Piggybacking on Olney’s keys for the ’13 Yankees

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Last Friday, Buster Olney (Insider req’d) put together a post listing eight things that must go right for the Yankees in 2013. Most of them are obvious, like CC Sabathia having a strong season and Mariano Rivera returning to form, but I figured this was a good chance to piggyback on his idea and list some things I believe must go right for the club this year. I’m talking about big picture stuff, not just things that will help them contend in 2013.

Olney listed eight items, but I’m only going six deep. These aren’t listed in order of importance or anything like that, just in the order they came to me. They’re all important, but some are obviously more important than others.

1. Either Ivan Nova or David Phelps must emerge as a legitimate MLB starter.

The Yankees have three starting pitchers scheduled to become free agents after the season — Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Phil Hughes — and the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014 means they won’t be able to go crazy on the free agent market next winter. Getting something out of Michael Pineda in the second half would obviously be helpful, but it’ll be just as important for either Nova or Phelps to step forward and solidify themselves as long-term starters. Finding a cheap starter in the organization is a necessity to remain competitive once payroll is slashed.

2. Austin Romine must stay healthy.

Romine is likely to open the season in Triple-A while Chris Stewart and Frankie Cervelli make us want to claw our eyes out at the big league level, which is the best thing for his development. The 24-year-old has caught just 103 total games over the last two years due to persistent back problems, so he’s lost a lot of development time at a crucial age. Gary Sanchez is still several years away, so Romine is the organization’s best hope for a productive catcher in the near future. He needs to actually stay healthy for that to happen, so a full season in 2013 is imperative for his long-term future.

3. Either Joba Chamberlain or David Aardsma must return to pre-surgery form.

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Rivera is a baseball playing robot and I expect him to have little trouble being productive following knee surgery. David Robertson is as good a setup man as you’ll find in the game, and the left-handed duo of Boone Logan and Clay Rapada is one of the better LOOGY tandems in baseball. The middle innings — fifth, sixth, and seventh, basically — fall on the shoulders of two pitchers who have combined to throw 50.1 innings over the last two seasons.

Joba, 27, struggled when he came off the DL at the trade deadline but finished the season very well, allowing just one earned run and one walk against 17 strikeouts in his final 13 innings of the season. It’s not a guarantee he’ll pitch well in 2013 of course, but it is encouraging. Aardsma made one late-season appearance and will be coming off two lost years due to elbow and hip surgery. The Yankees can get by if one of these two flames out and is unable to find his form from a few years ago, but getting nothing from both would create some major bullpen headaches.

4. Ichiro Suzuki must produce on an extreme, either good or bad.

The Yankees handed out just one multi-year contract this offseason, deciding the 39-year-old Ichiro was worthy of that kind of commitment. It’s my belief the deal was motivated by off-field factors — merchandise and ticket sales, advertising opportunities, increased popularity in Japan, etc. — and not so much his expected on-field performance. The late-season hot streak was nice and all, but Ichiro has managed just a .277/.308/.361 batting line in his last 1,384 plate appearances. Consider me skeptical.

So, what the club needs most from Suzuki next year is an extreme performance. He either needs to hit the cover off the ball like he did down the stretch and make me look like an idiot, or he needs to play so poorly the club will have no choice but to replace him. Splitting the middle and treading water won’t help, it just means he’ll remain in the lineup and be a question mark heading into 2014. Ichiro needs to erase doubt this summer, either by hitting so well they have to keep him or by hitting so poorly they have to dump him.

5. Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, and Jose Campos must stay healthy.

Every team needs their top prospects to stay healthy for obvious reasons, and the Yankees have three of their best minor leaguers coming off major injuries. Williams (shoulder) missed the second half following surgery while Campos (elbow) barely pitched in 2012. Heathcott (shoulder) missed the first half following his second surgery in as many offseasons and has yet to play more than 76 games in a single season. All three are among the team’s very best prospects and if the Yankees are serious about sticking to a budget, they’re going to need cheap production. That isn’t limited to plugging these guys into the roster down the line either, they need to stay healthy to boost potential trade value as well.

