Baseball America’s Top Ten Yankees Prospects

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s prospect season, and Baseball America is continuing to pump out their team top ten lists pretty much every other day. All of the NL lists have been published, and today the crazy stacked Rays top ten hit their site. If the name Mikie Mahtook sounds familiar, it’s because he’s Tampa’s tenth best prospect and the guy they took with the draft pick the Yankees gave them for signing Rafael Soriano. They say the LSU product “possesses the power/speed combination to make an impact in the majors” and “he’s an advanced hitter who could move quickly.” So hooray for that.

Anyway, the Yankees top ten list will be released online two weeks from today, January 4th, but if you have a Baseball America subscription with access to the digital version of their magazine, you can see the list today. Friend of the site and cat lover Leonora has said access and shared the top ten list on Twitter earlier today…

  1. Jesus Montero
  2. Manny Banuelos
  3. Dellin Betances
  4. Gary Sanchez
  5. Mason Williams
  6. Dante Bichette Jr.
  7. Ravel Santana
  8. Austin Romine
  9. J.R. Murphy
  10. Slade Heathcott

John Manuel, who’s been writing up the Yankees top tens for eight years now, very clearly went heavy on tools this time around. The top three was the easy part, though some might argue Betances over Banuelos. Bottom line, those three guys should be the top three names in any Yankees prospect list you see this winter. Hard to take it seriously otherwise.

Sanchez at four isn’t terribly surprising, though chances are I’ll have him behind Williams whenever I get around to doing my annual Top 30 List. The 19-year-old had a very busy season in 2011, though not necessarily in a good way. He was just so-so in first half with Low-A Charleston before being sent back to Extended Spring Training for disciplinary reasons, then he demolished the ball in the second half before a broken finger ended his season prematurely. Baseball America still loves his bat and plate discipline, but they also note that he struggles with breaking balls, both hitting them and catching them. According to Manual, some scouts even said he stopped calling for breaking balls behind the plate, which is a problem.

Bichette and Santana making the top ten over essentially big league ready arms like David Phelps and Adam Warren (Hector Noesi isn’t eligible) is a bit surprising to me, but it’s not crazy. They topped the Gulf Coast League Top 20 Prospects List back in September, and really the only questions are long-term position (Bichette) and health (Santana). Ravel is reportedly doing well following his brutal and season-ending ankle injury, though he still has a ways to go with his rehab. He is expected to be ready in time for camp though, which is great news. Heathcott was another interesting top ten guy given his continued shoulder problems, but like I said, the tools won out this year.

I’ve had a tendency to lean towards probability in recent years, valuing big league readiness a little more than long-term potential. That’s a personal preference though, there’s nothing wrong with placing an emphasis on upside and potential stardom. Many times it’s too hard to ignore (Sanchez, Williams), but anything less than a potential star gives me pause when compared to his brethren at the higher levels. The Yankees farm system is down from where it was a year ago, but it’s still a top ten system with star power up top and near-MLB ready depth below that. Baseball America’s top ten list reflects the upside this winter.

Fun with Fangraphs’ new sortable PITCHf/x leaderboards

(Photo by Steve Ruark/Getty Images North America)

During the past year, one of the most frustrating aspects of conducting advanced baseball analysis has been the widening gulf between the reliability of the pitching data supplied by Baseball Info Solutions (and which FanGraphs uses) and Sportvision’s PITCHf/x, the latter of which is near-universally acknowledged as the superior data set (though that’s certainly not to say PITCHf/x is without its own flaws). To the delight of baseball nerds like me, FanGraphs recently went a long way toward rectifying this situation, adding PITCHf/x data not only to the individual player pages, but even more importantly, to the sortable leaderboards, enabling us to make comparisons that were previously impossible unless one wanted to input every individual name into manually and compile the data themselves in as painstaking a manner as possible.

In honor of the newfound ability to see where our favorite pitchers ranked in relation to their peers, I’ve taken a first pass through last year’s data to see where the members of the Yankees’ starting staff ranked among the 42 qualified AL starters across several categories. Neither Freddy Garcia nor Phil Hughes made the innings cut, which is why they’re not present. I also didn’t evaluate horizontal movement (pfx_x) or vertical movement (pfx_z), as you can’t really rank H-break and V-break in descending/ascending order (though you can try), at least not without first binning by pitching arm, which FanGraphs does not have the ability to do.

It may surprise you to learn that Ivan Nova threw the 7th-most four-seamers in the American League last season, although despite the fact that it’s frequently been derided as a lesser pitch for Nova, he also wound up having the most relative success with it on the Yankee pitching staff, with a 0.46 FF/C, good for 12th-best in the league. It will not surprise you that A.J. Burnett had by far the worst four-seamer in the league, at -2.21 per 100 thrown.

