Series Preview: Yankees (34-20) at Blue Jays (31-24)

Right now the Yankees sit three and a half games ahead of the Blue Jays, but that was just two games a week ago. Unfortunately for the Jays they ran into the first place Rays this week while the Yankees beat up on the Orioles (though Toronto did sweep Baltimore themselves last weekend). This is the second straight tough series for the Jays, and the first time they’ll face the Yanks this season.

I don’t think anyone expected the Jays to be playing this well at this point in the season. Yet looking at their numbers, it appears they’re at least somewhat legit. They rank near the top of the league in hitting and pitching, but just can’t back that up with defense. Imagine what this would look like if they had adequate players in the field? The AL East might be an even tighter race.

On the offensive side, the Jays have impressed with their power. They lead the AL in SLG by a decent margin, 12 points. That will create an interesting matchup on Sunday, when Javy Vazquez, homer prone even on his best day, takes the mound. Beyond power, their offense doesn’t have much of which to speak. Their .248 BA ranks 10th in the AL, and their .312 team OBP ranks 13th, a point below the Mariners.

The real surprise this season has been Jose Bautista. He did reach a career high last year with a .339 wOBA, but that’s just a tick above league average. This year he has destroyed the ball, a .404 wOBA that includes 16 home runs and 12 doubles. He even has a .370 OBP to go with it, thanks to his 15.2 percent walk rate. He’s a huge reason that they’ve been able to cover for one of the worst No. 2 hitters in the league, as well as a disappointing No. 3 hitter.

In terms of their arms, the Jays rank near the top of the league, which is a scary prospect for the future of the AL East. Shaun Marcum has come back stronger than ever after Tommy John surgery, Ricky Romero has made vast strides in his second year, as has Brett Cecil. If Brandon Morrow ever learns to throw strikes that rotation could be one of the strongest in baseball, and they still have a number of high profile guys on the farm.

The deficiency, as the table shows, comes from the fielding. As the table shows, the Jays pitchers have done a good job in terms of strikeouts, walks, and home runs, but on balls in play they’re not quite as strong. That shows up not just in their UZR, but also in their defensive rank vs. their pitching rank. If they had better fielders, perhaps they’d be even higher in the AL East right now.

Pitching matchups

Friday: A.J. Burnett (3.28 ERA, 3.61 FIP) vs. Brett Cecil (3.81 ERA, 3.26 FIP)

I was afraid this was going to happen. When the Jays drafted Cecil he was a college closer. They decided to see if he could stretch out and provide some more value, and that’s exactly what he’s done. It was a rough transition last year, and if not for injuries and a little ineffectiveness in the rotation he would have spent more time at AAA. One bad start has marred his stats, a two-inning, eight-run performance against Texas on May 14. Since then he has started three games, pitching 21.2 innings and allowing just four runs. He’s not a groundball guy per se but can get one when he needs one. e also has excellent control, a BB/9 of just 2.17.

Cecil throws fastball, changeup, slider, with an occasional curveball. The fastball clocks low 90s but he has thrown it only 52.3 percent of the time. He goes to the changeup often, and he’s used it as an effective out pitch this year.

We know the story with Burnett this year: more groundballs, fewer walks. That has led to fewer strikeouts, but that could be more because of his there-today-gone-tomorrow curveball. Even with the lower strikeout total he’s been a far more effective pitcher this year, mainly because he has used at two-seam fastball to play off his four-seamer, especially when his big curveball isn’t working.

Saturday: Andy Pettitte (2.48 ERA, 3.71 FIP) vs. Ricky Romero (3.14 ERA, 2.77 FIP)

This is going to be a tough one for the Yankees. Pettitte has done a great job of keeping the ball in the ballpark this year, which should play to his advantage against the powerful Blue Jays. If he can get them to keep pounding the ball into the ground he should stay in good shape. He’ll need to be at his best, because the Yankees will face one of the hottest, if not best, pitchers they’ve seen all year.

