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
Notes and links on a slow day • 12.11.10
The Yankees made their first offer to Cliff Lee on Wednesday. The Rangers flew to Arkansas to make their offer on Thursday. When I checked with Brian Cashman on Friday night, he literally told me to “enjoy the night.” There would be no news to report.
It’s the same story today. Lee has been meticulous in this process, making what is surely the biggest decision of his career.
Everyone else is left waiting. Many of them waiting anxiously.
At the end of another one of those slow days of waiting, here are a few notes and links from around baseball.
• You might want to look away, but my friend Ben Shpigel did a nice job looking back at the last time the Yankees targeted a premier starting pitcher with incredible control and missed out.
• Great stuff from the Boston Herald outlining the way the Carl Crawford deal came together for Boston.
• Speaking of Crawford, Thomas Boswell makes the case that Crawford’s talent is wasted in Fenway Park.
• Plucked from the Yankees, Rule 5 pick Lance Pendleton will have a chance to win a rotation spot with the Astros.
• The Tigers are planning to move Phil Coke back into the rotation. He was a starter through most of his minor league career, but things never really took off for him until he moved to the bullpen.
The two who got away (for now) • 12.09.10
Rule 5 picks don’t stick very often. Making a big league roster out of spring training is tough enough, and sticking through an entire season is even more difficult. There’s a chance one of these two — or both — will come back to the Yankees, but they’re both interesting Rule 5 selections who honestly might have a shot.
Truth be told, the Yankees might not miss them. There’s so much upper-level pitching talent that these two were easily lost in the shuffle, but there’s legitimate talent here. I’ve been a Kontos believer since I saw him in ’09.
25 years old
His first three professional seasons were good, but they never pushed Kontos out of the shadows of the Yankees pitching-rish system. He was beginning to establish himself with a terrific 2009 – including a strong series of starts in Triple-A – but his elbow gave out during a start in Gwinnett and Kontos needed Tommy John surgery. The injury got him through last year’s Rule 5, but he returned this season to post pretty good numbers out of the Double-A bullpen (his first relief experience). When healthy, Kontos has some life on his fastball and a good slider. Improved command was making a significant difference in 2009, and if that continues, he could stick with the Padres in some capacity, probably in the bullpen. Heading into the draft, Kontos seemed to be the Yankee most likely to go.
27 years old
Very similar to Kontos, actually. Pendleton also had Tommy John – much earlier in his career than Kontos – and that’s kept him in the shadows of the Yankees pitching prospects. He’s been largely overlooked despite steady numbers at every level. There’s nothing flashy about Pendleton, and his age keeps him off most prospect lists, but he had 133 strikeouts, a .218 opponents batting average and a 3.61 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A last season. His 4.24 ERA in six Scranton outings is inflated by one six-run start. The Yankees have enough upper-level pitching that Pendleton might not be missed, but the Astros have enough holes that he could legitimately make the team as a starter or a reliever. As Patrick Teale pointed out at Pinstripes Plus, Pendleton missed enough time early in his career that his arm doesn’t have the mileage his age might suggest.
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.
Notes from Thursday • 04.01.10
No one seemed surprised by Thursday’s announcement that Curtis Granderson would be the Yankees opening day center fielder.
“They traded for Curtis and I kind of figured he would be the center fielder,” Brett Gardner said. “You get a guy like that, that’s where he’s most comfortable, and that’s where he needs to play.”
The Yankees expect Granderson to play every day, even against left-handers. He had two hits off a lefty on Thursday and, after a slow start this spring, he’s 10-for-22 in his past eight games.
“To come here and get a chance to play center, I’m definitely excited,” Granderson said. “But if the move happens to come, or (the decision) would have been different for me to go to left, or a week from now I’m playing left, I’m not going to be mad by any means.”
Here’s the Granderson audio.
As for Gardner, he knows he has to get on base to keep an everyday spot in the lineup. Marcus Thames could be a platoon partner and Randy Winn is used to being a regular, so Gardner has to perform.
“I’m just pretty hard on myself and I obviously haven’t had a very good spring at the plate,” Gardner said. “We’re going to be starting the season here pretty soon and I need to figure things out and get started. Last year I had a really good spring and got off to a slow start in the season, so hopefully this year it will be the exact opposite.”
Here’s the Gardner audio. He said some of his mechanical adjustments have made his bat a little faster than he’s used to and he’s been making contact too far out front. He has to get used to seeing the ball deeper and letting his new mechanics take over.
• Joe Girardi said this outfield alignment isn’t set in stone, but it’s clearly he way he’d prefer to keep it. “I think it’s something that we can always revisit,” he said. “I don’t think everything is always etched in stone, but my plan is to play Curtis in center.”
• If Francisco Cervelli can’t open the season, the decision of who would take is place is “a decision we would have to talk about,” Girardi said. Mike Rivera and P.J. Pilittere are in camp, but Rivera hasn’t played in almost two weeks since hurting his right hamstring. “We obviously need to get him back out there to see how he feels too,” Girardi said.
• Joba Chamberlain, Chan Ho Park, Dave Robertson and Royce Ring each pitched today, making it back-to-back games for each of them. Boone Logan went back-to-back yesterday. None of them allowed a run in their second appearance.
• Speaking of not allowing a run, minor leaguer Lance Pendleton picked up a save today with a scoreless ninth.
• Robinson Cano went 2-for-2 and raised his batting average to .380. He’s been terrific this spring. Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher also had two hits. All of those guys have really hit this spring.
• The plan is for Alfredo Aceves, Mariano Rivera and Damaso Marte to each pitch out of the bullpen tomorrow. Aceves needs to pitch come out clean on the other side to break camp with the team.
• Speaking of plans, Girardi said his regulars will start Saturday’s game against the Yankees minor leaguers, but, “You’re not going to see them play seven innings,” he said. “If a guy wants another at-bat or two at-bats, I’ll talk to each of our guys.” Javier Vazquez is starting that game.
That’s an Associated Press photo at the top. Those pictures look a lot better in this blog format.