The LoHud Yankees Blog

A New York Yankees blog by Chad Jennings and the staff of The Journal News


Several Yankees land on Baseball America prospect lists10.16.14

The good people over at Baseball America — including our old friend Josh Norris — have completed their Top 20 prospect lists for each league. The lists are free, but the scouting reports are behind a worthwhile pay wall. Along with each detailed list, Baseball America also shows it’s Top 20 lists for each league from five years ago. It’s a nice bit of perspective on what might (or might not) happen down the road. Here are the Yankees prospects who made Baseball America’s cut.

Refsnyder (2)International League
13. Rob Refsnyder, 2B
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre roster had a lot of young, in-house players this season — of the 13 players with 200 at-bats, nine were homegrown — but it didn’t have many of the organization’s high-end prospects. Refsnyder was the biggest exception, and he made Baseball America’s cut. Since the scouting reports are behind a pay wall, I’m not going to give many details, but there are no real surprises in the BA write-up about Refsnyder. He’s a work-in-progress at second base, but he can hit.
Five years ago: Interestingly, the No. 13 IL prospect five years ago was Jose Tabata. At the time he was in Triple-A with the Pirates, but he’d spent most of his developmental years with the Yankees. He’s developed into a useful but not great big leaguer.

Off the list: Although they’re promising young starters, neither Shane Greene nor Bryan Mitchell has ever gotten much prospect hype beyond the hope and expectations of those inside the Yankees organization. Neither made Baseball America’s IL list (to be fair, Greene was actually better in the big leagues than in the minors this season). Jose Pirela, Ramon Flores, Kyle Roller and John Ryan Murphy were also left off. Again, no surprises there.

SanchezEastern League
11. Gary Sanchez, C
Considering how much attention his bat gets, it’s easy to be underwhelmed by Sanchez’s .270/.338/.406 slash line in Double-A this year. It’s also easy to be concerned with the fact he was benched for disciplinary reasons mid-season. The Yankees, though, will point out that at 21 years old, Sanchez is still maturing as a person and as a player. BA’s ranking reflects that. Big hitting potential, strong arm, questions about makeup and receiving ability.
Five years ago: The Eastern League’s 11th-best prospect five years ago, according to Baseball America, was right-handed pitcher Hector Rondon. Converted to the bullpen, he had a great year as the Cubs closer this season. If Sanchez becomes the catching version of a good young closer, that’s a big win for the Yankees.

13. Rob Refsnyder, 2B
Funny that he fell at the exact same spot for each league in which he qualified. Refsnyder was a monster during his relatively brief stint in the Eastern League. Again, there’s little mystery in a scouting report. Refsnyder can hit. He’s still learning to play second.
Five years ago: No. 13 on this list in 2009 was Mets first baseman Ike Davis. A year later he was in the big leagues and looked like a pretty good player. Today he’s been traded away and looks like he might not have enough bat for his position.

Off the list: Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott have lost their grip on lists like this one. A half season of production from Tyler Austin wasn’t enough to make the cut, and it seems the jury is still out on whether Manny Banuelos can regain his old traction and his former ceiling. A lot of interesting players in Trenton this year, just not very many reliable ones.

JudgeFlorida State League
15. Aaron Judge, RF
Top position prospect in the Yankees system is surely a debate between Judge and Sanchez. Both generate raves for their offensive power potential, and in his pro debut, Judge seemed to impress everyone with his patience and command of the strike zone. He also seems to have the range and plenty of arm strength to stick in right field without a need to move to first base or designated hitter. It’s been only one year, but Judge has earned the attention.
Five years ago: A Twins right-hander named David Bromberg ranked 15th on Baseball America’s FSL list five years ago. He’d been excellent that season, and he got to Triple-A the next year, but he has yet to make his major-league debut. The lesson: A lot can happen between High-A and the big leagues.

Off the list: Don’t want to reveal too much about the scouting reports, but in writing about Judge, BA did note that his fellow 2013 draftee Eric Jagielo also “had supporters among league observers.” Greg Bird is also a name that was worth consideration for this list. Jake Cave probably doesn’t have the perceived ceiling for a list like this, and Luis Severino wasn’t in the league long enough to qualify.

SeverinoSouth Atlantic League
4. Luis Severino, RHP
Baseball America noted that it was basically a toss-up between Severino and Reynaldo Lopez for the second-best pitching prospect in the league (former 16th-overall draft pick Lucas Giolito was at the top of BA’s list). Severino began to make a name for himself last year, and this was the year he really emerged as one of the better pitching prospects in baseball. The Yankees have even left open the possibility of Severino pitching his way to New York as early as next season. The kid is really, really good.
Five years ago: A’s catcher Derek Norris ranked fourth on BA’s Sally list in 2009, and he’s become a pretty good big league regular. It’s worth noting that, at the time, Norris ranked between a pair of Rays prospects: pitcher Matt Moore and shortstop Tim Beckham. Hard to peg guys when they’re this young.

