The wonder and excitement of new Yankees

If Damon Oppenheimer is any indication, the Yankees felt pretty good on Monday night. In the first round of the amateur player draft, which included 32 primary picks and another 18 supplemental ones, the Yankees had just one selection. They’d make the 32nd pick and call it a night, not choosing again until Pick No. 82, the 32th pick on Day 2. They surely wanted to make that first one count. With all the players with signability issues, the Yanks were sure to have a top-tier talent fall into their laps. That’s exactly what happened when Commissioner Bud Selig announced that they were on the clock.

Here’s the thing about the new draft format: the teams don’t need all that time to make a pick. Without the ability to trade picks, everything is pretty straight forward. Take the player highest on your draft board and move onto the next pick. But because of the draft’s newfound popularity, MLB has tried to turn it into a more NFL-like event. The five minutes between picks is mainly for show. Still, Yankees fans sat in anticipation as the clock ticked down. Which one of the available high-talent players would they take?

When Selig returned to the podium, he announced a name that no one expected. Christopher “Cito” Culver, a shortstop from Rochester, NY, wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Yanks fans were thinking A.J. Cole, Nick Castellanos, Asher Wojciechowski. Instead they got someone whom Baseball America ranked No. 168, meaning they projected him to go somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds. In BA’s draft report on Culver, Aaron Fitt wrote a line that no one wants to hear about a first round pick: “…some believe he profiles as a utility player down the road.”

Unsurprisingly, the Yankees’ fan base erupted. How could they take a player like Culver with such better talent on the board? Shouldn’t the Yankees, a team with an unfavorable draft slot, take the best player available? That’s the strategy they employed in the past. In 2007 they selected Andrew Brackman, and in 2008 they took Gerrit Cole. Neither of those picks looks great right now. Cole refused to sign, and Brackman, while showing signs of vast improvement lately, is still stuck in the low minors. The Yankees, it appears, have changed strategies. It started last year when they took OF Slade Heathcott with their first pick. The Culver pick seems like a continuation.

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The internet made the draft accessible to more fans. Before outlets like Baseball America started to cover the draft and publish the results, the public was largely unaware of its team’s selections. In the late 80s Topps started to print No. 1 draft pick cards, so fans could find out the best talent their favorite team selected in the previous June’s draft. Other than the scant information available on the backs of those cards, fans knew very little about their team’s draft picks.

That all started to change as the internet evolved. Fans could follow their team’s top prospects through Baseball America and MiLB.com. As more information became available, fans took to blogs, aggregating information about prospects across the league. With a few well-worded searches you could find everything you need to know about any prospect in a system. It seemed like a good thing for baseball. Fans could follow more aspects of the game. That creates a far greater level of interest in the game.

In recent years, this interest in prospects extended to the draft. Fans wanted to know not only which players their teams were selecting, but they wanted to know everything about these players. Can they hit for average? For power? Did they come from a top college program? A prominent high school region? Mostly, teams wanted to see what the scouts saw. What could these players become? They could get plenty of this scouting information from not just Baseball America, but also prospect writers like Keith Law and Jonathan Mayo. We have, it seems, a full gamut of opinions on the best of these amateur players.

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As you saw during the past three days, there aren’t many baseball writers who can cover the draft like Mike. He’s super prepared, and even when something unexpected happens he’s all over it. This year provides a prime example. Leading up to the draft we see various sources connecting players and teams. In order to get a draft profile up minutes after the Yankees make a pick, Mike wrote 20 — twenty — draft capsules last weekend. He got to use none of them. Still, he pounded out a profile of Culver before the night was done. He also penned an excellent article on the upside and arm strength of the Yankees’ crop of draftees.

All of that was not only to praise Mike, but also to frame my own place in this discussion. I am not a prospect expert. I follow the players in the Yankees system, not only through Down on the Farm, but also through scouting reports on Baseball America, Kevin Goldstein’s coverage on Baseball Prospectus, and Keith Law’s scouting articles on ESPN. But I don’t think that merely reading that information makes me an expert. It makes me better informed and gives me colorful information for the articles I write, but I never have, nor never will, profess to be an expert.

The people who can be considered experts all considered Culver a reach pick. Again, he ranked at the bottom of BA’s Top 200, and didn’t even make Keith Law’s. Given those rankings and the available scouting reports, many fans ripped the Yankees for the pick. They had done their homework. They had read plenty about the draft. They knew that there were many more highly ranked players ahead of Culver. Why didn’t the Yankees take one of those players?

