The New York Yankees are at a Crossroads

May 6, 2012

Well, the New York Yankees are at a crossroads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game: Starting Lineups

November 6, 2010

Here at the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game and the East team is finishing up with batting practice.

The game is being broadcast live in the MLB network (9:00 PM EST start), so if you are staying in, have a look. If you are heading out, then record it and watch later. Many of these kids will be in the majors within two years, some as soon as 2011.

Last year, Buster Posey, Stephen Strasburg, Ike Davis (NYM), Mike Leake (CIN), Drew Storen (WAS)and Mike Minor (ATL) played in this event, and then made it to the majors leagues this past season.

Both teams look pretty stacked, but that is the way it is with all All-Star games.

The starting lineups include three New York Yankee players, the most of any organization.

Here are the lineups:

EAST DIVISION 

1) Trayvon Robinson (LAD)  CF;  

2) Charlie Culberson (SF)  2B;

3) Brandon Belt (SF)  1B;

4) Brandon Laird (NYY)  LF;

5) Austin Romine (NYY)  C; 

6) Marc Krauss (ARI)  RF;

7) A.J. Pollock (ARI)  DH;

8) Ryan Adams (BAL)  3B;

9) Tyler Pastornicky (ATL)  SS;

and Manuel Banuelos (NYY)  is Pitching.

WEST DIVISION

1) Ben Revere (MIN) CF;

2) Caleb Gindl (MIL)  LF;

3) Dustin Ackley (SEA)  2B;

4) Eric Hosmer (KC)  1B;

5) Ryan Lavarnway (BOS)  C;

6) Leslie Anderson (TB)  RF;

7) Eric Thames (TOR)  DH;

8) Zach Cox (STL)  3B;

9) Jose Iglesias (BOS)  SS and

and Mike Montgomery (KC) is Pitching.

I could have updates throughout the night, but will not do an in-game blog.

However, there will be a complete piece on the game by Monday morning.

It is a virtual Who’s Who here at Surprise Stadium, spring training home of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals. Tons of Player Development execs and a few General Managers.

Players so far, I have seen which have impressed include 1B Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants, who could move into the starting first base job by 2012, and Dustin Ackley, who is a line-drive machine with good patience at the plate.

Jeremy Jeffress of the Milwaukee Brewers hit 101 on the radar gun here the other day. He is pitching for the West Squad. I saw Jeffress in July down in the Florida State League, and he could barely find the strike zone but has improved his command during the end of the 2010 season and here.

A local product from New Jersey, Brad Brach (SD), is here as well, pitching for the West Squad. A graduate of Freehold HS and Monmouth University, Brach has great size (6’6″ 210lbs) with good arm action and a really nice breaking pitch, which he can throw for strikes or bury it low. He had 41 saves this past season in the High A California League, a notorious hitters haven.

And he leads the AFL this season in WHIP and is second in Batting Average Allowed.

So enjoy the game, and if you cannot watch it live, record it and enjoy later.

UPDATES:

Brandon Laird (NYY) has an RBI FC and Austin Romine (NYY) has a two-out RBI single in the third. The pitch to Romine was a fastball over outer half, and he knocked it up the middle.

However, this appears the only type of fastball that Romine can handle.

He was jammed his first time up, hitting a weak humpback liner to short. Also allowed another passed ball to allow and unearned run in third inning. It was his second PB in two days and at least his fifth this AFL.

Manny Banuelos (NYY) had two impressive innings to start the game.

He hit 95 several times and was able to work it in to left-handed hitters with ease. Struck out Dustin Ackley (SEA) looking at a 95 MPH heater to end the first inning.

Banuelos then chucked back-to-back change ups to Jose Iglesias (BOS) to strike him out to end the second. These 83 MPH change ups had significant downward tailing action. He was anywhere from 79 to 83 on the change up.

Jeffress was his usual self, all over the place with lack of fastball command, but an easy delivery with the ball exploding out of his hand. He hit 100, then 101 in the same at bat to Laird, who struck out without taking the bat off his shoulder.

