07 March 2011

Sifting Through Some of the Yankee Prospect Hype

I saw an interview of the Yankees player development director, Mark Newman, by noted baseball prospect expert John Sickels, and was more than a little surprised at some of the spin Newman puts on various players in the organization. Maybe surprised isn't the right word.  This is Spring, after all, when everyone is in the best shape of his life and Jeff Francoeur looks like he's turned a corner and the goat-footed balloon man goes whistling far and wee and all of that, so I guess a little unbridled optimism isn't so inappropriate.  It's not like I expect the head of the Yankees whole minor league operation to bad mouth his charges either, but I guess I expected a little more realism. 

While I agree with Rob Neyer that this is an "absolute-must-read-for-Yankee-fans", I also think that Newman lays it on a little thick at times, and that someone has to sift through some of what he says with the use of a healthy dose of cynicism and maybe - just maybe - a few facts.

I won't cover the whole interview transcript, which is comfortably over 2,000 words long, but I'll hit some of the high points and clue you in on a few things newman didn't tell you. None of this means that I think Sickels did a poor job with the interview. On the contrary, he got a lot of good information out of a very highly-placed source, all on the record, but he couldn't possibly have parried with Newman every time he thrust Melky Mesa or Eduardo Nunez out there, so I will. 

SICKELS: [...] What do you see as the strengths of the system. And what are your weaknesses, areas you want to improve?

NEWMAN: [...] I also like our group of center fielders. Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Melky Mesa all have the tools to play center and we think they all have a good chance to hit. Angelo Gums may end up there too. So, I would say pitching, catching, and center field are our strengths.

BoS: Newman starts by talking about all the potential high end rotation arms in the system, which Rob Neyer has already debunked, so I won't rehash that.  He then mentions the catching, and there's little argument there, and what arguments there are (about Jesus Montero's defense, for example) get addressed later on.  But he throws three names out there for this so-called bumper crop of CF candidates, and I'm not buying it.  

Slade Heathcott: A 2009 first round pick, he was supposed to be a power hitter but slugged only two homers in 350+ plate appearances last year at Charleston in the Single-A South Atlantic League. He also struck out in about a third of his at bats, got caught stealing in 40% of his attempts, made 7 errors in 75 games in CF and hit only .258.  He was, to be fair, one of the half dozen or so youngest regular position players in the Sally League, and maybe just not crashing and burning at that age is an accomplishment in itself, but really, if that performance doesn't constitute a crash and burn, what does?  Newman addresses the strikeouts and the lack of power later in the interview, blaming the jump from high school to A-ball.  Maybe this year was more about honing tools than putting up gaudy stats, but in either case, Heathcott has yet to prove himself as a pro, in my mind. 

Mason Williams: Also drafted out of high school, also very young, also unimpressive, albeit in only a handful of opportunities (4-for-18 with no extra base hits, steals, runs or RBIs).  The jury is clearly still out on him, and I can't see how an 18 year old with 5 career games on his resume allows you to call his position a "strength" for your organization.  

Newman says later in the interview that Williams is fast and has a strong arm,that he threw hard as a pitcher in high school, and so he projects as a CF.  That's probably as much because he's not going to hit like a corner outfielder as it is because of his speed and his arm.  Also, after Googling him for research for this article, I've got "Classical Gas" stuck in my head.  Thanks. 

Melky Mesa: This is the worst offense in the list.  Mesa was signed out of the Dominican Republic, debuted with the Yankees' GCL team in 2006 at the age of 19...but is now 23 and hasn't yet gotten past A-ball.  He was among the Florida State League leaders in homers, steals, runs scored and triples, but he hit only .260 with modest patience and whiffed 129 times in 122 games. For his 4-year minor league career, he's hit .236/.307/.431 - think "last year's Jose Guillen, but with speed...and only in Single A". Maybe his improvement to .260/.338/.475 in 2010 means he's making strides, but even so, it seems to me that the strides he's making are more in the direction of "Speedy 5th outfielder" than "Future Star".  