Here’s another interesting Nova nugget: despite the fact that PITCHf/x only has him having thrown a slider 3.7% of the time — a percentage that appears to be incorrect — he had tremendous success with it (which is, of course, something we already knew), putting up a 0.90 wSL/C, good for 11th-best in the AL and second on the team after CC Sabathia. As I and many other shave noted throughout this offseason, Nova’s slider will likely be the deciding factor behind whether he can continue to pitch as effectively as he did in 2011.

CC Sabathia’s sinker was one of the best in the game, ranking second-fastest (93mph), most valuable on an overall basis (2.5 runs above average) and second-most valuable on a per-100 basis (0.41). The only thing that worked for A.J. Burnett last season was his curve, which was worth 10.7 runs above average. And Bartolo Colon, as we saw all season, had one of the best two-seamers in the business, worth 4.7 runs above average, good for 7th-best in the AL.

The Justin Maxwell Option

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Yankees have a very balanced outfield situation, at least in terms of the 40-man roster. Their big league outfield is set with Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Brett Gardner, a three-man unit that’s been the best in the AL and arguably the best in baseball over the last two seasons. Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa are both on the 40-man but are still a ways off from being big league options. Then there’s Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell, the former of whom we saw quite a bit of last season. The latter is still very much an unknown.

Maxwell, 28, was having a dynamite season with Triple-A Scranton this past summer (.418 wOBA and 16 homers in 48 games) before he tore his labrum robbing a homer at the wall. He had surgery and his season was over before the calendar flipped to June, though he picked up some service time late in September when the Yankees called him up and immediately placed on the 60-day DL to free up a 40-man spot for Jesus Montero. When they needed to clear more 40-man space this offseason, they opted to release Greg Golson and designate Colin Curtis for assignment rather than dump Maxwell. That’s a pretty good sign that they think he has some value.

Chad Jennings spoke to VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman yesterday, who indicated that Maxwell is expected to be healthy next season and has a chance to contribute off the bench. “He’s got some tools, and he’s a high-caliber individual who works,” said Newman, who isn’t kidding about the tools part. When Baseball America ranked Maxwell as the Nationals eighth best prospect prior to the 2010 season (the last time he was prospect eligible), this was part of their scouting report (subs. req’d) …

A physical specimen with plus athleticism, Maxwell has above-average power potential and a patient offensive approach. Nats hitting coach Rick Eckstein and first-base coach Marquis Grissom got the idea to lower his hands to chest level after watching video of other long-levered sluggers like Willie Stargell and Dave Winfield, and the adjustment fueled Maxwell’s September surge by getting him in a stronger position to drive the ball more consistently. He’s a plus runner who stole 41 bases in 50 tries last season. He’s also an above-average defender in center field with excellent range and instincts.

As wonderful as that sounds, Maxwell’s weakness has always been his inability to make consistent, quality contact. He’s drawn walks (14.6%), hit for solid power (.178 ISO), and been a threat on the bases (11-for-13 in stolen base attempts) in his 260 big league plate appearances, but he’s hit just .201 and has struck out 31.9% of the time. In 924 career Triple-A plate appearances, he owns a 12.4% walk rate (very good), a .192 ISO (also very good), gone 62-for-79 in stolen base attempts (78.5% success rate, pretty good), a .259 batting average (decent at best), and a 30.6% strikeout rate (very bad). The guy does everything but get the bat on the ball with regularity.

If the Yankees truly feel that Maxwell can help the team off the bench, his bench chance to do so would be as a defensive replacement and a platoon bat against lefties. He has shown a sizable platoon split in his limited big league time, and also demolished lefties in Triple-A this past season with a similar split throughout his minor league career. In a perfect world, the Yankees would just send Maxwell back to Triple-A this season with an eye towards the second half or 2013, but he’s out of minor league options. They can’t send him to the minors without first passing him through waivers, and that creates a bit of a roster problem.

When it comes to next year’s fourth outfielder, I think Plan A, B, and C should be Andruw Jones. He did everything the Yankees could have possibly asked him to do in 2011 — hit for power, draw walks, hit lefties, play average defense, contribute in the clubhouse — which was nothing more than a repeat of his 2010 season with the White Sox. If he wants to come back, and it sounds like he does, then they should welcome him back with open arms. However, if the Yankees drag their feet and Jones ends up elsewhere, letting Maxwell compete with a non-roster invite or two (Scott Hairston? Conor Jackson?) for the job is a pretty decent backup plan. He has some interesting tools, so they might as well see what he can do if Andruw doesn’t come back.

Remember Hideki’s arrival as Darvish slips away

All of the recent brouhaha over Yu Darvish, I got to thinking about Hideki Matsui. Unlike many high-profile Japanese players who made the jump to the states, Matsui hit the Majors as an unrestricted free agent. There was no blind bidding process and subsequent negotiation. Hideki was free to pick whatever team he wanted. It almost made sense.

