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.

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New York Yankees: High-A Tampa Rotation Pitching Prospect Capsules, Part 2

July 29, 2010

This is the second installment of my starting pitching capsules from my trip down to the Florida State League to watch the High A Tampa Yankees play.

I saw quite a few games which included four of the five starting pitchers. The one starter I did NOT see pitch was Dellin Betances.

The first capsule can be seen here, and included right-handed pitcher Adam Warren and left-handed pitcher Manuel Banuelos. I like both those guys, and can see Warren (who reminds me of Greg Maddux) and Banuelos (who reminds me of Johan Santana with a better curve ball), getting to the Bronx by 2012.

By reminds me, I am not saying these pitchers will have those types of careers, but they have similarities.

After my report on Warren, he was promoted to Double A Trenton where he has made two starts, and has a 2-0 record and 2.25 ERA. I saw him again in Trenton and we spoke a bit about his season. I mentioned to him that I saw Graham Stoneburner for Charleston, wrote a report, and then he was promoted to High A Tampa. I then saw Warren pitch in Tampa, wrote the report, and he was then promoted to Trenton.

I asked Warren who else does he want me to see so they can get promoted. He replied, “keep coming to my starts.” He is very mild-mannered kid, and has a good sense of humor.

This capsule includes another left-handed/right-handed due, Shaeffer Hall and aforementioned Stoneburner. I saw both of these guys pitch for Low A Charleston in early May and again in Tampa.

Shaeffer Hall – LHP   6″0″, 185 lbs.

Hall was the RiverDogs opening day starter, throwing six innings and allowing three hits, no walks while striking out four. Of the 13 other outs recorded, Hall generated nine ground outs, including one double play.

The first time I met Shaeffer Hall, he was in the Charleston clubhouse on their trip north to the Lakewood (NJ) Blue Claws.

Here was my first question:

Joseph DelGrippo: “Last year in college, Stephen Strasburg threw a no-hitter against the Air Force Academy. Do you know the other college pitcher who threw a no-hitter against Air Force last year?

Shaeffer Hall: Laughing out loud saying, “Yeah, you’re looking at him, but I guess you already knew that.”

Yes, I did. Hall threw an early season February nine inning no-hitter for the University of Kansas. The Jayhawks have a good baseball program but it is overlooked because of a great Kansas hoops team and other well-known Big 12 baseball programs such as Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Later that season, Hall pitched a complete game shutout against Dartmouth in the NCAA tournament. He was the Jayhawks Friday night starter in 2009, indicating he was the ace of that staff.

However, he did not have a great season going 5-6 with a 4.18 ERA in 15 starts, but his walk rate of 0.97 per nine innings attracted the Yankees. New York likes to take college pitchers who they feel pitched well but were the victim of “metal bat syndrome.”

Hall appears to fit into that category. He is also a hard worker, who worked to lose about 20 pounds from his college frame. I noticed the difference from his college photos to his body type in Lakewood.

Due to a slight shoulder strain, Hall only threw nine professional innings last season for short season Staten Island. The 2010 season is basically Hall’s first full year in pro baseball.

It’s funny, but Hall has had such a good season in his first full year in pro baseball, but in the two games I saw him pitch were his two worst outings of the year.

While I was “good luck” for Stoneburner and Warren, I am like a pariah of sorts for Hall.

Hall is a fastball, curveball, change-up guy who relies primarily on precise location to be effective. And based upon his results this season, he does have great control and command within the strike zone. He works quickly (a great trait) and can throw all three of his pitches for strikes.

RiverDogs pitching coach Jeff Ware agrees. “He has great command of all three of his pitches. When he has all three working and keeping the ball down, he is on top of his game. He can strike you out and can induce lots of ground balls. Schaef is also well prepared and hard-working. It is a great combination.”

Hall needs to be precise because he does not throw that hard, mostly 87-89, barely touching 90 a few times, but has some fastballs hovering around the 85 range. His curve ball is a nice weapon (mostly around 74), but while it has good bite, it is not consistent with its depth. Shaeffer sometimes leaves this pitch up, especially to right-handed hitters.

Like almost all Yankee farm hand pitchers, Hall’s out pitch is his change-up. It will arrive normally in the 76 range, and has decent bite, running slightly away from righties. It is not as good as Banuelos’ on an every pitch basis but it does have the ability to get lot of weakly hit balls in play.

