Last week, I went to Trenton for my second trip to see the New York Yankees Double-A Minor League team, the Trenton Thunder.
It is always a pleasure to go to Trenton, as I get to talk baseball and strategy with the Thunder manager, Tony Franklin, one of the true good guys in the entire pro game. Interestingly, one player who Franklin played with in his second pro season was Yankee minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras.
The main reason for going back to Trenton was to again see the Thunder’s young slugger Brandon Laird . I had gone to see the Thunder earlier in the season, and had seen Laird about a dozen games in 2008 during his stay at Low-A Charleston.
Laird was impressive then, and he is even more impressive now.
When the Yankees drafted Brandon Laird, they selected him out of a junior college with their 27th round pick in the 2007 draft .* Laird couldn’t wait to play pro ball, signed right away, and was immediately tested by the organization in the Gulf Coast League.
*The Yankees draft guys at the bottom of the draft very well. In that same draft, they selected current Washington National stud reliever Drew Storen out of high school with the 34th pick, but couldn’t sign him. Storen ended up going to the Nationals with their second first-round pick (10th pick overall) in the 2009 Stephen Strasburg draft.
The Yankees also drafted Luke Murton late in that same draft and Scott Bittle, a RHP from the University of Mississippi. Both guys would not sign but were later drafted again by the Yankees, with Bittle being a wasted second-round pick in 2008. Murton is now doing well in Charleston .
Laird dominated the GCL that year, hitting .339 with eight home runs and 29 RBI in 45 games. He then moved in 2008 to full season, Low-A Charleston, clubbing 23 home runs, including an amazing 11 during the month of August.
It was this time when I saw Laird in the middle of his August streak. He had a great four-games series at Lakewood, NJ, booming balls over the park. Laird has always been a great hitter in August , hitting .332 with a 1.041 OPS.
Laird actually out-slugged teammate Jesus Montero at Charleston (.498 vs. 491) with more homers, as Jesus “only” hit 17 dingers.
Last season in Tampa, he was as consistent a hitter as he was in Charleston, except his power numbers declined to only 13 home runs. The Florida State League (FSL) is the toughest league to hit in with the tremendous pitching, spacious stadiums, and heavy humidity.
You can probably add at least a half dozen or more home runs to a power hitter’s stats in the FSL, as the ball does not travel as far. When I asked Laird about this, he just smiled and said, “it really had no effect on my performance.”
Laird doesn’t give much away in regards to negative situations or tough questions*, but other players I have spoken to say the ball seems like it could be out of the park, but just dies into the outfielder’s gloves.
*After a few questions and “boiler plate” answers, I turned off the recorder and said to Laird, “The Yankees teach you guys very well in how to respond to questions, huh?” He almost laughed and said, “Pretty much, yeah. They’re good. ”
These FSL variables do not just affect home runs, but doubles, too, further reducing a hitter’s slugging marks.
Entering his Double-A season, Laird was not looked upon as a prospect as much as Jesus Montero or Austin Romine.
And with good reason.
Both Montero and Romine are catchers, a more premium position. Good hitting catchers are exponentially more important. Also, Montero was doing his damage at a younger age, while Romine was the FSL Player of the Year last season.
But Laird is now making his mark, leading the Minor Leagues with 62 RBI. His current pace would give him over 120 RBI. That is amazing for a Minor League hitter.
Tuesday night, Laird hit another three run homer off Pittsburgh Pirates top prospect Tim Alderson. That was coming off the heels of a three-run towering bomb the prior Friday night against the Binghamton Mets.
Laird’s power is unassuming. He is not a massive guy in the sense that Alex Rodriguez, Josh Hamilton, or Albert Pujols are big guys who you assume will hit home runs.
Laird is listed at 6’1″ and 215 lbs. Ok, good enough, but the Yankees do pad their size stats a little.