SICKELS: What about your weaknesses?

NEWMAN: Corner players with power. We have (Brandon) Laird who is a solid prospect, but we are thin for corner bats otherwise in the system. [...]

BoS: Well, at least he admits that much.  But even Laird has more than a few chinks in his armor.  He won the Eastern league MVP award last year, hitting .291/23/90 for AA Trenton, but his presence in that semi-illustrious club doesn't guarantee much.  For every Jeff Bagwell, Ryan Howard or Vladimir Guerrero, it seems there are two or three Adam Hyzdus  or Calvin Pickerings.  Heck, the last Yankee farmhand to win Eastern League MVP was Russ Davis in 1992, also a defense-challenged thirdbaseman, whose ceiling turned out to be "useful for a couple of years."   

More common on the list are good, but not great players who have a decent career in the majors but never achieve stardom - Kevin Millar, Matt Stairs, Cliff Floyd, Marlon Byrd, etc.  Laird was horribly overmatched during his month in AAA last year, with a .246 average, 27 strikeouts and only four walks in 31 games, and I think the organization is going to make him a left fielder, because he seems unable to handle third base.  He's sometimes hit better when not playing third base, so maybe that will be what he needs. But if not, we may be looking at a ceiling of Wes Helms or Russ Davis.  Ick. 


BoS: After that, there's a back-and-forth about Jesus Montero, whether he can really catch, etc.  Everyone agrees that he can hit, but he's big, with clunky mechanics behind the plate and little success in preventing steals.  His 23% rate catching base thieves, on the face of it, doesn't seem much worse than the 2010 International League average of 27%, but only one catcher with at least 60 games had a lower CS% and nobody came close to his league leading 15 passed balls.  It's possible that he'll figure something out, but guys who are already 6'4", 225 at the age of 20 tend only to get bigger, and there's hardly ever been a regular catcher that big who's remained a regular catcher for long.  

Anyway, back to the dialogue:

SICKELS: Austin Romine, your other strong catching prospect behind Montero. Good arm, good defensive reports, but he threw out just 23% of runners last year.

NEWMAN: I don't worry about his glove, Romine can really catch. He turns bullets into marshmallows. His arm is strong and accurate. By the internal defensive metrics we use, Romine rates as a very strong defender, and Montero isn't far behind him.

BoS: We're obviously not privy to those internal metrics, and CS% isn't everything, despite what I wrote about Montero, so I'll buy this one, for now.  Romine's OPS has dropped each of the last two years as he's jumped levels, but not precipitously so.  Mostly I included this part because I loved that line about turning bullets into marshmallows.  

SICKELS: The other top catching prospect is Gary Sanchez. Where does he start the year? How does his glove compare to Montero's at the same stage?

NEWMAN: He should go to Charleston and will probably be there all year. The hardest thing for him will be adjusting to the workload and length of the season. He is way ahead of Montero at the same stage defensively. He's very bright, works hard, needs experience but already calls the game well. He's a very sharp kid. The bat is terrific and he is much more mature and professional about hitting than most players his age. He is way ahead of the curve mentally, outthinking the pitchers.

BoS: Sanchez is another young Dominican free agent, having only turned 18 in December last year, who somehow managed to hit .353 in half a season in the Gulf Coast League.  Not wanting to get too excited about half a season's worth of at-bats, ('member when we did that with Jeremy Reed?) you have to admit at least that the bat looks promising.  When promoted to Low-A Staten Island, he wasn't nearly as good but at least he didn't flop.  

But his defense?  Well, if you thought Montero's 15 passed balls in 105 games were bad, wait til you see Sanchez: 16 Passed Balls.  In 30 games.  Thirty.  And he threw out only 19% of base stealers in the GCL.  Yeesh.  Maybe's he's out-thinking the pitchers a little too much, eh?  Maybe he should just try catching what they call for a while?  