Hall needs to also have an umpire who has a liberal outlook on strikes. In the game I witnessed in May up in Lakewood, the umpire has a very tight zone and would not give Hall any pitches on the corner. It forced Hall to bring his pitches over the plate more, where they proceeded to get hit.

In speaking with Hall after that game, he did not blame the umpiring, but said the zone was a little “tighter” than the day before. “I wasn’t getting many calls on the corners,” Hall said. “But I still need to work around that and throw better pitches when guys got on base.”

But that is what happens when a pitcher does not have “put away” stuff. Hall needs to work the strike zone in and out, down and away. If Hall does not get the pitches on the corner called strikes, the hitters will adjust to the tighter zone. And Hall can get hit hard when he brings the ball back over the outer and inner thirds of the plate.

In Tampa, it was more of the same. Lots of hits against Hall, who despite not walking anyone, was battered around. Some hits were dinks and dunks, but others were really belted. He seemed to not have command of his fastball. Around 88 with the fastball and similar as in Lakewood with the curve ball (74-75) and change-up (76).

Shaeffer Hall is a very nice pitcher, but is likely not going to be in any future Yankee plans. They just do not like that type of pitcher, a guy who doesn’t have dominant stuff with “great upside.”

Hall reminds me of former Yankee Chase Wright.

Mark Buehrle and maybe Jamie Moyer would also be good comparisons to what type of pitcher Hall is stuff wise.

Hall is a great kid who really likes the Yankees organization. My time in Tampa was during the Cliff Lee trade scenarios and Hall, Stoneburner and Adam Warren were asking me about what I had heard.

Graham Stoneburner – RHP  6’1″, 180 lbs

I saw also saw Stoneburner pitch twice, once in Lakewood and once in Tampa. He was great both times, and you can read about the Lakewood game here.

Stoneburner has a power fastball, above average to plus slider and a vastly improving change-up. When I saw him in Lakewood back in early May, I was told by one scout that Graham did not possess a good change. But his performance in that game, and other which followed proved that assessment incorrect.

The change-up was pretty good and he threw it quite often, generating lots of swings and misses. It had good downward bite as did his slider and two-seam fastball, which moves in both directions.

When asked about the change-up, Stoneburner said, “I think my change-up is coming along really well. It was pretty good all spring and I have more confidence in throwing, even in some fastball counts. The more I throw it, the better I get a feel for it.”  

That is the important thing about the change-up. Some pitchers don’t get a good feel for it, then they scrap it for long periods of time, which is a huge mistake.

It is a credit to Stoneburner that he continues to go with the pitch in different situations.

Graham has an explosive fastball which reached up to 96 MPH in the Lakewood start. In fact, in Stoneburner’s 95th pitch against Blue Claws that day saw him bring a 95 MPH up and in fastball past the No. 5 hitter Darin Ruff.

Stoneburner is a power pitcher to the core. He goes right after hitters and doesn’t mince his pitches as he throws strike after strike. He also has the rare ability to throw that hard and still command his arsenal within the strike zone.

His slider was consistently around 80-81 showing good, late break. Many people have talked about that he need to “tighten” up the slider, but I did not see any real need to alter that pitch as it appeared the same both times I saw him pitch. Stoneburner even told me in Tampa that he has thrown the slider the same way all season.

With his really good fastball/slider combination, some people have talked about Stoneburner becoming a power reliever as he moves further up the Yankee ladder. Maybe near the end of this season, that might happen as Double A Trenton goes into a playoff push and Stoneburner has already eclipsed 104 innings.

I spoke to him in July at a Tampa game and he feels he will be a 130-140 inning pitcher this year. It is a possibility, and I would like to see hin challenged again this season. But the Yankees do not like to promote a pitcher two times in one season, and with this being Graham’s first pro season, it is unlikely he will be moved to Trenton.

But with four pitches which he commands well, Stoneburner can be a real good starting pitcher. He has shown that this season in two levels, and owns one of the best WHIP’s for a starting pitcher in the minor leagues with a 0.90. 

Although he has a somewhat long arm action in the back, Stoneburner’s delivery appears to be consistent, and the control numbers are good. He has only issued only 26 walks in 104 IP (2.25 per 9 IP), a great number considering how hard Stoneburner throws. He reminds me of Tim Hudson, a sinewy guy with a smallish frame who throws hard, with control, and has a good slider.

