Arizona Fall League: Pitcher Reports on Those Who Could Make an Impact in 2011

November 30, 2010

About two weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the position players I viewed as making an impact in the major leagues, many as soon as the 2011 season.

This report is about the many pitchers I saw in the Arizona Fall League, which I attended for the first time in early November. I highly recommend talking in a week or so in the future out there watching great baseball played by rising stars in perfect weather.

That might be the trifecta.

Most of the time out in the AFL, the pitchers are sent to increase their innings, work on certain pitches or see what they can do against better competition. Some organizations use the AFL to assess whether certain pitchers are worthy of Rule 5 protection by adding them to the 40-man roster.

As a rule, the AFL teams carry about 18-20 pitchers, but only seven are active on any one day. That is the one reason why the Phoenix Desert Dogs and manager Don Mattingly had to stop their game early in late October. Also, the starters rarely go longer than four innings, so relievers dominate the rosters.

There were very few impressive starting pitchers in the AFL this season. I only had an opportunity to see Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Mike Montgomery once (in the Rising Stars) game, getting him on a bad effort. I did not see Danny Duffy or Casey Kelly at all.

STARTING PITCHERS

1) Manuel Banuelos—You already know how I feel about ManBan. Good fastball touching 95, plus change-up, a pretty good curve, which he can throw to both sides of the plate and outstanding mound demeanor. He can be a top of the rotation guy and is still only 19 years old.

2) Mike Montgomery—As I mentioned earlier, I only saw Montgomery once and that was in the Rising Stars game. He started the game (opposite Banuelos) and was a little nervous, showing very little command of his fastball (which hit 96) or change up (81-82), bouncing a few but not with any swings and misses. He also hung a few curves, which weren’t tight. He has a smooth delivery and a good frame, standing a lanky 6’5″. Like Banuelos, he isn’t afraid to throw back-to-back change-ups or start hitters off with off-speed pitches.

He had some elbow issues this year but his dominating performance in the Pan Am games and his high velocity AFL appearances have lessened any injury worries. Montgomery obviously is much better than he showed in the Rising Stars game, but I would like to see better consistency in his off speed pitches.

I also feel his stride could be lengthened to develop even more velocity but would not affect his overall delivery.

3) Alex Cobb—The Rays are taking their usual one level at a time approach with Cobb (like they did with Jeremy Hellickson), and he was out in the AFL to boost his innings. I saw him versus the Phoenix Desert Dogs (PDD), and he did well but against an inferior Desert Dogs lineup, clearly the worst in the AFL. He was behind the count on many occasions but then overpowered the weak lineup.

Cobb was hitting low-to-mid 90s repeatedly with a good change-up, but all over the place with his fastball. His walk rates in his career are OK, but his command needs to be there in order for him to succeed. Will start in Triple A Durham but has no shot at the majors in 2011, based primarily on organizational philosophy.

4) Josh Collmenter—Accurately nicknamed “Iron Mike” because of his straight over-the-top delivery. I saw him pitch this game, also against the PDD, and he was dominant.

His fastball was never above 90, but generated lots of swings and misses, mostly on high fastballs. He has that deceiving delivery in which he hides the ball well, then before a hitter realizes, the ball is on top of him.

Collmenter literally tilts his upper body and throws straight over the top. Many of his swinging strikes were on high fastballs out of the zone, but appear to be strikes coming out of his delivery. He had a curve ball with good downward break, and he was able to throw it for consistent strikes. He was also not afraid to throw it behind in the count or as a first pitch offering.

Collmenter utilizes what I call “reverse sequencing” pitching. That is getting ahead with soft stuff and, when the hitter has two strikes and looking for junk, gets a moderate fastball blown by him. This method is better utilized by pitchers who do not throw hard.

While he will not be a top guy in any rotation, Collmenter will get his shot sometime this season in Arizona. After his AFL performance, he was placed upon the team’s 40-man roster.

5) Eric Hurley—After missing all of 2009 and 2010 with shoulder (labrum) surgery, this former major leaguer threw his first meaningful pitch in two seasons out in the AFL. He much sharper later in the AFL, showing good arm strength and said he had no fears about going all out.

If the Rangers do not re-sign Cliff Lee, Hurley has an opportunity to make the Rangers staff this season.

RELIEF PITCHERS

1) Brad Brach—I am very partial to this kid because he is a local Jersey Shore product. He has exceptional numbers during his career, including a great 2010 campaign in the heavy hitting High-A California League where he recorded 41 saves to go along with a stellar 2.47 ERA. He continued his dominance in the AFL with a 2.87 ERA and .873 WHIP.

He only allowed a base runner in five of his 11 AFL appearances, and although he did not strike out many, he showed pitches which moved and commanded well. During the Rising Stars game, he allowed a runner to reach third base on a two base error and a wild pitch.

Brach proceeded to get two strikeouts sandwiched around a weak ground ball to short and got out of the inning.

Brach throws a sinking 91-92 MPH fastball with good movement and located the ball well on both edges of the plate, often coming inside to lefties. His slider is a true out pitch and is rarely hit hard. He throws strikes with a career SO/BB ratio of 7.00. But he does throw across his body some which could lead to arm issues down the line.

Although Brach is more of a fly ball pitcher, it has yet to haunt him (career 7 HRs allowed, 6 in the Cal League) and should play well in spacious Petco Park.

I can see him (who will be 25 next season) starting in Double A but getting some time in San Diego late this season if he continues performing.

2) Jeremy Jeffress—Everybody was buzzing about Jeffress hitting 101 on the gun in the Rising Stars game, but he also threw 21 pitches that inning, only 10 for strikes. Although this sounds bad, his command in the AFL was much better than when I saw Jeffress back in July in the Florida State League.

There he showed the power FB (up to 97), but as I wrote back then in my notes, “can’t locate to save his life.” Reminded me of Daniel Cabrera without the height.

