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.

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Slade Heathcott: Looking at New York Yankees Starters in 2014 and Beyond

November 29, 2010

In the 2009 MLB draft, the New York Yankees selected Slade Heathcott in the first round, 29th overall.

It was not surprising to some as the Yankee were known to like the toolsy outfielder.

And in the recent Baseball America (BA) Top 10 New York Yankee prospects, Heathcott ranked No. 9. BA also projects future lineups and Slade was projected to be the starting center fielder in 2014.

Off the field issues, including difficulties with his home life while growing up led many teams to disregard the talented pitcher/outfielder in the 2009 draft. Heathcott led his team to the Texas 4A state baseball championship his senior year, collecting two hits in three official at bats, while closing the game out on the mound.

See that video here.

Heathcott was not without his share of injuries, too. He developed a knee injury while playing high school football, and had issues in his throwing shoulder from an injury also suffered in high school while diving for a ball in the outfield.

However, the Yankees were confident that Heathcott was mature enough to overcome the off the field questions, and talented enough to overcome the injury bug.

In addition to being a first round selection, Heathcott was also offered a full ride scholarship to play baseball at perennial powerhouse Louisiana State University. Incidentally, his roommate to be at LSU was former Louisiana standout prep pitcher Brody Colvin, a seventh round selection that same 2009 draft by the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

Heathcott used the leverage of college baseball against the Yankees, announcing his decision on the final day before agreeing to a whopping $2.9 million dollar, well over slot deal with the team.

Right after the draft, Heathcott was assigned to Instructional League in Tampa where he finished out 2009 with 11 PA in the Gulf Coast League. He began his 2010 season in extended Spring Training, before being assigned to Low-A Charleston RiverDogs of the South Atlantic (Sally) League in June.

The Low-A assignment was somewhat surprising as most people expected Heathcott to make his way to short season Staten Island and their smaller 60 game season. But the higher assignment is a testament to Slade’s talent level and he held his own against much older competition.

Heathcott finished the 2010 season by playing in 76 games, putting up a line of .258 BA/.359 OBP/.352 SLG/.712 OPS with two home runs and 30 RBI. He scored 48 runs, banged out 21 extra base hits and showed his patience at the plate by drawing 42 walks (12% of PA).

I saw him play several times, including a four game series played in New Jersey against the eventual Sally League champions, the Lakewood BlueClaws. Heathcott only played three games that series, missing the final tilt with a sore back.

Heathcott flashed the skills which prompted the Yankees to sign him, showing very good range in the outfield and tremendous speed on the bases. However, he took a circuitous route to the baseball on one long drive to left center in Lakewood, catching the ball based solely upon his speed.

Another drive in the same gap landed safely on the warning track because of another bad route, but in Heathcott’s defense, he was positioned well over in right center.

He is ultra-aggressive in his game, both in the field and on the bases.

In the three games I saw in Lakewood, Heathcott hit the ball well and showed his speed on the bases. He smacked a line drive double into the LF gap which the CF cut off and Heathcott made it to second easily before the throw. He also turned on a good inside fastball showing a nice, short stroke and good bat speed.

His running speed is outstanding, and besides the speed double, he scored from first on a two-out, two-bagger down the RF line. He got on base that time with a perfectly executed bunt single to third base, and neither play drew a throw.

He tried bunting other times (fouled off one; no attempt, bad pitch on another), and he told me it was a big part of his game. If he sees the 3rd baseman back, he will lay it down.

But all that speed has not translated in a high stolen base rate. He stole 15 bases but was caught 10 times plus was caught off base several times, including twice at second base in the Lakewood series.

Heathcott learned quickly that the throwing arms of catchers even on Low-A are much more developed than those of the prep catchers he went up against in high school. He can not take those huge secondary leads on every pitch. However, even after learning quickly, Heathcott continued to get picked off several more times during the last two months of the season.

In talking with Heathcott and RiverDogs manager Greg Colbrunn, I expected to hear that they were working on Slade getting better jumps in the outfield and being a little less aggressive on the bases.

Colbrunn said, “No, we want the kids to be themselves.” At this level the Yankees “let the kids play and try not to do too much for them.” The Yankees want to see how these kids work things out on their own, then try to work more with them at the next level and in Instructs.

Some of the situational hitting and other offensive decisions, plus pitching changes and their work between games, are set and made by Colbrunn and his terrific Charleston staff.

But by and large, the on field stuff is planned and carried out by the players.

That meant 19-year-old rookie catcher J.R. Murphy, the Yankees second overall pick in the 2009 draft called his own games behind the plate, working with other first full season pitchers.

And Heathcott ran his own game on the bases and in the batter’s box.

The latter is significant because Heathcott, while showing a disciplined strike zone, the ability to work deep counts and take his walks, also struck out a stunning  101 times in 351 plate appearances. For a speed guy like Heathcott, that is just way too many walks back to the dugout without putting the ball in play.

During the season were they working on changing Heathcott’s approach at the plate, especially with two strikes. “No, again, we don’t do too much with them. We let the kids play, said Colbrunn.”

