What Went Right: The Farm System

As we get closer to the end of our annual What Went Right/What Went Wrong season review, let’s shift our focus away from the big league team for just a bit.

The life blood of just about any team, in any sport really, is its ability to develop players from within. Homegrown players are substantially cheaper and in almost all cases are younger and closer to their primes than free agents, but the Yankees got away from that for a while. From about 2002 through 2007 the team started to rely on big name free agents to fill holes on the major league roster, sacrificing present depth by trading away prospects and future depth by forfeiting draft picks as free agent compensation. As a result, the Yankees were often left scrambling to find stop gap solutions for the inevitable injury or poor performance.

Brian Cashman started to change that way of thinking once he signing his new contract and got autonomy before the 2008 system, focusing more on the team’s farm system and their ability to produce quality players all by themselves. That didn’t mean they were going to stop signing free agents, but they weren’t going to rely on them as much. He and the team took a hit in 2008, missing the postseason for the first time in more than a decade, but the reward was a World Championship the very next season. Now three years into Cashman’s build from within plan, the farm system is starting to bear some seriously good fruit.

Jesus is coming. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

For much of the year it appeared as though top prospect Jesus Montero had finally met his match in Triple-A. Older pitchers refused to challenge him with fastballs until he proved he could hit offspeed stuff, and as a result he started off very slowly, with a modest .312 wOBA through the season’s first three month. He was even benched for failing to run out a ground ball in May. There were legitimate reasons to be concerned about the 20-year-old”s development, but Montero answered those questions and then some in the second half.

Nearly traded to Seattle in a potential Cliff Lee deal, Montero put up a monster .433 wOBA from July 1st on, hitting 15 homers in just 223 plate appearances. That nearly matched his 2009 total of 17 homers, which took 379 plate appearances. Despite the slow start, the still just 20-year-old catcher set career highs in triples (three), homers (21), and unintentional walks (44), though he did set a new career high in strikeouts as well. As disappointing as the first half was, in the end it’s a good thing. Montero had never faced any kind of adversity in his career, and this season he showed that he could deal with the struggles, make adjustments, and thrive. That’s exactly what you want to see out of your top prospects, the overall numbers are just gravy.

On the pitching side of things, two of the organization’s most promising arms returned from injury and didn’t miss a beat, dominating really in a way that even they hadn’t yet. Left-hander Manny Banuelos had an appendectomy in Spring Training and didn’t debut until June 21st, but he finished the season with Double-A Trenton as a 19-year-old, pitching to a 2.38 FIP in 64.2 regular season innings before going to the Arizona Fall League and drawing rave reviews. Righty Dellin Betances returned from elbow surgery on June 10th and pitched to a 2.19 FIP the rest of the way. His 85.1 innings were the second most of his career, and they featured a stout 108-22 K/BB ratio.

(Photo Credit: Mike Ashmore)

Andrew Brackman, the third member of The Killer B’s, followed up his disastrous 2009 campaign with a breakout 2010. The 2007 first rounder finally found his control two years out from Tommy John surgery and reached Double-A, pitching to a 3.23 FIP in a career high 140.2 innings. His walk rate dropped from one every 6.6 batters faces to one every 15.5 batters faced while his strikeout rate remained an impressive 8.1 per nine innings. Brackman’s put himself in position for a 2011 call up to the big leagues.

On the offensive side of the ball, third baseman Brandon Laird led the way in terms of breakouts. He took home Double-A Eastern League MVP honors with a .371 wOBA, then moved up to Triple-A late in the year as a reward. Second baseman David Adams was right behind Laird in the breakout department, though his season ended prematurely due to a broke ankle. He was wOBA’ing .392 through 173 plate appearances before suffering the injury trying to break up a double play. Gary Sanchez made his pro debut and put up a .364 wOBA as a 17-year-old, leading the rookie level Gulf Coast League in basically every significant offensive category despite being promoted with three weeks left in the season. Austin Romine wore down during his first full season as an everyday catcher, but he still set career highs with 31 doubles and 36 unintentional walks.

