Minor League Notes: Complex Upgrades, Spring Training Notes, Releases, Suspensions, Pace of Play

Yankees Player Development
(Photo via Brendan Kuty)

The Major League portion of Spring Training has been going on for weeks now, but things on the minor league side are just starting to ramp up. Chad Jennings has the Yankees’ minor league workout groups, if you’re interested. As a reminder, those are not regular season level assignments, only Spring Training workout groups. Many (most?) of the players will open the season at a different level than their workout group. Here are some more miscellaneous minor league notes.

Yankees made upgrades to Tampa complex

At the behest of new farm system head Gary Denbo, the Yankees have made a bunch of upgrades to their minor league complex in Tampa, according to Kevin Kernan. They’re mostly very small changes — new dugouts were built, speakers were installed to play music during workouts, players are no longer required to wear high socks, visitors can now walk freely around the complex — but they do all add up.

“Adding a simple thing like speakers and music for the players it makes things more relaxed for the players and we know players perform better when they are relaxed,” said Denbo to Kernan. “It’s time to put them in the position where they have everything they need to have success. That’s what we’re doing. We’re encouraging players families to come out and watch, too. It’s nice having your family around and we are just trying to make it more comfortable for them.”

The Yankees made more significant changes to the Tampa complex last year — the player development staff got its own dedicated statistical analyst and a new office building with a cafeteria for players was built — but these more recent changes are on a smaller scale designed to make players feel more comfortable and professional. Not coincidentally, Josh Norris says the atmosphere around minor league camp is greatly improved. Between these upgrades and Captain’s Camp, Denbo’s done a lot of good in his short time at the helm.

Notes from minor league camp

Minor league Spring Training games started not too long ago, and last week Norris roamed the back fields in Tampa and passed along some pitching notes. RHP Ty Hensley sat 89-92 and touched 93 in his outing with a hard curveball in the mid-to-upper-80s. The most important thing is he’s back pitching after his offseason ordeal. Meanwhile, RHP Gabe Encinas topped out at 95 mph as he continues to work his way back from Tommy John surgery, RHP Domingo Acevedo was sitting 94-96 mph with a few 97s, and RHP Rookie Davis was 93-95 mph with some 97s and low-to-mid-70s curveball. Norris also posted video of Hensley, Acevedo, and Jorge Mateo. Acevedo is just massive. He’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 190 lbs. but that looks like it shorts him about 50 pounds.

Yankees release 16 minor leaguers

According to Matt Eddy, the Yankees released 14 minor leaguers last week. Here’s the list: IF Jake Anderson, RHP Cristofer Cabrera, RHP Dayton Dawe, UTIL Anderson Feliz, 1B Mat Gamel, 1B R.J. Johnson, 1B Bubba Jones, OF Daniel Lopez, LHP Hector Martinez, LHP Abel Mora, RHP Alex Polanco, RHP David Rodriguez, RHP Hayden Sharp, and UTIL Casey Stevenson. Also, RHP Jordan Cote and RHP Brett Gerritse announced they have been released on Twitter, and C Trent Garrison announced his retirement on Twitter. Garrison was in big league camp this year and Gamel was signed earlier this month. Cote is probably the most notable prospect among the released minor leaguers — he was New York’s third round pick in 2011 and was a classic projectable high school pitcher who didn’t develop as hoped.

Two Dominican Summer League prospects suspended for PEDs

RHP Brayan Alcantara and RH Moises Cedeno have each been suspended 72 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, report Bob Nightengale and Brendan Kuty. Alcantara tested positive for Stanozolol, whatever the hell that is. Both Alcantara and Cedeno pitched in the Dominican Summer League last year. The 21-year-old Alcantara had a 4.21 ERA with 28 strikeouts and nine walks in 25.2 innings, and the 19-year-old Cedeno had a 3.23 ERA with 59 strikeouts and 20 walks in 53 innings.