6. Alex Rodriguez must hit at least 13 homers.

Despite all the recent PED stuff, I’m working under the assumption A-Rod will rejoin the team around the All-Star break because that’s what the doctors (and the Yankees!) said following his latest hip surgery. If they’re able to void or otherwise shed his contract, great. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

Anyway, A-Rod is currently sitting on 647 career homers and is 13 away from triggering the first of five $6M homerun milestones in his contract. Triggering that bonus in 2013 — the next homer bonus would then be 54 homers away, a total even in-his-prime Alex would have trouble reaching in one year — gives the team another $6M to spend under the luxury tax threshold in 2014. It doesn’t sound like much, but $6M does go a long way. It’s enough to add an $18M player at the trade deadline. I don’t care anything about this latest PED stuff, I care about A-Rod reaching this first homer bonus this summer to give the team more flexibility next year.

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Yanks place five on Law’s top 110 prospects list

(Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)
(Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)

Keith Law published his annual list of baseball’s top 100 prospects today (subs. req’d), a list that was predictably topped by Rangers SS Jurickson Profar. Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras and Orioles RHP Dylan Bundy round out the top three while Rays OF Wil Myers and Red Sox SS Xander Bogaerts crack the top five. Former Yankees first round pick and Pirates RHP Gerrit Cole ranks eighth while former Yankees farmhand and current Cubs RHP Arodys Vizcaino ranks 64th.

C Gary Sanchez ranks 18th and is the first of four Yankees prospects on the list. “Sanchez’ offensive potential is tremendous; despite an exaggerated leg kick, he gets his lead foot down in time, keeping his weight back enough to drive the ball, even showing doubles power the other way thanks to strong hands and excellent hip rotation,” wrote Law while also noting that he’s an aggressive hitter but not a total hacker who will chase off the plate. He also says Sanchez “improved his receiving substantially over the previous year” and is very likely to stick behind the plate long-term.

A little further down is OF Mason Williams, who placed 35th overall. Law says he’s improved at staying back on the ball but “can get a little power-happy and drop his back shoulder too much to try to elevate the ball.” He also cautions that he needs to improve his patience at the plate to reach his offensive ceiling. Williams draws high praises for his defense — “a 70 grade on the 20-80 scale thanks to above-average speed and great reads even on balls that slice away from him” — which Law touts as already big league caliber.

(Matt Burton/MiLB.com)
(Matt Burton/MiLB.com)

OF Tyler Austin ranks 52nd overall thanks to his bat. “Austin’s swing is fundamentally sound,” wrote Law, “shifting his weight just before contact, rotating his hips to drive the ball and staying balanced throughout with a short path to the ball and good extension, checking just about all of the boxes you want for a hitter’s mechanics.” His defense is adequate right now with a chance to become average in terms of range and arm. Austin’s bat is going to have to carry him, as was always the case.

The final Yankees prospect to crack the top 100 is OF Slade Heathcott, who wasn’t too far behind Austin at 57th overall. “[Heathcott] dominated the field in (the Arizona Fall League) and has a special mix of strength and quickness that might put him among the top 20 prospects in the game in a year,” said Law, who calls Slade a “maniac” because of his extremely all-out style of play. He also commends his sound swing, above-average speed, and strong center field defense. Injuries remain a concern, of course.

In addition to the top 100, Law also posted a list of ten prospects who just missed the cut (subs. req’d), a list that includes RHP Jose Ramirez. “He’s filled out quite a bit in the past three years,” wrote Law, “with more than 200 pounds on his 6-3 frame, and will work at 94-98 mph with big-time life and a hard mid-80s slider.” Injuries, specifically elbow and shoulder concerns over the last two seasons, kept him out of the top 100. Just getting consideration is pretty awesome.

I think four top-60 and five top-110 prospects is pretty darn good for the Yankees considering some of the pitching injuries this year and the fact that they’ve muffed some recent first round picks. Heathcott (first round) and Sanchez ($3M bonus) were high-profile additions, but Austin (13th round), Williams (4th round), and Ramirez (unknown but small bonus) were all shrewd pickups who have developed well. All five guys should reach Double-A Trenton this year and several (Austin, Heathcott, and Ramirez) should begin the season there.

Yankees place three on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list

MLB.com published their always entertaining top 100 prospects list yesterday, which was predictably topped by Rangers SS Jurickson Profar. Orioles RHP Dylan Bundy and Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras round out the top three, Rays OF Wil Myers and Mariners RHP Taijuan Walker the top five.

The Yankees placed three prospects on the list, led by C Gary Sanchez at #36. OF Mason Williams wasn’t far behind him at #41 while OF Tyler Austin lagged at #75. MLB.com’s lists are always eyebrow-raising, and this is likely the only time this spring you’ll see Sanchez ranked ahead of Williams — in fairness, that isn’t completely insane, just a minority opinion — and no OF Slade Heathcott on a top 100 list. Giants OF Gary Brown made the list and Heathcott didn’t. Can’t explain it, but such is life.