While the Yankees always trade away their fringy prospects, Stoneburner is much more than a fringe prospect and can be a vital member of the Yankees pitching staff as soon as 2012. He should not be traded, but given every opportunity to continue up the ranks as a starting pitcher.


New York Yankees: Top Five Replacements for the Great Mariano Rivera

July 14, 2010

Well replacement might be a tough word, because no one is going to ever replace the supreme production supplied by Mariano Rivera.

Replacing someone was as great as Rivera in their own line of work is the ultimate no-win situation. It rarely works out the same way, and no one usually remembers the replacements.

Quick: Who replaced Lou Gehrig at first base? Who replaced John Wooden at UCLA? Answers below.

Mariano is the greatest closer of all time. Not the greatest relief pitcher (that would be Rollie Fingers because of his multiple inning durability), but Mo is the one pitcher you want on the mound for three ninth inning outs holding a one run lead.

Finding a new closer is going to be a difficult challenge as no one knows how long Rivera will continue to want to pitch.

At age 40, Rivera has shown no signs of vulnerability. He still sports one of the best closer ERAs with 1.05 and 20 saves, and a WHIP of 0.641. He also retired an incredible 24 straight batters in the month of June.

Still highly effective, how long will Rivera want to pitch? Similar to Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees will allow Rivera to make up his own mind when he wants to leave the game.

Rivera has mentioned that signing a series of one-year deals (similar to what Pettitte has done) would be acceptable to him.

I believe Rivera will pitch at least two more seasons after 2010. The “Core Four” will begin to gradually leave the team after this season (Pettitte retiring) and after 2011 (Jorge Posada not being re-signed).

If I were Mo, I would not want to retire the same season as another long time Yankee does.

I believe Rivera will then leave after the 2012 season, which makes getting my preferred replacement very difficult, as that guy is available sooner than the 2013 season.

Here are the five top candidates for the eventual new Yankees closer spot, and Joba Chamberlain is NOT on the list.

Answer to above questions: Gene Bartow replaced the Wizard of Westwood, and Babe Dahlgren replaced Gehrig at first base after his 2,130 consecutive games streak ended.

5 – Mark Melancon, Yankees Scranton AAA team

If they ever give this guy a chance of more than a couple mop up appearances, then he will show the Yankees that he will be the eventual closer.

Mark Melancon was drafted in 2006 with the idea of becoming the eventual Yankees closer. He was the very effective closer for the University of Arizona, a pitcher with a great mound demeanor and a bulldog want-the-ball attitude.

He has done everything you could ever want and need in the minors, including some dominating times in Triple A.

Melancon does three things you want in a relief pitcher: 1) He throws strikes, as he only walked 35 batters in three minor league seasons coming into 2010; 2) he strikes out hitters with his 95 MPH fastball and knee-buckling curve; and 3) he can go multiple innings.

He has struggled a little this season, but most of the damage has come in a few different games in his 34 appearances this year.

He deserves more of a major league opportunity than Chad Gaudin or Dustin Moseley. 

And when he gets more of an opportunity, he will show the Yankees that he can and will perform the function that he was drafted for in 2006.

Being the Yankees future closer. 

Odds of being the next Yankee closer – 50:1

4 – Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers

Valverde was a relatively unknown closer who toiled for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Houston Astros for five and two seasons respectively, before signing with the Detroit Tigers prior to the 2010 season.

Valverde saved 47 and 41 games in 2007 and 2008, and has not slowed down since joining the senior circuit.

He sports a miniscule 0.92 ERA this year, allowing a scant four earned runs in 39 innings. Valverde has a WHIP of 0.821, walking 3.7 per nine innings, but allowing very few hits. Hitters are batting .125 off of him this season.

His strikeout rate has steadily declined over the years from a high of 12.6 per 9 IP in 2006 to a “measly” 8.3 per 9 this season.

Have no fear as Valverde usually gets two strikes on most hitters he faces, and finishes them off with a strikeout or weakly hit ground ball off his devastating splitter.

But one thing hurts Valverde’s chances of becoming the next Yankee closer.

Mariano will likely pitch two more seasons after 2010, and Valverde will be a free agent after 2011.

With the lack of quality closers available, some team will overpay for Valverde, and it is very likely he re-signs with the Tigers.

At the grand age of 34 when he becomes a free agent, I do not see Valverde accepting an eighth inning role for a year or two so he can eventually close with the Yankees.

And unless Rivera retires after one more season, I do not see the Yankees aggressively going after Valverde.