New pace of play rules implemented

As expected, new pace of play rules have been officially implemented in the minor leagues, MiLB announced. They mirror the new MLB pace of play rules — batters have to keep one foot in the box, strict two minutes and 25 second breaks between half-innings — plus a new 20-second pitch clock being installed at Double-A and Triple-A. The pitcher has to begin his windup within 20 seconds or an automatic ball will be called.

“Minor League Baseball is excited to implement the pace of game initiatives at the Triple-A and Double-A levels of our organization,” said MiLB president Pat O’Conner in a statement. “We feel the emphasis on pace will lead to more fan enjoyment and better play on the field and is another example of the cooperative relationship between our leagues and Major League Baseball in the advancement of player development.”

April will be used a grace period so players can adjust. The penalties start in May. The pitch clock in Double-A and Triple-A does not necessarily mean a pitch clock is coming to MLB next year. The league is testing it out at the highest level of the minors though, and if it works as intended and the players don’t make too big of a stink, expect MLB to push to add them at the big league level. I’m not a fan of a big ugly clock on the field of play at all, but I guess it’s inevitable.

Report: Dodgers agree to six-year deal with Hector Olivera

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty)
(Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

According to Jesse Sanchez, the Dodgers have agreed to sign Cuban infielder Hector Olivera to a six-year contract worth $62.5M. The deal includes a $28M signing bonus and is pending a physical, which is not insignificant. There are concerns about Olivera’s elbow ligament and he may need Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees scouted Olivera like everyone, and while we heard they had “strong interest” back in January, it had been quiet since. The Dodgers and Padres were considered Olivera’s most serious suitors with the Braves and Marlins also in on the bidding. Here’s a quick scouting report from Ben Badler:

At around 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Olivera is a physical righthanded hitter with a loose, quick swing and a good hitting approach. He showed good power for a middle infielder, and given that several Cuban players have transformed their bodies and increased their power since leaving the island, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Olivera did the same. His size, athleticism and plus speed (at least at his peak) made him one of the most well-rounded players in Cuba.

Olivera, who turns 30 next month, missed the entire 2012-13 season in Cuba with a blood disorder and hasn’t participated in many international tournaments since then. Although he has participated in showcase events in recent weeks, scouts haven’t been able to see much of Olivera in game action the last few years.

I’m not surprised the Yankees passed on Olivera and not because they are seemingly terrified of pricy Cuban players. A six-year contract for a 30-year-old is the kind of contract they avoided all winter. Add in that Olivera might have a bad elbow, Chase Headley just re-signed for four years, and Rob Refsnyder is knocking on the door at second base, and Olivera wasn’t a great fit for the Yankees and vice versa.

2015 Draft: Brady Aiken leaves start with injury, Yankees among teams in attendance

Last Thursday, left-hander and 2014 first overall pick Brady Aiken left his start for IMG Academy with an unconfirmed injury. The Astros did not sign Aiken as the top pick last year due to concerns about his elbow. Aiken opted to attend IMG for a post-graduate year so he could enter the 2015 draft rather than go to college and wait until the 2017 draft.

Aiken, 18, left Thursday’s start after only 12 pitches. The home plate umpire told Josh Norris it was an arm problem — “The last pitch was a curveball. I don’t know if that’s related … But that’s all I heard, that he had a little bit of tightness in his arm. That’s what he told his coaching staff,” said the ump — but nothing has been confirmed. In fact, Keith Law hears Aiken may make his next start, indicating the injury is not serious.

Yankees amateur scouting director Damon Oppenheimer was among the 75-100 scouts on hand for Aiken’s outing, reports Norris. New York holds the 16th overall pick this year and a healthy Aiken won’t make it that far. Here’s a snippet of MLB.com’s scouting report on Aiken, who they ranked as the third best prospect in the 2015 draft:

Aiken had no physical problems as a senior at San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High, showing advanced command of a fastball that sat at 92-94 mph and reached 97. He added more power and depth to his curveball and displayed one of the best changeups in the 2014 Draft, featuring deception and tumbling action … Aiken also earned points for his makeup.