Romero profiles much like Cecil, in that he throws a low 90s fastball. Also like Cecil, he doesn’t rely on it, throwing it just 40.5 percent of the time. He mixes that with a cut fastball at nearly the same speed, and throws that 12.7 percent, so right there he’s around Cecil’s fastball percentage. Furthering the similarity, Romero uses his changeup more than any other secondary pitch. He’ll throw the curveball sometimes, and the slider the least frequently, though when he does throw it he sees results.

As if that weren’t enough, Romero also combines two excellent traits for a pitcher: strikeouts and ground balls. He has struck out more than a batter per inning this year while keeping 56.9 percent of balls in play on the ground. That helps him keep the ball in the park and prevent the other team from getting the big hit. It has worked wonderfully for him so far.

Sunday: Javier Vazquez (6.06 ERA, 5.53 FIP) vs. Brandon Morrow (6.00 ERA, 3.93 FIP)

Someone’s defense apparently doesn’t like him. Then again, maybe it’s just that his walks have come back to bite him far worse than other pitchers. Brandon Morrow came to the Jays from the Mariners in the post Halladay-Lee deals. Picked ahead of Tim Lincecum in the 2006 draft, Morrow was something of a disappointment for the Mariners. For the Jays it looks like he could become yet another excellent cog in the rotation.

Yes, part of Morrow’s inflated ERA is his .350 BABIP. That comes from a 23.6 line drive rate, so clearly some of that is his fault. His fielders apparently aren’t helping out either. Morrow also suffers from a low strand rate, 64.4 percent, meaning that his walks, 5.37 per nine, haunt him more than other pitchers. Really, the walks are his biggest problem. That should play well with the Yanks, but if Morrow can improve on that one aspect of his game, well, I’d like to not think about that.

Morrow has more heat than Cecil and Romero, so he uses the fastball more frequently, 63.3 percent. That’s actually less frequently than in seasons past. He has started using his curveball more frequently, and it has proven an effective out pitch. He also throws a good slider, and mixes in the occasional changeup.

2010 Draft: KLaw’s Mock Draft v3.0

In his latest first round mock draft Keith Law has the Yankees taking Cal State Fullerton outfielder Gary Brown, but he also mentions that they’re in on about a million other players as well. In his last two mock drafts, he had them taking Texas prep righty Tyrell Jenkins and California high school outfielder Christian Yelich.  It’s tough to nail down the 10th overall pick, let alone the 32rd, hence all the changes.

Brown has tremendous physical gifts – the guy’s a great athlete and might be the fastest runner in this draft class (video) – but the problem is that he’s a Grade-A hacker. He’s drawn a total of 41 walks in 774 plate appearances during his three years at Fullerton, or one every 19 or so times to the plate. That’s straight up Francoeurian.Brown does have excellent bat control (just 70 career strikeouts), but man, if you’re picking a college player at 32, you need more polish than that. You can find similar skills in a high schooler and get three extra years to develop him. I’d be kinda disappointed if the Yankees took Brown with their top pick.

RAB Live Chat

2010 Pre-Draft Top 30 Prospects

Tell me this isn't an awesome picture. (Photo Credit: Andy King, AP)

When the season started, the stock line said the Yankees’ farm system had thinned out considerably over the last year because of trades, graduation, and general attrition. It was certainly true, but I think it was still a shock to everyone to see just how weak the rosters of the four full season affiliates were once the season started and DotF returned. There’s certainly some good players on each of the teams, but there’s a lot more filler and a lot fewer gotta-see-how-they-did names.

That’s the price a team pays to not just put together a World Championship club, but to sustain one. Free agent signings prior to the 2009 season robbed the Yanks of three high draft picks, and trades this past winter took away several young and talented players. The good news is that the Yanks do still have some impact prospects, though most of them are further down the ladder. Of my top eight prospects, just two are above A-ball.

This pre-draft list is more of a status update than a re-ranking, just because the season is only seven or eight weeks old and not much can change in that time. Most of the movement at the top of the list is a result of players showing us exactly what we wanted to see coming into the year rather than guys disappointing and taking a step back. Only two players from my preseason top 30 list are ineligible for this one: Frankie Cervelli because he’s eclipsed the 130 at-bat rookie limit, and Jamie Hoffmann because he was returned to the Dodgers at the end of the Spring Training.