No one waited for an explanation from Oppenheimer. The initial reaction was to express displeasure not only with the pick itself, but also with the Yankees organization as a whole. Ignoring the slew of prospects strewn throughout the system, they called the farm system thin. Many, I’m sure, wanted to see Oppenheimer fired, before the man could tell the public why he chose Culver with the No. 32 pick. Surely there had to be a reason why they chose him there when, by pre-draft accounts, he would have been there when they picked at No. 80.

Oppenheimer, of course, did have his reasons. Among them, unsurprisingly, was that they didn’t believe Culver would be there when they picked in the second round. But we’ll get to that in just a minute.

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The reactions flowed in as soon as Selig announced the pick. One of my more level-headed friends thought it was “an, uh, interesting pick.” My super-reactionary, treats every game like the World Series friend called it, unimaginatively, a train wreck. The commenters here filled a thread with overreactions. The consensus, it seems, is that BA, Law, Mayo, et als, know what they’re talking about and the Yankees do not. This I never understood.

Having this information available is great. It means we can make more informed reactions to picks. But no matter the source of the information, no matter how astute the scout, we’re dealing with imperfect information. It’s not imperfect as-is, an assessment of the player as he currently stands. It is, however, imperfect when it comes to projecting major league talent. Most of these players are years away from being major league ready. Even the prodigy himself, Bryce Harper, will spend a few years in the Nats’ system before he joins Stephen Strasburg on the big league squad.

Knowing this, why make a big deal about the pick? I understand the disappointment of not getting one of the consensus top talents. It’s always easier to imagine a player making the majors when we have plenty of positive information about him. But the reality is that we don’t know a damn thing about how any of these players will adjust and develop through the minors. Big-time players can, and often do, bust. Low draft picks can accelerate to the majors. I’m certainly not the first person to point out Albert Pujols’s draft position, 13th round, 402nd overall. Rich Harden went in the 17th round. Kevin Youkilis went in the eighth, which is where the experts projected Culver. Jim Thome was a 13th round pick.

Rather than get worked up and declare the Yankees incompetent, I’d like to see what this Culver kid can bring. That’s the mystique of prospects. Because we don’t have any idea of how they’ll develop, following them becomes most of, if not all of, the fun. Maybe he won’t turn into the next big Yankees homegrown superstar. But you could say the same thing about Cole, Castellanos, and Wojciechowski. The Yankees certainly see something in him — why else would they have taken him so far ahead of where the experts ranked him?

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Apparently, after the Yankees made their selection official Oppenheimer got a call from a rival executive who said that if the Yanks had taken someone else with hopes of Culver dropping to No. 82, they would have been disappointed. That, I think, changes the entire outlook. Yes, you want to maximize the value of your picks. If someone will drop to the third round, why take him in the first? But with the draft you just never know. The Yanks had picked out there guy, and with 49 selections before their next pick they felt they had to pounce on the guy.

Oppenheimer spoke to reporters about Culver the day after the pick. It went just as expected. Oppenheimer discussed why the Yankees chose the guy, and what went into the decision to target him above other more highly ranked talents. One passage in particular stuck out to me.

He has pop in his bat, even with wood. It’s high school, but he’s hitting the ball over the fence in center field with a heavier wood bat than most of these kids we see using. The kid only struck out twice. We saw him all summer against the better stuff, guys throwing hard, and he squared the ball up well during that time so we think he’s going to hit.

A lot of kids falter when they start using wood bats. That Culver has already hit with one, and has succeeded with one, is a good sign. But, then again, that’s all it is.

We all want to be knowledgeable fans. We want to know when our team is doing well and when our team is screwing up. With all the information available right now, it only takes a little time to form competent opinions about not only your favorite team, but all 30 MLB teams. The area where this mass of information does the least good is the draft. If there were some key, some telling aspect that informed a team of whether a player would or would not succeed, they’d use it and the draft would be less of a crapshoot. So far, none exists. Teams scout players, imagine what they can become, and take risks on them. The best odds can still bust. The longshots can turn into stars. That’s just the way the MLB draft works. So instead of expressing displeasure because the draft pundits didn’t like the pick, let’s shift the focus to the mystery of Culver. The kid could actually play in the system this year, unlike many of his first-round brethren. It could make for exciting times in the Yankees system.