Jeffress received a loud ovation in both instances, and a few ooh’s and aah’s from the scouting crowd.

Then Chris Carpenter (CHI CUBS) also hit 100, and the triple digit room got more crowded.


Arizona Fall League: Analysis of New York Yankees Prospect Austin Romine

November 4, 2010

As I mentioned in my Brandon Laird piece from yesterday, I saw the Trenton Thunder about 30 times this season. The first reason is that the Double A level is now the first real step to prospect status, and this level gives a great indication for how a player will project at higher levels.

Second, Trenton is only 45 minutes away and is readily accessible. Third, I like talking baseball with long-time Thunder manager Tony Franklin.

Finally, the Yankees ran about eight solid arms through that team, names like David Phelps, Hector Noesi, D.J. Mitchell*, Adam Warren, Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances, Lance Pendleton and Manuel Banuelos. It was great watching all that pitching talent.

*It was interesting to hear Romine say that of all the minor league starting pitchers in the Yankees system, he believes Mitchell is the toughest to hit. According to Romine, Mitchell throws a sinker which moves “about a foot” and really bears in on a right handed batter. Having seen Mitchell pitch about a half dozen times, I can attest that he is tough to hit. The only issue with Mitchell is control because he does walk quite a few guys and goes to lots of deep counts. If Mitchell can harness his sinker and curve ball (which tends to hang), he could become a pretty good starting pitcher, but probably not for the Yankees.

And the main man trusted to work with those pitchers was catcher Austin Romine, widely considered the top catcher in a Yankees system full of catching prospects. I saw Romine catch about two dozen times this season, but was not as impressed as most other amateur evaluators.

You can read that earlier piece here.

I saw Romine having difficult times receiving the ball, with the ball often going off his glove. Often, this occurred when runners were not on base, so no passed ball was charged.

I remember just before the first Andy Pettitte game in the Eastern League playoffs, I told a scout who was seeing Romine for the first time that he will have at least two or three pitches go off his glove that game. My reasoning was that his first time catching Pettitte would provide some difficulties.

Who do you feel will be the Yankees catcher of the future?

Francisco Cervelli Jesus Montero Austin Romine J.R. Murphy Gary Sanchez Submit Vote vote to see results
Who do you feel will be the Yankees catcher of the future?

  • Francisco Cervelli

    1.7%

  • Jesus Montero

    64.7%

  • Austin Romine

    21.0%

  • J.R. Murphy

    1.7%

  • Gary Sanchez

    10.9%

Total votes: 119

The first pitch of the game went off Romine’s glove all the way to the backstop. Said scout looked back at me and smiled.

Romine’s hitting was not all that great, either. Romine did not follow up his 2009 Florida State League MVP with an equally impressive campaign at Double A. He looked weak against hard throwers and would only put the ball in play with authority off good fastballs if they were on the outer third, allowing him to go with the ball.

Nothing wrong with that, but Romine was overmatched against good fastballs inside, and then would flail against good breaking pitches off the same pitchers.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Romine hit for the first time here in Arizona.

His entire stance is different.

When I saw him in Trenton, he was slightly open with his hands just off the back shoulder. Here, his stance is even and hands are held higher. He still has that high leg kick, similar to the one Alex Rodriguez employs.

I confirmed this with Romine himself during a 15 minute conversation with him, as well as with the Yankees Director of Player Development, Pat Roessler, who is located in the stands during the AFL games.

And that change in approach is good to see. It also is a great reason why statistics in the AFL are virtually meaningless. Guys here are constantly working on new pitches, stances and approaches to the game.

When asked if anybody in the Yankees system asked him to make a switch, Romine says he alone is responsible for the change in his stance. Romine said, “What I was doing in Trenton wasn’t working for me. Out here, I am working to keep my hands higher to get a more downward path to the ball and get more backspin on fly balls.” He showed me with his hands what he trying to accomplish.

Translation: Romine wants to hit more home runs and become a bigger run producer.