8. Aaron Judge, RF
Ranks a little higher on the Low-A list than the did on the High-A list, but the scouting reports read about the same: Lots of tools, good approach, enough defense for right field. Baseball America does note that Judge was expected to take advantage of inexperienced Low-A pitchers and did exactly that.
Five years ago: Back in 2009 the eighth name on this list was a White Sox outfielder named Jared Mitchell, a first-round pick who was hurt the next year and still hasn’t reached the big leagues. He did do a nice job getting on base in Double-A and Triple-A this year, though. Was a huge White Sox prospect when he was younger. No. 9 five years ago was Manny Banuelos.

15. Ian Clarkin, LHP
As I’ve said, I don’t want to give away much of these scouting reports, but I will note that Baseball America gave Clarkin credit for being one of the “safer bets” among South Atlantic League pitchers. They go into detail about his stuff and mechanics, all of which would be welcome words for the Yankees. Clarkin is fully healthy and ready to roll after missing some early time because of injuries. He was another first-rounder in 2013 along with Judge and Jagielo. Still very young.
Five years ago: Here’s the risk of getting too excited about a young prospect, especially a pitcher: Five years ago, Baseball America had a college draftee named Dexter Carter in this spot on the SAL list. He never made it out of A ball and wound up released before the 2012 season.

Off the list: A lot of sleeper-type prospects hanging around that Charleston roster this season. Shortstops Tyler Wade and Abiatal Avelino, third baseman Miguel Andujar, and underperfoming second baseman Gosuke Katoh. There’s also a pitcher named Brady Lail who the Yankees like, but who’s not likely to land on a list like this one.

TorrensNew York-Penn League
4. Luis Torrens, C
An 18-year-old out of Venezuela, Torrens was extremely young for this level (Baseball American notes that he was the youngest player in the league this year), and he generates raves for his defensive work. He has a huge arm, he’s apparently has an advanced feel for catching, and there’s promise in the bat. Last month, Mark Newman noted that there are those who believe Torrens will ultimately be the best everyday catcher in the Yankees farm system — and that’s a deep position — but he’s too young to think of him as a remotely finished product. A ton of promise, and a lot of good stuff in place already, just needs time and patience.
Five years ago: A pretty good cautionary tale, five years ago it was another young catcher named Sebastian Valle who ranked fourth on Baseball America’s list of NYP-League prospects. He was also a teenager — more bat than glove — and the Phillies liked him, but his bat has diminished considerably and Valle has yet to reach the big leagues. Not even on the 40-man. Adam Warren ranked 12th on this list five years ago.

Off the list: In a chat, Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt mentioned that no other Yankees were particularly close to making the New York-Penn list — though he did go into specifics about quite a few other Yankees prospects, so check that out — but it’s worth wondering if Ty Hensley might have pitched his way into the mix had he thrown enough innings to qualify. He was awfully good in a small sample size.

Gulf Coast League
4. Jorge Mateo, SS
The Yankees love this kid. Incredible amount of speed, there’s a belief that he’ll be perfectly fine staying at shortstop, and he has real tools pretty much across the board. This was an international investment back in 2012, and Mateo is quickly becoming one of the real high-ceiling prospects in the system. A long way to go, but Mateo has real high-end potential. He’s 19 years old and has a chance to be — eventually — the shortstop of the future.
Five years ago: This is a promising comparison. Rookie-level kids are hard to predict, but five years ago, Baseball America ranked a fairly raw but talented pitcher name Jarred Cosart as the fourth-best prospect in the GCL. He’s since emerged as a good young starting pitcher, first with Houston and now with Miami. Hard to bank on kids this young, but some of them clear all the hurdles. Yankees are hoping that’s the case with Mateo.

15. Angel Aguilar, SS
What is it with the Yankees landing at No. 4 and No. 15 on these lists? Weird. But the addition of Aguilar actually fits well with the Yankees minor league system because the team has really built a lot of low-level depth at shortstop. They’ve focused on the position with a flurry of recent international signings. Aguilar signed in 2012 and hit .311/.373/.536 in his first season playing in the United States. Intriguing bat for a guy who seems to have a chance to stick at shortstop.
Five years ago: Would it mean anything to you to find out that the 15th player on the GCL list five years ago was a guy named Brooks Pounders? He was a second-round pick out of high school and now has fewer than 20 starts above Class A. Incredible amount of uncertainty with rookie ball players.

Off the list: Extremely young even for rookie ball, center fielder Leonardo Molina put up ugly GCL number this year but could get another shot next year (when he’ll still be young for the level). The Yankees like him, but recognize that he was probably pushed over his head this season. Third-rounder Austin DeCarr had a promising stint in the GCL but didn’t make Baseball America’s cut.

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Minor league notes: Adams gets first start at first05.06.13

Adams

Here’s an interesting lineup note: Tonight’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre infield has Ronnier Mustelier at third, Corban Joseph at second and David Adams at first.

We’ve already seen the Yankees send Joseph to first base a few times this season. Now Adams is getting a turn, and as far as I can tell, it’s his first time ever playing the position.

As for what to read into that…

Given the current first base situation in New York, where Lyle Overbay has no real backup, it makes sense to have two pretty solid utility-types learn the position. But it’s also worth noting, that while Joseph and Adams are pretty good offensive infielders, neither one stands out as a first-base type bat. Learning first base in order to play it in a pinch makes sense, but it’s hard to imagine either one being truly converted to the position.