Yanks claw back to beat Orioles

In the fourth inning, it looked like the Orioles were poised to steal a win. Weather reports had the rains waiting until 10 p.m., which gave the two teams a window to get in a game, or at least most of one. Yet in the third it started to rain a bit, and by the fourth it looked heavy enough to eventually call the game. The Orioles led 2-1 heading into the bottom of the fifth, and I thought for sure that when YES came back from a commercial we’d see the tarp on the field. But, mercifully, the rain stopped. The game went on. The Yankees simply could not let that opportunity slip away.

Given a chance to finish the game, the Yankees delivered. It wasn’t pretty, and the Orioles certainly contributed to their own loss. But with three outs in the bottom of the ninth the scoreboard read Yankees 4, Orioles 2. Score another one for the good guys.

Biggest Hit: Cano ties the game

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

The sixth inning was a story of triumph, for the Yankees, and tragedy, for the Orioles. Chris Tillman, still at a good pace pitch-wise, faced Mark Teixeira to lead off the inning. He fed him three straight curveballs and had an 0-2 count. On the fourth he threw a fastball high, and Teixeira hit a slow roller. If it hadn’t rained, maybe the ball gets to Julio Lugo a bit quicker. But he was playing on the grass and had to charge the ball. It hit the lip of the grass and bounced away. That’s one way to beat the shift.

Alex Rodriguez then worked a 3-2 count, and on the payoff pitch he got an inside, belt-high fastball that he smoked to left for a sure base hit. Luke Scott overpursued, and the ball bounced away from him. Teixeira, seeing the opportunity, moved up to third. That set up Robinson Cano with runners on the corners and no outs. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have up in that situation right now.

Tillman had a clear strategy with Cano: keep the ball away. Only a couple of the eight pitches he threw were near the strike zone. Still, Cano battled through the at-bat. He took a strike on the outside corner and took the three pitches that were nowhere near the zone. He fouled off the rest. On the eighth pitch Tillman threw a curveball away, and Cano bounced one over Ty Wigginton’s head and into first for a game-tying single. That put A-Rod on third, and set up the Yanks to eventually take the lead.

They did on the very next batter. Jorge Posada hit a sure double play ball. Wigginton fielded cleanly and fed Cesar Izturis perfectly. But Izturis missed on the return throw. A-Rod would have scored either way — there were still none out — but that put Posada on second with one out. The Yanks had a chance to tack on to the lead, but after 1/4 of an intentional walk to Curtis Granderson the bottom of the order couldn’t bring home another run.

Biggest Pitch: CC gets Scott…again

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

We’ve seen this type of start from CC before. He runs into trouble early and it looks like he’s going to get hit hard all game. But then in the middle innings he settles down, and by the seventh he’s still going strong. That was exactly the case last night. CC got singled to death early on, and it resulted in two Orioles runs. They wouldn’t get another the rest of the game.

In the fourth, fifth, and sixth CC retired nine of the 10 hitters he faced. In the seventh, with the Orioles down a run and the bottom of the order due up, they decided to try something different. Cesar Izturis bunted to the left side. A-Rod fielded in time to throw him out, but Cano didn’t get to the bag in time. Julio Lugo, desperate to avoid the double play, sacrificed him to second. That gave the Orioles at least two chances to bring home the tying run.

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

But then Miguel Tejada grounded out to third, preventing the runner from advancing and spending the second out of the inning. That left matters to Nick Markakis, who nearly came through. He hit one between Teixeira and Cano, and it took a long dive from Cano to keep the ball in the infield. Markakis beat the throw, but the run did not score. After a Ty Wigginton walk loaded the bases, the game rested on the bat of Luke Scott.

This was the fourth time Sabathia would face Scott. In the first he got him swinging on a slider away. In the second Scott singled, but in the third CC came back with the same pitch as the first time and produced the same result. This time Sabathia went at him with his entire arsenal. It started with a curveball away for ball one. Then he came back with a fastball inside that Scott fouled away. Then came a two-seamer that broke down and in, which Scott missed completely. Then, with the count 1-2, Sabathia did not mess around. He went back to the slider, again low and outside. Scott was just as fooled as he was in the second and fifth. The threat was over.

Miscellany

Photo credit: Gail Burton/AP

Good to see Gardner get into the game today, even if he wasn’t going to bat. It was a perfect situation for him to try a steal, and even though he didn’t get the best jump it worked out and led to an insurance run. You could see him flinching back towards the bag on a few pitches, so it still doesn’t look like he’s totally comfortable out there. I think that will come with experience, though.