Odds of being the next Yankee closer – 20:1

3 – Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers

He is the current Los Angeles Dodgers closer.

Broxton is big and strong (6’4″ and close to 300 lbs!) with a massive lower body that screams high heat. He can register the guns all the way up to 100 MPH, and regularly hit 98-99 on the gun in closing the All-Star game out last night for the National League.

Over the last two seasons (his only two full years as a closer), Broxton has struck out about 13 hitters per nine innings, while having a WHIP around 1.000.

Those are two great traits for a dominating closer.

Like Jose Valverde, the only issue is that Broxton can become a free agent after the 2011 season, and will have many suitors vying for his work.

If Rivera wants to continue pitching, will the Yankees fork over big money for Broxton over four years, using him as a very highly paid set up guy for a season or two, then letting him close once Rivera retires?

This could happen as Broxton will only be 28 when he reaches free agency.

Will having the opportunity to eventually close for the New York Yankees be enough of a luring card for Broxton to forego his closer role for a year or two?

Or, since Rivera will be 42 in 2012, could both he and Rivera alternate as closer two years from now?

Broxton is the perfect fit for the Yankees, but what does scare me is his arm action, which is shown above. This type of action is ripe for injury, and not something which should be taken lightly, especially for a guy who throws as hard as Broxton does.

He is the perfect candidate to step right in as the future Yankee closer, but the timing of his free agency hurts his overall chances.

Odds of being the next Yankee closer –  7:1.

2 – Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals

Since he closes for the lowly Kansas City Royals, Soria is the best closer in the game that no one really talks about.

But people have been noticing him work lately as many have Soria pegged as possibly being traded to the Yankees as a set up man to Rivera for 2010.

Soria has put up dazzling numbers with a 162 game average of 2.13 ERA and a 0.994 WHIP with 37 saves. He walks only 2.5 per nine IP while striking out over 10 per nine IP.

He is signed through the 2011 season, with three club otions for 2012 ($6M), 2013 ($8M) and 2014 ($8.5M).

I do not believe the Royals will be wanting to pay Soria $8 million per in 2013, and could trade the closer to the Yankees sometime in 2012. If Soria is still effective two years from now, the Yankees will certainly have enough trade chips to whet the Royals’ appetite.

And two years after 2010 is when Rivera is likely to retire. But his odds decline a little as another team needs to be involved, and it is not just a straight free agent signing.

Odds of being the next Yankees closer – 5:1

1 – Huston Street, Colorado Rockies

Basically this deal works timing wise more than anything.

Huston Street will probably be a free agent after the 2012 season, just when I believe Mariano Rivera will retire.

When healthy, Huston is nothing less than very effective. He throws strikes, changes speeds and strikes out hitters at a good (although not great) rate.

Street just does not allow many hitters to get good contact off him. His career WHIP is 1.023 in 343 career innings.

Street is signed through 2012, but has a player option for $9 million in 2013. Assuming he is healthy and still effective at the then age of  28, if Street knows Rivera is retiring and the Yankees (among others) need a closer, Huston would be smart to decline the option and become a free agent.

The Yankees could easily give him a multi-year deal at $10 million per.

Street was rumored to be coming to the Yankees near the 2009 trade deadline, but the Yankees will have to wait a few seasons for his eventual arrival.

Odds of being the next Yankee closer – 3:1.

Honorable Mention – Current Yankee Farmhands

I would always allow a younger player to get an opportunity over a major league free agent, but the future job of Yankee closer is going to have so much scrutiny, it might not be a good idea to have a young player in that role.

It would not be fair to that youngster, and not fair to the fans, who would demand instant success. The role of closer is not allowed to have any failures, especially coming off the retirement of Mariano Rivera.

But the Yankees do have an abundance of young pitchers with strong arms, routinely hitting 95 MPH, with good control and two out pitches.

If the eventual closer was from the current ranks of farmhands, one of these young pitchers would likely be the next one:

Andrew Brackman – this 25 year old stands 6’10” and has finally become the prospect he was once destined.

Now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Brackman has been successful this year as a starting pitcher at High A Tampa, andwas then promoted to Double A Trenton.

He finally harnessed the one negative in his game—pitching control. Cleaning up some mechanical issues has allowed Brackman to reduce his walks to only 16 in 80 innings in 2010.

During the debacle which was his 2009 season in Low A Charleston, Brackman’s only success was when he was sent to the bullpen. While better than normal his first handful of relief appearances, his last four stints were stellar.