For the record, we don't have SB/CS data for Montero's 2007 season in the GCL, when he was 17, but he allowed only four passed balls in 23 games.  Not great, but better than every other game by a long stretch.  We'll see if Sanchez can figure things out well enough to stick there.  

SICKELS: David Adams, where does he stand? Is he healthy?

NEWMAN: He's dealing with a bout of plantar faciitis right now but should be fine. He's a solid hitter when he's healthy. I think his glove is underrated. His range is OK, but he is just amazing at turning the double play. If I had to give him a 20/80 number on turning the double play, I'd give him an 80.

BoS: Adams hits for decent average (admittedly bolstered by a .367 BABiP at Trenton last year) and is patient, but shows only doubles power at best and has no speed.  That makes him project as a slap-hitting second baseman with soft hands but limited range, the upside of which is Placido Polanco or Miguel Cairo but the more likely result of which is Jody Reed or Mark Lemke, i.e. decent, but not enough of an offensive threat in the majors to keep pitchers honest, especially given that his ball in play aren't going to find holes so easily in the majors. That thing about "If they had a metric for this, I bet he'd be awesome" is exactly the kind of things that team executives say when a prospect doesn't have a lot of obvious, measurable skills, like "moxy" or "mound presence".  Baseball Prospectus rates him as just an average defensive second baseman. 

NEWMAN: One infielder that people need to watch closely is Eduardo Nunez.

SICKELS: What do you think about him?

NEWMAN: He's always had the tools. He can run and throw, very legit defender at shortstop, has some surprising pop in his bat, efficient at stealing bases. He is still working on his plate discipline, work in progress. He could start at shortstop for a lot of clubs. He was really great back in rookie ball five years ago, then kind of stalled out when he lost confidence. But he's had his confidence back the last two seasons and has played much better. We really like him.

BoS: Baseball Prospectus' metrics call Nunez' defense below average but their commentary on him indicates that he's actually pretty good.  He has hit for decent averages the last two years, but as Newman admits, he doesn't like to walk.  And I have no idea what Newman means by "surprising pop in his bat".  The dude hit four homers in over 500 trips to the plate in 2010, has never had more than nine in a season, and has a career slugging percentage of .369.  

Therefore, any offensive value he provides is going to have to come from the batting average, which is a fickle mistress.  He does have good speed and base stealing instincts, with 113 steals and only 39 times caught in his minor league career, including 42 out of 54 the last two seasons, so that will help him eek out a few infield hits that someone like, say, David Adams will never get.  And he doesn't strike out too much, so I guess that helps a little, but he seems like he'd be maxed out as a major league regular.  BP projects him for .268 with 7 homers and 15 steals in 2011, if he played every day, which he won't.  For reference, that's about what Orlando Cabrera did last year.  

SICKELS: Is Cito Culver sticking at shortstop?

NEWMAN: Absolutely. Range, hands, arm strength, all above average for shortstop. His feet work well. He has a great sense of timing.

SICKELS: The bat?

NEWMAN: I think he'll be fine. He might not hit for a ton of power, but he should hit for average, hit a few homers. He'll be a legitimate hitter.

BoS: Culver was the Yankees' first round draft pick this past year.  He played about half a season for GCL Yankees, but also got a handful of games at Low-A Staten Island.  He was only 17 last year, and not impressive statistically (.251/.325/.330), but the jury's still out.  He's young enough to develop into something but so far away at this point that it's not really worth debating what that might be.  But let's do it anyway, shall we?  