In the AFL however, Jeffress dropped in some hearty breaking balls for strikes, and if he can continue to throw the curve for strikes with upper 90s heat, he may have a shot to stay in the majors. Personally, I never want guys who can’t locate pitches, but with an arm like that and an effortless delivery, Jeffress will always be given tons of opportunities.

However, give me a guy with less “stuff” but with command and ability to pitch any day.

3) Chris Carpenter—Showed great velocity and command of his fastball (hit 99-100 MPH) in rising Stars game, but overall walked almost a batter per inning out here. He has a career walk rate of 4.0 per 9 IP.

While working as a starter most of his pro career, Carpenter was relieving in the AFL. His change-up was not good, but his slider was devastating on several occasions and weak on others. However, like Jeffress, if he can not locate his fastball and get ahead in counts, the plus pitches do not matter much.

The Cubs say this guy will stay as a starter but with a hard fastball and two other average pitches, his future role is definitely as a reliever who can be given time in Chicago this season.

4) Craig Heyer—I wrote about Heyer in the AFL here. For an unknown reason, Heyer was left unprotected by the Yankees for the Rule 5 draft, and I anticipate him being selected by another organization. With the way Kevin Towers likes to build solid bullpens, I can’t see Heyer passing by Arizona. Heyer’s ground ball tendencies will play well in cozy Bank One Ballpark.

5) Ramon Delgado—This is my sleeper guy. Delgado is a complete strike throwing machine. Saw him in my first game out in the AFL, and he was first pitch strike all the time. He can throw any of his three pitches (FB, sinker, slider) for strikes and will throw them in any count.

But mainly Delgado is first pitch fastball at the knees come right at you type of guy. The first time I saw him pitch, he got through the inning in six pitches. Delgado is a quick worker (funny how that happens when you throw strikes) who throws from a low 3/4 slot and gets good ball movement. The movement is tough to “square up” for hitters.

Very similar to Heyer in that he also was left unprotected, but Delgado did get some work this season at Double A, where he posted a 1.10 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 16 IP.

This is a guy who is quietly efficient. He throws strikes with great career walk and strikeout rates while keeping the ball in the park. Who couldn’t use a pitcher like that in their bullpen?

I would also grab this guy in the Rule 5 next week. Look for the Texas Rangers (his AFL pitching coach Brad Holman loved him) to grab him if he lasts that long.

There were other pitchers who I saw and liked including starter Daniel Merklinger (Milwaukee)—good curve and change, also saw him in July in the FSL and was placed on the Brewers 40 man roster this month; Josh Zeid (Philadelphia)—nice fastball, slider combo, throws strikes; Josh Fields (Seattle) – throws heat but lacks command; Josh Lueke (Seattle)—good fastball and biting slider. However, teams with teeth (and big rocks) would need to overcome his background.


New York Yankees Make Two Mistakes With Their 40 Man Roster Decisions

November 22, 2010

Let’s preface this piece by saying the Rule 5 draft is the most overrated way to obtain talent for your organization. The reason why is most teams know their own organizations players pretty well.

They know the players make up as well as their games.

Can the player handle pressure?

Do they have a good work ethic to get better as a player?

All players who play professional baseball have talent, but talent will get you only so far. Most guys left off 40 man rosters are at Double A and below, and if they have not performed well enough after 3+ years in the organization, they likely never will.

For a major league organization to select one of these lower-level, minor leaguers, they would have to keep them on their major league roster for the entire season.

With 25 man roster spots scarce, and the manner in which managers change pitchers during a game, most teams carry 12 pitchers. That leaves very few spots for non-regular position players. 

What team wants to carry a Double A type player who will not get much playing time, thus wasting a valuable bench spot?  

That is why positional players rarely get selected AND kept, while pitchers are the favorites, mostly selected by bottom feeder teams.

Craig_heyer_crop_340x234

If a team is bad, why not take a chance on the guy who throws 95 and stick him as the seventh man in the bullpen?  

Last week the Yankees assigned IF/OF Brandon Laird, RHP Dellin Betances and RHP Ryan Pope to their 40 man roster, removing them from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. All showed enough over the 2010 season that they could be selected—and kept—by a second division club.

All three probably would have been selected AND kept by their team for the full season.

Laird has power and can play all four corners, while Betances and Pope throw hard and did very well at Double A Trenton. Pope was a dominating closer at Trenton after being moved from the rotation to the bullpen mid-season.

Either hurler would make the Pittsburgh Pirates 12-man pitching staff.

But while these three selections are great moves, many times the New York Yankees have made some weird choices regarding their 40-man rosters. They have mostly stored young pitching on their roster, and over the last five seasons, the likes of Eric Hacker, Chase Wright, Jeff Kennard, Steven White and Matt DeSalvo have taken up 40-man spots.

Even Kei Igawa was coveted at one point and a 40-man roster member.

None of those guys made an impact in the major leagues, yet they were deemed worthy of future Yankee greatness and a cherished 40-man roster spot.

But why?

They were young pitchers who—at various times in the minor leagues—actually showed promise and with young pitching the most desired commodity in all of baseball, teams hoard the talent.

For example, Chase Wright was the High A Florida State League “Pitcher of the Year” in 2006. But his Yankee claim to fame was allowing four consecutive home runs to the Boston Red Sox in the third inning on April 22, 2007.

The other guys didn’t fare very well either although many never really got a chance. Almost two years ago I wrote a piece that the worst place to be for a young pitcher to be is on the Yankee 40-man roster.

Why do the Yankees save all these young pitchers with only mediocre talent?

Furthermore, why do they keep these pitchers and not give them a decent chance?

Keeping them on the 40-man roster means you think that these kids are able to pitch in the major leagues because if they are not protected, they can be claimed in the Rule 5 draft.

The three 2010 additions gave the Yankees 33 guys on their current 40 man roster, leaving seven available spaces. Add one each for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and lets say for arguments sake, Cliff Lee, and that leaves three additional open spots.

