Kevin Long sees majority of the lineup improving

We know that a number of Yankees didn’t meet their normal performance levels last year. Is that a sign of age, or is it just a fluke? If you listen to hitting instructor Kevin Long, it’s the latter. Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York got Long on record, and to say he’s confident is an overstatement. Here’s Matthews’s paraphrase:

One thing that stood out, however, is that despite the Yankees scoring an MLB-leading 859 runs (the Boston Red Sox, with 818, were a distant second) and 201 HRs, third-highest in the league, KLong believes seven of the nine regulars in the Yankee lineup can have better seasons in 2011.

The only exceptions are Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher. Long thinks that, given the standout nature of their performances, it wouldn’t be easy for them to “duplicate what they did last year.” Then the kicker: “But I expect the rest of them to do better.” Of course he thinks that; they’re his guys. But this is always nice to hear. It’s also a bit surprising in the case of Brett Gardner. If he tops last year we’ll all do a jig down River Avenue.

Frankie Piliere’s Top 100 Prospects

Frankie Piliere of AOL Fanhouse posted his list of the top 100 prospects today, with Jesus Montero coming in at number four behind only Mike Trout, Julio Teheran, and Eric Hosmer. “Will he be a good defensive catcher? No,” said Piliere, “but he has shown enough improvement to be an adequate defender. That combined with a potentially special bat make for an impressive total package.” Piliere has always been one of the few defenders of Montero’s defense, not that he thinks he’ll great behind the plate, but playable.

Manny Banuelos came at number 13 (“picked up a couple ticks on his fastball and lives at 93-95 now”), Gary Sanchez number 34 (“Sanchez’s bat rivals Montero’s at the same age and he looks like he’ll be a better defender”), and Dellin Betances at number 44 (“the towering right-hander has all the components you look for in a frontline starter”). Andrew Brackman makes the back half of the list at number 60. Very nice showing for the Yankees, especially since four of their five guys cracked the top 50.

The RAB Radio Show: February 9, 2011

Some Yanks have showed up at spring training, and so have some beat writers. It’s boring, but we try to make light of it.

From there we talk pitching, mainly Alfredo Aceves. The Yanks did bring in Luis Ayala, but I’d be surprised to see him last past spring training. Still, there’s at least something mildly intriguing about him.

Podcast run time 27:41

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Butting in on Mike Young

The answer, as Ben explained on Sunday night is no. The Yankees will not end up with Michael Young and the $48 million remaining on his contract. There is just no room, even if you like him as a player. The entire Yankees’ infield is under contract for the next three seasons, which leaves Young without a possible position. But that doesn’t mean the Yankees can’t play a role in helping him find a new home.


A reader emailed over the weekend with a question that I dismissed out of hand at first, but then reconsidered. It sounded a bit better the second time around, but there are still too many moving parts to make it work. The idea: Trade for Young, then flip Cano for a pitcher. That’s a downgrade at second base, but not an enormous one, and an upgrade on the staff. Would that work in the Yanks’ favor?

I’m inclined to say no. I don’t think they’ll find a pitcher right now who could equal Cano’s value. They’d also have to work this as a three-way trade, since they’d immediately lose leverage in trading Cano if they first acquired Young, and they’d lose leverage in acquiring Young if they traded Cano. That makes the idea a bit too complex for reality. Plus, as I said on FanGraphs yesterday, it’s probably not a good idea to trade a 27-year-old who was your best hitter the previous year.

Today another reader emailed with an interesting take. He basically wondered whether the Yanks might jump into a potential trade and act as a middle man. Young is not worth the $48 million remaining on his contract, and so money is going to have to change hands in any trade, whether that’s Texas kicking in cash or taking on a bad contract. They might be reluctant to do that, since they’d either be taking on expensive players of little use to them, or otherwise paying for Young to play elsewhere. That’s where the Yankees come in.

If the Rangers have a deal with a team, but the matter of money still persists, maybe the Yankees can jump in the middle and help cover the financial difference. Even if he’s forecasted optimistically — that is, an average of 3 WAR per season — Young is overpaid by somewhere around $15 million over the next three years. If the Yankees can use their financial might to help cover some of that difference, probably by taking a contract, maybe they can get something in return that can help the 2011 team.

Of course, this creates an incredibly complex situation. Let’s use the White Sox as an example, even though they’re not on Young’s approved trade list. And let’s say that, even though we know they’re right around their payroll limits, that they’re willing to take on Young if they can shed at least some money from their 2011 ledger. For simplicity’s sake we’ll talk Edwin Jackson. He is owed $8.35 million this year, meaning Chicago probably wants more salary relief. Would the White Sox be willing to send a player the Yanks’ way in order to help cover some more of the cash?

