Looking for upgrades: The pitching staff • 06.27.11
Two weeks from the all-star break and a little more than a month before the trade deadline, the Yankees are at a point where they can — sort of — figure out what they need to add for a second-half push toward the playoffs. Making this picture a little less clear is the status of their injured players who could provide a significant boost if/when they get healthy.
On the pitching staff, the preseason concern has become a surprising strength, and the preseason strength has become a surprising concern. These are three areas where the Yankees might look to upgrade their pitching staff in the second half.
The Yankees rotation has been better than anyone could have expected, and that’s despite injuries to Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon. The Yankees, though, will surely kick the tires on alternatives, if only to add depth and peace of mind.
Trade market: Hit-and-miss.
A starting pitcher will be traded before the deadline, history tells us that much. The question is whether an addition would be an upgrade over the Yankees in-house options. If Hughes and Colon come back and pitch well – and both Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova continue to pitch well enough – then the need for a starter will be minimal (though the want might still exist). If Hughes or Colon suffers a setback, Garcia or Nova regresses, or A.J. Burnett falls into last year’s habits, then the Yankees will need someone. Carlos Zambrano and Brett Myers seem to be available targets, but are they worth the headache? The Twins have been disappointing and could shed starting pitchers at the deadline, but are they more reliable than what the Yankees already have?
In-house: The kids.
Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos are still in Double-A and both are pitching well (though still working on some control issues). Not so long ago, the Yankees had Hughes and Alan Horne dominating in Double-A as highly regarded prospects, but the Yankees left them there, and there’s not much reason to expect the Yankees to change course and suddenly rush Betances or Banuelos without at least a brief stop in Triple-A. More likely options might be Carlos Silva, Hector Noesi or someone from the David Phelps-Adam Warren-D.J. Mitchell trio in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Warren is probably at the top of that pecking order with Phelps is currently on the DL.
Joba Chamberlain is lost for the year, and Rafael Soriano is almost certainly lost until after the all-star break. Dave Robertson has been terrific in the eighth inning, but the Yankees are mixing-and-matching in the sixth and seventh, still searching for one-inning relievers to complete that bridge to Mariano Rivera.
Trade market: They’re all relievers. Last year, the Yankees took a chance on Kerry Wood, and that move completely changed the bullpen. At the time of the trade, though, Wood was coming off injury and had ugly numbers with Cleveland. He came to the Yankees as a complete wild card and became a dominant setup man. The Yankees could go looking for something similar, but relievers are an unreliable group. Based on what Wood was doing at this time last year, he would not have looked like an especially attractive target. There will be risk in anyone the Yankees go after, though some big names seem to be on the market, including Padres closer Heath Bell.
In-house: Untested. The Yankees have had success plugging minor league starters into bullpen roles, and that’s occasionally worked as a stepping stone to the big league rotation. Right now, they seem to be trying something similar with Noesi.* They also might have found something in Cory Wade, though his innings have been limited. Andrew Brackman has moved to the Triple-A bullpen, but the results have not been encouraging. The Yankees have looked at Kevin Whelan and they’ve run through a series of long-relievers, but so far Noesi has been the call-up standout and Luis Ayala has been better than expected. George Kontos still seems to be pitching himself toward a call-up in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
The Yankees top two left-handed relievers should be Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte, but those two proven veterans have yet to pitch this season because of injuries. In their place, Boone Logan has been erratic, unable to repeat last year’s second-half success.
Trade market: Still relievers. The same problem that applies to the setup trade market applies to the lefty trade market: These guys tend to be unpredictable. The Yankees could take their chances on a veteran, with hopes that he doesn’t fall into either the Logan Trap of ineffectiveness or the Feliciaino/Marte Trap of arm problems. The Phillies just released J.C. Romero, who actually had solid numbers against lefties this season but passed through waivers without a claim. Logan has struggled all season, and the Yankees haven’t traded for a replacement yet, which might say something about the market.
In-house: Minor league veterans. The Yankees have signed some lefties for the Triple-A pitching staff, and those might be legitimate options. Randy Flores has pitched well out of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre bullpen, holding lefties to a .233 average with nine strikeouts, seven hits and one walk. Greg Smith has pitched well out of the rotation, but that’s only 14.2 innings and he has almost zero bullpen experience. If he could pitch in relief, Smith could give the Yankees a second lefty who doubles as a long man. It’s also worth noting that Whelan has had tremendous success against left-handers, but he’s currently on the DL and his first stint in New York was so short, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees trusting him with the bizarre role of right-handed lefty specialist.
