ST Game Thread: A Familiar Lineup

Joe Biden offered advice about leveraging relief pitchers, foreign policy. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As the Yankees run on the clock on their Grapefruit League schedule, Joe Girardi has been tinkering with the lineup somewhat, most notably hitting Brett Gardner leadoff. He’s done that the last few days, but Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher are back in the one-two slot today. Why? Because there’s a lefty on the mound; the Blue Jays are throwing Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo Jo-Jo Reyes. I’ll talk more about this setup tomorrow, but tonight we’ll get to see it in action. Here’s the lineup…

Derek Jeter, SS
Nick Swisher, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robbie Cano, 2B
Jorge Posada, DH
Andruw Jones, LF
Russell Martin, C
Brett Gardner, CF

Available Pitchers: Phil Hughes, Mariano Rivera, Boone Logan, Luis Ayala, Steve Garrison, Eric Wordekemper, Ryan Pope, Buddy Carlyle, and Josh Schmidt.

Available Position Players: Gustavo Molina (C), Brandon Laird (1B), Ronnie Belliard (2B), Ramiro Pena (SS), Eduardo Nunez (3B), Jordan Parraz (LF), Melky Mesa (CF), and Greg Golson (RF).

Tonight’s game will be aired on MLB Network in all markets, they confirmed that the game will not be blacked out in the Tri-State Area via Twitter. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, so enjoy.

Roster Notes: Laird, Golson, Parraz, Jose Gil, Jorge Vazquez, and Kevin Russo have all been reassigned to minor league camp. Golson being sent probably means that Justin Maxwell beat him out for the potential fifth outfielder’s job, should one be needed.

Yankees claim Jose Ortegano

Via Marc Carig, the Yankees have claimed left-hander Jose Ortegano off waivers from the Braves and optioned him to Triple-A Scranton. The 23-year-old from Venezuela made 20 starts for Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate last year, pitching to a 4.56 FIP in 103 IP. He was not among their top 30 prospects in the 2011 edition of Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook, but he ranked 25th in 2010. “His fastball sits 86-88 mph and occasionally touched 90,” they said. “He also has a plus curveball and locates his changeup with precision … his ultimate role may be as a crafty left-handed reliever.”

Given Pedro Feliciano’s bothersome triceps and Boone Logan‘s nagging injury filled camp, it doesn’t hurt to have another lefty around to stash in Triple-A. Ortegano’s nothing special, but certainly not useless.

The RAB Radio Show: March 23, 2011

Today we’re talking Jorge Posada. Earlier this afternoon I wrote about what it would take for the Yankees to bring back Posada in 2012. But for the podcast we’re taking a look at expectations. Posada faces many changes this season, which makes it tough to project how he’ll perform in his new role.

Podcast run time 25:26

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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

What would it take to bring back Jorge?

(Kathy Willens/AP)

At the time it seemed like a horrible but necessary contract. Following the 2007 season, during which he hit .338/.426/.543, the Yankees had little choice but to re-sign Jorge Posada. It was going to be a risk move no matter how many years they gave him. Catchers don’t age well, and Posada had turned 36 in August of 2007. But he had again shown that he ranked among the league’s best offensive catchers, and the Yankees had few alternatives. Add in a little pressure from the Mets, and it becomes a four-year, $52.4 million contract that would run through Posada’s age-39 season.

In many ways the contract worked out, at least in relative terms. Posada’s offense helped power the 2009 Yankees to a World Series title, and he provided above average offensive numbers in 2010. He didn’t require a move to DH until the final year of the deal, which, at the time he signed the contract, would have been considered a positive outcome. At the same time there are plenty of negatives. After voiding the DL for his entire career Posada missed most of the 2008 season with a shoulder injury, and then missed time in both 2009 and 2010. His offensive numbers also took a dip in 2010, not a good sign for any older player, let alone a catcher.

