Yankees contact Cliff Lee’s agent

Via MLBTR, the Yankees have contacted Cliff Lee’s agent to let him know that they’ll be in touch with a contract offer soon. At this point in the offseason two years ago, the Yanks had already offered CC Sabathia the largest pitching contract in baseball history, so clearly they’re not being as aggressive with Lee. That doesn’t mean they don’t really really want him though, we all know they do.

Anyway, the process has started.

Behind the plate, Montero’s time could be soon

Jesus Montero will be the Yanks’ starting catcher next year, says a Daily News report. Ideally, Montero will catch 100 games with Jorge Posada DHing and filling in behind the dish at times. Francisco Cervelli will start the year as the team’s back-up catcher, but if Austin Romine progresses, he could unseat the defensively inconsistent fist-pumper extraordinaire. The future, in other words, is here, and it’s one we’ve been anticipating since September.

We’ve heard this kind of plan before from the Yankees. Bubba Crosby was to start at center field before Johnny Damon came aboard. Nick Swisher was to be the primary first baseman before Mark Teixeira inked his monster deal. This time, though, Montero — at least at the plate — isn’t the second choice. He’s not a sleight-of-hand designed to serve as a negotiating chit. Offensively, he can be a Major Leaguer, but can he catch?

For Montero’s future and for the Yanks, his ability behind the plate will determine the team’s long-term and short-term plans for catcher, and few can agree on what those plans will be. Mark Feinsand says that the Yanks will not consider trading Montero this year. The team, he says, discussed it last week. “Montero’s future was among the topics of discussion during the Yankee meetings at the Stadium over the past two days, with Lee and the free-agent and trade markets dominating the conversation,” he writes. “Montero’s defense has been scrutinized, but team brass believes he made enough strides this season to assume the bulk of the workload in 2011.”

The defense is the issue. Montero is the Yanks’ number one prospect and has been for a few years. But that’s because of his bat, which many believe could be as good as Mike Piazza’s or even Miguel Cabrera’s. Last year, Baseball America questioned his defense:

Montero has improved under the tutelage of catching coordinator Julio Mosquera, but he still grades out as a below-average defender. The Yankees no longer talk about him as an everyday major league catcher. His defense frequently is compared to Mike Piazza’s, though he’s a bit more athletic. Montero is somewhat stiff and lacks agility behind the plate, leading to 11 passed balls in 59 games last year. He also threw out just 13 percent of basestealers at high Class A Tampa, and they tested him 108 times overall—nearly two attempts per game. While he improved, he has a long arm stroke that slows his transfer and detracts from his arm strength. His modest athleticism and below-average speed probably preclude a move to the outfield or third base, a position he played prior to signing.

Those who saw Montero play at AAA in 2010 say these concerns weren’t resolved. This year, he caught 105 games, and while he threw out 23 percent of would-be base stealers, International League opponents attempted 129 stolen bases against him. He also allowed 15 passed balls, and scouts — including ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein — are wary of his future behind the plate. I haven’t seen him in person yet, but it doesn’t seem as though we can feel entirely comfortable with the idea of Montero’s catching 100 games.

Of course, Yankee fans are used to seeing sub-par defensive catchers. Jorge Posada hasn’t been at his peak behind the dish in a few seasons, and Cervelli hasn’t put his tools to use yet. If Montero’s bat is as good as advertised, he might be able to overcome defensive lapses, and he should be able to learn from Tony Peña at the Big League level.

Still, it’s a chance the Yankees almost have to take. They can’t give Cervelli over 300 plate appearances again in 2011, and Posada can’t withstand the every-day demands of catching. “It seemed when we caught him three days in a row, that was about the limit,” Girardi said to Feinsand of Jorge.

So the future starts in March. Montero will officially be given the chance to win the job out of Spring Training, but as we saw in 2010 with Phil Hughes, it will have to take an awful Spring Training for Montero to lose that battle against himself. Here’s to hoping the glove can handle the Big League job.

Banuelos impresses in Rising Stars Showcase

Time to get you caught up on all the winter ball action…

AzFL Phoenix (14-5 loss to Peoria on Thursday)
Brandon Laird, LF: 1 for 5, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 2 K – threw a runner out at second
Jose Pirela, 2B: 1 for 4, 1 E (fielding)
Ryan Pope: 0.1 IP, zeroes, 1 K – four pitches, three strikes

AzFL Phoenix (10-0 loss to Scottsdale on Friday)
Brandon Laird, LF: 0 for 4, 2 K
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 3, 1 K, 1 PB – threw out both attempted basestealers, including 2010 first overall pick Bryce Harper

AzFL Rising Stars Showcase (West beat East 3-2, walk-off style)
Brandon Laird, LF: 0 for 4, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 2 K – started and batted cleanup … drove in the run with a groundout in the first … made a few routine fly balls look slightly adventurous (he reminded me of Johnny Damon with the all the turning around), but he caught everything he should have
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 3, 1 BB, 1 PB – started and batted fifth … singled off Mariners’ prospect Josh Fields … allowed a run to score from third on the passed ball
Manny Banuelos: 2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 0-2 GB/FB – 18 of 31 pitches were strikes (58.1%) … he got victimized by some bad luck in the second (run scored on a would-be inning ending grounder through the third baseman’s legs) … PitchFX had him topping out at 95, and watching the game I was impressed with how easy the ball came out of his hands, there’s very little effort in his delivery … the breaking ball needs work, but he got swings and misses consistently with his fastball and changeup