For another instance, let’s look at the Dodgers. With Hiroki Kuroda, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Garland, and Vicente Padilla, they have six starting pitchers under contract. The Yankees could use one of them. If the Yankees could help facilitate an exchange of players and money between the Rangers and the Dodgers, how much is that worth to both parties? Enough to send a pitcher the Yanks way? If so, the Yanks have to consider that.

In reality, this is unlikely to work. When three teams get involved deals tend to fall apart. Further complicating matters is the Rangers’ asking price, which involves a pitcher and a major league position player. It’s tough for a team to justify that when trading for Young and his contract, and to give up even more in the name of salary relief probably renders it an unworthy option. But the Yankees’ most valuable resources is its capital. They should explore all ways they can use it to their advantage, even if it facilitates a trade between two other teams. After all, money ain’t free, and the Yanks could get something useful out of the deal.

My favorite Al Aceves games

No one was happy yesterday when news broke that Al Aceves signed with the Red Sox. He was such a good story, going from the Blue Jays system to the Mexican League, and then eventually, along with Manny Banuelos, to the Yankees. After blowing through the minors he came up to help the pitching starved 2008 Yankees, and lent an even bigger hand to the bullpen in 2009. Now not only is he gone, but he’s gone to them.

We’ll always have our memories of Aceves. Here are some of my favorites from his years in pinstripes.

September 9, 2008: His first start

(Kevork Djansezian/AP)

Early September, 2008, is not a time Yankees fans like to recall. Heading into play on the ninth the Yankees were 76-68, 10 games back of the Rays for first. But that wasn’t their only woe. They were actually in fourth place at the time, two games in the loss column back of Toronto. They had already lost Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain, and Andy Pettitte had started to tank. The Yankees needed pitching desperately. They turned to Acevecs, who, after spending most of the year in the minors, came up a week and a half earlier as a reliever.

Aceves earned his start on September 4, when he pitched five innings in relief of Darrell Rasner, who allowed five runs early to the Rays. He allowed just one run while striking out four, which was an admirable accomplishment against the eventual division champs. The Yankees mounted a late rally, scoring five in the ninth, but came up short. Still, it was clear that Ace was ready to take the ball five days later.

That day Aceves lasted seven innings and didn’t surrender a single run until the Yankees had already put four on the board against Ervin Santana. He needed just 89 pitches to get through those seven innings, mainly because he induced so many ground balls. Of the 26 Angels who put the ball in play, 14 hit it on the ground and only two hit the ball squarely on a line. An inning of relief from both Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte sealed the victory. Unfortunately, the Jays won both ends of the doubleheader, putting another half game between the two.

September 20, 2008: Penultimate game

Last day game at the old Stadium (Julie Jacobson/AP)

It took a 12-5 finish to salvage a third place finish in 2008, and Aceves helped them achieve that mark. While he got smacked around by Boston when the two teams met towards the end of the season, he did pitch a gem just before that. It didn’t catapult the Yankees into contention, but it certainly had some meaning.

On Friday, September 19, 2008, the Yankees started a series against the Baltimore Orioles. This was a largely meaningless series from a pennant race point of view. The Yankees were well behind the Red Sox and had only the slightest prayer for the Wild Card. The Orioles, as usual, were in last. But these three games would be the final three games at Yankee Stadium. As we did every year since I can remember, a buddy and I picked up tickets from one of his dad’s clients and got to sit first row behind the Yanks dugout. But that was Friday, when Carl Pavano started. If only we’d been at the game that Saturday.

Aceves started the game, and it started in inauspicious fashion. Brian Roberts pulled a double down the right field line. But then Adam Jones tried to bunt him to third and popped up right to Aceves. That eliminated the runner and made Nick Markakis’s subsequent single easier to stomach. Aceves didn’t record a 1-2-3 inning until the fourth, and that would be the only inning he retired the side in order. But he still managed to complete six innings without allowing a run. Brian Bruney, Damaso Marte, and Mariano Rivera continued the shutout, and the Yanks came back in a pretty wild bottom of the ninth, which ended with a Robbie Cano bases loaded, walk-off single.