* In my mind, this is why it makes sense to have Noesi playing a bullpen role while Brian Gordon gets a few spot starts. Noesi’s role could be a long-term thing. The Yankees have a very real need in the late innings, and if Noesi adapts to the role, he could be a significant boost the rest of the way. The current rotation opening is a no-doubt-about-it part-time job. Gordon is going to get one or two more starts before Hughes is ready, and obviously they’re going to skip him when they can. He had great numbers this year, so the Yankees are riding the hot hand for a while. They’re hoping for more than a short-term contribution from Noesi.
Associated Press photos
At the very top of the Yankees minor league system, two Triple-A starters — Andrew Brackman and Adam Warren — are top five in the International League in walks. Down in Low-A, one of the Yankees best young catchers — Gary Sanchez — is hitting just .238 with 37 strikeouts in 32 games.
“It’s like somebody trying to lose weight and looking at the scale every day,” vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said. “It’ll drive you nuts.”
Less than two months into the minor league season, the big picture is nowhere near coming into focus, and Newman said this part of the season is still about making initial adjustments to a new level. The Yankees focus more on the second-half results for most of their minor leaguers, curious to see how they adjust and adapt.
Right now, Warren is eight walks away from his total for last season. Brackman is 12 away from his 2010 total. From the outside, the Brackman number is more glaring because, 1. His ERA is three runs higher than Warren’s, and 2. He had similar control issues in 2009.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an issue long term, because he’s showing he can throw strikes,” Newman said. “He’s just got to get back (to last year’s command). His mark right now is well above where we want it to be, but I don’t think it’s going to stay there.”
As for Sanchez, he was hitting .314 with three home runs in his previous 10 games before going on the disabled list a week ago. More importantly, he’s 18 years old.
“He’s swinging it good now,” Newman said. “He’s like a high school senior playing in that league. He’s doing well.”
• Speaking of letting the big picture come into focus… Slade Heathcott and J.R. Murphy were the Yankees first- and second-round picks in the 2009 draft, and both are off to eye-opening starts in Charleston. Newman called it little more than the natural progression of two talented kids who had very little little experience when they put up pedestrian numbers in Charleston last season. “That was a helluva challenge,” Newman said. “Now they’re getting a little experience, and we’re seeing what kind of players they are. There’s nothing particularly surprising about it.”
• As you might expect, Newman said both Heathcott and Murphy will “probably” jump to Tampa midseason.
• As previously reported, Newman said Sanchez has a “stiff lower back” that he’s trying to work through in extended spring training. Once he’s through that, Sanchez will return to Charleston.
• In the wake of the Buster Posey injury, Newman said the Yankees have not discussed moving any of their catchers from behind the plate just to avoid injury. “Not because of health concerns,” he said. “All of our catchers do work at first base. We have a lot of young catching prospects. Who knows who’s going to catch, who’s going to play first base and who’s going to DH?” Newman once again stressed that the Yankees believe Jesus Montero can catch.
• Other injury updates:
Greg Golson: About a week away from playing in games.
Mark Prior: “Not throwing (off a mound),” Newman said. “He’s really struggling with this kind of hip, abdominal thing. Hard to nail it down.”
Alan Horne: Throwing in extended spring and building arm strength.
Graham Stoneburner, Steve Garrison, Jeremy Bleich: “Still a ways to go,” Newman said.
David Adams: Having some leg problems that the Yankees believe to be related to the ankle injury that forced him to miss most of last season. He was back and playing, but then the leg started bothering him. Not sure how close he is to returning.
• Carlos Silva can opt out in mid-June and pitched well last night. “This is a contingency plan,” Newman said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
• Veteran Brad Halsey, signed to a minor league deal earlier this month, is throwing in Tampa, basically going through his own spring training.
• Outfielder Damon Sublett has been throwing some bullpens in Double-A. He was a closer in college and hasn’t been getting a ton of playing time as a position player, so he asked the Yankees if he could start working out on the mound. “We’re just checking it out, getting his arm in shape,” Newman said.
• Newman said there’s no one in extended spring training who’s “setting any world records or anything,” but the name-to-know that jumped to his mind was starting pitcher Bryan Mitchell. “He’s got electric stuff,” Newman said. “He’s got the stuff to be the next Banuelos, Betances. The high-end guy. That’s Mitchell.”
