AL East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Over the next few days we will preview the teams the Yankees will play most frequently in 2010. Yesterday we took a look at the Red Sox, and today we continue on with the other AL East powerhouse, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Run Production

You might not have realized it, but the Rays had one of the game’s best offenses in 2009. They hit .263-.343-.439 on the season, and their .343 team wOBA ranked behind only the Yankees (.366), Red Sox (.352), and Angels (.346). The 803 total runs they pushed across the plate is probably a little light considering their strong peripherals, yet the lineup remains largely unchanged heading into the new season.

Photo Credit: Mike Carlson, AP

Tampa’s offense is built around a dynamic middle of the order. Third baseman Evan Longoria leads the charge as the three hole hitter, and his .380 wOBA from last season is especially remarkable when you consider that he was stuck in a brutal two month long slump that saw him hit .205-.311-.404 (.301 wOBA) from May 31st to July 31st. Longoria finished the year strong (.293-.373-.523, .372 wOBA) after the calendar flipped to August, and he’s not just going to be asked to anchor the lineup again, he’s going to be asked to do even more. At 24-years-old, he’s already a star and one of the most productive hitters in the game.

Backing up Longoria most of the time will be former Yankee farmhand Carlos Pena, who has enjoyed a career resurgence since joining Tampa prior to the 2007 season. He’s the definition of a three true outcomes player, as 48% of his plate appearances over the last three years have ended with a walk, a strikeout, or a homer. As he enters his age-32 season, the Rays are going to need just one more .250-.380-.550 season with 30+ homers out of Pena before he heads off into the world of free agency after the season.

Photo Credit: Mike Fuentes, AP

Pat Burrell was signed last offseason to complement Longoria and Pena in the middle of Joe Maddon’s lineup, but it ended up being career utility player Ben Zobrist who stepped up and broke out in a big way. Always a patient hitter who hit for decent power in the minors (.318-.429-.459 career hitter in the bush leagues), the switch hitting Zobrist refined his swing prior to the season with Jaime Cevallos (a.k.a. The Swing Mechanic). The result was a huge breakout that saw him hit .297-.405-.543 with the third best wOBA (.408) in the AL. Not yet in his arbitration years, Zobrist will join Longoria to form what might be the division’s most productive hitting tandem over the next half-decade.

The table for that trio will be set by Carl Crawford, who is inarguably the greatest player in franchise history. He’s bested a .360 wOBA in three of the last four years (he was hampered by a hand injury the one year he fell short), and we’re all well aware of his stolen base exploits. At 28-years-old there’s no reason to expect a drop off. Heck, he might even be in store for a huge year considering he’s up for free agency next winter.

Burrell’s fall from grace came harder and faster than anyone expected (.304 wOBA after topping .374 the previous four years), and everyone assumes the worst for 2010. He was brought in to help balance out a lefty heavy lineup, which seemed like a fine idea considering he averaged a .415 wOBA against southpaws from 2005 to 2008, though he managed to hit just .202-.336-.252 (.278 wOBA) against lefties last season. Tampa actively looked for a replacement DH this offseason despite owing Pat The Bat $9M this season. It seems like a pretty safe bet that the Rays will get better production out of their designated hitter spot this year, whether it’s Burrell who provides it remains to be seen.

Shortstop Jason Bartlett is unlikely to repeat his .364 BABIP and thus his .389 wOBA from a year ago, and a fall back to his previously below average offensive levels would be a big hit. After breaking out with a .387 wOBA in 2007, B.J. Upton hasn’t been the same since hurting his shoulder in 2008, and bottomed out at a .310 wOBA last season. The range of what he’s capable of doing in 2010 is as wide as any player in the game – I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he wOBA’d .310 or .390. Dioner Navarro’s .258 wOBA has essentially been replaced by Kelly Shoppach, who can swing and miss with the best of ‘em, but will also provide league average offense from the catcher position.

