Predicting the Next Round of Cuts

The first Spring Training cuts of the season have come out, but it’s also good to see that no one has been cut off the roster, just sent off to their respective minor league camps. Today, we bring you some expert analysis (heh, heh) over who will be next to go. Keep in mind that I am not a member of the Yankees organization, and some other excellent predictions from this blog include Yankees will be unable to draft Andrew Brackman (from Mike) and, more recently, they won’t sign Eric Chavez (from yours truly). Five guys were cut this time, I’ll round down and make it an even four: two hitters and two pitchers.

Pretty fierce for a minor leaguer. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

Jose Gil

The 24-year-old Venezuelan has seven at-bats in seven games and has nothing to show for it besides a walk. To his credit, though, he doesn’t have any strikeouts, either. The other thing working against him is that he’s a catcher, and the Yankees are absolutely set there. They’ve got an everyday catcher in Russell Martin and ambitious super-prospect Jesus Montero waiting in the wings. If that’s not enough, there’s also Francisco Cervelli, who’s most likely itching to get out of the boot cast and back into the catcher’s gear. Even if none of these work out (which seems unlikely), I’m willing to say Austin Romine is higher up in the depth chart than Gil. If Montero makes the bigs and Romine is in AAA, we might see him in Trenton. He played a lot of first base in Spring Training this year, though there’s a lot blocking him from that angle too.

Doug Bernier

(AP/Brian Blanco)

Doug Bernier signed first with the Rockies as an amateur free agent in 2002 and has showed up in two big league games since then. He’s spent the past four seasons in AAA for three ballclubs: Colorado, Pittsburgh, and the Yankees twice. He shown up in twelve Spring Training ballgames this year. He’s scored a run and gotten two walks, but he’s also struck out in nearly half his plate appearances (6Ks in 13 ABs) for an unimpressive batting average of .154. To make his Bronx chances worse, he plays shortstop, and is blocked by Derek Jeter, Ramiro Pena, and Eduardo Nunez. He’ll likely head to AAA again if he’s in the system.

Daniel Turpen
(Originally this paragraph was about Robert Fish, but at the time of writing this article, he was picked up off waivers by the Royals.)

Daniel Turpen is quickly proving why Boston left him unprotected for the Yankees to pick up as a Rule 5 pick. His numbers are unimpressive – to say the least – in the 3.2 IP he’s pitched this spring. He’s given up three hits and three earned runs along with four walks  and four strikeouts. Although it doesn’t mean much, he’s blown both save opportunities that have been given to him. I wonder if the Red Sox will want him back? If so, he’ll most likely start in AA, where he was last year. Also, I couldn’t find a decent picture of him in Yankees attire with proper attribution, so that might say something – I just don’t know what it is yet.

(Edited to add: Turpen is going back to Boston, from the Star Ledger.)

Steve Garrison

(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

Garrison hasn’t necessarily been the worst this Spring Training, but he certainly hasn’t impressed anyone, giving up ten hits and 5 ER in six IP. On the bright side, he’s only walked one, but he’s also only struck out one. He’ll only be 24 this year, so he’s got some time to work on his stuff before clubs begin to see him as ‘too old.’ Garrison has pitched up and down the ranks in the Padres’ minor league system, and it’s difficult to say where he’ll get planted in the Yankees system if they decide to keep him. He’ll most likely be headed to A ball if he stays, simply because the Yankees have so much good pitching floating around already.

Minor Moves: A Fish out of water

Robert Fish has been claimed off of outright waivers by Kansas City, the Royals’ director of media relations announced via Twitter a few minutes ago. Fish, a 23-year-old lefty, had bounced around the Angels’ system for five years before the Yanks took a flyer on him in the Rule 5 draft in December. (Mike wrote up a bit on Fish at the time.)

In Spring Training, the southpaw was utterly unmemorable. He threw 4.2 innings over five appearances and gave up five earned runs on six hits, three walks and a hit batter. He struck out three and seemed destined to be cut. He’ll have a chance to make the Royals out of camp before he must be offered back to the Angels. Robert Fish, we hardly knew ye.

ST Game Thread: Some pitchers cut as Mo debuts

This is the face of determination. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Happy first day of cuts! As the U.S. lost an hour last night, the Yankees lost six players from the Big League camp as well. Per the team’s press release, Hector Noesi has been optioned back to AAA while Adam Warren, David Phelps, Brian Anderson, Buddy Carlyle and Andy Sisco were reassigned to the Minor League camp. Some of those guys will stick around while others may leave the organization before the end of Spring Training.