What Laird has is a tremendously easy, compact swing, which is well-balanced from the load (which is slight) to the follow-through. While he will swing and miss (mostly on outside pitches), he still is almost never offbalance on those swings.
Probably his best hitting attribute, Laird stays inside the ball very well. I saw him line a single to right field on a fastball on the outer third of the plate, and hit a couple rockets to left, including that Friday night home run.
Those rockets were both on inside pitches. The Friday night home run was on an 0-1 curve ball over the inner half, after he took a fastball over the middle of the plate.
In taking that first-pitch fastball, then banging that curve for a three-run dinger, showed me that Laird is not afraid of hitting while behind in the count. Most good hitters do not mind hitting while behind, and Laird is no exception.
“No, I don’t mind at all,” said Laird when I asked him after Friday night’s game about hitting with two strikes. “If I am behind in the count, I still look for a strike to hit and try to put a good swing on it.”
What about that 0-1 curve ball he hit for a home run? I asked Laird if he looks for a type of pitch or is sitting location. “In that situation, I look for a specific location instead of a particular pitch. If a pitcher throws it to my location, I try to make that mistake hurt.”
Good to hear, as I believe the higher up in level a hitter gets, the better off he is looking location rather than specific pitch. The exception, of course, is with two strikes, where the idea is to protect the plate and put the ball in play.
On defense, similar to the time I saw him in Charleston in 2008, Laird has played both first and third base at Trenton. While he has made 11 errors thus far in 2011, Laird exhibited pretty good footwork around first base. He even made the Armando Galarraga non-perfect game play with ease.
However, his defense at third needs improvement in regards to footwork, which is sometimes awkward in moving to the ball. Surprisingly, the bulkier Javier Vazquez (recently promoted to Triple-A Scranton) moved to the ball better than Laird.
While Laird’s throwing arm from third is not tremendous in strength, it is accurate, with most throws I saw at the first baseman’s chest.
Among other players (catchers Romine and Montero, SS Eduardo Nunez), Laird is being mentioned as a possible trade chip for pitcher Cliff Lee and maybe a full-time designated hitter, one such as Chicago’s Paul Konerko.
As I have mentioned many times before, if everyone is healthy, the Yankees do not need anybody to defend their 2009 World Series title. They have a really good rotation, a solid bullpen, and a pretty deep lineup.
Even the innings limit on Phil Hughes will only strengthen the bullpen when, like last season, he becomes part of the back end.
Laird has tremendous baseball qualities, including a very quick bat and a very astute idea of what he wants (and needs) to do in each plate appearance. His strikeout numbers are somewhat higher this season, but he remains a good, high-contact power hitter who does not walk a lot.
His deficiencies on defense can be improved, if not entirely corrected, with solid infield coaching and about 100,000 more ground balls. He has the time.
And with the Major Leagues on the horizon (most Double-A All-Stars do make the Major Leagues) the desire to improve should be there for Laird. According to others I have spoken with, Laird has a good work ethic.
Laird’s swing and demeanor reminds me of Bob Horner , the former third sacker for the Atlanta Braves, and 1978 National League Rookie of the Year. Horner went from college superstar at Arizona State straight to the majors. Like Laird, he was another high-contact power hitter who did not strike out or walk much.
Looking at the numbers and seeing him play in person many times over the course of a couple seasons, Laird is a Yankee keeper who should not be traded away. With age creeping up on Alex Rodriguez (who might be a full-time DH), Laird could be in line for an eventual Yankee Major League third base job.
He could also improve his stock as an all-around player with some work in the outfield, a sort of Kevin Russo-type with a much better bat and more power.
Since the Brian Cashman regime took over full control in 2005, the Yankees have been very good at promoting their own players into the Majors. Players such as Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Brett Gardner, Robinson Cano, David Robertson, Francisco Cervelli, Ramiro Pena, and Russo have been developed from within and been productive as Major Leaguers.
In a few years, I see no reason why Brandon Laird cannot join that list.