Arizona Fall League: Pitcher Reports on Those Who Could Make an Impact in 2011

November 30, 2010

About two weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the position players I viewed as making an impact in the major leagues, many as soon as the 2011 season.

This report is about the many pitchers I saw in the Arizona Fall League, which I attended for the first time in early November. I highly recommend talking in a week or so in the future out there watching great baseball played by rising stars in perfect weather.

That might be the trifecta.

Most of the time out in the AFL, the pitchers are sent to increase their innings, work on certain pitches or see what they can do against better competition. Some organizations use the AFL to assess whether certain pitchers are worthy of Rule 5 protection by adding them to the 40-man roster.

As a rule, the AFL teams carry about 18-20 pitchers, but only seven are active on any one day. That is the one reason why the Phoenix Desert Dogs and manager Don Mattingly had to stop their game early in late October. Also, the starters rarely go longer than four innings, so relievers dominate the rosters.

There were very few impressive starting pitchers in the AFL this season. I only had an opportunity to see Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Mike Montgomery once (in the Rising Stars) game, getting him on a bad effort. I did not see Danny Duffy or Casey Kelly at all.

STARTING PITCHERS

1) Manuel Banuelos—You already know how I feel about ManBan. Good fastball touching 95, plus change-up, a pretty good curve, which he can throw to both sides of the plate and outstanding mound demeanor. He can be a top of the rotation guy and is still only 19 years old.

2) Mike Montgomery—As I mentioned earlier, I only saw Montgomery once and that was in the Rising Stars game. He started the game (opposite Banuelos) and was a little nervous, showing very little command of his fastball (which hit 96) or change up (81-82), bouncing a few but not with any swings and misses. He also hung a few curves, which weren’t tight. He has a smooth delivery and a good frame, standing a lanky 6’5″. Like Banuelos, he isn’t afraid to throw back-to-back change-ups or start hitters off with off-speed pitches.

He had some elbow issues this year but his dominating performance in the Pan Am games and his high velocity AFL appearances have lessened any injury worries. Montgomery obviously is much better than he showed in the Rising Stars game, but I would like to see better consistency in his off speed pitches.

I also feel his stride could be lengthened to develop even more velocity but would not affect his overall delivery.

3) Alex Cobb—The Rays are taking their usual one level at a time approach with Cobb (like they did with Jeremy Hellickson), and he was out in the AFL to boost his innings. I saw him versus the Phoenix Desert Dogs (PDD), and he did well but against an inferior Desert Dogs lineup, clearly the worst in the AFL. He was behind the count on many occasions but then overpowered the weak lineup.

Cobb was hitting low-to-mid 90s repeatedly with a good change-up, but all over the place with his fastball. His walk rates in his career are OK, but his command needs to be there in order for him to succeed. Will start in Triple A Durham but has no shot at the majors in 2011, based primarily on organizational philosophy.

4) Josh Collmenter—Accurately nicknamed “Iron Mike” because of his straight over-the-top delivery. I saw him pitch this game, also against the PDD, and he was dominant.

His fastball was never above 90, but generated lots of swings and misses, mostly on high fastballs. He has that deceiving delivery in which he hides the ball well, then before a hitter realizes, the ball is on top of him.

Collmenter literally tilts his upper body and throws straight over the top. Many of his swinging strikes were on high fastballs out of the zone, but appear to be strikes coming out of his delivery. He had a curve ball with good downward break, and he was able to throw it for consistent strikes. He was also not afraid to throw it behind in the count or as a first pitch offering.

Collmenter utilizes what I call “reverse sequencing” pitching. That is getting ahead with soft stuff and, when the hitter has two strikes and looking for junk, gets a moderate fastball blown by him. This method is better utilized by pitchers who do not throw hard.

While he will not be a top guy in any rotation, Collmenter will get his shot sometime this season in Arizona. After his AFL performance, he was placed upon the team’s 40-man roster.

5) Eric Hurley—After missing all of 2009 and 2010 with shoulder (labrum) surgery, this former major leaguer threw his first meaningful pitch in two seasons out in the AFL. He much sharper later in the AFL, showing good arm strength and said he had no fears about going all out.

If the Rangers do not re-sign Cliff Lee, Hurley has an opportunity to make the Rangers staff this season.

