And the drum beats on: Michael Pineda, velocity, and AAA

(AP Photo)

Last year, when he was competing for a spot in the Mariners rotation, Michael Pineda did not face intense scrutiny. People watched and dissected his performances, as they do for every pitcher. But given the Seattle media market combined with the Mariners current place in the baseball world, the attention paid him was relatively mild. One year later, you can’t click on three Yankees-related links without seeing a Pineda mention. And most of it isn’t exactly glowing.

The level of scrutiny that Pineda faces is new to him, though it’s not to us. We’ve seen it happen dozens of times before. In Pineda’s case it makes all the sense in the world. He’s a young pitcher with high expectations, due to his 2011 performance, his former top prospect status, and the trade that brought him to New York. Yet it seems that attention paid him has gone from intense to overkill. Let’s quickly review the timeline of Pineda’s brief Yankees tenure.

1. When the Yankees acquired Pineda, Brian Cashman himself said that Pineda adding a changeup to his arsenal was the key to his success. Many analysts and scouts agreed.

2. Pineda comes into camp overweight, a cause for instant criticism.

3. Pineda receives early praise for his changeup, and throws it often in his early spring outings.

4. Now lacking a point of criticism, the media turns to his missing velocity as a point of major concern.

5. He builds velocity over a few starts, going from 89-91 in his first start to hitting 94 in his most recent one. But that’s not 96-97, so the criticism continues.

It’s all a bit absurd, and it grows even more so. At least one beat writer has led the charge in calling for Pineda to start the season in AAA, criticizing him at every opportunity (and even when there is no clear opportunity). Thankfully, the Yankees don’t operate to satiate the media and their desire for clicks and page views. They operate in a manner that will benefit them on the field, both now and in the future.

Are there solid, logical arguments for Pineda to start the season in AAA? There is the issue of his service clock, which the Yankees could delay by starting him in the minors. That would afford them another year of control, making Pineda a free agent after the 2017 season rather than 2016. Held back long enough, they could even delay his arbitration clock, setting his first hearing for 2015 rather than 2014. That seems like a decent incentive, especially knowing the front office’s desire — nay, mandate, as Hal Steinbrenner tells it — to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for the 2014 season.

Today at FanGraphs Dave Cameron offered an additional argument. He points to Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner, who, like Pineda, experienced a drop in velocity when he came into camp before the 2010 season. Cameron admits that the situations don’t line up, but I think he undersells the degree of difference between Pineda and Bumgarner. Bumgarner had experienced his velocity dip during the 2009 season. When it persisted in 2010 spring training, the Giants decided to keep him in the minors. This is quite different from Pineda, who not only spent all of 2011 in the majors, but also retained his velocity throughout (discounting his final start, which came on 11 days’ rest).

What both the service time and the Bumgarner arguments miss is the effect a minor league assignment would have on Pineda. Instead of looking at the situation from your armchair, look at it from Pineda’s point of view. He pitched successfully for a full major league season. He has pitched reasonably well all spring — better, certainly, than at least Ivan Nova, if not others. And now the Yankees are going to send you to the minors to work on your velocity, with the added benefit of them gaining more of your services for a cheaper price. Oh, and by the way, the Triple-A team is on a perpetual road trip because of stadium renovations. How would you feel if you were in his shoes? It’s an important consideration — as Joe Torre liked to say, there’s a heartbeat to the game.

If the Yankees feel that they can get the most out of Pineda by sending him to the minors, and if they think his confidence won’t go into the crapper, then it’s something to consider. But by all indications, this is a guy who has given it his all this spring. He might have shown up a bit overweight, but are we going to blame a 23-year-old for taking it easy the off-season after experiencing his most intense workload ever? Even so, Cashman says he’s already dropped 12 pounds and has worked as hard as anyone this spring. Is that someone you want to send away? Or is it someone you want to put in your rotation? He is, after all, one of the five most talented pitchers in camp. It seems like he should be treated as such.