Brackman photo from my friends at the Scranton Times-Tribune
Mark Prior is all alone in one corner of the Yankees clubhouse. All around him are empty lockers, most of them cleared out this morning through the Yankees first round of cuts.
Prior’s neighbor, Neal Cotts, didn’t make it through the first week of camp. The next three lockers in his row belonged to Buddy Carlyle, Brian Anderson and Andy Sisco but they’re all gone now. In the middle of the clubhouse, empty lockers belonging to Adam Warren, David Phelps and D.J. Mitchell are clustered together.
There seems to have been a bit of a system to the first round of cuts. Of the pitcher in camp on a minor league deals, only Warner Madrigal — who’s dealt with an injury — has fewer innings than Carlyle, Anderson and Sisco. Those three weren’t pitching much anyway. The other four cuts were minor league starters — Phelps, Mitchell, Warren and Hector Noesi — who just pitched either Friday or Saturday. They won’t pitch again for a few days, and with the big league starters stretched out to four-plus innings, it was becoming difficult to get those four stretched out as well.
Still waiting for word on whether any of the seven cuts were released. The assumption is that all seven were simply reassigned (or optioned) to minor league camp.
• The only minor league starters still in big league camp are Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos (and maybe Steve Garrison, depending on how the Yankees plan to use him this season). Might not be long before the Yankees have to send some of the Killer Bs down as well to give them innings.
• Banuelos turns 20 years old today. He’s the youngest guy in camp.
• Combined spring numbers for Mitchell and Warren: 8 G, 10.2 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 10 K, 2.53 ERA. Mitchell walked no one. Warren allowed just one earned run.
• Sisco didn’t allow a hit in big league camp, but he did walk four through 3.1 innings.
• Greg Golson said he’s still not able to do much with that oblique injury. He said it feels better day after day, but he’s not able to swing or doing any real baseball activity until it’s back to 100 percent. “Whenever this thing lets me,” he said.
• Today’s sides: Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon, Pedro Feliciano, Mitchell and Phelps.
• Mariano Rivera will make his spring training debut this afternoon against the Twins. We’ll see a lot of the regular Yankees bullpen, with Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain and Dave Robertson also scheduled to pitch. None of the big league relievers is scheduled to make tomorrow’s trip to Fort Myers (except starter Sergio Mitre).
• Minor league utility man Justin Snyder is on the list of players making tomorrow’s trip to play the Red Sox. The Yankees are taking their regular outfielders, but none of the other everyday guys.
• Available in the bullpen today: Rivera, Soriano, Chamberlain, Robertson, Brackman, Romulo Sanchez, Steve Garrison, Ryan Pope, Eric Wordekemper and Dellin Betances. Everyone after Brackman seems to be a backup.
• Off the bench: C Gustavo Molina, 1B Eric Chavez, 2B Ronnie Belliard, SS Eduardo Nunez, 3B Kevin Russo, LF Melky Mesa, CF Austin Krum, RF Daniel Brewer and DH Kyle Higashioka.
• Tomorrow’s travelers today: Tomorrow the Yankees have their second long road trip in three days. They’ll travel to Fort Myers to play the Red Sox before an off day Tuesday. There will be a workout at the stadium in Tampa on Monday afternoon before the bus leaves.
Pitchers who will be making the trip: Sergio Mitre, Luis Ayala, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Steve Garrison, Ryan Pope, Mark Prior, Romulo Sanchez and Eric Wordekemper.
Players who will not be making the trip: Francisco Cervelli, Russell Martin, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, Eric Chavez, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Colin Curtis, Greg Golson and Andruw Jones.
All winter we heard about the Yankees young pitching talent, a series of arms that could help out sooner rather than later. A week and a half into spring training, manager Joe Girardi is sold on both the quantity and the quality.
“I’ve seen a lot of good things this spring, from a lot of the young kids as well,” he said. “I thought Phelps threw pretty well today. Warren. Brackman. All of these kids have thrown the ball extremely well at this point in camp. I’m happy. Very happy… We’ve talked about that we have pitching coming, and I really believe that.”
Today, Girardi was asked specifically quite a bit about Manny Banuelos, largely because Banuelos faced live hitters on the main field, with Girardi watching most of the BP session. Girardi said what he saw “matches up” with what he’d already heard about Banuelos. Right now, Girardi knows what he wants to see out of young pitchers, and Banuelos has shown it.