The Yanks simply don’t have the depth that they once did, so the bottom third of the list consists of some players coming back from injury and others who project to be little more than marginal big leaguers. Don’t get too caught up in the exact placement, many of these guys are interchangeable. If you think the #29 prospect is better than the #22 prospect, you won’t get much of an argument. There’s just not much of a difference.

The level listed is where the kid is currently playing, but everything else is self-explanatory.

  1. Jesus Montero, C, AAA: no, the numbers are not where we’d like them to be (.293 wOBA), but I’m not going to dock him for struggling during his first two months in Triple-A as a 20-year-old
  2. Austin Romine, C, AA: he just keeps on getting better and better each day … like most Thunder players, he’s performed much better on the road (.380-.418-.576) than at Waterfront Park (.247-.326-.351)
  3. Slade Heathcott, CF, A-: finally promoted to a full season league this past Wednesday, he’s the system’s best combination of athleticism and baseball ability
  4. Jose Ramirez, RHSP, A-: handling his first assignment to a full season league with aplomb … 55-13 K/BB ratio and 47 hits allowed in 56 IP, but the biggest number of all is the zero homers allowed
  5. Manny Banuelos, LHSP, injured: has yet to pitch this year because of an appendectomy
  6. Andrew Brackman, RHSP, A+: he’s gotten better as he’s gotten further away from Tommy John surgery … after 6.4 BB/9 last season, he’s cut that down to 1.3 this year
  7. J.R. Murphy, C, A-: like Heathcott, he was a late add to a full season league, but there’s a case to be made that he’s the best pure hitter in the system after Montero
  8. Graham Stoneburner, RHSP, A+: dominated Low-A hitters just like he was supposed to … I was high on him out of the draft last year, and so far he’s making me look smart
  9. Zach McAllister, RHSP, AAA: solid but unspectacular during his first taste of Triple-A … the strikeouts are down (just 5.8 K/9), ditto the groundballs (40.7%, down about 10% from his career mark)
  10. Hector Noesi, RHSP, AA: seems to get better each time out … you gotta love the 61-9 K/BB ratio in 55 IP
  11. David Adams, 2B, injured: completely destroyed the Eastern League (.392 wOBA) before suffering an ankle injury trying to break up a double play
  12. Mark Melancon, RHRP, AAA: we’ve pretty much said everything that needs to be said over the last few years, just needs a chance
  13. Adam Warren, RHSP, A+: rock solid but I’m kinda surprised he’s still in Tampa … the 6.7 K/9 is low, but the 58.7 GB% is through the roof
  14. Corban Joseph, 2B, A+: we know he can hit, but we’re still not sure what else he has to offer
  15. Kelvin DeLeon, OF, ExST: will report to one of the short season leagues later this month
  16. Bryan Mitchell, RHSP, ExST: ditto DeLeon’s comment
  17. Ivan Nova, RHSP, AAA: got his first taste of the big leagues last month … nice piece of inventory to have stashed away at Triple-A
  18. Brandon Laird, 3B/1B, AA: simply annihilating the Eastern League (.381 wOBA), but he’s going to have to learn to play an outfield corner to be anything more than trade bait for the Yanks
  19. Bradley Suttle, 3B, A+: his bat has been disappointing (.291 wOBA) after missing all of 2009 with a pair of shoulder surgeries, but let’s give him the rest of the season before passing judgment
  20. David Phelps, RHSP, AA: the 440th overall pick in the 2008 continues to surprise … just 59 baserunners allowed in 63.1 IP this year
  21. Jeremy Bleich, LHSP, injured: going to be down for a while after having surgery to repair a torn labrum … has a 86-62 K/BB ratio in 106.1 IP at Double-A over the last two seasons
  22. Kevin Russo, UTIL, MLB: I’m sure he’s much happier riding the bench in the big leagues than he was playing every day in Triple-A
  23. Romulo Sanchez, RHRP, AAA: the walks are definitely too high at 5.0 BB/9, but he can miss bats and provide length out of the bullpen, and there’s value in that
  24. D.J. Mitchell, RHSP, AA: Double-A hasn’t been kind to him, but he still has time to improve the 6.4 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, and 10.5 H/9
  25. Caleb Cotham, RHSP, injured: dealing with yet another knee injury, so you have to start worrying about it becoming a chronic problem for the power pitcher
  26. Greg Golson, OF, AAA: fast, great defense, can’t hit to save his life … an outfield version of Ramiro Pena
  27. Dan Brewer, OF, AA: he’s not hitting for average (.239) or getting on base (.312) like we’ve come to expect, but he’s on pace for 46 steals, more than double his career high of 22
  28. Dellin Betances, RHSP, injured: supposedly he’ll be back with one of the affiliated teams any day now
  29. Chad Huffman, 1B/OF, AAA: his track record suggests on-base skills (career .382 OBP) and decent power (career .182 ISO), so he has value off the bench or as the righty half of a platoon
  30. Wilkin DeLaRosa, LHRP, AA: his progress has stalled since his breakout 2008 season, but he’s still a guy to watch because he’s lefthanded and throws pretty hard

