Open Thread: Alfonso Soriano

(AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

I think it’s fair to say that Jesus Montero will be the Yankees’ most anticipated rookie in quite some time next year, probably since Alfonso Soriano in 2001. Soriano, who thrice ranked as one of the 40 best prospects in the game by Baseball America (peaked at #16 in 2000), took over at second base that year once Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing problems relegated him to left field. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting (behind Ichiro and CC Sabathia) with a .268/.304/.432 batting line (18 homers and 43 steals), then he went on to hit .295/.335/.536 with 77 homers and 76 steals from 2002-2003 before being traded for Alex Rodriguez.

It’s kinda hard to believe, but Soriano turned 36 years old yesterday. He was never exactly an OBP threat, but from 2002-2006 he was the best power-speed player in the game. Only four players hit 100 homers with 100 steals during that time, and Soriano is the easy leader with 187 homers (37 more than Carlos Beltran) and 165 steals (11 more than Bobby Abreu). If it wasn’t for Mariano Rivera‘s blown save, Soriano’s go-ahead eighth inning homer off Curt Schilling in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series would have cemented his place in Yankees lore forever.

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Like yesterday, I’m posting a little earlier than usual because of the NFL playoff action. The Giants and Falcons kick off at 1pm ET (on FOX), then the Steelers and Broncos play at 4:30pm ET (on CBS). None of the hockey and basketball locals are playing, however. Talk about whatever you like here, go nuts.

Report: Yankees offered Nakajima $1M

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees offered Hiroyuki Nakajima approximately $1M, but the more serious issue was his role. When the announcement was made that the two sides couldn’t reach a deal, we learned that they only offered him a one-year contract. A statement issued by Nakajima’s agent makes it sound like they believe he should be a starter, but apparently no MLB club agrees with that given the lack of bids.

A report from Sponichi (translated) reiterates that Nakajima was okay with the money, but he wanted to become a free agent after the one-year deal while the Yankees wanted to retain his rights for six years like every other player. As a courtesy, MLB typically allows foreign veteran players to be treated as true free agents rather than players with zero service time. Either way, what’s done is done. Nakajima will go back to Japan and the Yankees will look for another bench player elsewhere.

Scouting Phil Hughes

When long-heralded prospects make it to the major leagues, the exciting scouting reports on them tend to stick around long past their expiration dates. We hear about potential based on a perception of the player that is no longer reasonable or based on existing attributes. We cling to those old scouting reports, hoping that the player will eventually reach the level of performance that they promised, not willing to accept that circumstance and lack of development have altered the player’s ceiling.

Phil Hughes provides a good example of this phenomenon. While many of us have moved on and have lowered their expectations when it comes to Phil, we still cling to him as a guy who has long had potential and could eventually capitalize on it. However, his myriad injuries and the stunted development associated with them have altered Hughes such that the previous scouting reports no longer apply. He was a guy with a fastball at 91-94 that he had stellar command of, an excellent curveball that he could finish hitters with, and a changeup that always seemed to be on the cusp of being a usable pitch. However, the updated scouting report reads differently:

Hughes, turning 26 in June, has a classic power pitcher’s build, coming in at a solid 6’5″ and a listed 240 pounds. However, he seems to have put on a bit of weight in recent years, and the Yankees sent him to their fat camp last spring to try and shed those extra pounds. The Yankees have long liked his makeup and believe he has the mental ability to be a successful pitcher in this league, but his conditioning is something worth keeping an eye on.

As for his stuff, he is primarily a two pitch pitcher, featuring a fastball and a curveball. While he has used a cutter fairly often in recent years, he seemed to have slowly removed in from his repertoire over the course of 2011, a smart decision considering its ineffectiveness throughout the season. He occasionally mixes in a changeup, but it is not much of a pitch and is unlikely to become a major part of his arsenal.

His fastball sits at 89-92, and is pretty straight. However, he does have very good command of the pitch in the zone, and he uses that ability to draw plenty of foul balls and get ahead in counts. His curveball, once a pitch that he could throw for strikes and use to finish hitters off, has become adequate at best. It was always a bit loopy, but it had a lot of depth and hitters would swing over it. It has lost some of that depth and just tumbles up to hitters, who can usually catch up to it and foul it off or drive it somewhere. He has also struggled to throw it for strikes in recent seasons. Hughes tinkered some with a spike curve last season, but did not see great results and is unlikely to lean on it in the future.

This two pitch combination allows him to get to two strikes by way of his fastball, but once he is there he has nothing to finish hitters off with. He cannot throw the fastball by them, and they are not swinging at the curveball out of the zone. Eventually, Hughes makes a mistake and hitters are ready to pounce.

Outlook: Hughes did have a major jump in innings from 2009 to 2010, so it is possible that some of his 2011 struggles could be attributed to overuse. But unless he recovers some of his velocity, has his command go from good back to great, or recaptures his old curveball, Hughes profiles as a #4 starter or possibly a good reliever. His fastball command is still good enough to keep him in a MLB rotation, but he needs to find another positive attribute in his arsenal to surpass his current back-of-the-rotation ceiling. As he nears his age 26 season, the likelihood that he does that grows ever more slim.