Now entering the final year of his contract, Jorge has something else to prove. As he told the New York Post’s Kevin Kernan, he wants to play next year. That won’t happen, of course, without a solid performance in 2011. Yet even with a solid performance I’m not sure the Yankees would want Posada back in a full-time capacity. It’s not just based on him, but rather is based on the team’s plans for the DH spot down the road. There just might not be room for a permanent DH — well, a 40-year-old one, at least.

In discussing the relationship between David Ortiz and the Red Sox, Fox Sports’s Ken Rosenthal makes a point about the Yankees. “The Sox, like the Yankees, are itching to abandon a full-time DH and initiate a rotation at that position, the better to keep older veterans fresh,” he writes. We’ve heard this line for years, but in 2012 it could become a greater necessity. Alex Rodriguez specifically might need more time at DH. And then there’s that 21-year-old phenom who might or might not have a position.

Montero indeed will dictate what the Yankees do with the DH spot in 2012. They continue to insist that he can catch — at an above-average level, no less — in the majors. Yet they continue to be the only entity that professes this belief. If things don’t work out and indeed Montero is not capable of catching every day at the major league level, they Yankees will have to find some spot for his bat. That could very well be at DH, perhaps with him also serving as the backup catcher. That would provide spots for A-Rod to DH, both on Montero’s catching days and on his days off.

All of this assumes, of course, that Posada produces during his first season of offense-only duty. It stands to reason that he could. Previously his bat was never a question. It was only his defense, both in terms of his skill behind the plate and the toll constant squatting took on his body. Now that he is afforded the opportunity to focus on his greatest strength, his bat, he might prove he has more left in the tank. To the argument that he has poor career numbers as a DH, remember that he often takes a turn at DH when he’s banged up and cannot catch. That factors in heavily to any drop-off when he doesn’t play defense.

The Yankees thankfully have an entire year to determine whether they’d like to keep Posada around. But given their future team needs, the match doesn’t seem likely. If the Yankees need the DH spot for A-Rod and Montero, they simply might not have enough at-bats for Posada. It would be odd to see him in another uniform, but if he wants to keep playing beyond this season it might become a reality.

2011 Season Preview: The Farm System

Forgive me if I sound like a broken record, but pretty much everything went right for the Yankees’ farm system last year, which is why they jumped from 22nd to fifth in Baseball America’s organization rankings. For the most part, the key prospects stayed healthy and performed well while others came back from injury to reclaim to past prospect glory. It was a boost the Yankees needed, because now the team has a solid mix of near-MLB ready talent at the upper levels combined with upside guys a little further down the chain.

Is everything going to break right again? Almost certainly not, but each of the full season affiliates will offer plenty of reasons to follow along this summer.

Triple-A Scranton

Just like every other year, the Yankees are going to rely heavily on the reinforcements they have stashed away in Triple-A this season. In fact, they’ll probably rely on these guys even more than usual given the current situation of the back of the big league rotation. Assuming Ivan Nova starts the year in the Bronx, the Scranton staff will be led by three guys who finished last season there: Hector Noesi, David Phelps, and D.J. Mitchell. Andrew Brackman and Adam Warren will jump up from Double-A to round out the rotation, and it seems like a foregone conclusion that two or three of those guys will make their big league debut this summer.

The lineup was going to be anchored by Jesus Montero, but Frankie Cervelli‘s fractured foot makes him Russell Martin‘s likely backup to at least start the season. Manager Dave Miley will instead have to rely on 2010 Eastern League MVP Brandon Laird to make the offense go, and he’ll have help from Justin Maxwell, Jordan Parraz, Dan Brewer, and big ol’ Jorge Vazquez. Mark Prior highlights the bullpen corps, which will also feature big lefty Andy Sisco and a pair or righty prospects in Ryan Pope and George Kontos. Many of these guys will see big league time this year, but the Yankees have enough upper level depth that a sixth consecutive division title is a very possible for Scranton.

Double-A Trenton

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

This is where the action will be this year. Brian Cashman has said (repeatedly) that both Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances will start the season with Trenton, the same place they finished last season. Graham Stoneburner, the best pitching prospect in the system that no one ever seems to talk about, will play the role of third wheel. All three feature power, strikeout stuff but do it in different ways: Banuelos is fastball-changeup, Betances fastball-curveball, and Stoneburner with primarily a sinker. It would be surprising if all three spent the entire year in Double-A.

