A modest proposal

With legitimate concerns regarding Teix (is he possibly turning the corner or just showing a “hot flash”?), the health of A-Rod and Posada, and the volatility of the bullpen, it seems silly to harp on an under-performing bench. Make no mistake, like all teams, the 2010 New York Yankees aren’t going to be sending up world-beaters off the bench. They’re bench players for a reason. Any tinkering will ultimately have minimal impact on the team and its win-loss record.

Nevertheless, a few changes to bring in some fresh blood may yield some positive dividends for the team. This doesn’t mean promoting Jesus Montero or Austin Romine to the big leagues – that would be foolish. It means taking a hard look at Kevin Russo, Chad Huffman, Ramiro Pena and some of the weaker links in the bullpen. In short, the guys that haven’t “earned the right” to keep their spot when they aren’t performing and better options may be looming. On this beautiful morning, we’ll focus on the hitters.

I’ll admit I’ve never been a true believer of AAA SS Eduardo Nunez. He walked less than Stephen Hawking, was reported to have poor defense, had a BABip 60 points higher than anything he’d been at in his previous two levels (Charleston, Tampa) and I wasn’t sold on his power being more than a fluke. Yet he still threw up a combined line of .313/.343/.421 in just under 500 PA’s between Trenton and Scranton in 2009, so he couldn’t be entirely ignored, either. This year he’s largely shut me up. Offensively, at least. On the year in Scranton he’s posting a line of .320/.359/.410. That’s damn good. He’s hitting more line drives this year (up six percentage points to 17.6%) and his HR/FB rate is crazy low at roughly 2.5%, suggesting power should rebound a bit. (Last year’s rate was 8/150 – around 5%.) While I don’t know much about his defense, Nunez, 23, might just be ready for a cup of coffee in the big leagues.

As of now Ramiro Pena is the backup shortstop and the team (appropriately) seems to value his glove’s versatility. He can capably man all of the infield positions and can also play the outfield in a pinch. Herein lies the problem – for a guy hitting .190/.235/.210 (and little indication he’ll ever be even an average hitter), he really hasn’t been very good with the glove this year. Granted, it’s an extremely small sample, but even the eye test seems to indicate Pena’s been fairly pedestrian with the leather. Per UZR at Fangraphs, he’s negative at all positions thus far. Using B-Ref’s metrics, he’s also been underwhelming. On the year, Pena’s RAR is -4.8, his WAR -0.5 and he’s had a negative WPA in almost half of his games (12 out of 30).

Do I think he’s a poor fielder? No, not at all. But when as a player you’re all-glove, no bat, playing in limited bench time, it’s important that you reach defensive expectations. That hasn’t happened and given that he has options, I can’t think of many reasons to keep him around. Yes, he’s been victimized by an extremely low BABip of .220 and his defense should be better, but how much can he reasonably contribute? Nunez contributing average offense and below-average defense in limited time would be more valuable to the team than above-average defense and well below-average offense from Pena.

You’ll probably get poor defense with Nunez. I’ve heard a few Nunez fans say he’s much improved with his glove this year. He has good tools (and a great arm) but it’s never quite come together. Maybe he has; I’ve yet to hear anything myself, but it’s totally possible. He does, however, lead SWB with 7 errors. Even if his defense is poor, I think it’s reasonable to expect he could give you .270/.300/.350 in the big leagues. Of course, I also thought that Russo would provide that, so perhaps that expectation is unreasonable. Still, if nothing else, with Russo and Cervelli often in the lineup due to apprehension to push Posada and A-Rod (justifiably so), having a Nunez at least provides a better shot that there won’t have a complete black hole when an infielder needs a rest. Because I have no doubt Pena will always be a black hole in the lineup.

While Kevin Russo was a fan favorite early on for his “clutch hits,” he’s been dreadful offensively for the team. For the Bombers Russo is “hitting” .196/.260/.239 and even worse in June, checking in at a paltry .136/.240/.136. The good news is he’s been really hurt (like Pena) by a BABip of .225, has what appears to be solid hitting skills (if the minors are any indication), has been good with the glove and there’s really no one in the high minors that can play a utility role like he. There aren’t better options available in house. With Pena, I think there are.

