Has Phil Hughes Finally Begun to Live Up To His Potential?

July 5, 2012

Well, he is at it again, that Phil Hughes. He is throwing the ball well and winning games for the New York Yankees. 

And despite an extremely shaky outing by Adam Warren in his major league debut last Friday night, the Yankee starting rotation hasn’t missed a beat since losing both CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte last Wednesday afternoon.

One of the keys has been the transformation of Hughes, once the golden boy of the Yankee farm system since his selection by the Yankees as the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2004 draft*. The expectations have always been high for Hughes, who had worked up to the 2007 No. 2 overall prospect in baseball by Baseball Digest.

*An interesting fact is the Yankees were awarded this pick as compensation for the loss of a free agent by the name of Andy Pettitte, who signed with the Houston Astros after the 2003 season.

With a “dead arm” and reduced velocity over the last couple years (along with less than moderate results), much talk centered on Hughes pitching out of the pen for his Yankee future. However, the Yankee brass always discussed Hughes as a starting pitcher and, to their credit, kept him in the rotation mix over the last several years.

With improved velocity this spring training, and better results, Hughes “won” the fifth starting spot in the rotation. However, after a disastrous start to the 2012 campaign, people promptly wanted Hughes out of the rotation.

I cannot even understand all those Yankee fans who wanted Hughes banished to the bullpen. Don’t people realize that five starts do not make a starting pitcher? Whatever happened to the “small sample size” bullshit we hear about every stinking day? Did that not count for Hughes in April?

Hell, even the great Catfish Hunter had a disastrous start to his Yankee career, losing his first four starts after signing that huge 5 year, $3.2 million free agent contract.

Hughes had issues early on, primarily allowing an inordinate amount of home runs. Of the 19 HRs Hughes has allowed this season, 13 have been solo shots, and almost a third (6), have come in two games, both losses. So, similar to Catfish, despite the large amount of HRs allowed, they haven’t really hurt since the damage was usually one run, or in Hughes’ case were siphoned off in two games*.

*And in one of these games, the June 20th Atlanta game,  the Yankees banged out four home runs, too. That Wednesday afternoon was a hot and humid day just ripe for the long ball.

I remember one time I was telling a scout one time about guy who hit two HRs in a game, real bombs which travelled well over the fence. True no doubters. The scout asked me if any other HRs were hit. I said yes, quite a few and the scout said that the two hit by the kid were nice, but if the ball was flying out like that on that particular day, there were likely other factors invloved which helped the long balls that day.

But then Hughes turned his season around during an innocuous start in Kansas City, where Hughes allowed three earned runs in 6.2 innings, striking out seven and issuing one free pass. He still gave up a HR, but it was two-out, solo shot in the bottom of the 7th. Due to a pitch count of 115, and although the hurler appeared neither gassed nor in trouble of losing the lead, General Joe promptly removed Hughes from that game.

Hughes has then gone on a roll, winning 8 of his last 11 starts, helping form a solid Yankees rotation. Some of the reasons behind Hughes’ surge are his ability to get (and stay) ahead in the count, locate his fastball, throw his curve ball for strikes, and overpower hitters with his fastball. Another huge move was Hughes scrapping his cutter.

While many pitchers are in love with their cutter, I feel this pitch is the latest fad, along the likes of the splitter. Hughes fell in love with his cutter, too, but hitters began to look for it, and pounced. This is a piece I wrote back in 2010 about Hughes getting too predictive with his cut fastball.  Hughes threw it too much and I feel that is one reason why he lost velocity on his fastball and began to get those arm issues. According to FanGraphs, Hughes has thrown the cutter only 4% of the time, if that much.

From what I have noticed, early in games Hughes has gotten ahead most of the time with his fastball, then has used his curveball more often on the first pitch to get ahead later in the games. In his last start against the White Sox, Hughes only got behind on the count 2-0 to two batters, the leadoff guy in the first inning and then to Paul Konerko with two outs in the 8th inning.

While still making a few mistakes here and there (Such as why would Hughes throw a 2-strike curveball to Michael Morse in 3rd inning of his Washington start while he was blowing him away with his fastball the entire at bat), by and large Hughes is pitching smarter and with sustained velocity. Hughes was still popping his fastball up to 94 in the 6th inning of his most recent start and in that Washington game a few starts earlier.

That is progress which the Yankees wanted to see from their young pitcher.

And I do not believe this progress is “small sample size” garbage because it derived from a change in approach and improvement in repertoire. Hughes felt the need to eliminate his cutter and focus on his best pitches, the stuff which advanced him to the major leagues in the first place. This approach allowed him to throw harder and boost confidence enough to challenge hitters, something Hughes shied away from in the past. 

I have seen very good major league hitters fail against Hughes’ fastball late in games when everybody in the world knew it was coming. A perfect example is the 8th inning Kevin Youkilis at bat in Hughes’ last start. This was a massive 8-pitch at bat in a 4-2 game in an inning where most people thought Girardi was going to go to the bullpen and not let Hughes even start the inning.

And Hughes came through with a one, two, three inning against Youkilis, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, the heart of the White Sox lineup. It is that inning which necessitated this piece.

What to do with Phil Hughes?

Of course he is going to be a Yankee starting pitcher for the next two years. He has earned that right, even though the Yankees might make him “earn” his spot again next spring. That is just a joke…probably.

But what about after 2013, when Hughes can become a free agent? Still only 26 now, Hughes will be all of 28 when he gets to free agency, and with a solid year or two under his belt, if Hughes reaches free agency, plenty of teams will be calling for his services. Similar to Cole Hamels this off season, Hughes would still be in his “prime” years. And If Hughes continues his stellar pitching through next season, the numbers tossed around might even be too big for the Yankees to handle, especially if they are resigned to their self-imposed $189 million payroll noose.