Photo Credit: Brian Blanco, AP

The last spot in the lineup will most likely be filled by Sean Rodriguez, who came over in last summer’s Scott Kazmir trade. Coming into the camp, the idea was that he and Matt Joyce would battle it out for either the second base or rightfield job with Zobrist occupying the other spot, but Joyce’s sore elbow and Rodriguez’s molten hot spring (.439-.484-.860 in a team high 57 at-bats) all but assures him of being in the lineup come Opening Day. He won’t maintain his spring performance into the season, obviously, though replicating the departed Akinori Iwamura’s .338 wOBA seems likely.

The bench will feature former All Star Hank Blalock, who is just a year removed from consecutive seasons of .361 and .383 wOBA’s. He’ll backup Longoria, Pena, and get some starts at DH against righties. Fourth outfielder Gabe Kapler was ever so slightly above average with the bat last season, doing most of his damage against southpaws (.394 wOBA). Prospect list veteran Reid Brignac may be the club’s utility infielder, or it could fall into the lap of Elliot Johnson. Neither will contribute much with the stick.

Of course, doing damage with the bats is just half of Tampa’s offensive game. Once they reach base, they make lots and lots of stuff happen with their legs. Crawford (60), Upton (42), Bartlett (30), and Zobrist (17) stole more bases by themselves than any other team in the league last year, and are likely to run wild again. Longoria and Rodriguez are both capable of double digit steals as well. According to Baseball Prospectus’ EqBRR, the Rays also generated another five and a half runs for themselves in non-stolen base baserunning situations, among the best in the league. Tampa Bay’s offensive game extends far beyond the batter’s box.

Run Prevention

While defense has taken baseball by storm as the new undervalued commodity, the Rays have been doing the catch the ball thing for years. Their 2007 squad was the worst defensive team in baseball that year, costing themselves 57.7 runs in the field, nearly ten runs behind the second worst team. That all changed in 2008 through a series of moves, including position changes (Upton to center, Iwamura to second), trades (Bartlett), and promotions (Longoria), and the end result was a team that saved 74.2 runs defensively, the best in the game. That 131.9 run (!!!) swing is the main reason the team went from 96 losses and 944 runs allowed in ’07 to 95 wins and 671 runs allowed in ’08.

Photo Credit: Tom Gannam, AP

Although not to the same extreme as the Mariners, Tampa’s defense remains their calling card. They saved 69.5 runs defensively last season, with Longoria and Crawford rated as the two best defensive players at their position over the last two years. Upton places second for his position despite his occasional lack of hustle. UZR hasn’t quite figured out first basemen, though Pena remains one of the game better defenders at the 3-position. Bartlett’s reputation as a defender greatly exceeds what the advanced metrics say, but he’s no worse than rock solid at short. That leaves second base and rightfield as the unknowns.

Zobrist led all big league position players with 8.6 WAR last season, thanks in part to beefy small sample size UZR’s. In 714 innings at second, he was +16. In 329.1 innings in right, he was +11.5. In 165.1 innings spent at all the other positions, he was -1.1.  He’s unlikely to maintain those kinds of ratings as the number of defensive innings grows, but he, like Rodriguez, came up through the minors with a reputation of being no worse than a solid glove man. Even we assume league average defense from that pair, Tampa will again boast one of the games best defensive clubs.

Of course, run prevention starts on the mound, and the Rays have the game’s best young rotation. Jamie Shields is the old man of the bunch at 28, and he’s followed by Matt Garza (26), Jeff Niemann (27), David Price (24), and Wade Davis (24). Those five will combine to make about $9.5M in 2010, or what the Yankees will pay A.J. Burnett for the first four months of the season.

Photo Credit: Steve Nesius, AP

Unsurprisingly, Shields will be the team’s Opening Day starter for the third time in three years. The changeup artist has made at least 31 starts and logged at least 215 innings every year since 2007, keeping his xFIP consistently under four. Just ten pitchers in baseball have eclipsed Shields’ 12.8 total WAR over the last three years, and he’s as safe a bet as anyone to give his team 200 above average innings.