The offense will be led by the returning David Adams and likely Austin Romine despite his place in the backup catcher’s competition. Florida State League MVP Melky Mesa will join the fray, and Corban Joseph will stick after spending most of last season in Single-A. A case can be made that those two are the best five-tool prospect and pure hitter in the system, respectively. Craig Heyer will bring his beastly strike zone skills (95/15 K/BB in Single-A over the last two years) to the pitching staff in some capacity, and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte will give the fans something to enjoy and opposing batters something to dread out of the bullpen. Trenton has won the division in four of the last five years, and with that pitching staff, they’ll certainly make a run at another.

High-A Tampa

Luis Sojo’s squad figures to be a little short on position player talent this year, with college vets Luke Murton, Neil Medchill, and Rob Lyerly doing most of the heavy lifting. Sojo will have two of the very best arms in the system working out of his rotation in Jose Ramirez and Brett Marshall, and sleeper Scottie Allen (acquired from the D’Backs for Juan Miranda) will get a look as well. Flamethrowers Tommy Kahnle, Dan Burawa, and Conor Mullee will likely join the sneaky good Chase Whitley in a lock-down bullpen. A third straight Florida State League championship will be tough to pull off, but not impossible.

Low-A Charleston

Want to see two first picks play for the same team? Head to Charleston, where Slade Heathcott (2009) will roam center field and Cito Culver (2010) will probably man shortstop. Second rounder J.R. Murphy (2009) figures to give it another go behind the plate, where he’ll likely do the DH-catcher thing with Gary Sanchez, arguably the best non-Montero prospect in the system. Eduardo Sosa, Ramon Flores, and Kelvin DeLeon will round out one of the most tooled up outfields in all of minor league baseball, though Flores will likely see time at first.

The rotation is a little more uncertain, but there’s no shortage of talent. Mikey O’Brien, Nick Turley, Evan DeLuca, Bryan Mitchell, Gabe Encinas, Taylor Morton, Evan Rutckyj, Matt Richardson, Brett Gerritse … all of those guys are solid candidates for the River Dogs’ rotation, and in no way is that be lame.

Short Season Leagues

The vast majority of the short season Staten Island and rookie level Gulf Coast League rosters will be supplied by the 2011 draft, but 2010 picks Mason Williams, Ben Gamel, and Angelo Gumbs are likely to be pop up here. If the Yankees decide to take it slow with Culver, he’ll fit in here as well. Whatever pitchers do not make the Low-A roster will play in SI or the GCL, and the stateside debuts of Yeicok Calderon and (especially) Ravel Santana should be highly anticipated.

* * *

My top 30 prospects list will give you some more detailed information about most of the players in this post, but the upper level arms clearly highly the crop with Montero presumably in the big leagues. Whether they help the big league club on the mound or in a trade remains to be seen, but it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that they’ll have some kind of impact in 2011.

2011 Draft: A historical look at the Yanks’ picks

The ankle is fine, now the shoulder is giving Rendon problems. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. We’re now less than three months away from the draft, but there hasn’t been enough time for any major developments to … uh … develop, so the best draft prospects from last month are still the best draft prospects this month. Keith Law posted his updated list of the top 50 prospects yesterday (Insider req’d), and had UCLA RHP Gerrit Cole jumping ahead of Rice 3B Anthony Rendon as the top talent. There’s not much of an argument against that ranking right now, Cole’s showing three knockout pitches every Friday while Rendon is battling shoulder issues that have limited him to mostly DH duty. They’re both premium guys, but for now, Cole’s in the lead.

TCU LHP Matt Purke fell a handful of spots because he’s been battling blister issues and his stuff hasn’t been as crisp this year as it was last, so I’ve got my fingers crossed that the slide continues and he’s available when the Yankees’ first pick comes around. Personal fave Taylor Guerrieri has gone from a second-ish round guy to the best high school right-hander in the country, so the Yanks’ won’t be getting a shot at him. For shame.