So, the Yankees do not attempt to teach Heathcott to adjust his two-strike approach to put the ball in play more. They let him have at it and learn and adjust on his own. Slade didn’t adjust as much as I would have liked during the season but the talent is there and his instructional league was more learning.

While Slade shows he can hit, the power is not there yet. It will come with his short stroke and during one BP session, he consistently drove the ball deep to right center, about 420ish or so. He joked that the wind must have been flying out to right, then said “right D-Mack” joking with Charleston RF (and guy who’s locker was next to his) DeAngelo Mack who hit an extra innings, game winning homer to right field that night. 

His throwing arm is top of the line, certainly plus, plus. On a single to center field he threw the ball home that easily had the runner but the catcher misplayed it. After the game, Heath was not happy about the throw, saying he should have gotten it to the catcher in a better position to handle. But a sizzling line drive throw home on one bounce looked pretty good to me.

But his throwing arm is now an issue. After fall instructs, Heathcott had surgery on October 8th to repair the labrum in his throwing shoulder, which was hurt during that outfield dive in high school. Slade played through the pain most of the season, and he expects to be back at 100% for spring training.

Heathcott has a nice career ahead of him, and whether he develops his power (I feel he can be a 15-20 HR guy), determines whether he hits lead off or third in the future Yankee lineup.  New York fans will love his style of play – all out, all the time.

Slade’s talentis there and his stature with the Yankees depends on whether his tools translate to improved on field performance. I can see him getting better as the talent level around him improves…in both dugouts.

In my discussion with him, I said he reminds me of a guy who played for the Texas Rangers – Rusty Greer. Heathcott smiled and said that Greer was his favorite player growing up in Texarkana, TX, and that is who he patterns his game after. 

Greer was a solid player for eight seasons in Texas but his career was derailed from injuries. If Heathcott duplicates Greer’s production, Yankee fans will be extremely happy but Slade is at least three seasons away from the Bronx. Interestingly, that 2014 season is right after Curtis Granderson’s last year of his contract.

Slade Heathcott is a good kid (Yes, sir. No, sir all the time) with lots of smiles and is a fun kid in the clubhouse, singing out loud to the music and joking with teammates. Despite his No. 1 draft pick status, he is not pretentious and seems well-grounded.

He is also a well-built young man with muscles on his muscles. While his playing style reminds me of Rusty Greer, his physique is all Mickey Mantle (another Slade favorite player) with strong arms, a very broad back and solid legs. 

The Yankees hope he remains more healthy than either of those two Heathcott idols.


New York Yankees: Can Pitching Coach Larry Rothschild Really Fix A.J. Burnett?

November 26, 2010

All the New York Yankees news the past week or so has been about Derek Jeter and his new deal. How much will Jeter “settle” for and will the Yankees come up from their three-year, $45 million deal. Also, some Mariano Rivera news has popped up. Will the Yankees give him a two-year deal?

But one big story a couple weeks ago was the hiring of new Yankee pitching coach, Larry Rothschild. His big job would need to be “fixing” A.J. Burnett, a bad pitcher locked into an $82.5 million body.

Larry Rothschild really has his work cut out for him.

Tons of articles about how Rothschild needs to find out what is wrong with A.J. Burnett, identify those faults (which are many) and “fix” A.J. Burnett’s mechanics.

That is going to be very difficult.

You see, Burnett is entering the third year of a five-year contract which is paying him $16.5 million per year. Chump change for most of us, but real money to Burnett.

Burnett is also going to be 34 years old in 2011, has a dozen seasons of pitching in the major leagues on his ledger and has thrown 1,770 major league innings. Rothschild has pitched a total of 8.1 innings during his major league career.

Do you really think Burnett is going to scrap the way he has pitched for more than 12 seasons to go along with a guy who doesn’t have enough innings for even one complete game?

I don’t think so, because even though A.J. is deemed “a good guy” by most of the Yankee beat writers, I see Burnett as a guy who cares only about himself.

Burnett has had his share of incidents with the teams he has played. First, he was kicked off the Florida Marlins team in September 2005 for detrimental comments about the manager, Jack McKeon, and the organization.

He was kicked off the team! The Marlins said, “Get lost, we don’t want you around here anymore!”

Burnett also showed up one day this season with a black eye. No one has said what happened, but I would not be surprised if Burnett popped off to someone in the locker room (Jorge Posada?) who took matters into his own fists… I mean, hands.

As I wrote in the past, I would have stayed far away form A.J. Burnett two winters ago. He showed to have a bad attitude and only performed well in arbitration and his walk years. I even had a huge discussion about it on 1050 NY ESPN radio host Michael Kay. His last comment was “that is who the Yankees really want.”

The Yankees should have passed on Burnett. When you look into Burnett’s career, he really hasn’t had one dominant season, not even a few really good seasons. He has always gotten by on the fact that he “has great stuff.” But when you can’t get hitters out on a consistent basis, you don’t have great stuff.

Even Burnett’s “good” 2008 season in Toronto, he was 5-1 with a 2.05 ERA against the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but only 13-9 with a 4.93 ERA in all other games. Typical Burnett of pitching well in a walk year against two rivals, but not doing well otherwise.

