, 14 hits, 8K, 1 BB

Romulo Sanchez, SP/RP

The last of the famed “Fat Sanchezes,” Romulo has been very impressive in his time in Pennsylvania and also in New York. Sanchez has a great fastball, occasionally hitting the high 90’s with his 4-seamer, but he likely profiles best as a reliever in the future due to his erratic control and fringe-average off-speed pitches (a changeup and slider). If he can locate that big fastball and keep hitters off balance with one of the off speed offerings, he could definitely stick with the big club over the year. His numbers in Scranton are a bit misleading. In April he gave up 10 earned runs in only 2.1 innings. Otherwise, he’s been among the better pitchers in the upper minors.

AAA season: 32 IP, 5.34 ERA, 30 hits, 32 K, 16 BB, 1.22 GO/AA

Last 2 starts: 14 IP, 1.42 ERA, 9 hits, 17 K, 2 BB

In New York: 3.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1 hit, 3 K, 1 BB

Mark Melancon, RP

The final name on our list, Melancon entered last season with high expectations and didn’t live up to them in limited action. I recall his propensity for hitting opposing batters (along with old favorite Mike Dunn). It was probably just jitters because he returned to AAA and fell right back where he’d been before his callup. He came back up again briefly and showed signs of life, causing many of us to think he’d be up in the Bronx to start the year. Well, hasn’t happened yet but it seems like just a matter of time. Melancon has again been very good in Pennsylvania in 2010. A look at his splits reveals some quirks, though. You might look at his numbers against righties and say, “Wait a second, this doesn’t look right.” And to some extent, you’d be right. But aha! Along with a BABip against righties of .462, he’s also giving up a line drive rate of 26.2%, yet checking in with an FIP of 3.05. Look a bit further over and you see why. He’s striking out 16.55 righties per nine innings this year. Wow, that’s strange data. Against lefties he’s getting lots of groundouts, another promising sign. I’d be fairly shocked if we don’t see Melancon in the Bronx very soon.

AAA Season: 23 IP, 2.74 ERA, 21 hits, 31 K, 8 BB, 1.71 GO/AA

Last 4 appearances: 5.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 4 hits, 13 K, 2 BB

A closer look at Marte

Note: This was written prior to Marte’s appearance against Thome this afternoon. Sure, he was able to get Thome out, but he still made a few mistakes that ended up not hurting him. That’s baseball!  I’m hesitant to say “Marte is back” as a result, though he did look improved.

Photo Credit: David J. Phillips / AP

With all the issues the Yankees are currently facing, the bullpen is relatively low on the list of major concerns for the team. Joba has looked great of late, Mariano is Mariano, Park and Aceves should be returning shortly, and our AAA callups Ivan Nova and Romulo Sanchez impressed in their short stints. With major and minor injuries throughout the roster, the struggles of Damaso Marte, David Robertson and Boone Logan aren’t going to be front page news in Yankeeland. After all, two of the three are just lefty specialists (one likely to be sent down when Park returns) and Robertson could be sent to AAA to work on his issues. Whatevs. But make no mistake, all is not well on the left-turn front.

Let’s take a look at last night’s game. Marte entered with a man on second and Joe Mauer at the plate. Marte misses on a first pitch slider outside. He returns with a fastball for a called first strike. It had good velocity but ended up nowhere near where Cervelli set up. At this point, I’m fairly worried. If there’s a short list of guys you absolutely do not want to miss on pitches, Mauer is on it. Then, for some reason, Damaso leaves a slider without much movement in the center of the plate, about belt high. Against Joe Mauer he’s fairly fortunate the ball was only smoked for a single, scoring Denard Span from second. Unfortunately, Brett Gardner attempted to nail Span at the plate and his throw was way up the line. Why he did that is a mystery to me.