Bleich is the big fall-off because of his very serious injury, but overall the top three is very good. The next tier is solid but not particularly deep, and after that you have a lot of up-and-down pieces that are probably more valuable to the Yankees as trade bait than on the field.  I’ll revisit this list soon after the August 16th signing deadline (the 15th is on a Sunday, so they pushed it back a day) to incorporate all the “new hires,” if you will.

The aging catcher conundrum

Credit: AP Photo/Peter Morgan

In just over two months, Jorge Posada will celebrate his 39th birthday, and age is starting to wear down the Yanks’ erstwhile catcher. His team has played 54 games, but Jorge has appeared in just 28 of them, slowed by various leg and muscle injuries that tend to rob older players of playing time.

Now that’s he back from the DL, Joe Girardi and the Yankee braintrust have to figure out what role Posada will play this year. As his .323/.404/.594 line shows, he can still hit, and with Nick Johnson on the 60-day DL and probably a lost cause for the season, the team has a DH hole that needs filling. Is Jorge their man?

Initially, it’s very tempting to say yes. While Jorge probably won’t sustain a 176 OPS+ throughout the rest of the season, if he can duplicate his career line — .278 average with an .862 OPS — he’d be among the top designated hitters in the American League. Furthermore, the team would be able to keep him in the lineup on a near-daily basis, something they can’t seem to do while he’s catching, and he would still get to catch a game or two a week as other players rotate through the DH spot. As much as I’m not a supporter of the rotating DH, a Jorge Posada platoon where he is in that role for five out of seven games would do wonders for the Yanks’ offense.

But it’s not as simple as all that. For one, the Yanks are facing a reluctant Posada. As ESPN New York’s Rob Parker explored yesterday, Posada is not at all keen on relinquishing his position. He is, however, willing to sacrifice some of his time behind the plate because he recognizes that age isn’t on his side. Last year, Jorge appeared in 100 games as a catcher; this year, he has seen action behind the dish in 22 contests.

“I know that I can catch and I can be out there but a lot of circumstances have come and I’m going to have to be smart about it,” Posada said to ESPN. “If I’m in the lineup, I’m happy. I would like to catch here and there sometimes, but I understand what the future holds.”

Even with Posada’s desire to catch, it’s questionable whether he should. His defensive metrics are all on the negative side, and he has thrown out just 4 of 21 base runners. That 19 percent caught stealing rate is only two ticks higher than Victor Martinez’s figure. Never a great catcher, Posada isn’t nearly as nimble behind the dish as he was in his early 30s, and his legs probably can’t stand up to the rigors of four or five more months at catcher.

The Yankees, though, have few other choices. Right now, as Posada’s foot heals and the team figures out what they have in Jorge going forward, Francisco Cervelli will continue to man the backstop. On the surface, he’s doing an admirable job, hitting .294 with a .375 on-base percentage and 24 RBI. As a back-up catcher, that’s fantastic, but as Cervelli has seen more playing time, he’s become exposed both at the plate and behind it. Hitless for June, Cervelli is now 3 for his last 27 and 10 for his last 57. That’s a .175 batting average for those keeping score at home.