May 16 and 17, 2009: Walk-off weekend

This is another instance where I was at the game before Aceves had his moment. On May 15 it appeared that the Yanks were about to lose a game against the Twins. But a late rally set up Melky Cabrera with a walk-off opportunity. He delivered, giving the Yanks an unexpected victory. Little did I know, walking out of the Stadium to “New York, New York,” that it was just the beginning of quite the memorable weekend.

The next day the Yanks led 3-2 heading into the eighth inning, but Phil Coke kind of ruined that. Joe Mauer had taken him deep the day before. On the 16th it was Justin Morneau. That tied the game at three. Three batters later Coke had given the Twins the lead. The Yanks ended up tying the game in the bottom half, but then the game went into extra innings. Mariano Rivera pitched his two innings, but the Yankees needed someone for the 11th. That man was Aceves.

He took out Nick Punto, Denard Span, and Brendan Harris, which bought the Yanks enough time. In the bottom half A-Rod hit a walk-off, two-run homer off Craig Breslow, and that was that. Two days, two walk-offs.

The very next day the Yanks found themselves in a similar situation. Tied at two in the ninth, Mariano Rivera again took the ball. But he couldn’t possibly pitch two innings on two consecutive days. And so Joe Girardi handed the ball to Alfredo Aceves in the 10th. Again he set them down 1-2-3. Johnny Damon rewarded his vigilance with a walk-off homer in the bottom half.

Aceves might not have played the most prominent role in either win, but he did his job and did it well. For those who worship at the altar of the pitcher win, the weekend saw two for Aceves.

July 5, 2009: Garden variety four-inning save

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

If it weren’t for the offense, Aceves might not have mattered in this game. They came out and scored four in the first two innings, but by the bottom of the fourth they were down 8-4 thanks to five earned runs on Joba’s ledger. But they scored six in the next two innings. After Jon Albaladejo got the Yanks through the fifth, he handed the ball to Aceves. Al pitched four shutout, one-hit innings, including five strikeouts, to keep keep the Yanks ahead for good.

That was another crazy weekend. Not only had the Yankees won on a walk-off the previous day (that was the disastrous Halladay-Wang matchup), but they hung on in admirable fashion on the fifth. The game was important for Aceves, too. With Wang hurt the Yankees needed a starter on July 9 in Minnesota. They apparently didn’t want to pull Phil Hughes out of the bullpen, so they handed the ball to Aceves. It was the second time in his career he earned a start after an effective long relief appearance.

August 7, 2009: The maraton

The Yankees-Red Sox 15-inning marathon on August 7, 2009, provided many lasting memories. A.J. Burnett walked six, but they appeared to be somewhat strategic. He allowed none of them score. And if not for a dinky slap by Jacoby Ellsbury to lead off the game, he wouldn’t have allowed a hit. And, of course, there was J.D. Drew running down Eric Hinske’s apparent game-winning hit, and finally Alex Rodriguez‘s game-winning blast.

Overlooked is Aceves’s contribution. He pitched three innings, from the 10th through the 12th, allowing just two base runners and striking out three Red Sox. He kept giving the Yanks opportunities to end it, but the offense just didn’t come through. Still, his role in that game really can’t be understated.

There were certainly other moments where he shined — his two innings of relief in Game 5 of the 2009 World Series come to mind, because he kept the Yanks alive for their failed ninth-inning rally. But the games above are the ones I’ll remember Aceves for. Have any to add?

Yankees sign Luis Ayala to a minor league deal

Brian Cashman‘s trolling of the “they’d win the World Series if this was 2003!” crowd continued today, with the team signing righty reliever Luis Ayala to a minor league contract. Ayala, 33, last appeared in the big leagues with the Twins and Marlins in 2009. He spent last season in Triple-A with the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers, and like Bartolo Colon, he pitched pretty well in winter ball this year (40.2 IP, 37 H, 9 R, 7 BB, 25 K). He’s always been a ground ball guy (47.3% career with several years over 50%), so strikeouts aren’t his forte (5.88 K/9).

Ayala made his name with the Expos back in the day, running off three straight seasons with at least 65 appearances and a sub-3.00 ERA, but he’s perhaps most famous for becoming the first casualty of the World Baseball Classic. He blew out his elbow during the 2006 event and needed Tommy John surgery. I really have no idea where he and some of these other non-roster invitees are headed, the Triple-A bullpen is full as it is.

Rounding up the 2011 position battles

h8 bunts. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Given the general construction of the roster from year to year, the Yankees have very few position battles in Spring Training. Last season it was the fifth starter’s job (gift wrapped for Phil Hughes) plus some miscellaneous bench and bullpen jobs, and the year before that Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera had to duke it out for the centerfield job. That’s pretty much it, it’s not often the Yankees have a position up for grabs and need to fill it in camp, at least not a significant position anyway.

