Teixeira’s injuries, eventually expiring contract create clear path for Greg Bird

No. 20? That's messed up dude. (Presswire)
No. 20? That’s messed up dude. (Presswire)

Three years ago, the Yankee caught some grief for selecting Florida high school third baseman Dante Bichette Jr. with their top pick in the draft, the 51st overall selection. There were concerns about his swing and ability to hit pro pitching (not to mention his defense), and those concerns still exist today. Bichette is a career .255/.337/.373 (106 wRC+) hitter in nearly 1,800 minor league plate appearances, which is fine but not anything that will turn people in believers.

Bichette did not receive the largest bonus among New York’s draftees in 2011, however. They gave Colorado high school catcher Greg Bird a $1.1M bonus in the fifth round to buy him out of a commitment to Arkansas, and he has since zoomed by Bichette in the prospect rankings. That happened even though he moved out from behind the plate and over to the less glamorous first base, partially due to back problems and partially as a way to get him up the ladder quicker.

“We just agreed (first base) was going to be the best thing going forward. I think it was more about my tools than anything. It was basically, ‘Why spend time catching when we could progress forward faster playing first base?’” said Bird to David Laurila last week. “People ask that a lot – does (not catching) help me as a hitter? – and I think maybe it does, but I’m more of a cerebral hitter anyway. As far as, ‘Is he going to throw this or is he going to throw that,’ I was that way growing up, so I’ve kind of always had that mindset. I don’t really sit on pitches, but if you’re not thinking along with what’s going on, you’re not playing the game.”

Bird, who turned 22 yesterday, is a career .283/.407/.488 (141 wRC+) hitter in a bit more than 1,100 minor league plate appearances, and he’s currently hitting .318/.392/.568 (159 wRC+) in 23 games with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. (Bichette has a 65 wRC+ as his teammate.) That performance, as well as his massive dead center homer in the AzFL Fall Stars Game, has put Bird in the spotlight, especially with the big league Yankees in need of offense.

“I think he is a legit middle-of-the-order bat. He has lift and really drives the ball with big-time power,” said one scout to Joel Sherman. “If you go middle out on him, he will go the other way with power. He still had some problems with off-speed pitches, but you cannot throw a fastball by this guy. I see him in the majors hitting .260-to-.280 with 20-homer-plus power.”

The Yankees could obviously use a hitter like that, even at first base, where Mark Teixeira is signed for another two years. It’s not hard to connect the dots and see Bird’s timetable lines up pretty well with the expiration of Teixeira’s contract. Bird figures to open the 2015 season back at Double-A, and since he’ll be Rule 5 Draft eligible next winter, the Yankees could get a head start on things by adding him to the 40-man roster and calling him up in September.

With Teixeira getting more and more injury prone each year, Bird could be his up-and-down replacement in 2016 while getting regular at-bats in Triple-A. That doesn’t sound all that exciting, but the Yankees got 678 plate appearances from their first baseman this past season, and only 487 of them went to Teixeira (72%). There were 200 or so plate appearances for someone like Bird in 2014. It might be 300-400 in two years, when Teixeira is 36.

Most young players get their first extended big league opportunity thanks to an injury. That’s what happened with Melky Cabrera back in 2006, remember. He helped fill in for Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. Brett Gardner got his first chance when Johnny Damon got hurt in 2008. Heck, Derek Jeter was the shortstop in 1996 because Tony Fernandez got hurt. That’s just how it works in baseball and especially with the Yankees, who are hesitant to hand starting jobs over to young players. Teixeira’s injuries work in Bird’s favor.

The 2015 season is going to be very important for Bird. He’s created some hype with his performance these last two years and especially in Arizona these last few weeks, but next year will be his first extended stint at Double-A, a level that is usually a separator between prospects and suspects. If he continues to hit there, being the long-term replacement for Teixeira will go from nice idea to real possibility. Huge free agent first base contracts are among the worst investments in the game (Teixeira, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, etc.) and it’s something New York may be able to avoid thanks to Bird in two years.

The Yankees have only had four regular first baseman dating back to 1984 and it’s both unrealistic and incredibly unfair to expect Bird to continue that run. For now, let’s just hope his success continues in 2015 and he puts himself in position to be a big league option in 2016. That alone would be a big help to the Yankees, who seem to an employ a “we’ll play anyone at first” approach to backing up Teixeira. Bird is not the team’s best prospect but he is one of their most important prospects because he has a clear path to MLB playing time, both in the short and long-term.

DotF: Austin carted off the field following outfield collision in Arizona Fall League

In case you missed it Friday, 13 players became minor league free agents, including SwP Pat Venditte, LHP Jeremy Bleich, LHP Nik Turley, 3B Scott Sizemore, SS Carmen Angelini, and OF Zoilo Almonte.

