Yankees at the break: The rotation • 07.12.11
This was supposed to be the Yankees weakness. It’s become a strength. Because of better-than-expected performances from Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, the Yankees rotation has been dependable, and it’s grown deep enough that Ivan Nova is tucked away in Triple-A.
This winter, there was one free agent starter who could make the Yankees feel confident about their rotation. He picked Philadelphia, and the Yankees were left scrambling for spare parts. Those spare parts have been outstanding, A.J. Burnett has bounced back from last season’s misery, Nova has been inconsistent but generally pretty good as a rookie, and CC Sabathia is once again an early Cy Young candidate. When Phil Hughes landed on the DL after just three starts, the Yankees rotation was tested, but it rose to the challenge.
The Yankees have obvious rotation depth heading into the second half of the season. Nova was crowded out of the rotation despite success, so he’s ready to step in if the Yankees need someone. Based on results, there’s little reason to doubt Colon and Garcia, but their age and recent injuries raise some obvious red flags. The biggest question, though, is probably Hughes. He’s made just one start since coming off the disabled list, and although his velocity was much better than it was in April, he didn’t exactly plow through the Indians lineup. The Yankees are hoping that the Hughes saw in last year’s first half shows up for this year’s second half.
D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Lance Pendleton each have ERAs of 3.38 or lower in Triple-A. Now they’re joined by Nova to give the Yankees a good, young Triple-A rotation. Their success helps cover the fact that Andrew Brackman has been surprisingly bad, losing his rotation spot and struggling to find consistency as a reliever.
The bigger names are in Double-A, where Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances have each pitched well – Betances especially – but their control issues are proof that they’re still young and have some work to do. Both have 40 walks in fewer than 80 innings this season. In the lower levels, Mikey O’Brien, Josh Romanski and Nik Turley have pitched their way into call-ups. A few other standouts whose names might not be familiar: Craig Heyer (Fall League selection with a 3.19 ERA in Double-A), Jairo Heredia (improving prospect with a 3.29 ERA in High-A) and Brett Marshall (outstanding since the end of April in High-A).
What happens if Nova dominates in Triple-A?
In his return to Triple-A, Nova struck out 10 and walked none through 7.2 innings that proved he was a Major League pitcher in a minor league game. If that pace continues and one of the Yankees starters slips – doesn’t get hurt, doesn’t fall apart completely, just starts allowing four runs every time out – how quickly would the Yankees make a change and decide they need to move Nova back into the big league rotation?
It will be interesting to see whether the Yankees push either Betances or Banuelos in the second half. It’s entirely possible that they’ll be big league ready at some point next year, but it might not be at the start of the season unless they get at least a half season at Triple-A. It’ll also be interesting to see if Phelps, Mitchell or Warren gets some big league time kind of like Nova did last year. The bigger question, though, centers on Sabathia, who can opt out of his contract at the end of this season. Even if Sabathia opts out, the Yankees would remain a favorite to bring him back, but it’s an issue that could have a significant impact on the next five or six years (maybe more).
Associated Press photos of Sabathia and Colon, headshots of Mitchell, Banuelos and Nova
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
Let’s go heavy on prospects today, shall we? This is Baseball America’s Top 30 Yankees prospects heading into this season, listed with each player’s rank at the beginning of the season and the level where he finished the season.
No. 1 Jesus Montero
After a rocky start to the season, Montero turned things around in the second half and could fight for a big league job in spring training. He remains one of the elite prospects in baseball, with the only significant questions being where he’ll play in the field.
No. 2 Austin Romine
Romine dropped to sixth in this year’s rankings, but I’m not sure his ceiling or expectations have fallen. He had a kind of Derek Jeter-type season, starting strong and finishing strong, with three rough months in the middle. He’s in the Arizona Fall League now, and it’s easy to forget that he hasn’t turned 22 yet. Still very highly regarded, but he was passed on Baseball America’s list by young players and injured players whose stock soared after strong seasons.
No. 3 Arodys Vizcaino
Traded to the Braves
The big prospect in The Boone Logan Trade had a 2.74 ERA between two Class-A levels this season, but he was shutdown with an elbow injury.
No. 4 Slade Heathcott
Low-A center fielder
Got to Charleston at the start of June, and he might have lost a little ground in the prospect standings — he hit .258 with 101 strikeouts — but it’s hard to read too much into a 19-year-old’s first season of pro ball. He still in Baseball America’s Top 10 for the orgnization.
No. 5 Zach McAllister
Traded to Cleveland
This was the cost for two months of Austin Kearns. Had he stuck around, McAllister probably would have fallen out of the Top 10 after a 5.09 ERA in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He was certainly overshadowed by several other upper-level pitchers.
No. 6 Manny Banuelos
Double-A left-handed starter
After a healthy second half that took him from High-A to Double-A, Banuelos is living up to expectations. Building up his workload seems to be the next step in his development. He’s in the Arizona Fall League right now and could pitch himself to the cusp of the big leagues next season. At 19 years old, he’s the youngest of the Yankees Killer B pitching prospects.