So, despite the basic team motto of no negotiations during the season, the Yankees should approach Hughes and his agent to talk a long term deal.

Even before Curtis Granderson and even before Robinson Cano. Having a set starting rotation is of utmost importance in today’s game, especially a home grown kid for below market cost.

So, where to begin on numbers? Hughes is already earning $3.2 million this season through arbitration and would likely command $6-10 million next year. Hughes is 26 and a general lookup of 26 year old pitchers who have signed pre free agent deals turned up this one:

Jon Danks, who signed a 5 year/$65 million deal this past off season, then struggled before he was hurt and placed on the DL.

Other guys near Hughes’ age and history who signed long term deals during arbitration include Jon Lester (24, 5 yr/$30M), Johnny Cueto (24, 4 yr/$27M), Josh Johnson (26, 4 yr/$39M), Justin Verlander (26, 5yr/$80M), Jonathan Niese (25, 4 yr/25M).

Lester, Cueto and Niese were all younger and less established than Hughes, while Verlander, Johnson and Jered Weaver (29, 5 yr/$85) and Matt Cain (27, big money) were all established aces of their teams and were paid as such.

Hughes is very similar to Danks, but I believe Danks was paid too much. Danks likely received what he did because his length of work as a starter was established for several years, but I believe Hughes is a better pitcher. Somewhere in the middle of Danks and Cueto/Lester is about right for a probably Hughes deal.

How about offering Hughes a 4 year deal for $40 million with a club option for a fifth year at a slightly higher salary? Work from there and negotiate as the situation permits. That would keep Hughes in pinstripes through his key years and give the Yankees a certainty on a cost structure. If Hughes wants much more and test the free agent waters, then keep him for the two seasons and bid adieu.

But if Hughes rejects a long term deal and wants to test free agency, I would use him for 120 plus pitches each start next season. Let him really earn his free agent money.

As I said earlier, it is a credit to the Yankees brass (Cashman/Girardi) that they had the gumption to stick with Hughes in the rotation. A handful of starts are never a certainty when dealing with young pitchers, but with his new approach, Hughes has clearly turned the corner and has become a more consistent and durable pitcher for the Yankees. From his improved confidence and challenging hitters, Hughes has upped his strikeout rate this season while also lowering his walk rate.

Aren’t we told by the saber guys that this is a predictor of future success?

Sure, Hughes will still have a clunker now and then, but so does every pitcher.

I talked on Mike Silva’s radio show early this spring that the Yankees needed to at least give Hughes the chance to pitch through the All Star break to determine if he had a future in the rotation. I also said if the Yankees continued to jerk Hughes around like they did with Joba, NO WAY Hughes was going to give the Yankees an option regarding free agency. He would walk, and likely walk to the West coast (where he is from) or maybe the Boston Red Sox, his favorite team growing up.

It is time for the Yankees to pony up to keep Hughes in pinstripes. His youth and internal upbringing are keys to the future success of the Yankees rotation. Of course, the team could choose to lean on David Phelps, Adam Warren and DJ Mitchell in 2014 and beyond, or go on a free agent pitcher spending spree.

But it might be wise to combine the two and let Phelps work into the rotation and spend money on guys like Hughes who have already come up through the system and established themselves.

After all the hand wringing over the last couple years, it would a shame for the Yankees to lose their “golden child” of their system after he finally began living up to his potential.


Why Is Freddy Garcia and Not David Phelps Getting the Start Monday Night ?

June 28, 2012

The New York Yankees had a mixed day on Wednesday afternoon. First, they lost both CC Sabathia (leg) and Andy Pettitte (broken ankle) to the disabled list, but held on the beat the Cleveland Indians 5-4 and sweep the three game series.

Sabathia will likely miss only two starts, and will come back within a week after the All-Star break, while Pettitte is likely done for until mid-September. The word is Pettitte is gone for only six weeks, which takes the injury out to mid-August, but the way the Yankees run injury rehabs and “stretch out” programs, it will be AT LEAST another month after his ankle heals before Pettitte will take the hill in a major league game.

So, the Yankees can easily place Andy on the 60-day DL to clear a spot on the 40-man roster as he will not be back until September.

If the Yankees are still cruising through their division and best overall record in late August, why even rush Pettitte? Remember the 2010 season, when Andy had to make three minor league rehab starts in Double-A Trenton? The Yankees were worried about bringing him back too soon. How do you think they will be two years later for a 40-year-old Pettitte?

One pitcher who piggybacked Pettitte during that 2010 Thunder post season was Adam Warren, who will get one call up to replace CC/Andy. Warren struck out 10 New Hampshire hitters that evening in six innings.

NOTE: As I write this, I see tweets from several Yankee beat writers saying Warren and Ryota Igarashi will get the two call ups. I thought the Yankees were going to call up David Phelps and Warren. The call ups SHOULD be Phelps and Warren. But due to the Yankee organization “build up” process, since being sent down on June 14th for David Robertson, Phelps only has 5.1 innings under his belt, in High-A no less. Can we let these kids throw the god damn baseball? So, in the last MONTH, Phelps has less than six innings pitched.

Pathetic.

However, I still believe Phelps is ready.

Warren will now likely get at least two or three starts. Beginning with his first start tomorrow night, if Warren does well, he will continue to pitch until he has one bad start. That is the Yankee way. If he doesn’t do well immediately, the Yankees will promote Ramon Ortiz or David Phelps, whenever Phelps is ready.

GM Brian Cashman stated that if Phelps was “stretched out,*” he would have received the call rather than Warren.

*Oh, man how do I hate this term.

Then why wasn’t Phelps ready? Again, I do believe Phelps is ready, as ready as Garcia is now. But why did it take seven days for Phelps to even take the mound in a game when he was sent down on June 14th? I know players returned to the minors have three days to report, but the Yankees could have nudged Phelps to get to Tampa right away so he could begin pitching.