Healthy Aiken is, at worst, a top five pick in this year’s relatively thin draft class. Injured Aiken is another matter. His draft slot would depend on the severity of the injury. The Astros agreed to sign him for $6.5M last year but backed out after his physical due to a concern about his ulnar collateral ligament and the possibility of Tommy John surgery in the near future.

There is plenty of precedent for drafting a pitcher with a damaged UCL. The Yankees drafted Andrew Brackman in the first round of the 2007 draft knowing he’d need his elbow rebuild, for example. The Nationals selected Lucas Giolito with the 16th pick in 2012 knowing he’d need Tommy John surgery as well. Giolito was a first overall pick candidate before his elbow started barking, and he has since developed into the game’s top pitching prospect. Jeff Hoffman (ninth overall) and Erick Fedde (18th) were first rounders last year after having Tommy John surgery just weeks before the draft.

The Yankees were scouting Aiken because they scout everyone — even if they know they are unlikely to have a chance to draft him, they still want to they keep track of his development in case he becomes available in a trade or as a free agent down the road — and I think they would jump at the chance to draft him 16th overall, healthy elbow or not. They never get a chance to select the top draft talents and Aiken is right up their alley as big (6-foot-4, 205 lbs.) power lefty with command. The elbow would make him risky, no doubt, but the reward is potentially great.

With help from A-Rod, Greg Bird has made himself part of the Yankees’ long-term picture

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Opinions will vary, but I think most would agree first baseman Greg Bird has been the most impressive young hitter in Yankees camp this year. Jose Pirela has better stats but Bird looks the part of a big leaguer at the plate. He knows the strike zone and he hasn’t looked overwhelmed either by pitchers or the environment. Bird just looks like a hitter. I don’t know how else to explain it. Look at how quick his hands are:

It seems like Bird he was born to hit. He went 5-for-14 (.357) with three doubles and a home run during Grapefruit League play before being reassigned to minor league camp yesterday. Aside from being late to lunch, Bird was extremely impressive in Spring Training. Brian Cashman called him “by far the best hitter in the (farm system)” a few weeks go and Alex Rodriguez has sung his praises as well. From John Harper:

“I mean, when you’ve been around for 20 years, you know who can play and who can’t. You see the way the ball comes off his bat. Then you see his work ethic, and how he watches and asks smart questions, and you know he’s got a great makeup. He’s going to be around for a long time.”

This isn’t Jorge Posada or Jason Giambi calling Phil Hughes the next Roger Clemens or something silly like that. It’s just A-Rod praising Bird for being an intelligent player and a good hitter. There’s no hyperbole. A-Rod is just repeating what a lot of other people have already said about Bird, that’s all.

As it turns out, A-Rod had a small hand in Bird’s development as a hitter. The two first met back in 2013, when Alex spent a few days with Low-A Charleston working his way back from his surgery. A-Rod has always been great with young players and Bird credits him for some advice, not just as a hitter but about being a pro baseball player in general. From Andrew Marchand:

“Some of the things that he told us still is some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten as a hitter, just as far as professional baseball went,” Bird, now in his first big-league camp, said the other day.

A-Rod told Bird and the rest of the Single-A Charleston River Dogs that the higher the level you go, the easier the game becomes — the stadiums are nicer, the lights are better, the umpires are more precise, on and on. A-Rod also gave practical advice on hitting, making it simple.

“He is not even worried about (looking for pitches in specific spots),” said Bird, a 22-year-old, 6-foot-3, 215-pound, left-handed first baseman. “You can’t worry about the inner half of the plate because if you do, you give up the outer half. You give up off-speed pitches. Just hearing that out of his mouth that first full season was big. It stuck with me ever since.”

Bird, who turned 22 in November, obviously has a boatload of talent and it all starts there. His talent got him drafted — the Yankees selected Bird in the fifth round of the 2010 draft but paid him first round money ($1.1M bonus) — and is the main reason he’s torn up the minors, but taking advice and using it make the necessary adjustments is often what separates the guys who make it and the guys who don’t. It seems Bird has been able to do that after talking to A-Rod.