Number two starter Matt Garza isn’t as much of a known quantity as Shields, but he’s been pretty much everything the Rays could have hoped for since acquiring him prior to the 2008 season. He added more than two full strikeouts to his K/9 last season (8.38), and is in position to toss up one strikeout for every inning pitched in 2010. Garza’s xFIP went from 4.48 to 4.21 last season, and natural development should have him close to four-flat this season. Many starters hit their stride in their third full season, so Garza’s a prime breakout candidate.

Niemann, the fourth overall pick the year the Yankees drafted Phil Hughes, finally stuck in the big leagues after battling arm injuries and at time inconsistency in his minor league career. The 6-foot9, 260 pound monster posted a better than league average ERA, FIP, and xFIP in 30 starts last season, and should improve upon his modest 6.23 K/9 with more experience. Like Shields and Garza, he’s a safe bet to not just repeat last season’s performance, but improve on it.

Following his bullpen exploits in the 2008 postseason, Tampa sent Price to the minors to start 2009 so he could work on his changeup. Although he made 23 more than respectable big league starts last season (4.49 xFIP), he often ran high pitch counts that taxed the bullpen. That didn’t last for long though, as Price got on a roll and completed at least six innings in nine of his last eleven starts. Again, we have another guy likely to improve on last season’s performance just through natural development.

Despite a rather poor spring (12-10 K/BB in 15.1 innings), Davis will break camp as the team’s fifth starter, relegating the incumbent Andy Sonnanstine to bullpen duty. Baseball America ranked the hard throwing righty the 34th best prospect in the game coming into the season after six dazzling September starts that featured a 3.54 xFIP and a complete game shutout of the Orioles. Expectations are high for the long-term, but right now he just needs to be the team’s fifth starter. Sonnanstine, who may have been dealing with a case of World Series hangover when he posted a 5.42 ERA and a 4.85 xFIP last year, will be the de facto long man.

Even counting Sonnastine, the Rays enjoyed great health from their starters last season. Shields, Garza, and Niemann all made at least 30 starts, Price chipped in 23 after being called up in May, and Kazmir also gave the team 20 starts before being traded. Given the general injury risk involved with pitchers, it’s unlikely that they’ll go through the 2010 season needing just seven starters again. Then again, you could have said the same thing about the 2008 season when they used just six starters. Sonnanstine would likely be the first to move into the rotation should a spot starter be needed, but Tampa also has Jeremy Hellickson waiting in the minors as one of the game’s top pitching prospects. Righty Aneury Rodriguez, acquired from the Rockies for Jason Hammel, provides more solid depth as well.

Photo Credit: Nati Harnik, AP

The biggest move of the team’s offseason was actually a series of trades that landed the team a bonafide closer in Rafael Soriano. After burning through the old and ineffective (Troy Percival, Jason Isringhausen), Maddon went with a closer by committee approach that saw J.P. Howell getting the majority of the saves and save opportunities. Unfortunately, Howell is already on the shelf with a fatigued shoulder, weakening the setup crew. Soriano is a given at the end game, having used his high-90’s heat and devastating slider to pick up 27 saves and post a 2.99 xFIP in Atlanta last season. Getting the ball to him could prove to be a bit cumbersome.

Veteran Dan Wheeler is death to righties (3.40 xFIP) but gets tattooed by lefties (6.51), while former Yankee Randy Choate is the exact opposite (2.56 vs. LHB, 4.92 vs. RHB). Grant Balfour plays the role of good fastball, bad control reliever, and is  more likely to repeat his 4.21 xFIP in 2009 than his 2.96 mark from 2008. Lance Cormier was a revelation in long relief last season, but Howell’s injury may press him into shorter, higher leveraged innings. Padres’ castoff Mike Ekstrom and Four-A’er Dale Thayer represent the replacement level up-and-down fodder. The wildcard is Joaquin Benoit, who signed a minor league deal after missing the 2008 season with shoulder surgery. During his last two healthy years, he struck out more than a batter an inning and kept his FIP close to three. It’s a good thing Tampa’s rotation is so strong and deep, because they’re going to need to soak up as many innings as possible to limit the amount of time the Balfours and Thayers and Cormiers of the world have to blow the lead before getting to Soriano.

