John Sickels’ interviews Mark Newman

John Sickels of Minor League Ball recently sat down with Yankees president of baseball operations Mark Newman to chat about the team’s farm system. They of course hit on all the usual suspects – Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman, etc. – but also spoke about the next wave of prospects, so to speak. Newman discussed Slade Heathcott‘s strikeouts, Mason Williams‘ potential, Gary Sanchez‘s everything, plus a ton more. He also compares a certain infield prospect to a young Robbie Cano, but you’ll have to check it out to find out who.

The RAB Radio Show: March 2, 2011

A.J. Burnett made his first appearance of the spring today. Mike and I talk about how he looked and what he has to do this season. It does appear that he has made some changes, but as with Jeter, don’t expect results to come immediately.

We also run down some other spring training stuff, including plenty from today’s game.

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The Top Storylines of 2011

Every season has storylines, some happier than others. Last year we got to watch Robbie Cano take his game to another level and become an MVP candidate while Phil Hughes came into his own as a starter. That all happened while the Javy Vazquez redux was a spectacular flop and Derek Jeter suddenly looked mortal. The upcoming season will be no different, so let’s look at a few of the bigger storylines…

Jesus is coming. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Jesus Montero‘s Inevitable Arrival

At some point this season, whether it be Opening Day or May 15th or August 1st, arguably the best offensive prospect in the minors will join the Yankees. In what capacity? I don’t know, could be anything from backup catcher to part-time DH to starting catcher to righty bat off the bench, but I do know he’ll be in the Bronx before long. Montero’s bat is ready for the show right now, but the Yankees have some depth behind the plate and no real reason to take him north if they don’t think he’s ready. His arrival will be highly anticipated, and that’s putting it lightly.

Hughes’ Continued Development

Last year, in his first full season as a starter in the AL East, Hughes put up solid totals of a 4.19 ERA, 4.25 FIP, and 7.45 K/9 in 176.1 IP. He did stumble down the stretch and in two of his three playoffs starts, but at age 24 there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Free from innings limitations and aware of his changeup problem, Hughes is poised to continue his ascent. The Yankees are counting on the right-hander to be one of their top three starters in 2011 as opposed to the interesting fifth starter he was at this time last year, so the pressure’s on.

Uh, David. Whatever you do, do not turn around. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Mother of All Bullpens

There seems to be a wide range of opinions on the Rafael Soriano signing, but everyone agrees that he improves the team’s late-game pitching situation significantly. He also pushes Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson into traditional middle relief/fireman roles, which isn’t all that bad when all three guys have one of the 22 best strikeout rates in the game over the last three seasons. Pedro Feliciano adds a veteran, workhorse lefty specialist to join the hard-throwing Boone Logan. And then you have Mariano Rivera to cap it all off. Joe Girardi has a ton of relief options this year, most of them high strikeout players that can get out of jams without the help of their defense.

Cano’s MVP Push, Part Deux

The Yankees second baseman went from complementary player to centerpiece in 2010, hitting .319/.381/.534 (.389 wOBA) and finishing sixth in the league with 6.4 fWAR. Still just 28 years old, Cano is in the prime of his career and capable of making another run at the MVP crown, which would go a long way towards helping the Yankees secure a playoff berth and maybe even the AL East crown.

Jeter’s Pursuit of 3,000

In the long and glorious history of the New York Yankees, no player has ever recorded 3,000 career hits. Lou Gehrig was the franchise hit leader for the better part of a century with 2,721 knocks, but Jeter surpassed him in 2009 and is within shouting distance of the hallowed milestone. The Cap’n will start the season just 74 hits away from 3,000, so he’ll get there in 2011 barring a major injury. Jeter picked up his 74th hit last year on June 6th, the team’s 57th game of the season, so the first few months of the season will feature some pretty awesome history.

* * *

Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hughes has in store for an encore, even more than I’m looking forward to Montero’s arrival. Jeter’s chase will probably be a million times more hyped than his pursuit of Gehrig’s record, and that’s fine by me, it was definitely a lot of fun (lame Michael Kay calls aside). And, of course, who doesn’t like watching Cano do his thing or a bullpen full of hard-throwing strikeout fiends?

What 2011 storyline are you most looking forward to?
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Spring Training Game Thread: A Look At A.J.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Just about every Yankees starting pitcher has pitched in a game already, except for one guy: A.J. Burnett. He pops his 2011 cherry against the Astros today, and will hopefully show off some of the things he worked on with new pitching coach Larry Rothschild over the winter. I remember reading somewhere that they focused on driving his front leg towards the plate, rather than swinging it around, so I guess we can keep an eye out for that. I’m hardly an expert on pitching mechanics, so I doubt I’ll pick anything up.