Another thing to consider is that it makes sense to use first base almost like a second DH. The Yankees want to give Adams some time at second base, and when that happens, they can keep Joseph in the lineup by playing him at first. They also want to give Mustelier some time at third, and when that happens, they can move Adams to first. First base could be little more than a way for these guys to get at-bats.

More playing time, with a little extra defensive flexibility? Why not?

Almonte• This morning, Zoilo Almonte was named International League Player of the Week. He had a hit in all eight RailRiders games, batting .355 with two home runs and a league-best seven RBI. His season slash line is pretty terrific — .293/.393/.455 — but the problem with Almonte, from the Yankees perspective, is that he’s a switch hitter who’s much better from the left side. He’s hitting .299/.400/.494 against righties, but .273/.370/.318 against lefties. He has 10 extra-base hits this season, only one of them against a left-hander. The Yankees would have far more use for Almonte from the right side.

Chien-Ming Wang is making another Triple-A start tonight. Wang’s numbers are terrific — 0.95 ERA through three starts — but Brian Cashman said last week that the Yankees want Wang to be more effective with his offspeed stuff. He still has the sinker, but it doesn’t have the same velocity that he had when he was a 19-game winner. The Yankees believe he’ll need to use his secondary stuff to have success with the current fastball.

• If this Eduardo Nunez rib cage injury is a real issue that requires a DL stint, who would the Yankees bring up? Gil Velazquez is a steady veteran, but he’s hitting .197 with no extra-base hits in Triple-A. Addison Maruszak is less proven defensively, but he has a .390 Triple-A on-base percentage and can play basically any position except pitcher. The bigger issue might be this: There’s not another shortstop on the 40-man roster. If the Yankees had to make a call-up, it might make more sense to recall Joseph and simply consider Chris Nelson the emergency shortstop for a couple of weeks.

• This really has little impact on the big league roster, but it seems like a real issue for the Triple-A team: Cody Johnson, Dan Johnson and Luke Murton have combined for three home runs for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Dan Johnson has always raked at that level, and both Murton and Cody Johnson have — at the very least — shown legitimate power in Double-A. I have to imagine that the Yankees expected their Triple-A roster to get a power boost from at least one of those three.

Murphy• Down in Double-A, Slade Heathcott is hitting just .198/.276/.291, Tyler Austin is slugging just .394 — granted, his on-base percentage is also .394 — and Ramon Flores recently hit a cold spell that’s dropped his batting average from .333 to .263 in a span of two weeks. So who’s the prospect standout in Trenton? It has to be catcher J.R. Murphy who’s hitting .309/.408/.543 with more walks than strikeouts.

• It’s worth noting that Rob Segedin was also putting up terrific Double-A numbers — .338/.390/.606 with 10 doubles — before landing on the disabled list with a hip injury. The down side: He’d also made nine errors at third base, the most errors of anyone in the system.

• After making a huge impression in spring training, Jose Ramirez was kept back in extended spring for a few weeks before finally making his regular season debut with four scoreless innings on April 26. He then pitched five innings with one hit and one unearned run on Wednesday. He’s scheduled to make his third appearance tomorrow. So far, he has 12 strikeouts and two walks through nine innings.

Francisco Rondon as a starter this season: 7.16 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 22 strikeouts and 17 walks through 27.2 innings. Wonder how long this experiment will continue if the numbers don’t improve drastically.

Refsnyder• Most eye-opening offensive stats in the Yankees organization? Has to be Rob Refsnyder. An NCAA standout at Arizona, Refsnyder is moving from the outfield back to second base — where he played in high school and, I believe, early in college — and his 11 errors show that there’s a bit of a learning curve. But the bat… my goodness. Refsnyder has already been promoted from Low-A to High-A, and between the two stops he’s hitting a combined .374/.486/.504 with more walks than strikeouts and 12 stolen bases without being caught. His numbers have actually been better since the promotion. He’s played 16 High-A games, and he’s had multiple hits in eight of them. Crazy.

• Yonkers native Dan Fiorito — signed last year out of Manhattanville after impressing the Yankees during a workout for non-drafted players — was sent to Tampa on April 22 to help out at shortstop. He’s basically become the everyday guy hitting .400/.478/.425 through 40 at-bats. He’s not a name on the prospect radar, but because of where he’s from I know him a little and was actually paying attention to him every time I was at the minor league complex this spring. He really, really stood out as a guy who seemed willing and able to lead. Heard him talking to teammates a lot between innings. A lot of “Let’s go, we can do this” kind of stuff. It stood out considering it was coming from a guy who’d never been in spring training and didn’t have the draft pedigree of most of the guys around him. Not saying he’s a future Jeter, just something that caught my attention.

• Back-to-back two-hit games by Gary Sanchez and his slash line is back up to .269/.355/.472 with five home runs, most of anyone in the system.