And more if you really want to trim the fat of Reegie Corona (not needed with Eduardo Nunez above him) and Kevin Russo (obsolete with Laird on board).

Damaso Marte might not even pitch in 2011 either.

But while the Yankees did keep those three guys on the 40-man, they did not protect two guys who should have been protected, especially with three—or more—open spots. 

I would have also selected Craig Heyer and Lance Pendleton, both right handed pitchers.  

I have spoken of Heyer recently, having watched him since his first season in Staten Island in 2007. Heyer has spent the last two seasons at High A Tampa and is an extreme strike thrower, generating lots of ground balls.  

The reason he probably was sent to the AFL was to see how he fared against better competition than what he was accustomed in High A ball. Heyer answered the challenge and performed well out in the Arizona Fall League, basically having one bad outing.

He would fit nicely in the Trenton bullpen as a swing man, able to spot start on occasion. He impressed enough scouts in the AFL, that some teams (Arizona, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee) can take a chance on a guy who throws strikes and keeps everything at the knees or below.

I might even throw out a guarantee that the Diamondbacks grab him up, since new GM Kevin Towers saw Heyer pitch when he scouted for the Yankees this past summer. The D’Backs also need ground ball pitchers in that stadium.

Pendleton was drafted in 2005 from Rice University—the “arm injury waiting to happen” school.

Sure enough, Pendleton did have Tommy John surgery after being drafted, missing almost all of the 2006 and 2007 seasons. But since returning, Pendleton has started 23, 26 and 27 games over the last three seasons, quietly working his way up to Triple A.

He is very consistent in his walk and strikeout rates, and while he is not going to be a major league starter this year out of the gate, he sure is good enough to take a chance as a 12th man on staff.

But the main reason for keeping Pendleton is insurance.

While I respect the Yankees allowing Pendleton to maybe get a shot at the majors sooner with another organization, why let him walk for nothing instead of keeping him and letting him eat up innings at Triple A in 2011?

He threw 155 innings this past season, and could go 180+ this season pitching every five days.

The opening Scranton staff is likely looking at David Phelps, Hector Noesi and D.J. Mitchell at three of the spots with Kei Igawa, George Kontos and Romulo Sanchez battling for other starting roles.

Depending what happens with Pettitte and possibly Lee signing, Ivan Nova could also be starting the season in Scranton.

The Yankees also like to keep 30 year-old former injured hurlers in Scranton—with John Van Benschoten, Tim Redding, Jason Hirsch types permeating the AAA roster. Because of their major league “experience” those guys end up as the Dustin Moseley’s of the major leagues.

Not very good.

So Pendleton would at least give the Yankees starting pitching stability at the Triple A level, giving the organization another durable in-house option. 

The Yankees might not think he will be selected, or if he is, he might not last the year.

But why risk it? Especially with spots open.  

I believe the Yankees are going to make some trades this off season, moving around valuable minor league talent, with the need for Heyer and Pendleton as pitching depth much more important.

And it would only cost them two of those scarce, coveted, extremely valuable 40-man roster spots.

The same spots once occupied by the Steven White’s and Kei Igawa’s of the universe.


Jesus Montero Eligible for Postseason If Not on Yankee Roster by Aug. 31

August 30, 2010

With a nice series win over the weekend in Chicago, combined with the Tampa Bay Rays taking two of three against the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees now have a 6.5-game lead over the Red Sox for a playoff spot.

While no lead is insurmountable (right, 2008 Mets?), there is a really good chance the Yankees will be playoff-bound.

With the Minnesota Twins now having a 1.5-game lead over the Texas Rangers for the second best division record, it might even be better for the Yankees to not win the division.

Their pitching matches up better against the Twins’ lineup, and the Yankee rotation would likely suffer more against Josh Hamilton and Co. in a first round matchup.

With the waiver deadline ending tomorrow, teams are jockeying for position to get their August 31st rosters set.

But why? The MLB rule states that any player in the organization on August 31st is eligible for the postseason if they are on the list of eligible players.

This list is generally assumed to be the 40-man roster, and that is true, but that list can be expanded.

Playoff rosters must be set at 25, not including disabled players, on August 31. For each player on the 60-day DL, teams may add players to the eligible list during the playoffs provided that they were in the organization on August 31. Teams must choose 25 players from their playoff-eligible list before each round of the playoffs.

For an example, let’s look at the 2009 New York Yankees.

On August 31st (my birthday, by the way) last season, both Xavier Nady and Chien-Ming Wang were on the Yankees’ 60 day DL, and Brett Gardner was on the 15-day DL. That gave the Yankees a pool of 28 players from which to choose their 25-man playoff roster.

An injured player can be substituted for by another player who is on the 40-man roster. The Yankees added Freddy Guzman to “replace” Nady, and Guzman was on the Yankees’ postseason roster.

In 2002, Francisco Rodriguez was not called up by the Angels until mid-September, had all of five innings pitched that month, and was on the playoff roster. He ended up winning five games that postseason!

According to this unpublicized rule, a team must replace position with position. An outfielder in Nady needed to be replaced with an outfielder in Guzman.

But I also read somewhere that it does not have to be position by position.

For example, in 2007, Jacoby Ellsbury was NOT on the Boston 25-man roster on August 31st of that season, but he was eligible for the playoffs as he replaced Brendan Donnelly, a pitcher, who was on the 60-day Boston DL at the time.

This move on the roster must be reviewed and approved by the Commissioner’s office.

Current New York Yankees on the DL include Nick Johnson (60-day DL) and Alfredo Aceves (60-day DL). Aceves is likely to come back off that DL, but the Yankees do have another roster spot that can be added with another player.

Therefore, the Yankees could add any player who is in their organization on August 31st for any playoff series roster to “replace” Johnson, and that player does not even have to have major league experience or be the same position! Just be on the 40-man roster sometime in September and get the Commissioner’s office to approve.

