Yankee prospects and controlling the controllables

A recent profile of track prodigy Galen Rupp and his coach, former marathon champion Alberto Salazar, noted that it’s been forty-eight long years since an American man won an Olympic medal at the 10,000 meter distance. Salazar believes that Rupp, his twenty-five year old student of 12 years, can end that drought this summer in London. Rupp is an extremely talented runner, one of the best at the 5 and 10k distances, but both Salazar and Rupp know that besting the dominant Africans at this distance would require virtually everything to go right. And so they’re doing their best to ensure that it does. “The mantra is control the controllables,” explains Nike’s sports psychologist, Darren Treasure.

 “”We’re not at all intimidated by the Africans; they’re great runners but there’s so many of them. With our [American] runners, we have so few of them that we have to do everything perfect,” says Salazar…

Since 2001, Salazar has ensured that his small crop of Oregon Project runners have access to every technological, physiological and psychological advantage available. From altitude simulation tents and rooms to both anti-gravity and underwater treadmills to the Cryo Sauna, a cylindrical chamber that turns liquid nitrogen to gas to cool an athlete’s body at bone-chilling temperatures for rejuvenating purposes, Nike, who reported revenues of $19 billion in 2010, pays for and houses them on their 193-acre Beaverton, Ore., campus.”

So what do Cryo Saunas and altitude simulation tents have to do with Yankee prospects? The Empire State Yankees, the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees, are currently without a home stadium. The Yankees are in the process of tearing down the old PNC Field and replacing it with a $40M facility, but in the interim the club has nowhere to call home. This means that players like Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine will be spending the entire season on a 142 game road trip, playing “home games” in six different cities. The hope is that the stadium will be completed in time for the 2013 season, but 2012 will be a tough order for these Yankee minor leaguers.

This is a more extreme example of the grind of minor league life, detailed in depth by Mike Ashmore here. While the facilities at the major league level are top notch, players just below that level often deal with situations that wouldn’t be suitable for elite athletes in other sports. Of course, plenty of these athletes are not elite, and the lion’s share of them won’t ever become major league regulars. Regardless it’s not a stretch to say that the nutrition opportunities in particular for players at the minor league level do not come close to that of an Olympian or a major leaguer. I asked Josh Norris, beatwriter for the Trenton Thunder, about the food habits of the players he covers:

 “The per diem is certainly meager, and the postgame spreads aren’t exactly Jenny Craig approved… Fast food is the only available option a lot of the time, but they can obviously choose, say, Subway over McDonald’s. A personal chef/nutritionist would obviously be helpful, but for 30 guys on the road and at home would get really, really complicated.”

Norris went on to astutely note that an in-shape ball player isn’t always the superior ballplayer:

 “A perfect example is a guy like Richie Robnett. With his shirt off, that guy was a Met-Rx commercial waiting to happen. At the plate, however, his washboard abs rarely translated into solid contact. Contrast that with a guy like, say, Prince Fielder, who obviously isn’t the picture of health. If you went in with no knowledge of the players other than their appearance and perceived health/strength, you’d take Robnett every time. Being a successful baseball player requires much more than pristine physical fitness. There’s coordination, adherence to practice regimen, and, on some level, I think, superior genetics.”

Given that prime nutritional health and peak baseball performance aren’t perfectly correlated, and given that most of these players have little ultimate value to the major league team, what’s the impetus to spend more money to institute a more rigorous exercise and nutrition program? New, advanced technologies don’t always translate directly into improved baseball skills. Maybe there isn’t a smart, snappy answer to these questions. But these players are athletes, and we don’t know what sort of talent and skill is left underdeveloped when they aren’t given every chance to become the greatest they can be.

Do the Cryo Saunas mean that Rupp recovers better from his hard workouts and gets faster, leading to one or two seconds gained on the track? Would he have been that fast if he had just used ice? You can’t know. But when there’s so much at stake, and so much money to be made (especially in baseball), it would seem prudent to take every avenue possible to maximize the value of your players. They may not need Cryo Saunaus, but ensuring that every minor leaguer in the Yankees organization gets the best nutrition and workout facilities available to them might lead to an organizational advantage and a more efficient development of talent. If I were the owner of a team and had some extra cash lying around, perhaps leftover thanks to new restrictions on how much I can spend on the draft, I might see if this would be a worthy investment.

Could Jeter’s successor already be on the Yankees’ roster?

Every incarnation of the Yankees has its polarizing players. For some reason, swaths of fans flock to disparage certain players, while others rush to their defenses. In the mid-00s A-Rod was perhaps the most polarizing player on the Yankees. Elite player? Sure. But he was portrayed as a bad teammate — one who, according to so many fans, would never win a World Series with the Yankees. While A-Rod is still polarizing in some ways, it’s not nearly to the level it was before 2009. Now fans are out to fry smaller fish.

