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.

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Scouting Review: Collin McHugh, Jordany Valdespin, Graham Stoneburner

August 12, 2011

Earlier this week I attended games between the locals Double A affiliates, with the Binghamton Mets visiting the Yankees’ Trenton Thunder. I saw the Thunder a few games early in the season, then one game a few weeks ago. I like to see teams in different parts of the season to ascertain whether kids have made adjustments to become better players. Also, kids at this level have been promoted and new players have been brought up to replace them.

Seeing teams before and after the all-star breaks hit on both of the above situations as most teams make the standard promotions after kids have played in their all-star games, like relatively new Thunder player Rob Lyerly.

In addition, I wanted to finally see the New York Mets top prospect, RHP Matt Harvey, who will be profiled in my next piece.

Taking the hill for the B-Mets was Collin McHugh, coming into the game with a 4-2, 3.75 record with two saves, including a three-inning save in his last appearance. His delivery is similar to Jake Peavy’s of the Chicago White Sox, but without the Peavy velocity. McHugh sat 88-90 and hit 91 on a couple occasions when it appeared he needed “a boost.” His fastball had good movement, often down and away to a RHH.

McHugh worked the fastball in and out, showing good command. When he missed, he usually missed off the plate, especially when working inside. He showed a nice moving cutter which broke in nicely on lefties, with slider action but thrown harder in the 84-86 range. One Thunder player commented that this was a new pitch for McHugh, having previously faced him in the NY-Penn, Sally and Florida State Leagues.

But the pitch that garnered the most swings and misses was a slow, downward breaking curve ball, thrown at 72-74 and used primarily with two strikes. He did not throw it that often, and you sometimes forgot he had the pitch in his arsenal until he broke it out for a key whiff.

McHugh does not have that superb “upside” that so many analysts and scouts love and thrive on, but McHugh does know how to pitch, has good command and does strike guys out, averaging 9.2 K/9 for his pro career. He has started and relieved in most seasons and could make a decent back-end of the rotation type pitcher, throwing the ball like Dillon Gee but with better strikeout rates.

The first night saw Graham Stoneburner on the mound for the Thunder. Two starts ago I reported reduced velocity for Stoner, something which I attributed to possible shoulder issues based upon his delivery. This game saw Stoneburner sit at 88-90 again with a few pumps at 92, similar to what I saw last time out. He was victimized by the tightest strike zone in the entire world by home plate umpire Scott Mahoney, culminating in a conversation between the two as the pitcher left the mound after the fifth inning.

Stoneburner left his slider up on occasion, with several hard hit balls the result, including a towering two-run home run by B-Mets RF Raul Reyes to straight away center. In addition to power, Reyes also showed good range playing right field, tracking balls deep into the corner near the fence and also coming in well on a right center field bloop.

Men were on base all night against Stoneburner but when he needed to make a pitch, he usually did with key strikeouts against Jordany Valdespin and Allan Dykstra on wicked sliders down and in. I found out that Stoneburner does not have any shoulder issues and through most of his career he has pitched in the 88-92 range, sometimes ratcheting up to 95 when he needed to.

While I have seen him hit 95 consistently in Staten Island, Charleston and Tampa, I must have been extremely lucky to see those games. 

I saw Jordany Valdespin play in the AFL last season**. You can read about my positional player 2010 AFL thoughts here.

**As an aside, in this AFL piece, I was pretty high on Jason Kipnis, who showed great bat speed and surprising power for a guy of his stature. Since being brought up by Cleveland a few weeks ago, he has hit .295/.358/.656/1.018 OPS with six HRs, but has also whiffed in nearly a third of his plate appearances.

Back to the Mets. To quote: “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.”

With those poor mechanics, Valdespin usually leans and drifts, moving his upper body toward the pitcher, taking his legs out of the swing, which reduces the opportunity of any power.

What a difference a year makes. Valdespin showed better hitting mechanics, staying back and using his legs more. His upper body stayed on top of his legs and allowed his hands to get through the zone better. His quick bat, and now the use of his legs, has allowed him to hit 15 HRs so far and slug .483, the highest of his pro career.