No. 7 Gary Sanchez
He’s been compared to Montero, except with more defensive tools. That’s why he moved all the way to No. 2 on this year’s Baseball America list. There is a ton of talent, but also a long way to go.
No. 8 J.R. Murphy
In so many ways, Murphy is “the other” catching prospect in the Yankees system. He’s only 19 years old — one year older than Sanchez — and he already held his own in Charleston. The power started to show in the second half.
No. 9 Jeremy Bleich
Injured Double-A left-handed starter
Stock took a hit because of shoulder surgery. He made only eight starts for Trenton. Hard to learn much about him from this season.
No. 10 Andrew Brackman
Double-A right-handed starter
This season might have been the best-case scenario for Brackman, the towering right-hander who had Tommy John surgery before throwing a single professional pitch. Brackman has always been a high-end talent, but he lived up to those expectations with a healthy and much-improved second season.
No. 11 Bryan Mitchell
Short-season right-handed starter
Opened in extended spring training, then pitched in the Gulf Coast League and got up to Staten Island in September. Still young, and Rookie Ball opponents hit .190 against him. Obvious potential. Obviously young.
No. 12 Mike Dunn
Traded to Atlanta
Another part of The Boone Logan Trade, he pitched his way to Atlanta but the Yankees might have gotten the better of the two young lefties in that trade.
No. 13 Corban Joseph
Double-A second baseman
Terrific numbers in Tampa sparked a second-half call-up to Trenton, where Joseph struggled with his first taste of upper-level pitching. Could play second or third base. Nothing especially flashy, but he lived up to expectation and might have exceeded it with his promotion.
No. 14 Eduardo Nunez
Major League shortstop
Nunez had to prove that 2009 was not a fluke, and he did just that with a terrific Triple-A season that ended with a call-up to New York and a late spot on the postseason roster. He hit .289 in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but also showed an improved glove. That combination pushed him into the Yankees Top 10.
No. 15 Mark Melancon
Traded to Houston
Sent to the Astros in the Lance Berkman deal, Melancon simply never made that final step with the Yankees. He pitched pretty well in 20 appearances for the Astros.
No. 16 Ivan Nova
Major League right-handed starter
The Yankees always liked Nova’s potential, but he developed slowly until a strong 2009 season that landed him a spot on the 40-man. Now he’s a candidate for a spot in the back of the big league rotation. He’s the most advanced of the Yankees many upper-level pitching prospects.
No. 17 D.J. Mitchell
Triple-A right-handed starter
Moved into the Yankees Top 20 prospects, then got an invitation to big league camp, then pitched his way from Double-A to Triple-A. He generated better than a 2-to-1 ground out to fly out ratio in Double-A, then had a 3.57 ERA in three Triple-A starts. Overshadowed by some teammates, but he had a very nice season.
No. 18 Melky Mesa
High-A center fielder
He obviously did something right because now he’s on the 40-man roster. The MVP of the Florida State League has legitimate power and speed, but he also strikes out a ton and this year’s .260 average was actually his career-high. A complete wild card in this system.
No. 19 Kelvin DeLeon
Short-season right fielder
Stock might have slipped through a .236 average with six home runs and 80 strikeouts. Just turned 20, so there’s plenty of room to grow, but also a long way to go.
No. 20 Jose Ramirez
Low-A right-handed starter
A good arm lurking in the lower-levels of the Yankees minor league system, he had a 3.60 ERA with 105 strikeouts in Charleston this season. For now, he exists in the shadows of the pitchers ahead of him, but he’s certainly not an unknown. He’s a legitimate prospect in his own right.
No. 21 Graham Stoneburner
High-A right-handed starter
Leading into this season, Stoneburner was a favorite among writers and bloggers who closely follow the Yankees minor league system. He proved those believers right with a 2.41 ERA between Charleston and Tampa. He could be one of the fastest-rising stars in the organization, and there is considerable speculation that he could eventually end up in the bullpen, making ascent even faster.
No. 22 David Adams
Injured Double-A second baseman
Off to a .309 start in Trenton, Adams’ season was cut short by an ankle injury that cost him the bulk of the year and might have cost the Yankees a shot at Cliff Lee. I tend to lump Adams and Joseph together as Double-A guys able to play second or third. He seemed to be showing a lot this season, but it’s hard to make much of 39 games.
No. 23 Caleb Cotham
Cotham should have been in Charleston, but a pair of surgeries left him unable to pitch in an actual game this season. He has only eight professional innings to his name.
No. 24. Hector Noesi
Triple-A right-handed starter
Noesi had pitched only nine games above Low A when the Yankees put him on the 40-man roster this season. That said a lot about their expectations, and Noesi lived up them with a season that catapulted him into Baseball America’s Top 10. From High-A to Double-A to Triple-A, he could be next year’s Ivan Nova.
No. 25 David Phelps
Triple-A right-handed starter
There’s a common theme among most of these back-end starting pitchers: Except the injured Cotham, they were all outstanding. This was Phelps’ second full season, and he finished it with a 3.07 ERA in 12 Triple-A outings.