“Strikes, and good strikes,” Girardi said. “Not just strikes, but good strikes. If they throw a ball where they don’t want to, can they adjust quickly? Say he throws a curveball and leaves it way up, can they adjust and get it where (they want it)? What I’ve seen, he’s pretty good at it.”
That said, the plan remains the same. The Yankees are happy with their pitching depth, but they brought in some rotation options that might buy the kids a little more time to develop.
“You have to be open minded, you have to evaluate,” Girardi said. “But it’s not necessarily what you plan on going in.”
• More evidence that the Yankees take Bartolo Colon seriously as a rotation option: “He’s looked pretty good,” Girardi said. “It’s the Bartolo that I remember: A guy that keeps the ball down, uses his fastball a lot and is able to hit his spots.”
• New lefty Pedro Feliciano is used to pitching 85 to 90 times each year. Last year, no Yankees reliever made more than 73 appearances. Boone Logan, Damaso Marte and Royce Ring combined for fewer appearances than Feliciano made last season. “I talked to him about the way we do things here,” Girardi said. “That I’m not a big proponent of throwing guys three days in a row, so don’t be surprised if I do some things different. He’s important to our bullpen. We have to keep him healthy all year long.”
• Eduardo Nunez and Austin Romine were sent home sick today. “It’s the head cold and the throat,” Girardi said. “We gave them medicine and sent them home. We felt that was the best thing to do.”
• With Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez and Ronnie Belliard, the Yankees have given themselves some options for veteran experience on the bench. And not just experience, but guys who were very good everyday players before settling into supporting roles. “I think it’s great, because you know they know how to play the game,” Girardi said. “You know that situations when they get in that day to play, there’s not going to be an extreme emotional high. They’re going to prepare the way they’ve always prepared. They know the league, they know the ballparks and they know what it takes to be successful.”
• On the other hand, the Yankees have taken notice of Brandon Laird: “He’s obviously proven that he knows how to drive in a run, he knows how to put good at-bats together when guys are on base,” Girardi said. “He’s a guy that you might think about (on the roster).”
• Speaking of which… Charging choppers at third base this morning, Laird might a nice play on a short hop at the edge of the grass. Minor league defensive coordinator Torre Tyson, who was doing the hitting for the defensive drill, said, “You couldn’t get there two years ago.” Laird agreed, said he had no shot at making that play two years ago. He looks pretty good at third these days. Not implying he’s a defensive wizard, but I haven’t seen anything to make me think Laird can’t play the position.
• Didn’t see anything particularly out of the ordinary about defensive positioning during drills today. Ronnie Belliard continued to take some reps at first base, and I did see Brad Suttle go to first base for a while.
• Dave Robertson was the only pitcher I saw throw his batting practice without a protective screen in front of him. Some pitchers just hate having the thing in front of them and feel like it actually causes them to mess with their mechanics (they feel like their arm or the ball is going to hit the screen). Robertson pitched without it, and as soon as he was done, the screen was put back in place for Ivan Nova.
• Didn’t seem serious, but Colin Curtis fouled a ball off his calf and crashed to the dirt. He was hobbling around for a while, and got some ice for it, but he should be fine.
• Here’s a must-read Times piece about the relationship between Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry. Four years ago, during my first spring training covering the Yankees organization, Berra was the very first person I saw when I first walked into the Yankees clubhouse.
Associated Press photos: Girardi surrounded by players; Berra with Derek Jeter; Alex Rodriguez laughing during drills
The Yankees spring training clubhouse is pretty full as it is, but Brian Cashman said he wouldn’t mind finding room for one more. He’s still on the lookout for a starting pitcher, either through free agency or the trade market.
“If it makes sense, I’m ready to rock and roll,” Cashman said.
As it is, the left side of the Yankees clubhouse is full of fourth and fifth starter candidates. Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova have lockers right next to one another. Five lockers away, in his same spot as last year, is Sergio Mitre.
The younger candidates — D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps and the rest of the young guys — are in the middle-of-the-room lockers usually assigned to minor leaguers and the more borderline big-league candidates. The fact Nova is with the veterans, in the same row as CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, is a pretty clear indication that he’s a step ahead of the other guys who were in the minor league system last year.