Now Larry Rothschild will be looked upon to save the big (black eye) guy. While it is somewhat easy to recognize pitching faults and work with the pitcher to correct them, it is much more difficult to get past the pitcher’s mental faults.

Burnett has many mental faults and it will be tough to get him to change those to become more confident and to concentrate more on each pitch.

Physical faults can be corrected.  

The biggest issue is that Burnett does not have command of his fastball. How many times do you watch a game and the Yankee catcher is set up on one corner or the other and Burnett throws a fat pitch right down the middle?

Too many times. And when the ball does not travel over the middle, it usually misses way outside or way inside, often hitting the batter. In fact, Burnett led the major league in hit batsmen in 2010 with 19.

No control with or command of the fastball, which is always what you hear manager Joe Girardi say after bad Burnett outings. Burnett’s pitches move too much.

Easiest thing to do to “fix” Burnett is to have him throw his fastball right down the middle. They can first test A.J. to see if maybe he has his A game and can hit the corners. But that rarely happens so move to Plan B is needed.

Since Burnett can not hit a corner on a consistent basis, the thing to do is have the catcher set up for fastballs right over the middle of the plate—every fastball, every time. Then, when A.J. has his movement going, or he is not concentrating, the pitches he throws to the glove will miss to either side and be near or right on the corners.

Tough for hitters to take those pitches and even tougher for them to hit.

We used to do this in college with high velocity guys who could not locate and Davey Johnson convinced this was the way to go with Sid Fernandez back in the 1980s. El Sid was a really good pitcher for the New York Mets during their heyday, allowing precious few hits but tons of free passes.

This tactic couldn’t be any worse than how A.J. performed in 2010. Throwing the ball down the middle could only be better, but the Yankees would never do something as simple as that.

In 2010, A.J. has had his worst statistical season as a full time starting pitcher. Worst strike out rate, worst WHIP, worst HR rate, worst ERA and almost worst walk rate.

That has to be a really bad FIP.

So they will attempt to “fix” Burnett’s mechanics.

Let me help out the new pitching coach with identifying Burnett’s mechanical issues.

Burnett uses a big hip turn where he shows the number of his uniform and his back pocket to the hitter. No need for this as it does two things. This provides no benefit to velocity and actually pulls Burnett away from the forward momentum he should be delivering directly to the plate.

What this big backwards hip turn does is reduce his velocity by creating excess movement during the delivery. Velocity has nothing to do with the strength of your arm, but the power of your core including a powerful hip turn after the front foot lands.

The big hip turn will also usually cause the lead leg to swing out and straighten when the lead leg should remain in a bent position. It is not good when the front leg acts like a swinging gate.  As I said earlier, a big turn of the hips is good after the front leg lands, not before it.

A swinging gate front leg often causes the landing foot to plant in different spots, away from the mid-line to home plate, causing the aforementioned reduced velocity and any concept of control of his pitches 

Add in the fact that Burnett does not concentrate on every pitch and that is a recipe for disaster. A disaster which turned out to be his 2010 season.  

Repeating mechanics is very difficult for Burnett because of so much movement and lack of concentration. Similar to what Dontrelle Willis has been going through since, well, forever.

First step to “fix” Burnett is to eliminate his aggressive backward hip turn and have him bring the lead leg up, down and out. Eliminating all the excess backward movement will increase Burnett’s velocity and improve his control.

As I mentioned earlier, the toughest thing for Rothschild to “fix” is Burnett’s mound demeanor and concentration. Burnett doesn’t seem like he really cares out on the mound. Several pitches in a row look good, then four hits and two walks later, the Yanks are down by three.

Only thing which works on the mental aspect is to treat the player like a child. Take things away, like his spot in the rotation. But that will never happen with all that money being paid to Burnett.

I can’t see Burnett listening much to what Rothschild says. If Burnett proves me incorrect, then it would be great all around for Yankee fans, but I just don’t see it based upon his track record of individualism.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Best thing for the organization is to try and work a trade for A.J., eat lots of cash and let a young kid from the system take his spot. Get rid of the black cloud of having pressure on Rothschild to “fix” Burnett and having constant questions after every one of Burnett’s bad starts.

With Andy Pettitte looking like he will return for one more season and the almost certainty of signing Cliff Lee, the Yankees can afford to take a hit by trading Burnett (limited no trade clause) and using a kid (Ivan Nova, David Phelps?) as the fifth starter.

They couldn’t do any worse than the 10-15, 5.26 ERA and 1.511 WHIP Burnett put up last season.

Biggest way to fix Burnett is to not have him around anymore.


Victor Martinez: Tigers Sign Catcher, Show They Don’t Know How To Build a Team

November 23, 2010

The Detroit Tigers are about to sign free agent Victor Martinez to a four-year deal worth $50 million. Martinez is listed as a catcher, but will primarily earn his keep via the designated hitter position.

It is said this move will give the Tigers a real good 3-4 duo of Miguel Cabrera and Martinez with V-Mart providing valuable protection for Cabrera. Maybe they can even sign another hitter (Magglio Ordonez, Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford?) to have a good 3-4-5.

That might boost Cabrera’s MVP status for next season (he finished 2nd today), but it still will not help the Tigers win in 2011 or 2012 and especially not during the final two seasons of the proposed deal.