You’re just not stopping Robinson Cano. He’s a different beast this year. If you don’t give him stuff to hit, well, he’ll still try to hit it. But if you feed him garbage he’ll actually take a walk. And if you give him anything near the plate he’ll find a place where someone isn’t standing and hit it there. The team hit seven line drives in the game, he had two of them. A-Rod had three.

Nick Swisher might have had only one hit, but he crushed one to the deepest part of the park in the top of the fifth. That seemed big at the time because it would have tied the game as the rains fell.

Good idea by Russo with the leadoff bunt. Seeing the Jeter GIDP was a bit disheartening, but it’s going to happen from time to time.

Joba has thrown 26.2 innings through 59 games. He’s on pace for 73.1 innings this season. That sounds about right, no?

Also, this is an awesome picure.

WPA graph and box score

The Orioles peaked just a little early.

More at FanGraphs. More traditional stuff at mlb.com.

Next Up

The Orioles will call up Jake Arrieta to make his major league debut against A.J. Burnett. Odd that they’re pushing back Guthrie.

Gardner day-to-day with sore thumb, may need MRI

Update (11:42pm): Gardner might need an MRI once the team returns home from Baltimore on Friday. Never good.

10:51pm: Joe Girardi said during the postgame that Gardner will not start tomorrow either, but will available to pinch run like he did tonight.

6:48pm: X-rays were negative, and Gardner’s day-to-day.

5:31pm: Via LoHud, Brett Gardner is going for x-rays on his injured thumb after leaving last night’s game with pain in the digit. “It doesn’t feel as good as I hoped it would,” said the speedy leftfielder. It’s the same thumb that Gardner broke last season, though yesterday he said the doctors told him it wouldn’t feel right for close to a year. Kevin Russo takes his spot tonight.

Considering his .378 wOBA at the bottom of the order, the Yanks can ill-afford to lose Gardner for any length of time. Hopefully it’s just some soreness, and he can get back in the lineup soon.

Tampa wins one in extras

One more day of bullet points as I come down from 50 rounds of liveblogging…

Game 59: CC in the rain

Photo Credit: Mike Carlson, AP

Is it just me, or does it seem like there’s a threat of rain whenever CC Sabathia is scheduled to pitch? I don’t know what Mother Nature has against the big guy, but he can’t seem to ever get decent weather when he starts.

The Orioles are throwing the poor and unsuspecting Chris Tillman tonight, who at this point in his young career is best known for giving up Derek Jeter‘s 2,722nd career hit, pushing him ahead of Lou Gehrig for the franchise’s all time record. Let’s hope they pound him like the Red Sox did his last time out. The lineup please…

Jeter, SS
Swisher, RF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Posada, DH
Granderson, CF
Cervelli, C
Russo, LF

And on the mound, CC Sabathia.

It’s raining in New York and Baltimore, though there appears to be a decent chance to get this game in. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET, and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

CC and the HR

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Tonight CC Sabathia makes his 13th start of the season, and his third against the Baltimore Orioles. Despite facing the league’s worst offense in 1/6 of his starts so far, Sabathia has had a rough go of late. After holding Boston to one run in seven innings on May 18, Sabathia has allowed 14 runs, 13 earned, in his next three starts, which cover 18 innings. None of those numbers look like the CC we watched pitch for the Indians last decade, and who fronted a World Series winning rotation last year. The major difference shows right in his stat line.

We know that CC can take time to warm up. Here’s a quick rundown of his numbers through 12 starts last year compared to 12 starts this year.

IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 H/9
2009 86.0 6.38 2.8 0.6 7.3
2010 78.1 7.00 2.8 1.4 7.8

He has actually struck out batters at a better rate, is around the same with walks, and has allowed just one more hit every 18 innings pitched. Two aspects stand out, one more than the other. First, his home runs rate has more than doubled this year. Second, he has pitched fewer innings, just about 6.5 innings per start compared to over seven per start last year. That’s certainly cause for at least a little concern, but not nearly to the level of his home runs.

Noticing that home runs allowed has been CC’s biggest difference this year is easy. It’s right in any stat sheet you see. He allowed 18 home runs all of last year and has already allowed 12 this year. The hard part is thinking of why this might be. Whatever the answer, it will only cover his starts from May 8 forward. That’s the start in which he surrendered two homers to the Red Sox. He again surrendered two to the Tigers in his next start, then dominated Boston while allowing one home, and then allowed two more against the Mets. He then got beat up, but allowed no homers, against Cleveland, and then allowed two against Baltimore, even though it looked like he was cruising through six.