“The chances that the fourth and fifth starter role will be answered sooner than later are not very good,” Joe Girardi said. “I think we’ll spend all spring evaluating everybody in our camp. You’re going to look at Nova, and Garcia (and) Colon and Sergio, and some of the young kids that are coming up… You want to see, as they develop in spring training and they get strong, who we feel has the best chance of helping us during the course of the season. So, basically, we have an open competition until March 30.”
• I doubt there’s anything to read into this, but Girardi mentioned three young starters by name: David Phelps, Adam Warren and Dellin Betances. Again, I’m sure those are just the first three names that jumped into his head, but they were specifically mentioned.
• Speaking of Betances, he said he’s been in Tampa since January. And I’ll say this again, he’s a bigger guy than I ever expected. I knew he was tall, but he’s no scrawny kid. There’s some strength to that guy.
• The Yankees expect Russell Martin’s hip and knee to be just fine, but they won’t push him in spring training. “You’ll see him catching tomorrow,” Girardi said. “It’s not like he’s not going to catch at all, but we’ll take it a little bit slow.”
• Girardi acknowledged that Brett Gardner was playing through fairly steady wrist problems in the second half of last season. “I know it bothered him a lot last year,” Girardi said. “We would talk about it every day, ‘How are you feeling?’”
• I didn’t see Jorge Posada this morning, but Girardi said Posada will do work as a catcher this spring. “We’re going to see Jorge go through some of this catching in spring training,” Girardi said. “I can’t tell you if he’s going to catch in games right now. I’m physically going to watch him and evaluate how he feels. But as you know, we asked him to prepare as if he was going to catch.”
• Girardi on how Rafael Soriano might react to becoming a setup man after a great season as a closer. “I know Rafael looks up to Mariano, and he talks about how he watches what he does, so I’m sure that will be a joy a little bit,” Girardi said. “A lot of times that depends on your ego, how easy it is to go from being a closer to not being a closer and being the setup. He seems that he’s excited about being here. He’s excited about doing his job, and he wants to do whatever it takes to win a championship.”
• No innings limits for either Phil Hughes or Ivan Nova. “Right now I don’t have any innings limitations for anyone,” Girardi said. “It’s kind of nice.”
• Speaking of pitching limits, Girardi said CC Sabathia’s offseason surgery shouldn’t impact his workload this season. “I’m pretty much going to manage CC the same,” Girardi said.
• Sabathia said he expects to be one of the guys who throws 20 to 25 pitches in the bullpen tomorrow.
• For the first time, David Wells is in camp as a spring training instructor. “Sometimes camp can get long,” Cashman said. “I think Boomer will keep it lively for us.”
• As you can tell by the picture, the Yankees did a few light drills today. That’s an AP shot of Jesus Montero. Brett Gardner was also in and out of the clubhouse briefly, and he did some light throwing in the outfield with a player I didn’t recognize from far away. Sergio Mitre threw a little bit off flat ground. Curtis Granderson was there at one point.
Associated Press photos
Derek Jeter and A.J. Burnett need to bounce back. Phil Hughes and Brett Gardner need to keep moving forward. CC Sabathia needs to stay healthy, Mariano Rivera needs to keep defying father time and the Yankees need to find a couple of starting pitchers from a pile of unknowns.
The spring performance of Daniel Brewer is nowhere near the list of Yankees concerns this spring. I get that.
But I can’t help myself.
I’ve always liked seeing players who were fighting to get themselves on the radar. Even if they’re fighting for nothing more than the last spot on the bench or a role in the September bullpen, the non-roster invites are an interesting lot. You might forget about them completely by this time next year, but right now, you just never know.
Eric Chavez and Mark Prior
Just trying to stay healthy
Of all the veterans invited to big league camp, it’s rotation candidates Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia who have the most important challenge ahead of them. But the most intriguing challenge might belong to Chavez and Prior, once very good big leaguers whose careers were torn apart by injuries. It’s impossible to ignore these two, even if they are fighting for bit roles on the bench and in the bullpen.
A rising star
Manny Banuelos is generally considered a Top 50 minor league talent. David Phelps and D.J. Mitchell finished last season in Triple-A. It’s natural that those non-roster invites would generate some attention. What’s surprised me this offseason is how often Warren’s name has been mentioned. Not that I doubt his talent — the numbers paint a pretty compelling picture — but Warren has only 10 games of Double-A experience. Is that really enough to put himself in the mix for a big league spot?
A hitter who can catch, or a catcher who can hit?