AzFL Scottsdale (6-5 loss to Peoria) Monday’s game

AzFL Scottsdale (5-2 loss to Peoria) Tuesday’s game

  • RF Aaron Judge: 1-5, 1 K
  • RHP Caleb Cotham: 1 IP, zeroes, 2/1 GB/FB — ten pitches, nine strikes

AzFL Scottsdale (8-4 loss to Salt River) Wednesday’s game

  • RF Tyler Austin: 1-4, 1 R
  • 1B Greg Bird: 0-2, 1 R, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 E (fielding)
  • 3B Dante Bichette Jr.: 1-4, 1 2B, 1 K
  • RHP Kyle Haynes: 1 IP, zeroes, 2/0 GB/FB — eleven of 19 pitches were strikes (58%)
  • RHP Alex Smith: 1 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1/0 GB/FB — ten of 18 pitches were strikes (56%)

AzFL Scottsdale (5-3 loss to Peoria) Thursday’s game

  • RF Aaron Judge: 0-4, 2 K
  • DH Tyler Austin: 1-3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K

AzFL Scottsdale (1-0 win over Glendale) Friday’s game

  • LF Tyler Austin: 0-2, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 SB, 1 CS – threw a runner out at the plate … hitting .304/.392/.449 in 19 games
  • RF Aaron Judge: 2-4, 1 K — threw a runner out at third
  • 1B Greg Bird: 0-4, 2 K
  • 3B Dante Bichette Jr.: 1-3

AzFL Scottsdale (5-1 loss to Glendale) Saturday’s game

  • DH Aaron Judge: 1-3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K — he’s hitting .297/.404/.500 with four homers in 20 games
  • 1B Greg Bird: 0-2, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 SB — hitting .318/.392/.568 in 23 games, and he still leads the league with six homers
  • RF Tyler Austin: 0-1 — had to be carted off the field after colliding the wall trying to catch a fly ball according to Dennis Waters … no update on his status, hopefully the cart was just a precaution
  • 3B Dante Bichette Jr.: 0-3, 2 K — hitting .250/.315/.266 in 18 games
  • C Kyle Higashioka: 1-3, 1 2B — hitting .421/.476/.684 in only five games
  • RHP Caleb Cotham: 1 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 2/0 GB/FB — ten of 17 pitches were strikes (59%)

Dominican Winter League

  • OF Eury Perez: 8 G, 9-37, 2 R, 2 2B, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 8 K, 2 CS (.243/.243/.378)
  • RHP Joel De La Cruz: 2 G, 1.2 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 HR (0.00 ERA, 1.80 WHIP)

Mexican Pacific League

  • OF Jose Figueroa: 16 G, 5-15, 5 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 2 BB, 5 K, 1 SB (.333/.412/.600)
  • RHP Gio Gallegos: 9 G, 8.2 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 7 K, 1 HR, 1 HB (1.04 ERA, 1.04 WHIP)
  • RHP Luis Niebla: 5 G, 5 GS, 18.2 IP, 17 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 8 BB, 16 K, 1 HR, 1 HB (4.34 ERA, 1.34 WHIP)

Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League (Puerto Rico) started play last week. SS Vince Conde, 2B Angelo Gumbs, and OF Carlos Beltran are all listed on rosters but have not yet played. Beltran hasn’t played winter ball in years and won’t this year because of his recent elbow surgery.

Venezuelan Winter League

  • C Francisco Arcia: 14 G, 12-57, 3 R, 3 2B, 7 RBI, 2 BB, 14 K (.211/.237/.263)
  • UTIL Ali Castillo: 24 G, 34-103, 24 R, 5 2B, 2 3B, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 3 BB, 17 K, 10 SB, 3 CS, 2 HBP (.330/.358/.447) — nice winter for him
  • OF Ramon Flores: 19 G, 24-63, 9 R, 2 2B, 2 3B, 4 RBI, 7 BB, 9 K, 1 CS (.381/.443/.476) – he went 6-for-6 with a double on Wednesday
  • OF Adonis Garcia: 21 G, 26-88, 9 R, 2 2B, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 4 BB, 11 K, 3 SB, 1 CS, 3 HBP (.295/.344/.352)
  • OF Ericson Leonora: 5 G, 3-11, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 3B, 5 K (.273/.273/.545)
  • UTIL Jose Pirela: 12 G, 16-50, 13 R, 2 2B, 3 3B, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 4 BB, 7 K, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.320/.382/.660) — have to think he’ll come to camp next year with a legit chance to win a bench job, assuming the second base gig isn’t up for grabs
  • C Jackson Valera: 1 G, 0-0
  • RHP Diego Moreno: 11 G, 9.1 IP, 11 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 1 HB (4.82 ERA, 1.39 WHIP)
  • RHP Mark Montgomery, RHP Wilking Rodriguez, SS Angel Aguilar, and C Frankie Cervelli are all listed on rosters but have not yet played. They probably won’t at this point.