For the record, the Yankees have taken five different shortstops with their first round picks - all from high school - since the amateur draft began in 1969.  Culver was actually drafted as a pitcher, but we'll include him for comparison.  The others were:   

  • Carl "C.J." Henry in 2005, who was turned into an outfielder, went to the Phillies in the Bobby Abreu trade in 2006, hit .222 in parts of four seasons and washed out of pro ball by 2008.  
  • Bronson Sardinha in 2001, who's played short, third and outfield in the minors and is still playing at age 27, albeit not with the Yankees.  He got only a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2007 but hasn't been back because he's hit only .270 with occasional power and not much else in the bushes.  
  • Dennis Sherrill in 1974, who remained a shortstop but turned out not to be a very good one.  He hit .292 with 14 homers at AA as a 22 year old, but never hit better than .237 in a season at any level otherwise, got only five total at-bats in the majors, and was out of baseball by age 25.  
  • Rex Hudler in 1978, a career backup infielder who found a niche as a useful bench guy for about a decade and a half in the majors. 
  • Oh...and a someday-first-ballot-Hall-of-Famer named "Derek".  You might have seen him around.   
The difference between Jeter and those other guys is mostly how high they were drafted.  Sherrill was 12th, Henry 17th, Hudler was 18th, Sardinha was 34th and our man Culver was 32nd.  Jeter was 6th, and if any of the five teams in front of the Yankees in 1992 thought even for a second that Jeter would eschew the quarterback's job at the University of Michigan to come and play for them, they would have picked him instead.  

So the Yankees pretty much lucked out that year in that they had a high draft pick and there was a player who wanted nothing more in life that to be a Yankee from practically the day he was born, and was talented enough to pull it off.  Obviously the exception and not the rule.  I'll be very surprised if, 20 years form now, we look back on Cito Culver's career and find that it compares favorably to Rex Hudler's.  

Now on to the pitchers...

NEWMAN: [Dellin Betances is] Definitely a starter. Three-pitch guy, plus curveball, plus changeup, hit 96-97 in first game. There are some concerns about his durability until he proves otherwise, but we think he'll be fine. He has a great work ethic, I love the physique, his mechanics are consistent. His walk rates have gotten better. With the injury behind him we think he'll be durable now. He will start off in Double-A.

BoS: Betances is listed as 6'8", 245 lbs, which explains why he has struggled with mechanics.  That's a lot of body to get coordinated all at once.  He's 22 years old and has only three games above Single A ball in his career, so it's a little too early to get excited about him, but the fact that he managed to shave about three walks per nine innings off his previous rates without losing his strikeouts or giving up considerably more hits speaks volumes about his potential.  If he continues to pitch like he did last year, he won't be in Trenton for long. 


SICKELS: Manny Banuelos opened lots of eyes in the Arizona Fall League. I saw him down there and he's just incredibly smooth.

NEWMAN: Yeah, he is a smaller guy but wow, great stuff. It is hard to fathom how a guy his size, throwing that easy with the ball coming out of his hand the way it does, can throw so hard. He was at 93-95 yesterday. I have no worries about his arm. His delivery and athleticism scream durability. He's going to Double-A with Betances.

BoS: Banuelos has averaged a shade over nine strikeouts and a shade under three walks per nine innings in his three-year minor league career, which, like Betances, includes exactly three games above single-A.  But Banuelos won't even turn 20 for about another week, so while it's not like he's expected to help the big league club this year, he could be there as soon as 2012. 

SICKELS: Hector Noesi. His key seems to be control. Possible fourth starter?

NEWMAN: Yeah, some of our people see him as a number three, some think he is more of a four/five guy. His key is the fastball/changeup combination, and he has amazing control. He's shown he can spin a breaking ball but needs to tighten it. Nardi Contreras is our pitching coordinator, and he's terrific at helping guys with their breaking balls. He's working with Hector.

BoS: Amazing control is right.  He's walked only 1.6 per nine and allowed 0.7 homers per nine in 353 minor league innings, spanning four seasons. His strikeout rates aren't quite as high as those other two, but they're plenty high.  He had his first exposure to AAA ball last season - three games, just like the other two, must be a Yankee developmental thing - so clearly he still needs to prove himself, but Baseball prospectus' PECOTA system thinks he could be a league average starter right now - projecting him for a 4.75 ERA in 68 innings.  He's 24 already, so his time is now, but with just an average velocity fastball, he can't slip much without kissing his chances at a major league career goodbye. 