The Rays have mastered the concept of player development and building from within, which is the only way they’re going to compete with the bullies of the AL East. You could make a pretty good rotation just out of the pitchers the Rays have traded away in the last two years (Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, Hammel, Mitch Talbot), and they have plenty more where that came from. With talk of a reduced payroll in 2011 and Pena, Crawford, Soriano, Burrell, and Balfour all set to become free agents after the season, this is probably the last hurrah for this Rays’ team as presently constructed. This current team is very, very good and could easily win 90 games and make a run at the division crowd, and don’t be surprised if they make a midseason move to get them over the hump.

What’s the backup plan at each position?

No team goes into the season without planning for the worst at each position. Players get hurt, and teams need to have an idea of what they’ll do if that becomes a reality. A well-crafted backup plan can help stanch the bleeding a bit. Of course, if the team ends up like the 2009 Mets then no amount of gauze will stop the hemorrhaging. Players also slump, and while many players, including basically the entire Yankees’ infield, will stay in the lineup, others will find themselves on the bench. So what are the Yankees’ backup plans for the 2010 season?

Designated Hitter

Nick Johnson presents the greatest concern for injury on the team. He has an injury history that matches Bart Simpon’s permanent record in volume. He did remain mostly healthy in 2009, missing about two weeks with a hamstring issue, so there is hope that he’ll stay in the lineup. His move to the DH spot should also help him avoid the wear and tear that comes with playing the field every day.

As Mike discussed this morning, Jesus Montero could be among the backup plans, though the Yankees will probably turn elsewhere before moving their defensively challenged catching prospect into a DH role. Maybe if the injury happens later in the season it will be a possibility, but if anything happens in the first half chances are that Juan Miranda will get the call. Jorge Vazquez could also provide an alternative, though a lot of that will depend on how he’s hitting in the minors.

As an outside chance, perhaps the Yankees would favor Jorge in the DH role. That would necessitate finding another catcher, though. If Cervelli is hitting then perhaps they can do with just a backup. Otherwise they’d need someone else, and I’m not sure the Yanks are prepared to go trade for a catcher this season.

First Base

We got a glimpse of a potential Mark Teixeira injury last night when Jeremy Guthrie hit him on the elbow with a fastball. It appears to be just a bruise, so Tex will likely rub some dirt on it, take a day or two off, and continue preparing for Opening Night. Since his debut in 2003 he has been on the DL just twice, though he did require minor knee surgery following the 2007 season. What happens if Tex is physically unable to play at some point this season?

Nick Johnson will likely move to first base with Juan Miranda also taking reps at first and DH. There’s a chance Nick Swisher could eat some innings at first, especially if Randy Winn starts hitting. It won’t equal Mark Teixeira, of course, but only a top first base prospect could even have a prayer. Losing a superstar player is detrimental to any team.

Second Base

Since his prolonged trip to the DL in June of 2006 with a hamstring strain, Robinson Cano has stayed almost completely healthy. His only issue since then cropped up in camp last year, a bit of pain in his shoulder after he returned from the World Baseball Classic. It didn’t affect his season, though, as he played in 161 games. He has played in at least 159 games in every season since 2006.

If Cano’s luck changes this year then Ramiro Pena could fill in. That would necessitate the Yankees recalling another utility infielder to replace Pena, which at this point figures to be Kevin Russo. If they’re forced to do that, though, might Russo get regular reps at second? His bat projects better than Pena’s, and the Yankees seem to like his defense enough. I think he’d get a shot to play at least a few times a week in this case.

Third Base

After appearing a bastion of health for most of his career, Alex Rodriguez spent time on the DL in each of the past two seasons. His hip surgery last year is certainly cause for concern. In fact, I think every Yankees fan held his or her breath last season every time he grabbed for the hip. He survived, though, and all reports have been positive since. Yet we can’t ignore the possibility that A-Rod misses time this season.

If it’s just a 15-day DL stint, then Pena could slide into the role. But we’re again crossing into Russo territory here. The Yanks certainly could hand the job to Pena temporarily and call up one of the other utility infielders on the 40-man roster. Russo appears superior to those options, and again, if they recall him I think they’d give him a chance to play multiple times per week, at least at second and third.

