KLaw’s Top Impact Prospects for 2011

Keith Law posted his list of the top 20 impact prospects for the 2011 season today (Insider req’d), with Freddie Freeman, Jeremy Hellickson, and Kyle Drabek leading the way. Jesus Montero is the final name on the list simply because of the uncertainty about how much he’ll play this season. “I have little doubt that he’ll hit if he plays,” said KLaw, “but don’t have a good sense of when he’ll play — or if he’ll end up traded for a starting pitcher.” Fair assessment, I don’t think anyone, not even the Yankees, has a concrete idea of how much Montero will play for the big league team this summer. Remember, it’s not a top prospect list, just a list of which guys will have the most impact at the Major League level in 2011.

As an added bonus, Dan Szymborski ran down his ZiPS projections for all 20 players on the list (also Insider), and he came up with (get this) .273/.334/.503 with 28 homers for Montero next season. Forget Rookie of the Year, if he does that while playing behind the plate regularly, he’s an MVP candidate.

The RAB Radio Show: February 1, 2011

Who would’ve thought that signing Freddy Garcia would spur endless conversation? The Yankees picked up the veteran right-hander on a minor league deal yesterday, but unless something catastrophic happens in camp he’ll break in with the team as the No. 4 or 5 starter. There are worse things. Mike and I dive into Garcia’s stuff.

Then we get into some Jesus Montero projections, and somehow it turns into our upbringings as Yankees fans. You can’t predict the RAB Radio Show. You just can’t.

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Freddy Garcia’s changeup is something else

PEEKABOO! (Paul Sancya/AP)

As Mike and Ben noted last night, nothing particularly stands out about Freddy Garcia’s 2010 campaign. Everything basically screams slightly below average. But he still managed a 94 ERA+ in 157 innings, which is almost identical to the best season of Sergio Mitre‘s career. It’s not hard to envision Garcia breaking camp in the Yanks rotation, so let’s take a closer look at the one weapon that has allowed him to remain average-ish, even after shoulder surgery cost him parts of three seasons.

As is the case with many right-handed starting pitchers, Garcia faced more lefties than he did righties in 2010. That can be trouble for a soft-tosser. Yet Garcia realized better results against lefties than he did against righties. These results included a slightly higher strikeout rate, a lower home run rate, and a lower FIP and xFIP. He got lefties to hit more ground balls and fewer line drives. Judging from the data we have available, it appears that he accomplished this with a pretty nasty changeup.

Against lefties Garcia threw his changeup 559 times, or 42.9 percent of all his pitches. His fastball wasn’t used nearly as often, just 344 times, or 26.4 percent. There appears to be good reason for this. Garcia generated very few swings and misses with the fastball, just 7.8 percent, which makes it by far his most hittable pitch for lefties. He also allows lefties to hit it in the air more often than his other pitches. His changeup, on the other hand, generates far more swings and misses, 22.1 percent, and he keeps the ball on the ground almost half the time. Swings and misses plus ground balls is an excellent combination.

Here’s where Garcia placed his changeup in 2010 against lefties:

This breakdown makes complete sense once we look at the results, which we can find at Joe Lefkowitz’s website. The lefties do not like the changeup on the outer third. Middle down appears to be an effective location, too.

The only issue with the changeup is command, as both charts make clear. You can see a concentration of white near the middle of the zone. Unsurprisingly, lefties eat this pitch for breakfast, hitting .480 with a .760 SLG against it. He’s going to put a pitch there from time to time, and we’re going to eat our collective hats when the ball travels 400 feet. But we can take solace in Garcia’s general effectiveness against lefties.

A glance at Garcia’s splits reveals that while he strikes out a few more lefties and allows fewer homers, he does walk them more than he does righties. This has a lot to do with fastball location. The only zone in which he experienced significant success with the fastball against lefties in 2010 was middle down. That might be why he throws the fastball outside the zone.

Against righties Garcia mixes his pitches a bit more. Last year when facing same-handed batters he threw his fastball 32 percent of the time, his slider 30.2 percent, and his changeup 27.5 percent. Again, he didn’t generate many swings and misses on the fastball, which is to be expected when it averages around 88 mph. It appears that command might have been an issue with this, too. An 88 mph fastball in one of those white zones must look awfully tempting for a righty at bat.

It’s pretty clear that there will be ups and downs for Garcia. He wasn’t terrible against either lefties or righties last season, and with his changeup he’s proven particularly capable against lefties. I do wonder if he could work in his splitter a bit more often, at least against righties. He delivers it at around the same speed as his changeup, but righties seemingly beat it into the ground. But since he threw it only 114 times all of last season, I’m not counting on anything in that regard.