Sometimes when a hitter uses an open stance (as Romine did this season), they might close themselves off by striding too far to the plate instead of directly to the pitcher. This limits the ability to hit the inside fastball and can limit power by restricting the hips ability to turn.

And still with the high leg kick, a tough hitting trait to use with consistency? “I am trying to tighten that up.”

So far this AFL, Romine has not hit for more power. His production is currently .286 BA/.314 OBP/.347 SLG with three doubles and seven RBI. He still waves at a good breaking pitch, but did line a single to left on a hanging slider.

The lack of power here is not because of his being tired after catching his first full season. “I thought I was going to be tired, but I am really feeling good. The days off between games help out here after a long season. I think I caught something like 105 games or so in Trenton. I was actually more tired last year at the end in Tampa.”  The days off are explained by the fact that Romine has been basically alternating catching games with Florida Marlins prospect Kyle Skipworth.

After Jesus Montero was promoted to Trenton midway through the 2009 season, Romine became the full time catcher in the second half in Tampa. 

Romine’s receiving was better in his games behind the dish here which I have seen, but he still had a couple of passed balls prior to my arrival in the warm weather. And in the first game I saw, he allowed three stolen bases, two with bounced throws off line.

The third stolen base did not warrant an attempt as the ball kicked off his glove.

As I saw earlier this season, Romine’s best asset behind the plate still remains his ability to call a game. Many Yankee pitchers raved about his calling skills, as do several of the arms on the Phoenix staff.

Romine has a tendency to keep going to the pitcher’s best offering that day and not just his best pitch overall. Recognizing what is working for a pitcher during a specific game is a great trait for a catcher to have.

Despite the thoughts by a few in the business on his catching abilities, Romine says he does not listen to the negativity. “I don’t worry about what people outside the Yankee organization say. I know the Yankees have confidence in me and my abilities. I am constantly working hard to improve my game.”

And Romine really wants to be the next Yankee catcher. “I want nothing more than to be the next New York Yankees catcher. The Yankees are the only organization I know and they have been very good to me. The Yankees have a strong history of catching talent and I want to be part of that tradition.”

As with all catchers, Romine gets nicked up frequently. He had a sore wrist the last month or so in the Eastern League season, and was sat down for a week in the middle of the summer with a dead arm.

“I was throwing all the time: infield practice, bullpen sessions, other drills and my arm needed time to rest.”

Any long term effects of that tired arm? “No, not at all. My arm feels good now. I just needed a few days off at that time.”

Austin Romine really wants to be the Yankee catcher. He knows the Yankees have a ton of catching talent in their system, and from what he has seen over his last three minor league seasons, he feels the Yankees have the best overall pitching talent in baseball.

He believes the killer B’s (Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances and especially Manuel Banuelos) have the right stuff and makeup to be top flight major league pitchers.

And he wants to be their catcher.

But is Romine capable of improving his game to the point where he can play 135-140 games behind the plate? Can he play good defense (including throwing out runners and calling good games) and hit well enough to keep a job in the major leagues?

He still needs to improve on his footwork behind the plate, which is usually the cause of errant throws to second base. He also needs to limit the passed balls and other bouts of lapses in concentration.

With his hitting, one thing with the leg kick is that while it helps keep the hitter’s weight back, Romine needs to get the front foot down in time to allow the hips and hands to work. And no matter where he starts his hands in his new stance, he needs to get them into the right area at the right time to attack the ball.  

He still has a lot to work on, and where he starts the 2011 season depends on what the parent club does with Jesus Montero, who is ahead of Romine primarily because of his bat. With the new batting stance and swing it might not be a bad idea to start Romine back in Trenton for 2011.

Can Romine improve his overall game to continue up the Yankees’ catching ranks before other young catchers like J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez make their move?

Right now I don’t think it can happen, and believe there is a good chance Romine could be traded as part of a numbers game.

But Romine likely doesn’t worry about what I think.


New York Yankees: Can They Pry Away Zack Greinke From the Kansas City Royals?