Therefore, all players in the organization can all be on the playoff roster for the ALDS and further series.

With the way Jesus Montero has been hitting over the last two months, and with tremendous power to right field, his right-handed bat could pay dividends for the Yankees in the postseason. He could play for Scranton in the playoffs in September and still help the major league club later on.

Or if the Yankees feel that Damaso Marte or Aceves is not ready and won’t be a factor in the postseason, they could keep Aceves on the 60-day DL and then allow someone like Jonathan Albaladejo and his 43 saves this season to pitch in October.

Lots of opportunities for the Yankees to add Montero and others to the postseason roster.


With Strasburg’s Injury will Yankees Alter Their Plan for Phil Hughes?

August 27, 2010

Stephen Strasburg needs Tommy John surgery (TJS), and if you are in shock over this, you shouldn’t be. Strasburg has all the requirements of a guy destined for this procedure.

First, he throws extremely hard, upwards of 100 MPH. That is just too taxing on the throwing arm’s tendons and ligaments. There is a certain threshold for the body when it comes to pitching a baseball. Second, Strasburg has brutal pitching mechanics, with a very violent motion.

Rather than a smooth arc in his arm’s backswing, Strasburg uses a direct path, leading with his elbow. In leading the backswing that way, Strasburg’s elbow ends up well above his shoulder, putting extra stress on his arm.

With his velocity, that combination is a terrible one-two punch, most often leading to surgery. AJ Burnett, who still has bad mechanics, was a similar pitcher at a young age and needed TJS many years ago.

Unless they have great mechanics, most hard throwers have multiple arm issues. I spoke at length with pitching coach Rick Peterson last winter and he agreed that the Strasburg and Burnett-type arm action was detrimental to a pitcher’s health.

Strasburg has been babied and coddled as much as any pitcher ever and he still came down with an injury (actually two if you count his shoulder soreness earlier). But like other hard throwers who had TJS (Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson, Chris Carpenter), Strasburg will eventually come back and throw.

Let’s hope he has better mechanics upon his return or he is destined to be a reliever.

Many people are wondering why Strasburg was even in the majors just one season after his college career. Well, he dominated every level up to the major leagues and had nothing left to prove. He was carefully monitored, and likely would have the same injury pitching in the majors, minors, or college this season.

It is just a good thing that the Nationals were not in a playoff race and using Strasburg more than what he was actually used. That would have brought down a heap of big criticism from fans and media about “what is best for the player” and “the Nationals caused this injury.” *

*I am waiting for the criticism to start on Tony Gwynn, Strasburg’s head coach in college. While there is NO WAY Gwynn had anything to do with this injury by pitching Strasburg, someone has to be responsible in this blaming society we live in. Dusty Baker will never live down the injuries to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, yet he had nothing to do with the terrible mechanics of both young pitchers.

Everyone knows how strict the Nats were with Strasburg. He never threw 100 pitches in any start, topping out at 99, and only entered the seventh inning in three of his 12 starts.

Yet he still needed surgery. It is more bad mechanics and his great velocity which put more torque on the elbow and shoulder than innings or pitch counts.

But while the Nationals had no playoff aspirations when Strasburg was called up, the Yankees do have World Series thoughts on their minds.

That begs the question of Phil Hughes’s innings limits this year. Hughes is 24, and has not had a full season on the mound yet in his major league career. He has a somewhat similar backswing arc as Strasburg, but it is not as drastic or violent as the Nationals phenom.

Hughes’ limit this year is in the 170-180 inning range, and he is currently at 144. He should be expected to make about six more starts which could give him another 35 innings or so. The Yankees might look to skip Hughes a start, or limit him in certain games, piggybacking Javier Vazquez in Phil’s starts.

But according to Cashman, come playoff time, “it’s all hands on deck” and Hughes could be part of the playoff rotation. The Yankee GM said he could not look people in the organization in the eyes and not use his best pieces in the most important games.

That means Hughes in the postseason rotation, likely slotting into the No. 4 spot.

While I have many times stated in the past that Hughes will definitely not be part of the postseason rotation, but will be in the bullpen, it likely is not the case. This is not to say that is what I thought the Yankees should do, but what I expected the Yankees to do was to put Hughes in the postseason bullpen.

Despite his last start in Toronto, Hughes is the Yankees’ second most consistent starting pitcher next to CC Sabathia. I trust him more in a playoff start than I do Javier Vazquez, Dustin Moseley, or even AJ Burnett.

Although I expect Andy Pettitte to come back into the rotation, and today’s news of an issue-free bullpen session was positive, Hughes still needs to be part of the rotation if the Yankees will win this year.

So, if Hughes is OK with getting postseason starts and innings, putting him over 180 for the season, why isn’t it OK for him to get a few more regular season innings? Important, down the stretch innings? *

*And for the record, major league innings in May and September are the same. There are no “extra stress” innings. Pitchers do not throw with less effort in May than they do in September, or less effort in the third inning than they do the seventh. Certain pitches in certain game situations might be thrown harder (AJ does this way too much) but pitchers generally throw with the same effort all the time. High stress innings is one of the biggest misnomers in baseball pitching theory.

That 34-inning increase violates the Verducci Effect and, according to the theory, would put Hughes in an “at risk” situation the following year. This is why the Yankees are looking to maybe skip Hughes or use the piggyback method. 

Before his last start, Hughes suffered miserably after he was skipped in a start around the All-Star break. He needs to pitch on a consistent, rotated basis and not be skipped or reduced. The Verducci effect has not been proven to be a precursor to injuries, and all the pitchers on this “at risk” list over the last two seasons have been major injury-free.

The injury to Stephen Strasburg showed that pitchers who are limited and coddled are not immune to injuries. Most pitchers go through arm problems and it’s not a given that if Hughes is limited, he will be immune to injury. The risk is always there.

But that risk and concern should have no bearing on the Yankees winning another World Series title this year. The idea of baseball is to win games and World Series titles.