While Nick Swisher has his detractors, he is not the most polarizing player on the Yankees. No, that distinction belongs to Eduardo Nunez, a mere utility infielder. His potential — Baseball America ranked him their No. 8 Yankees prospect before last season — tantalizes some. His on-field blunders, including 20 errors in under 1,000 defensive innings last season, infuriates others. There appears to be little gray area in between.

Love him or hate him, though, the Yankees clearly think he can be part of their future. They’re trying to get him as much playing time as possible this year, using their lack of a regular DH to rotate players and get Nunez time in the field. The idea is to determine his value to them in the future, which they cannot do if he’s playing in AAA or getting irregular reps in the majors. For his part, Nunez is making the most of the opportunity.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Dan Barbarisi writes about Nunez’s desire to succeed Derek Jeter as the Yankees’ everyday shortstop. He certainly gave his all this off-season, joining Robinson Cano bright and early for all-day workouts. In the process Cano has altered Nunez’s view of what it takes to be a big leaguer. For Nunez — whom Barbarisi describes as having “physical ability, smarts and talent” — it could be just the wake-up call he needs to take the next step.

The story actually comes full-circle in terms of polarizing Yankees. A-Rod, who polarized like none other early in his Yankees career, once took a young Cano under his wing. At a time when Cano’s focus was waning, A-Rod showed him the path to greatness. Cano has since put in his work, and the results are visible. Now Cano has turned his own attentions towards Nunez. Can Cano have the same effect on his protege as A-Rod had on his?

Replacing Jeter is no small task. There’s not only the legendary shoes that Nunez has to step into, but there is the sheer ability that Jeter possesses even to this day. His skills in decline, Jeter has figured out a way to hit better than most of his peers at an age when most of them have declined to the point of on-field uselessness. Nunez’s hard work doesn’t guarantee his ability to step into that role, but it does give him another leg up. He’ll need every one of them if he’s to one day become the Yankees’ starting shortstop.

Ben’s Take: I read the Barbarisi article this morning and had a few thoughts of my own considering the way last night’s game played out. Joe Girardi removed A-Rod for Nunez as a pinch-runner in the 8th, and Nunez took over at third base in the 8th. He nearly threw away a grounder during the Orioles’ half of the inning. When the Yankees took the lead in the 10th, Girardi removed Nunez for Eric Chavez, a superior fielder.

On the one hand, the move made sense. Chavez in his prime was a Gold Glove third baseman with a stellar arm, and he’s the guy you would want manning the hot corner when outs are at a premium. On the other hand, the Yankees removed their primary back-up infielder for defensive purposes late in the game last night. I don’t think I had ever seen that happen before.

To me, then, the question becomes: What do you do with Eduardo Nunez? The Yanks clearly have high hopes for the future, and he has a lot of raw ability. Yet, he’s become a worrisome liability in the field, not quite at the Chuck Knoblauch level but not a guy who has earned late-inning trust. The Yanks want to keep him at the Big League level, but just maybe he’d be better off playing the infield everyday in the minors while working on his throwing. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to Nunez or the Yanks.

Raul’s Clean Slate

(Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The DH spot figured to be a bit of a lightning rod this season, one way or another. If the Yankees had not traded Jesus Montero, his every at-bat would have been scrutinized and over-analyzed given his status as The Next Great Yankee. I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been had gotten off to his .286/.261/.286 start in pinstripes. Instead, we’re left with Raul Ibanez and his age-slowed bat and massive platoon split.

Ibanez, 40 in less than two months, owns two of the three most memorable hits on the young season. He clobbered a three-run homer off Jamie Shields on Opening Day, and two nights ago he won the game with an extra innings double off Pedro Strop. More than one-fifth of the team’s runs have crossed the plate because of his bat. Of course, Ibanez hasn’t hit a lick outside of those two big hits, reaching base in just three of his other 16 plate appearances. One of those three was an intentional walk.

The offense as a whole has been hit or miss, especially with runners on base. Ibanez has bailed them out on two occasions even though that Opening Day homer came in an eventual loss. I’d like to think that he has a knack for the big hit, but I generally don’t buy into that stuff. He’s just had the right swing at the right time as far as I’m concerned. He deserves credit for doing that and for shaking off that brutal showing in Spring Training.

Six games — five for Ibanez — means very little in the grand scheme of things, but it’s nice to see him get off to a decent start. Maybe memorable is a better word, because a DH with a .306 wOBA is hardly a standout performance. Perhaps his first trip into the Bronx and Yankee Stadium will get him going a bit, but for now Ibanez has silenced some of the critics, albeit briefly. As long as they don’t play him in the field anytime soon anymore, there’s no reason for the Yankees to not ride this out a bit and see what he can do in this role.