At long last, Rafael DePaula gets his visa

Update (6:16pm): Here’s is Ben Badler’s report. He says recent reports still have DePaula running his fastball up into the high-90s. The physical should be a non-issue — he’s been working out at the team’s Dominican complex for the last 14 months or so — and I assume the Yankees will hold him back in Extended Spring Training for a bit before bumping him to Low-A Charleston. DePaula figures to be on a faster track than most international free agent pitchers.

2:33pm: Via Ben-Nicholson Smith, Dominican right-hander Rafael DePaula has finally landed a visa. The soon-to-be 21-year-old was having trouble getting to States because of a suspension stemming from age and identity fraud several years ago. The Yankees agreed to sign him for $500k back in November 2010, though the deal was contingent on him securing a visa. With that taken care of, now all he has to do is pass his physical. DePaula is a significant prospect, arguably top ten in the system, but he lost a big chunk of development time this last year or so. Here’s some video.

JoVa growing tired of Triple-A

Life as a 30-year-old Triple-A slugger can be tough, especially when you’re with the Yankees and there’s no clear path to the big leagues. That’s the life of Jorge Vazquez, who hit .262/.314/.516 with 32 homers in Triple-A last year but has received close to zero consideration for the DH spot or even a bench job in the Bronx. Unsurprisingly, he’s getting kinda fed up and looking for a change.

“If they don’t give him an opportunity this year, he wants them to trade him, or to go to [play] baseball in the East,” said the president of JoVa’s former Mexican League team recently (via MLBTR). “He doesn’t want to continue on in Triple-A anymore, not just with the Yankees, but with any other organization as well.”

We’ve heard rumors of Vazquez pursuing opportunities in Japan before, and yet he’s in camp with the Yankees right now. The guy has serious power but he’s a total hacker, striking out 314 times (28.6%) and unintentionally walking just 47 times (4.3%) since signing with New York midway through the 2009 season. He gets himself out too much and that power won’t show up consistently against big league hurlers because of it. I understand being frustrated, but if he wants to go, the Yankees shouldn’t stand in his way.

Yanks place 13th in Baseball America’s organization rankings

When Baseball America released their 2012 Prospect Handbook, they said the Yankees had the sixth best farm system in baseball. Things have changed since they went to press in December, most notably the Jesus Montero trade. The Yankees now rank 13th in their updated organization rankings, which were published today. The list is free, but you need a subscription to read the individual write-ups.

“New York has a number of intriguing position prospects in C Gary Sanchez, OFs Mason Williams and Ravel Santana and 3B Dante Bichette Jr., though none has played above low Class A,” said BA. “The same is true of RHP Jose Campos, another part of the Montero/(Michael) Pineda deal.” They note that the team still has catching depth even without Montero, but that it’s unlikely they’ll get a significant contribution from a rookie player this season. I’m sure we’ll see David Phelps, Adam Warren, and/or D.J. Mitchell at some point, but right now the plan is to not need those guys for anything substantial.

Keith Law had the Yankees tenth while Kevin Goldstein had them 15th. So we’ve got one at ten, one at 15, and one right in the middle. I guess that means the consensus is the 10-15 range, which sounds about right to me. Hopefully some of those Low-A kids really take a step forward in their develop and have a big season in 2012, pushing the Yankees back into the top ten.

2012 Season Preview: Depth

Hooray fourth outfielder. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

The Yankees used 46 different players en route to winning the AL East last season, including 28 different pitchers. The Red Sox learned the hard way that opening the year with five solid starters isn’t enough to secure a playoff spot — the numbers six, seven, and eight starters are pretty important as well. Whether it’s injury, ineffectiveness, or just the need to change things up on occasion, every club will need to dip into its system and call up players at some point during the season. In many case, it’s the difference between playing for a title and going home early.

Thanks to a strong farm system and the fact that players are now willing to assume lesser roles in New York, the Yankees have been able to build a very nice stockpile of secondary players should a need arise at some point, which it will.