• Big strikeout numbers from Tampa starters Corey Black (36 in 30.2 innings), Mikey O’Brien (34 in 26.2 innings) and Shane Greene (33 in 36.1 innings) but the Tampa starter with the lowest ERA and lost opponents batting average is Bryan Mitchell with a 3.06 ERA and .235 opponents average. His down side has been the 18 walks. Lowest WHIP in that Tampa rotation belongs to the other starter, Scottie Allen, at 1.19. Pretty decent young arms in that group.

Bird• We head all the way down to Charleston to find the organizational leader in walks. Low-A first baseman Greg Bird has 25 walks, good for a .425 on-base percentage. He slugged .494 in limited at-bats last season, but that power hasn’t shown up so far this season (only a .364 slugging percentage with one homer) but obviously the approach is encouraging for a 20-year-old.

• Less encouraging are the numbers for Low-A third baseman Dante Bichette Jr., who’s still trying to recapture his standout 2011 results. Sent to Charleston for a second season, Bichette is hitting just .186/.246/.265 with two homers, seven walks and 33 strikeouts. Speaking of repeating Low-A, shortstop Cito Culver has always been a glove-first player, but his .212/.305/.354 slash line is basically the same as last season except with a more power (Culver hit two homers last year, he’s already hit three this year).

• Want more good news in the Charleston lineup? Catcher Peter O’Brien has seven hits in his past three games and is hitting .313/.348/.563 for the year. He played in 21 games and has more than one hit in nine of them. He’s thrown out just over 25 percent of base stealers, which ranks him near the bottom of the South Atlantic League.

• Welcome to the U.S., Rafael De Paula. I was beginning to think he was more myth than man, but he’s finally pitching in the states and has an unreal 46 strikeouts through 27.1 innings with Charleston. Opponents are hitting .188 against him. That’s called living up to the hype, but Gabe Encinas is not sitting quietly in the shadows. Drafted in 2010, Encinas hasn’t put up particularly impressive numbers until this season. Through six starts he has a 0.84 ERA while holding opponents to a .175 average. His 28 strikeouts aren’t as impressive as De Paula’s massive number of Ks, but Encinas’ 1.05 WHIP is lower than De Paula’s 1.21.

Adams photo from my great friends at the Scranton Times-Tribune; headshots of Almonte, Murphy, Refsnyder and Bird

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Yankees put three on MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospects list01.30.13

How about some prospect talk at the end of another day that’s been almost all about A-Rod?

Last night on MLB Network, Jonathan Mayo and the crew at MLB.com counted down their Top 100 prospects in baseball. Three Yankees made the list: Gary Sanchez (36), Mason Williams (41) and Tyler Austin (75). The only player who I thought might make it but didn’t is Slade Heathcott, who will almost certainly shoot onto the list — probably pretty high on the list — if he has a full, healthy and productive season in Double-A.

What does a Top 100 list mean exactly? Not much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a decent snapshot of the way players are viewed. There’s more or less no difference between No. 36 and No. 41. It’s mostly just interesting to see which players rank at the very top and which ones make the list at all.

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Best case, worst case: Catcher01.28.13

This should be fun…

Best case scenario
The path is finally clear
The situation really needs no introduction. Jesus Montero is gone (you already knew that), Russell Martin is also gone (you knew that too), and the most proven catchers in the Yankees organization are a trio of long-time backups looking for an opportunity to finally get regular playing time (that too has been discussed a few times). There’s very little about the Yankees immediate catching situation that inspires confidence, but it certainly creates opportunity, and the best-case scenario is that Austin Romine takes that opportunity and runs with it.

Sure, there’s something to be said for one of Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart or Bobby Wilson proving the doubters wrong — it’s certainly a good scenario to have one of those three have an impact with the glove and hit a little better than expected — but the absolute best-case scenario is Romine establishing himself. Because he was overshadowed for so long, it’s easy to forget that Romine was a second-round pick who, before last year’s back injury, was considered one of the better catching prospects in the game. Two years ago, MLB.com ranked him ahead of Travis d’Arnaud. A healthy Romine — with a steady bat and a glove that lives up to recent Yankees hype — could be a young, cheap solution for this year and the immediate future.

And if we’re talking best-case scenario’s, Romine will have to take advantage of this window, because the Yankees highest hopes don’t leave much time before Gary Sanchez is ready. Still very much a work in progress, Sanchez’s bat has plenty of believers, but if he can show some maturity in the clubhouse and improvement behind the plate, he just might push himself among the very best prospects in the game. A good year at Double-A will suggest that Sanchez is transitioning from potential to performance, and it could put him on track to have a big league impact as early as the second half of 2014. Add in some Double-A improvement from J.R. Murphy, and the Yankees days of a glove-only catcher could be limited to this offseason only.

Worst-case scenario
Where have you gone Chad Moeller?
Stewart is a career .217/.281/.302 hitter in the big leagues. Cervelli hit .246/.341/.316 in Triple-A last season. Wilson has never started more than 58 games in a major league season. The worst-case scenario behind the plate is just as obvious as the opportunity that it provides: If no one steps up, the Yankees could have an offensive black hole at the position. Defensively, the in-house options provide at least some sense of stability – even in a worst-case scenario, the Yankees should be able to catch and throw behind the plate – but the low side of offensive possibilities is awfully low.