Injury Updates: Pineda, Campos, Cabral

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Got some injury updates, courtesy of Chad Jennings

  • Michael Pineda (shoulder) is still throwing off flat ground from “extended distances” according to VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman. He’s been throwing off flat ground for more than a month now is still on target to return sometime in May or June.
  • Jose Campos (elbow) is currently throwing off a mound and is expected to ready in time for Spring Training after missing almost the entire 2012 season. “The doctors say he’s healthy. We’re going to proceed based on that recommendation,” said Newman, who confirmed Campos will begin the season back with Low-A Charleston.
  • Cesar Cabral (elbow) is basically doing the same thing as Pineda right now, throwing off flat ground from “extended distances.” The Yankees plan to keep the 2011 Rule 5 Draft pick next year, but Newman said he’s unlikely to return until May. Cabral has to spend at least 90 days on the active 25-man roster next season to satisfy the Rule 5 Draft rules.

Newman also confirmed to Jennings that top prospect Mason Williams (shoulder) has resumed swinging a bat in Tampa. He had surgery in August and was recently cleared to begin workouts. Sounds like he’ll be ready to go once camp starts.

Taking stock of the Yankees’ trade chips

(Elsa/Getty)

The Yankees have been very active on the free agent market this offseason, though it’s easy to forget since most of the signings were re-signings. Kevin Youkilis is the only new player the team has signed this winter, and they still have questions to answer at DH, behind the plate (unlikely to be addressed in a meaningful way), and on the bench. There’s a lot of offseason left and a lot of holes to fill.

For a big market team like New York, free agency is the easiest way to add players. There’s always the trade route though, and in fact the club has swung a major trade in four of the last five offseasons. Some (Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson) have worked better than others (Michael Pineda and Javy Vazquez). The Yankees may or may not have a trade of that magnitude left in them this winter, but not every deal has to be a blockbuster to help. Let’s take stock of the team’s current crop of trade chips.

Boone Logan
Logan, 28, has emerged as the team’s primary left-handed reliever over the last two years, but in no way should he be off limits this offseason. In fact, Clay Rapada has been much more effective against same-side hitters in recent years, though he’s unusable against righties. Logan can at least fake it against batters of the opposite hand if need be. Since he’s due to become a free agent next winter and is coming off a career-high (and league-leading) 80 appearances, Boone should be made very available this winter. Teams continually prove willing to overpay for quality relief, especially a left-handed relief.

Eduardo Nunez
For all his defensive deficiencies, the 25-year-old Nunez has garnered plenty of trade interest (from the Braves and Mariners, specifically) in recent years. Finding decent middle infield help these days is close to impossible, so teams are eager to roll the dice on a cheap young player with speed and contact skills. Frankly, if Nunez had spent the last few years in some other city, a lot of Yankees fans would be looking at him as a buy-low guy whose defense might be fixable with enough reps. Because we’ve seen the hilarious frequency of his errors first hand, he gets written off quickly. C’est la vie.

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Ivan Nova & David Phelps
The Yankees brought both Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte back, meaning Nova and Phelps will battle it out for the fifth starter’s spot in camp. The loser goes to the bullpen (or Triple-A) to wait his turn as the sixth starter. Both guys could also be trade bait as young, cost-controlled back-end arms, though both also have their warts. Nova got pounded last season and Phelps has just a handful of big league starts to his credit.

Phil Hughes could also be lumped into this group, but he only offers one year of team control and is being counted on as the fourth starter behind the three veterans. He shouldn’t be off-limits, but he might not fetch as much as the team would like given the impending free agency. Hughes is most desirable to contenders, and it’s not often you see a trade made between two contenders.

Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, Gary Sanchez & Tyler Austin
You can’t have a trade chips post without mentioning the top prospects. These four represent the team’s best young minor leaguers in whatever order, though none of them have meaningful experience at the Double-A level. For all intents and purposes, they’re four high-upside guys in Single-A ball.  As we’ve seen in the recent R.A. Dickey and James Shields trades, it takes an elite prospect on the cusp of the big leagues to land an impact player. Teams will surely line up to acquire these four, but I don’t think any of them would be enough to bring say, a young and MLB ready impact bat without significant secondary pieces. Twelve months from now, one or all of these guys could be among the best trade chips in the sport.