He did not walk anyone over those ten innings, allowing only six hits with no runs, HBP, or wild pitches while striking out nine.

Here is my report last year on his bullpen success.

Brackman has now begun to throw a sharp slider at 87 MPH to go along with his hammer curve and fastball which has now hit 96 MPH.

With all the Yankees’ starting pitcher prospects in the system, Brackman might be better suited in the bullpen.

History has already shown he can succeed there.

Graham Stoneburner – this guy has what it takes to be successful as a major league bullpen arm. He has a fastball at 95-96 MPH and a nasty slider which generates lots of swings and misses.

Here is my report on him from one of his Charleston starts.

He walks relatively few hitters, allows few hits and has one of the best WHIPs in the entire minors. He has also struck out exactly a batter per inning so far in 2010.

He was promoted so far this year from Low A Charleston to High A Tampa and likely will stay in steamy Florida State League all season.

It is only Single A baseball, but Stoneburner continues to impress the Yankee brass with his stuff and mound presence.

If he does not consistently generate a third pitch, like his improving change up, Stoneburner could make his major league debut in the bullpen as soon as next season.

Tim Norton – a real long shot as this 27-year-old has spent most of his career on various disabled lists, including missing the entire 2008 season with a shoulder injury requiring surgery. 

But I have liked his pitching style since seeing him in short season Staten Island in 2006.

But when he recently returned this season, he was nothing short of dominant, striking out well more than one per inning and having a WHIP well below 1.000. Norton has scrapped his splitter, which I have always said harms shoulders more than any other pitching factor.

But Norton, who has a serious nasty pitching mentality to dominate, is hurt again and on the Double A Trenton disabled list.


Manuel Banuelos Impressive in Most Recent Start for Tampa Yankees

July 7, 2010

Author’s Note: This was written several months before all the recently published big media reports from the Arizona Fall League of how good a pitcher Manuel Banuelos is.

I am taking a tour of Florida for a little time to watch the Florida State League High A Tampa Yankees.

The first night I saw Adam Warren and Graham Stoneburner create a show with both pitching well against the Brevard County Manatees. It was the first time seeing Warren and second time seeing Stoneburner throw, although the first time was at Low A Charleston.

Warren was good, keeping everything down in the zone. He moves the ball in and out very well, pin points every pitch and was effective over seven innings in getting swings and misses on all of his pitches. This included striking out former major leaguer and former top Milwaukee Brewers catching prospect Angel Salome three times.

I will see Warren again Saturday night in Tampa.

Stoneburner was his usual self, getting a bunch of strikeouts and ground balls off his hard fastball and sharp biting slider. He only threw four innings, allowing four hits, four runs, three of which were earned. He had one bad inning, helped along by another bad Bradley Suttle fielding play.

Both guys are not afraid to come inside, and used their low-to- mid 90s fastballs to bust hitters in on the hands. Warren is very adept at breaking bats with a nice running action on his two seamer.

Due to a rain out the prior day, these games were only seven inning tilts. The Yankee organization, ever-present concerning young pitchers and innings limits, lifted Stoneburner after four. The Yankees supposedly have an innings limit of around 130-140 this year for Stoneburner (he has 85 thus far), basically his first professional season.

But the main attraction for me in traveling the 2 1/2 hours to Brevard County was to see Manuel Banuelos, a 19-year-old left-handed pitcher signed from the Mexican League.

Banuelos is listed as 5’10” but he is no bigger than me, and I am only 5″9.” However, he is thick in the legs, and appears to weight more than his listed weight of 155 lbs.

But what Man-Ban lacks in height, he makes up with repertoire, pitch command and poise. And not necessarily ranked in that order.

Watching him warm up I saw a very smooth and easy delivery. He does not swing back with a high PAS elbow, putting less stress on his elbow and shoulder. His front foot plants in the same spot every time, slightly closed but in a direct line to home plate, good signs towards a pitcher repeating his delivery pitch after pitch and having excellent control.

And Banuelos does repeat his easy delivery. He locates all three of his pitches where he wants most of the time. If he misses with a pitch, he misses down, especially with his dynamite 12-6/11-7 curve ball.

And that curve ball is just one of three out pitches Banuelos displayed Tuesday night. He threw that pitch inside and outside, getting called strikes on some, weakly hit ground balls on a few and swinging strikes on many.