October 11, 2010

I want to preface this by saying that I heard from a friend who was at several of the Kansas City Royals instructional league games/practices/workouts last week. All the general talk amongst Royals people was Zack Greinke and if he will be traded this offseason.

Greinke has a contract which runs through 2012, when he will be all of 29 when he reaches free agency.

But general consensus of those associated Royals employees was NO, Greinke would not be traded this offseason. The most likely scenario is he could be moved during the 2011 or even 2012 trade deadline.

And the Royals would want top dollar in trade value if and when he might be traded.

The same questions arise when a pitcher of Greinke’s caliber (and prime age) might become available via trade:

1) What teams have the financial capability to pony up the type of money to bring on $26 million over the next two seasons and possible demands via an extension?

2) What team has the type of prospects, especially Major League-ready pitching prospects, which a team like the Royals would want back in trade?

There are the typical teams which have the dollars, such as the New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves and both Chicago teams. But none of those teams has anywhere near the prospects that several other teams do.

The Mets’ and Red Sox’s systems are not that deep, the Angels just traded for Dan Haren and like their top system guys and the White Sox appeared to have traded their entire farm system for Jake Peavy and Manny Ramirez.

The Braves have quaite a few young pitching prospects, but they are at lower levels, and the Royals want at least one arm with Major League ready talent. The Florida Marlins have tons of good top level and Major League prospect players, but they are in the same boat as the Royals.

They keep their young guys to replenish the Major League team with good, young and cheap talent. In fact, the Marlins followed the Royals’ lead by signing their top pitching stud, Josh Johnson, to a multi-year deal. Guys like Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez, Chris Coghlan, and Chris Volstad are not going to be moved to take on more payroll.

The Cardinals have a few good young pitchers in their system and also have the somewhat disgruntled Colby Rasmus possibly available. If Tony LaRussa returns to St. Louis, could Rasmus be part of a deal for Greinke? 

Probably not. The Cardinals might not have enough money for their own guys. They need to re-sign Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter (at least one of the two) and Albert Pujols to longer deals in the next year or two.

The Tampa Bay Rays inquired about Greinke this past trading deadline, and would have done a deal if available. They have the prospects and were willing to handle the current salary structure.

But I believe they were looking for in-season help, and while not looking to trade this offseason, the Rays could possibly try and work something out next season if the need arises. Tampa seems pretty satisfied with what they have now. 

David Price, Matt Garza, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and probably Jeremy Hellickson taking over for James Shields, who also could be traded, provide Tampa with a formidable rotation for 2011.

There are just not that many teams which have the financial and prospect capabilities to pull off this type of trade.

Well, except one.  

The New York Yankees have the money. And with the player development side built up behind General Manager Brian Cashman, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and Senior V.P. Mark Newman, they now have one of the top farm systems in all of baseball.

I don’t care what Baseball America says or how they rank the Yankees. The pinstripe parade of young talent has already produced quality Major League talent, and is strong at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, especially in the area of pitching.

Good arms like Manny Banuelos, Adam Warren, David Phelps, Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances, Hector Noesi, D.J. Mitchell, and Ivan Nova not only provide the Yankees with multiple arms ready to contribute in the Bronx, but also valuable trade bait to obtain top major league talent.

There are only so many spots open in a Major League starting rotation, and the Yankees, with their penchant in spending money on Major League arms, are not going to keep all this talent in house.

It is just not possible. They can keep several of these kids in the Minor Leagues for a few more seasons, but most need to be brought up or moved. No way they all get their Yankee chance.

They already tried to trade Warren as part of the Cliff Lee deal this past July, adding him when Seattle balked at the injured David Adams. And I still believe the Mariners made a terrible decision by taking the Rangers deal over that of the Yankees.  

I have seen most of the above Yankee farm hands pitch several times and while many are keepers, most are trade chips.