As I’ve said, the difference between Pena and Nunez in the grand scheme of things –as a backup infielder getting spot duty– is likely to be small. This doesn’t mean you stand pat. If the move is made and Nunez is the inverse of Pena (average hitting, unbelievably poor defense), you probably end the experiment and return to the previous set-up. There’s really not much downside to a switch. With both players having options, the bottom of the lineup very often being an automatic out with injuries and necessary rest for starters, and Nunez potentially having some value to the Yankees (or another team via trade) in the future,it’s a move I think needs investigating.

AAA prospects: a status report

Photo Credit: Cataffo/ Ny Daily News

Mike does a great job compiling all of the stats and happenings across the Yankees’ minor league system in his nightly Down on the Farm series. From Staten Island to Scranton, we have a pretty good sense about how our players did, even if we mostly only care about Montero, Romine, ManBan, Ramirez, Warren, Z-Mac, Stoneburner and a handful of other players.

But after a while we sometimes get “stuck” in the numbers — we forget how the guy that’s just gone 0-5 with 4 K’s during last night’s game is very often the same guy that went 4-5 with two home runs the night before. So I’m going to be doing a recap of how some of the AAA farmhands have performed thus far, all of which came from milb.com or minorleaguesplits.com. Many of the players on this list are on Mike’s Preseason Prospect List, where you can get a better look at their long term prospects. In this AAA installment I chose to recap players that are actual prospects, most of which will likely (if they haven’t already) see major league action this year. Not too many are interested in seeing Amaury Sanit’s progress, though I’m betting we’d all love to find out if Kei Igawa sleeps with those awesome sunglasses on (I’ll do some digging and try to find out for you all).

Next week we’ll take a look at how some of the AA guys are looking. Also, because there’s a Montero Watch present in the sidebar and most DotF are comprised of MonteroTalk, we’re going to leave him out on this one.

AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre

Kevin Russo, 2B: With the big league club having apparently suffering a pandemic of Mets-itus, a few AAA players have seen some promotions. Chief among them, and for good reason, is utility player Kevin Russo. Russo, a former 20th round draft pick out of Baylor in 2006, had hit .302/.383/.425 as Scranton’s second basemen before jumping to Massachusetts after Robinson Cano was hit by a Josh Beckett fastball. He got only two plate appearances but Russo’s versatility – he can at least play three infield spots and man the corner outfield positions – defensively, his solid on-base skills, and good contact ability make him a good candidate to stick in the big leagues for a long time. With Ramiro Pena‘s mounting struggles with the bat (which was inevitable, really), Russo may take him over as a super-utility guy at some point. He’ll have to show he can at least play SS passably, though, and there’s no guarantee of that. Bonus: if there are minors fantasy leagues that exist (I’m hoping they do), he’ll soon have CF eligibility, too. He’s played there of late.

Season line in AAA: .301/.388/.416

Last ten games: .310/.383/.405

Time in New York: .000/.000/.000

Eduardo Nunez, SS: Most people saw this coming. Nunez got off to a torrid pace, as Greg Fertel and even RAB’s own Mike Axisa have noted in his DotF postings. Consequently, Nunez has really tailed off, displaying why we shouldn’t fall in love with early season small sample sizes. With a few middle infielders ahead of him in the pecking order and poor defensive skills (albeit with a great arm), Nunez is unlikely to see any big league action this year. If he does it will because of ghastly circumstances. Poor defense, weak power, unrefined on-base skills with very good contact ability, plus speed and a wonderful arm. That may translate to some modicum of minor league success, but I don’t see it happening on the major league level for a middle infielder (and really one in name only).

Season in AAA: .321/.371/.400

Last ten games: .244/.262/.268

Juan Miranda, 1B: Miranda was a big-money IFA signing of the Yanks from Cuba back in 2006. You may remember he was once considered the future first baseman of the Yanks. While that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, Miranda, in his final option year, is playing for a contract for a big league club next year. The book on him was that though he really nails right handers, he struggles with lefties and his defensive play is by no means great, even for a first baseman. Last year he took positive steps in correcting those problems, hitting lefties with a triple slash of .291/.367/.507. So far, in AAA, he’s continued that pace, hitting .313/.389/.563 in 33 plate appearances (note: this is according to minorleaguesplits.com, which is a bit behind in their stats). Oddly, he’s struggled against righties, hitting .222/.354/.364 in 66 plate appearances. He’s been in New York for a few games, and with Nick Johnson possibly out for a few months, Miranda may stay in New York as a DH. Considering Johnson’s injury history, the team couldn’t be caught too surprised by that. This may be make or break for Miranda.