While those are the headliners, what shouldn’t be forgotten is the amount of depth the Yanks have accumulated, especially on the mound. Adam Warren reached Double-A a year after being drafted and put up a 2.66 FIP in 135.1 total innings. David Phelps had a 2.65 FIP in 158.2 IP and reached Triple-A. Ivan Nova put together a 3.54 FIP in Triple-A before coming to the big leagues. Lance Pendleton (3.93 FIP), Shaeffer Hall (2.96), and Graham Stoneburner (2.73) all deserve to be mentioned as well.  Oh yeah, and then there’s Hector Noesi, who climbed from High-A Tampa to Triple-A Scranton, posting a 2.80 FIP in a system leading 160.1 IP. All he did was represent the organization at the Future’s Game.

Generally unsung players like righty Craig Heyer (2.27 FIP in 92 IP), first/third baseman Rob Lyerly (.351 wOBA), and jack-of-all-trades Kevin Mahoney (.402 wOBA at four different levels) put themselves on the map with big years. Toolsy outfielder Melky Mesa finally started to turn those tools into production, winning High-A Florida State League MVP honors thanks to a .378 wOBA. That performance earned him a spot on the 40-man roster after the season. Bradley Suttle recovered from a year-long hiatus due to a pair of shoulder surgeries to post a .348 wOBA. Slade Heathcott (.331 wOBA) and J.R. Murphy (.320 wOBA) held their own as teenagers making their full season debut. It’s easy to forget about Corban Joseph (.367 wOBA in the FSL before moving up to Double-A at age 21) and Brett Marshall (2.70 FIP in 84 IP after coming back from Tommy John surgery), two of the system’s highest upside players.

Heathcott during Spring Training. (Photo Credit: Andy in Sunny Daytona)

A few of the players that did stumble a bit were quickly moved in trades before their stock fell any further. Mark Melancon‘s usually strong control had deserted him, and he was sporting a 4.11 FIP in Triple-A (after years of being in the 2.00’s) when he was sent to Houston in the Lance Berkman trade. Zach McAllister‘s inability to miss bats (5.98 K/9)and sudden case of homeritis (1.29 HR/9) earned him a trip to Cleveland as the player to be named in the Austin Kearns deal. His FIP at the time of the trade sat at 4.73, and his previous career worst was 3.26, set two seasons ago. Jeremy Bleich was awful (4.82 FIP) before undergoing season ending shoulder surgery and Chris Garcia’s season lasted one start before he needed a second Tommy John surgery. That’s pretty much the extent of the major negatives from the 2010 season.

I hope everyone understands just how much of a success this year was for the Yankees’ farm system. The number of players that stepped up and improved far exceeded the number of those that took a step back or got hurt. It’s the closest thing to a best case scenario that I can remember, and as a result the Yanks now legitimately have a top ten farm system after being ranked in the 20’s last offseason. There’s depth in all forms; impact players both on the mound and in the field, useful role players and relievers, and plenty of trade fodder. It was a great year on the farm, one that will unquestionably help the Yanks going forward, one way or another.

Japanese club working to sign Thames

Via NPB Tracker, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are working to sign free agent outfielder/designated hitter Marcus Thames. Thames, of course, was fantastic after signing a dirt cheap minor league deal with the Yankees last year, exceeding all expectations by hitting .288/.350/.491 (.365 wOBA) overall. He was brought in to mash left-handers and he did just that (.365 wOBA), but he was much better than expected against right-handers as well (.382).

At 33 years old (34 in March) and coming off his best season in half-a-decade, Marcus is probably looking to cash in on what his likely his last opportunity for a big payday. If Softbank offers him two or more guaranteed years at something like $1.5-2M annually, I’m not sure Thames could turn that down.

