2015 Draft: Phil Bickford

Phil Bickford | RHP

Background
Bickford was the tenth overall pick in the 2013 draft out of a Southern California high school, but he declined to take a below-slot offer from the Blue Jays and instead went to Cal State Fullerton. He had a 2.13 ERA with a 74/13 K/BB in 76 innings as a freshman, then transferred to the College of Southern Nevada, a two-year school that allows him to re-enter the draft this summer rather than wait until next year. Bickford has a 1.48 ERA with a 126/17 K/BB in 68 innings this spring.

Scouting Report
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 lbs., Bickford’s fastball velocity has been all over the place the last three years. He sat 92-94 mph with some 97s as a high school senior, dropped to 88-91 mph at Fullerton, and is now sitting 93-96 mph with a bunch of 98s this spring. Bickford throws both a slider and a curveball but will probably drop the curve as a pro because it’s his far inferior breaking ball. His changeup is very much a work in progress and will have to improve considerably for him to remain a starter long-term. Bickford is a great athlete with a fluid delivery, which suggests his presently below-average command can be improved long-term.

Miscellany
Bickford is one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2015 draft. Some see a future ace because of his fastball/slider combo and athleticism, others see a future reliever because his command and changeup are subpar. (Bickford pitched out of the bullpen in the Cape Cod League last summer and was electric, sitting 94-98 and striking out 42 in 27.2 innings.) MLB.com, Baseball America, and Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked Bickford as the 16th, 20th, and 34th best prospect in this draft class in their latest rankings, respectively. For what it’s worth, the Yankees were connected to Bickford back in 2013, and scouting director Damon Oppenheimer seems to love Southern California pitchers. New York picks 16th and 30th overall this summer.

Slade Heathcott and Not-So-Irrational Optimism

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Spring Training this year was a great time to prospect watch. The Yankees had just about all of their top prospects in big league camp and they were all impressive. Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, Jacob Lindgren, and Luis Severino stood out in particular but they were hardly alone. It was a fun few weeks watching the kids play, that’s for sure.

Perhaps the most impressive prospect in Spring Training was a player who came to camp barely registering as a prospect at this point of his career: Slade Heathcott. Heathcott played only nine games last season due a pair of knee surgeries and only 230 games from 2011-14 due to knee and shoulder surgeries, which means a lot of missed development time. I ranked him the team’s 30th best prospect before the season, so he only barely made the cut.

The Yankees non-tendered Heathcott this past offseason because it was the only way to get him off the 40-man roster without exposing him to waivers. Heathcott could have signed with any other team as a free agent but instead returned to the Yankees on a minor league deal that included an invite to Spring Training, though he was an afterthought compared to the other prospects coming into camp.

Heathcott, now 24, had a dynamite showing in Spring Training, hitting .333/.450/.545 with three stolen bases in parts of 23 Grapefruit League games. He won the James P. Dawson Award as the top rookie in Spring Training and played so well the Yankees decided to send him to Triple-A Scranton to start the season rather than Double-A Trenton as planned.

So far this year Heathcott is hitting .347/.392/.472 (~145 wRC+) with two steals, a 7.5 BB%, and a 16.3 K% in 80 plate appearances with the RailRiders, including a torrid 14-for-25 (.560) stretch in his last seven games. He’s also running around center field making catches like this (GIF via Donnie Collins):

Slade Heathcott

We didn’t see Heathcott make any catches quite that good in Spring Training, but we did see a Slade Heathcott who looked fully healthy for the first time in years. You don’t make athletic plays like that without being healthy. Heathcott moved around very well in camp and looked great physically following his various surgeries.

“Honestly, my knee never crosses my mind when I’m playing,” said Heathcott to Chad Jennings in Spring Training. “I’m to the point that I’ve trained hard enough and ran enough and done the training that I need to do to make sure that it will hold up. It very seldom crosses my mind. So it’s really just the confidence of getting back in the swing of things.”

Heathcott’s apparent return to health and bonafide hot start have me feeling … conflicted. My head says not to excited because Slade has basically no track record of health. When we all look back at his hot start in August, we’ll laugh because it was just a hot start, nothing more. Know what I mean? This isn’t the first time Heathcott’s gotten off to a great start. He hit .370/.440/.616 in his first 18 games of 2011, for example.