Any why in Tampa and not Triple-A, but that is another story.

Phelps started on June 21st and threw two innings. Two. Then he started again on June 26th, and threw 3.1 innings, using 55 pitches. According to the above linked report, Phelps will throw 65 pitches in his next start. Only 10 more pitches than his last start? By the time the Yankees let Phelps be ready for a real start, it could be mid-July. I am half-kidding but it will be close to that time at the rate they are going with 10 pitch increases.

And why does Phelps need to get stretched out even more when Garcia only threw 32 pitches yesterday plus a few dozen more in the bullpen afterwards. Isn’t Garcia around 55 pitches, too?

I don’t understand why Garcia is getting starts. Is it loyalty to the “good soldier” who has not said boo since being demoted to the bullpen or because Garcia is a veteran who is more trusted by manager Joe Girardi? I think it’s a bit of both, but despite a good 2 plus inning performance yesterday, Garcia still hasn’t been that good as a starter this season.

But he has been pretty effective as a reliever. Why not leave him in that role? It was similar to Sergio Mitre a few years ago, who was terrible as a starter in 2009 and early 2010, but thrived in a relief role most of 2010 when he was moved to the bullpen as long man. But when Mitre was pressed back as a spot starter due to injuries, he regressed back to his usual starter suckiness.

I have the feeling that “Starter Freddy” will come back quickly.

Why not have Phelps throw 80 pitches, and not 65, in his next start? Like the start Garcia is getting Monday night. That is all the pitches Garcia is likely going to be allowed to throw, unless, of course, he gets bombed early. It’s not like Phelps hasn’t thrown this year, and in his appearances, he has thrown much better than Garcia. Phelps and Warren are the future, especially when the Yankees are at their self-assessed $189 million cap for 2014.

The Yankees babying of these pitchers is getting brutal, and with the recent demotion of Dellin Betances, it appears their methods with minor league guys do not work very well.

However, if Phelps was allowed to pitch the way he should have been, Phelps could have started throwing a couple days after being sent down. Let’s say June 17th, then again June 21st, then again June 26th. Phelps then Phelps could already have been at the 80 pitch plateau, and ready for Friday or Monday.

I see quite a few Yankee fans worrying about the loss of their two veterans. Pettitte has surprised me this season, as I did not think he was going to be as effective as he has shown. I saw tweets and heard analysts saying the Yankees lost their “two best pitchers.” Well, guys like Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova have also been pretty darn good for June. Plus, the high octane offense and very good bullpen gives the Yankees some breathing room.

I would have gone with Phelps and Warren to anchor the two spots (at least until CC returns in two weeks), and leave Garcia in the role which he is performing well.  Warren will go tomorrow night and Garcia will start Monday.

And whenever Phelps gets “stretched out,” he should get the nod over the eventual ineffective Garcia, like he should have had already.


What Happens if Andy Pettitte Falters During his MLB Comeback?

May 13, 2012

Today marks the long anticipated return of New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, who has done his best Michael Jordan impersonation by retiring then un-retiring. His first start back is conveniently against the weakest hitting team in baseball, the Seattle Mariners. They are near the bottom of all the slash categories and near the top in strikeouts.

The Mariners are a good place to start for anybody, but especially a veteran stalwart coming off a year and a half absence and whose stuff in several minor league starts was not all that impressive.

Bet Ivan Nova wishes he were getting the ball today.

Coming back from a long absence is not easy. Some examples of success were Michael Vick’s return after missing two full seasons due to jail time, and running back Paul Hornung’s comeback was successful after he and Alex Karras were suspended for the entire 1963 NFL season for betting on football games. Both cemented their HOF credentials after they returned. Jordan’s comeback to the NBA was good after his stint as a baseball player. It goes to show what a tough sport baseball really is when the best athlete in the world at the time couldn’t cut it on the diamond.

And in baseball there were dozens of former players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and others who successfully came back to the game after serving for years overseas in World War II.

But all of those players weren’t 40 years old.

Pettitte’s last game in pinstripes was in the 2010 ALCS in a Game Four start against the Texas Rangers.  He allowed two runs on five hits over seven innings, suffering the loss in an 8-0 Rangers win. The Rangers were only up 2-0 entering the 9th inning but the Yankee bullpen couldn’t hold them, with David Robertson allowing five runs. It got so bad that Sergio Mitre even pitched!

Pettitte allowed a two-run home run to Josh Hamilton and that was it.

It was a sturdy performance by Andy, and he kept the Rangers hitters off balance all night, mixing his curve and cutter in and out, but rarely breaking 90 MPH.

Now after that long layoff, reports had Pettitte topping out at 87 MPH during his comeback starts, with his fastball generally in the 83-85 range. That might not get it done against major league hitters, especially if he isn’t locating very well. Pettitte hasn’t exactly had good performances against the minor league hitters he has faced, getting knocked around much more as his pitch counts were rising.

His last start a week ago saw him allow eight hits in five innings, allowing five runs, three earned. And his only Double-A start saw Pettitte also allow three earned runs with seven hits in five innings. But strangely, expectations are better for Pettitte while facing much better hitters.

I think all of us probably kind of expect that we’re going to see Andy Pettite (sic), what we’re used to seeing,” Girardi said. “A guy that grinds out starts. That has the ability to get double plays. That doesn’t panic out there. I think you can only go back on what you’ve seen from him. It’s not like he’s trying to reinvent himself. I think his stuff is going to be pretty similar to what he had when he walked away in 2010. That’s kind of what I feel. Will I be right? I hope so, but we’ll find out.”

But what if Pettitte isn’t that guy again, the guy who was 11-3, 3.28 ERA his final season? What if the major league hitters get fat pitches over the middle of the plate, and flat cutters with no bite like the 2012 minor league hitters were seeing? What if Pettitte allows five earned runs today in 2 2/3 innings? It would be easy to demote Phil Hughes back to the pen or David Phelps back to Triple-A if the kids were really bad, but would it be easy to give up on a Yankee icon?