On the offensive side of the ball, Robbie Cano is hitting second between Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, which probably has more to do with it being Spring Training and wanting to get him as many at-bats as possible before being lifted. It’ll still be interesting to watch though; I made the case that Robbie should hit second full-time in 2011 earlier this winter. Here’s the full starting nine…

Derek Jeter, SS
Robbie Cano, 2B
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Jorge Posada, DH
Andruw Jones, LF
Frankie Cervelli, C
Colin Curtis, RF
Justin Maxwell, CF

Available to Pitch: A.J. Burnett, Sergio Mitre, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, David Phelps, Hector Noesi, Luis Ayala, D.J. Mitchell, Robert Fish, Daniel Turpen, and Adam Warren. Obviously all of them won’t get into the game, but they’re available if needed.

Also Scheduled to Play: Austin Romine (C), Bradley Suttle (1B), Kevin Russo (2B), Eduardo Nunez (SS), Brandon Laird (3B), Dan Brewer (LF), Melky Mesa (CF), Jordan Parraz (RF), and Russell Martin (DH).

At some point today, Jordan Lyles will pitch for Houston. He’s their top prospect and one of the better pitching prospects in the game overall. The kid (deservedly) reached Triple-A as a 19-year-old last year (3.86 FIP in 31.2 IP). Today’s game will be aired live on both YES and MLB Network, and begins at 1:05pm ET. Talk about the game here, enjoy.

2011 Season Preview: Brett Gardner

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(Seth Wenig/AP)

“I guarantee you, [the Yankees] outfield next season will not be Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner.” – Ken Rosenthal on December 22, 2009.

To a distant observer, Rosenthal’s proclamation might have seemed accurate. Brett Gardner is hardly anyone’s idea of a left fielder, and these are the Yankees. They weren’t going to settle for a slap-hitting speedster in a position normally reserved for power bats, were they? Even when they had Johnny Damon out there in 2008 and 2009 he provided a decent amount of power — his .183 ISO in those two years ranked ninth among left fielders. With options, including Matt Holliday, still on the market, surely the Yankees would seek an upgrade.

Yet to the close observer, the idea of starting the season with Gardner in left field didn’t seem that absurd at all. The Yankees clearly liked the kid. They gave him the starting center field job out of camp in 2009, and even though he played his way out of it, he made an impressive bounce back after April. From May 1 through season’s end Gardner hit .286/.372/.413 in 219 PA. That’s a fairly small sample, of course, but there was definitely something in Gardner’s game that made him seem appealing.

The Yankees, of course, went into the season with Gardner starting in left, and the experiment went as well as anyone could have hoped. He hit .277/.383/.379 and played what might have been the best defense at his position. It added up to 5.4 WAR, sixth among MLB left fielders (and that counts Aubrey Huff, who spend most of the season at first base). Even in terms of offense he matched up well, finishing with a .358 wOBA, seventh among MLB left fielders (again, with Huff included). This year, no one is questioning the Yankees decision to stick with Gardner in left.

Best Case

(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

As we’ll see throughout this preview, Brett Gardner might be one of the toughest Yankees players to peg. Intuitively, it doesn’t appear that his skill set should work. He’s a slap hitter who draws much value from his patience at the plate. But why wouldn’t pitchers just throw him strikes? The worst he can do in most cases is hit a single. But for Gardner, that’s a pretty valuable outcome.

Whatever the actual case, pitchers don’t appear to throw Gardner strikes any more frequently than they do anyone else. He uses that to his advantage, drawing more than his share of walks. In fact, of the 216 times he reached base last year, 184 were a single, walk, or hit by pitch. But when you combine that with 47 stolen bases , those singles become more valuable. Of the 27 times Garnder was standing on first when a single was hit, he advanced to third base 10 times. Of the 9 doubles hit in that situation, Gardner scored six times. First base is not a bad spot for him to stand.

The question, of course, is not of what Gardner has done, but what he can do. Does he have the skills to repeat his performance from 2010? From the looks of his progression through the professional ranks, it appears so. He displayed a distinct trend starting in AA. He would get a mid-season promotion and falter a bit at first. Then he’d start the next season at that level and thrive. This carried over to the majors. He debuted with 141 PA in 2008 and sported a paltry .282 wOBA. In 2009 he stumbled out of the gate, but as noted above he recovered and finished the season with a .337 wOBA. Last year it was .358, which represented further improvement. Can he take another step forward this year?

As we’ve written many times, Gardner’s numbers took a dive after he was hit on the wrist on June 27. From that point forward he hit .232/.363/.340. Some of that might have been natural regression. Still, I don’t think his absolute ceiling is far off from the .321/.403/.418 he was hitting after getting hit on the 27th. A .300/.400/.400 line is certainly possible if he remains healthy all season.

Worst Case

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

Gardner has suffered hand and wrist injuries in each of the last two years, which is always cause for concern. He doesn’t rely on power, so if his is sapped it shouldn’t make much of a difference. But as he showed in the second half of last year, simply swinging the bat can become a chore. He took more and more pitches — good pitches, too — as the season wore on. IT sometimes played to his advantage, but more and more often he was caught looking at strike three.

After undergoing wrist surgery this off-season, Gardner appears to be back in form. But what if he suffers another injury, whether via bean ball or by sliding hard into a base, as he did in 2009? If that happens early in the season it could be an enormous detriment. But regardless of when it happens, it will certainly affect him at the plate. For a player who relies so much on a small skill set, that can be a crippling problem.