Defensively, Frankie is a better catcher than Jorge, but he’s struggled throwing out runners. Opponents have stolen 18 out of 20 with Cervelli catching, and although some of that blame lies with the Yanks’ pitchers, teams will continue to run until they’re caught. Cervelli’s game, in other words, is ripe for the pickin’, and that’s exactly what teams are doing.

So the Yankees are stuck. They could risk putting their soon-to-be 39-year-old offensive weapon behind the plate and playing him until he can go no further. Or they can press into service their 24-year-old stop-gap who is supposed to keep the position warm until Jesus Montero or Austin Romine are ready for the big leagues. As a problem to have, it’s certainly not a big one, but how the Yanks address it could impact their season well into October.

Yanks take care of business, bury Orioles

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

Over the course of 162 games, teams will lose games they’re supposed to win. The last place team in a division, at least a couple of times in a year, will beat the leader. It’s part of the game. These girls know it. Yesterday seemed like it had the potential to be one of those you can’t predict baseball moments. CC Sabathia owns the Orioles. He had held them to a .582 OPS in his career, his lowest mark among AL teams. He had a 2.52 ERA against them and was 11-1 in 16 starts. His team had won 13 of those games.

Yet CC hasn’t been himself lately. He has allowed five or more runs in three of his last four starts. His ERA has climbed to above 4.00, at 4.16, which was higher, coming into the game, than that of his opponent, Kevin Millwood. That’s just not right. Still, something’s been off with CC, and with that in mind it certainly seemed like a day where the Orioles, if they caught a few breaks, could steal a win. Unfortunately for them, the Yankees’ offense was just too strong.

Biggest Hit: Alex hits it out to right

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

While Alex Rodriguez has been excellent this year, he’s not quite the A-Rod we’ve known for the past six years. Most of it’s there. He’s hitting .297 with a .376 OBP. Where he has lacked to this point, what we’ve missed, is his power. Coming into yesterday’s game his ISO was just .195, 50 points lower than the mark he posted last year after his return from hip surgery. Not that anyone’s really complaining. Again, he’s hitting just fine, and he’s playing markedly better defense. And it’s not like he has no power.

The third inning started off well. With one out Mark Teixeira ripped a changeup to left, setting himself up in scoring position for A-Rod and Cano. Millwood had already allowed two in the first, and with the Orioles offense being the Orioles offense he really had to bear down there and get A-Rod somehow. He had a plan, it appeared, Everything was down in the zone. Fastball, splitter, slider. A-Rod took the first four and worked a 2-2 count. He fouled off the next two, both fastballs, the first outside and the second low and in. A splitter in the dirt later and the two squared off on a 3-2 count. Millwood came back with a splitter, but he left it belt high outside. A-Rod got his arms extended, which, if this were Mortal Kombat, would set up his fatality.

He hit the ball on a line, but with the close and low fence in right it was a sure home run. That put the Yanks on top 4-1, and they’d pick up another after a walk and pair of singles. Even with a mistake-prone Sabathia on the mound that was more than enough.

Biggest Pitches: The home runs

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

Through the first two innings CC Sabathia looked like his normal, invincible self. He was hitting his spots and his stuff was working. In any case, he plowed through the first six Orioles hitter with aplomb, using just 21 pitches to set them down in order. Adam Jones led off the second, and Sabathia started him with a fastball low and away for called strike one. On the next pitch he came inside with a fastball, but he let it catch too much of the plate. Jones hit it perfectly, sending it into the visitor’s bullpen for his team’s first run.

That wasn’t especially worrisome at the time. Even with Sabathia’s recent troubles, it was hard to get too worked up over one solo shot. Sure enough he went right back to work, retiring the next three hitters on just 10 pitches. He needed just nine to get through the fourth and would have been out of the fifth with 11 if he hadn’t made a poor throw to first. That cost him eight pitches, all fastballs, to backup catcher Craig Tatum. Nine pitches after that he was done with the sixth.