The Shutdown Bullpen

(Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Everyone knew the bullpen would be one of the Yankees’ greatest strengths coming into the season, just as it has been over the last three or four years. The David Robertson and Rafael Soriano setup tandem were going to bridge the gap to Mariano Rivera while Cory Wade and Boone Logan handled miscellaneous innings. Clay Rapada and David Phelps won the last two spots with excellent Spring Trainings. Joba Chamberlain‘s ankle injury means his midseason return is extremely unlikely, but the Yankees have more than enough depth to survive the loss.

Mo blew the save on Opening Day, turning a one-run lead into a one-run loss and leaving a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. The Yankees lost the next two games but have since rebounded to win three straight, and the one constant through it all has been stellar bullpen work. Since that blown save, the relief corps has allowed just three runs in 19 innings, and all three came when a left-handed specialist was left in to face right-handed batters. They’ve given up just eleven hits and four unintentional walks during that time, striking out 28. That is, as the kids say, stupid good.

Robertson has been his usual superb self and Rivera shook off that blown save to pitch well in three other appearances, but the headliners so far have probably been Phelps and Wade. Phelps has retired all nine men he’s faced so far, five on strikeouts. Wade was a disaster in Spring Training — 23 baserunners and 11 runs in 12.2 IP — but has thrown five scoreless innings in the regular season, allowing just two hits, one intentional walk, and one hit batsman against nine strikeouts. His 42-pitch effort on Tuesday night allowed the Yankees to win in extra innings.

The bullpen will get a much needed rest today after the last two games have gone longer than expected, and they deserve it. The starters have been generally ineffective through six games, putting even more pressure on these guys keep games close and winnable. Relievers have a way of being tossed aside and forgotten — as we always say, the bullpen right now is the not the bullpen they’ll have at the end of the season — but these seven guys have been the steadying force in the late innings and are a big reason why the Yankees are 3-3 and not 2-4 or 1-5 or worse.

Swisher’s homer powers Yanks to sweep of O’s

The Yankees had all of four extra-inning wins in 2011, and they got halfway to that total over the last two nights. Despite a depleted bullpen, they pulled their season record even at 3-3 with a 6-4 win in ten innings on Wednesday.

(REUTERS/Patrick Smith)

Battlin’

In the first inning, CC Sabathia looked sharp. He retired the side in order with two strikeouts, but then came the 38-pitch second inning. The Yankees took a two-zip lead two batters into the game on Curtis Granderson‘s homer, but Sabathia gave it back in the second on Robert Andino’s two-strike single. His pitch count sat at 74 after just three innings, and things weren’t looking good given the thin relief corps. The Orioles took a one-run lead on Mark Reynolds‘ two-run double in the fifth, when Sabathia was closing on the century mark. He managed to throw a perfect sixth inning and finished the night with 112 pitches.

Anecdotally, it seemed like Sabathia struggled most when he had to pitch from the stretch. He seemed to be fine from the windup, locating his fastball and slider well, but with men on base he was just … off. That said, most pitchers are out of a game like this in the second or third inning. Even when Sabathia’s bad, he still goes six innings. The guy doesn’t get enough credit for keeping the Yankees in the game on his off-nights, like these first two starts of 2012. By the way, this was the 62nd straight start in which CC went at least five innings.

The Big Hit

(Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Yankees have been pretty awful with runners in scoring position so far this season, but on Wednesday night they seemed to get over the hump. They went 4-for-10 with men on second and/or third overall, the biggest blow being Nick Swisher‘s two-run homer off Kevin Gregg with two outs in the tenth inning. He struck out looking with a man on third and one out in the eighth, so he did well to redeem himself.

Granderson had two of those four hits, including his homer in the first and game-tying opposite single in the seventh. Brett Gardner dunked in a bloop single that loaded the bases but did not score a run given it’s bloopiness. The Swisher homer wi” get most of the attention and rightfully so, but the Yankees did a pretty good job of turning base runners into runs in this game, or at least a better job than they had been doing.

Binderball

The first six games of the season have featured some adventurous calls by Joe Girardi, but I think the intentional walk to Nick Markakis in the ninth inning of this game has been the worst. The O’s had runners on first and second with two outs, and Rafael Soriano was instructed to walk Markakis and pitch to Adam Jones. It forced a runner over to third, meaning a walk, wild pitch, passed ball, hit-by-pitch, whatever would have ended the game.

Naturally, the move worked. Soriano blew Jones away on four pitches, getting him to swing and miss at three explosive fastballs. That doesn’t mean the intentional walk was the right call though, it was a bad move that luckily led to good results. Never put the winning run on third base, there’s just so much that can go wrong. After all those years of bad bunt calls, it looks like this is the year of the intentional walk.