Hughes has been durable all year and the Yankees need his innings down the stretch, especially with 10 of the last 14 games against the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox.

And if Hughes does have any arm issues next season, then worry about it next year. While he is going over his limit with the playoffs, another 12 regular season innings is not going to drastically affect his future. His career will not end if he throws 200 total innings this season including playoffs.

Winning another World Series title and ring should be the important thing right now.


New York Yankees: High-A Tampa Rotation Pitching Prospect Capsules, Part 2

July 29, 2010

This is the second installment of my starting pitching capsules from my trip down to the Florida State League to watch the High A Tampa Yankees play.

I saw quite a few games which included four of the five starting pitchers. The one starter I did NOT see pitch was Dellin Betances.

The first capsule can be seen here, and included right-handed pitcher Adam Warren and left-handed pitcher Manuel Banuelos. I like both those guys, and can see Warren (who reminds me of Greg Maddux) and Banuelos (who reminds me of Johan Santana with a better curve ball), getting to the Bronx by 2012.

By reminds me, I am not saying these pitchers will have those types of careers, but they have similarities.

After my report on Warren, he was promoted to Double A Trenton where he has made two starts, and has a 2-0 record and 2.25 ERA. I saw him again in Trenton and we spoke a bit about his season. I mentioned to him that I saw Graham Stoneburner for Charleston, wrote a report, and then he was promoted to High A Tampa. I then saw Warren pitch in Tampa, wrote the report, and he was then promoted to Trenton.

I asked Warren who else does he want me to see so they can get promoted. He replied, “keep coming to my starts.” He is very mild-mannered kid, and has a good sense of humor.

This capsule includes another left-handed/right-handed due, Shaeffer Hall and aforementioned Stoneburner. I saw both of these guys pitch for Low A Charleston in early May and again in Tampa.

Shaeffer Hall – LHP   6″0″, 185 lbs.

Hall was the RiverDogs opening day starter, throwing six innings and allowing three hits, no walks while striking out four. Of the 13 other outs recorded, Hall generated nine ground outs, including one double play.

The first time I met Shaeffer Hall, he was in the Charleston clubhouse on their trip north to the Lakewood (NJ) Blue Claws.

Here was my first question:

Joseph DelGrippo: “Last year in college, Stephen Strasburg threw a no-hitter against the Air Force Academy. Do you know the other college pitcher who threw a no-hitter against Air Force last year?

Shaeffer Hall: Laughing out loud saying, “Yeah, you’re looking at him, but I guess you already knew that.”

Yes, I did. Hall threw an early season February nine inning no-hitter for the University of Kansas. The Jayhawks have a good baseball program but it is overlooked because of a great Kansas hoops team and other well-known Big 12 baseball programs such as Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Later that season, Hall pitched a complete game shutout against Dartmouth in the NCAA tournament. He was the Jayhawks Friday night starter in 2009, indicating he was the ace of that staff.

However, he did not have a great season going 5-6 with a 4.18 ERA in 15 starts, but his walk rate of 0.97 per nine innings attracted the Yankees. New York likes to take college pitchers who they feel pitched well but were the victim of “metal bat syndrome.”

Hall appears to fit into that category. He is also a hard worker, who worked to lose about 20 pounds from his college frame. I noticed the difference from his college photos to his body type in Lakewood.

Due to a slight shoulder strain, Hall only threw nine professional innings last season for short season Staten Island. The 2010 season is basically Hall’s first full year in pro baseball.

It’s funny, but Hall has had such a good season in his first full year in pro baseball, but in the two games I saw him pitch were his two worst outings of the year.

While I was “good luck” for Stoneburner and Warren, I am like a pariah of sorts for Hall.

Hall is a fastball, curveball, change-up guy who relies primarily on precise location to be effective. And based upon his results this season, he does have great control and command within the strike zone. He works quickly (a great trait) and can throw all three of his pitches for strikes.

RiverDogs pitching coach Jeff Ware agrees. “He has great command of all three of his pitches. When he has all three working and keeping the ball down, he is on top of his game. He can strike you out and can induce lots of ground balls. Schaef is also well prepared and hard-working. It is a great combination.”

Hall needs to be precise because he does not throw that hard, mostly 87-89, barely touching 90 a few times, but has some fastballs hovering around the 85 range. His curve ball is a nice weapon (mostly around 74), but while it has good bite, it is not consistent with its depth. Shaeffer sometimes leaves this pitch up, especially to right-handed hitters.

Like almost all Yankee farm hand pitchers, Hall’s out pitch is his change-up. It will arrive normally in the 76 range, and has decent bite, running slightly away from righties. It is not as good as Banuelos’ on an every pitch basis but it does have the ability to get lot of weakly hit balls in play.

Hall needs to also have an umpire who has a liberal outlook on strikes. In the game I witnessed in May up in Lakewood, the umpire has a very tight zone and would not give Hall any pitches on the corner. It forced Hall to bring his pitches over the plate more, where they proceeded to get hit.

In speaking with Hall after that game, he did not blame the umpiring, but said the zone was a little “tighter” than the day before. “I wasn’t getting many calls on the corners,” Hall said. “But I still need to work around that and throw better pitches when guys got on base.”

But that is what happens when a pitcher does not have “put away” stuff. Hall needs to work the strike zone in and out, down and away. If Hall does not get the pitches on the corner called strikes, the hitters will adjust to the tighter zone. And Hall can get hit hard when he brings the ball back over the outer and inner thirds of the plate.

In Tampa, it was more of the same. Lots of hits against Hall, who despite not walking anyone, was battered around. Some hits were dinks and dunks, but others were really belted. He seemed to not have command of his fastball. Around 88 with the fastball and similar as in Lakewood with the curve ball (74-75) and change-up (76).

Shaeffer Hall is a very nice pitcher, but is likely not going to be in any future Yankee plans. They just do not like that type of pitcher, a guy who doesn’t have dominant stuff with “great upside.”