* * *

Curtis Granderson’s name has popped up as a trade candidate numerous times this offseason, though I maintain that it will be close to impossible to trade him and improve the team at the same time. The Yankees didn’t drop $62M total on five free agents this winter to trade their best power hitter for a young player who might help two or three years from now, potentially wasting a year of CC Sabathia at his best, of Robinson Cano at his best, of David Robertson at his best, of Pettitte and Mariano Rivera before they call it a career. With the 2014 payroll plan looming, making one last “all-in” run in 2013 should be the club’s top priority even if they seem to feel differently.

Baseball America’s Top Ten Yankees Prospects

Heathcott. (Jordan Megenhardt/MLB.com)

Baseball America published their list of the top ten Yankees prospects today, and the list is free for all. The scouting reports, however, are not. You need a subscription for them. The four names atop the list shouldn’t be a surprise (the order might), but things do get a little wacky after that. Let’s break it down…

  1. OF Mason Williams
  2. OF Slade Heathcott
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. OF Tyler Austin
  5. RHP Jose Campos
  6. RHP Brett Marshall
  7. 2B Angelo Gumbs
  8. LHP Manny Banuelos
  9. RHP Ty Hensley
  10. RHP Rafael DePaula

Two things stand out about the list. First, the Yankees are suddenly very top heavy with position player prospects, particularly outfielders. Outside of Jesus Montero, their recent top tens were mostly dominated by upper level arms. The Yankees are going to need that infusion of young bats and relatively soon, but Heathcott is only position player on the list who I think will open next year at Double-A. Austin has a chance, but it would surprise me a bit.

Williams. (NY Daily News)

Secondly, everyone’s hurt. Five of those ten guys missed significant time this season due to injury, and that doesn’t include Hensley’s shoulder “abnormality” or the month Austin missed with a mild concussion. Heathcott (shoulder) obviously came back healthy and Gumbs (elbow) has as well (based on the fact that he’s playing winter ball), plus Williams (shoulder) was just cleared to resume workouts. Banuelos will miss all of next season with Tommy John surgery though, and a club official said Campos (elbow) will “hopefully” be ready for Spring Training in the subscriber-only write-up. That doesn’t sound promising, but what can you do.

The write-ups include scouting grades (on the 20-80 scale) for each team’s top prospect and the grades for Williams are just insane — 60 hit, 60 power, 70 speed, 70 defense, 50 arm. That’s four above-average tools and one average one. Those are future grades and not present — they think he’ll grow into a 60 hitter, not that he is one today — but they still seem a little optimistic, particularly the power. A 60/60 bat is a .290-.300 hitter with 25 or so homers. Add the 70 speed and 70 defense and you’ve got 30+ steals and near Gold Glove defense. That’s a star player, it’s Grady Sizemore in his prime, but again the grades strike me as optimistic based on everything we’ve heard about Williams to this point.

Elsewhere in the write-up they note that Heathcott offers “explosive tools” — yesterday Keith Law said Heathcott has louder tools than Williams, though Mason is more refined — and that while Sanchez doesn’t stack up to Montero offensively, he has a much better chance of sticking behind the plate. Campos was “electric” before getting hurt while Banuelos was still struggling to command his fastball. They call DePaula the biggest x-factor in the system and say his “ceiling is as high as any Yankees minor league pitcher.” He’ll make the big jump to High-A Tampa next year.

With Banuelos essentially out for the season, the only top ten prospect who figures to spend significant time at Triple-A next year will be Marshall. The Yankees will have Adam Warren and maybe a veteran signing or two ahead of him on the call-up depth chart, possibly even Dellin Betances if things break right. The talent gap that has been slowly climbing the ladder in recent years has hit Triple-A, meaning the Bombers will have to make sure they bring in some depth pieces via free agency to shore up potential holes on the big league roster. The team’s top prospects just aren’t in a position to help next year, and maybe not in 2014 as well.

Mason Williams cleared to resume workouts following shoulder surgery

Outfielder and top prospect Mason Williams was cleared by doctors today to resuming running and workouts. He had surgery to repair damage to his left (non-throwing) shoulder labrum in early-August after injuring himself diving for a ball in the outfield.

Williams, 21, hit .298/.346/.474 with 11 homers and 20 steals in 397 plate appearances split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa this season. I have to think he’ll be ready to go come Spring Training considering that he’s already resumed workouts, but don’t hold me to that. Either way, this is very good news. The Yankees lost a lot of top young players to injury this year and it’s good to see them finally get one back.