With that slate of six sent down, the Yankees say they now have 26 pitchers, eight catchers, 13 infielders and 11 outfielders remaining in camp. Of the pitchers still around, those intriguing ones include birthday boy Manny Banuelos, Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances and the feel-good story of the spring Mark Prior. Soon, however, the club will send down their heralded arms. As the Major League hurlers throw more innings, it’s harder to find the frames for the young kids in Grapefruit League game action. Many of them will be back.

So as camp thins out, the Yanks are set to take on the Minnesota Twins today in Tampa. Freddy Garcia, making his third appearance today, will continue his bid for a spot in the rotation. In five innings so far, he’s allowed just two hits while striking out three. Following him at some point will be Mariano Rivera, who is making his spring bid while competing for a spot in the Yanks’ bullpen. Joba and Rafael Soriano may get the ball today as well.

The lineup looks pretty good this afternoon.

Derek Jeter SS
Nick Swisher RF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Robinson Cano 2B
Jorge Posada DH
Curtis Granderson CF
Andruw Jones LF
Russell Martin C

Freddy Garcia P

First pitch is at 1:05 p.m., and this one’s on YES where Bob Lorenz and Kenny Singleton will have the game.

Holding Banuelos loosely

He is the greatest pitching prospect you’ve ever seen. He is more polished than Clayton Kershaw was at this age. He is composed. He is poised. He has plus velocity. He harnesses and controls that velocity like it’s no thing. He is not afraid to pitch inside. You think he’s afraid to pitch inside? Child please. He has a major league fastball. He has a major league curveball. He reminds you of Johan Santana. He is nineteen years old.

He is the new hotness, and his name is Manny Banuelos. Due to a velocity jump, a superb 44.1 inning showing at High A Tampa, and a very good, very brief (15.1 innings) stint at Double A, Manny Banuelos rocketed up prospect lists this winter and shot into the forefront of national baseball consciousness. A year ago, many didn’t have the slightest idea who he was, and now many Yankee fans view him as an untouchable commodity. Who can blame them, the fans that wouldn’t part with Banuelos any easier than they’d part with their own checking accounts? Who wants to lose six years of team control of the next Johan Santana for a lesser specimen?

The only thing is the risk. With any asset comes risk. With a home it’s the risk of a housing market decline, of the neighborhood going to pot, or the market turning illiquid. With a car it’s the risk that you could own a lemon and be forced to shell out big bucks for repairs. With stocks there is greater risk. Anything could derail a stock’s upward climb: rumors of illiquidity, or the CEO getting sick or dying, or the latest product turning out to be a bust, or of good old-fashioned fraud.  Yet compared to pitching prospects, houses and cars and stocks look like the most stable index fund your investment manager has ever laid eyes on: pitching prospects blow up in your face more frequently than cars in a  Michael Bay flick.

Manny Banuelos is no different, of course. He’s not any less risky per se than Casey Kelly or Julio Teheran or Zach Britton or Stephen Strasburg. It’s funny how the constructed meaning of Strasburg’s name has changed over time. Last year he was the sure thing, the next Roger Clemens incarnate. Now he’s rehabbing his new elbow ligaments and hoping for an August or September return. This is a roundabout way of saying that Manny Banuelos’ value could plummet at any time without any prior warning. Sure, there are reasons to be optimistic about his long-term future. Scouts love his easy delivery and the way the ball jumps out of his hand without any apparent effort. But it doesn’t change the fact that the next time Manny Banuelos takes the mound could be a game-changer. All it takes is one occasion of him injuring his shoulder to forever change the way fans, analysts, rival teams and talent evaluators perceive his value. He’s no longer Manny Banuelos, the kid with the poise beyond his years and the command of a man ten years his senior. No, now he’s Manny Banuelos, the prospect who impressed in A-ball but found his ascent to the majors marred by injury concerns.

It’s easy to ignore this, particularly because of the way the Internet has changed the way that fans perceive the value of their own prospects. More casual fans are aware of the ups and downs of prospects than ever. Thus when Keith Law says in a chat that Banuelos could start the season in the rotation, his perceived value in the minds of fans goes up. Ten years ago this never would have happened, but digital technology allows fans to become hyper-aware of the goings on of their favorite prospects. Yet the risk is the same right now as it’s always been. The big difference is that the Banuelos looks more like a bird in the hand than ever. He’s our prospect, he’s our DotF darling, he’s our guy. Yet Banuelos is the same guy whether or not fans have any concept of who he is, and he’s just as likely to go bust as he always has been.