The signing is terrible for the Tigers, and comes on the heel of another bad signing, the three-year $16.5 million deal for right handed relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit.

It just goes to show that the Tigers management has no idea how to build a winning team. As the Tigers are trying to do, it is impossible to buy your way into a championship.

Martinez does not offer anything more than a DH and occasional first baseman. He is completely unproductive on the defensive end of catching, unable to move well behind the plate and is really good in his ability to allow stolen bases. I am sure V-Mart is not the best game-caller either.

So to pay $50 million for a 32 year old DH is mind-boggling. And not only do they sign Martinez for four years, but they also have to give up a first round draft pick in 2011 (No. 19 overall) to the Boston Red Sox.

The Tigers give up a draft pick in a draft that is considered to be very, very deep. It could rival the 2002 first round and/or 2005 first round in terms of quality and depth.  And both those drafts were quality after the first round, too.

So, in a deep draft, a team which has a terrible farm system has given away its first round pick, and if they sign another Type A free agent, they lose their second round pick, too.

I am not against free agent signings. Many free agent signings work out for the teams with decent production, but rarely do they ever lead to World Series championships. When they do, it is because the free agent player was the “final piece.” 

Free agents are to be used to supplement a good farm system, to complement the players a team has already developed and who are ready to compete. They should not be signed to start a team or fix up some holes.

When your own home grown players have reached the point where they are “knocking on the door” is when you search the free agent market for that key piece. The Tigers did that in 2004 when they went out and signed Pudge Rodriguez to handle a younger pitching staff, and eventually went to the World Series in 2006.

The fact that the 2010 Tigers positional prospects are ranked the worst overall in baseball has forced the Tigers hand here to sign an aging FA veteran bat.

And the prospect spiral keeps plummeting downward for the Tigers. They would not win in 2011 without Martinez and they will not win with him.

Martinez is not a key piece for the Tigers as their lineup still stinks even with him protecting Cabrera in the No. 4 hole. V-Mart had a decent season last year, but in no way does it warrant a four-year deal worth $50 million. He is not a real impact guy, only the best available now, and will only decline as he gets older.

Even if Martinez does not catch any games in 2011, the wear and tear already on his lower half will hasten any decline*. Did you know Martinez only has had one season with a plus .500 slugging percentage?

Even Derek Jeter had one plus .500 slugging season, back in 1999. Jeter’s career OPS is a scant .001 below Martinez career mark of .838. Is that worth $50 million? In a park which is historically bad for Martinez and is considered a pitcher’s park?

*Some readers will relate this deal to the one the Yankees gave Jorge Posada four seasons ago, a four year $52 million deal. Another deteriorating switch-hitting catcher who will end up as a DH. But things are much different for the Yankees at that point.

First, Posada was a home grown, key member of the Yankees dynasty run in the late 1990s-early 2000s. There is something to be said for paying for past performance when you are a home grown champion. Second, Posada was still the primary catcher and also pretty decent behind the plate at that point. Third, he was coming off a career year which he slashed .338 BA/.426 OBP/.543 SLG/.970 OPS, with 42 doubles, 20 HRs and 90 RBI.

The deal does not make sense in terms of years, money or losing a draft pick.

The Tigers would be better suited to follow the lead of the Minnesota Twins, who won the A.L. Central division last year, three of the last five years and six of the last nine seasons. Load up on home grown talent, sign the top two or three to long term deals, and keep producing enough talent to fill holes along the way.

Granted the Tigers are taking on more payroll in trying to win.

But smart franchises increase payroll on their own players, not somebody else’s free agents.

That is the recipe for staying near the top of the standings nearly every season. But an organization first has to produce your own home grown major league talent.

Bad franchises keep signing other teams players instead of producing their own.

Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit are two bad free agent signings.

Par for the course within the Tigers ownership of Mike Ilitch.


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.


Arizona Fall League: Position Player Reports On Four Who Could Be In MLB In 2011

November 18, 2010

NOTE: This is a very long piece.

The Arizona Fall League is quite a place to watch games and to get glimpses of future major leaguers. According to the 2010 AFL media guide, over 1,800 former AFL alumni have reached the major leagues.

Last season saw Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg, Starlin Castro and Mike Stanton play in the AFL, then star in the major leagues.

And the AFL is not just for budding MLB players. Current managers who got their start in the AFL include Dusty Baker, Mike Scioscia, Terry Francona, Jerry Manuel (an AFL Hall of Famer) and Texas Rangers skipper Ron Washington.

This season Don Mattingly is managing the hapless Phoenix Desert Dogs and Ted Simmons (who is on the Veterans Committee ballot for the HOF) is managing the Peoria Saguaros. Meanwhile, the Peoria Javelinas teams included Roger Clemens’ son Koby, and a couple of Cleveland Indians kids I liked.

However, the biggest drawing card was the Scottsdale Scorpions, who’s roster included 2010 No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper. He was assigned late to the team, was technically on the taxi squad, and only was allowed to play twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday.

While my previous reports have been on New York Yankee prospects, here is a breakdown of several position players from other organizations who impressed during my week of watching 10 games in the AFL, including the Rising Stars Game.