The Yankees’ first pick doesn’t come until number 51 overall, in case you’ve forgotten, which isn’t exactly a high-end slot. That doesn’t mean its doomed for failure though. I went back and looked at the list of players taken there throughout the 45-year history of the amateur draft, and then I did the same thing for their next three picks as well. Here are the results, which are for your information only and are not intended to be some kind of analysis of the caliber of player the Yankees could land…

(AP Photo/David Kohl)

First Pick, #51
The most productive player ever taken with the 51st overall pick is a Hall of Famer, or someone that should be in the Hall of Fame, anyway : Barry Larkin. It’s a major, major drop-off after that, with guys like Chris Haney and Rocky Biddle representing the familiar names. As for recent prospects, there’s Anthony Gose (part of the Roy Oswalt swap) and personal fave Jeff Locke (part of the Nate McLouth trade), but Larkin’s it, the one legit, long-term big leaguer to be taken 51st overall.

As for the 52nd and 53rd overall picks, since those players were available at 51 as well, you’ve got Carl Crawford, Gary Carter, Andy Messersmith, Sean Casey, Ryan Sweeney, and Pirates’ farmhand Stetson Allie. That’s a fine group right there.

Second Pick, #88
Kirk McCaskill, who spent a dozen completely unspectacular seasons in the big leagues in the mid-80’s to mid-90’s highlights this pick, but after that you’ve got bit pieces like Alex Cora and Eli Marrero. Yikes. There are a few interesting prospects running around that were taken 88th overall, led by Robby Rowland of the Diamondbacks (2010). This pick has historically been a bit of wasteland, but go up to the 89th pick and you’re looking at Justin Morneau, Nick Johnson, Chris Young (the pitcher), and then some guy named Randy Johnson who is probably the best left-handed pitcher most of us will ever see. Of course that was when the Braves drafted him out of high school, not when the Expos drafted him out of college. Imagine RJ with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. Wowza.

Third Pick, #118
The biggest name here (to date) is Mickey Tettleton, but the Rays took this spot in 2005, added an above-slot $500,000 bonus, and landed themselves a frontline guy named Jeremy Hellickson. The Angels drafted and failed to signed eventual seventh overall pick Matt Harvey here four years ago. Sal Bando and Todd Stottlemyre highlight the history of the 119th overall pick, and number 120 is complete barren unless you happen to be a Mickey Morandini fan.

(AP Photo/Joe Holloway Jr.)

Fourth Pick, #149
There’s some premium names here (emphasis on name), specifically Michael Young and Deion Sanders, plus a few recent and interesting prospects like Jason Adam (Royals), Jeff Samardzija (Cubs), and Brandon Allen (ChiSox, now with the D’Backs). The Yankees have some history at this pick as well, taking Zach Day here back in 1996. He was eventually packaged with Ricky Ledee and Jake Westbrook for David Justice, who put on a Superman costume for half-a-season in 2000. Dan Hudson and Mike Marshall are the only noteworthy players taken with the following two picks.

* * *

Like I said, don’t read much into this at all, it’s an exercise in history more than anything else. It has zero predictive value. Every draft class is different, and the way teams draft today is considerably different than the way they drafted five years ago and worlds different than the way they drafted ten years ago. Having to wait 50 picks before your first selection is a pretty big handicap, but there’s always talent to be had, it’s just a matter of finding it.

Book Review: In Tampa, an Extra 2% edge

The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the least heralded success stories in sports of the past decade. In 2007, it was business as usual for the then-Devil Rays. They went 66-96, good for their ninth last place finish in ten seasons as a Major League club, and just under 1.4 million fans watched Alberto Reyes rack up 26 saves.

Since then, the Rays have won the AL East twice and made the World Series once. They’ve dethroned the league’s two richest teams and still sport a solid young core of players that make them a perennial threat in the American League. They don’t have a new stadium and still draw under 1.8 million fans per season. Yet, the Rays have become the latest small-market success story. How?