The Yankees don’t expect the world from Freddy Garcia. He represents a decent choice for a back-end starter who can eat some innings early in the year. He does have some strong points, foremost of which is his ability to handle lefties using his changeup. If he can continue what he was doing last year he should help shore up the Yanks rotation. If he can’t, they’re on the hook for nothing.

Looking at Soriano’s cutter against lefties

For Horacio Ramirez, straight up. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

About two weeks ago we learned that Rafael Soriano has something in common with Mariano Rivera beyond being a really awesome relief pitcher: he also throws a cutter. Mike Fast at Baseball Prospectus dug through the data and found that prior to 2010, Soriano would use the cutter almost exclusively against right-handed batters and go after lefties with a little two-seamer away, which sounds good in theory but it wasn’t really working for him. Lefties tagged Soriano for a .313 wOBA before last season, which is better than league average but far too high for a guy that’s supposed to be an elite reliever.

That all changed in 2010, perhaps with some help from the Rays coaching staff or just an adjustment on Soriano’s part. Fast found that Rafi started throwing his cutter to left-handed batters more than he had in the past, something we can now visualize thanks to the great new heat maps feature at FanGraphs

I’m certain there are some classification issues, with a few cutters being classified as sliders and vice versa by the PitchFX system, but the margin for error isn’t that big. MFIKY clearly threw more cut fastballs to lefties last season, and the early returns on the strategy were good. He held lefties to a .267 wOBA against and cut down on their line drive rate by almost ten percent compared to 2009. Of course we’re talking about a really small sample of data here (he faced just 118 LHB in 2010), so let’s not take this stuff to heart just yet.

The side effect of going with the cutter instead of the sinking two-seamer is the lack of ground balls. Soriano coaxed an infield pop-up out on a whopping 17.9% of the balls lefties put in play last year, and a regular old fly ball 45.9% of the time. An infield fly ball rate that high isn’t something that’s sustainable; he had been around 10% in 2007 and 2009, his two previous full and healthy seasons. The fly ball rate in general is high, which is Soriano’s forte, but the spray chart shows that he didn’t give up too many deep fly balls last year (that’s balls in play from Tropicana Field in 2010 overlaid onto Yankee Stadium). Not every fly ball has to be to the warning track.

Soriano won’t be as good as he was with the Rays in 2010 with the Yankees in 2011, and that’s fine. He’s going to give up a few more homers because of the ballpark, but he should be an excellent weapon out of the pen as long as he stays healthy. The thing to keep an eye on is that cutter against lefties, and whether or not he continues or maybe even increases the usage of the pitch. Perhaps Mariano Rivera could help him improve even more by showing him how effective the pitch can be when it’s thrown in their hands. At the end of the day, the results are what matters most, but Soriano appears to have found a process that worked for him last summer.

The importance of organizational players

When I first started following the minor leagues however many years ago, one of things I didn’t quite understand initially was the concept of an organizational player. That’s a player that has a job playing baseball in the minor leagues even though he isn’t considered a Major League prospect. Why would teams bother with these guys, aren’t they blocking actual prospects? Those and about a zillion other questions raced through the mind, but now I know what’s up. Org players aren’t just a part of baseball, they’re a very important part of it.

Ouch, my elbow. (Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)

If you want to visualize the distribution of prospects in the minor leagues, think of a pyramid. There’s a whole bunch of talented players at the lower levels of the minors, but as you climb the ladder the number of prospects starts to thin out, with just a handful at the Triple-A level. That’s just the natural order of things, attrition will feast on the weak while the strong move on. But roster spots, those are a big solid block, not a pyramid. Teams still have to field a full roster at every level regardless of how many actual prospects they boast.

The Triple-A level is a bit unique because teams will typically stash backup players there, such as spare relievers and an extra outfielder, a starter or two, probably an infielder, etc. Not everyone is a prospect, but most of the guys on the 24-man Triple-A roster serve some sort of purpose to the big league team. Double-A and below is a different story; you’ll have a handful of prospects and then a whole bunch of roster spots that need to be filled, and that’s where the org players come in.

The role of an organizational player is simple, they just have to do whatever the prospects can’t. Any innings that need to be pitched, positions that need to be filled, whatever, it’s up to them. Prospects are usually on a set regimen and development plan (especially with the Yankees), meaning their usage and pitching schedule and lineup spot are fixed by the higher-ups and not by actual production. It’s a development thing, and it’s up to the org players to fill in around the prospects.