I love Banuelos, Warren, and Phelps, and with his power fastball and knee bucking breaking pitch, I believe Brackman is more suited to a late inning relief role. Betances is good, with great strikeout capabilites, but I do not believe he has the strike zone command yet to be the top of the rotation starter most others believe.

Most guys look at the size and wow factor and deem them “high ceiling” guys. Power guys get all the attention, but guys who get hitters out with an array of pitches are better suited in the majors. I like my starting pitchers who can throw consistent strikes to both sides of the plate and have command within the strike zone.

Like Banuelos, Warren and Phelps.

I have seen Dellin pitch several times, he is a nice kid, but throws too many fat pitches over the middle of the plate. He does not have that great command right now, and I don’t believe he can get that down the road.

But he can be one of the key chips to get Greinke from the Royals. Why? Because many others believe he is a top of the rotation starter. 

He had a good season coming back from Tommy John surgery, and with Cashman coming out saying he was possibly “the best pitching prospect we have ever had,” his value might be highest right now, especially with the history of arm injuries.

And since Brackman is better suited for the pen, and ready for the Majors sometimes in 2011, that makes Joba Chamberlain expendable, too. The Royals want two top pitching guys and the Yankees have that in Betances and Joba.  

And Phil Hughes isn’t going anywhere.

I would package those two right handers and and any positional prospect not named Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, J.R. Murphy, or Gary Sanchez. While I am not enamored with Romine, I do believe that the young catcher would be more valuable traded for a need sometime next season.  

But will the Royals trade their ace?

The Royals have several young pitchers who are very highly rated in Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, Christopher Dwyer, and John Lamb, all left-handed and all who did well at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, a very tough park to pitch. Will Smith and former top pick Aaron Crow are also in the mix.

Throw in former top picks Mike Moustakas at third base and Eric Hosmer at first base, and the Royals have pitching and sluggers to anchor what looks like a solid core of young players, ready to all contribute in 2012.

And that is the rub. Do the Royals keep Greinke around to provide mentorship (and a right handed arm) for all the youngsters or do they trade him an help replenish with more Major League ready talent?

They will never be able to pay Greinke that type of big time money he will be due in 2013, and will save about $26 million over the next two seasons.

The trade would benefit the Royals. They would definitely allow the somewhat local product Joba to be a starter again, and he and Betances would add two right-handed power arms to the flurry of lefty pitching talent on the rise. As the Minnesota Twins proved all year, Joba would fare much better in the weaker A.L. Central.

The Royals will not really be a good team with Greinke now, they will not be able to afford him in two years, and they could get two power arms and a position player in return. If I were the Royals, I would shoot for the versatile Eduardo Nunez.

Besides recent first round pick shortstop Christian Colon, the Royals do not have another top middle infield prospect in the system. But if the Royals really want a catcher, then Romine is also expendable, maybe in addition to the two pitchers and Nunez. 

The Royals would be best suited to trade Greinke and the Yankees have the prospects to make the trade.


Austin Romine: Is He The New York Yankees Future Behind The Plate?

September 11, 2010

With The Trenton Thunder’s 8-1 win Friday night in New Hampshire, the Yankees Double A affiliate advanced to the Eastern League finals for the third time in the last four seasons.

With absolutely stunning pitching, the Thunder’s starters and relievers held the Fisher Cats to ONE run in 30 innings over the three games.

Some of that credit has to go to the catcher for all three of those games, 21-year-old Austin Romine. During the series, Romine caught a potential future ace in Dellin Betances, a potential Hall of Famer in Andy Pettitte and up and coming Johan Santana clone (but with a better curve ball) in Manuel Banuelos.

Banuelos threw seven innings of shutout ball last night for his first win this season. ManBan will be a really good major league pitcher.   

The Yankees love Romine, and the Yankees are loaded with catching prospects. They have 20-year-old Jesus Montero in Triple A Scranton, Romine in Trenton, 19-year-old J.R. Murphy in Low A Charleston and rifle armed 17-year-old Gary Sanchez, who just finished up in short season Staten Island.

Many in the media, both New York and National media plus the prospect circuit and about a gazillion bloggers believe Romine will be the catching future in the Bronx.