It’s kind of ridiculous to include Montero on this list because everyone is going to be paying attention to him. He had a very real chance to be the Yankees Opening Day catcher until Russell Martin signed this winter. Instead, he’s coming to camp as something of a long shot — Francisco Cervelli probably has a leg up on the backup role — but Montero will have a chance to force the Yankees hand and convince them that another year in Triple-A would be a waste of time. It’s impossible to ignore huge talent that’s knocking on the door, and Montero might knock that door of its hinges.
Outfielder turned reliever
What’s not to like about this story? Once considered among the top center field prospects in baseball, Anderson got some time in the big leagues, couldn’t hit, and moved to the mound for the first time since high school. Now he’s trying to establish himself all over again. I have no idea whether it will work, but it will be interesting to see him try. Plus, the guy is one of Shelley Duncan’s good friends. What’s not to like?
A prospect on the verge
Brewer reminds me a little bit of what Colin Curtis was last spring: Not on the 40-man, and not a big-name prospect, but a guy who does enough things well that he couldn’t play himself into a big league role at some point this season. Working against Brewer is the fact the 40-man is loaded with similar outfield options — Curtis, Justin Maxwell and Greg Golson — but if Brewer builds on last season and one of those three takes a step back, the Yankees could have another outfielder to consider if/when a mid-season hole presents itself.
Jorge Vazquez — The power is real. Is everything else ready for the big leagues?
Manny Banuelos — Youngest guy in camp, and arguably the best young arm in the system.
Neal Cotts and Andy Sisco — They’ve been to the big leagues before, and lefties always have a chance to open some eyes and get another shot.
Austin Romine — How would you feel if you were one of the 10 best catching prospects in baseball and were still completely overshadowed in your own organization?
Doug Bernier — He hit .181 in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre two years ago and the Yankees still brought him back. Tells you how good he is with the glove.
Just arrived in Tampa, having discovering this morning that it’s now possible to buy bottles of Honest Tea in the Delta terminal of LaGuardia. That’s going to make my summer just a little bit better.
The bulk of the beat writers began arriving yesterday, and a few more will get to town this weekend. Meanwhile, more and more of the people you really care about — the actual Yankees themselves — have been arriving at the team’s minor league complex.
A few Twitter highlights from today…
• Eric Chavez was among the new arrivals. He said he’s been healthy all winter, and he has a “new heartbeat” with the Yankees. By the way, I blatantly stole this Chavez picture from Bryan Hoch. Let’s all say thank you by following him on Twitter.
• Worth mentioning that Chavez did some work at third base. Given his history as a Gold Glover, I doubt the Yankees are especially worried about his defense, but I guess you never know when a guy has missed as much time as Chavez missed the past three years. I’m sure he’s just taking grounders as a matter of course.
• Also new to the scene, and apparently healthy: Minor league signee Mark Prior.
• Prospects Dellin Betances and Adam Warren were among the pitchers throwing bullpen sessions this morning.
• Lefty Neal Cotts, signed to a minor league deal this winter, also threw a bullpen.
• Other position players at the complex today: Curtis Granderson, Russell Martin, Francisco Cervelli, Colin Curtis and Jesus Montero. I’m sure there were others, but those were mentioned by name on Twitter.
• Other pitchers at the complex: Andrew Brackman, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes. Again, I’m sure there were plenty of others, but those were mentioned specifically by the reporters who beat me to Florida.
Spring decision: Back of the rotation • 02.07.11
For the week leading up to spring training, I thought we’d take a daily look at some of the decisions the Yankees have to make before Opening Day. No sense starting with anything but the most obvious decision of all.
Think back. You might remember hearing something this winter about Cliff Lee going to Philadelphia, Andy Pettitte staying home in Texas and the Yankees sorting through the scraps of the free agent starting pitcher market. It was the biggest Yankees story of the offseason, an on-going saga that won’t be settled until a five-man rotation finally comes together this spring (and one that might not be settled — one way or another — until mid-season). For now the Yankees have three starters in place, and two spots up for grabs.
Assuming no late-minute trades or additions, the Yankees have four prominent candidates for two spots: Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Both Garcia and Colon are in camp on minor league deals, while the rookie Nova is actually coming to camp as an incumbent and a favorite. The Yankees could also look deeper in the farm system, giving prospects like David Phelps, Hector Noesi and Adam Warren a chance to impress.