Report: Kia Tigers may post lefty Hyeon-Jong Yang

The following is a post from Sung-Min Kim (@sung_minkim), who has also written posts about Kei Igawa, Hyo-Jun Park, and Kwang-Hyun Kim.

Yang at the 2014 Asian Games in September. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
Yang at the 2014 Asian Games in September. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

On Tuesday, Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News reported the Kia Tigers of KBO are going to post ace lefty Hyeon-Jong Yang. That was odd to me. Usually, when it comes to news about Korean players being posted or ML teams expressing desire in one, Korean media has the first official report. I had read an article or two about Yang being scouted by both major league and NPB scouts, but there didn’t seem to be any strong interest from any teams from either league. Another odd thing about the Daily News report is Yang being evaluated as a possible No. 3 starter in the majors — that’s quite high even for a lot of the Korean fans. But because his name has started to bounce around around the major league writers and fans, I decided to write up Yang.

Unlike Hyun-Jin Ryu or Kwang-Hyun Kim, Yang does not have much of a superstar pedigree in KBO, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance. The lefty broke out in 2009, his age 21 season, by going 12-5, 3.15 ERA while punching out 139 in 148.2 IP. He had an okay 2010 by putting up 4.25 ERA and winning 16 games. However, allowing 98 walks in 169.1 IP was worrying and that amplified the season after. In 2011, Yang lost his command (69 walks and 74 strikeouts in 106.1 IP with a 6.18 ERA) and spent a chunk of the season in minors. Things weren’t too better in 2012 — he went 1-2, 5.05 ERA in 41 IP while recording more walks (31) than strikeouts (26). By the end that season, he was known as the “forgotten ace” of the Tigers who once showed brilliance but was ruined by command problems. However, Yang came back big in 2013. Given another chance to stick at rotation after the spring training, the lefty posted a 3.10 ERA in 104.2 IP while posting a much-improved 3.70 BB/9 and striking people out (8.17 K/9).

Yang had a bit of a mixed 2014, but mostly positive. He put up a 4.25 ERA in 171.1 IP — hardly a sexy figure from a pitcher that is being rumored to advance from KBO to MLB. But, as I’ve said in the Kwang-Hyun Kim post, the Korean Baseball Organization experienced an extraordinarily offense-friendly season like never before. As a matter of fact, according to peripherals, he was the best Korean-born starter in KBO in the season, leading in FIP (4.19), WAR (5.24) and K/9 (8.67). (Best starter in KBO altogether? Either Rick VandenHurk or Andy Van Hekken.)

According to Feinsand’s article, a scout that has seen Yang said the lefty “sits between 92-95 mph” with his fastball. Well, from what I’ve seen in multiple games, it’s more like high-80’s-to-low-90’s. Here’s a video of him pitching from an April 2014 start. In the video, he’s around mid-140 kmph (approx. 87 mph) with his fastball while generating swing-and-misses with his slider. His slider has been praised as a plus pitch by the Korean media but it remains to be seen how it would translate in the majors, or even in NPB. While his array of stuff has worked well in Korea at striking out hitters, a pitcher that sits 88-92 mph with stuff that has not been particularly praised by ML scouts a la Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka is not exactly the sexiest target.

Here’s a Korean article from Oct. 21 about Yang being scouted by ML and NPB teams. In his last start of the season, scouts from Red Sox, Cubs, Rangers and the Yomiuri Giants of NPB attended the Kia Champions Field in Kwangju to watch him. According to a ML scout quoted in the article, around “three to five” teams from MLB and Japan have been monitoring the lefty throughout the season. No word on a strong interest from any ML team, but it does show that there is some interest. It will also be up to the Kia Tigers to see if they want to lose their No. 1 starter. The team had lost out their previous ace, RHP Suk-Min Yoon, to the Baltimore Orioles before the 2014 season. After finishing with a dreadful 54-74 record (8th out of the 9-team league), will the team want to lose their best pitcher? According to the article, the team will let him go if they receive the compensation they are willing to accept (a.k.a not a small posting fee).

Even though he has pitched better and more consistently in the previous two seasons, Yang’s command remains a weak spot. In 2014, he posted a 4.04 BB/9 — the same clip that A.J. Burnett had this year. Unlike Ryu, Hyeon-Jong Yang was never known as a control savant in KBO — as I’ve mentioned before, his career was almost ruined by command problems. I see Kwang-Hyun Kim as a pitcher who’s comparable to Yang since both lefties with fastball around low-90’s with less-than-ideal command. Of course I am not saying that they are the same pitcher, but I am skeptical of both of their chances of being successful as starters in ML as much as Ryu has been. The scout referenced in Feinsand’s article must have seen something he liked that lead him to believe his skillset would translate well in the majors. Otherwise, based on Yang’s history and attributes, it’s hard to think why he would be a potential “No. 2-3 starter” in ML right away.