Shortstop

Derek Jeter and the disabled list do not get along. In fact, since he dislocated his shoulder sliding into third on Opening Day 2003 and missed over a month, he hasn’t spent a single day on the DL. He has weathered nagging injuries, a few of which have kept him out of action for days at a time, but none have necessitated a DL trip. But what happens if his luck changes this year?

Pena would likely be the guy here. I’m not sure how they’d deal with the utility position, but they have been giving Russo reps at short, so perhaps he’d come up and play once in a while. Or maybe they’d go with someone a bit more adept at short. In any case, I think Pena, with his slick glove work, would be the go-to guy to fill in at short, for either a short- or long-term injury.

Left Field

With uncertainty surrounding left field heading into the season, an injury wouldn’t greatly affect matters. If Gardner gets hurt then Randy Winn would take the bulk of the at-bats. If Winn gets hurt then it’s Gardner. In either case Marcus Thames could get some more at bats against lefties while playing left. Yet this leaves the Yankees vulnerable to the other half of the statement posed in the first paragraph. What happens if Winn doesn’t recover from his poor 2009 and Thames doesn’t hit?

This is a situation where I can envision a trade. I’m not sure who they’d target, or what they’d have to surrender. Considering the state of the farm, it might be a difficult proposition. But with few options on the farm, the Yanks would have to do something. Maybe the Rockies would be willing to part with one of their many outfielders. Other than that, I’m having a difficult time seeing where they could turn.

Center Field

Over his entire career Curtis Grandrson has missed just one month on the DL, the result of a fractured middle finger in 2008. Even then it came at the end of camp, so he didn’t miss much actual time. Even if he does get hurt, Gardner slides into center field and Winn takes over in left, with Thames getting more at bats against lefties. Yet the same problem arises. What happens if Gardner, Winn, or both aren’t effective? I don’t think Colin Curtis is the answer.

Right Field

Losing Swisher would be a big blow to the Yankees’ offense. His presence at the bottom of the order makes the lineup that much longer, and to downgrade from him to Winn would lessen that effect. All considered this would be on par with losing Granderson, replacements and all. Clearly, the outfield is one area where the Yankees could face some issues if players miss time. Maybe Winn steps in adequately, but there’s no guarantee of that.

Catcher

Jorge Posada has become a bit more fragile with age. He hadn’t hit the DL in his entire career until 2008, when he was ineffective in the first half and missed the entire second half with a shoulder injury. Thankfully the shoulder held up last season, but Jorge missed a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury. While he could stay healthy for most of 2010, the Yanks can’t bank on that. So what’s the plan?

The team weathered injuries to both Posada and Jose Molina last season, using Francisco Cervelli to fill in temporarily. His backup, if you’ll remember, was Kevin Cash, so it’s not all that different this year, with Mike Rivera filling the interchangeable role of emergency catcher. A longer term injury, as in 2008, could cause more problems. It’s doubtful that the Yankees would turn to Montero here, but you never know. Perhaps they would use him in a split-time situation with Cervelli, inserting him at DH to give Johnson a break here and there. Still, I don’t think it likely.

Starting Rotation

A.J. Burnett has an injury history, though he has avoided the DL in the past two seasons. Andy Pettitte has battled through nagging issues in the last two years. Phil Hughes has yet to pitch as a starter in the majors and not get hurt. If one of these pitchers has to spend time on the DL, the Yankees will have to turn to Sergio Mitre at this point. Maybe, if it happens early in the season, they’d insert Chamberlain into the rotation, but given the comments by Dave Eiland and Billy Eppler, I’m not so certain. Al Aceves seems more likely at this point.

If Aceves and Mitre don’t find success in the rotation the Yankees could look to their AAA roster for help. Ivan Nova, Zach McAllister, and Jason Hirsh would likely be the top choices. The hope, of course, is that it never gets to that point. Even so, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see one of those three make a few starts for the Yanks this season.