That is my scouting report on Hughes at this point. I’ve discarded the one that marked him as the next Yankees ace, as those expectations simply do not match the skills that Hughes currently brings to the table. I hope to be forced to pull that old one out of the trash, dust it off, and use it once again, but I do not expect that to happen. It is time to stop judging Phil Hughes on what he could have been, and start addressing what he is.

Rivera expects to be ready for Spring Training after surgery…

… on his vocal cords. Third time with that joke is a charm, no? Anyway, Marc Carig spoke to the greatest reliever of all-time today, and Mariano Rivera said he expects to be ready for Spring Training when camp opens in about five weeks.┬áCarig says Mo sounds like his normal self following surgery on vocal cords, but frankly I don’t think it was his voice that many of us were worried about. Glad everything’s okay.

Open Thread: Jorge

Earlier today we learned that Jorge Posada will announce his retirement in the near future, a bittersweet moment for me. This wasn’t necessarily a surprise and I think we all knew his time had come, but it’s still sad anytime an all-time great calls it a career. Based on bWAR, Posada is the third greatest catcher in Yankees history behind only Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. Thurman Munson is right behind him, but then it’s a huge gap between those four and everyone else.

I don’t necessarily agree with the list or the order, but the video above is a compilation of the nine greatest moments of Jorge Posada’s career. Game Three of the 2001 ALDS is known for Derek Jeter‘s flip play, but Posada accounted for the only run of the game with his solo homer while catching seven shutout innings from Mike Mussina and another two from Mariano Rivera. Of course I’m certain that “double” in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS made me jump and shout more than any other Jorge hit. I’m happy Posada was able to leave the game on his own terms, because not many players get to do that. He will be missed.

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Here is your open thread for the day. I’m posting this earlier than usual because of the two NFL playoff games, the first of which starts at 4:30pm ET. That’s the Bengals at the Texans on NBC. The late game (8pm ET on NBC) is the Lions at the Saints, and I’m setting the over/under on points scored at 80.5. Other than foobaw, the Knicks, Nets, Islanders, and Devils are all playing. Don’t forget though, no MSG for you Time Warner folks! Anyway, talk about anything you like here. Go nuts.

Report: Jorge to announce his retirement

It looks like Yankees fans won’t have to worry about seeing Jorge Posasda in a different uniform this season. WFAN’s Sweeny Murti reports that Jorge will announce his retirement within the next two weeks. We’ll surely have a riveting tribute to Jorge once he does make the announcement. For now we can reminisce about our favorite Jorge memories — I’m sure his double off Pedro Martinez ranks highest for many. We can also get a head start on making arguments for his Hall of Fame candidacy. Remember, he still has the highest WAR of any catcher since 2000.

Mailbag: Pat Venditte

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Dylan asks: What happened to Pat Venditte? I know the Yanks didn’t protect him, so he could have been snatched up by some other team, but I never heard if that happened? Do the Yanks still have control over him, and where will he spend this season?

The Yankees didn’t lose any players in the Rule 5 Draft last month, so Venditte is still in the organization. He spent the last few months pitching in winter ball in Mexico, striking out 46 batters and walking just seven in 42.1 relief innings. He did give up six homers though (1.28 HR/9), which is very uncharacteristic for him (0.44 HR/9 in the minors). Overall, Venditte threw 132.1 IP in 2011.

Like big leaguers, minor league players need six full years of service time to become minor league free agents. The Yankees drafted Venditte in 2008, so they still control his rights through 2014. There’s a pretty good chance that he’ll be sent back to Double-A Trenton this year just because of the numbers crunch in the Triple-A Scranton bullpen, though he did perform fairly well there last season: 8.8 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 in 90 IP. Pretty good, but not nearly as good as what he did from 2008-2010: 11.2 K/9 and 1.9 K/9 in 174.2 IP.

We all know Venditte does the switch-pitcher thing, but it’s worth noting that he does have a pretty significant platoon split. He’s held left-handed batters to a .191/.238/.253 batting line with 33.4% strikeouts and 6.1% walks since 2009, but right-handers have gotten him for a .240/.286/.367 batting line with the same walk rate but just 22.6% strikeouts. Venditte’s stuff from the right side — low-90’s fastball with an over-the-top curveball — has always been considered better than his stuff from the left side — mid-80’s heat and a slider — but so far he’s gotten better results as a southpaw. It could just be a sample size issue; we’re only talking 400 or so plate appearances as a lefty and about 500 as a righty.

I figured that some team would pop Venditte in the Rule 5 Draft just to take a look at him in Spring Training, but ultimately no one decided he was worth the $50k draft price (only $25k if he ends up being returned). He’ll probably go back to Double-A to start the year before a midseason promotion comes into play, but as always, he remains a fringe prospect. The ambidextrous thing means more attention, but not more ability.