Brandonbelt_original_crop_340x234 San Francisco Giants Brandon Belt shows his new power stroke

Eric Hosmer – 1B Kansas City Royals

Hosmer is a big (6’4″, 215 lb) first baseman who has shown ability at the plate. Unlike his early days of being an almost total pull-hitter, Hosmer has shown in the AFL a balanced swing and the ability to drive pitches the other way.

In two at-bats, both against Yankees pitchers, Hosmer lined a single to left field off Craig Heyer, then in the Rising Stars game he drilled a deep fly ball to left off of Manuel Banuelos. He let the ball get deep and used nice balance and bat speed to drive both pitches.  

He also showed a keen eye at the plate, repeatedly taking close pitches just off the plate, even with two strikes.

But I did notice that Hosmer had a tendency to drop his hands on several occasions.

Hosmer lacks even average speed and quickness, which showed on occasion around the first base bag. I thought his first step was slow and footwork around the bag just okay, while his tracking of foul pop ups were terrible. He made some nice plays at first, including a diving stop, but he did not have the range to get anything hit within a few feet of him.

But it is his bat which will make him a future major league all star. You may see Hosmer in Kansas City by the second half of 2012, but I wouldn’t rush the kid and (unless he dominated Triple A) would let him play the entire season in Omaha.

97569406_original_crop_340x234 Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Brandon Belt – 1B San Francisco Giants

It has been well documented that the Giants made adjustments to Belt’s swing, and he improved dramatically in 2010, his first pro season. He was a decent hitter at the University of Texas but has really belted the ball as a pro.

Over three levels this year, Belt slashed .352 BA/.455 OBP/.620 SLG with an amazing OPS of 1.075. He pounded out 43 doubles, 10 triples, 23 HRs and 112 “meaningless” RBI. He also showed great plate discipline by walking almost as much  as he struck out (93 BB vs 97 K’s).  

Seeing him for the first time as a pro in AFL games, I saw a polished hitter who can hit for average and power in the major leagues. Belt has a more open stance and has his hands much higher than he did in college. He is more balanced and his bat path to the ball is much more direct with the higher hands.

Belt adjusts great during at-bats, and on several occasions, a pitch which gave him trouble early was attacked much better later in the at-bat.

For example, a tight curve low and in caused him a bad swing, but later in the at-bat Belt hammered a similar pitch with two strikes to right field for a single.

However, the low and in pitch, both from RHP and LHP, consistently caused Belt trouble during the games I saw. That’s very unusual for the left-handed hitting Belt, as lefties normally dominate the low pitch.  

Jasonkipnis_crop_340x234 Jason Kipnis’ balanced swing

He does have immense power the other way. In Scottsdale Stadium, I saw Belt hit a home run over the left field fence near the foul line, and that fence down the line is 360 feet away. Belt also sent several long drives for triples deep into the left field gap off both fastballs and breaking pitches.

While he had 22 stolen bases this season, most (18) were at High A, where Belt took advantage of the weaker ability of lower-level pitchers in holding on runners. But, he did show very aggressive base running skills, going first to third on a ball hit to left center, and looking to stretch doubles into triples.

His four triples in 79 ABs in the AFL are a testament to his ability to drive the ball and his aggressive base running. I have always felt that triples were really doubles but with faster, more aggressive runners. Belt also has 10 triples during the regular season showing his aggressiveness is not a “small sample size.”

His speed and quickness apply to defense, too. Belt showed good range at first base, with good hands and a strong, accurate throwing arm. The arm is no surprise as Belt used to hit over 90 MPH as a pitcher at Texas.

Belt made two pretty nice plays, first coming down the line all the way into the catcher’s area to catch a foul pop. Next, he snared a hard-hit smash, then made a great throw over the runner to start a 3-6-3 double play.

Brandon Belt has star written all over him.

He is a superb hitter who makes adjustments, a plus fielder with good instincts and a good, aggressive baserunner who has above average speed.

Expect to see Belt during the 2011 season, probably after the All-Star break. If I were the Giants, I would not commit to more than one year for Aubrey Huff. No need for him in 2012.

Dustin Ackley – 2B Seattle Mariners

Ackley showed great plate discipline and a short, quick stroke during the times I saw. Combined with good hip rotation, it provided Ackley with a many hard hit balls and decent power for a guy his size.  

Not known as a power threat, however, Ackley works the entire field with his short stroke, shorter than what he displayed in college. He keeps his hands in tight to his body, innately putting the barrel on the ball on pitches both outside and over the inner third.

Ackley also continues to possess a good batting eye, walking at a 15.9% rate in Double A this season (in 344 PA), and although he had a reduced walk rate of 8.6% in Triple A, his AFL rate of 27% is amazing.

He possesses above average running speed, and although he had double digit steals in college, his speed has not yet translated to high stolen base numbers in the pros.

He played first base in college due to his inability to throw in recovering from Tommy John surgery, and was projected to play center field in the pro ranks. But his outfield defense was not especially strong and was moved to second base, where his good batting average, high OBP, lots of doubles and 15-20 home run power translates best.