Bullpen

Thankfully, the Yankees are pretty deep in relief pitching. Mark Melancon remains a top bullpen prospect despite shaky performances in 2009. Joe Girardi‘s love of lefties means that Boone Logan will likely be an early bullpen replacement, perhaps breaking camp with the team due to Aceves’s sore back. Royce Ring also made a case this spring. Beyond them the Yankees have a number of options, including Romulo Sanchez. The bullpen is the one area where I’m not worried about injuries or ineffectiveness. There are plenty of replacement options.

2010 Season Preview: The Front Office

The front office has done its job. Over the past five months the group, led by GM Brian Cashman, has retooled a championship team. That is no small task, especially in New York. The fans here expect a championship every year. There’s no use making excuses, either. Save those for the small market teams. In New York, a front office is expected to not only anticipate every possible scenario, but have a plan to deal with it and still deliver that championship. In other words, the front office has to work in a volatile atmosphere where they can’t possibly succeed every year. That’s part of what makes this team interesting.

Photo credit: Mike Carlson/AP

As we’ve all come to learn during our years of fandom, the media environment in New York is unlike anywhere else in the country. Even as newspapers try to save costs by cutting sports coverage, nine beat reporters continue to travel with the team, including eight print journalists. Each newspaper features at least one columnist, and then there are the various TV and radio personalities. They’re all vying for attention, which oftentimes means riling up the fan base by any means possible. This only makes the front office’s job tougher.

The two aforementioned elements work together, creating a chemical reaction of sorts. If the team makes a mistake or goes on a losing streak the media outlets pounce. This riles up the fan base — the rabid fanatics who, again, expect a championship every season. The front office then has a choice. It can succumb to the pressure from all ends and make a move, or it can stand pat and explain, calmly and rationally, that to do something now could damage the future. Meaning, in other words, that a move now might not only fail for the current season, but could hurt the team’s chances of winning a championship in future seasons. Unfortunately, if either approach means losing now then the front office might not be around much longer.

This balancing act constitutes the toughest part of the front office’s job. The mandate to win now means bringing in solid veterans, which often means trading away prospects. Yet without an influx of young talent a team will also find a hard time winning. The front office has done what it can to walk that balance beam, but with such a small margin for error it’s inevitable that they’ll screw up. To what degree they screw up determines their futures with the organization. This current front office seems to have some semblance of balance, though a few unpopular moves this off-season could lead to agitated fans if the team gets off to a slow start.

What will Brian Cashman and company do if something goes awry? What’s the plan if Nick Johnson hits the disabled list? What’s the plan if Curtis Granderson continues to struggle against left-handed pitching? What’s the plan if Phil Hughes flops in the rotation? The other half of each question is of whether the plan is adequate compensation. Again, the front office can have a plan in mind, but if the plan doesn’t add up to at least a playoff appearance then the organization will face a deflated and angry fan base that doesn’t take well to explanations.

Over the past five days I’ve seen a lot of negativity toward the front office for the decision to start Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen. Yet this is just part of the aforementioned balancing act. Once the team acquired Javy Vazquez it was clear that only one of Joba or Hughes would make the rotation. The Yankees chose Hughes, moving Chamberlain to the bullpen. Could the team have optioned Chamberlain in order to keep him stretched out? Sure. But they also want the best seven arms in the bullpen. To option Joba would be to go north with a lesser reliever. It appears that the team just wasn’t prepared to do that this year. As Brian Cashman said on Michael Kay’s radio show, the decision fell on the win-now side of the ledger.

The front office will inevitably face many decisions that will cause a divide among the fan base. The Chamberlain incident presents a prime example. One side of the fan base, wanting to get the most value out of Joba while continuing his development, wants to see him in the rotation, whether in the bigs or in AAA. The other wants to win now, and views Chamberlain as an elite option out of the bullpen. The front office shouldn’t, and probably doesn’t, make its biggest decisions based on fan opinion. But it knows that fan opinion, if low enough, can cost its members their jobs. In other words, it’s all about winning now, which also means planning for the future. It’s a delicate balancing act, and this front office has shown that it won’t scrap one in favor of the other.