There are no AzFL games today, so here’s an update on everyone playing in various other winter leagues…

Australian Baseball League
Kyle Perkins: 1 G, 0 for 2, 2 K – I didn’t even know the ABL existed, but it’s good Perkins gets to go home for the winter and keep playing

Dominican Winter League
Wilkins Arias: 7 G, 5 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 K (1.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP)
Jon Ortiz: 3 G, 2.2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K (6.75 ERA, 2.25 WHIP)
Zack Segovia: 3 IP, 5 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K (1.80 ERA, 0.40 WHIP)

Mexican Pacific League
Justin Christian: 21 G, 35 for 86, 15 R, 7 2B, 4 HR, 12 RBI, 1 BB, 2 K, 11 SB, 0 CS (.407/.474/.628) – killin’ it
Walt Ibarra: 21 G, 18 for 68, 15 R, 3 2B, 4 RBI, 4 BB, 15 K, 1 SB, 1 CS (.265/.311/.309)
Jorge Vazquez: 3 G, 2 for 11, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 3 K (.182/.182/.455)
Francisco Gil: 4 G, 6 ER, 10 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 1 WP (10.50 ERA, 2.17 WHIP) – didn’t pitch last week
Eric Wordekemper: 10 G, 9.1 IP, 12 H, 9 R, 8 ER, 3 BB, 9 K (7.71 ERA, 1.61 WHIP)

Puerto Rican League
Rene Rivera: 9 G, 9 for 30, 6 R, 2 HR, 2 RBI, 5 BB, 10 K 9 (.233/.343/.433)

Venezuelan Winter League
Jose Gil: 14 G, 13 for 47, 4 R, 5 2B, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 1 BB, 7 K (.277/.300/.447)
Edwar Gonzalez: 10 G, 4 for 13, 3 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 5 K (.308/.357/.385)
Luis Nunez: 7 G, 2 for 10, 1 R (.200/.200/.200) – didn’t play at all last week
Marcos Vechionacci: 15 G, 17 for 51, 5 R, 4 2B, 3 RBI, 5 BB, 12 K, 3 SB, 1 CS (.333/.393/.412)
Romulo Sanchez: 2 G, 2.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 0 K (6.75 ERA, 1.88 WHIP)
Josh Schmidt: 5 G, 4 GS, 23.2 IP, 12 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 12 BB, 25 K, 1 HB (1.52 ERA, 1.001 WHIP) – solid

Still no sign of Juan Marcano, Emerson Landoni, Eduardo Sosa, Jesus Montero, and Jon Albaladejo. The first four are playing in Venezuela, Albie’s in Puerto Rico.

Keith Law’s Top 50 Free Agents

The free agent market officially opened for business at 12:01am last night, but no, the Yankees haven’t signed Cliff Lee yet. Hardy har har.

Anyway, Keith Law posted his list of the top 50 free agents last night, and of course topping the list is Mr. Lee. Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Adrian Beltre, and Victor Martinez round out the top five. All three articles (1-10, 11-30, 31-50) are Insider only, but I can tell you that seven Yankee free agents made the list: Andy Pettitte (“should give [a team] 25 to 30 starts without drama”) comes in at number nine, Derek Jeter (“does still hit left-handed pitching well and has an excellent feel for the game”) at #13, Mariano Rivera (“batters know the cutter is coming and still can’t do much except wave at it”) at #18, Kerry Wood (“very respectable eighth-inning guy who can close in a pinch”) at #33, Lance Berkman (“he has value for his ability to get on base and his average power”) at #44, Nick Johnson (“standard ‘if healthy’ disclaimer”) at #48, and Javy Vazquez (“perhaps an offseason of rest will see his fastball tick back up”) at #50. A few former Yanks also made the cut, namely Carl Pavano (#7), Jake Westbrook (#10), Johnny Damon (#27), and Hideki Matsui (#46).

I recommend reading all the capsules if you have Insider, it’s a great look into a free agent class that frankly seems rather shallow after the top 15 or so players. In fact, ten of the last 16 players on the list are basically middle relievers, maybe setup men or capital-C closers. I guess it’s just a down year when Juan Uribe is one of the 20 best free agents.

Open Thread: Banuelos on the bump

(Photo Credit: Kevin Pataky, milb.com)

It’s been almost a week since we were able to watch a real live baseball game (on television or in real life), but it feels more like a year. Evenings without baseball simply suck. Thankfully, the Arizona Fall League Rising Starts Game is on MLB Network tonight, and if that’s not good enough, Yankee farmhand Manny Banuelos is starting the game for the East team. Austin Romine and Brandon Laird will also suit up.

All three were recently ranked as one of the ten best prospects in the farm system by Baseball America, with Banuelos placing as the second best pitcher. Their subscriber only scouting report says that he “has surprising velocity for a little lefthander, sitting at 90-94 mph with his fastball and touching 95. He has excellent fastball control, even with his improved velocity, and projects to have true big league command. His changeup and curveball can be plus pitches, though they often aren’t working at the same time. His changeup is more consistent and has better action, with late fade and sink at its best.” ManBan’s probably only going to thrown an inning, maybe two, but it should still be fun to watch.

The game starts at 9pm ET, and as I said it can be seen on MLBN. Use this thread to talk about it, or whatever you want. There’s a zillion college football games on, plus the Islanders and Nets are also in action. Enjoy.