Mason Williams and the next level

(Photo via The Post and Courier)

The minor league season is roughly six weeks old, about a quarter of the way through the 140-game schedule for the four full season leagues. Almost every high-upside position player prospect in the Yankees’ system is playing for Low-A Charleston at the moment, and they’re all raking. Tyler Austin has more homers (12) than any non-Curtis Granderson player in the organization, Gary Sanchez owns a .333/.380/.483 batting line as a 19-year-old, and Dante Bichette Jr. is in the middle of a hot streak (hitting .367 in his last eight games) after a slow start.

Then there’s Mason Williams, the team’s top position player prospect coming into the season in my opinion. As you can see in the sidebar, he’s produced a .366 wOBA in 141 plate appearances this year, flashing both power (14 extra-base hits) and speed (12 steals). As impressive as those numbers are, his strikeout and walk rates are eye-popping. Williams has only struck out six times in those 141 plate appearances, a hilariously low 4.3 K%*. His eight walks result in a 5.7 BB%, meaning he’s put the ball in play in nine out of ten plate appearances this year. That’s just out of this world.

* Furthermore, two of those strikeouts came in consecutive plate appearances against Dylan Bundy a few weeks ago, arguably the best pitching prospect in the world right now. Against mere mortals, his strikeout rate is 2.9%. Ridiculous.

I bring this up because sometime in the near future, we’re going to see some prospects get midseason promotions to the next level. Some promotions are more exciting than others but they all indicate some kind of progress. Sanchez will surely get bumped to High-A Tampa because he’s repeating Low-A, just as an example.

Most players drafted out of high school will spend a full year at each level, at least in the lower minors when they’re first cutting their teeth. Obviously there is the occasional Justin Upton-esque exception, but a full year at each level is a decent rule of thumb. Williams came into this season with 317 short season plate appearances and added those 141 plate appearances this year, which amount to 458 career plate appearances. About a hundred short of a full season’s worth. That said, I think Mason’s absurd strikeout and walk rates are an indication that he’s ready for the next level.

Simply put, Williams is not having trouble getting the bat on the ball. Keith Law confirmed Mason’s more aggressive approach (compared to last season) when he saw him last month, and those low strikeout and walk rates indicate that he’s putting the ball in play early in the count. The lack of walks isn’t the result of an inability to recognize balls and strikes, Williams is just putting the ball in play before he sees four balls. Based on the results, it’s hard to complain. That’s why I think a promotion to High-A is worthwhile this summer; he’ll have a chance to face better pitching and continue developing his approach at the plate. It’s tough to get comfortable in deep counts or work on a two-strike approach if you can put the ball in play at will.

Development is not usually something we can accurately measure with statistics, but we rely on them because as outsiders, that’s all we have. We don’t get to see how these kids react to breaking balls or use their changeup in a fastball counts on an everyday basis, so there’s always going to be an element of the unknown for us. Frankly, it’s a pretty significantly sized element of unknown. From here though, it looks like Williams could benefit from a promotion to High-A despite his relatively short stint with the River Dogs.

Using Freddy Garcia

Freddy's just been chilling lately. (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Freddy Garcia would probably like a mulligan on 2012. Things started to look down for him as early as January, when the Yankees traded for Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda on the same night. With those two added to the rotation, it appeared that Garcia might have been the odd man out. In fact, throughout spring training it appeared that he’d end up in the bullpen, giving chances to Pineda and Phil Hughes.

Pineda’s injury opened up that rotation spot for Garcia, and given his spring performance he seemed to deserve it. But the season has been anything but kind to him. It started with an outing against Baltimore in which he uncorked five wild pitches while allowing four runs in 4.2 innings. After allowing at least five run in each of his next three outings, the Yankees removed him from the rotation. Now he languishes in the bullpen, reserved for true mop-up situations.

Yet in his three relief appearances, all consisting of two innings, he has pitched very well. All in all he has allowed one unearned run on three hits and two walks. He has struck out four, though three of them came in his last outing. Oddly enough, though, he’s generated just one swing and miss during that period. But even without the whiffs he’s still thrown strikes, 64 percent of his 88 pitches. He’s also seen an uptick in his velocity, averaging just under 90 mph with his sinker — about 2 mph faster than it was in April while in the rotation.