As for a prospect to fill the gap and provide a bat, the immediate option is Romine, with some outside chance of Murphy putting himself into the picture in the second half. But Romine’s back problems kept him sidelined almost all of last year, and back problems have a tendency to linger. If that injury lingers, and if Murphy fails to live up to his offensive potential – which is his prospect calling card – then the Yankees will have no catching prospects within two years of being big league ready.

Sanchez could push to be in New York within two years, but that’s a best-case scenario involving improvements behind the plate and continued development at the plate. In a worst-case scenario, Sanchez creates more doubt and less optimism about his ability to stick at catcher, which would be a significant blow to his prospect status and leave the organization in needing to commit resources – either on the free agent market or via trade – to find a catcher who can handle the job for the next several years.

Associated Press photos

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Monday notes from the minor league complex03.26.12

I doubt the Yankees would ever frame it this way, but essentially they have to decide whether Phil Hughes will be more like the 2010 version of himself or the 2011 version. So far, he’s very clearly looked more like 2010, and he’s been able to maintain that level of performance throughout the spring.

“The beginning of that year, you come in and that real-season adrenalin starts to kick in,” Hughes said. “Everything is a little bit better, a little bit crisper. I don’t think I’m pitching that well at this point, but that’s not to say that it can’t be there when April rolls around and we get things going. I feel like I’m close.”

Hughes’ fastball velocity has been fairly consistent this spring, and I talked to one scout today who said he wouldn’t be surprised to see it topping out a little higher a month or two into the season. He’s started throwing a harder, tigher curveball, and his changeup seems to be even better than it was in 2010. He’s walked two hitters all spring.

“I think he’s very close (to 2010) right now,” Francisco Cervelli said. “He’s got to keep working, because the season is long. He has to keep getting stronger.”

He looks strong right now, and if he keeps pitching at his 2010 level, I’ll be surprised if Hughes isn’t in the rotation come Opening Day.

• Cervelli threw out three base runners trying to steal and he hit a home run to tie the Hughes game in the fourth inning. Pretty good day for the only Yankees position player who had to work today.

• Hughes was pitching for the High-A team. The Low-A group was also in Tampa today. Triple-A and Double-A were on the road in Clearwater. The Low-A Charleston lineup is really, really impressive. Check it out at the bottom of this post.

• Andy Pettitte will throw his second batting practice tomorrow, but Larry Rothschild said he’s not sure what comes after that. He’s also not sure whether Pettitte will get in a game this spring, but he doesn’t seem to be ruling out the possibility.

• Joe Girardi was home visiting his ill father this morning but Rothschild, Rob Thomson, Billy Eppler and Brian Cashman were among the Yankees decision makers watching Hughes pitch.

• Center field prospect Mason Williams and catching prospect Gary Sanchez have been moved from the Tampa group to the Charleston group (which was expected). J.R. Murphy has been moved from Trenton to Tampa. Those assignments are more in keeping with where they’ll almost certainly open the regular season.

• Speaking of Sanchez, he and Tyler Austin hit back-to-back homers in the Low-A game today.

• I didn’t see it, but apparently Ravel Santana made his spring debut today. He’s back from a ankle injury.

• George King reported yesterday that the Phillies might be interested in Ramiro Pena to help them fill their sudden hole in the infield. Today I heard it’s true that the Phillies might have some interest, but only at a cheap price. They’re not willing to give up much. Today the Phillies signed Chin-lung Hu to give them some utility depth.

• Very good to see P.J. Pilittere this afternoon. The former Yankees minor league catcher is now a coach in the Yankees system. Very good guy. Could be a natural manager some day.

• Here are today’s lineups for Tampa and Charleston. This might be the actual Opening Day lineup for Charleston, and it’s loaded with legitimate prospects. Pretty impressive, actually.

TAMPA
Eduardo Sosa CF
Kelvin Castro 2B
Ramon Flores LF
Rob Segedin RF
Kyle Roller 1B
J.R. Murphy DH (went to catcher in the seventh)
Zach Wilson 3B (made a nice play in the field today)
Carmen Angelini SS
Francisco Cervelli C

CHARLESTON
Mason Williams CF
Ben Gamel LF
Dante Bichette 3B
Gary Sanchez C
Tyler Austin RF
Cito Culver SS
Angelo Gumbs 2B
Reymond Nunez 1B
Anderson Feliz DH

• Finally, I’ll be hosting a chat here on the blog at noon on Wednesday. Stop by if you can. I’m sure we’ll jump into the rotation decision and some of the guys who have made noise this spring.

Associated Press photos

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Yankees at the break: Catcher07.12.11

When the Yankees decided to move Jorge Posada to designated hitter, they had three choices: Give the job to one of their prospects, take a chance on Francisco Cervelli full time or sign a free agent. They decided to go after Russell Martin, and the results have been mixed.