For Darvish, the decision to push his team to post him was a calculated risk. As’s Patrick Newman and Eno Sarris showed (in an Insider-only piece) on Tuesday, Darvish probably could have made more had he waited a few more years. If his deal with the Rangers ends up being at an annual level of around $12 million, there’s a good chance he would earn more in the long term by returning to Japan this year and entering the States via bidding process. Teams wouldn’t have to pony over sunk dollars on a posting fee, and Darvish would stand to make all of the money from his contract.

Yet, the allure of guaranteed dollars is a tough one to resist. It’s why pitchers are willing to sign seemingly below-market deals earlier in their careers. The threat of injury lurks, and easy access to millions is too tempting to turn down. Darvish will sign a deal that locks him up for five or six years, but if he’s as good as advertised, he’ll cash in again in his early 30s. That said, he would be wise to sign a high-dollar, low-year deal with the Rangers and hit free agency at 29. Texas, though, would rather lock him up for longer.

Anyway, I digress. The erstwhile World Series MVP was my original focus. I realized a few days ago, as the Yanks continued through a silent off-season, that I missed Matsui. Now, I don’t believe the Yanks should bring him back, but I miss his presence in left field and his bat in the lineup. Bring back the glory days of Matsui, the player who hit .292/.370/.482 on the Yanks, and I’ll be happy.

So how anyway did the Yanks land Hideki? It was the more traditional path. By the end of 2001, Matsui’s name was bandied about as a future Major Leaguer. He was the highest paid Japanese player at the time, and the next stop for him would be the States. The first time the Yanks were tied to him arrived in August of 2002 when Jack Curry reported that Jean Afterman was scouting Matsui. Over the next few months, rumors of the Yanks’ interest hit the news. Would the Bombers land both Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui prior to 2003?

Hideki was a new — and seemingly rare — breed of Japanese players. He used a quick bat to pull the ball and was a power hitter more in the American baseball mode. As the offseason wore on, both the Yankees and the Mets emerged as potential suitors for Matsui’s services. As the Yankees tried to determine if they wanted Bartolo Colon or Roger Clemens for 2003, they stepped up their pursuit of Matsui as well, and by mid-December, they seemed poised to land him for three years and $20-21 million. It was an easy negotiation and an easy deal. Godzilla came to New York.

Since Matsui’s arrival, no Japanese player has made quite the same impact on Major League Baseball. Daisuke Matsuzaka and, to a greater extent, Kei Igawa failed to deliver as advertised, and no power hitters or All Star position players in the Ichiro or Matsui mold have arrived on U.S. soil. Now, it’s Darvish’s turn, and in Texas, where the defending AL Champs are in bad need of pitching, he’ll get a chance to star. The whole world will be watching.

Prospect Injury News: Adams, Slade, Murphy

We’re all focusing on the big league team right now, but Chad Jennings took some time to check in with VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman about some minor league business. I suggest heading over and reading the whole thing, but the important stuff I want to highlight are the injury updates…

  • David Adams is still rehabbing from that brutal ankle injury he suffered in May 2010, and he’s scheduled to arrive in Tampa for early Spring Training work next month. The Yankees added Adams to the 40-man roster last month, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft.
  • Slade Heathcott figures to be behind other position players in Spring Training as he rehabs from his second left shoulder surgery in as many years. It’s his third left shoulder injury since 2009, his senior year of high school, and they’ve limited him to just 132 games over the last 2+ seasons. They’re a very real problem.
  • J.R. Murphy is 100% ready to go after missing the end of last season due to a foot/ankle injury suffered when he apparently fouled a pitch off himself. Newman says he will “predominantly” catch in 2012, as he should given the significant improvement in his defense.
  • Remember Jeremy Bleich? The Yankees highest signed pick from the 2008 draft hasn’t pitched since May 2010 due to major shoulder surgery, and Newman says he’s still rehabbing.

Open Thread: Tony Womack

(Richard Perry/The New York Times)

The 2004-2005 offseason was quite ridiculous in Yankeeland. They (theoretically) reinforced the rotation with Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, and Randy Johnson, brought back Tino Martinez, and thought they found someone to replace Miguel Cairo at second base. Seven years ago today, the Yankees signed Tony Womack to a two-year deal worth $4M, apparently mesmerized by his .307/.349/.385 batting line with the Cardinals in 2004 while ignoring the .262/.303/.352 he hit in the 2,193 plate appearances prior to that.

Predictably, Womack was terrible. He had three hits on Opening Day but then fell into a 14-for-55 funk that brought his batting line down to .233/.292/.283 on April 23rd. As an added bonus, his defense at second was rather atrocious. The Yankees needed just a month to pull the plug, moving Womack to left field and calling up Robinson Cano soon after the calendar flipped to May. Cano finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting with his strong rookie showing, and Womack finished the season by hitting .238/.257/.262 in his final 257 plate appearances, reduced to part-time duty.