With the bullpen injuries, many players will see their roles change. Boone Logan could see some higher leverage spots. As Dan Barbarisi writes in the Wall Street Journal, Cory Wade has become more vital. Yet as with the previous setup corps of Robertson and Soriano, these guys can’t take all of the setup innings. The Yanks will need others to step up. While se might see potential in the young Phelps, there is still Garcia to consider. The Yanks are paying him and apparently aren’t going to cut him. So why not see what he can deliver out of the pen? The results so far have been encouraging, at least.

Early thoughts on the trade deadline

Best deadline pickup ever. (SI.com)

It’s the middle of May and the season is barely six weeks old, but it’s never too early to start looking ahead to the trade deadline. The Yankees didn’t make a single trade at least year’s deadline despite the assumption that they’d acquire a starting pitcher, but that was the exception and not the rule. They’re always good for a deal or two come late-July and this year figures to be no different.

I don’t think the Yankees have one obvious part of the team in desperate need of an upgrade, but there’s always room for improvement. The recent rash of injuries has potentially¬† created some openings as well. The new playoff system may or may not ramp up activity at the trade deadline; we’re going to have to wait to see just how many teams are legitimately in the race before we know who may be looking to sell and and who’s looking to buy. The smart money is on the Yankees looking to buy, as always.

Let’s run down the parts of the roster that look primed for a potential upgrade via trade, at least at this very moment…

Starting Rotation
The Yankees do still have some rotation depth despite Michael Pineda‘s injury and Freddy Garcia’s awfulness, but the starting staff remains questionable. Phil Hughes has a long way to go before proving reliable and Andy Pettitte is going to be an unknown for at least the next few times out given his age and year-long hiatus. Ivan Nova‘s extra-base hit-prone ways could factor into the decision to add a starter at the deadline as well.

It’s been eight years since the Yankees last traded for a starting pitcher with multiple guaranteed years left on his contract — Kevin Brown was the last — and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. A rental pitcher is likely to be the target if they do look to add a starter, though I suppose a younger guy with several years of team control left is possible as well. I just find that unlikely at this point. Free agents to be like Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, Jake Peavy, and Ryan Dempster could all be available and would make sense for any team in need of an arm.

Outfield
A trade for outfield help is dependent entirely on Brett Gardner‘s elbow injury. He recently suffered a setback and could be out anywhere from two-to-four weeks, which will bring us into mid-June. If Gardner gets healthy and comes back like his old self, the Yankees are fine don’t need any outfield help. If this elbow problem lingers, then an outfield upgrade could suddenly become priority number one come July.

Unlike the other positions in this post, outfield figures to be the one area where the Yankees could look to make a long-term addition and not just a rental for the second half. We know all about the 2014 payroll plan and impending free agencies of Nick Swisher (after 2012) and Curtis Granderson (after 2013), which create a need for a cheap, young outfielder. Gardner’s injury could push them into action sooner than expected, but ultimately I think the search for a long-term outfield piece would wait until the offseason.

(AP)

Bullpen
Mariano Rivera‘s injury is the big loss here and it’s created an opening for another late-game reliever. Until we hear otherwise, I think it’s reasonable to expect David Robertson back from his oblique strain relatively soon, but it’s hard (if not foolish) to count on Joba Chamberlain and/or David Aardsma to contribute something in the second half. Those were serious injuries that usually require more than just the 12 months worth of rehab for a pitcher to get back to being himself.

Trading for relievers is as sketchy as it gets because sometimes these guys just suck for no apparent reason and without warning. If the Yankees do make a deal for a reliever at the deadline, I think it would be something along the lines of the 2010 Kerry Wood trade. A salary dump move with mostly insignificant prospects involved.

Bench
Eduardo Nunez‘s defensive problems have landed him back in Triple-A and I don’t think anyone really expects Jayson Nix to be a weapon off the bench. He’s more of a stopgap option. A utility infielder could be high on the trade deadline priority list if Nunez doesn’t show improvement in Triple-A and there figures to be no shortage of candidates. This is just my speculation, but the Rockies are fading fast and Marco Scutaro would make a ton of sense for New York. Again, there’s no evidence that the Yankees are interested in him or that he’s even available, but he would fit perfectly as a utility infielder capable of playing regularly while Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez rest.

Barring injury, Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez provide enough outfield depth. Doesn’t seem like the Yankees will look to add a fourth or fifth outfielder, but again this is contingent on Gardner’s elbow.