Could the Yankees call on Montero in 2010?

After Mark Teixeira took a Jeremy Guthrie fastball off his elbow in last night’s game, every Yankee fan was concerned about their MVP caliber first baseman. Luckily it’s just a bruise, so everyone on the ledge can take a step back. “We did all the different tests and it’s just going to be sore for a couple of days,” said Tex. “Just going to do treatment all day tomorrow, reassess it on Wednesday and at the very least I’ll play Thursday.” Given how exposed and vulnerable the bone is at the elbow, that’s pretty much the best case scenario.

In the short time between the HBP and the injury update, many of us couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if it was serious enough to put Tex on the DL for a few weeks. The answer’s pretty simple, actually. Nick Johnson would have played first, Juan Miranda would take Tex’s roster spot, then he and Marcus Thames would have platooned in the designated hitter’s spot. It’s not an ideal scenario, but it’s certainly doable. It’s much better than having Cody Ransom replace Alex Rodriguez one-for-one. Heck, given Tex’s historical struggles in April (.338 wOBA in March/April, over .390 the rest of the way), you could argue that the team wouldn’t lose any production.

Even though that’s the most likely scenario, there’s always that thought in the back of everyone’s head … what about Jesus Montero? Instead of the bitter taste of Thames/Miranda, the Yankees could slot Montero into the DH spot full-time, and let him go to town. However, Eno Sarris reminds us that only four position players (Miggy Cabrera, Delmon Young, the Uptons) have made their debut before the age of 21 this century, and things didn’t exactly go as planned. They combined to post a .756 in over 700 plate appearances before reaching drinking age (most of that thanks to Cabrera), which is certainly good for a 20-year-old, but is it worth the lost development time?

Joel Sherman notes that the Yanks’ top prospect showed up to camp overweight this spring, but took his conditioning program seriously after reporting and shed all the excess weight by the time he was reassigned to minor league camp. Some tough love from Joe Girardi and Tony Pena certainly didn’t hurt. More importantly, Montero continues to work hard at improving his defense and maintains that he wants to be a big league catcher, which at this point remains very much in play.

Both the team and the player have a lot more to gain by letting him catch every day in the minor leagues at this point. Montero only has 181 plate appearances above A-ball, which is important to remember. Jumping from the Florida State League to the AL East within ten months isn’t exactly a recipe for immediate success, regardless of how good his bat looks. I want to see him in the Yankees’ lineup as much as the next guy, but rushing him is a typical Mets kind of move. Shortsighted, and showing complete lack of a development plan.

So to answer the question in the title of this post … yes, they always could call on Montero this season, but don’t count on it. He will reach the big leagues sooner rather than later, don’t worry. A September callup in 2010 is very much a possibility, but the 2011 debut is much more likely. For now, enjoy watching him pound on Triple-A pitching while the big league team scores 900 runs again. Everyone will be better off for it.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Aceves’s ailing back opens the door for Logan

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Just as the Yankees added a member to their bullpen, they might have lost one. Yesterday we learned that Al Aceves will miss his appearance today as he suffers from lower back issues. He missed nine days last August with soreness in the same area and struggled as he tried to pitch through it. In the three appearances between his missed time he threw six innings and allowed nine runs on 11 hits and two home runs. There’s a chance that he could recover by Opening Day, but chances are the Yankees want to make sure he’s 100 percent before he returns.

This isn’t all bad news. If Aceves does open the season on the DL the Yankees can backdate the move either nine days or the date of Aceves’s last appearance, whichever is shorter. Since Ace has not appeared in a game since Friday the Yankees can basically get a running start on his DL time. He would be eligible to come off the DL on Friday, April 9, meaning he’d miss just three games. The Yankees could certainly use this rule to their advantage, allowing Aceves time to rest and build back up before returning to the team in Tampa, or perhaps on the 13th at home at the latest.