GM Brian Cashman and Girardi will definitely give Andy another start or three, likely many more as it seems his spot in the rotation now is secure.

But what if that type of performance continues where he was the way Hughes started the season, or God forbid, the way Freddy Garcia started? Start after start of getting knocked around, with a good performance here and there for effect? Does Andy get the benefit of the doubt because he is a veteran with 240 career wins?

If Andy falters, my feeling is that Girardi will give Andy as many starts to “right the ship” and “find his stuff” all to the detriment of the Yankee bullpen and record.

When all the Pettitte comeback talk was on back in February, I wrote that the Yankees should be doing this for Pettitte’s October experience. I offered they Yankees should let Pettitte work in slowly, getting in to some game after the All-Star break and working towards a post season start. The team needs to find out how Nova would do in his second season, they needed to find out if Hughes can become the starter everyone expected.

Then Michael Pineda got hurt, Garcia bombed and Hughes was roughed up in his early starts. All hell broke loose in Yankee-land and Pettitte’s time frame was pushed up.

It is not like Hughes has continued his decline or Phelps (2 GS, 8.2 IP, 2 ER, 8 Ks, 4 BB) has been terrible in his time on the mound. These kids have been pretty good so far. Although it is not been reported yet (Girardi never says any concrete until after it happens), but it is likely Phelps will go back to the bullpen, or maybe even Triple-A to “get his innings up” similar to how Eduardo Nunez was sent down to “play SS full-time.”

Pettitte was brought back for his experience but now he is “needed” to solidify what was once perceived to be a formidable rotation. I still believe the rotation is fine as it is, and gives the Yankee kids like Phelps some much needed major league starting experience.

I hope Pettitte does well and helps lead the Yankees to the post season. But the odds are not great for similar success he had in 2010, and if he does not perform well, things could get ugly quickly for the Yankees and one of their icons.


The New York Yankees are at a Crossroads

May 6, 2012

Well, the New York Yankees are at a crossroads.

And that was well before Mariano Rivera tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee.

I was talking with Mike on Saturday, saying how this Yankee team was in a serious situation. They have a veteran team, aging superstars and aging bench players. Guys right now are playing every day that weren’t signed this season to play every day.

An aging and expensive team in a young man’s game. And the team is only getting more aged and will be getting more expensive.

So, these Yankees are at that crossroads and there are several reasons for this.  

First, there are the exorbitant salaries paid to aging players whose careers are on a decline. You see the decline already. Alex Rodriguez and especially Mark Teixeira are in their decline phases of their careers, former top of the line talent now slowly sinking down the rope to the floor below.

I wrote about Teixiera here, saying if he doesn’t change his approach (not trying to pull every pitch), his carrer as we had known it is effectively over. And over and over again I see Alex beaten inside with moderate to advanced fastballs, indicating his bat speed is further slowing.

Two guys, who play the infield corners for the Yankees, earning a total of $51.5 million this year, are in slow to moderate declines. They are owed a combined $204 million over the next 4/5 years. I bet the Kansas City Royals wouldn’t trade their current infield corners, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer (who had all four RBI in last night’s game) for Alex and Teixeira, even if the Yankees paid upfront to the Royals all of Alex and Teixeira’s salaries for balance of their careers.

Second, there is the self-imposed salary cap of $189 million for 2014.

It is this number which the Yankees owners have said they want the team payroll to be in 2014. This number will allow the Yankees to avoid huge luxury tax monies required to be paid to MLB. Not that the Yankees couldn’t afford higher salaries and additional luxury tax monies. They could even get a rebate if they remain under that amount for 2015 also.

With the $78 million tied up in Alex, Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Derek Jeter ($8 million player option) for 2014, the Yankees would “only” approximately have $111 million available for 21 other players. And they still have to re-sign Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano to extensions likely to cost $15 million each on an annual basis. Then by 2014, players such as Joba Chamberlain, Brett Gardner, Phil Hughes, David Robertson, Eduardo Nunez and Ivan Nova will all be eligible for arbitration or will be locked up for “below market” multi-year contracts.

That’s a lot of players important to the roster who will be making mucho more cash.

Third, the Yankees will very likely lose Russell Martin and Nick Swisher to free agency after this year. During every long Yankee run of titles, the team has a high quality catcher and right fielder. The Yankees have had such a history at catcher with Wally Schang (an OBP machine), Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada. In right field they had Babe Ruth, Bob Muesel, Tommy Henrich, Hank Bauer, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson and Paul O’Neill. But now, two important starters in highly Yankee-fabric positions of catcher and right fielder need to be replaced.

Both Martin and Swisher will likely command three year deals for $8-12 million per year. That might be too rich even for the 1% Yankees.

These open spots lead to the fourth reason the Yankees are at a severe crossroads. They have a severe lack of quality position player depth at their higher levels of the system. They have ZERO, repeat ZERO help on the way to fill any open starting position players for at least the next two seasons.

And I hope you aren’t saying to yourself, what about Zoilo Almonte, who impressed the spring training? Well, he wasn’t that good the first time playing at Double A, and it is a stretch to see him seriously contributing at the major league level until at least 2015. Other strong players such as Austin Romine (remember him?), David Adams, are always hurt, with Romine having chronic back issues. That isn’t good for a major league starting catcher.

All the other position players are three years away, and with the Yankees patient nature in developing young players, it may be even longer.

Yankee fans are now suffering through injuries, lack of production and, even though the playoffs were expanded, a feeling that they just might not be strong enough to make this postseason, let alone make a run to the World Series. New York fans, in particular most Yankee fans, have what have you done for me now relationship with their players.