Word (ekemper). (Photo Credit: The Citizen's Voice)

The Yankees have a number of high quality org players in their system, none better than Josh Schmidt (above). A 15th round pick back in 2005, Schmidt crushed the New York-Penn League as Staten Island’s closer that year (33 IP, 14 H, 1 R, 6 uIBB, 47 K), but the now 28-year-old has spent most of the last three seasons soaking up innings for Double-A Trenton. His performance has been quite good (156 IP, 67 uIBB, 175 K), but because he lacks the stuff to get big leaguers out, he’s used to take pressure off actual prospects at the level. P.J. Pilittere has spent the last few years filling in behind the plate at various levels, Jack Rye has been bouncing back and forth between outfield jobs for Trenton and High-A Tampa over the last two years, and guys like Adam Olbrychowski and Eric Wordekemper and Phil Bartleski soak up innings at whatever affiliate happens to be short on arms on a given day.

Remember, these guys are all human, they all want to win. Development is obviously priority number one in the minors, but winning is not an afterthought. Good org players lead to more wins, and you want your best prospects in a winning environment. There’s also the business aspect of it; more wins means more butts in the seats, and the affiliated clubs appreciate that. It’s a two-way relationship, both the Yankees and the minor league clubs are supposed to benefit from their player development arrangement.

The other thing we can’t forget here is these guys are all teammates and will be stuck living with each other for six months a year. Good org players aren’t just productive on the field, they also help the prospects off the field and in the clubhouse. Most of these guys are old for their level, so the experience they share with the younger guys is just as important as the innings they eat.

Being an organizational player is a completely thankless job, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Productive players that know their role in the organization contribute a great deal to the development of the highly touted prospects they play with, they just happen to be more disposable. Don’t take them for granted though, quality players help breed a quality organization, regardless of how small their role may be.

Late-night reading: Levine messes with Texas

If you’re done arguing about the relative merits of Freddy Garcia on a minor league deal and guaranteed money for Justin Duchscherer, take a read through this gem from Jon Heyman. Shortly after Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg took credit for keeping Cliff Lee away from the Yanks, New York’s own club president Randy Levine fired back. “Chuck’s delusional. He’s been in the game for a few minutes and yet he thinks he knows what everyone’s thinking,” Levine said. “I think he should let Cliff Lee speak for himself. He could really impress us when he keeps the Rangers off of welfare and keeps them from receiving revenue sharing the next three years.”

As Heyman notes, Levine is picking up on the fact that the Rangers, playing in the large Dallas/Fort Worth market, collected revenue sharing checks in each of the past three years. While I know some sports talk radio voices have been critical of Levine for engaging with Greenberg, I love these ownership spats. Levine is sticking up for his club and showing that the Yankee brass still isn’t thrilled with Greenberg’s attempts to cast the Yanks as his spunky club’s villain. Let Levine and Greenberg battle it out off the field. On the field, I think the Rangers needed Cliff Lee even more than the Yanks did, and they were left empty-handed on the mound this winter.

Garcia, Yanks agree to minor league deal

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Update (10:32 p.m.): Freddy Garcia may get his wish after all. According to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, the right-hander has agreed to a Minor League deal with the Yankees. The 35-year-old will get an invite to Spring Training and a chance to win a job in the starting rotation, though he’ll have to compete with Bartolo Colon.

If he makes the team, Garcia will earn a $1.5M base salary plus another $3.6M in possible incentives. He’ll have to make 30 starts to max out the bonuses, something he hasn’t done since Jaret Wright made 27 starts for the Yanks. If he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training, Garcia can opt out of his deal by March 29th.

Garcia, now three years removed from shoulder surgery, managed to throw 157 innings for the White Sox last year after three seasons of no more than 58 IP. He wasn’t all that good though, pitching to a 4.64 ERA (4.77 FIP, 4.59 xFIP) with 5.10 K/9 and 40.7% ground balls in 2010. Although he walked just 2.29 batters per nine innings unintentionally, Garcia managed to surrender one homer for just under every seven innings pitched. It’s been a long time since he was a 200 innings a year horse for the Mariners, but all the Yankees are asking him to do is be better than Sergio Mitre. That doesn’t seem hard, but you never know.

Always a sinker-slider-changeup guy, Garcia threw the pitches in almost equal parts last year, though his fastball averaged just 87.6 mph. He’ll also mix in the occasionally curveball and cutter, but they’re just show-me pitches. At this point of his career, Garcia can’t survive by trusting his stuff, he’s got to mix his pitches well and locate. His margin for error is small, and the Yankees know this.

I’ve been pretty critical of a potential Garcia signing this winter, though that’s because I expected a Major League contract. A minor league deal is no risk, but I wouldn’t exactly call it high reward.

Additional reporting and commentary by Mike Axisa.