No. 26 Adam Warren
Double-A right-handed starter
Kind of like a one-year-younger version of Phelps, Warren had a 3.15 ERA in 10 Double-A starts after opening the year with a 2.22 in Tampa. The upper-level pitching depth in this system is incredible, as evidenced by the fact neither Phelps nor Warren deserved a spot among the Yankees Top 10 prospects.
No. 27 Kevin Russo
Major League utility
Russo’s value is in his ability to do a lot of things well. He served that role perfectly as a call-up who shifted to left-field when the Yankees were searching for outfield help. Nothing flashy, but when he was getting regular at-bats, he was contributing. He could easily play that same role next season.
No. 28 Dellin Betances
Double-A right-handed starter
This is the biggest leap of the bunch, and his jump into the Top 10 had as much to do with his health as his performance. Betances has always been a premier talent, but this year he got healthy and stayed healthy through a dominant second half. Expectations are sky
high again. He just has to stay off the disabled list this time.
No. 29 Jairo Heredia
High-A right-handed starter
Kind of like Nova in 2008 and Noesi in 2009, the Yankees have to decide whether to protect Heredia from the Rule 5 or take their chances that an unproven but talented young pitcher will sneak through. Heredia just turned 21, but he pitched just six times above Low A this season. Opponents there hit .359 against him.
No. 30 Jamie Hoffmann
Rule 5 pick sent back to Dodgers
The Yankees were clearly never planning to bring back Brian Bruney this offseason, so they traded him away for the right to draft Hoffmann. He hung around spring training for a while, but was ultimately sent back to the Dodgers. He hit .310 with eight home runs, 17 steals and 36 doubles in Triple-A.
Rule 5 decisions looming for Yankees • 11.02.10
Last winter, the Yankees added seven minor leaguers to the 40-man roster. If I had to guess, I’d say it will be closer to four or five this winter.
Of the players eligible for the Rule 5 draft, only Dellin Betances and Brandon Laird jump out as guys who absolutely need to be protected. Beyond that, each addition is likely to depend on how many roster spots come open and how highly the Yankees think of some of their lower-level players.
This post is not an attempt to list every Yankees minor leaguer who’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft. These are simply some of the names who jumped out to me as leading candidates at various positions. My friend Donnie Collins has a more comprehensive list.
Pitchers: Wilkins Arias, Dellin Betances, Jairo Heredia, Craig Heyer, Alan Horne, George Kontos, Adam Olbrychowski, Jonathan Ortiz, Lance Pendleton, Ryan Pope, Pat Venditte, Kevin Whelan, Eric Wordekemper
Betances (right) is the no-brainer of the group. He’s a huge talent who seems to be finally healthy, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could pitch his way to New York as early as next season.
Heredia is also a pretty big talent, but injuries have held him to only 39 innings above Low-A. The Yankees took a chance on getting the young and raw Ivan Nova through the Rule 5 in 2008, and that worked out. They took no such chances with Hector Noesi last year. The Yankees have to make a similar decision on Heredia this year.
Beyond Betances, the names that standout most are Arias, Pendleton and Pope. Arias is the only lefty on the list, Pendleton is coming off a nice year in Double-A (he finished in Triple-A) and Pope was invited to big league camp this spring then got an Arizona Fall League assignment this offseason. Heyer is also in the Fall League. Those Fall League assignments suggest the Yankees like the potential of Heyer and Pope, but one year ago Zach Kroenke, Grant Duff and Colin Curtis were all sent to the Fall League, but each was still left exposed to the Rule 5.
Horne and Kontos would be much more prominent in this discussion if not for injuries. Kontos is pitching again, but after a solid regular season, he’s struggling in Arizona.
Infielders: Brandon Laird, Jose Pirela, Brad Suttle
Laird (right) was terrific this season. He can already play the infield corners, now he’s in the Fall League learning to handle the outfield. He seems like a lock.
Pirela is the biggest name of a few small-name middle infielders who are eligible. He’s never played above Class A, and the Yankees already have quite a few middle infielders on the roster. Suttle is an interesting case: A fourth-round pick who showed an impressive bat in college but missed all of 2009 with a shoulder injury. He started to hit in the second-half of this season, but I’m not sure he could actually stick on a Major League roster at this point.
Outfielders: Abraham Almonte, Zoilo Almonte, Austin Krum, Melky Mesa, Damon Sublett
The top candidate here is Mesa (right). He can hit for power, he can run and he can throw. He also struck out 129 times in 121 games this season. And that was an improvement on last year’s 168 strikeouts. Strikeouts aside, Mesa can play center field and he brings a ton of tools. Beyond Laird, I’d say Mesa is the top position player worth a spot.
Of the other outfielders: Neither of the Almonte’s has played above Class-A, while Krum and Sublett hit below .230 in Double-A this season. Sublett and Abraham Almonte are converted infielders.
Catchers: Jose Gil
No big names are eligible at catcher. Right or wrong, Gil (right) has been treated more like an organizational catcher than as a prospect. P.J. Pilittere will become a free agent this winter, but he’s not someone the Yankees are likely to consider adding to the roster, and he’s much better off finding a new organization.
Jesus Montero and Austin Romine are a year away from Rule 5 eligibility.