Catcher
Russell Martin and Frankie Cervelli are one of the better starter-backup catching tandems in the game, but Jesus Montero is no longer around threatening to steal playing time. The third string backstop this year is Austin Romine, who probably needs a full season’s worth of Triple-A plate appearances more than anything. Gus Molina was up briefly last year, but he’s unlikely to get the call in 2012 unless things go really wrong.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Infield
With injuries becoming a bigger concern as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez march into their late-30s, Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez become a bit more important than your typical reserve infielders. Chavez is injury prone himself, so really it’s Nunez that is most important. He came to the plate 338 times last season and could be poised for even more this work this year as Jeter and A-Rod get more days off and time at DH in an effort to remain on the field.

With Corban Joseph and David Adams still in need of minor league seasoning, Ramiro Pena and Brandon Laird are the primary 40-man roster depth pieces on the infield. Pena can’t hit a lick but is a very strong glove man while Laird is more of a hacker with a solid but unspectacular glove. I’m assuming that Russell Branyan and Bill Hall will exercise their opt-out clauses before the season if they don’t make the club, but minor league contract signee Jayson Nix will still be around and could become a factor. The Yankees are fine in terms of short-term replacements, but a significant injury to any of the four regular infielders would likely result in a trade for adequate help.

Outfield
The starting outfield trio has been relatively durable over the last few years, but the Yankees do have Andruw Jones just in case. He has to be in any conversation about the game’s best fourth outfielders. Raul Ibanez and Nunez and the emergency fifth and sixth outfielders only. Justin Maxwell is out of minor league options and having a fantastic spring (.435/.519/.652 in 23 at-bats), and I think he’ll be traded before the season just because there’s no room for him barring injury. It’s either lose him on waivers or trade him for a minimal return.

Chris Dickerson has already been removed from the 40-man roster, but he should be the first in line should help be needed. He can’t hit lefties but he does hold his own against righties while offering defense and speed. Dewayne Wise is a defensive specialist and penciled into a regular outfield spot in Triple-A. We saw Colin Curtis in 2010 but he’s further down the depth chart. Cole Garner as well. Forty-man roster guys Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa are slated for Double-A and won’t be factors this year. Jones is a great backup plan, though most of the true outfield depth players are defense-first types and won’t be able to replace much offense.

Starting Pitchers
It’s hard not to get excited about all the quality arms the Yankees have at their disposal this season. Assuming Phil Hughes wins the rigged fifth starter competition, Freddy Garcia is ticketed for long relief come Opening Day. Andy Pettitte will return about a month into the season to give the team seven legitimate big league starters for five spots.

The Triple-A rotation is going to be full of prospects, with David Phelps, Adam Warren, and D.J. Mitchell likely to get the call ahead of Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. Phelps and Mitchell are on the 40-man roster, but I can’t imagine the Yankees would hesitate to call up Warren if needed. All three of those guys have been impressive in camp and would probably be contending for rotation spots with other teams. There will be no Shawn Chacon-style trades or Sidney Ponson signings or Aaron Small desperation moves this year, the Yankees have starting pitching coming out of their ears. The smart money is on them needing most of it as well.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Bullpen
Assuming the final bullpen spot goes to a second lefty like Clay Rapada or Cesar Cabral, the Yankees will have right-hander George Kontos a phone call away this summer. He’s the early favorite to the ride the Bronx-Empire State shuttle this year. Phelps, Warren, and particularly Mitchell are all candidates for bullpen duty just like Hector Noesi last season. Left-hander Mike O’Connor and righties Adam Miller and Matt Daley have been around the block and will be stashed in Triple-A on minor league pacts. I didn’t think we’d see Buddy Carlyle or Amaury Sanit or Lance Pendleton last year, but there they were. If someone is on the Triple-A pitching staff, they have a chance to be called up.

* * *

It’s important to remember that depth players can help the club in more ways than one. They could directly contribute on the field, but they could also serve as trade bait. The Phelps, Warren, and Mitchell triumvirate is prime trade fodder, especially after the Pettitte signing. We’re going to see those guys in the show in some capacity this year, but don’t be surprised if one is dealt at some point. Laird could be moved as well, though he doesn’t have a ton of value. They can’t keep everyone, you know.