* * *

We’ll look at potential trade targets in the coming weeks and I plan to break down the Yankees’ top trade chips at some point, which believe it or not is actually easier said than done. Things are different when Jesus Montero is no longer around and most of the club’s high-upside prospects are in the low minors. Anyway, at this point of the season it appears as though the Yankees’ trade deadline activity will be heavily influenced by the players currently on the DL and how well/quickly they return.

On offensive slumps and frustration

(REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

I don’t know if there’s anything in baseball more frustrating than an underachieving team. If there is, I’m not sure I want to know. The Yankees have underachieved through their first 37 games of the season, but don’t confuse underachieving with being bad. They’ve played okay at best overall, but that’s not what they’re capable of. They haven’t played up to their full potential, specifically the starting pitching last month and the offense this month.

Last night’s 8-1 loss to the Blue Jays marked the eighth time in their last 16 games that the Yankees were held to two runs or less. That’s very hard to swallow. They’ve hit just .258/.323/.425 during those 16 games compared to a .279/.354/.479 performance in their first 21 games of the season. Their strikeout rate has gone up (15.7 K% vs. 18.4 K%) and their walk rate has gone down (10.2 BB% vs. 8.1 BB%) during those two admittedly arbitrary samples. Maybe the only difference between the first 21 games and the last 16 games is Derek Jeter‘s ridiculous hot streak. Who knows?

Is the offense going to come around at some point and start clicking on all (or at least most) cylinders? Yeah probably. It’ll be glorious when it happens but I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. The Yankees appear content to just keep running the same ol’ lineup out there every night and hope that these problems will just correct themselves, which is fine I suppose. I wish they were a little more proactive with making slight changes — dropping Mark Teixeira in the lineup, moving Raul Ibanez and Nick Swisher up, etc. — but there’s value in patience. It’s just tough to expect improvement when no changes are made.

One thing that I do believe is very important right now is getting Curtis Granderson a day off. I don’t mean sometime this weekend or early next week, I’m talking tonight on the turf in Toronto. Granderson’s started every game of the season in center field and he’s stuck in a 5-for-36 rut at the moment (four of those five hits are homers, ironically enough), so let’s get the man off his feet for once. It may help re-ignite his bat or it may not, but I do know that fatigued players are less effective players. A day of rest for Curtis could end up helping the offense in a big way.

There are still 125 games to go this year and that’s great news because the Yankees are going need all the time they can get to figure this thing out. They’re lucky the AL East is so competitive right now because no team has really run away with the division yet. Sitting 3.5 games back in mid-May is nothing, not when there are so many intra-divison games left to play. The Yankees don’t need a shake-up or anything drastic, but they do need to start showing signs of improvement. Talk is cheap; it’s not all that early in the season anymore and the excuses are starting to run out. This is a results town and the results haven’t been there this month.

Shut down again; Yanks fall to Jays, Drabek

Same old story. The Yankees didn’t get a quality outing from their starting pitcher but it didn’t really matter anyway because the offense put up nothing resembling a fight. This was the eighth time in their first 37 games they’ve been held to one run or less, the first time that’s happened since 1990.

Just tip your cap! It's the easy answer. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

Lifeless

The Yankees have scored a total of three runs in their last 18 offensive innings, and two of those three came on a Curtis Granderson homer that a fan may or may not have kept out of Xavier Avery’s glove on Tuesday. The only run they scored against Kyle Drabek — who entered the game with the ninth worst FIP (5.09) out of 118 qualified starters — came when Mark Teixeira‘s ground ball took a funny hop over first baseman Edwin Encarnacion in the sixth. Robinson Cano‘s double down the right field line one batter earlier was the only hard-hit ball I can remember. From the Yankees, that is.

After a run of offensive dominance last week, the Yankees have now scored two runs or fewer in eight of their last 16 games (!). Drabek was behind hitters all night and he didn’t pay at all; in fact he recorded 19 of his 21 outs on the infield. I’m a patient guy, but at some point you have to stop tipping your cap to the opposing starter. Look in the mirror and realize that being offensively noncompetitive for two straight games is your own damn fault.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Consistently Inconsistent

Hiroki Kuroda came into Wednesday’s start having allowed no more than two earned runs in any of his previous four starts, but he instead allowed six or more runs for the third time this year. Like I said, consistently inconsistent. The Blue Jays tagged Kuroda for three homers in five innings, the same number of dingers he allowed in those previous four starts combined. He didn’t pitch well at all but it happens. Hopefully he improves on his 5-to-3 strong start-to-dud start ratio going forward.