CC did admit that his mechanics were off for a few starts, but said that they had worked on the issue in the bullpen and that his mechanics, in his own words, “have been pretty good.” That showed last start. Again, it was just just one bad pitch to Jones, and even then it might have been more Jones guessing than a bad pitch by CC. Against Scott there might have been a number of things at play. CC had been struck in the hand by a batted ball earlier in the game, though that appeared to not be serious. He also fell behind 2-0 and tried to get over a high fastball. I’m not sure if he was aiming high, but that seems like a poor selection to a power-hitting lefty, especially at Yankee Stadium.

Tonight we might get a better idea of whether CC is back on track. It’s tough to get a real gauge, because he’s facing the AL’s worst offense. Those guys will naturally score few runs. We can check for other factors, though. For instance, the Orioles are in the middle of the pack in terms of strikeout percentage. If CC strikes out a ton of hitters, it’s probably more reflective of him than the Orioles hitters. The Orioles have the second lowest walk percentage in the AL, so if CC walks three or four it might be cause for concern.

The homer happiness against CC is probably a blip on the radar. He had a couple of stretches last year in which he allowed a few too many homers. For instance, in seven starts from June 6 through July 7 he allowed seven homers. Then, from July 28 through August 13, five starts, he allowed six homers. This year is a bit worse, 10 in seven starts and 12 in his last nine, but given how he looked last time out it might be behind him. We’ll get another look tonight. He’ll get his real test against the Phillies at the Stadium on Tuesday.

Trade rumors start early for the Yanks

Photo credit: Elaine Thompson/AP

We’re still 51 days away from the July 31 trade deadline, but that won’t stop the rumors from flowing. As we’ve grown used to during the past decade or so, the Yankees have already been connected to the top names on the trade market. Even in May, a time when almost no notable trades occur, reporters connected the Yankees to Roy Oswalt. Now that we’re past the draft, the trade deadline is the next big milestone. That means we’re about to see plenty of weak rumors.

Today George King of the Post provides Lesson No. 1: If the only source behind a rumor is an anonymous person “familiar with” a team’s thought process, it’ probably best to discard it. In this case, King connects the Yankees to Cliff Lee. The consensus around the industry is that the Yankees will make a strong run at Lee this off-season. But to acquire him in July? That seems like a stretch, given what we’ve learned from the Cashman front office in years past.

But, before we even touch on Cashman’s M.O., let’s evaluate the rumor on the level that King reports it. The opening sentence states that “the Mariners believe the defending World Champions will be in the hunt when they shop stud lefty Cliff Lee.” This does not come from anyone within the Yankees’ organization. In fact, given the “person familiar with Seattle’s thought process” line from the next sentence implies that the source didn’t even come from within Seattle. So there doesn’t appear to be a reason for taking this rumor seriously.

Then we get to the question of why the Yankees would show interest. They already have a strong starting five. Whom would Lee replace in the rotation. The only candidate is Javy Vazquez, and he has shown marked improvement in his last few starts. The Yankees also owe him $12 million this year, and it’s doubtful they’ll find a taker. Even then, would they trade away Vazquez only to trade for Lee? That sounds doubtful, and I agree with MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes that the move would be convoluted.

Beyond that, we have the Cashman front office M.O. The Yankees have shown an unwillingness to trade prospects for rentals. The rumor has the Mariners interested in Eduardo Nunez and one of the Yankees’ catchers. Would they really trade Nunez and Romine for two months of Lee? King implies that the Yankees would want an extension window, but by all indications Lee wants to test the free agent market. With an already solid pitching staff, it seems wasteful to use valuable resources to acquire two months of a pitcher, when that same pitcher will be available to the highest bidder this off-season.

The Yankees don’t seem to need many, if any, major pieces at the deadline. King notes possible interest in Lance Berkman to fill in for Nick Johnson at DH, but those rumors are even further fetched than the Lee ones, at least right now. At this point the Yankees are not only waiting for word on Johnson, but they’re also using Jorge Posada as the primary DH. Posada will likely move behind the plate sometime next week, but he’ll still get plenty of reps at DH. If Johnson can indeed return this season, trading for Berkman would seem superfluous.

Chances are, if we see the Yankees make a deal it will be more along the lines of last year’s deadline. Jerry Hariston was their only addition then, and they could make a similar move this year. Perhaps that will be for an upgrade over Ramiro Pena. Perhaps that will be another bullpen arm. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t expect a big name to head into New York this summer. The Yankees have a solid foundation. All they need are complementary pieces.