What Went _____: Joba Chamberlain

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Over the past four seasons, few Yankees have inspired as much analysis, hand-wringing and debate than Joba Chamberlain. He seems to embody both the impossibly high expectations the Yankees and their fans place on young players and the ways in which the organization seemingly cannot get out of its own way when it comes to developing young pitchers. In that latter sense, then, Joba’s 2010 campaign is a microcosm of his career. Joba made 73 appearances, and the results should have been better than they were.

By now we know the Joba story. Drafted out of Nebraska in 2006, Joba rocketed through the system in 2007 as a starter and made his Yankee debut in August of that year as a reliever when Kyle Farnsworth could not be trusted. Limited by the Joba Rules, Chamberlain dazzled out of the pen, and his initial success set himself up for inevitable failure. Transitioned into the starting rotation in 2008, he was excellent until a shoulder injury in Texas derailed his season, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in 2009, he didn’t regain his velocity. When the team again instituted a variety of rules at the end of last year, the Yanks seemed to consider him a lost soul at the ripe old age of 24.

Heading into Spring Training in February, the Yankees had reportedly planned to host a competition for the fifth starter spot, but it was an unfair one from the start. Before camp began, Joel Sherman reported that the rotation spot was Phil Hughes‘ to lose, and Joba stumbled through Grapefruit League play. Destined for the bullpen, Joba inherited the eighth inning role and seemed to excel.

Through mid-May, Joba was as good as we could have hoped. He struck out 21 over his first 16.2 innings and allowed just four runs on 12 hits and five walks. But after giving up a combined seven earned runs in back-to-back appearances on May 16 and 18, the wheels fell off. From May 16-July 25, Joba pitched to an 8.42 ERA as opponents hit .348/.408/.500. Stick Joba on the mound, and everyone became Albert Pujols.

Over that span of 26 appearances, Joba gave up runs in 11 of them, and he did so in spectacular fashion. He allowed four runs to Boston in the 8th inning of a game the Yanks were winning and then choked away a six-run lead against the hapless Indians two weeks later. His nadir came on July 10 when he came in with a 1-0 lead and gave up a grand slam to Jose Lopez.

But through it all, the numbers just didn’t add up. Over those 25.2 innings, Joba had a FIP of 3.49, a mark nearly 5 runs per 9 innings lower than his actual results. He was still striking out more than a batter an inning, and the home run to Lopez was just the second he had surrendered all season. We were waiting for the market correction to come, and it finally did in late July.

Over the final two months of the season, Joba returned to form. In 29.1 innings, he struck out 30, walked just five and gave up seven earned runs on 20 hits for a nifty 2.15 ERA and a FIP — 2.89 — nearly to match. Joba saw limited playoff action in 2010 but gave up just a run in 3.3 innings against the Rangers.

The 2010 data on Joba's fastball velocity shows an upward trend. (Via Fangraphs)

So what do we make of this? On the one hand, Joba’s 9.7 K/9 IP was his best mark since 2008; his 2.8 BB/9 IP was his lowest since his debut season in 2007; and he showed a marked improvement in keeping the ball in the park. On the other hand, at times, he just didn’t have the confidence in his stuff. He threw too many 3-2 sliders and seemed tentative. Even though his velocity seemed to return to pre-shoulder injury levels and improved as the season wore on, he went through stretches where he fooled no one.

The numbers too bear out these struggles. Fewer than half of his pitches were inside the strike zone, and only 9.4 percent of his strikes were of the swinging variety. In 2007, he notched an impressive 16.7 percent mark in that category. His fastball, a whopping negative 20 runs below average last year, rebounded to 2.8 runs above average while the slider dipped from 7.6 runs above average to just 3.6. Perhaps the league has caught on to Joba’s approach and his stuff. Perhaps he’ll never be as consistently good as he was for a few months in 2007.

Going forward, the Yankees seem intent on keeping Joba in the bullpen. “We consider him a bullpen guy in the back end of the bullpen,” Joe Girardi said last month. Even though Joba’s stuff seems to be rebounding, even though he can gets the outs and could be a more valuable member of the pitching staff, the Yanks like his stuff in the pen and clearly view him as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera if he can keep his head in the game.