For 2015, I expect Yang to pitch similar to his 2013 and 2014 level, which may not be good enough to survive in the bigs. As of this writing, there still isn’t an official team statement from the Tigers about posting the lefty to majors. We might see one soon — I doubt Feinsand pulled the information out of nowhere. Yang’s team, like Kwang-Hyun Kim’s team, failed to qualify for postseason baseball in Korea (which is still going on by the way — they just finished the Game 2 of Korean Series) and they can post him anytime that they wish to. It’s unclear if the pitching-needy Yankees have interest.

2015 Draft Order Tracker

Just a heads up, our 2015 Draft Order page is finally up and running. You can keep track of draft picks as they change hands via free agent compensation there. The Yankees currently hold the 19th overall pick but could very well lose that if they sign one of the 12 free agents who received a qualifying offer. They could also gain a supplemental first round selection if David Robertson signs elsewhere. The 2015 Draft Order page is available at all times via the Resources tab under the street sign in the banner at the top of the page.

Prospect Profile: Austin DeCarr

(Martha's Vineyard Times)
(Martha’s Vineyard Times)

Austin DeCarr | RHP

Background
DeCarr grew up south of Boston in Foxborough, where he played both baseball and football at Xaverian Brothers High School. He went undrafted after graduating in 2013, then did a post-graduate year at the prestigious Salisbury School in Connecticut. DeCarr went 7-0 with a 0.64 ERA and a 93/19 K/BB in 42 innings during his lone year as Salisbury.

Prior to the 2014 draft, Baseball America ranked DeCarr as the 64th best prospect in the draft class while Keith Law (subs. req’d) did not rank him among his top 100 draft prospects. The Yankees selected DeCarr with their third round pick, the 91st overall selection. He passed on his commitment to Clemson and signed a week after the draft for a $1M bonus, well above the $585,100 slot value.

Pro Debut
The Yankees sent the 19-year-old DeCarr to the rookie level Gulf Coast League after signing. He pitched to a 4.63 ERA (3.68 FIP) in 23.1 closely monitored innings across eight starts and three relief appearances. Only four times in those eleven outings was he allowed to complete three full innings of work. DeCarr told John Johnson he spent a bunch of time with the rehabbing Andrew Bailey while in Tampa.

“I’ve probably been hanging around with Bailey more than anyone, and I’ve learned a lot from him,” said DeCarr to Johnson. “Life in professional baseball is obviously a little bit different than things I’ve experienced in the past. We’ve talked about that, and about trying not to get too up or down and staying focused on the things that I can control.”

Scouting Report
DeCarr is a big kid who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds. He sat in the 90-92 mph range this spring but reportedly bumped that to 93-94 with a few 96s while working in short bursts after signing. His best pitch is a hard low-80s hammer curveball he can throw for strikes or bury in the dirt for swings and misses. It’s a true out pitch at its absolute best. You can see it a few times in this video:

DeCarr does throw a hard changeup in the mid-80s but it is his clear third pitch right now. He uses a bit of an old school drop-and-drive delivery and he can locate his fastball to both sides of the plate. As with most high school pitchers — DeCarr technically wasn’t drafted out of high school, but he kinda sorta is a high school prospect — out of cold weather states, DeCarr doesn’t have many miles on his arm and he lacks experience. The Yankees love his makeup and work ethic, predictably.

2015 Outlook
Even though he will turn 20 in March, I expect DeCarr to start next season in Extended Spring Training rather than head to Low-A Charleston. He seems like an obvious candidate to join the organization’s new Appalachian League Affiliate (Pulaski Yankees!) when their season starts in late-June. The Appy League is technically classified as rookie ball, though the quality of competition is better than the Gulf Coast League but not quite as good as the Short Season NY-Penn League. It’s a stepping stone between the GCL Yanks and Staten Island Yanks, which seems like an appropriate level for DeCarr.

My Take
I didn’t know a whole lot about DeCarr prior to the draft but I do like that he has an out pitch in his curveball. That ability to miss bats will take you pretty far all by itself. DeCarr is more or less maxed out physically, so he probably won’t add much if any velocity as he matures these next few years. The changeup is the key here. If he can learn a usable changeup — it doesn’t have to be a great pitch, just good enough to make hitters respect it — DeCarr will have a chance to become a big league workhorse starter. If not, he might have to settle for a bullpen role long-term. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. He’s a very good pro prospect, I’m just sure I see the huge upside we tend to associate with teenage pitching prospects.