Banuelos started that game by allowing three straight hard-hit singles, and his first earned run in two FSL starts. All three hits were on pitches over the plate, and two of the batters fought off some tough pitches prior to getting their knocks.

But Manny settled down, striking out the next three hitters (two looking) on a called fastball away, swinging change-up away and called inside curve to a right-handed hitter. All three hitters were set up beautifully, giving credit to veteran backstop Myron Leslie.

But Banuelos threw the pitches to the right spots when he needed to, and he dominated the Brevard County lineup after those first three hitters.

While the curve ball is really good (75-76 MPH all night), and the fastball is solid (92-93 MPH all night, touching 94 twice) with a slight tailing action to right-handed hitters, it is Banuelos’ change up which is going to get him through the system in a hurry.

The change was thrown consistently in the 80-82 MPH range with precise location. He generated lots of swing and misses all night on this pitch, painting the outside corner with it at will.

This pitch was very Johan Santana-like.

Banuelos was not afraid to throw his off-speed pitches in favorable hitters counts, and as the game moved along it was very unpredictable in what he would throw. He threw many back-to-back change ups which shows Banuelos is confident in his pitches. He was not afraid to throw to the corners, possibly put on man on via a walk, because he has the pitch action to generate strikeouts or get a quick double play ground ball.

He showed tremendous confidence in throwing strikes when behind in the count, seemingly not caring as he continued to throw his off speed stuff at anytime. And when a right-handed hitter began to lean out over the plate, he busted them inside with a curve or 93 MPH fastball.

After one swing and a miss on a pinpoint change-up, I said out loud  “that was really unfair.”

One Tampa Yankees hurler who was seated behind the back stop charting pitches said that Banuelos is “unreal” in that he has three out pitches and command of all three. This player also said, “I have not seen anything like him so far in pro ball.”

What I did not like about Banuelos was his pick off move to first base. It is predictable and easy to recognize. There were three successful stolen bases (on three attempt) off him.

But a pickoff move, especially to a lefty, is a very teachable craft.

What is not coachable is Banuelos ability to throw three out pitches with pinpoint control.

He is a keeper and one to keep an eye on for rapid advancement in the Yankee system and I can see Banuelos moving into the Bronx rotation by late 2012.


New York Yankees Pitching Prospect Graham Stoneburner Dominates in Latest Start

May 6, 2010

UPDATE: On May 11, just five days after this piece was written, Graham Stoneburner was promoted to High A Tampa.

He is the pitching prospect with the Internet hype. He is also very high on the New York Yankee organizational support list, and Charleston RiverDogs pitcher Graham Stoneburner * did not disappoint in Wednesday’s late morning start against the Lakewood BlueClaws.

*Late in the interview process, he was asked about his unique surname. Graham replied, “My ancestors used to heat up rocks and put them under peoples beds.” Interesting. It had to be asked and reported as I knew people were dying to know the origins of what is one of the best names ever for a pitcher. By the way, Graham’s older brother, Davis Stoneburner , is a shortstop in the Texas Rangers organization.

The Yankees 2009 14th-round pick out of Clemson dominated from the beginning, striking out 11 Lakewood hitters, while allowing two hits, no runs and walking two over seven strong innings. His fastball was consistently between 91-93, hitting as high as 95 on three different guns. He now has 43 strikeouts in 38 innings this season.

I have attended each of the first three games here in Lakewood to see the Yankee Class Low A affiliate Charleston RiverDogs compete. I will write an overall article regarding my thoughts on the team and its prospects after tomorrow’s finale, but Stoneburner’s game today warranted an extra piece.

Stoneburner struck out seven straight hitters at one point, his best work coming in the second inning which began that string of Ks. It was the first of two Lakewood scoring chances against Stoneburner. A hard hit ball by 2008 Philadelphia Phillies first round pick Anthony Hewitt got past the RiverDog third baseman, Jimmy Paredes, and scooted into left field.

The speedy Hewitt sprinted into second ahead of LF DeAngelo Mack’s throw, but the ball got away and Hewitt raced to third. Man on third and no outs in the 0-0 game, but Stoneburner quickly retired the side in order on three whiffs.

When asked about that situation Stoneburner said, “The first guy I was trying to strike out, and the second hitter I was looking for a strikeout or ground ball. With the third hitter I was trying to make good pitches to let him get himself out, but I ended up with another strikeout.”

Stoneburner struck out the side again in the third, mostly with heaters and a biting slider. “My two big out pitches today were the fastball and slider,” he said. Usually I try to pound the zone with both and use the change up to set up both the fastball and slider.”