At the same time, my heart is telling me hell yeah Heathcott’s healthy! This is all legit! He always had talent, that was never the question. Heathcott could just never stay on the field but now he’s doing it. This is great! How could you not get excited about what Slade has done so far this season? This is pretty much the best case scenario. Couldn’t ask for a better Spring Training and start to the regular season.

So which one should I listen to, my head or my heart? I think the answer is both. Heathcott sure looked healthy in Spring Training based on how well he moved around following a pair of recent knee surgeries, and he can do some exciting things if healthy, but at the same time staying healthy has been a career long challenge for Slade. An impressive spring and a great start to the Triple-A season doesn’t change that.

Against my better judgement, I find myself getting very excited about Heathcott and the prospect of finally (finally!) seeing what he can do across a full, healthy season. The Yankees have a lot of upper level outfield depth — Heathcott has been flanked by Tyler Austin and Ramon Flores in the Triple-A outfield, so yeah — so I’m not sure where Slade fits into the call-up pecking order, but if he keeps playing like this, he’ll force his way into the picture. He offers a dynamic two-way, power-speed game Austin and Flores simply do not. For the first time in a long time, there is a reason to be excited about Heathcott.

“Heathcott’s been very impressive. Very healthy, very athletic, very productive,” said Brian Cashman to Jennings at the end of Spring Training. “There’s optimism.”

How Betances became dominant Dellin again

I'm back and better than before. (Presswire)
I’m back and better than before. (Presswire)

One week into the season, and Dellin Betances was a mess. After three games, he had allowed only one run (unearned) but his lack of command was alarming. Betances issued two walks in each of his first three outings (six total) and struck out a combined three batters in those 3 1/3 innings. This was from a guy that in the final two months of last season faced 101 batters and walked four of them.

It was very small sample size, but following a spring where he also struggled with his mechanics and his control, he was facing questions about whether he’d be able to replicate his brilliant 2014 campaign and what had happened to his dominant stuff from one year ago. He had established himself as one of the league’s elite relievers in 2014, but at the start of 2015 he looked completely lost on the mound.

Fast-forward two weeks and the perception of Betances among the media and fans couldn’t be any different.

Dellin is dealing! Betances is back!

His last seven games, starting with an April 15 outing in Baltimore, look like this: eight innings, 28 batters faced, one walk, 14 strikeouts, two singles allowed. He has five straight appearances with no hits allowed and at least two strikeouts, the first Yankee pitcher in the last 100 years with a streak like that. Any questions?

Now that Betances appears to have put to rest any of those silly notions that last year’s incredible performance was a fluke, let’s take a deeper look at what exactly changed for the 27-year-old flamethrower in the past two weeks.

Location, location, location
Simply put, his biggest problem during that rocky start to the season was that he had no idea where the ball was going in those first three games. Only one out of every three pitches he threw was in the strike zone, a shockingly low rate compared to both the league average (47 percent) and last season’s number (52 percent). This is what that looks like in heat-map form, with last year on the left and his first three games from this year on the right:

betances last year vs first 3 location

You can sometimes get away with expanding the zone if you can also get hitters to chase those out-of-zone pitches. But that wasn’t the case with Betances during the first week.

His location was so bad — even in that small sample — that hitters had an easy plan when they came to the plate against Betances: don’t swing. In those first three games, batters swung at just 31 percent of his pitches, one of the lowest rates by any pitcher in the first week. As a result, he quickly dug himself into a hole in nearly every at-bat, throwing a first-pitch ball to 12 of the 18 batters he faced.

Behind in the count early and often during those first three outings, Betances was reluctant to unleash his devastating curveball, which allowed batters to sit on his fastball and wait for a hittable pitch or simply take a walk.

The key to his turnaround
Since bottoming out on April 13 against the Orioles when he allowed four baserunners and threw just 10 of his 24 pitches for strikes, Betances has done a complete 360-turnaround. He’s regained his command, throwing more than half of his pitches in the zone.

Now that Betances has found the strike zone again, he’s consistently getting ahead and quickly gaining the advantage in the at-bat. Over the last seven games, he’s started 17 of the 28 batters with an 0-1 count and 12 of those 17 plate appearances ended in a strikeout. That’s much better!