Hall reminds me of former Yankee Chase Wright.

Mark Buehrle and maybe Jamie Moyer would also be good comparisons to what type of pitcher Hall is stuff wise.

Hall is a great kid who really likes the Yankees organization. My time in Tampa was during the Cliff Lee trade scenarios and Hall, Stoneburner and Adam Warren were asking me about what I had heard.

Graham Stoneburner – RHP  6’1″, 180 lbs

I saw also saw Stoneburner pitch twice, once in Lakewood and once in Tampa. He was great both times, and you can read about the Lakewood game here.

Stoneburner has a power fastball, above average to plus slider and a vastly improving change-up. When I saw him in Lakewood back in early May, I was told by one scout that Graham did not possess a good change. But his performance in that game, and other which followed proved that assessment incorrect.

The change-up was pretty good and he threw it quite often, generating lots of swings and misses. It had good downward bite as did his slider and two-seam fastball, which moves in both directions.

When asked about the change-up, Stoneburner said, “I think my change-up is coming along really well. It was pretty good all spring and I have more confidence in throwing, even in some fastball counts. The more I throw it, the better I get a feel for it.”  

That is the important thing about the change-up. Some pitchers don’t get a good feel for it, then they scrap it for long periods of time, which is a huge mistake.

It is a credit to Stoneburner that he continues to go with the pitch in different situations.

Graham has an explosive fastball which reached up to 96 MPH in the Lakewood start. In fact, in Stoneburner’s 95th pitch against Blue Claws that day saw him bring a 95 MPH up and in fastball past the No. 5 hitter Darin Ruff.

Stoneburner is a power pitcher to the core. He goes right after hitters and doesn’t mince his pitches as he throws strike after strike. He also has the rare ability to throw that hard and still command his arsenal within the strike zone.

His slider was consistently around 80-81 showing good, late break. Many people have talked about that he need to “tighten” up the slider, but I did not see any real need to alter that pitch as it appeared the same both times I saw him pitch. Stoneburner even told me in Tampa that he has thrown the slider the same way all season.

With his really good fastball/slider combination, some people have talked about Stoneburner becoming a power reliever as he moves further up the Yankee ladder. Maybe near the end of this season, that might happen as Double A Trenton goes into a playoff push and Stoneburner has already eclipsed 104 innings.

I spoke to him in July at a Tampa game and he feels he will be a 130-140 inning pitcher this year. It is a possibility, and I would like to see hin challenged again this season. But the Yankees do not like to promote a pitcher two times in one season, and with this being Graham’s first pro season, it is unlikely he will be moved to Trenton.

But with four pitches which he commands well, Stoneburner can be a real good starting pitcher. He has shown that this season in two levels, and owns one of the best WHIP’s for a starting pitcher in the minor leagues with a 0.90. 

Although he has a somewhat long arm action in the back, Stoneburner’s delivery appears to be consistent, and the control numbers are good. He has only issued only 26 walks in 104 IP (2.25 per 9 IP), a great number considering how hard Stoneburner throws. He reminds me of Tim Hudson, a sinewy guy with a smallish frame who throws hard, with control, and has a good slider.

While the Yankees always trade away their fringy prospects, Stoneburner is much more than a fringe prospect and can be a vital member of the Yankees pitching staff as soon as 2012. He should not be traded, but given every opportunity to continue up the ranks as a starting pitcher.


New York Yankees: Do They Really Need Bench Help? Maybe.

July 21, 2010

With the best record in baseball, the New York Yankees have a 2.5 game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays. They are also six games ahead of the Boston Red Sox.

But according to the experts, the Yankees need major help. Since Andy Pettitte went on the disabled list with a strained groin, the Yankees now need a starting pitcher. Now that Joba Chamberlain has been very hittable, the Yankees need bullpen help.

Since their bench consists of defensive wizard Ramiro Pena, 4th outfielder Colin Curtis, LHH/DH Juan Miranda and RHH/DH Marcus Thames, the Yankees need massive bench help.

Yet with all these problems, the Yankees are still in first place with the best record in baseball.

But do they really need bench help? And if they get someone, how many games is the outcome going to be affected by their presence? What needs will they fill?

Let say the Yankees go out and get bench help. Supposedly they need a right-handed hitting bat to boost their presence against lefties. Isn’t that what Thames was signed for? Anyway, with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and switch hitters Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira and Jorge Posada, isn’t that five really good right-handed hitters in the lineup?

And Robinson Cano does pretty well against left-handed pitchers, as does Brett Gardner.

So if they get a bench player, they want  a player like Jerry Hairston, Jr. who can play infield and outfield. Versatility is key.

Heck, the Rays are chock full of those type with Ben Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac.

Lets create this “perfect fit” for the New York Yankees.

Our made up guy has a season line of .247 BA/.325 OBP/.432 SLG/.757 OPS with 15 HR and 46 RBI? How about if I tell you our guy has hit .176/.234/.282/.513 OPS with 2 HR and seven RBI over the last month, and just as bad over the last two months?

And our guy is hitting against lefties he is .247/.340/.344/.684 OPS with a single HR and eight RBI’s.

Now what I mention that our versatile guy, despite his versatility, is really below average at every defensive position he plays?

I wouldn’t think you want that type of guy.

Then why would the Yankees even entertain the thought of trading for Baltimore Orioles player Ty Wigginton?

Those are his numbers and HE STINKS!

Now, there may be better examples of versatile players who can hit a little bit. Recent mentions include Wes Helms (puuleeze!), Willie Bloomquist, Adam Kennedy and Jhonny Peralta.

None if these guys, except for Peralta, will actually make any team better. The Yankees seem intent on getting a guy who could play third base, giving Alex Rodriguez a break here and there down the stretch. When Alex sits, it is usually the weak hitting Pena who gets the start.

My first choice for another bench player would be in-house option AAA right-handed power hitter Jorge Vazquez. I have been saying since Spring Training that Vazquez will have an impact on the major league Yankee team by the season end.

