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).

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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.


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

August 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New York Yankees: Discussed Cliff Lee Trade a Sign of a Great Farm System

July 9, 2010

UPDATE (July 9, 2010, 4:10 PM) : It appears via several sources that the Lee to the Yankees deal is OFF. The reason has been given that the Mariners did not feel comfortable with the ankle injury of second base prospect David Adams.

While I view that excuse as a made up one, it seems to me that the Mariners were using the Yankees as leverage to maybe get a better deal from another team.

Or maybe they received a last minute offer which they deem as much better.

The Texas Rangers have appeared to become the front funner, likely finally including first base slugger Justin Smoak in the deal. The Mariners obviously liked Smoak over Montero.

What this turn of events does not do is lessen the point of the article, which bring sinto focus the vast talent the Yankees have at their disposal via the draft and international free agent signings.

ORIGINAL PIECE:

While I am shocked that Cliff Lee will be traded to the Yankees, I am not shocked the Yankees were able to trade for him.

Most people will scream that the trade smells of the Yankees ability to pay for the remaining millions on Lee’s current contract, and that the rich will get richer.

But many other teams were willing (and able) to pick up the remaining $4 million. Teams like Minnesota, Texas, and to a lesser extent, the Cincinnati Reds and Tampa Bay Rays (all financially tight teams) have thrown their hat in the Cliff Lee ring.

But what the Yankees do have over those teams is a deep farm system with talent at highly desirable positions. This was about the Yankees having the resources to obtain Lee via trade by having developed one of the top farm systems in all of baseball.

And Branch Rickey is quietly smiling.

When Brian Cashman obtained complete control of baseball operations in 2005, the one aspect he wanted to improve was the franchise’s farm system. The Yankees began the trend of drafting hard to sign guys, then offering big money to get them away from college. They also became very aggressive in the international free agent market.

Other teams quickly followed suit on these tactics.

Their amateur drafting and international free agent signings would focus on “up the middle” talent, primarily catchers and pitchers, and to a lesser extent, center fielders and second basemen.

Positions which are important to building a quality, homegrown team, but players to be developed at positions which other teams also need. And which other teams trying to rebuild would trade established veterans for.

This trading of young talent for veterans is no different than what the Yankees of the 1980’s and early 1990’s did. But now the Yankees have built so much depth at these key positions, they are dealing from strength and not emptying their entire farm system to snag one or two players.

This is not like the Philadelphia Phillies trading several of their top players for Roy Halladay, then turning around and having to trade Lee to the Mariners to replace prospects from a now weaker system.

So trading Triple-A catcher/DH Jesus Montero , Double-A second baseman David Adams, and likely Triple-A 22-year-old starting pitcher Zach McAllister for one of the top five pitchers in baseball does not hurt the organization in the long run.

The Yankees still have highly regarded catchers Austin Romine in Double-A, J.R. Murphy in Low-A Charleston (although I still think they turn him into a corner outfielder), and 17-year-old stud Gary Sanchez , who is a man among boys in the rookie Gulf Coast League.

Sanchez hit his fourth home run today and has 20 RBI in 15 GCL games. Also, his throwing arm rivals many already in the majors leagues.

At High-A Tampa, the Yankees have left-handed hitting, smooth-swinging second baseman Corban Joseph , who will likely get a call up to Double-A Trenton before too long. They also have some 27-year-old guy named Robinson Cano in the majors.

And the Yankees have ridiculously strong pitching depth in the minors with Ivan Nova and David Phelps at Triple-A and Hector Hoesi , D.J. Mitchell (who has only been pitching for four years), and Andrew Brackman at Double-A.

And, despite what Jim Callis thinks , a boatload of highly-regarded pitching prospects are at High-A Tampa , with Dellin Betances, Manuel Banuelos, Graham Stoneburner, Adam Warren, and Shaeffer Hall.

With the rise of Phelps this season from dominating Double-A to his latest start at Triple-A, McAllister, who I have always liked , became expendable in order to obtain Lee.

And with those three highly-regarded players in Montero, Adams, and McAllister on their way to the Mariners, the Yankees still have tremendous depth in their system at catcher, second base and on the mound.

It’s not like the other New York team, which has just started to produce homegrown talent, but did not have enough chips to get the prize this season.

The Yankees have depth at the key positions, both to build from within and trade away to obtain their needs. This has been the plan all along for Cashman and the Yankees’ hierarchy since 2005.

And it appears to have paid off handsomely.

So please do not cry and whine about how the Yankees are buying their way to another World Series title.

Save that for December when Lee signs a long-term deal with them.


Brandon Laird: Is the Yankees Minor League Slugger the Future or Just Trade Bait?

June 17, 2010

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.


No Way Jesus Montero Should Have Been Promoted to the Majors

May 20, 2010

When Jorge Posada went on the disabled list, many people wondered if 20 year old Jesus Montero, the Yankees best hitting prospect would be promoted to the big leagues.

If would have been a huge mistake to promote Montero.

First, despite a mini hot streak, Montero is still not driving the ball like he is capable. He has hit only .244 with three home runs and 19 RBI.

Second, at the time you can’t bring up Montero because you still would need to make a corresponding move to get a more versatile player in the Bronx.

Someone like Kevin Russo who can play outfield and infield.

The Yankees need versatility now with so many guys who are hurting and two, Nick Swisher and Marcus Thames, who are taking up a roster spot but unable to play with minor injuries.

It leaves the Yankees in a vulnerable spot with a limited bench.

Bringing Montero up as a catcher and then DH’ing him in a game would leave the Yankees also vulnerable in case Francisco Cervelli gets hurt, especially early in a game.

If that happened, then the pitcher would have to bat since the DH is entering the game as a position player.

That would be an automatic out (unless CC is pitching) and far worse than if Randy Winn (who stinks) is playing.

Not to mention the chance a pitcher such as Hughes or Burnett could get hurt running the bases without any practice doing so. The Yankees still have nightmares about Chien-Ming Wang two season ago in Houston breaking his foot rounding third trying to score a run.

I would support Montero coming up only if the Yankees had two healthy catchers already and they were going to make Jesus the permanent DH.

But if you want to DL Thames, too, and bring up Montero and another catcher, then that would be fine.

The Yankees have a guy in Triple A, Robby Hammock, who is listed as an infielder but has caught 500 games in the minors and over 100 in the majors would fit that bill of catching and versatility.

I have seen him catch before in Spring Training, and he is very intelligent with good instincts. He would be the same type of guy as Chad Moeller, another catcher who also could be brought up.

Either way, it would be a mistake to bring up Montero.