A key change in his mechanics related to this improved control is that he’s tightened up the release point on both his curveball and fastball, as you can see in the GIF below (the more spread-out series of dots is the first three games; the more condensed series is the past seven games).

betances release v.3

With a more consistent throwing motion, he’s now able to command his pitches better and his curveball/fastball combo also looks nearly identical to batters when coming out of his hand, making it harder for hitters to distinguish between the two pitches. The results: batters are swinging at a higher rate overall (41 percent), and more importantly, he’s more than doubled his percentage of out-of-zone swings from 16 percent in the first week to 38 percent over the last two weeks.

In addition to the improved location, Betances’ stuff is now looking much more like what he threw last year. Not only has his average fastball velocity increased to 97-plus mph in his most recent outings, but the horizontal movement on his curve has risen more than inch in the last two weeks compared to the first week of the season.

It seems like Betances has finally put himself back together on the mound and is rounding into his 2014 All-Star form. He’s more confident, throwing better pitches and appears to be settling in as the dominant reliever that we saw on a nightly basis last year. If Betances can maintain his mechanics and command of the strike zone through the remainder of the season, he’ll once again be a late-inning weapon that Joe Girardi can use in high-leverage situations and help the Yankees bullpen keep its status as one of the best in the league.

The Carlos Beltran Dilemma

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Following last night’s 1-for-4 against the Rays, Carlos Beltran is now hitting a weak .167/.227/.283 (34 wRC+) with a 30.3 K% in 66 plate appearances so far this season. He didn’t hit in Spring Training either (.225/.289/.275) and is now up to 111 total plate appearances since returning from offseason elbow surgery. Anecdotally, Beltran’s at-bats the last few days have looked worse than his at-bats at the start of the season a few weeks ago.

Beltran’s utter lack of production is a problem the Yankees can’t ignore and moving him down in the lineup only helps so much. Unlike Derek Jeter last season or Jorge Posada a few years ago, the Yankees have no real connection to Beltran. He’s not a legacy Yankee or anything like that. But he is signed through next season at $15M annually and that creates a major dilemma. This problem isn’t going to go away after the season.

An unproductive veteran outfielder is, unfortunately, nothing new for the Yankees. Last season Alfonso Soriano was a drain on the offense after being so excellent in the second half of the 2013 season. The year before that it was Vernon Wells, who turned back into the Angels version of Vernon Wells after a pretty awesome month of April. Soriano was cut loose in mid-July and Wells managed to last the entire season before being released in the offseason.

Wells was under contract for 2014 but the Yankees were only responsible for $2.4M of his $21M salary. The Angels were on the hook for the rest, and eating $2.4M is nothing. Soriano was still owed about $2.5M at the time of his release and again, that’s nothing to a team like New York. The Cubs were paying the bulk of his $18M salary last year. Those pills were relatively easy to swallow. On the other hand the Yankees owe Beltran $2.5M per month during the regular season this year and next.

The money leaves the Yankees in a very uncomfortable spot. They almost certainly will not release Beltran and I totally get it. I don’t think you’ll find an owner in baseball who is willing to eat that much money to make a player go away three weeks into year two of his three-year contract, especially when it’s a player a) with Beltran’s track record, and b) who maybe just needs more time to get right following offseason surgery. (The Josh Hamilton situation is a huuuge outlier.)

A trade seems impossible even if the Yankees are willing to a ton of money. (And I mean a ton of money.) Not only is Beltran not all that desirable to other teams as a fake right-fielder/DH who can’t hit, he also has a full no-trade clause and has expressed a very strong desire to wear pinstripes throughout his career. I doubt he would agree to waive his no-trade protection to go elsewhere. That’s his right. No one forced the Yankees to give Beltran the no-trade clause.

So, with a trade pretty much off the table, the Yankees are left with three realistic options. One, they could release Beltran, which seems unlikely for the reasons outlined above. Two, they could continue to play him lower in the lineup and hope he finds his groove as he gets further away from elbow surgery, even if he’s nothing more than a left-handed platoon partner for Chris Young. And three, the Yankees could bench Beltran and reduce his playing time to almost nothing.