Many have written that maybe the Yankees should have traded Gardner before last season when his value was highest; saying his success in 2010 was never going to be improved upon. But now they miss his OBP skills, speed and quality defense on an everyday basis.

After Swisher struggled again last October, almost all Yankee fans wanted to trade Swisher this past off season. But you see how Swisher and Gardner are very important to the Yankee lineup. Along with Jeter, they are the only two Yankee hitters who consistently go the away with pitches, opening up the field and therefore, getting more hits.

Now these same Yankee fans seriously wish both could come back from their injuries quickly. The New York fans love to react to those small sample sizes.

What the Yankees have done by playing the Ponzi scheme method of long term deals to players who are now aged and much less productive is coming home to roost. There is now dead money for guys, who aren’t producing up to their salary levels, will continue to decline and because of their salaries, would be blocking any young players the organization might have developed.

So, what to do?

The Yankees could continue with what they have always done and go with the veteran presence at most positions, eschewing young talent in their system and paying big dollars to players who are getting older, and will decline over time.

Let’s all admit it right now; the 2009 World Series title was bought with shelling out over $400 million to Sabathia, Teixeira and AJ Burnett. It sucks that the rules were changed in the middle of playing the game, and the luxury tax threshold was inserted. But that is the hand you are currently being dealt. Try to think of it as the Turn card in Texas Hold ‘Em improving the odds for your opponents.

The key for any team is to constantly work in young players with established veterans, letting certain veterans go free agent when they have kids ready for the majors. But the Yankees have not produced enough young players or given them a serious chance before pulling them, benching them or having fans ridicule them every time they make a mistake (like Nunez).

I say continue with letting David Phelps get starts, let Robertson now close and bring up another reliever (Chase Whitley) if they need a one inning type arm. I wrote about Whitley here. Since there isn’t a great need in the bullpen even with Mariano out, let Phil Hughes continue to start and get his innings in and see what you have over a full season.

You really don’t know what Hughes can do. Let the guy throw the ball as a starting pitcher. Starting pitching is the largest annual expense for teams, especially if you have to go out on the free agent market and attempt to sign a Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke type starter. Except for a game here and there, Hughes can barely make it out of the fifth inning most games because that he what he is used to throwing. That is the way he has been developed. Hughes has made 77 career starts and pitched 7+ innings only 13 times, most recently in his last start when Joe Girardi finally let Hughes throw 115 pitches, only the second time he has reached this plateau in his career.

In regards to the veterans on the team, offer Cano and Granderson semi-long deal of 4-5 years at $15 million each. First one to take it gets his money, the other needs to re-evaluate. With the self-imposed $189 million payroll, this is more important than ever. You can’t let a player dictate what the team can afford.

But if the Yankee brass decides they can withstand higher salariesand go over the $189 million threshhold, all bets are off. Sign away and watch the aging team get even older. The only way the Yankees survive is letting their kids play and develop. You know how the other way works now.

They might not make the postseason each and every year via development, but then again, this 2012 team is no lock right now either.


Most Intriguing Yankee Prospects for 2012

January 22, 2012

This is not a “Top 20″ or even a Top 10 list of New York Yankee prospects, as most of those lists include players who might never play in a major league game, let alone one for the Yankees. I even saw a lsit one time of T0p 50 Yankee prospects. Fifty? I believe that was three years ago, where one guy listed at #48 was a 27-year-old still in High A!  

However, the Yankees are notorious for not giving many of their prospects an opportunity.

One area that the Yankees do use their young guys is in the bullpen. But it takes them awhile to have trust in guys.

This is a piece on guys who could make their mark on the Yankee landscape in a big way this 2012 season.

One of the first things Brian Cashman changed when he gained control of the entire New York Yankees baseball organization in 2005 was to improve the draft and development program. While the first draft provided nothing, the second year in 2006 likely is the best draft of any team in recent memory.

No fewer than 10 players from that Yankees draft have reached the majors, and the one I thought would have one of the greatest impacts, Tim Norton, would also have reached the majors but has been beset by various injuries.

Norton was a college starter who the Yankees converted to short reliever, who began to dominate even up to his latest injury last season.

As mentioned earlier, the Yankees have been very good in developing relief pitchers during Cashman’s regime. They have produced Joba Chamberlain (insert argument here) and David Robertson, both college pitchers who progressed very quickly through the Yankee system.

With the known uncertainty with relief pitchers year to year, it is imperative for organizations to produce their own homegrown relief talent before the major league team spends $35 million on a reliever the team really does not need.

That is why two of my five most intriguing Yankee prospects for 2012 are current relievers in their system.

With Chamberlain and Phil Hughes (I am not fully convinced Hughes can be a full time starting pitcher) becoming free agents after 2013, it is imperative the Yankees develop a few more major league quality middle relievers to both replace Joba and Phil, who both will leave to become starters elsewhere, and to help keep a lower payroll to add flexibility when the team needs to add salary.

The Yankees also need to find if their recent surge in starting pitching prospects will turn beneficial for the franchise. The Tampa Bay Rays have continuously developed starting pitching which have kept their payroll low and their potential for winning the AL East high.

Here are my five most intriguing Yankees prospects for 2012:

1) Mark Montgomery – RHP

This guy possesses the same type of repertoire as David Robertson, with a big fastball and dynamic breaking ball, although M&Ms out pitch is a wicked slider. With only four appearances, Montgomery blew through the NY-Penn League last year and dominated an overmatched Sally League upon his quick promotion. In both leagues, Montgomery has double digit strikeout rates per 9 innings.

Similar to Robertson in 2007, who pitched at three levels his first full year in the system, look for Montgomery to start 2012 in High A Tampa, but don’t be surprised if he ends up in Triple-A  or higher.

The Yankees need more strikeout reliever types in the higher levels.