The easy choice
Last season, Nova showed promise in New York and Garcia was reasonably productive in Chicago. Heading into spring training, they seem to be the front-runners for the fourth and fifth spots. Mitre, though, is even further removed from Tommy John surgery and got some spot starts last season. From the outside — my opinion anyway — he seems more likely to end up back in the bullpen, but Joe Girardi seems to like him, and Mitre is probably a legitimate candidate. He could certainly pitch his way into the rotation.
Colon is a complete wild card here. He hasn’t pitched a full big league season since he won the Cy Young back in 2005. He didn’t pitch at all last year, and it’s hard to believe he has much left, but the Yankees were impressed in winter ball, so he’ll get a look. More intriguing options come from the minor league system where the Yankees have considerable pitching depth.
Noesi, Phelps and D.J. Mitchell each finished last season in Triple-A. It’s impossible to count out any of those three. Andrew Brackman also took considerable steps forward in Double-A last year, but it’s Warren who’s name is brought up surprisingly often. A fourth-round pick in 2009, Warren made just 10 Double-A starts last year, but he was impressive, and his name seems to always come up in interviews with Girardi and Brian Cashman. He seems like a long shot, but one that might get a long look.
A separate but related issue
It’s a minor issue — one that will hardly matter by the second week of the season — but the Yankees have a decide how to line up the top of the rotation. CC Sabathia will obviously start on Opening Day, but who gets Game 2? Should the Yankees show A.J. Burnett that they still have confidence in him, or should they acknowledge that Phil Hughes seems to be the more reliable option at this point? Hughes and Burnett will be the Nos. 2 and 3, but who gets which number is a matter of opinion.
Associated Press photos of Nova and Garcia
Good stuff from today’s Michael Kay Show, where Brian Cashman went on the air to address any number of Yankees offseason topics. Of course Cashman talked about this morning’s Derek Jeter comments, but far more time was spent discussing Andy Pettitte’s ongoing retirement decision.
Cashman said he’s been in constant contact with Pettitte, including a phone call today.
“He’s not hurting us, he can only help,” Cashman said. “If not, we will find something to make us better. That’s the job. It’s going to take longer than everyone will like… Because of the available situation in front of us right now, patience is required.”
Given the current free agent market, Cashman said Pettitte’s indecision is not preventing the Yankees from making any sort of move. Cashman has told Pettitte that he doesn’t want the lefty to come back because of pressure from teammates or because of desperation from the fans. He only wants Pettitte back if he’s 100 percent committed to coming back.
“His heart’s got to be in it,” Cashman said.
• If you don’t listen to the entire Cashman interview, at the very least I highly recommend the part around the 20-minute mark when Cashman addressed his comments at the Rafael Soriano press conference. Cashman said he felt the need to acknowledge that he wasn’t onboard with the signing because he had previously told agents, GMs and the media that he didn’t want to spend that much money for a setup man. He needed all of those parties to know that he wasn’t lying. “You have to have credibility,” Cashman said.
• Along the same lines, Cashman said he and Hal Steinbrenner talked before the Soriano press conference, and Steinbrenner knew Cashman planned to make his feelings public. No one was blindsided. “It was not the first time I was overruled,” Cashman said. “And it won’t be the last”
• Cashman also addressed the speculation that he might be unhappy with the Yankees, wanting to prove himself with a smaller market club. “I think all things are pretty good (with the Yankees), and I’m proud to be a part of that,” Cashman said. “So why would I want to jump ship and run somewhere else?”
• Cashman said he’s proud of the fact he’s transitioned the franchise away from being strictly a “checkbook” organization, working to both buy the right pieces and build the right prospects. He called the amateur draft, “the most important day of the year.”
• The final word on the Derek Jeter position change situation: “We have no intention of moving Derek at this point. We’re not talking about moving Derek at this point.”
• Will Jeter stay at shortstop throughout this contract? “It’s hard to say,” Cashman said.
• On Joba Chamberlain: “The stuff as a starter has been watered down. I think we’ve seen enough of a sample.”
• Had the Yankees signed both Cliff Lee and Pettitte, Ivan Nova would likely have opened the season as a long man in the bullpen.
• Cashman indicated that in-house young pitchers could compete for the fifth starter spot in spring training. He specifically mentioned Adam Warren and David Phelps, saying they could be, “Nova or better.”