What I think will happen is a combination of two and three — Beltran will continue play regularly but gradually start to see his playing time decrease if he shows no signs of turning things around. Joe Girardi has already reduced Beltran’s playing time — he’s started only six of the last ten games — but he could reduce it even more, especially with Young playing so well. Maybe Beltran will end up playing only two or three out of every ten games or something along those lines.

Benching Beltran only fixes part of the problem though. He’s still tying up a roster spot, and since he no longer offers defense or base-running at this point of his career, Beltran doesn’t bring anything to the table in a reduced role. All he has to offer is leadership, basically. That’s all. And Beltran is reportedly an excellent clubhouse guy, especially helping young Latin American players, so the leadership angle is not negligible. As a bench player he would have less on-field value than Garrett Jones, however.

“I think you don’t lose perspective that so many players — personally, I went through it and I was never close to the hitter Carlos was — there are months that are tough,” said the perpetually optimistic Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. “The important thing is that you continue to send him out there and understand that he’s going to turn it around and be a big part of our offense.”

The Yankees have been able to rack up some wins despite Beltran’s lack of production early this year, so while he’s been a problem, it hasn’t derailed the team yet. This isn’t something the Yankees can brush under the rug though. Beltran is the weak link in a lineup with a few other black holes. The Yankees have little recourse aside from swallowing Beltran’s contract to cut him loose, and I just can’t see it happening anytime soon. The team as little choice but to hope Beltran starts hitting and soon.

Warren and bullpen down the Rays 4-1 to take the series opener

Before tonight’s game, New York and Tampa were tied at the top of the division with 11-8 records. Well, one of those two won and it happened to be the Yankees. New York now sits on the top of the division and it’s a very good feeling. Adam Warren delivered his best start of the season and the offense benefited from a few miscues from the Rays pitching to win this one 4-1.

A Warren-ted Compliment

(Source: Getty)

The fifth starter looked much better today than on his other starts. From early on, Adam Warren’s fastball sat around 94 and he located his secondary pitches well. In the first inning, he got into a bit of trouble with runners on second and third and one out — he struck out the dangerous Evan Longoria swinging with a changeup inside and James Loney grounded out. In the second inning, Warren struck out all three batters he faced — Brandon Guyer, Kevin Kiermaier and Tim Beckham — and it was quite impressive. I mean, if Warren can bring on well-located fastballs around 93~94 miles per hour and can throw slider or changeup in any count, I think he’d be a pretty darn good number five starter.

Only noticeable blemish Warren left was the sixth inning. David DeJesus singled to start the inning and Warren uncorked a wild pitch to Steven Souza Jr. to let the runner advance to second. Souza flew out deep to center, advancing DeJesus to third. With the infield in, Warren induced a grounder from Asdrubal Cabrera … and Stephen Drew threw a cricket-pitch-like bouncer to Brian McCann — DeJesus was safe at home and the game tied up, 1-1. Warren took care of one more batter and Joe Girardi sub’d him out for Justin Wilson.

Man, if it weren’t for the Drew’s faulty throw, Warren probably would have been the winning pitcher. But what is more valuable is that he went out, showed some really good stuff and dominated the division rival lineup to give New York a chance to win. Warren’s final line: 5.2 innings pitched, 5 hits, 1 earned run, 0 walk and 6 strikeouts. The last two figures look awesome given that he had allowed 8 walks and struck out only 6 in the previous 15 innings he logged before tonight. So yea, more of this please, Adam.

You just threw a football into the strikezone (Source: Getty)

Scoring… more than the opponent

I don’t think tonight’s game will go down as especially memorable or anything but the team did what it could do to get a win — sometimes, it takes mistakes from the opponent. The game was in a 0-0 tie in the bottom of fifth. Rays starter, Nate Karns, had been cruising through the Yankee lineup and his command fizzled a bit that inning. With the bases loaded and two outs, the Rays manager Kevin Cash, not wanting to take any more chance, sub’d him out for a fresh bullpen arm Brandon Gomes. However, Gomes showed even worse command and walked Brett Gardner with bases loaded. Oops.