Ackley has only one year of professional baseball under his belt, but has shown he can hit at the higher levels, and gets on base at high rates.  

He reminds me of Chase Utley of the Phillies. Similar build, ability to get on base and adequate defense at second base.

Expect Ackley to be in Seattle by the middle of 2011 as 3B Jose Lopez gets moved over the winter and Figgins moves over to 3B. But since Seattle is not expected to compete, Ackley might have to wait a few months to let his arbitration clock begin later.

Jason Kipnis – IF Cleveland Indians

One of the best things about watching AFL games is the opportunity to see players you have never heard of before, let alone seen live.

One of these kids is the Indians young infield prospect Jason Kipnis, a left handed hitter. While Kipnis played most of the 2010 season at 2B, he also played 3B here in the AFL.

He is not fully adept at either, but I do like his quickness better at third than I like his range at second.

Kipnis was a second-round pick by the Indians out of Arizona State, and also was a high draft pick a year earlier by the San Diego Padres, but did not sign.  

Kipnis can flat out hit. He has a very quick, compact swing which allows him to let the ball get deep before he attacks. And attack is the precise work for Kipnis, who looks to drive the ball on both the first pitch as well as an 0-2 offering.

And for a smallish guy (5″ 11″, 175 lbs), he can hit for power, too. Kipnis’ tremendously quick bat, good balance and rotation allow him to drive the ball over the fence. He hit 16 homers at two levels this year, his first pro season, and has hit three more in the AFL.  

He is an extra-base machine, banging out 11 doubles and three triples in the AFL. He aslo slugged .502 at Double A Akron with 20 doubles and five triples.

He is not a burner, but has good speed getting around the bases and his aggressive in taking the extra base. Due to being solidly balanced in his swing and follow through, Kipnis gets out of the box quick and motors to first base. On one of his triples I had him timed home to third in 11.07 seconds.  

He is very patient, does not chase pitches and handles the breaking ball very well. He keeps his hands back on off speed pitches and did not “buckle” his front side even one time, though I saw him swing and miss at a good curve ball.

I saw Kipnis play three different times and this was a typical good at-bat: He took a first pitch change-up just off the plate for a ball, then attacked at the same pitch on the outside corner, fouling it back.

He then took another outside change up for a called strike. He likely was looking for something in, and when he did not get a pitch in his zone, he took it. That is a sign of a real disciplined hitter, one that is comfortable hitting with two strikes.

On 1-2, Kipnis did get an inside fastball and fouled it off, then the 2-2 pitch was belted into left center for a triple. This is where he ran his 11.07 home to third.

He showed he adjusts well during an at-bat, handling both sides of the plate, and stays in very well versus left handed pitchers, hitting them for a .417 clip in the AFL with five extra-base hits in 17 ABs.

And his quick bat was never more evident than when he turned on a 99 MPH fastball from Chicago Cubs fireballer Chris Carpenter during the Rising Stars game, doubling hard down the right field line.

During his pro season, Kipnis has walked about 10% of his plate appearances, but had a 17.7% rate in his two full seasons at Arizona State. And he was very consistent his two years at Arizona State, generating almost the same amount of games, runs, hits, home runs, RBI, walks and stolen bases. Check out his full college career here.

And his consistency has translated to his pro career as he had nearly similar production at High A and Double A. He was hitting .173 in the AFL through last week, but a recent 14-26 surge, with eight doubles and seven RBI lifted his final slash line to .295 BA/.337 OBP/.628 SLG/.966 OPS.

Kipnis has all the hitting tools that you want in a player: patience, high contact rates, good batting eye, ability to hit for average and with surprising power. He runs well and appears to have a good “feel” and instincts for the game.

Plus his numbers in the High A Carolina League were also not inflated by the heavy hitting normally found in the California League, where many of these AFL hitters have put up great numbers. There is nothing really great about Kipnis’ game, it is just that he does everything pretty darn well.

Kipnis probably will start at Triple A Columbus*, and with the Indians having the likes of Jason Donald, Luis Valbuera and Jayson Nix on the current roster, he has a chance to be promoted to Cleveland if he has a good first half in 2011.

* In fact, as I was writing this extremely long piece, the AFL ended its regular season and stats were updated on the milb.com site. It now lists Kipnis as a member of the Columbus Clippers, so my prognostication was accurate.

COMMENTS

I will reserve my Bryce Harper analysis for a separate piece, mainly because I do not foresee him possibly reaching the majors in 2011—no matter how well he does starting in Low A ball at Hagerstown. While I can be greedy as I would get to see Harper play quite a bit, after his impressive AFL, though, if the Nationals had guts, they could start Harper in High A Potomac.

Also, there were other guys who warrant recognition, such as Cord Phelps of the Cleveland Indians, who makes good contact and gets on base, but has little power or speed. He does hold his hands a little low, but doesn’t seem to be affected by fastballs up or in. He will start at Triple A at second base (Kipnis at 3rd?) with a good shot of hitting the bigs after the Indians lose early.

The catchers were led by former top picks (and bigger names) like Austin Romine, Derek Norris and Kyle Skipworth, but I was impressed by Tony Cruz of the St. Louis Cardinals. I feel Cruz is a sleeper, who beside showing a great throwing arm behind the dish (he has thrown out a staggering 53% of the runners this season), also showed good range at third base in one game I saw.