The Yankees have made it clear in recent years they have a “type.” They prefer certain kinds of players over others and I’m guessing every organization does as well. The Yankees like pitchers who throw hard but don’t walk everyone in the park — you didn’t think they pulled Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi out of a hat, did you? — and the taller they are, the better. They also like great defensive catchers. And, of course, they like left-handed hitters with power and patience. Guys like Bird. He’s right in their wheelhouse.

This offseason the Yankees shifted gears and focused on getting younger, most notably by trading for Eovaldi and Didi Gregorius. Comments made by Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner this past offseason also make it seem like they will be more willing to give prospects an opportunity going forward, and there’s a clear path to MLB for Bird. Spend this year in Double-A and Triple-A, next year going up and down based on Mark Teixeira‘s health in the final season of his contract, then step into the lineup full-time in 2017. A-Rod helped Bird get here, now Bird has to take the next step and give the Yankees a reason to give him a chance.

Sunday Links: Captain’s Camp, Baker, Burton, Posada, NYCFC

The Captain's Campers. (Tyler Wade on Twitter)
The Captain’s Campers. (Tyler Wade on Twitter)

The Yankees are playing the Phillies this afternoon but there is no video broadcast of the game. Hard to believe not being able to watch a Spring Training game is the exception these days, not the rule. It wasn’t all that long ago when watching a spring game was a pipe dream. Anyway, I have some miscellaneous links and notes to pass along.

Denbo Creates “Captain’s Camp” For Top Prospects

Here’s a great story from Brendan Kuty. New player development head Gary Denbo created a six-week program this offseason called Captain’s Camp, which is designed to promote “quality character, accountability and respect for the game” in the team’s top prospects. The Yankees invited 15 of their top prospects to the first annual Captain’s Camp in Tampa back in January, and they took part in all sorts of team-building exercises, including visiting a children’s hospital.

“It kind of gave me an idea of what they want. How I should eat in the off-season to get ready for a long season. We got to talk to some big league guys who have done it before. They told us their personal experiences with it. You try to take a little bit from each person,” said Jacob Lindgren. Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, and Scott Rolen were among those who voluntarily came to the camp to meet and speak with the prospects. (Rolen and Denbo know each other from their time with the Blue Jays.) This is really great. Between this and some coaching/development personnel moves, Denbo’s done nice work since replacing Mark Newman in October.

Based on the photo and the article, the 15 prospects include Lindgren, Jake Cave, Ian Clarkin, Greg Bird, Eric Jagielo, Aaron Judge, Gosuke Katoh, Leonardo Molina, Alex Palma, Nick Rumbelow, Luis Torrens, Matt Tracy, and Tyler Wade. So two are still unknown. The other two are Luis Severino and Jorge Mateo.

Baker, Burton Among Article XX(B) Free Agents

According to MLBTR, righties Scott Baker and Jared Burton are among this year’s Article XX(B) free agents as players signed to minor league contracts despite having more than six years of service time. The Yankees must pay Baker and Burton a $100,000 bonus at the end of Spring Training if they aren’t added to the 25-man active roster (or MLB disabled list). This isn’t a surprise, the Yankees knew both players would be Article XX(B) free agents when they signed them.

Burton’s minor league contract includes four opt-out dates throughout the season, which indicates the Yankees are prepared to pay him the $100,000 to send him to the minors. Chris Capuano‘s injury means Baker just might make the Opening Day roster as the long man and seventh reliever. The guy the Yankees can send out there and run into the ground for as many innings as necessary to spare the rest of the bullpen, then designate for assignment when Capuano is healthy a few weeks into the season. We’ll see how that last bullpen spot shakes out as the spring progresses.

Posada Memoir Coming In May

Jorge Posada has a memoir coming out! Keith Kelly says the memoir, which is titled “The Journey Home,” will hit bookstores on May 12. There will be both an English and Spanish version. It is described as a “father-son book” based Posada’s relationship with his father, Jorge Sr., and Joe Torre, who he “always regarded as a second father,” as well as his two children, Jorge and Paulina. It doesn’t sound like this will be sort of juicy behind-the-scenes tell-all story, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth reading.