All spring long Joe Girardi has expressed a desire to carry two lefties in the bullpen. Given the team’s construction, however, that didn’t seem realistic. Seven pitchers lay claim to the seven bullpen spots, only three of whom have options. With David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, and Aceves ready for significant roles, there is no way the Yankees would option any of them. It seemed for a while that Girardi would have to settle for a bunch of righties who fare well against both same and opposite handed batters. The Aceves injury, however, now appears to open a spot for either Boone Logan or Royce Ring, both of whom have fared well this spring.

Logan has the leg up here because he is on the 40-man roster. Drafted in the 20th round of the 2002 draft, Logan began his minor league journey as a starter, but after abysmal performances in rookie ball during his first two seasons the Sox moved him to the bullpen permanently in 2005. He hasn’t started a game, majors or minors, since. He adjusted well — extremely well, even, considering the White Sox basically moved him from rookie ball straight to AAA (with a 5.1 inning layover in A+). After a cup of coffee in 2006, Logan found himself in the majors to stay in 2007.

His first tour of the majors didn’t go too well. He pitched 50.2 innings for the White Sox in 2007 and got hit around. His 4.97 ERA nearly matched his 4.84 FIP. His strikeout rate of 6.22 per nine fell far below the levels he attained in the minors, and his 3.55 BB/9 and 1.24 HR/9 rates also contributed to his poor performance. He came back in 2008, though, with 8.93 K/9 and 2.98 BB/9. His home run rate went even higher, sapping his performance. The .393 BABIP didn’t help either. After the season the White Sox traded him to the Braves in the Javy Vazquez trade. Apparently the duo is a package deal.

Atlanta took advantage of Logan’s options, sending him down to start the season and recalling him toward the end of June. You might remember his season debut on June 25, when he loaded the bases for A-Rod, who singled home a pair of runs to give the Yankees a four-run lead. Things got better, as Logan didn’t allow a run over his next nine appearances. But in August he got touched up a couple of times, inflating his ERA. It’s tough to judge Logan’s 2009 given the tiny sample, but clearly he wasn’t any great shakes.

As a lefty specialist Logan has some potential. He has faced 289 same-handed batters over his career and other than a way too high .340 BABIP everything looks pretty good. He could do with fewer home runs, but his strikeout and walk rates have been acceptable at the major league level. His FIP and xFIP, 3.81 and 3.65, indicate that he might be of some use, but he’ll need an improvement in his home run and walk rates if he’s to find success even in a matchup situation. In other words, even if he does break camp with the team because of Aceves’s injury, don’t expect him to stick around long.

Still, it appears that Girardi will get his wish. It might be for only a few games, but if the Yankees choose to exercise caution with Aceves then Logan should be heading to Boston with the team. Given both David Ortiz’s and J.D. Drew’s abilities against lefties, though, I hope he doesn’t register an appearance before joining the reserve bullpen in Scranton.

Bronx Banter Breakdown on the Yanks’ pitching

Last week, Alex Belth of Bronx Banter fame asked me to join him and Cliff Corcoran on his SportsNet NY web-only video series Bronx Banter Breakdown. In the first installment of three, we discussed the Yankee pitching staff and what the team has to do on the mound to repeat. You can watch the video here on SNY.tv or embedded below.

Horne to miss 2010 with rotation cuff tear

Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine and visit this post from August 2007. In it, Mike reported that Yankees farmhand Alan Horne had just been named the Eastern League’s pitcher of the year. Horne went 12-4 that year with a 3.11 ERA and 165 strike outs in 153.1 innings, and he seemed destined to be the Next Big Thing in the Bronx. Since then, though, he has suffered through one injury after another and has thrown just 100.2 innings over the last two years.

Today, we learn that 2010 will not be Alan Horne’s year either. He will, according to Chad Jennings, miss all of 2010 with a rotator cuff tear. Dr. James Andrews will perform the surgery — the second shoulder procedure of Horne’s career — on April 9, and his eventual return from baseball is up in the air. “I honestly have no idea until he gets in there and sees how bad things are and what time of repair has to be made,” Horne said. “All of that determines down time.” Horne is now 27 with years of injuries on his record. The clock is definitely ticking and not for the better.