Herein lies the problem: Marte was brought in as an expensive reliever (the contract extension still seems a bit of a blunder as of this writing) with the one goal – to get out tough lefties. He hasn’t done it with much regularity a a Yankee and while Burnett had command issues (and certainly not helped by a pygmy-sized strike zone), wouldn’t you rather have the better pitcher face the better hitters? Mauer’s no slouch against lefties, either. He hits them to the tune of .313/.376/.417. I understand why Joe made the decision and it’s much easier to second guess the Yankee manager from the comfort of my garden apartment, but I’d argue you’d rather have the better pitcher in against the better pitcher, especially if neither has much of a platoon split. All of Burnett’s pitches are better than Marte’s offerings.

Back to the action. So Mauer moves up to second and Morneau is now the batter. Morneau hasn’t been phenomenal against left-handers throughout his career, but as Mike noted in last night’s recap, why let their only really dangerous hitters beat you? With first base open, you’d think they’d not give Morneau anything to hit, if not walk him altogether, right? On the sixth pitch of the at bat, Morneau slams another high slider with little break. Boom! Double! Mauer scores. With the lead gone, Girardi then intentionally walks Michael Cuddyer (a righty) to get to Jason Kubel (a lefty, who has managed to do virtually nothing but walk and strike out all year). He flies out to Marcus Thames, inning over. But the damage was done. If not for A-Rod‘s heroics, Marte likely becomes the game’s goat, though true to form, Randy Winn would have given him a good run at it.

Damaso has some alarming peripherals this year. Now bear in mind, he hasn’t had many innings to accumulate a definitive sample size, but the numbers etch out many of his struggles. Let’s first take a look at plate discipline:

On the year, Marte is eliciting an O-Swing % of 16.2%, which basically says that his stuff doesn’t have a lot of movement where hitters bite at balls slicing out of the zone. In fact, batters are only swinging at a total of 31.6% of Marte’s pitches, about 15 points lower than league average. It gets worse. Only 40.4% of Marte’s pitches find themselves in the strike zone, but hitters are hitting 92% of them. I don’t need to tell you that’s a bad combination.

His velocity is is about 1 mph slower than it had been in 2009 and 2 mph slower than 2008, the year he was traded to the Yankeees. He’s getting older and it’s still very early, so that might go up as he finds himself further removed from shoulder surgery. Maybe more alarming is his PitchFX data. As a Pirate in 2007, his fastball had good vertical rise – moving 9.5”. Today it moves almost 2 ” lower, but a bit more in on left-handers. In 2007 his slider was a also a different looking offering. It was quicker and tighter than it is today – the pitch had a horizontal break of 1.0 inches and a vertical break of -4.6 inches. Now, in 2010, strictly as a LOOGY, Marte’s horizontal break is -7.6 inches and it moves vertically -2.1 inches. Essentially, his new slider is a larger, sweeping pitch that moves across the plate significantly more. We can’t gather any truly damning evidence, as Marte has been injured but this far he’s shown to be a different pitcher.

Unfortunately, that pitcher is also walking close to a career high at 6.14/9 while striking out a career low at 7.36/9. Girardi’s continually given Marte high-leverage situations, even as he has allowed inherited runners to score at an alarming rate (half of his 8 inherited runners have scored), and has issued far too many walks to yield good reults. A look at his shutdowns/meltdowns paints another grim picture. Marte has four meltdowns and not a single shutdown, which accompanies his team-low “clutch” score at -0.59.

Damaso Marte‘s career sample suggests he should at least be an excellent option to get lefties out, if not more. This isn’t just some guy pulled from the stands. He’d been a closer – and an effective one at that – and we like to defer to the greater sample if we can. In his case, his track record is very, very good. But he hasn’t done much good this year and with the exception of last year’s playoffs, has overall been an unmitigated disaster in New York. It’s still very early in the season and I’m optimistic he can return to form, but given the volatility of relievers, Marte’s lesser stuff and his injury history, it’s not crazy to think Marte could find himself DFA’d at some point, contract and all.

There don’t appear to be better lefty specialist options (*cough* Boone Logan) in house, so Girardi surely wants to give Marte every opportunity possible to come in and be a reliable specialist. At this point in the season it’s understandable. But at what point do you say enough is enough? If his appearances continue to resemble last night’s, we may be looking at a new slew of matchups quicker than we think.