The Yankees Stadium field earlier this week. (NY Daily News)
The Yankees Stadium field earlier this week. (NY Daily News)

Teixeira, Others Not Happy With Soccer Games At Yankee Stadium

As you know, the Yankees will share Yankee Stadium with the expansion New York City Football Club of Major League Soccer this summer. In fact, NYCFC is playing their first game at Yankee Stadium this afternoon. The MLS season runs through October and NYCFC will play a total of 17 games in the Bronx. More than one Yankees player is less than thrilled about the wear and tear on the field.

“It’ll definitely cause an issue, but it’s nothing that we can control, so we can’t worry about it … It’s terrible for a field. Grass, dirt, everything gets messed up,” said Mark Teixeira to Dan Barbarisi. Brendan Ryan told Barbarisi he’s going to change the way he approaches ground balls because of potential bad soccer-related hops. “I’m going to be selling out to go get that ball (and limit the bounces), and I’m going to err on that side much more.”

The Yankees have insisted they have a world class grounds crew and therefore have no concern about the condition of the field since it was first announced NYCFC would call Yankee Stadium home. Team president Randy Levine doubled down after Teixeira’s comments, telling Ken Davidoff the team is “very confident that both playing surfaces, through all of our planning, will be perfectly playable throughout the year.” Well, we’re going to find out one way or the other very soon.

Luis Severino, Aaron Judge top MLB.com’s top 30 Yankees prospects list

Severino and Judge, yet again. (Presswire)
Severino and Judge, yet again. (Presswire)

As part of their look at the best minor league prospects in each organization, the crew at MLB.com published their list of the top 30 Yankees prospects earlier this week. Jim Callis also compiled some notes and scouting grades in a supplemental piece. As always, MLB.com’s info — the list, scouting reports, video, etc. — is all free. It’s great.

Predictably, RHP Luis Severino and OF Aaron Judge claim the top two spots, in that order. Severino is No. 1 on MLB.com’s and Baseball America’s lists while Judge is atop Keith Law’s, Baseball Prospectus’, and my top Yankees prospects lists. I guess Judge wins. SS Jorge Mateo, 1B Greg Bird, and 2B Rob Refsnyder round out the top five on MLB.com’s list.

You can click through to see the full top 30 for yourself. MLB.com included two of last year’s international signings and ranked them pretty highly as well — OF Juan DeLeon and SS Dermis Garcia ranks 15th and 16th, respectively. They also ranked four other players who didn’t make my top 30: RHP Rookie Davis (No. 24), UTIL Jose Pirela (No. 25), 2B Gosuke Katoh (No. 28), and RHP Domingo Acevedo (No. 30).

The 21-year-old Acevedo was one of my five prospects to watch heading into the 2014 season and the MLB.com scouting report is pretty glowing:

In his limited game action, Acevedo hit 100 mph and worked at 95-97 mph. He also has an advanced changeup and some feel for spinning the ball, though he’s still trying to find a comfortable grip for his slider. His command is work in progress, though he does a decent job of throwing strikes.

Between his velocity and his size — he’s 6-foot-7 and carries maybe 50 pounds more than his listed 190 — Acevedo presents an extremely intimidating figure on the mound. He’ll have frontline starter stuff if he can develop a good breaking ball, and he’s still a potential closer if he doesn’t.

Acevedo is older than most international prospects — he signed as an 18-year-old in October 2012 — but they don’t check IDs on the mound. If he continues to show big stuff and gets people out, the Yankees won’t care if he makes his MLB debut at 23 or 26. The 2015 season will be an important one when it comes to determining if Acevedo is one of the team’s top prospects going forward or just a tease.

MLB.com’s list essentially wraps up prospect ranking season. The Yankees have a middle of the road farm system that is on the rise thanks mostly to last summer’s international spending spree. Severino and Judge are high-end prospects while others like Bird and Jacob Lindgren look like high-probability big leaguers. The Yankees focused on youth this winter and that means we should expect to see a few of these guys get an opportunity at the MLB level in the next year or two. That’s exciting.