2) Manny Banuelos – LHP

Over the last three seasons, the Yankees system has begun to produce high level starting pitching talent, with the 20-year old Banuelos the cream of the crop. With a very easy mid-90s fastball and plus changeup, Banuelos reminds me of a young Johan Santana. However, Banuelos has a much better delivery than Santana, which should keep his arm healthy in the future.

Manny dominated the lower levels, but even though he still was only 20 and in his first full year at the higher levels, he struggled with his control a little during his brief time in Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton. While seeing Banuelos in person many times, he tends to nibble, but his stuff is good enough to throw the ball over the plate and get away with minimal contact.

Now that he has a few innings at the higher levels, this season is important for Banuelos and the Yankees, who thus far have resisted the need the trade their prized left handed prospect for a mediocre veteran starting pitcher.  He needs to improve his control and confidence in his pitches, and show the Yankees their patience will be rewarded.

3) Mason Williams – OF

In only his first full (semi-full actually) season in pro ball, Williams also dominated the NY-Penn League with a .349 BA/.395 OBP/.468 SLG slash line, including 3 HRs. He used his speed to register 11 doubles and 6 triples, while swiping 28 stolen bases. With the dearth of Yankee outfield prospects in the high minors, I want the Yankees to challenge the 20-year old. I look for Williams to skip Charleston and move directly from Staten Island to High-A Tampa, close to his Florida home.

This move is not without precedent as another Yankees speedster, Brett Gardner, skipped Charleston on his run to the majors.

How Williams performs will go a long way as to whether the Yankees need to begin signing free agent outfielders to long term deals (and thus crippling their payroll) or going the year-by-year route until guys like Williams become major league ready by the 2014 season.

4) Branden Pinder – RHP

SI’s Tom Verducci wrote this piece about the Yankees’ David Robertson which indicated the diminutive reliever gets more “hop” on his fastball because of his long stride and extension to home plate. Well, Branden Pinder, closer for the Staten Island Yankees in 2011 after M&M was promoted, has that same long extension and “hop”.

Bringing the heat at 93-95 all year for the Baby Bombers, his fastball was actually registering to hitters at 96-98. Although the pitch was consistently up in the zone, he was able to get away with it at this level. His slider was sharp on occasion, but not consistent and he does throw slightly across his body.

These are very minor and correctable faults.

I don’t expect the Yankees to put both Pinder and Montgomery at High-A Tampa, so Pinder will likely start in Charleston and move up quickly as his strikeouts progress and how well Montgomery performs early on in Tampa. The Yankees normally do not work with kids much until they reach High-A Tampa, and this should provide the Yankees with a reason to move Pinder quickly through the system. Get him to Tampa and have the Tampa staff work on improving that slider and delivery.

As with Montgomery, the Yankees want to continue their development with high impact relief arms and Pinder fits that profile very well.

5) Gary Sanchez – C

I had a few others considered for this spot including J. R. Murphy and David Adams, two kids who are always hurt.

However, depending how he improves, Sanchez gives the Yankees flexibility and options. Even with the trade of Jesus Montero, the Yankees are still heavy in catching prospects, and Sanchez, with his power arm and bat is likely the brightest of the bunch.

While hitting .256/.335/.485 as an 18 year old in Low-A Charleston, Sanchez produced 17 home runs in only 343 PA, the same HR total as Jesus Montero at this level, in 220 LESS PAs! He is less refined as a hitter than Montero but has typical catcher bat qualities; that is, a solid .270-290 batting average projection with immense power.

I saw him play several times and he looked lackluster in the field and in the box, almost appearing “entitled” and “bored” at the same time. If Sanchez improves his mental approach to the game, which he should in Tampa with all the brass watching, this talented kid could push the Yankees to move Austin Romine (who I feel is overrated) out of a potential starting job.

Honorable Mentions

J.R. Murphy (great plate discipline), Chase Whitley (rapidly moving reliever), Slade Heathcott (health) and David Adams (health).


Jesus Montero: An Overall Analysis

September 11, 2011

Resisting the urge and fan demands to get a starting pitcher at the trading deadline, New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman stuck to his guns and refused to trade a package of prospects for less than a sure thing pitcher. This would be a pitcher who undoubtedly would solidify the Yankees to win another World Series.

Headlining any package for a stating pitcher was Jesus Montero, a catcher built into first baseman/DH body. Cashman refused to include Montero and others for Ubaldo Jimenez, the 2011 deadlines top available starting pitcher. While Cashman did offer Montero last season to the Seattle Mariners for Cliff Lee, Cashman rightfully felt that Lee’s immense talent would put the Yankees over  top while Jimenez would not improve the Yankees that much.

After Jimenez was traded to the Cleveland Indians, he has not really set the Mistake by the Lake on fire, with an ERA, WHIP and HR rate higher than what he put up in the National League.

Cashman always has said that Montero, with his tremendous opposite field power, was a middle of the order bat well-suited for Yankee Stadium and its shorter right field power alley. Middle of the order power hitters are just as tough to find as top starting pitchers. So far, Cashman has been proved prophetic.

It is very easy to state that Jesus Montero has had a nice beginning to his major league career. With seven hits in his first 20 at bats including three home runs, the casual fan acknowledges Montero’s sturdy exploits.

But the little things he does at the plate are the most impressive. The Yankee fan has heard for quite a few years that this kid was special when it came to his ability to hit the baseball. He has very quick hands and a good knowledge of the strike zone. But what Montero has shown in his first half-dozen games is far more advanced, especially for the level, than what I remember when last seeing him live.

I have not seen Montero live since his days in Trenton during the 2009 season. I also saw him play quite a bit when he was with Charleston in 2008. Back then, Montero showed lots of promise with good pitch recognition (laying off junk away) and power to both to left field and the opposite way. After Montero hit a bomb in the first game of a series in Lakewood, NJ, I was also at this game later in the series where Montero tripled to deep right center, a line drive that kept going, where Phillies top prospect Domonic Brown dove for the ball but just missed making the catch.