Brian Cashman managed to turn Womack into two real live players after the season, trading him to the Reds for non-prospects Ben Himes and Kevin Howard. He was out of baseball a year later. The best thing Womack ever did in New York was unite Yankees fans, who hated him universally. No one liked the signing, no one liked him at second base, no one liked him in the outfield, and not one liked him at the plate. No one liked the guy at all. It was a beautiful thing, the united hatred.

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Here is tonight’s open thread. All three hockey locals are in action, but that’s pretty much it. You can talk about whatever you want here, so have at it.

Add Roy Oswalt to possible Yankee targets

AP Photo

Years ago he might have topped the list of Yankee targets. Today he’s having trouble getting a multiyear offer from any team. Roy Oswalt’s first foray into the free agent market couldn’t have come at a worse time. The market for pitching is relatively thin, yet he’s coming off a season during which he missed 53 team games with lower back injuries. Making matters worse, two years ago he was diagnosed with two degenerative discs in his back. That makes it difficult for any team to justify a multiyear offer. Now it appears that Oswalt is ready to face reality.

This morning’s Jerry Crasnick reported that Oswalt wants only a one-year deal. The idea: show his back is healthy so that he can reenter the market next year and hopefully score the multiyear deal he sought this off-season. Apparently six teams are in conversation with him, and while we don’t know the Yankees level of interest it’s difficult to see them standing on the sidelines. In some ways Oswalt fits their needs.

Despite his recent history of lower back issues — he has missed almost 100 games since 2008 with lower back injuries — Oswalt has rarely suffered in terms of performance. In 2009, when the issues really started to crop up, he produced a career worst ERA, but even then it was 4.12. He then bounced back in 2010 to start 32 games, pitch 211 innings, and finish the season with a 2.76 ERA, his best in any season since a 2.73 ERA in 141 innings in 2001. Of course, he followed that with only 139 innings in 23 starts last season, though he did still manage a 3.69 ERA and 3.44 FIP. In 2012, his age-34 season, we can still expect a certain level of effectiveness when he’s on the mound.

Even on a one-year deal, Oswalt’s back issues present a problem. We heard earlier in the off-season that the Yankees were concerned about Oswalt’s back. That matters more in terms of a multi-year deal, but it also plays a part in a one-year arrangement. The Yankees would still rely on Oswalt to make 30 starts, so if he comes up short due to the same back issues they’ll have to rely more heavily on Plan B — and then Plan C, and Plan D, and so on. That is, if the Yankees are truly concerned about the state of Oswalt’s back, they should probably stay away regardless of contract term.

Still, of all the remaining pitchers on the market Oswalt has the highest ceiling. He might be a career National Leaguer, but he’s passed through a number of tests along the way. He pitched in the hitters’ park known as Minute Maid Park, and then graduated to another hitters’ park, Citizen Bank Ballpark. He’s appeared in the postseason four times, pitching to a 3.73 ERA in 72.1 innings. He also has about a season’s worth of interleague starts, pitching to a 3.70 ERA in 199.1 innings (30 starts). His impeccable control, 2.09 BB/9 for his career, could also help him manage the transition between leagues.

One major question regarding Oswalt: why would he want to rebuild his value in New York? This isn’t an end-of-career deal, where he’s just looking to catch on with a strong contender for one last hurrah. This is a player seeking to rebuild his value and get a multiyear contract next off-season, at age 35. While it might not behoove him to hide out in a known pitchers’ haven, such as San Diego, facing the AL East offenses frequently might not be the best idea, either. He wouldn’t have to face the Yanks offense, a major plus, but he’d have a number of starts against other above-average offenses. He might prefer to remain in the NL for this reason — or, if he’d like to prove he’s not just an NL guy, he could seek a rotation spot in the much less vicious AL Central.

At the same time, Oswalt could view New York as the perfect place to rebuild his value. Remember, he did talk about retirement last year while his back ailed him. Perhaps he wants to go all-in with this last attempt. If he succeeds, he extends his career by a few years. If he fails, he rides into retirement. In that case, the Yankees could be a good fit. He’d have a chance to be the No. 2 on a sure contender. Furthermore, a solid performance on the Yankees could turn a lot of heads. It could even entice the Yankees themselves to offer him a contract after the season. Even a slightly above average performance for the Yankees could be more attractive next off-season than a well above average performance elsewhere.

Oswalt’s newfound availability puts him in the same league as Hiroki Kuroda: risky, but with plenty of upside. Oswalt has a higher ceiling, but also has the greater risk of giving you nothing. Kuroda is the better bet to give you 30 starts, but his ceiling is lower than Oswalt’s. His age is also a concern; any decline will greatly affect his performance for the Yankees. The Yankees might not end up with either, but they’d do just fine by signing either to a one-year deal.