The Yanks’ next run was way more exciting. With the game tied at one, McCann unloaded a bunch of power into a Brandon Gomes meatball and sent the ball towards the second deck in the right field. It was one of those shots that you knew was gone right off the bat. 2-1 Yanks. The ghost of Carlos Beltran followed it up with a line drive double to the center field wall. After Chris Young struck out, manager Kevin Cash brought in the lefty Everett Teaford to face Stephen Drew. I thought it was an interesting choice. Teaford had not pitched in the bigs since July 14, 2013 and he was mediocre in Korea last year (5-6, 5.24 ERA in 99.2 innings pitched with the LG Twins). Well, I guess they liked what they saw of him so far this year. He did not do his immediate job though — Drew doubled to right field corner to score Beltran. 3-1 Yankees lead.

Yankees scored again in the bottom of the eighth. McCann singled to begin the inning. Beltran and Young followed that up by striking out swinging (welp) but Drew singled and Didi walked to get the bases loaded. I thought it was quite odd that Cash did not substitute out Teaford by then. Instead, he stuck the lefty in to face Jacoby Ellsbury. On the third pitch, Jacoby took a 88-mph pitch to the right arm. 4-1 Yankees. Not the prettiest way to score but it’s a scoring nonetheless.

Leftovers: 

Warren pitched very well tonight but bullpen was flat-out awesome. Four pitchers — Wilson, David Carpenter, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller — combined for 3.1 innings pitched, allowed only one hit and one walk and struck out 4. So good. So good. We all could get used to this. The unofficial 8th inning guy Betances dropped an especially nasty curve/slurve to strike out Asdrubal Cabrera to end the eighth and that was just unfair. Cabrera knew that he was gone as soon as the ball got to the mitt. Dellin just looks like an unstoppable force at this point.

Box Score, WPA, Standings: 

Here is the box score, win probability chart  and updated standings. First place, guys, first place!


Source: FanGraphs


Tomorrow, the Yankees will have Chase Whitley making the first 2015 ML start of the year as a spot starter. He will face the current Rays ace, Jake Odorizzi. Will the winning streak continue tomorrow at YSIII? We shall see. Would be sweet to extend the division lead and take the series at home.

DotF: Refsnyder, Bird, and Jagielo all double in losses

Check out this John DeMarzo article on 1B Kyle Roller and the adjustments he made prior to his monster 2014 season. The adjustments were more mental than physical.

Triple-A Scranton (6-5 loss to Gwinnett, walk-off style) they faced old pal LHP Manny Banuelos, who allowed four runs in six innings

  • CF Slade Heathcott: 2-3, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB
  • DH Rob Refsnyder: 1-4, 1 2B, 1 RBI
  • RF Tyler Austin: 0-4, 1 K — got picked off first
  • C Austin Romine: 1-3, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — four hits in his last 26 at-bats (.158)
  • RHP Jaron Long: 4.2 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 8/4 GB/FB — 46 of 72 pitches were strikes (64%) … 17 runs on 28 hits in 20.2 innings at Triple-A
  • LHP Tyler Webb: 2 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 3/0 GB/FB — 29 of 37 pitches were strikes (78%)
  • RHP Branden Pinder: 1.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1/1 GB/FB — 12 of 16 pitches were strikes (75%)
  • RHP Nick Rumbelow: 0.2 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1/1 GB/FB — half of his 16 pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Game 20: A Chance To Take Over First Place

(Mike Skobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

First place is on the line tonight! Well, not really. It’s only April 27th. But still, the Yankees and Rays are currently tied atop the AL East with identical 11-8 records, so the winner of tonight’s game will have sole possession of first place. The Yankees have not held sole possession of the top spot in the AL East since May 18th of last season, and even that was only a half-game lead. The last time they led by at least one full game was May 13th, 143 regular season games ago.

The Bombers swept the Rays in Tampa Bay last weekend and now the two teams are set to play in the Bronx. Fun fact: tonight will be the Rays’ first outdoor game of the season. They’ve played their 19 games this year in Tropicana Field, Rogers Centre, and Marlins Park, which all have some sort of roof. Man, baseball indoors is drab. I’ll happily trade a few rainouts each year for stadium with no roof. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. 3B Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. DH Carlos Beltran
  7. RF Chris Young
  8. 2B Stephen Drew
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    RHP Adam Warren

It’s a nice night for baseball in New York. A little cool and windy but nothing crazy. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy the game.

Awards!: Mark Teixeira was named the AL Player of the Week, MLB announced. He went 8-for-24 (.333) with five homers, four walks, and three strikeouts in seven games last week.