Vazquez is hitting .266/.287/.531/.818 OPS with eight home runs and 30 RBI in 33 games at Triple A. This was after devastating in Double A Trenton to start the year, which began in May after an appendectomy sidelined him in Spring Training.

He plays both first and third base, and I saw him play both positions this season in Trenton. For a stocky guy, he has pretty good footwork in going after ground balls at third base and around first base. Forget about his low OBP, he does not take pitches, and is very aggressive at the plate.

But if that does not thrill you, then this is the guy I believe is the best fit for the Yankees: Adam Rosales of the Oakland A’s.

First, the A’s are out of the race, and Billy Beane will gladly trade for a young pitcher. Second, Rosales has played all four infield positions this season (many very well) and also has played left field*.

*Although with the big three-run home run hit by Colin Curtis today, I don’t think he will go anywhere anytime soon. He also plays good defense, runs well and is a GREAT KID. By the way, Curtis was also on my Baby Bomber list with Vazquez as kids who made a show in Spring Training.

Third, Rosales can hit. He has a line of .283/.336/.429/.765 OPS with seven home runs and 31 RBI in only 72 games. He filled in admirably when A’s second baseman Mark Ellis was out with an injury. He has also hit very well throughout his minor league career after being selected in the 12th round of the 2005 draft.

Rosales has mashed lefties this year with an OPS of over .900.

A combination along the likes of Sean Black in Low A Charleston and Noel Castillo at High A Tampa might do the trick. But the Yankees can even go higher than these guys if they need to (like a Shaeffer Hall), but in trading a higher end guy you would limit your trading to one higher end player even up.

Black is a decent starting pitcher, but the depth of the Yankees starting pitchers in Charleston (Jose Ramirez, Brett Marshall) and above him in Tampa, Trenton and Scranton, there is no way Black will ever get a decent shot with the Yankees. And Castillo, who I saw threw 97 MPH two weeks ago in Tampa, is blocked by mucho power-armed talent as well.

And if they do not like that, throw in another position prospect among anyone in the middle not named Eduardo Nunez, David Adams or Corban Joseph.

Yankees might need a versatile player down the stretch, and it would not be a bad idea to replace Dustin Moseley’s roster spot with another position player. Then Ramiro Pena can be put back into his usual role of defensive replacement for second base, third base and shortstop.

The only issue I see is that with Rosales’ limited service time, he is still under team control for four more seasons. This could mean the A’s would want much more than what I am offering here. That would necessitate the Yankees “going up the ladder” in terms of prospects.

I am not sure they would be willing to do that.

But Rosales fits the bill, and I like him much better than Ty Wigginton or any of that other ilk. With only two seasons of major league service time, Rosales would be an inexpensive Yankee for a few more seasons.

If the Yankees are willing to afford him.


The New York Yankees: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Segment No. 5

June 28, 2010

This is the latest installment of the 2010 New York Yankee progress, honoring the epic Clint Eastwood movie of the same name.

MOVIE TRIVIA: Given that the Italian Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo literally translates to the English: The Good, the Ugly, the Bad, reversing the last two adjectives, advertisements for the original Italian release show Tuco (Eli Wallach – the Ugly) before Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef – the Bad) , and, when translated into English, erroneously label Angel Eyes as “The Ugly” and Tuco as “The Bad”.

Now I know why beat reporters who work on deadlines get very frustrated.

I had the following paragraph all ready during the 9th inning of last night’s Yankees – Dodgers clash.

“Since my last installment (No. 4), the Yankees have played 12 games, resulting in a 6-6 record. What is more important is that the Yankees still have themselves the No. 1 record in the major leagues at 46-29, a game up on the pesky Boston Red Sox.”

After the stunning comeback last night over the Dodgers, correct that to a 47-28 record and two game lead over the injury-depleted Red Sox.  

The Yankees have been 16-8 in June, with a split of their just completed, six game West coast Inter-league trip through Arizona and Los Angeles. During the last 12 games, the Yankees lost three in a row once (two to Philadelphia and the opening game versus the New York Mets).

All numbers are from the last 14 days, unless noted.

THE GOOD

CC Sabathia – with all the hub-bub over AJ Burnett’s disastrous June, have you noticed that the only pitcher the Yankees should have signed two season’s ago, is 5-0 in June? Sabathia became the third pitcher this season to win five straight starts while going seven plus innings in each?

The other two? See below.  

CC was 3-0, 1.57 ERA over the three starts the past two weeks. Simply dominant.

Phil Hughes – because of his innings limit skipped start out west, he only made one start over the last weeks. Phranchise made it his 10th win, going seven strong over the New York Mets, avenging his only loss to the Mets and Mike Pelfrey.

Robinson Cano – hit .298 BA/.365 OBP/.489 SLG/.855 OPS with two runs, which isn’t exactly Canoesque as we have been programmed to see. But he continues to come through with huge hits, culminating in last night’s extra-inning, game-winning home run off of left-handed reliever George Sherrill.

He also has a string of 60 errorless games. Interestingly, his throwing error was during Dallas Braden/Alex Rodriguez “don’t cross my mound” game.

Alex Rodriguez – starting to get the power stroke back with three home runs this past week. He slashed .256/.362/.564/.926 with the three HR’s and 11 RBI. All three home runs were huge, giving the Yankees the lead in this game and this one.

His home run last night got the Yankees on the board with his fifth inning two-run shot off of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.

I am concerned with Alex’s hip/groin issue as it has made him much slower in lateral movement. It also has eliminated his ability to steal a base.

Brett Gardner – until getting hurt last night, Gardner was hitting .342/.419/.395/.813 while continuing to play great defense. He still leads the other New York left fielder, Jason Bay, in OPS this season (.821 vs. .791), while making considerably less money.

Colin Curtis – due to inter-league games in NL parks, he made his major league debut this past week. When Jorge Posada was catching, Curtis was the primary left-handed bat off the Yankee bench.