First half
Through the first month, the Martin signing seemed inspired. Jesus Montero and Austin Romine had flopped in spring training, and Martin came roaring out of the gate with a .293 average and six home runs in April. He’s hit just .185 since then, but the pitching staff seems to love everything about him – his personality, his game calling, his ability to block A.J. Burnett’s curveballs – and it says a lot about the state of catching in the American League that Martin was voted to the all-star team on the players’ ballot. Good everyday catchers are hard to find, and Martin’s been better than most.

Second half
Even if he doesn’t hit, Martin has value for his ability to work with pitchers and play reliable defense behind the plate. Martin’s been banged up through much of the year, and the Yankees seem to think that might have contributed to his slumping offensive numbers. The Yankees also have Jesus Montero waiting in Triple-A. His power numbers aren’t nearly as good as everyone expected this season, but there still seems to be little doubt that he will be a middle-of-the-order hitter in the big leagues. If the Yankees decide Martin’s defense isn’t enough to make up for his offense, they could call up Montero.

The minors
Montero is the big name, and even without his usual power, he’s still be a pretty good hitter in Triple-A. A step below Montero, Austin Romine has pretty similar numbers in Double-A (he’s also hit for average, but not much power). All the way down in Charleston, the Yankees top lower-level prospect, Gary Sanchez, has gone through an inconsistent first full season in the minors. The organization’s breakout star behind the plate might be J.R. Murphy, who hit his way out of Charleston and is still waiting for his first Tampa home run.

One question
Are there enough at-bats for Montero off the bench?
The Yankees don’t have to pick one or the other. They could carry both Martin and Montero, but it only makes sense if they believe Montero would get enough at-bats while splitting time behind the plate. He’s certainly a better hitter than Cervelli, but the Yankees would have to be sold on Montero’s defense and they would have to make sure he got enough playing time – either at catcher or DH – to continue his development.

Beyond 2011
There are plenty of options here. Martin is still arbitration eligible, so the Yankees could easily bring him back next year. They could decide to give the position to Montero next year, or they could decide to dangle Montero as a potent trade chip. The Yankees are making decisions behind the plate for the first time in a long time, and it’s hard to know which direction they’ll go.

Associated Press photo

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Minor league notes: Whelan setting himself apart in Scranton06.06.11

Kevin Whelan opened this season as a rather forgettable part of a potentially memorable Triple-A pitching staff. Legitimate prospects filled the rotation, and the bullpen was dotted with returned Rule 5 picks and veterans with big league experience.

Then there was Whelan, the last remaining piece of the 2006 Gary Sheffield trade. He was a fallen prospect, a guy who always walked too many batters and finally reached a new low with a 6.02 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A last season.

Whelan’s been a completely different pitcher this year. As Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s closer, he’s cut down on the walks significantly. He has a 1.73 ERA, 17 saves, and he’s allowed just 17 hits and six walks through 26 innings. He’s struck out 28, and his 0.88 WHIP is the lowest on the team.

“It is the command, which translates to confidence,” pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras said in an email.

Contraras was the second person I talked to who mentioned confidence when explaining Whelan’s sudden improvement. He’s always had a good fastball and a big splitfinger — and he’s had some real success from time to time — but it seems that things are just now coming together. If the Yankees find an opening for a one-inning guy, Whelan would surely be the front-runner for the job. It’s worth noting that he’s been especially good against left-handers, holding them to a .178 batting average with 19 strikeouts and only two walks.

It’s also worth noting that Whelan’s not on the 40-man, and the Yankees have found more openings for multi-inning relievers than short relievers this season. Jonathan Albaladejo had even better numbers as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s closer last season — and he actually was on the 40-man — but Albaladejo barely got a look at the Major League level. So Whelan might not be looking for apartments in the city, but he’s surely put himself on the map. It’s impossible to ignore a guy who’s always had the potential and is just now finding the consistent results.

• Gary Sanchez is back on the Charleston active roster. He returned Saturday after being sent to extended spring training for what appears to be some combination of a bad back and a bad attitude, probably more of one than the other. He had a hit and drew a walk in his first game back.

• Greg Golson has been activated from the Triple-A disabled list, a move came one day after Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s most productive outfielder, Justin Maxwell, went on the disabled list with a jammed shoulder. Maxwell actually has a higher slugging percentage than Jorge Vazquez and homered in three games in a row just before the injury. For the season he’s hitting .260/.358/.588 and might have hit his way into a big league role had Andruw Jones not started hitting lately.

• Speaking of banged-up Triple-A players who might or might not be playing their way into a call-up: Carlos Silva was scratched from a start on Sunday because of tightness in his shoulder. Doesn’t seem too serious. Manager Dave Miley told Donnie Collins, “We’re just pushing him back.”

• If there’s no spot for Whelan as a short reliever in New York, the Yankees certainly have options for long relief out of Triple-A. George Kontos and Buddy Carlyle are still pitching well in long relief for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Kontos is holding right-handers to a .143 average with 24 strikeouts and four walks. Out of the rotation, tonight’s starter D.J. Mitchell has a 2.78 ERA and pitched seven scoreless in his most recent outing.

• After hitting .218/.292/.287 in April, Kevin Russo hit .316/.384/.408 in May. Brandon Laird made a similar turnaround, from .184/.213/.289 in April to .307/.343/.406 in May. Jesus Montero went the other way, from .365/.360/.473 to .269/.333/.413.