SICKELS: Andrew Brackman, starter or reliever?

NEWMAN: Starter. His changeup has come miles and miles in the last year. He emphasized working on the changeup this winter and it looks so much better this spring. I know some people were frustrated with him until last year, but he is a unique guy. He was a college basketball player. He is 6-11. And he had the elbow injury. We told people to be patient because any one of those factors by themselves were enough to slow his progress, but he had all three. He had the trifecta of extenuating circumstances.

But once he got healthy, look at the progress. He went from 6.5 walks-per-nine to 1.9 walks-per-nine in A-ball last year. I've never seen a starting pitcher make that kind of leap in such a short amount of time. The stuff has always been there. He's an extraordinary athlete, fields his position, runs springs [sic...I think he meant sprints] in the outfield like he's 6-2. He's going to start the year in Triple-A.

BoS: Brackman is a weird case, as Newman details, but his ability to cut his walk rate by more than half without losing but a sliver off his K-rate is really impressive.  He had half a season at AA Trenton - and was actually pretty good there - so it makes sense to send him to Scranton, but expect some (wait for it...) growing pains at AAA.  Most of his competition in the International League will have seen it all, having spent at least some time in the majors, so he'll need to develop as a pitcher to succeed there.  Look for some ugly numbers for a while as he works out the kinks again. 

SICKELS: Ivan Nova: favorite for rotation?

NEWMAN: I don't know if he's the favorite. We would like him to be. He's young and has the stuff, pitched at 94-96 the other day. He's another guy working on his secondary stuff to go with the heater. The other issue is command. He has control, he throws strikes, but his command within the zone still needs work.

SICKELS: Like the difference between throwing strikes and throwing quality strikes?

NEWMAN: Yeah. That's what he's working on.

BoS: If this were a courtroom, Sickels would have gotten in trouble for leading the witness. In any case, Nova is only a favorite because the Yankees don't have anyone else with as much upside who also has so much experience at AAA and in the majors.  He's basically a straight power pitcher with just a show-me change up, but if your stuff is good enough, that can work.  He struggled in his first exposure to AAA in 2009 but then thrived there last year.  Expect some difficulties early on in the majors if he breaks camp with the big club, and if he doesn't work them out, expect him to get sent back to work on them while the Yankees try Brackman or Phelps or (God help us...) Sergio Mitre in the #5 spot in the rotation for a couple of weeks. 

SICKELS: There are other interesting arms beyond the main group. Adam Warren for example. In other systems he would get more attention.

NEWMAN: True. Adam, compact arm stroke, throws his fastball and changeup at any spot in the zone. He's still refining his spin pitches, which will determine if he's a number three starter or a number five starter. He's heading to Triple-A.

BoS: Baseball Prospectus thinks his ceiling is as a #4 starter, a LAIM, which of course is nothing to sneeze at, but if that's the best he'll ever be, then it's a lot more likely that he'll have a career as a swingman or mop-up reliever.  His stuff isn't that great, but h is fastball improved last year and he has enough different offerings to keep batters guessing, which is why he's been able to do pretty well in the minors.  In the majors, that's not likely to get him too far.  

SICKELS: We talked about David Phelps as a sleeper last year, and he really panned out.

NEWMAN: Yeah, David's secondary pitches have really improved. He's always had a decent changeup and slider, I would rate the slider as almost-plus. But his curveball is much better than it used to be, and he has a solid 90-93 MPH heater. Gives him four pitches. Just a solid blue-collar strike thrower. He'll begin in Triple-A.

BoS: That sounds like a bit of an exaggeration about his fastball.  BP calls his stuff just average but says that his command and control are both good, and they give him an outside shot at one of the back end rotation jobs.  Guys like this take a while to get going in the majors, and most of them never really do. 