RELIEF PITCHERS

1) Brad Brach—I am very partial to this kid because he is a local Jersey Shore product. He has exceptional numbers during his career, including a great 2010 campaign in the heavy hitting High-A California League where he recorded 41 saves to go along with a stellar 2.47 ERA. He continued his dominance in the AFL with a 2.87 ERA and .873 WHIP.

He only allowed a base runner in five of his 11 AFL appearances, and although he did not strike out many, he showed pitches which moved and commanded well. During the Rising Stars game, he allowed a runner to reach third base on a two base error and a wild pitch.

Brach proceeded to get two strikeouts sandwiched around a weak ground ball to short and got out of the inning.

Brach throws a sinking 91-92 MPH fastball with good movement and located the ball well on both edges of the plate, often coming inside to lefties. His slider is a true out pitch and is rarely hit hard. He throws strikes with a career SO/BB ratio of 7.00. But he does throw across his body some which could lead to arm issues down the line.

Although Brach is more of a fly ball pitcher, it has yet to haunt him (career 7 HRs allowed, 6 in the Cal League) and should play well in spacious Petco Park.

I can see him (who will be 25 next season) starting in Double A but getting some time in San Diego late this season if he continues performing.

2) Jeremy Jeffress—Everybody was buzzing about Jeffress hitting 101 on the gun in the Rising Stars game, but he also threw 21 pitches that inning, only 10 for strikes. Although this sounds bad, his command in the AFL was much better than when I saw Jeffress back in July in the Florida State League.

There he showed the power FB (up to 97), but as I wrote back then in my notes, “can’t locate to save his life.” Reminded me of Daniel Cabrera without the height.

In the AFL however, Jeffress dropped in some hearty breaking balls for strikes, and if he can continue to throw the curve for strikes with upper 90s heat, he may have a shot to stay in the majors. Personally, I never want guys who can’t locate pitches, but with an arm like that and an effortless delivery, Jeffress will always be given tons of opportunities.

However, give me a guy with less “stuff” but with command and ability to pitch any day.

3) Chris Carpenter—Showed great velocity and command of his fastball (hit 99-100 MPH) in rising Stars game, but overall walked almost a batter per inning out here. He has a career walk rate of 4.0 per 9 IP.

While working as a starter most of his pro career, Carpenter was relieving in the AFL. His change-up was not good, but his slider was devastating on several occasions and weak on others. However, like Jeffress, if he can not locate his fastball and get ahead in counts, the plus pitches do not matter much.

The Cubs say this guy will stay as a starter but with a hard fastball and two other average pitches, his future role is definitely as a reliever who can be given time in Chicago this season.

4) Craig Heyer—I wrote about Heyer in the AFL here. For an unknown reason, Heyer was left unprotected by the Yankees for the Rule 5 draft, and I anticipate him being selected by another organization. With the way Kevin Towers likes to build solid bullpens, I can’t see Heyer passing by Arizona. Heyer’s ground ball tendencies will play well in cozy Bank One Ballpark.

5) Ramon Delgado—This is my sleeper guy. Delgado is a complete strike throwing machine. Saw him in my first game out in the AFL, and he was first pitch strike all the time. He can throw any of his three pitches (FB, sinker, slider) for strikes and will throw them in any count.

But mainly Delgado is first pitch fastball at the knees come right at you type of guy. The first time I saw him pitch, he got through the inning in six pitches. Delgado is a quick worker (funny how that happens when you throw strikes) who throws from a low 3/4 slot and gets good ball movement. The movement is tough to “square up” for hitters.

Very similar to Heyer in that he also was left unprotected, but Delgado did get some work this season at Double A, where he posted a 1.10 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 16 IP.

This is a guy who is quietly efficient. He throws strikes with great career walk and strikeout rates while keeping the ball in the park. Who couldn’t use a pitcher like that in their bullpen?

I would also grab this guy in the Rule 5 next week. Look for the Texas Rangers (his AFL pitching coach Brad Holman loved him) to grab him if he lasts that long.

There were other pitchers who I saw and liked including starter Daniel Merklinger (Milwaukee)—good curve and change, also saw him in July in the FSL and was placed on the Brewers 40 man roster this month; Josh Zeid (Philadelphia)—nice fastball, slider combo, throws strikes; Josh Fields (Seattle) – throws heat but lacks command; Josh Lueke (Seattle)—good fastball and biting slider. However, teams with teeth (and big rocks) would need to overcome his background.

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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.