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Feb 082011

Pinstripes will have to wait

We all know the Yankees are in desperate need of a 5th starter. Make that 4th starter. Actually, nobody likes AJ Burnett as their #3 …well, you get the point. Some have suggested Andrew Brackman as a possible solution. Brian Cashman has mentioned him as one of the names who will be competing for the 4th/5th starter spot this spring. In a recent post, Mark Smith of IATMS formed a plan where Andrew starts until late in the season and moves to the bullpen later in the year to limit his innings. Sounds good in theory, he has more upside than Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre or Bartolo Colon. Among the group of AAA contenders for a rotation slot of Ivan Nova, David Plelps and Hector Noesi, I think its safe to say Brackman’s ceiling is the highest (and that’s not just because he’s 6’10″). He’s already on the 40 man roster, even had a brief MLB call up late last year, although he didn’t see any game action. Prospect watchers have been saying good things about Andrew. Frank Piliere of MLB Fanhouse was drooling over him in a midseason scouting report last August. In the must read NoMaas interview with BAs John Manuel, he praises Brackman for having “More feel for the breaking ball than anyone in the Yankees system” and “If he decides to commit to a slider, he could have a hellacious pitch” after flashing some 07 Joba-esque 90 MPH sliders in the Eastern League last year.

But he’s not ready yet. Not according to Yankee farm director Mark Newman. Baseball America’s George King recently sat down with him and discussed  Brackman. Two comments really jumped out at me:

“His secondary stuff is good and he is throwing strikes,” Newman said. “We feel confident if he pitches out of the pen. If the changeup develops the way it has been going, we feel he can pitch in the rotation.”

So the Yanks aren’t even sure he’s going to be a starter yet at the big league level, much less be ready for a call up to the show. He’s missing plenty of bats (9.1 career SO/9) so needing the changeup and categorizing him as a MLB ready reliever may indicate the Yanks feel he needs a weapon against MLB lefty batters. He follows:

Asked if the miserable (09) season shook the club’s confidence in Brackman, Newman said it didn’t, but that wasn’t the case for the pitcher.

“He wondered about it,” Newman said. “We tried to reassure him that we understood what he had been through.”

His confidence was down after struggling to return after TJ surgery. He made strides last year, but has yet to really dominate the minors the way his size and stuff would suggest he can. Clearly, he’s not a finished product, and spring training ‘competition’ notwithstanding I don’t see the Yanks breaking camp with him on the 25 man roster. The minors are there for development, and rushing someone who’s not ready will only hurt Brackman and the Yanks long term. If Brackman blows through AAA this year, and shows he’s made the progress the Yanks are looking for, maybe a June call up will be in order. But that needs to happen first before we see the big righty in pinstripes.

Since the promotion of Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain, the Yankee pitching pipeline has been pretty mundane. We’ve seen a lot of low ceiling starting pitchers end up in the Pittsburgh rotation or surgeons table. I love David Phelps, I really do, but its hard to get really excited about him. Things are finally changing down in Tampa with Andrew Brackman, Graham Stoneburner, Adam Warren, and the return of Dellin Betances.

I knocked down Brackman’s prospect rating 9 spots just two weeks ago, and I may already be regretting losing faith so quickly. Two things have happened since. On June 14th, Brackman had his best start of the season – striking out 11 without a walk in 6 innings. And on June 10th, Mark Newman made the following comment:

SJK: Moving on to individual players and a lightening rod in the fanbase, let’s talk about Andrew Brackman. His control is remarkably better this year. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is almost 6. But, I also read reports earlier in the year that his velocity was down and his secondary pitches still needed significant work. Where does he stand right now with you?

Mark Newman: He was at 95 the other night. His secondary pitches have improved significantly. He’s made some great progress. There might be some Double-A in his future this year if he continues to perform well. This is the ‘second-year after elbow surgery’ case right here.

K/BB and velocity are the two gold standards of prospect evaluation. By both measures, Brackman appears to be a completely different type of pitcher from last season. He spent much of 2009 pitching in the high-90s, but sported some of the worst control in organized baseball. He walked 76 batters with 10 hit batters and 26 wild pitches in just 106 2/3 innings. In 2010, he’s sported a Hector Noesi-like K/BB ratio (51/7 in 55 innings) while operating at lower velocity. The news couldn’t be more encouraging, and I’m betting that at the end of the season I will be reranking Brackman higher than where he currently is at.

Andrew Brackman’s reduced velocity concerned me quite a bit at the beginning of the season. He book on Brackman was that he had a sky-high ceiling because he could throw 100 mph with a good curveball on his 6’10″ plane. In his pre-injury college high period, Brackman sported great control, and was hailed as a much better athlete than other giant MLB pitchers like Randy Johnson. A lower velocity meant a lower ceiling, especially with his declining control. He looked more like Andrew Sisco than Randy Johnson.