The supposed work in progress changeup appeared very good, getting several swings and misses. It came in anywhere from 79-81 and had good downward action.

He was getting lots of called strikes and when asked if the umpire was a little generous, Stoneburner said, “I consistently hit some spots and, maybe, one or two he gave me. But other than that, he didn’t really give me too much.”

However, that particular umpire (Shaun Lampe) was also behind the plate Monday night, and in both games was consistent in giving pitchers the outside corners. Today’s battery of Stoneburner and catcher Kyle Higashioka knew that and worked it to their advantage.

That is good baseball and Stoneburner gave much credit to his battery mate. “My catcher and I were on the same page all day. He called a great game and whatever he called I just tried to put it where he called it, and I was able to execute some pitches today.”

But Stoneburner was in a little trouble in the fifth inning when after a leadoff walk, the next hitter lined a single to center field. The runner on first tried to take the extra base, but center fielder Ray Kruml came up firing and gunned the runner out at third.  

Then after a stolen base (Lakewood has had eight steals in the three games) and his second walk issued, Stoneburner got a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. Kruml’s throw was a huge play for Stoneburner and the RiverDogs.

While that inning-ending double play was nicely turned by second baseman Emerson Landoni, it was not the defensive highlight play of the day. That occurred in the bottom of the eighth inning with Lakewood runners on first and third with no outs against Charleston reliever Ronny Marte. At this point with the RiverDogs up 2-0, the game is still not decided.

The next hitter bounces back to Marte who wheels and throws to second for the force. The relay to first baseman Luke Murton was in plenty of time to get the batter for the double play.

But the runner on third did not begin to run home until the ball was already in the short stops glove for the first out, and Murton threw home to Higashioka to get the runner at home for the third out.

It was the first time for many jubilant RiverDogs in experiencing a triple play. It was all the talk in the clubhouse after the game.

And it was the second triple play for the organization this year, the first being turned by the parent club in Oakland.

But despite the defensive heroics, this day belonged to Stoneburner.

He was in control all day, and was still gassing the ball to the plate late in the game. During the bottom of the seventh inning, I was down behind home plate amongst scouts and the radar guns.

With one out and two strikes on the next hitter, Stoneburner fired an up and in fastball past the swinging No. 5 hitter, Darrin Ruf. All the radars showed 95 MPH on which was Stoneburners 95th pitch.

RiverDogs manager Greg Colbrunn, a 13-year Major League veteran, was impressed with his young starter. “He’s got a chance to move through the ranks pretty quickly,” Colbrunn said.

When Stoneburner was asked if he thought he could be promoted soon he said, “No, I don’t have any control over that, except for performing. So I just keep my mind focused on what I have to do and let everything else take care of itself.”

When I mentioned that the Yankees have made it a yearly habit of promoting their top Low A pitcher each of the past two seasons (Zach McAllister in 2008 and David Phelps in 2009), he added, “I try to just keep it as simple as can be and pitch well. If I get called up, great. If I don’t, then I’m gonna stay here and hopefully continue to do well and every time out there, and just try to compete.”

Charleston scored its first run in the sixth inning when Zoilo Almonte doubled and came around on a single by Paredes. Then in the seventh, Charleston tacked on an insurance run when Higashioka walked on a close 3-2 pitch, advanced to second on a ground out, and went to third on a bullet, line drive single to left field by Landoni, the second baseman.

Landoni was then picked off first, but stayed in the run down long enough to see Higashioka score from third. Interestingly, Landoni was almost picked off on the prior pitch, too.

Those two runs helped Stoneburner garner his first ever professional victory. When asked if he was getting frustrated after pitching well, but not getting any marks in the win column he said, “I just try and go out there and keep the runs to a minimum and do my best to put my team in a position to win. I don’t worry about wins and losses too much because I can’t control it. It’s good to get a win, but it’s really not the priority.”

This is the second dominant performance this season for Stoneburner, who set down 20 men in a row against Rome on April 24, but received a no-decision.

Stoneburner is completely wrong about one thing. He does have control over whether he gets promoted or not. If he keeps pitching like he did today, the Yankees organization will have no choice but to start the promotion train.

And the young, talented Mr. Stoneburner will have a first class ticket to Tampa.

UPDATE: On May 11, just five days after this piece was written, Graham Stoneburner was promoted to High A Tampa.