This year is no different. Everyone knows about the fifth starter’s job and the last spot on the bench, but there’s also a spot in the bullpen to be decided and the backup shortstop is still an unknown. Let’s recap the positions still up for grabs in camp this spring…

Position: Utility Infielder
Candidates: Ramiro Pena, Eduardo Nunez

The Yankees need to carry someone on the bench capable of playing shortstop, and these two are the only guys on the 40-man roster capable of doing so (meh, I guess Derek Jeter qualifies). Pena is the incumbent while Nunez is the (apparent) hot shot prospect, and both bring different things to the table. Pena is all defense while Nunez can hit for an empty average and play a little defense. The Yankees apparently believe that Nunez is a future everyday shortstop, and if that’s the case, sitting on the bench five or six days a week won’t help his development. My guess is that Pena gets the job for a third straight season.

Position: Backup Catcher
Candidates: Frankie Cervelli, Jesus Montero, Austin Romine

Russell Martin has already been declared the catcher, and Brian Cashman has maintained that there will be an open competition for the backup job. That sounds great, but the choice here is pretty obvious. Cervelli backs up Martin while Montero and Romine play every single day in the minors. Hey, it’s great to say there’s a competition to motivate everyone, but the Yankees won’t have to spend much time mulling this one over.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Position: Last Man On The Bench
Candidates: Pena, Nunez, Ronnie Belliard, Eric Chavez, Justin Maxwell, Colin Curtis, Greg Golson, Kevin Russo

I already explored this a few days ago so I’ll keep it short. Maxwell and Nunez should play everyday for Triple-A Scranton rather than rot on the big league bench, while Golson, Russo, and Curtis really don’t offer much to the team. Belliard and Chavez at least bring veteran presents (the kids will love ’em) and in Belliard’s case, familiarity with the role. Chavez is a lefty bat, something the bench lacks, which helps his cause. I don’t believe he’ll be able to stay healthy for any length of time though, so I suspect Mini-Manny will get the job almost by default.

Position: Fifth Starter
Candidates: Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Sergio Mitre, misc. prospects

I’m assuming that Ivan Nova will get the fourth spot, a fairly safe bet. Mitre has started a dozen games for New York over the last two years (three in 2010), and his shiny 3.33 ERA last year masked a miniscule strikeout rate (4.83 K/9) and homer tendencies (1.17 HR/9). The Experience can get grounders like a mofo (50.9% last year, 58.7% career), pretty much is only redeeming quality. Colon reportedly threw well in winter ball (where he was managed by bench coach Tony Pena), but it’s been a full year since he was on the big league mound and about four years since he was effective. Now 37, he’s definitely the long shot of the bunch.

Garcia is probably the front-runner based on 157 innings he threw last year that were unquestionably below average but still better than replacement level, which is what Mitre and Colon seem destined to be. The Yankees have some minor league depth to try out, namely Hector Noesi, D.J. Mitchell, and David Phelps, but they’re all in need of more Triple-A seasoning and shouldn’t have their development path altered when a guy like Garcia can be thrown to the wolves for the first month or two of the season. One of them could surprise in camp, for sure, but I’d rather see the kids be the fallback option and not the first attempt at a solution.

Position: Long Reliever
Candidates: Same as the Fifth Starter, plus Romulo Sanchez, Daniel Turpen, Robert Fish, Ryan Pope, Brian Schlitter

Six of the seven bullpen spots are already accounted for (Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Pedro Feliciano, Boone Logan), so that last spot will end up going to someone capable of throwing three or four innings at a clip. Romulo is out-of-options, meaning he has to pass through waivers to go back to the minors, and chances are he’ll be a goner at some point. Turpen and Fish are Rule 5 Draft picks, so unless they spend the entire 2011 season on the 25-man active roster, they’ll have to be offered back to their original clubs. Expect them to be gone before the end of Spring Training. Pope and Schlitter are short relievers with no and little big league experience, respectively, and I’m willing to bet they’ll be riding the Scranton-New York express all summer.

That leaves the guys from the fifth starter competition, so it seems like the runner-up for the last rotation spot gets the last bullpen spot as a consolation prize. Mitre is probably the best fit here, since he has experience as a long reliever and filled that role just last year. Either way, just like every other job listed in those post, the long man is sure to change over the course of the season, so don’t get too attached.