This is easy to ignore, beause no one wants to think about the fact that a prospect’s value could be destroyed overnight. It’s far more fun to think about Banuelos and Betances joining Hughes and Sabathia to win 80 games combined and multiple World Series championships. Yet all it takes is one measly bad outing on the bump followed by one very rapid right hand to the left shoulder or left elbow for Manny Banuelos to become the one that got away, the new Brien Taylor or Joba Chamberlain, the new “why didn’t that idiot Cashman trade him when his value was high”. Manny Banuelos is the hotness now. But this is the way it goes with assets: there’s risk involved. Anyone who sells you a big guaranteed return for your assets with no risk is probably playing you. This is precisely why the temptation to sell high is so strong, and this is why we should temper our expectations even if the team doesn’t succumb to that temptation. It’s our natural tendency to expect things never to blow up in our faces, but it doesn’t take much for our best hopes and dreams to vanish in a second. Appreciate Banuelos’ rise now; he may turn out to be that ace in the hole that we’re all dreaming about. But hold him loosely. There’s a lot of runway between now and his first Cy Young award.

Saturday Open Thread

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

The Yankees lost to Nationals today when Derek Norris singled off Daniel Turpen for the walk-off win. A.J. Burnett allowed just two baserunners in four innings of work, but of course they were a single and a homerun back-to-back. He retired the other dozen batters he faced though, so I’m happy. That’s pretty much it, but here’s the box score for your amusement.

Here’s the open thread for the night, so go bananas.

Igawa family OK as pitcher heads home

Kei Igawa has had a rough go of it in the United States. Signed in December of 2006 as the Yanks’ response to Daisuke Matsuzaka, the lefty never emerged as a viable Major Leaguer. He made just 14 appearances in 2007 and two in 2008 before landing in Scranton as a perennial AAA starter. His 6.66 ERA, 1.758 WHIP and 1.43 K/BB ratio are testament to his struggles.

But while Igawa, frustratingly for him and the Yanks, toils away as a $4 million minor league arm, none of that matters when it comes to family. Igawa hails from Oarai which is in the the Ibaraki Prefecture, and his hometown was hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami earlier this week. On Friday, as Major League Baseball began working on its own aid efforts, Igawa could not get a hold of his family.

Luckily, Igawa reached his family on Saturday, and everyone is OK. The left-hander is leaving camp to attend to his family and will be returning to Japan for the foreseeable future.

It’s easy to dismiss Igawa. He’s been a huge bust, representative of the way the Yanks went about building a starting rotation in the mid-2000s and hadn’t even made a Spring Training appearance this year. He’ll play out the last year of this contract exclusively at Scranton before returning to Japan to pick up the pieces of his baseball career. But when tragedy strikes, it doesn’t matter. No one should have to live through the uncertainty of the devastation of an earthquake, and it’s a relief to all involved that the Igawas are alive and as well as can be.

The Yankees as a club have given $100,000 to the Red Cross and Salvation Army as part of the relief efforts, and I’m sure the club will do more in the coming weeks. They have a deep presence in the Pacific and strong ties to Japanese baseball. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by the terrible earthquake in Japan,” Hal Steinbrenner said yesterday. “We hope that the international community does everything in its power to support and assist the Japanese people in their time of need.”

The deterioration of Burnett’s hook

A.J. Burnett has hopes up this spring. He’s turned in solid performances on the mound, and new pitching coach Larry Rothschild has helped him make some mechanical changes. As a result, many are cautiously optimistic that Burnett will bounce back in 2011 after a horrific 2010 campaign. The Yankees could use an effective Burnett, that’s for certain. Yet, fans would have to be forgiven for not holding their breath. Like a zit, Bad A.J. seems to show up whenever he pleases, with no warning, often at a rather inconvenient time.

So what are the signs that Burnett is turning over a new leaf this year? What are the indications that Burnett’s improvement is the result of changes he’s made, and not luck on batted balls in play or because he’s facing a weak lineup? Part of the answer lies in the quality of Burnett’s moneymaker: his curveball. When Burnett has his curveball working in tandem with his fastball, he becomes a very difficult pitcher for batters to handle. It’s why he’s so tantalizing and it’s why people refer to his “electric stuff” (as annoying as that gets) and say that he has the ability to throw a no-hitter every time he steps on the mound. When he’s on he is on, and vaya con Dios to the opposing team: you’ll need it.