He had a few hits in six at bats, driving in four runs. His great at bat last night led to a RBI ground ball.

He has shown a good knowledge of the strike zone, takes great swings and can play better than average defense.

Read more about Curtis here in my 40 man roster advice from last season.

Good video of Curtis here on the biggest challenge of his life.

Good deal for Curtis, who is a very likable guy, cancer survivor and all.

He also played his college baseball at Arizona State. I remember in 2008, after the Trenton Thunder won the Eastern League title, I asked Curtis if that title was bigger than starring in the College World Series his junior season.

He smiled, took a few seconds, and said “the College World Series was awesome.”

In that Series, he faced Joba Chamberlain and former Yankee Zach Kroenke of Nebraska in Game 2, doubling off Kroenke in the 8th.

Chad Huffman – like Curtis, Huffman got his first major league hit within the last two weeks. He also had that big two-run single in Sunday night’s stirring comeback against the Dodgers.

And he hustles all the time.

Mariano Rivera – A great move by Joe Girardi in bringing in Mo into a tie game on the road again last night.

Two times in one road series, and two wins. I guess Girardi can learn from his mistakes when he did not use Rivera in that June 5th extra-inning road game at Toronto.

As I tweeted last night, Rivera is like an elite piece of real estate – location, location, location. When he hits the corners, he is unhittable.

David Robertson – he continues his really good pitching after a disastrous beginning to 2010.

In 5.2 innings over the last two weeks, he allowed a single cheap run. His overall ERA is now 5.04 (it was over 14 in early May!), but in June he has pitched to an ERA of 1.00.

People wanted to dump him to the minors in early May, but he is now the most consistent bullpen arm not named Rivera.

Yankees rookies – very interesting, but four Yankee young players have gotten their first major league hit this season; both Curtis and Huffman, plus Greg Golson and Kevin Russo. And Ivan Nova and Romulo Sanchez pitched well earlier when the bullpen needed a few new arms.

Sure, the team’s payroll is around $200 million, but the organization is doing a much better job at bringing up their young players and letting them play.

Joba, Phranchise, Gardner, Francisco Cervelli, David Robertson, and even when they started this new trend by bringing up Cano and Chien-Ming Wang in 2005.

THE BAD

Mark Teixeira – I am sorry, but Teixeira needs to change his approach from the left side to stop being a complete pull hitter.

But from what I hear, Teixeira is not a willing participant in the adjustment game, and thinks “he will come out of it on his own.”

He won’t by continuing to try and pull every pitch when he hits left handed.  

With pitchers getting better, Teix getting older and the usual big shift, Mark’s split against RHP is a terrible .228/.333/.386/.719.

I do not see him improving unless he makes some changes.

Jorge Posada – he is beginning to look old, with a slower bat. But it might just be him getting back into the groove of playing every day.

Posada will get more consistent at bats as the Yankees are finished with the National League parks and Jorge can DH a few days a week.

Last night’s 9th inning ten-pitch at bat against Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton was the Posada we know.

If he hits the way he can, the lineup can withstand the continued year-long slump from Teixeira.

Joe Girardi – even though I am a big fan of his Mariano Rivera move, Girardi still tries to show everyone that he is a National League manager. Too many double switches by pulling Swisher out of games, and leaving his bench very vulnerable.

But the NL park games are over.

He was gong to pinch hit Ramiro Pena at Arizona in the Mariano game. I would rather see CC Sabathia pinch hit then Pena, especially after using both catchers. Pena is the emergency backup.

Then with first and third, with one out in LA, and Gardner on first base, Girardi elects to have AJ Burnett bunt over the runner to second.

Why not have Gardner steal second instead? If he gets thrown out, and AJ makes an out (very likely), then Derek Jeter leads off next inning.

I am a big fan of the bunting game, but with one out, giving away an out when AJ isn’t moving over two runners is a big mistake.

THE UGLY

Derek Jeter – whew! That three strikeout performance Saturday night was brutal. His slash line over the 12 games is worse – .244/.358/.289/.647 with ZERO extra base hits and no RBI.

Chan Ho Park – a .400/.444/.680/1.124 slash line is great if you are a hitter, but just brutal if you throw the ball for a living. Many have pointed out that it is usually his second inning which causes lots of damage, but some of his single inning appearances aren’t great either.

I do not believe it is Park’s durability which is an issue, as he was a starter and has several successful multi-innings appearances this season, including April 7th at Boston and June 5th at Toronto.

But after a really good 2009 season, maybe Park isn’t that good this season. This is typical of many relief pitchers.

But if the Yankees only pitch Park for a single inning, then he needs to go. Other pitchers can go the one inning route, but an effective bullpen needs lots of guys who can go multi-innings.

When Alfredo Aceves comes back, Chad Gaudin is gone, but Park is not far behind. The Yankees have lots of patience with ineffective relievers (see Damaso Marte last year), but if Sergie Mitre comes back, too, Park could be gone.

AJ Burnett – it is not Dave Eiland’s month off, lack of in your face, walk-off cream pies, or Jorge Posada catching him.

It is AJ Burnett. He is not that good.

I was against him coming here in the first place, and have never wavered off my thoughts. I still believe he will eventually be on the disabled list.

He can not throw strikes to specific spots, thus leaving the ball out over the plate, where it gets roped all over the park. Except for his really good 2008 season, Burnett is basically a .500 career pitcher. There is a reason for that.

He is not that good. When you can not command your pitches, you will never pitch well. And it does not appear he concentrates on every hitter in every situation.

Never a good combination.

ANSWER: The other two pitchers in 2010 besides Sabathia with five straight starts, five straight wins and each win going seven or more innings is Ubaldo Jimenez and Nick Blackburn.

Jimenez was the easy choice, but Blackburn was tough. He has had a terrible April and June, but sandwiched them around an amazingly dominating May.

I guess he is destined for a really good July?


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