And so I’m left without a word to put into the blank. Did Joba’s season go wrong because of his mid-summer struggles? Did it go right because it validated the Yanks’ decision to put him in the pen and saw his strike out abilities return? Whatever the answer, Joba remains an enigma who just might not be as good as we all hoped and dreamed he would be.

GM Meetings Notes: Pettitte, Aldred, Peterson

"Tell Derek we'll give him a G4. A G6 is out of the question." (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

The annual General Manager Meetings officially start tomorrow in Orlando, though the hot stove is a 24 hours-a-day league. Most of the items on this week’s agenda involve off-the-field stuff like rules and the draft and what not, but of course there will be rumors. Oh yes, there will be rumors. Here’s what Brian Cashman had to say this evening (sources in parenthesis)…

  • There’s still no word as to whether or not Andy Pettitte plans to pitch in 2011 (Jon Paul Morosi). Pettitte recently indicated that if he does pitch next season, it will be his last. Don’t go yet, Andy.
  • Triple-A Scranton pitching coach Scott Aldred will interview for the team’s vacant pitching coach position later this week (Marc Carig). Leo Mazzone is not a candidate for the job after turning them down about five years ago. You might remember that the long-time Braves’ pitching guru said he’s interested in the job a few weeks ago. He’s been out of the game for three seasons now.
  • Cashman would neither confirm nor deny that former Mets’ pitching coach Rick Peterson is a candidate for the Yankee job (Anthony McCarron). The Brewers canned Peterson on Monday, unsurprising after hiring a new manager. The official RAB stance is a “no” on Peterson, who’s a big time control freak and hasn’t done much of anything since getting away from those three great arms with the Athletics half-a-decade ago. Then again, it’s not easy for fans to evaluate pitching coaches since basically all of their work goes on behind the scenes.
  • Cash hopes to bring the rest of the coaching staff back intact, though Mike Harkey could end up in the dugout as the pitching coach rather than out beyond the right-centerfield wall as bullpen coach (Chad Jennings). Hitting coach Kevin Long already agreed to a fat new deal, so that leaves Harkey, bench coach Tony Pena, first base coach Mick Kelleher, and third base coach Rob Thomson. Both Pena and Thomson have been mentioned as managerial candidates elsewhere, but those jobs are quickly going to other people.
  • The Yankees don’t think that Derek Jeter would ultimately decide to leave the New York, but they’re preparing themselves for a long and presumably grueling negotiation (Jon Heyman). Would it be wise for Jeter to wait this one out and let some other free agents sign to take away the team’s back-up plans? Who else is there anyway?
  • “I’m not optimistic that we’re going to get anything done from a Yankees perspective,” said Cashman (Bryan Hoch). “Maybe we will from an industry perspective. From a Yankee perspective, we’ll gather as much information as we can, but I don’t think there’s anything close enough for us to act on.” Doesn’t sound like he expects them to pull off any big trades or sign any free agents this week, but remember that the wheels of the Curtis Granderson trade were first put into motion at least year’s GM Meetings

And finally, congrats to VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman for winning the Sheldon “Chief” Bender Award, given for distinguished service in minor league player development. Given the monster year the farm system had, he deserves it. A job well done.

Tex’s hamstring rehab going well

I stumbled across this short video interview USA Today’s Michael McCarthy conducted with Mark Teixeira recently, and although it’s not much more than a few cream puff questions, there is some useful info in there regarding his injured right hamstring. Tex says that everything is going well and he’s working out six days a week, three of which are focused exclusively on the hamstring. He added that if this was the middle of the season, he’d be able to play in about a week, four weeks out from the injury. The original diagnosis called for a six-to-eight week recovery.

So that’s good, glad he’s healing well. Check out the rest of the video, Tex picks on Jimmy Rollins a bit towards the end.