He shows ability to hit for average and power, and in one game Cruz belted two doubles, one to the gap in left and one down the right field line, going very well with the outside curve ball. In another game, Cruz hit a long home run to left just after looking terrible on one pitch. A Jekyll and Hyde hitter who shows average patience.   

Cruz has a Molina-type body with a solid lower half, but runs better than any of the three. With versatility demanded by Tony Larussa’s Cardinal teams, don’t be surprised to see Cruz up by the end of the year if he hits well in Triple A in 2011.

I also saw a few speedster infielders in Jordany Valdespin of the New York Mets and Eduardo Escobar from the Chicago White Sox. Valdespin showed great tools, but little in the way of how to play.

He turned on a Jeremy Jeffress 99 MPH fastball like it wasn’t even an issue and showed good range and throwing arm on several plays. But he is inconsistent from play-to-play, showing a lack of concentration. He also swings at nearly everything and has poor hitting mechanics.

Escobar clearly has a future in the majors, mainly as a superior glove-first shortstop. He has good range and a well above average arm. But in the AFL, Escobar has shown some ability to drive the ball into the gaps and has terrific speed on the bases. He went from home to third on a triple down the left field line, and was in well before the throw.

If he becomes more disciplined at the plate and walks more often, the 21-year-old Escobar could become an offensive factor with the White Sox in 2013/2014 when Alexei Ramirez becomes too expensive as a FA.

Many people were enamored with Charlie Culberson, but I saw a guy who wraps his bat too much, doesn’t have a lot of bat-speed, doesn’t make consistent contact and chases pitches. I feel the numbers he put up in the California League were inflated and he will not have much power down the road.

However, I would like to see him during the Eastern League against consistently better competition this year to more accurately grade him.

Next up would be a report on up and coming pitchers.


Arizona Fall League: New York Yankees Pitchers Manuel Banuelos and Craig Heyer

November 8, 2010

This past Saturday night, the Arizona Fall League (AFL) Rising Stars All-Star game was held at Surprise Stadium. Three New York Yankees prospects participated, including LF Brandon Laird, C Austin Romine and starting pitcher Manuel Banuelos.

Banuelos is only 19 years old and is the youngest pitcher out here in the AFL. He was signed by the Yankees from the Mexican League in March 2008 at the age of 17 and has pitched well at every level of the organization.

Banuelos began the season on the disabled list after undergoing an appendectomy, and then started pitching at High A Tampa. He was then promoted to Double A Trenton, where he posted a 3.52 ERA in 15 innings at that difficult level.

Tampa was where I first got a glimpse of Banuelos, and was immediately impressed with his skills and stuff. You can read those games in my prior report here.

He showed tremendous command of his fastball and changeup, and reminded me of Johan Santana, but with a smoother delivery and better curve ball.

I have seen him pitch in the AFL twice, a start this past Tuesday and the start in the Rising Stars game.

Banuelos’ performance here is still very good, but there are some differences to his game.

105982683_crop_340x234 Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Up until the Rising Stars game, Banuelos was primarily throwing fastballs and changeups here, not using his curveball much at all. He threw a handful of curves in that Tuesday start, most of them without any bite. He reversed the trend Saturday, throwing eight curves in the Rising Stars game, with only a couple changes.

He was mostly fastballs, consistently at 94 MPH, hitting 95 once.  

He threw the fastball in on the hands to the left handed hitters, busting No. 3 hitter Dustin Ackley for a called strike three in the first inning.

While allowing three second-inning hits, two were on tough fastballs inside to left handed hitters, who fought them off into right field for singles.

There are many really good hitters here in Arizona who can fight off tough pitches.

And that is one reason why Banuelos was sent here to pitch. First, he needs to get his 2010 inning count to increase, as he only had 60 innings combined in Tampa and Trenton.

Second, and more importantly, the Yankees wanted to see how Banuelos performed against many of the best minor league hitters.

In his two starts prior to my arrival, Banuelos allowed 15 hits in seven innings of work and five earned runs. I spoke with Yankee catching prospect Austin Romine about those starts.

“You have to expect him (Banuelos) to get hit a little bit here. He is only 19 and facing complete lineups of top of the order hitters.”

Great point by Romine. Many of the No. 7, 8 and 9 hitters out here were top four or five hitters during the regular seasons. AFL pitchers are facing All-Star caliber lineups every day.

I asked Romine if the Yankees wanted Banuelos to work on anything specific out here.

“No, not at all, they just want us to come out here and play our game. Manny has been throwing lots of changes here. He is a little stubborn sometimes, but that’s good. He wants to compete and has confidence in his changeup.”

When Banuelos was getting hit out here and in Tampa and Trenton was when he got his fastball over the middle of the plate. When that happens there is very little movement to the pitch. At this level, velocity will only get you so far.

He allowed two runs in three innings on Tuesday. Both runs came in the third inning on back-to-back doubles and a ground out.

The first double was on a slurvy breaking ball, and the second double was a good piece of hitting with the right handed hitter staying inside a good fastball and lining it to right center.