Brown was injured on the play and had to be removed from the game, with Montero getting his only triple that season.

Montero was impressive then and is still impressive now. There was much to like back then, but even more to like from what I have seen in his first half-dozen major league games.

What I like now in late 2011 is the new stance, a stance more balanced and compact. If you watch that video from 2008, Montero is more upright with less flex (or bend) in the knees. From viewing Montero at different points of his career, he changes his batting stance quite a bit. While I have not seen him live since 2009, I have seen quite a bit of video.

In this June 2009 video from his first game in Double-A Trenton, Montero has a very  low crouch, similar to what Jeff Bagwell used, a stance where the hitter needs tremendous leg strength and trunk rotation to be continuously effective. This is due to a hitter having a tendency to “lift up” his body out of the low crouch, causing a change in the ball plane and pulling off the ball. The result is usually infield/short outfield popups to the opposite side. Montero does all that in this video.

A hitter needs to hit down and through the ball, not by lifting up his body.

Montero kept this stance in early 2010, by still incorporating the wide base but is not as far into the crouch.  He uses the inward to tap as a timing mechanism both times.

But then something changed mid-season after Montero slumped May through July. He changed again in late 2010, still wide but more upright and very open. Notice how he is higher on his front toe, eliminated the smaller toe tap but used a higher leg kick.

Also notice the change in uniform numbers from 45 early in 2010 to 21 during the August 2010 videos. Sometimes hitters will do anything to change their results. But this showed me a hitter who was unsure of himself and looking for something “lucky” to help him.

In 2011 spring training it was more of the same upright stance on the front toe. But in April 2011, Montero began to use a version of his current stance. He is more balanced with a solid base (not rocking on the higher front toe), a better foundation to use his efficient load and quick hands. That April 9, 2011 home run to left field is literally a perfect swing.

Now that Montero is in the majors (hopefully for good), look for him to stop changing stances and work with Kevin Long to continue with the KLong style: balanced with a solid base, more flex in the knees, hands just off the back shoulder. This is very similar to how Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and now Andruw Jones all hit. It is amazing how Alex and Andruw now have very similar stances.

Montero has very quick hands and keeps his hands back well, especially on off-speed pitches even after he partially collapses his front side. Several times in his young major league career Montero was “fooled” on an off-speed pitch, but was still able to hit the ball hard because his hands were still back in the launch position. Hitting is two distinct parts. First you stride, then you swing, but the interesting part is they work in unison.

Montero keeps his hands back very well.

Knowing his hands are quick also allows Montero to let the ball get deeper in the zone. Along with good hip rotation, this is why Montero has so much power the opposite way. To be a good hitter, you need to allow outside pitches to travel farther to the plate before making contact. It is impossible to hit the ball consistently well on outside pitches if you hit them out in front of the plate like you would on an inside pitch.

But there are always concerns with young players. After the two opposite field home runs, and the long single off the right field wall, all the talk was whether Montero would be able to handle inside fastballs from major league pitchers.

Newsflash: very few hitters like the fastball in tight on their hands. The main reason why hitters can jump on a hard fastball on the inner third and hit the ball hard is many times they are looking for that pitch in a certain count and “cheat” a little by opening up. That is how some left handed hitters can hit Mariano’s cutter on the inside corner once in a while. They look for it and attack.

Another key on the inside fastball is to bring your hands in closer to your body during the swing to be able to get the barrel of the bat on the ball well in front of the plate.

Just over a month ago with Brian Cashman in attendance, Montero hit a 97 MPH fastball for a home run to left field. He can hit the inside fastball, and showed again Friday night with his home run to left field off of Jered Weaver. At 88 MPH, it wasn’t an overly fast pitch but was up and on the inside corner, a tough pitch for any hitter to mash.

With two strikes, it seemed Montero was looking for that particular inside pitch. This shows his ability to adjust to how he expects opposing pitchers to work him.

Montero has shown great plate discipline. I like Montero’s aggressiveness on hittable fastballs in the strike zone, and despite the first major league pitch he saw, Montero doesn’t chase many pitches outside the zone. With the bases loaded that first plate appearance, he was overly aggressive during that first pitch against Jon Lester. I believe Montero was swinging at that pitch no matter where it was, but tried to hold up when he saw it was two feet above the zone.

I imagine Montero was trying to become another Marcus Thames.

It impressed me that same first at bat when he took a couple two strike pitches out of the zone, one a fastball up and then a fastball away just off the plate. He also fouled back a couple hard insde fastballs off of Lester. However, the one pitch he seems to be susceptible is the low breaking ball from a lefty, striking out against Lester and Ricky Romero plus being out in front against Brett Cecil.

What I do not like is the fact that Montero will not get any playing time behind the plate. After Saturday night’s injury to Russell Martin, Girardi put Jorge Posada behind the plate. That is fine considering Montero was the DH that night and putting him behind the plate would have forced CC Sabathia (and all other pitchers) to bat.

But with Martin hurt and Francisco Cervelli having concussion symptoms, this would be a good time to have Montero catch a couple times a week, working with pitchers like Ivan Nova, who Montero has previously caught and a veteran like Bartolo Colon, a guy who throws lots of strikes.

While Montero’s qualities as a hitter, such as a solid, balanced stance, quick hands, knowledge of the strike zone and the ability to adjust will keep him in the majors for many years, his value will be enhanced by his ability to play a position (or two) and not just DH.

A few years ago, I ripped into Jorge Posada because he was being selfish by saying he only wanted to catch, not play first base. The idea of a team sport is to do anything to help your team, whether it play another position or teach the younger players how to be better players. Now that Posada has become more of a team player (with a little push from Joe Girardi earlier this year), it would be beneficial for the Yankees to use Montero in a multitude of roles to help the overall team.