So this happened.

Leftovers

Tonight’s unsung hero? My vote goes to Boone Logan, who replaced Sabathia and retired all five men he faced, including four right-handed batters. Soriano got four outs including the Jones strikeout, and Mariano Rivera threw his usual scoreless inning for his second save in as many days. Over the last two games, the bullpen has thrown 11.1 scoreless innings with just four hits, four walks, and 16 strikeouts. Just can’t say enough about how great those guys have been early on.

Eduardo Nunez really is amazing. He pinch-ran for Alex Rodriguez late in the game, then had a Johnny Damon moment by stealing two bases on one play as the ball got away from the defender. Nunez then nearly threw a ball away an inning later, and in the tenth inning he got picked off first following a one-out single. To be fair, replays showed it was a bad call and he was actually safe. Still, this dude is a human blooper reel.

Derek Jeter led off the game with the double, his fifth leadoff hit in their six games. The Cap’n has been the Yankees’ best hitter early on, and he’s been putting the pressure on right at the top of the first inning. Very nice to see. Every player in the starting lineup reached base at least once except for Robinson Cano, who took an 0-for-5. Jeter (double and walk), Granderson (homer and single), Mark Teixeira (single and double), and Raul Ibanez (two walks) each reached base twice.

We’ve heard an awful lot about the shift this last week because of the Rays, and the Yankees had the shift on Reynolds in the second inning. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they kept feeding him soft stuff away. That doesn’t work, those pitches are going to be slapped the other way not pulled. The shift isn’t just about positioning, you have to pitch to it as well. The Yankees are terrible at that.

Someone really, really needs to get on Sabathia about sticking his bare hand out at bats in play. He took a one-hopper off his left hand in the second and although he was fine, we really could have done without the scare.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

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


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next

The Yankees are off on Thursday, then they’ll open the home portion of their schedule against the Angels on Friday afternoon. It’ll be Hiroki Kuroda against Ervin Santana, and Jorge Posada is going to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. If you want to attend, check out RAB Tickets.

Campos throws five hitless in Charleston win

David Adams is still out with a stiff neck, and now Rob Lyerly is dealing with an arm problem. The Yankees also released Mitch Abeita and signed a first baseman by the name of Edwin Beard. He spent some time in the organization before being released last May, but now he’s back.

Also, Manny Banuelos and Ramon Flores are the second youngest players in the Triple-A International League and High-A Florida State League, respectively. Not too shabby.

Triple-A Empire State (12-3 loss to Buffalo)
CF Chris Dickerson: 0-3, 1 K — replaced by Ray Kruml after sliding into the wall
C Frankie Cervelli: 1-3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K — just his second hit of the year
1B Steve Pearce: 0-3, 1 BB, 1 K — Yadil Mujica replaced him later in the game
DH Jack Cust: 0-3, 1 BB, 1 K
LF Dewayne Wise: 1-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 2 K — they’ve hit two homers as a team this year, and Wise has both of them
3B-1B Brandon Laird: 2-4, 1 K, 1 E (throwing)
RF Colin Curtis: 0-4, 1 K
SS Ramiro Pena: 1-3, 1 BB, 1 K
2B Doug Bernier: 1-4, 1 2B, 1 K
RHP Dellin Betances: 3.1 IP, 7 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 6 BB, 3 K, 3/3 GB/FB — just 44 of 89 pitches were strikes (49.4%) … he also gave up three homers, so yeah, disaster outing
RHP Jason Bulger: 1.2 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 1/2 GB/FB — just 18 of 40 pitches were strikes (45%)
LHP Mike O’Connor: 2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1/4 GB/FB — 28 of 44 pitches were strikes (63.6%)
LHP Juan Cedeno: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K — 11 of 17 pitches were strikes (64.7%) [Read more…]

Game Six: For The Sweep

Adam Jones sees you getting arrested. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Yankees have already (and unfortunately) experienced getting swept this season, and now it’s time to turn the tables and do the sweeping. Last night’s extra-innings win was anything but routine, and it really took a toll on the bullpen. CC Sabathia is going to have to soak up some innings tonight, preferably nine or so. Here’s the lineup…

SS Derek Jeter
CF Curtis Granderson
2B Robinson Cano
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Mark Teixeira
RF Nick Swisher
DH Raul Ibanez
Russell Martin
LF Brett Gardner

LHP CC Sabathia

Tonight’s game starts a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Update (7:05pm ET): The first rain delay of the year! It doesn’t appear that it will be a lengthy delay, so the tarp might not be on the field all that long.

Update (7:14pm): The tarp is already coming off the field, so we’ll have baseball soon.