Beyond injury, there’s a chance that Gardner just got incredibly lucky in the first half of 2010. I’m not sure I totally buy that, but it’s certainly possible. What, then, is his floor in terms of production? I think it’s safe to say that he’ll always hit better than he did in 2008. Could he hit worse than in 2009? Could he turn in a Reggie Willits type season, .258/.341/.302? Again, I suppose that’s possible. Given what we’ve seen from Gardner, I’d say that’s absolutely the worst case.

What’s Likely To Happen

Not many hitters ever attain a .383 OBP, and even fewer sustain it. Given Gardner’s ability to slap singles and take walks, he can continue to hit that mark. If not, I don’t see him far below it. Here is how the projection systems see him:

Bill James: .275/.377/.371
Marcel:     .269/.357/.378
PECOTA:     .260/.357/.364
ZiPS:       .260/.356/.367
CAIRO:      .270/.358/.372

They’re all pretty much in the same range — except, of course, for James, where the projections always trend higher than the others. Still, if I were picking a most likely scenario for Gardner, that’s the one I’d choose. The others seem a bit pessimistic, perhaps because of Gardner’s high BABIP in 2010. But some players simply have that ability. For a guy who walks a lot, Gardner might be a guy who only swings at good pitches and therefore makes better than average contact (even if the ball will only go for a single). I think that when we’re getting down in to PECOTA and ZiPS range, we’re looking at something closer to his worst case.

At this time last year, none of us knew what to expect from Gardner in the upcoming season. This year we have something of a better idea, but the disconnect between Gardner’s appearance and his numbers leaves many of us skeptical that he can continue producing at an elite level. But given his history of improvement at each professional level and the possibility that he stays healthy all season, I think we’ll see something of a repeat performance out of Gardner.

Greinke made his case for a Yankees trade

(Morry Gash/AP)

From the outset of the off-season one thing was clear: the Kansas City Royals were going to trade their ace, Zack Greinke. While Greinke didn’t officially request a trade until sometime in December, it was pretty clear that he was unhappy in Kansas City, where he had endured a number of losing seasons and was in line for at least one, and probably two more before he reached free agency. When Greinke’s request became public, the Royals moved quickly.

Having missed out on the off-season’s top free agent, Cliff Lee, the Yankees became natural suitors for Greinke. Yet there were questions about his ability to handle the pressure of New York. It was common at the time to associate Greinke’s social anxiety disorder with an inability to pitch in the big city, but it’s tough for anyone who doesn’t know Greinke to make such a determination. Instead, Greinke’s own words that gave others pause. It was widely reported that he told friends that he couldn’t play in a big market such as Boston or New York.

Once it became apparent that the Royals would grant his trade request, Greinke apparently had a change of heart. SI’s Jon Heyman tells the story. It all started at the Winter Meetings.

But when he and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman met clandestinely in Orlando (Greinke’s hometown) at an off-site location during the winter meetings, Greinke’s desperation not to endure yet another losing season in Kansas City was such that he is said to have tried to convince Cashman that he wanted to come to New York. And that he could actually thrive in New York.

However, people who were briefed on that meeting said Cashman ultimately decided that Greinke’s first thought about New York was probably correct — that it wasn’t the best spot for him. Greinke told people the day he accepted his Cy Young Award in New York City that he didn’t think he could ever live in New York, and kept telling friends the same. But as the days dwindled this winter, he made his surprise plea to Cashman to make him a Yankee.

This passage makes it appear as though the Yankees didn’t make much of an effort to acquire Greinke when the Royals got serious about trading him. Cashman came away with an opinion, based on a personal impression, and the team agreed with him. I’m not sure if it was the correct decision, but now we know the process behind it.

Greinke could end up in New York yet. The Brewers have gambled significantly on the 2011 season, and if they fall out of the race by July they might consider trading off some of their players in an attempt to rebuild. Greinke could fetch them a decent bounty, since he would have a year and a half until free agency. Again at that point, after the 2012 season, Greinke could again seek out the Yankees as suitors. He’ll be just 29 years old for the 2013 season.

It’s still more likely that we never know what could have been between Greinke and the Yankees. For some that’s fine and good. His social anxiety disorder causes enough concern that it’s not worth the money, or prospects, to obtain him. Others, though, will always wonder how the socially anxious, but fiercely competitive Greinke would have fared in New York. (For a great take on that, read Joe Posnanski’s article on Greinke from this winter.) The man put his mindset in perspective with just a few words: “It’s fun to win.” That’s what we want to hear from current and future New York Yankees.

Teixeira leaves Boras

It doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but this morning Bryan Hoch dropped a surprise. Mark Teixeira has dropped Scott Boras as his agent. This isn’t all too surprising, since Boras already got Teixeira the contract of a lifetime. Teixeira had the normal array of boring quotes, saying that it was the best decision for him and his family, and that he’d like to concentrate on being Mark Teixeira the baseball player rather than Mark Teixeira the Scott Boras client. I’m not sure who thought of him as the latter. I suspect that this will in no way affect your enjoyment of the 2011 Yankees.