Strange stuff in Double-A Trenton where hitting coach Julius Matos was ejected last week, then got into some sort of argument with manager Tony Franklin and has since been removed from his role. Popular roving hitting instructor James Rowson has taken over the job for now. It’s unclear whether Matos will return in any capacity.

• Austin Romine is the only Trenton regular hitting better than .277, and he’s missed a few games with a stiff neck and back after a home plate collision. Romine has certainly been the high point of the Double-A lineup. Melky Mesa is back to being an all-or-nothing hitter, Bradley Suttle is hitting for good power but a .233 average and Corban Joseph has been good but not great.

• I talked about him a little bit in today’s chat: Trenton reliever Tim Norton is starting to get some attention. Injuries have always been the biggest knock on the guy. This year he’s healthy and putting up incredible numbers (44 strikeouts in 29 innings, for example). One scout told Bill Madden that Norton is, “better than (Joba) Chamberlain right now.”

• Manny Banuelos has a 2.12 ERA and Dellin Betances has a 1.99, so those two are doing just fine despite higher-than-you’d-like walk totals. Craig Heyer, a guy the Yankees sent to the Fall League this offseason, has been awfully good since stepping into the rotation to fill in for some injuries.

• Tampa third baseman Rob Lyerly made the Florida State League all-star team, but as expected, the High-A roster is lowest of the four affiliates in terms of prospect buzz. Starters Brett Marshall and Jairo Heredia, though, are starting to do some things. In Heredia’s past three starts he’s allowed one earned run through 21 innings. He’s walked two and struck out 22. He’s another of those “if-things-go-right” prospects.

• J.R. Murphy remains the best all-around hitter in Low-A Charleston, but first baseman Kyle Roller leads the team with a .563 slugging percentage and corner outfielder Ramon Flores leads with a .407 on-base percentage.

• Slade Heathcott in April: .370/.453/.630. — Slade Heathcott in May: .216/.283/.289.

• The amateur draft begins tonight. The Yankees don’t have a pick until the supplemental first round — No. 51 overall — but they’ll almost certainly be part of the story with pick No. 1. The Pirates are reportedly planning to take Gerrit Cole, the former Yankees first-round pick who ultimately signed with UCLA rather than join the Yankees minor league system.

Headshots of Whelan, Sanchez, Golson, Romine and Norton

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith 335 Comments →

Notes from Newman: Brackman, Sanchez, Heathcott and more05.27.11

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

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Noteswith 190 Comments →

Off day minor league notes: Risks behind the plate05.26.11

I didn’t see or hear about last night’s Buster Posey injury until I was several thousand feet above the fly-over states of middle America. After sleeping for a little while and reading for a little while, I turned on the little satellite TV screen in front of me to catch up on the news of the day. Then I flipped briefly to SportsCenter.

Posey is probably out for the year with a broken bone and possibly some ligament damage. It’s a bad situation, and an unfortunate situation, but we can’t pretend it’s a new situation. The Posey injury doesn’t necessarily change anything for Jesus Montero or the other elite catching prospects in the Yankees organization.

It’s not as if the Yankees turned on a television at the same time I did and suddenly realized that being a catcher is dangerous.

If injury concerns lead the Yankees to eventually move Montero or Austin Romine or Gary Sanchez to a different position, it would be perfectly justifiable, but it would not be a move to be taken lightly and with a sigh of relief. Part of what makes these catching prospects so valuable is their ability to play behind the plate, lending a premium bat to a position that often has minimal offensive impact.

Risk comes with the position, but so does reward. That was true before and after Posey was rocked at home plate last night.

• Speaking of catching prospects, Gary Sanchez is playing in extended spring training after opening the year in Low-A Charleston. Mark Newman told Josh Norris that Sanchez is down there because of a back injury. He seemed to be getting things turned around before landing on the Charleston disabled list. Sanchez was hitting .314/.455/.657 in his last 10 games before going on the DL.

• Speaking of behind the plate in Charleston, J.R. Murphy’s breakout season continues with the Low-A affiliate. He’s played some third base and designated hitter, but Murphy continues to get most of his time behind the plate and he just keeps hitting. He’s up to .318/.358/.497, a huge leap from last season.

• While we’re behind the plate: Jesus Montero is hitting .260/.337/.377 this month. I know a lot of the fan base is anxious to get this kid into the big league lineup — and I understand why — but player development is a very real thing, and Montero’s still just 21 years old. Consistency might be the next — and final — part of his development.

• Jorge Vazquez is still hitting home runs at a stunning rate, but the thing that catches my attention is that he has seven walks in his past 10 games (he had four in all of April). Either he’s becoming a little more selective, or teams are completely pitching around him. By the way, his home run total is up to 17. That’s insane, especially in a pitchers’ league.

• Vazquez’s teammate, Justin Maxwell, is second in the International League with 13 home runs.

• Speaking of Triple-A hitters, a few guys who struggled early have started to hit in the past month: Brandon Laird (.293/.341/.373 in May), Kevin Russo (.288/.367/.404 in May), Ramiro Pena (.310/.356/.310 in May).