There’s been a wealth of Burnett analysis amongst Yankee blogs in the past few weeks. Jason at IIATMS analyzed his fastball velocity and heat maps in different counts, concluding that Burnett becomes more ineffective in two-strike counts. Larry Koestler over at Yankee Analysts used Pitch F(x) to analyze Burnett’s repetoire on a month-by-month basis, concluding that Burnett’s curveball command completely abandoned him in 2010. Finally, Mike previewed Burnett last week, and said that he was cautiously optimistic and expected better results with the curveball. He also noted that Burnett’s curveball went from the best in the game (using Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Values) to a below-average pitch in one offseason. While the Pitch Type Values metric has clear limitations, most observers would likely agree that Burnett’s typically deadly curveball was subpar in 2010. Utilizing Fangraphs’ awesome Heat Map tool, we can see just how different it really was, and learn what to look for this year.

Curveball to lefties

The first thing to keep in mind is that these charts are from the perspective of the catcher. So left-handed batters are on your right, and right-handed batters are on your left. It’s confusing, so simply think of yourself as Jesus Montero back there. Feel better?

Yeah, son. Burnett's 2008 curveballs to left-handed batters.

Burnett had a fantastic 2008, throwing 221.1 innings of 3.40 FIP ball with a 9.39 K/9 and a 3.50 BB/9. This graph shows us a real gathering around two different locations. Burnett was dropping his curveball on the outer half of the plate in the strikezone, and was burying it on the inside corner low and out of the strike zone. These are really two different kinds of curveballs in terms of their function. The former is a pitch Burnett drops in the zone for a strike. Anecdotally, it seems to me that this is a pitch batters usually take for a strike, rather than swing through. The latter is a pitch Burnett likes to bury outside of the zone, sometimes burying it in the middle of the plate down in the dirt, and other times seeming aiming it at the batter’s back (left) foot. The latter pitch often has more horizontal break, meaning it’s moving right to left. You can see the former pitch in action in this video at the 0:48 mark, and the later at the 1:21 mark. In sum, the above chart is what AJ Burnett’s curveball chart should look like.

Burnett's 2009 curveballs to left-handed batters.

In 2009 we see less of the “down and in” curveball and more of the curveball placed on the outer half of the plate. The 2008 and 2009 charts are fairly similar visually, although the 2009 scatter is more stretched out horizontally. The 2008 chart is more clustered around the strikezone.

That got out of hand quickly. Burnett's 2010 curveballs to left-handed batters.

In 2010 it’s easy to see a distinct lack of command of the curveball to lefties, a real failure to keep it in the strikezone. He doesn’t show the same ability to center the pitch on the lower outer half of the plate, and he’s throwing what seems to be just as many curveballs out of the zone as he is inside the zone. If a pitcher can’t convince you that the next pitch is going to be a strike, then you’re not going to swing. It’s very simple. Further it seems, again anecdotally, that when Burnett would miss with his curveball he would miss badly. The red dot at the very bottom of the image would confirm this observation.

Curveballs to righties

Burnett's 2008 curveballs to righties.

Very simply, this is a deadly pitch. By and large, Burnett’s was throwing his curveball in 2008 nearly exclusively on the lower, outer edge of the plate. The largest red spot straddles the strike zone line, meaning that it was a 50/50 proposition as to whether the pitch would be called for a strike and making it very difficult for batters to lay off. Burnett also dropped a fair amount of curves in the middle of the zone, and then further out of the zone and down and away. The important thing was being able to command it in the zone, and also having the ability to leave it out of the zone in the attempt to get batters to chase the pitch.

Burnett's 2009 curveballs to righties.

There’s a distinct difference in the 2009 heat map from the 2008 heat map. In this year, Burnett threw far more curveballs in the middle of the plate, but in the lower half of the zone. He also continued his trend of dropping them in on the lower outer edge of the plate and throwing some lower and out of the zone, but the trend in 2009 seemed to be to throw more curveballs towards the center of the strike zone.

Burnett's 2010 curveballs to righties.

To righties in 2010 we see Burnett leaving a good amount in the lower inner quadrant, as well as directly in the middle of the plate.Burnett is dispersing these curveballs throughout the zone, but clearly shows a problem commanding them in the strikezone. Like curveballs to lefties in 2010, Burnett’s ability to throw the pitch for a strike seemed to abandon him in 2010.

Like many analysts, I’m optimistic that Burnett can bounce back in 2010. There are good reasons to hope for a bounceback, reasons not based solely on the irrational optimism that Spring Training brings to most fans (myself included). Burnett has a new pitching coach, and the new mechanical changes appear to simplify his delivery. If he’s able to recover command of his curveball, Burnett could be a much improved pitcher in 2011. Given the state of the Yankee rotation and the $49.5M he’s due over the next three years, this would surely be a welcome development.