The how is the subject of Jonah Keri’s latest book. Entitled The Extra 2 %, Keri’s book explores, as the lofty subtitle says, “how Wall Street strategies took a Major League Baseball team from worst to first.” With a new ownership group in place that was willing to experiment and push the envelope, the Rays took advantage of their position at the bottom of baseball’s economic pecking order to dig for advantages. Luck played no small part in it, but the Rays have something that works, for now.

To set the stage, Keri spends the first few chapters exploring the tortured history of baseball in Tampa Bay. The sprawling metropolitan had always appealed to Major League Baseball more as a threat than as an actual landing place for a team. Whenever a successful franchise needed a new stadium, it would threaten a move to St. Petersburg. The White Sox did so in the early 1990s; the Mariners followed suit a few years later; and the San Francisco Giants were apparently this close to shacking up in the Trop.

Yet, despite the fact that St. Petersburg went so far as to build a stadium — an ugly one at that — without a tenant, Major League Baseball never graced the area with a team. Miami got its franchise first, and it took the threat of a lawsuit that would have rocked baseball from its lofty perch atop an antitrust exemption to see the Devil Rays enter the world.

When they did, it was a spectacular disaster. Vince Naimoli was the wrong man to own the team, and Chuck LaMar was the wrong general manager. The club burned draft picks by signing bad free agents. They wasted other picks by avoiding top talent in the name of “signability.” Sometimes, they landed the right guy; Carl Crawford stuck. But Jason Standridge and Dewon Brazelton are a testament to the disaster.

Keri’s narrative picks up the Extra 2 % when Stuart Sternberg, a baseball fan and Wall Street guy, buys the club from Naimoli. He brought Matthew Silverman and Andrew Friedman with him. Together, these three guys changed the franchise. They changed the way it does business; they spruced up Tropicana Field as best they could; and they began to search for the edge — the Extra 2 % — that would allow the Rays to remain competitive in the rich American League East.

Unfortunately for Keri’s book, the meat of the Extra 2 % is a proprietary one. James Click and Josh Kalk, two former Baseball Prospectus writers, are among the top figures working behind the scenes, but the Rays, who cooperated with Keri only at the end of his reporting, keep these minds away from the press. A certain part of the Extra 2 % is still a secret.

Yet, that doesn’t leave the book lacking, and Keri provides deep insights into the Rays’ process. He talks with Silverman and Friedman about their baseball arbitrage process, and while he doesn’t go inside the Rays’ draft room, he explains how the club is working to identify baseball talent on the cheap while selling high and drafting wisely. The Extra 2 % comes from the organization’s idea that they have to be that much more diligent than their competitors. The Devil Rays might have missed out on Albert Pujols in the early 2000s, but that’s a mistake the current regime will not make again.

Ultimately, the book is a great read, and I can’t recommend it enough for Yankee fans of all stripes. We might envy the Rays their recent success and no longer view them as the pushovers they once were. But that doesn’t make them an unlikeable franchise, and Keri’s book humanizes a franchise long scorned by the baseball cognoscenti.

The end of Keri’s book, on the current stadium, left me wanting the more than isn’t there yet. Tropicana Field is ugly and out of the way. It’s in a town with very high unemployment, and while the Rays have the highest TV ratings in the game, they can’t get fans to come. They also can’t force the area to fork over public funds for a new stadium.

So my question still remains: Can the Rays maintain their success? Keri says they can, but I’m less optimistic. (Perhaps, that’s my inner Yankee fan speaking.) Their payroll this year is much lower than in recent seasons, and their bullpen and lineup approach resembles something of a band aid. They will rise and fall on their arms, but as the young guns grow up, can they keep winning? The cast of The Extra 2 % came of age at a time when the Rays had the right guys making the right Number 1 draft picks. Success comes at a price, and in 2011, we’ll learn if the Rays can sustain success of it small-market wins are merely cyclical.

Editor’s Note: Jonah Keri is a good friend of mine, and his publisher supplied me with a review copy of the book. Joe and I are also mentioned by name in the Acknowledgements. Still, this review is an impartial one.