Associated Press photos
There is perhaps no higher commodity in baseball than a young starting pitcher. As the Yankees have discovered this winter, finding a reliable starter on the trade market is difficult and costly, and the free agent market is no sure thing. The bad news for the Yankees is that the back of their big league rotation is still unsettled. The good news is that there are a lot of legitimate pitching prospects nearly ready for the show.
In the big leagues
The Yankees have their ace in CC Sabathia. They have their young gun in Phil Hughes. They have their erratic talent in A.J. Burnett. Beyond that, the Yankees have high-hopes for Ivan Nova and a whole lot of praying for rain. For now, Sergio Mitre seems to be the top in-house option to round out the rotation, but that will almost certainly change — in one way or another — between now and spring training. There is still hope that Andy Pettitte will come back, and if he doesn’t, the free agent market still offers a handful of risk-reward pitchers coming back from injury, plus a few veterans looking for some sort of resurgence. The Yankees top pitching target went elsewhere, and now they’ll have to build a rotation with the pieces that are left.
On the verge
At this point, Nova seems nearly locked into a big league rotation spot, but the Triple-A rotation could still have five legitimate prospects, headlined by Hector Noesi and Andrew Brackman, each of whom is on the 40-man, possibly leaving them in line for early promotions should the Yankees need an additional starter. D.J. Mitchell and David Phelps are also in line to open in Triple-A after finishing last season at that level. Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos — considered, along with Brackman, to be the top pitching prospects in the system, affectionately known as the Killer Bs — will likely return to Double-A, but they could move quickly.
Adam Warren, Gordon Stoneburner and Shaeffer Hall are also legitimate rotation prospects who would be far more prominent in most systems but fall somewhat into the shadows because of the Yankees upper-level depth. Warren in the most advanced of those three, having made 10 Double-A starts, but Stoneburner might be generating the most buzz after a 2.41 ERA between Low-A and High-A last season. Hall is a lefty out of Florida State, and the Yankees are willing to push him aggressively.
Deep in the system
The bulk of the Yankees rotation prospects are actually in the upper levels of the system, having already cleared several minor league hurdles. That’s one of the most impressive things about the system as a whole. In the lowest levels, there are three names that stand out: Brett Marshall, Jose Ramirez and Bryan Mitchell. Back from Tommy John surgery, Marshall had a 2.50 ERA and a .199 opponents batting average in Charleston last season. Ramirez put himself firmly on the map in 2009 with a terrific first season in the States. He followed that with a 3.60 ERA and 105 strikeouts last season in Charleston. Mitchell is the youngest of this trio, and he pitched well in the short-season leagues in his first taste of pro ball. He was a 16th-round pick in 2009, falling only because of signability issues. He’s considered a front-line talent.
As a rule, I’m hesitant to get too caught up in players at the Class A level — pitchers especially — because they have so far to go, but those three standout as names to know and follow right now. Other names to keep tucked away: Jairo Heredia (talent slowed by health and conditioning issues), Gabe Encinas (the top starter taken in last year’s draft) and Sean Black (seventh-round pick in ’09 had a 3.88 ERA in Charleston and made two Tampa starts last season).
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and a free agent
Scranton/WB: Hector Noesi, Andrew Brackman, David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell and Lance Pendleton
Trenton: Adam Warren, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Graham Stoneburner, Shaeffer Hall
Tampa: Jose Ramirez, Brett Marshall, Sean Black, Jairo Heredia, Josh Romanski
Charleston: Bryan Mitchell, Shane Greene, Michael O’Brien, Nik Turley, Zachary Varce
Even this late into the offseason, the big league rotation remains a work in progress. As for who gets the first call beyond those top five, that’s also up in the air. There should be enough talent in Scranton to build a legitimate competition for any spot-starter needs that pop up during the season.
For now, I’ve projected a Scranton rotation that includes Pendleton, a Rule 5 pick currently hoping to win a spot in the Astros rotation. Minor league signee Andy Sisco could also work as a Triple-A starter, as could Kei Igawa if necessary. When he’s ready to come back from surgery, Jeremy Bleich could rejoin the Trenton rotation. He made eight starts there last season. Craig Heyer, who was sent to the Arizona Fall League and has worked as both a starter and reliever, could fit into the Trenton rotation at some point, especially if Pendleton sticks with Houston. As for the lower levels, those rotations are more difficult for me to predict, and some of those assignments might be based on what these pitches show in spring training.
Associated Press photo of Hughes, headshots of Sabathia, Brackman and Marshall