What followed was strange, mainly because of what had come before. He had thrown just 70 pitches through six innings, and if not for his own blunder it could have been as low as 62. Imagine that. Sixty-two pitches through six. Even at 70 he was in complete game mode. He did record the first out in the seventh, but it took him six pitches. Ty Wigginton singled next, but that was no big deal. Only the Orioles second hit of the game. Then came the mistake. Sabathia missed with two fastballs to Luke Scott. Again he went to the fastball, but this one was right down Broadway. Out it went, and the Orioles had put the game within three.

Things looked really down when he walked Garrett Atkins, but all became right after that. But he had thrown 23 pitches in the inning, and at 93 pitches and the game within three Girardi went to his setup-closer tandem, Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera, to seal it. Though there was a slight hiccup in the ninth, the good guys won again.

As long as Curtis Granderson continues hitting, I will write about him

It was another multi-hit day for Curtis Granderson, including an RBI single in the third that not only put the Yankees up 5-1, but also set up first and third with one out. Since his return he is 10 for 24 with four doubles and a homer. He’s also playing, by the eye’s measure, excellent defense in center. This is the guy the Yankees traded for this winter, the veteran, the finished product that could step in and become a part of the Yankees’ lineup. He still doesn’t have a set spot — long-term he’s more of a No. 2 than a No. 7, but those are the breaks when Swisher is killing the ball.

In the future I’d like to see Granderson stealing a bit more. Clearly he’s taking it easy, but soon enough he’s going to feel 100 percent. With Francisco Cervelli and Brett Gardner batting behind him, attempting the base becomes a more viable option than if he has Teixeira and A-Rod behind him. If he and Gardner can get going on the base paths, the Yankees will have added yet another dimension to the starting lineup.

Picture of Gardner’s homer

Because the little dude has as many home runs this year as Jason Bay. (With a nod to Greg Fertel.)

Photo credit: Seth Wenig/AP

Boring green line and box score

It feels like we’ve seen the same green line for the past three days. Can’t we change the channel?

This and more numbers at FanGraphs. Or you can try the more traditional box score.

Next Up

I can’t wait for tomorrow’s series preview. It’s the perplexingly good Blue Jays, with lefty Brett Cecil on the mound, against A.J. Burnett.

Trenton bullpen coughs it up late

Remember when Jon Weber hit .452-.452-.581 in Spring Training and people were saying he would have beaten out Marcus Thames for the final bench spot if he wasn’t a lefty hitter? Yeah, he got released today after hitting .258-.333-.325 in 47 games with Triple-A Scranton. Those Spring Training stats … they’ll get you every time.

Robert Pimpsner put together a preliminary roster (i.e. not official) for Short Season Staten Island, who start their season two weeks from tomorrow on the 18th. That seems a little early, but maybe it’s just me. Rookie level GCL Yanks start their season a few days later on the 21st. Remember, both of those teams will feature lots of 2010 draftees.

Triple-A Scranton (11-3 loss to Durham)
Reegie Corona, 2B & Reid Gorecki, DH: both 2 for 4, 1 R – Gorecki tripled & drove in a run
Eduardo Nunez, SS, David Winfree, RF & Greg Golson, CF: all 1 for 4 – Nunez scored a run & drove one in … Winfree drove in a run
Juan Miranda: 0 for 3, 2 K – was lifted late in the game … not sure why, but he could have just been catching a breather after being sent down late yesterday
Chad Huffman, LF: 0 for 4, 2 K - threw a runner out at second
Jesus Montero, C: 1 for 3, 1 BB, 1 K
Matt Cusick, 3B: 0 for 3, 1 K
Tim Redding: 4.1 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 7-2 GB/FB – 55 of 85 pitches were strikes (64.7%) … look at it this way, those are 4.1 IP that won’t overly tax the arm of someone with an actual future with the organization
Jason Hirsh: 1.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 18 of 34 pitches were strikes (52.9%)
Mark Melancon: 2.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 3-1 GB/FB – 32 of his 49 pitches were strikes (65.3%) … but a rough go of it for him of late, that’s 34 baserunners & nine runs allowed in his last 16.1 IP
The Ghost of Kei Igawa: 0.2 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 1-0 GB/FB – five of his eight pitches were strikes

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