Reports: Hector Olivera declared free agent, may or may not have a damaged UCL

Depending on who you ask, Cuban infielder Hector Olivera may have a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, meaning he faces season-ending Tommy John surgery. Jeff Passan says “serious concerns exist” among teams while Olivera’s camp told Jesse Sanchez their client is fine. “Photos don’t lie. They always tell the story,” said one team official to Sanchez, referring to an MRI.

Olivera, who turns 30 in April, was cleared to sign by MLB and the Office of Foreign Assets Control yesterday according to Sanchez, so he can sign at any time now. Passan says it is believed Olivera has at least one offer worth more than $50M in hand, though the injury will change everything, assuming it exists. Olivera is considered the best available Cuba player on the market now that Yoan Moncada has signed.

Back in January we heard the Yankees had “strong interest” in Olivera, who is considered a better player than recently signed outfielders Rusney Castillo and Yasmany Tomas. Assuming he’s healthy, of course. Here’s a quick scouting report from December, via Ben Badler:

At around 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Olivera is a physical righthanded hitter with a loose, quick swing and a good hitting approach. He showed good power for a middle infielder, and given that several Cuban players have transformed their bodies and increased their power since leaving the island, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Olivera did the same. His size, athleticism and plus speed (at least at his peak) made him one of the most well-rounded players in Cuba.

The elbow is not the only physical concern with Olivera. He missed the entire 2012-13 season in Cuba with a blood disorder and hasn’t participated in many international tournaments since then. Scouts simply haven’t seen a whole of him the last few years. (He has been holding showcase events in recent weeks, which is when the UCL injury apparently occurred.) Here are Olivera’s stats from Cuba, via Baseball Reference:

Year Tm Lg G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2003 Santiago de Cuba CNS 132 32 38 6 3 1 11 5 0 7 20 .319 .367 .445 .813
2004 Santiago de Cuba CNS 298 47 92 10 4 6 35 7 7 12 32 .326 .362 .454 .816
2005 Santiago de Cuba CNS 77 296 42 66 8 4 3 35 5 6 35 24 .262 .351 .361 .712
2006 Santiago de Cuba CNS 89 409 72 113 15 1 6 32 7 4 28 26 .315 .370 .412 .782
2007 Santiago de Cuba CNS 84 394 91 114 25 3 10 45 21 1 55 28 .353 .467 .542 1.009
2008 Santiago de Cuba CNS 84 398 84 115 23 5 16 71 8 3 55 24 .346 .444 .590 1.035
2009 Santiago de Cuba CNS 89 411 76 111 34 4 14 54 0 1 56 29 .322 .415 .565 .980
2010 Santiago de Cuba CNS 86 394 83 110 25 1 16 70 2 0 37 21 .318 .390 .535 .924
2011 Santiago de Cuba CNS 60 264 48 73 10 0 17 42 0 1 44 22 .341 .462 .626 1.088
2013 Santiago de Cuba CNS 73 273 44 72 11 2 7 38 0 0 38 25 .316 .412 .474 .885
10 Seasons 642 3269 619 904 167 27 96 433 55 23 367 251 .323 .407 .505 .912

Two years ago the Phillies agreed to a six-year, $48M contract with Cuban righty Miguel Gonzalez before cutting it down to a three-year, $12M deal after concerns about his shoulder popped up, so Olivera would not be the first Cuban free agent to deal with an injury before signing. Position players typically need six months to rehab from Tommy John surgery, which is half the usual timetable for pitchers but still season-ending.

Olivera is both a second and third baseman, and while the Yankees have Chase Headley for the hot corner, they do need a long-term second base solution. The elbow injury could be an opportunity for New York to grab Olivera on the cheap, though there’s a lot of risk involved because Tommy John surgery isn’t a sure thing. If nothing else, there’s no reason for the Yankees to not kick the tires and see if a discount is in the cards.