I am sorry to let you down, but I don’t see it happening.

He may get some time as a major league catcher, but for him to have a long and distinguished career in New York, Romine will have to improve many aspects of his game…on both sides of the ball.

I was at the two home games in the Eastern League playoff semi’s, but have seen about 15 Trenton games this year, many with Romine behind the plate.

I checked my notes from the playoff games to those in the early and middle part of the season, and many of them are similar.

Behind the plate, Romine calls a very good game and works well with all the Trenton pitchers. I spoke with Dellin Betances, Adam Warren, Lance Pendleton and D.J. Mitchell, the latter two before they were promoted to Triple A Scranton. 

All said they love to throw to Romine and how good he is behind the plate. But to be fair here, ALL Yankee pitchers love to work with ALL their systems catchers.  Even Andy Pettitte at his press conference last week after his rehab start said Romine was “great to throw to.”

But delving deeper, Warren, who threw mostly fastballs and a few sliders in relief of Pettitte, said that Romine was aware of how much pop his fastball had. He kept calling for it, not calling for Warren’s curve ball or change much at all.

But Romine does not have good hands behind the plate. He regularly lets 2 to 3 pitches (or more!) go off his glove per game. They may occur with the bases empty so they are not passed balls, but there is no denying Romine needs to work on his receiving skills. It seems like he has trouble with velocity and/or serious ball movement.

In several recent games, I mentioned this fact to several veteran baseball guys in the stands, who after the game acknowledged that Romine has a problem.

Many people think Romine is just plain tired, but these mishaps occurred early in the season, too, so I do not buy that excuse.  I believe he oftentimes lacks concentration behind the plate. However, to be fair, Romine is in the first full season catching as he usually split time the last two years with Jesus Montero in Low A Charleston in 2008 and for much of the 2009 season in High A Tampa.

His throwing arm appeared good one night, but very weak and off target other nights. His footwork is inconsistent with each throw and even during between innings throws he is sometimes off balanced.

But while he glove work needs help, his hitting may need more. He looked slow against Kyle Drabek* the other night. Not that anyone else in the Trenton lineup was hitting him well (Daniel Brewer did hit a 4th inning line drive RBI single), but Romine was consistently behind Drabek’s good fastball.

And he never had a chance at Drabek’s breaking stuff.

*Drabek has been rewarded with his Eastern League Pitcher of the Year performance with his first major league start, scheduled for Wednesday. This is a reward and also to keep Drabek’s innings mounting so he will be on pace for 200+ next season as a full-time starter in the Toronto Blue Jays rotation. No way they let Drabek pitch for Triple A Las Vegas, and put him in that environment

That was the second time recently I saw Romine face Drabek. He was not much better the first time around. Lots of flailing swings and quite a few weakly hit ground balls.

In fact, there are very few times Romine catches up with a good fastball, and most of the times I see him hit the ball well on the fastball are when he goes the other way with an outside pitch, like he did with his one hit off Drabek the other night.

And it appears he knows he can’t catch up with the fastball because he pulls off the ball very quickly looking for the inside pitch. When he does that, there is no way he hits a good breaking ball.

I can’t believe that the Yankees are sending him to the Arizona Fall League (again!) after his first full season as a catcher. While most teams out there stock three of four catchers, he might only catch one game a week. But last year, Romine only had 15 at bats out there, so he might just make an appearance or two.

The Yankees system is stacked in the catching department, and it does not seem out of the question that one of the younger kids like Murphy or Sanchez (who can hit for big time power and has a tremendous throwing arm) could overtake Romine in the pecking order.

Romine is consistent as he had exactly 122 hits each of his first three professional seasons. But his plate appearance and at bats have increased each year and his batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentages are all lower than they were in 2008.

Austin Romine is very likable. He is a good kid, always ready to talk to the media and he keeps the young fans happy with autographs and a free game ball or two.

But as the catching future for the New York Yankees…it likely will not happen.


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.