Season line in AAA: .260/.371/.438

Last ten games in AAA:.250/.357/.417

Time in New York: .143/.250/.286

Photo Credit: Mike Ashmore

Ivan Nova, SP

Nova’s rocketed up Yankee top prospect lists over the last two years as he’s finally started to harness his very good stuff. He’s been up in New York after the injury bug hit and he’s largely impressed, though he’s probably the guy sent back down with Park coming back from the DL. In his first appearance, Nova, signed by the Yanks and returned after being selected as a Rule V from the Padres, came in and threw two scoreless innings and in today’s game he again looked fairly good. With a likely ceiling as a back-end starter in the AL East (which really isn’t all that bad when you think about it), Nova is very likely to be the first guy up again with another injury, first because he’s already on the 40-man roster, and second because a groundball pitcher with good stuff is always a valuable commodity. He also has an outside shot at a rotation spot next year depending on how things shake out.

AAA season: 37 IP, 2.43 ERA, 35 hits, 32 K, 12 BB, 1.78 GO/AA

Last two starts: 13 IP, 3.84 ERA, 17 hits, 7 K, 4 BB

Time in New York: 3 innings, 0.00 ERA, 4 hits, 1 K, 0 BB

Zack McAllister, SP

Z-Mac has had an up-and-down in his first run at AAA. Arguably the Yankees’ top pitching prospect, McAllister ran into some issues in late April, early May, giving up over 6 runs in two of three starts. Still, he’s sprinkled in some good games and has strung two consecutive 7-inning performances of good ball. A polished groundball pitcher, McAllister may wind up trade bait or perhaps in the rotation as early as next year. He, like Nova, has back rotation or possibly #3 starter potential, but he’s going to need to get that groundball rate up again. A 34% GB ratio is not going to work at the big league level for a guy with his skill set. It wouldn’t hurt to develop a true out pitch, either.

Season in AAA: 45 IP, 4.40 ERA, 52 hits, 32 K, 9 BB, 0.52 GO/AA

Last two starts: 14 IP, 2.14 ERA, 14 hits, 8K, 1 BB

Romulo Sanchez, SP/RP

The last of the famed “Fat Sanchezes,” Romulo has been very impressive in his time in Pennsylvania and also in New York. Sanchez has a great fastball, occasionally hitting the high 90’s with his 4-seamer, but he likely profiles best as a reliever in the future due to his erratic control and fringe-average off-speed pitches (a changeup and slider). If he can locate that big fastball and keep hitters off balance with one of the off speed offerings, he could definitely stick with the big club over the year. His numbers in Scranton are a bit misleading. In April he gave up 10 earned runs in only 2.1 innings. Otherwise, he’s been among the better pitchers in the upper minors.

AAA season: 32 IP, 5.34 ERA, 30 hits, 32 K, 16 BB, 1.22 GO/AA

Last 2 starts: 14 IP, 1.42 ERA, 9 hits, 17 K, 2 BB

In New York: 3.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1 hit, 3 K, 1 BB

Mark Melancon, RP

The final name on our list, Melancon entered last season with high expectations and didn’t live up to them in limited action. I recall his propensity for hitting opposing batters (along with old favorite Mike Dunn). It was probably just jitters because he returned to AAA and fell right back where he’d been before his callup. He came back up again briefly and showed signs of life, causing many of us to think he’d be up in the Bronx to start the year. Well, hasn’t happened yet but it seems like just a matter of time. Melancon has again been very good in Pennsylvania in 2010. A look at his splits reveals some quirks, though. You might look at his numbers against righties and say, “Wait a second, this doesn’t look right.” And to some extent, you’d be right. But aha! Along with a BABip against righties of .462, he’s also giving up a line drive rate of 26.2%, yet checking in with an FIP of 3.05. Look a bit further over and you see why. He’s striking out 16.55 righties per nine innings this year. Wow, that’s strange data. Against lefties he’s getting lots of groundouts, another promising sign. I’d be fairly shocked if we don’t see Melancon in the Bronx very soon.

AAA Season: 23 IP, 2.74 ERA, 21 hits, 31 K, 8 BB, 1.71 GO/AA

Last 4 appearances: 5.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 4 hits, 13 K, 2 BB