Leftovers

(REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

Cano is in the middle of his annual 3-4 game defensive slump, botching the transfer on a routine double play pivot — immediately prior to Encarnacion opening the scoring with a two-run homer — in the second and flubbing a ground ball in the seventh. This is after he made a poor flip to second on a force play in the previous game. Let’s knock that off, mmmkay Robbie?

Downside of Raul Ibanez‘s hot start: Joe Girardi now leaves him in against lefties. He was left in to face a southpaw with men on-base in the late innings for the second time in three games, this time striking out after getting hit by a pitch on Monday. Andruw Jones is on the roster for these exact situations, use him please.

Clay Rapada gave up a homer to the left-handed hitting Kelly Johnson in an otherwise effective outing, but I can’t help but wonder if his roster spot would be better used on a reliever capable of getting both righties and lefties out. It’s tough to carry a true specialist like this with all the injuries. Cody Eppley allowed two dinky singles in 1.2 mop-up innings. He’s got a chance to pitch his way into a role of more importance but I’m not sure if he can do it given his arm slot.

Cano (double and walk), Tex (single and walk), and Ibanez (single) had the only three hits while Alex Rodriguez, Eric Chavez, Russell Martin, and Jayson Nix drew walks. Curtis Granderson and Teixeira were the only players to see more than 16 pitches in their four plate appearances. That’s pretty gross against a starting pitcher who came into the game with the highest percentage of full counts in baseball this year (19% according to YES broadcast).

The Yankees faced Wayne Tolleson’s kid on Tuesday and Doug Drabek’s kid on Wednesday. I can only assume Alvaro Espinosa Jr. will be in Toronto’s lineup on Thursday.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerd score, and ESPN the updated standings.


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

The second game of this two-game trip to Toronto will be played Thursday night. Phil Hughes will try to stop the bleeding against the rookie right-hander Drew Hutchinson.

Austin & Sanchez power Charleston to win

Triple-A Empire State (3-1 win over Toledo)
SS Eduardo Nunez: 1-4, 2 K, 1 SB, 2 E (fielding, missed catch) — had more on his rough day earlier
PH-LF Ray Kruml: 1-1 — pinch-hit for Nunez in the eighth for an unknown reason
2B-SS Ramiro Pena: 1-5, 1 K, 1 E (fielding)
LF-2B Kevin Russo: 1-2, 1 R, 1 2B, 3 BB — eight walks in his last seven games
DH Steve Pearce: 0-4, 1 R, 1 HBP
RF Cole Garner: 0-4, 1 BB, 3 K — 13 strikeouts in his last seven games
1B Brandon Laird: 1-4, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 K
3B Ronnie Mustelier: 1-3, 1 BB
C Gus Molina: 2-4, 2 RBI, 2 K
CF Colin Curtis: 1-3, 1 BB, 2 K
RHP D.J. Mitchell: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, 9/4 GB/FB — 73 of 115 pitches were strikes (63.5%) … he also pitched a runner off first, and I’m glad they’re letting these older Triple-A guys work a little deeper into games and get that pitch count up
LHP Justin Thomas: 0.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1/0 GB/FB — half of his eight pitches were strikes … first appearances since being claimed off waivers over the weekend
RHP Manny Delcarmen: 0.2 IP, zeroes, 1 K — five pitches, four strikes
RHP Kevin Whelan: 1 IP, zeroes, 3 K — nine of 13 pitches were strikes … 31/7 K/BB in 19.2 IP

[Read more…]

Update: Nunez makes two errors in third Triple-A game

8:40pm: Via Collins, Nunez left the game with a sore thumb. It’s not expected to be a major issue, which is good news.

5:30pm: In his third game for Triple-A Empire State since being send down late last week, Eduardo Nunez made a pair of errors this afternoon. According to Donnie Collins, the first was just a botched routine grounder and the second a missed catch at second base on a stolen base attempt. Nunez has played shortstop all three games and for whatever reason, he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning today.

The Yankees sent Nunez down with hopes that playing regularly will improve his defense, but obviously that’s a process that will take more than three games. I’m worried about his confidence more than anything, and Collins said it appears Nunez is playing as if he’s afraid to make a mistake. I got a similar vibe watching him with the big league team in recent weeks, and again, I hope he doesn’t lose all confidence and develop the yips or something. That would suck. Hopefully he didn’t leave the game with an injury and can get back out there tomorrow to keep working.