• D.J. Mitchell, Adam Warren and David Phelps are still pitching well out of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre rotation — well enough that they’d have to be involved in any call-up conversation — but if the Yankees want a new long man, they might also need to look at George Kontos. Lost in the Rule 5 draft this winter — just like Lance Pendleton — Kontos has a 2.22 ERA and a .209 opponents batting average this season, and he’s been better this month than last month. If the Yankees are looking for a one-inning option, Kevin Whelan keeps getting it done in that Triple-A closer’s role.

• Veteran left-hander Randy Flores has yet to allow a hit in four appearances since joining the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre bullpen.

• Two Double-A starters you might have heard about: Dellin Betances has a 1.30 ERA with 39 strikeouts through seven starts, and Manny Banuelos has a 1.96 ERA with 34 strikeouts through eight starts. Both have had some walk issues from time to time, but my gut reaction is to blame their youth. On the whole, their numbers are awfully impressive.

• No overwhelming home runs numbers or anything like that, but the Yankees regular Class-A third basemen in are both playing pretty well. In High-A Tampa, Rob Lyerly is hitting .326/.368/.481, and in Low-A Charleston, Rob Segedin is hitting .288/.384/.445. Each has three homers, and between them they have 21 doubles and six triples.

• Talked to Alan Horne earlier today. He’s pitched in extended spring training twice in the past week and he’s pretty encouraged. His fastball’s been good, but he’s still looking to build some arm strength.

• Surprise numbers of the month: Utility man Kelvin Castro who’s hitting .462 with five triples and more walks than strikeouts in 12 games since joining the Tampa infield. Last season he hit .224 with five triples all year. He also struck out more than three times as often as he walked.

• A blast from the recent past: Zach McAllister is starting for Triple-A Columbus tonight, attempting to become the minor league’s first eight-game winner. Traded away in last year’s Austin Kearns deal, McAllister is thriving in his second attempt at Triple-A. He has a 2.48 ERA and seems to be getting better as the season progresses. He had a 5.09 ERA with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before last year’s trade.

Associated Press photo of Posey, headshots of Sanchez, Murphy, Kontos and Whelan

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith 498 Comments →

A few off day minor league notes04.21.11

Off days seem to work pretty well for minor league updates. There’s not much going on with the big league team on these days, so we might as well look into the minor league system.

Today let’s start in Double-A. Austin Romine is always the other catcher in the Yankees system. He’s not considered one of baseball’s elite like Jesus Montero, and he’s not a raw mega-talent like Gary Sanchez, but Romine is a legitimate prospect his bat is heating up.

He hit a walkoff single on Tuesday, then he homered twice on Wednesday. Romine got off to a slow start in the season’s first week, but in the past five games he’s collected nine hits including a double and two home runs. He has nine RBI in the his past five games after not driving in a run in any of his first six games. His slash line is up to .310/.420/.500.

Of course, in this system, Romine isn’t the only minor league catcher who’s been hitting lately.

Jesus Montero continues to rake for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He had another three-hit game last night, and although he hasn’t homered since April 9 and has yet to draw a walk, Montero is batting .423/.423/.558 through 11 games. Down in Charleston, Gary Sanchez is back from a brief stint on the disabled list and had a hit last night. While Sanchez was out — Josh Norris says it was a sore oblique, of course — J.R. Murphy got some regular time behind the plate and his bat is still going strong with three homers, 13 RBI and a .326 average.

For the immediate future, the catching situation that has the most impact on the Yankees is happening in Tampa, where Francisco Cervelli is supposed to be begin a rehab assignment tonight.

• Kei Igawa is up from Double-A to start for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre tonight. Kevin Millwood is coming up from the Double-A roster to start for Scranton tomorrow. As Donnie Collins pointed out, Millwood should have time to make one start after tomorrow before his out kicks in.

• Speaking of Triple-A starters, David Phelps and Adam Warren have turned in back-to-back gems this week. Phelps allowed three hits and struck out six through 6.1 innings on Tuesday night, then Warren followed with eight scoreless innings on Wednesday. Minor league pitchers — and big league pitchers for that matter — occasionally talk about creating a friendly rivalry in which one player’s success helps to spark another’s success. Those two outings could start something like that.

• Jorge Vazquez is up to seven home runs in Scranton, meanwhile Chris Dickerson has started hitting in Triple-A. Eight hits in his past four games has Dickerson’s slash line up to .292/.393/.375. He’s had two doubles and a triple in the past three days, his first extra-base hits of the year.

• Manny Banuelos is back from his blister and made his second start on Tuesday night. He allowed two hits and one unearned run through four innings for Double-A Trenton. Dellin Betances is still on the disabled list in Trenton, but he seems close to a return.

• Good numbers from a name you might not know: Mikey O’Brien, a ninth-round pick in 2008, has a 2.16 ERA with 19 strikeouts through his first three starts with Charleston. He’s walked only three and his production has been pretty steady (his numbers aren’t the product of just one good start), but he has yet to get a win. O’Brien could be building on last season when he had a 2.08 ERA in Staten Island.

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Miscwith 107 Comments →

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