Phil Hughes & New Beginnings

The hot story of Spring Training has been Michael Pineda and his weight, his velocity, and his changeup. We hear about it everyday for better or worse, but that’s just part of the game now. Phil Hughes went through all of that stuff last year; he’s been there, done that. He’s been part of rotation competitions, been under the microscope, and had to answer questions about his missing velocity. Last season was basically a lost year for the 25-year-old, but the struggles appear to have led to refocused and rededicated Hughes.

“I feel a lot better,” he said yesterday. “It’s easier to sleep at night for sure compared to last year. Hearing the velocity issues and knowing that something’s not right. Right now I just feel like I can go out and pitch and not worry about all that stuff. Get my changeup going. Throw my breaking ball. Just worry about pitching and not necessarily throwing the ball as hard as I can to generate velocity.”

Hughes worked out at Athletes Performance Institute this offseason and reported to camp in noticeably better shape. The shoulder inflammation that cost him velocity and effectiveness early last year appears to be a thing of the past, as he’s regularly sat in the low-90s with the occasional 94 during exhibition games. His curveball even regained some bite and yesterday he threw more than a handful of changeups. You can see two of better ones at 0:31 and 0:41 of this video.

“I feel like he is throwing almost better than he ever has,” said one scout to Andrew Marchand. “That good curveball seems to have comeback … Unless he has a setback, he has to be a starter.” Another scout told Erik Boland that Hughes is a “totally different pitcher than last spring.”

The fifth starter competition is apparently rigged in Hughes’ favor, just like it was two years ago. Freddy Garcia is a nice guy and an effective pitcher, but he’s going to be gone after the season if not sooner. Hughes is still under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2013, and I do think the Yankees owe it to themselves to see what they can get out of him, if anything. After all the innings limits and injuries and rotation-to-bullpen-to-rotation nonsense, let’s just see him pitch this summer and hope for the best. It’ll be easier to stomach as the fifth starter rather than the third starter like he was expected to be at this time last year.

“It’s hard to worry about [my role] when I just come in and do my work and do everything I can and just leave everything else up to the organization,” said Hughes. “Whether it’s signing Andy Pettitte or coming in with six guys for five spots, whatever it is, I’m just trying to show the best stuff that I can and see where it takes me.”

Phil Hughes still has a long way to go as far as being a reliable big league starter, especially one for the Yankees. He’s ridden the career roller coaster already and is again starting anew this season, showing livelier stuff and an emphasis on conditioning that is encouraging if not overdue. “It was a long hard season for him [in 2011],” said Joe Girardi yesterday, “and sometimes those can be the seasons where we learn the most.”

[Photo via Nick Laham/Getty]

Forbes: Yanks worth $1.85 billion

With Opening Day just a few weeks away, Forbes released its annual MLB valuations today, and once again, the Yankees are the game’s top dogs. According to the business mag, the Yanks are worth a cool $1.85 billion, up nine percent over 2011. Interestingly enough, Forbes guesses that the club itself turns a profit of only around $10 million a year with the money generated through live TV programming. In other words, the dollars are in the TV rights.

“The Rolls-Royce of the RSN model is the New York Yankees, who own 34% of the YES Network,” Mike Ozanian wrote. “The Bronx Bombers are the most valuable team in baseball, worth $1.85 billion, tying them with the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys for the top spot among American sports teams and placing them second in the world to Manchester United, the English soccer team worth $1.9 billion. YES generated a staggering $224 million in operating income and paid the Yankees a $90 million rights fee in 2011.”

For what it’s worth, only two teams — the Mets and Rays — saw their values decline from 2011 as legal woes for the former and attendance woes for the latter were the main drivers there. Meanwhile, it’s somewhat incongruous to hear how the Yanks are eying “austerity” budgets of only $189 million for 2014 and 2015, but that’s how baseball economics work these days. The Dodgers, currently undergoing a sale and with their TV rights up for renewal, will set the market, but if the Steinbrenner family ever wanted to sell, they could command a pretty penny for the crown jewel of Major League Baseball.