SICKELS: Another one who looks really interesting is Graham Stoneburner.

NEWMAN: He's really come around. He threw hard in college at Clemson, and he still works at 94-96 with sink. But his secondary pitches have taken a step forward, he keeps the ball down, throws strikes. He was raw in college but much better now. Heading to Double-A.

BoS: Baseball Prospectus says he's got a good sinker slider combo, but they project him as a reliever unless he can come up with a third pitch.  If he really threw "94-96 with sink" and had a plus slider, he wouldn't need a third pitch.  Sounds like another tall tale to me.  

SICKELS: Some observers really like Brett Marshall as a sleeper.

NEWMAN: He has the arm, and we gave him $800,000, so we've liked him too (laugh). He threw 97-98 before he got hurt. He still throws 93-95 with big-time sink. His fastball looks like a left-hander's slider. He has a good changeup, but is still working on the slider and curve. Great athlete, aggressive personality. Have to watch him this year, yeah.

BoS: Another case of the Newman Boost: An independent scouting website says his fastball is more like 88-91 most of the time - on the low end of that for the 2-seamer, on the high end for the 4-seam - though it can get up to 93 mph at times.  Seems like it's generally best to subtract 3-5 mph from whatever Newman says.  With that said, Marshall still looks like he could be a useful major leaguer someday. He's got just so-so control (a little over three walks per nine, but low homer rates) and good strikeout rates, but he's still not yet in AA, so it will be a while before we see him on the mound at New Yankee Stadium.  

SICKELS: One guy I liked as a sleeper from the 2010 draft is Chase Whitley, 15th round guy out of Troy University. He was a shortstop/pitcher and the two-way guys catch my eye.

NEWMAN: He fits in that category. Low-90s fastball, really good changeup. Breaking stuff needs work but his changeup is just terrific, unusually good for a reliever. Good athlete, too.

SICKELS: Potential middle relief type?


BoS: Whitley blew everyone away in the NY-Penn League, striking out 44 in 34.1 innings without allowing a homer.  That's maybe not so surprising since he had pitched for a Division I NCAA college, albeit a small one.  His polish from that experience must have helped a lot when facing a bunch of 19 and 20-year olds who were in their first extended look since being signed out of high school or from some academy in the Dominican Republic. It will be interesting to see if his fastball will be good enough at the higher levels, given that even Mark "Ninety Six" Newman describes it as "low 90's".

SICKELS: Finally, any other guys you want to mention as sleepers?

NEWMAN: We mentioned Melky Mesa and Brandon Laird earlier. Laird is just a solid hitter all-around. Melky has the tools, we just need to see what he does in Double-A.

BoS: Someone needs to help Newman out with the definition of "sleeper".  Laird's generally listed among the Yankees' top 15 prospects or so and he won the Eastern League MVP last year, so everyone's heard of him by now.  That's not a sleeper.  Neither is Mesa really, especially since he's 24 now and has yet to get out of A-Ball. 

NEWMAN: A sleeper for you is Anderson Feliz. He's an infielder out of the Dominican, played in the Gulf Coast League last year. He'll probably end up at second base, but he can really hit. Strong guy with power, broad back, plus runner, great swing. He needs to walk more but that's normal at this point. I rate him as similar to Robinson Cano at the same stage of his career.

BoS: There we go.  An 18 year old who held his own in the GCL, plays a premium position and projects for power as his body matures and his frame fills out?  That sounds like a sleeper.  Also for the record, since Newman keeps bringing others up for comparison, Cano wasn't this good at this age, but then most of Cano's minor league lines (.278/.331/.425 over 2100+ plate appearances at six different levels) gave little hint of how good he'd be in the majors, which is to say, probably one of the three best second basemen in the world right now. 

So there you have it: A few agreements, a lot of disagreements, but hopefully just a lot of details you might have missed if you only read the interview and took it at face value.  Hopefully it was helpful.  

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