Therefore, he needs to catch a few games a week, pick up a first baseman’s glove and learn to play there to give Teixeira a rest. That is what the St. Louis Cardinals did in 2001 when the 21 year old Albert Pujols was a rookie, when Prince Albert played four different positions to keep his potent bat in the lineup.

Montero may not seem like the best athlete in the world, but he does look more mobile now than he did earlier in the year. Also, he is still only 21 and has the youthfulness to get more athletic and become a better overall baseball player.

As I mentioned earlier, Montero’s bat will be around for a long time. He has hit everywhere he has played and will continue to hit in the majors. Cashman was correct in not trading him (and other prospects) for the likes of Jimenez, Wandy Rodriguez, Hiroki Kuroda or any other bums who would not have improved the Yankees this season.

I remember the July 31, 2011 NYBD radio show at the trading deadline when NYBD contributor (who from what I understand has a Yankee contact in Tampa who has never been correct on anything), said about Montero (at the 61:30 mark): “I don’t know why they didn’t trade him (Montero), I mean they could have gotten something for him…

What the hell does that mean? ”By something” did Russo mean a pedestrian, BELOW league average Ubaldo Jimenez? Or a crappy Ted Lilly or non-upgrade in Wandy Rodriguez? Russo even goes on at the 68:00 minute mark to say that “many people in the Yankee organization did not think Jimenez would translate well in the American League East.”

Then why would they want to trade their top prospects for him? I bet if Russo ran the Yankees since the time Cashman took over in 2005 the Yankees would be even worse than the Baltimore Orioles, and with a $350 million payroll. At that point, all the moat seats at the stadium would be empty.

During that same show Russo also said that “the bad guys won and by that I mean the Joe DelGrippo wing of the Yankees Universe.” I am glad Cashman did not trade Jesus Montero (and Ivan Nova plus others) for Ubaldo Jimenez, Wandy Rodriguez or any of the other bums the Russo faction of Yankees Universe wanted.

Since the respective teams do not win the World Series, trade deadline deals usually do not work out well for the teams getting the veterans.

Just ask the San Francisco Giants, who have lost 12.5 games off the standings since trading for Carlos Beltran, while Zack Wheeler has dominated the Florida State League since the trade.

Thus far Montero has performed well and should be a young, potent bat in the middle of the Yankee lineup for many years.

I am glad the Cashman/DelGrippo wing won this battle.


MLB Winter Meetings: New York Yankees in a Fight To Sign Free Agent Cliff Lee

December 7, 2010

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — With the Jayson Werth deal signed, sealed and delivered, and the Adrian Gonzalez trade done with the extension to be announced later, the entire baseball world is wondering where Cliff Lee will sign.

On Monday, Lee’s agent, Derek Braunecker, met with the various teams interested in his free-agent left-hander. Braunecker met with New York Yankees and Texas Rangers officials. There was even talk the Boston Red Sox met briefly with Lee’s agent, probably just to keep tabs on what the Yankees are up to.

Anyway, the domino theory is very much in play. Unless guys are being given what are now called “Jayson Werth”-type deals (that means out-of-their-mind contracts in terms of years and money), lots of people are going to decide after Lee signs.

Lee has a guaranteed deal with the Texas Rangers, on the financial side only. The years have not been determined. There are reports that Lee wants seven years and the Rangers have offered four, then five years guaranteed.

That is where it stands now. Lee has a five-year offer from the Rangers (presumably $23-25 million per season) to continue pitching in the Lone Star State.

Word is that if the Rangers move up to a sixth year guaranteed, and then Lee would be 80-90 percent sure he would go to Texas.

I believe that Cliff Lee WANTS to go back and pitch for the Texas Rangers, and that he is trying to find a way to do that. Lee likes the fact he is THE MAN in Texas and relishes the role of mentoring young pitchers C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland.

What can bring Lee to New York is if the Yankees top the Rangers and go for a seventh year guaranteed. If that’s the case, Lee may essentially have no other option but to take the money and come to New York.

I believe the Yankees don’t want to go for that seventh year, but they will do it kicking and screaming.

The Yankees are secondary for Lee, and he would only come for the money, as he feels he can win a title with either club. The Lee camp could be putting out that “will go to Texas for a sixth year” talk just to get the Yankees to also go a guaranteed sixth year.

Then if two teams are guaranteeing six years, it is only a matter of time before one goes that seventh year. The key in his camp is to get both teams already committing to six.

Braunecker putting out the word that Lee is a lock for Texas at six years is a good play on his part. The agent is doing everything he can to get the most money from a World Series-contending team.

However, an unexpected suitor for Lee has emerged—the Washington Nationals.

105614851_crop_340x234 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Talks were rampant early this morning that the Nats were going to offer Lee a seven-year deal, the amount of years Lee desires, but for less money per season.

No one here at the meetings thinks that the Nationals will land Lee, but the Lerner ownership group, likely the richest in the majors, is tired of all the losing.

Majority owner Ted Lerner is 85 years old and “desperately” would like to see a winner in Washington. This scenario is similar to how Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is trying to buy a World Series winner in the Motor City by signing free agents Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit.

But there is absolutely no way Cliff Lee ends up in Washington. The Nationals will throw a whole lot of money at Lee, but like Mark Teixeira did two years ago, Lee will reject the most money and sign with one of the contending teams.

If it comes down to the Yankees, Rangers or Natioanls, my guess is Texas.

The Rangers will eventually go for that sixth year to get the guy they want, just like the Red Sox went a seventh year with Adrian Gonzalez. Whether the Yankees offer Lee his desired seventh year will decide whether or not he goes to New York. But Yankees GM Brian Cashman has a solid history of convincing free agents to come play in New York, most notably CC Sabathia. 

But it is tough to see that happening right now for Cliff Lee, especially if the contract offered by Texas is the same.


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