Valdespin also showed better selectivity at the plate. For example, after getting ahead of Stoneburner 2-0 in the count, he took a slider on the inside corner for a called strike, and then got a fastball on the outer third which he fouled back. The Valdespin of the 2010 AFL would have gone after that 2-0 pitchers pitch, likely getting himself out. Facing the left-handed Josh Romanski in his fourth PA, Valdy calmly went with the pitch to line a single to left field.

His play-to-play concentration in the field appeared improved, with Valdy being in proper ready position before each pitch. He showed the good range and throwing arm I saw last fall, fielding balls in the 5.5 hole and up the middle. On the latter, on the run he fielded the ball near the bag, and with a strong throw across his body he nailed the runner at first base. Valdespin also moved his feet well on the routine ground ball, getting in front and wasn’t content to simply play the ball off to the side.

It appears that new Binghamton manager, former major league second baseman Wally Backman, a gamer if there ever was one, has had an effect on the 24-year-old Jordany. Also, don’t underestimate the development capabilities of the new Mets regime in this transformation.

I expected to see him again Wednesday night, but after Tuesday’s game, Valdespin was promoted to Triple A Buffalo, where he was 2-4, with a double.

With the uncertainty of Jose Reyes after this season, the Mets would benefit greatly if Valdespin continued his improvement.


Jorge Vazquez Should Replace Injured Eric Chavez on Yankees Roster

May 5, 2011

When Eric Chavez came up limping running out his third inning triple today, the first thing I thought was that Jorge Vazquez will finally get his chance to play in the major leagues.

Also, another reaction to the injury was a similar problem which Chien-Ming Wang had a few years ago in Houston. That of breaking a bone in his foot while running the bases.

Most non-players believe that the simple task of running the bases should be easy enough, and most of the times it is. But there are many times where the sprinting and turning take a toll on the feet. When players sprint, they run on their toes, and when a player is making a 90-degree turn while running on their toes, foot injuries can occur.

That is what happened to Wang in Houston while turning third base and now to Chavez while turning second base.

With Chavez now on the disabled list, the first and third back up role should be Vazquez’ now. It might have been Brandon Laird’s job, but Laird has not been hitting well enough at Triple A Scranton. In fact, since Laird’s great debut in Triple A last season when he hit two homers, it has been virtually all downhill for the Yankee youngster.

One thing against Vazquez is he is not on the 40 man roster, while Laird and Ramiro Pena (another possibility) are on the 40 man roster, No big deal. Just drop Kevin Russo, he of no shot of being a Yankee major leaguer. And who cares if someone (Pirates, anybody?) claim him., Guys like Russo are a dime a dozen.

Yankee fans should give Vazquez some space and patience because Jorge does not have much patience at the plate. He only has walked four times this season in 110 plate appearances. He only walked 18 times in over 350 PA last season.

Vazquez will swing at many first pitches, including some out of the zone, many times getting himself out. And he will strike out LOTS OF TIMES. And I mean lots of times, basically every third at bat, Vazquez will walk back to the dugout.

He is not the patient hitter Yankee fans are used to having in their lineup. Sometimes hitters are patient and work counts, etc, but many hitters do not like to take pitches, especially with men on base.

Vazquez is one of those guys.

He can play both first and third base, but does not have nearly the range, glove or arm as Eric Chavez. However, Vazquez does have decent footwork at both positions so it will not be a total loss.

He started the year very good at Scranton, hitting .323 with 9 homers and 27 RBI in April, but has struggled over his last ten games.

Vazquez is streaky and when he gets hot, look out, but when he struggles, the Ks really pile up.

Yankee fans should have patience with Vazquez. With Posada struggling a little, maybe Vazquez can also step in a DH a few games against LH pitchers.

I would also drop Eduardo Nunez. Maybe not right after the two-error game today, but maybe some time next week. Bring up Ramiro Pena, a guy I have always liked for his glove. When your reserve infielder does not play much, all you need is a good glove. Any offense is icing on the cake.

Pena has a great glove, and is more secure at all three infield positions.

So look for two moves by the Yankees. Vazquez replacing Chavez and Pena eventually replacing Nunez.


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.


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 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: 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.