Open Thread: Why signing bench players isn’t worth it

Geoff Blum doing something to help his team lose. (AP Photo)

Geoff Blum, he of the .242/.299/.368 batting line since 2004 (2,390 plate appearances), signed a two-year deal worth $2M with the Diamondbacks today. Two years, $2M. He’ll turn 38 in April. Again, two years, $2M. Sure, he can play all over the field, but his UZR’s are negative pretty much everywhere. For roughly the league minimum, Ramiro Pena or Eduardo Nunez will suck just as much. Having a good bench is a tremendous advantage, but Blum represents the kind of help that’s out there. It’s awful, which is why going in-house or making trades for reserves is the way to go.

Anyway, here’s tonight’s open thread. MNF has the Eagles at the Redskins, plus you’ve also got the Rangers, Devils, and Nets in action. Chat about whatever you like, just don’t be a dick.

Yanks announce ’11 tix as bleachers up to $15

The Yankees unveiled their 2011 ticket prices this afternoon, and while most prices will not go up, the team announced increases for six price points including the bleachers. While most tickets that are witnessing an increase will go up by $5, the $12 bleacher seats will now cost $15 for both season-ticket packages and single-game sales. The $5 obstructed-view seats will remain as such, and the Yankees are not cutting any ticket prices this year.

Yankees’ COO Lonn Trost spoke this afternoon with Mike Francesa about the rationale behind the ticket increases, and he explained how the team used the secondary market to gauge demand. Since the Yanks routinely saw bleacher seats sold at 175 percent mark-ups, the team determined they could raise the prices and opted for a 25-percent mark-up. The 2011 ticket prices are listed at the Yankees’ website, and I’ll try to summarize the key increases.

While 54 percent of Yankee Stadium seats will still be priced at $50 or less, a good portion of the seats in the lower levels will see increases. In the Main Level, Sections 205-209 and 231-234, prices are increasing by $5 from $45 to $50 for a full season and $50 to $55 for partial ticket holders. Seats in sections 210-212 and 228-230 will rise from $60-$65 for full packages, but partials will stay at $70. Main level seats in sections 213-214b and 226-227b will increase from $75 to $80.

At the field level, rows 12-30 in sections 116-124 will increase to $260 full plan holders. Game-day ticket prices for these seats will increase from $300 to $325. Season tickets for the field level, rows 15-30 in sections 112-113 and 127b-128 and rows 1-14 in sections 108-11 and 129-131 will now cost $110 for a full plan holders and $115 for partial plan holders. Rows 15-30 in sections 108-111 and 129-131 will now cost $80 for full plans.

In addition to the prices that are going up, Trost mentioned that the team will soon be selling ticket packages for multiple seasons that are locked in at the purchase price. For example, fans who buy tickets for three years at the 2011 price point won’t have to pay for price increases in the years that covered by the initial purchase contract.

Of course, no one wants to see ticket prices increase, but Trost’s claims bear out the increase. He says that the Yanks are constantly playing to 95 percent capacity, and even when the seats appear empty on TV, the tickets have been sold. Either fans are no-shows — which happens a small percentage of the time — or they are wandering the stadium. The Yankee Museum, Trost said, has been a very popular in-game destination, and the various bars and restaurants have drawn fans away from their seats as well.

Essentially, the increases are a prime example of ticket economics at work. The Yankees might be increasing their payroll and know that the secondary market supports higher prices. The team wants to and can capture that revenue. Thus, many people will be paying more for their tickets come 2011.

Yanks “expecting a sell-out” for Saturday’s Army/Notre Dame game

During his interview with Francesa, Trost spoke about the debut of college football at Yankee Stadium. Because the new stadium cost so much to build, the Yankees need it to become a year-round venue, and Trost has spent a lot of time working to ensure a smooth game on Saturday. If ticket sales are any indication, he will succeed.

The team has sold 51,000 tickets for the game, and while a few seats remain, the club is “expecting a sell-out.” Astute readers will note that Yankee Stadium’s baseball capacity is under that 51,000 mark, and Trost says they’ve added seats by installing temporary bleachers in the bullpens and on the field. For those heading to the game, Metro-North is running extra trains as well.