Overall, his changeup was really good both games, generating foul balls and swings and misses. It was very similar to when I saw him earlier in the season.

When I have seen him (Tampa, Trenton, AFL), Banuelos is never afraid to throw his changeup back to back, and even when behind in the count.

To be able to throw off-speed pitches in hitter’s counts is the sign of a very good pitcher, and for Banuelos to have that kind of repertoire, attitude and confidence bodes well for him and the Yankees in the future.

However, he needs to complement both plus pitches (fastball, changeup) with his curve. In July, Banuelos was able to throw the curve to both sides of the plate, getting swinging and called strikes. When he missed, he usually buried it in the dirt.

The curve is a funny pitch in that pitchers need to keep throwing it during a game even if it is not working early on.

When a pitcher keeps throwing that pitch, they eventually begin to get a better feel for it in the middle innings, and make the pitcher even tougher later in the game.

With Banuelos not throwing the curve ball much here, it has not had the same depth and movement as it did earlier in the season.

He needs to keep working the curve to once again make it a better pitch. It will also make his other pitches more effective.

Banuelos did nothing out here to dissuade any of the scouts about his future. The fact that the Rising Stars rosters and starting lineups derive from the cumulative votes of the various scouting directors indicates how much they think of Banuelos’ ability.

He should start the season in Trenton, and with the glut of arms ahead of him, Banuelos should pitch most of the season at Double A as a 20-year-old.  

The ability is there. He just needs more innings on the mound and can be a top of the rotation type arm in the Yankees rotation.

Another thing I have noticed is that Banuelos can dominate lineups, but then has that one inning where he can get knocked around for a couple runs. It happened in Tampa when I saw him, and also in last Tuesday’s game.

Craig Heyer – RHP, New York Yankees

This is a virtual unknown pitcher in the Yankee system and is another guy who the Yankees wanted to get a few more innings in 2010 and to see how he pitches against better hitters.

So far so good for the 6’3” right hander from UNLV.

Heyer was selected by the Yankees in the 22nd round of the 2007 draft, but has had a very slow ascension up the Yankee ladder. He has spent the last two seasons at High A Tampa, but missed about a month this season after his father passed away.

I saw him pitch his first pro season in 2007 in Staten Island, then a little in 2008 in Charleston. Then once again earlier this season in early July, a few days after he returned from his team approved leave.

Every time I have seen him, Heyer has worked quickly, threw strikes and generated lots of ground balls.

With the lack of defense at the lower levels, many of these balls moved through the infield, but Heyer has begun to perform better with an improved defense behind him in Tampa.

He is a fielder’s delight, keeping his teammates in the game, and his record over three pro seasons is a stunning 24-8 with a 2.96 ERA and 1.145 WHIP. 

During one of our twice-weekly segments, I remember back in 2008 telling a local sports radio host (Kevin Williams of WOBM) that Heyer was a Yankee sleeper.

He works from the old fashioned hands-over-head windup, throwing at a three-quarters slot, and while he does not strike out tons of hitters (averaging only 5.1/9 IP), his walk rates of 1.3/9 IP are superb, keeping extra runners off base.

He started 12 games this season, all late in the year. Primarily, he needed innings in 2010 after missing the approved time off, but the Yankees also promoted Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances and Banuelos to Double-A Trenton during the season, and the Tampa team needed starting pitchers.

Heyer was the starter in Tampa’s Game Four clincher to win the Florida State League championship. He allowed five hits in six innings, with three whiffs and zero walks. It was a typical Heyer performance.

Last Tuesday, Heyer relieved Banuelos and threw three shutout innings. He continuously threw his fastball at the knees mostly on the outside corner, but was squeezed by the tight-zoned home plate umpire.

However, he continued his pattern of pounding the lower half of the zone with low 90’s pinpoint fastballs and sinkers.

He worked himself into a jam by having to come over the plate a little to stud Royals first base prospect Eric Hosmer*, who singled sharply to left field.

*Hosmer has a great balanced swing, and the left handed hitter goes well to left field with the ball.

After a seeing-eye grounder by another lefty going the other way put runners on first and second, Heyer went to work dispatching the next three hitters rather easily, including another lefty hitter, 2010 first round pick Zach Cox.

Working quickly in his next two innings, Heyer worked seven up and six down, allowing only another seeing-eye ground ball single.

He was always low in the zone, in and around the knees with his fastball, to both sides but mainly outside corner to lefties.

When he was up in the zone, it was usually the change up to lefties, as Heyer had a tendency to pull his front shoulder out on the pitch. His slider had decent downward movement but was just average, however, it was always low in the zone.

After two seasons in Tampa, Heyer should start 2011 in Double-A Trenton. Maybe the Yankees will rid themselves of the Josh Schmidts and Kevin Whelans of the organization, giving guys like Heyer a shot at the higher levels.

Even though he was an effective starter late in the season, and was a starter at UNLV during college, with the quantity of current Yankee starting pitchers, Heyer is likely destined for the bullpen.

The ability to throw multiple innings, throw consistent strikes (43 walks in 301 IP) and work quickly, should allow Heyer to become a force in the Yankees system as a reliever who can spot start.