Of course, Brackman was just coming off Tommy John surgery. Brackman had put off his elbow surgery despite an obvious injury for a full year going into the 2007 draft. We’re probably looking at his first truly healthy performance since 2006.

We don’t have A-ball pitch counts, but I’m very curious as to whether or not Andrew Brackman is on a pitch count. He has yet to throw more than 6 innings in a game, despite a WHIP of 1.255 and a great K/BB ratio. He appears to be throwing strikes. If not, I’m concerned that Brackman is throwing too many pitches to too many batters, which would suggest that he lacks either the confidence to move off the corners, or the absence of a put away pitch. Either way, its not good news, though not catastrophic. Brackman may be learning to pitch in an environment where he isn’t going to blow away batters with a 100 mph fastball. That’s a big adjustment, and big adjustments take some time.

The biggest problem, however, is that Brackman doesn’t have a lot of time on his side. He signed a major league contract right out of college (a mistake, in hindsight) and was optioned down to the minor leagues the following spring. This means that Brackman used an option year in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Next season will be his finally option year, and the Yankees will be unable to send him down to the minor leagues in the 2012 season without exposing him to waivers. He isn’t going to pass through waivers if he is pitching well at all, which puts a very clear clock on Brackman and the Yankees.

Mark Newman mentioned that Brackman could see Double-A if he continues to pitch well this season. I think that is an absolute necessity if Brackman is going to follow any reasonable development plan to debut in New York with the Yankees. He will need to probably spend at least a little bit of time in the majors, and definitely some quality Triple-A time, for the Yankees to entrust him with a 2012 rotation spot, in 2011. Both are hard to see if he has to wait until the beginning of 2011 to see his first action with the Trenton Thunder.

Any confidence or pitch count issues will hurt Brackman especially hard when he reaches Double-A. More advanced batters will create more advanced issues for him to deal with. I still think its possible that the Yankees have Brackman on an innings or pitch limit, but if he’s not on one there will be a dilemma or Newman and the rest of the Yankee staff. Do they push Brackman in an attempt to put him on a timetable that actually could set him in the major leagues, or do they take their normal development time with him, but risk being forced to trade, waive him, or put him in the bullpen in order to ensure a MLB spot?

I’m in favor of taking a few more risks and pushing Brackman aggressively, because I’m tired of seeing Yankee pitchers starting for the Pittsburgh Pirates. We’ll see.

John Sickels recently spoke to Mark Newman, and Newman said some things about the organizational philosophy that were encouraging:

When I look at it from the perspective of player development and scouting, our mandate to win yearly in the majors gives us two main challenges: our draft slot and the fact that we often trade prospects. Where we pick in the draft is always an issue, at least if we’re doing our job by winning at the major league level. We almost always have lower picks in the draft, and that makes it harder to get players with high upsides in the draft process, especially for the hitters. At times we need to trade prospects to build a major league roster that can achieve our goals, the (Javier) Vazquez and (Curtis) Granderson trades are examples.

That’s the problem for a team with the goals and expectations that the Yankees have. So how do they deal with this issue?

Because of those two factors, especially the draft slot issue, we will take risks on some players to get a high-ceiling guy in the system……

There has to be a solid reason or really outstanding tools to give a Latin player a large bonus, but if we think the risk is worth it, we will take it. It would be fairly rare for a guy with a Montero or Gary Sanchez or Arodys Vizcaino-like upside to fall to us in the draft, so we look hard to find guys with that kind of talent internationally. This is especially true for the position players, since few guys with genuine impact bats will get to us at the bottom of the first round. We have to take the risk to get guys like that somewhere, so we’ll look in Latin America. We can find tools there that are hard for us to acquire in the draft……

We have no particular bias towards high school or college players, although we do look for impact guys who might drop to us for reasons not related to their talent. The pitcher we drafted a couple of years ago, Gerrit Cole. We knew that was a risk because he had the UCLA commitment, his family is wealthy, and we knew that he had aggressive bonus demands. Because of his upside, we took the chance that we could make it work, but he went to college instead. That was one risk that didn’t pan out. But to be extraordinary involves risk, and our goal is to be extraordinary.

(The final sentence is bolded because it is pure awesomeness. That should be the official Yankee slogan.)

Basically, the Yankees address their inability to grab premium top of the draft talent in two ways. The first is to focus on injury and signability risks in the draft in order to get premium talents in the system. While this precludes getting slightly more predictable players early, the Yankees can always pick up such players later in the draft by going above slot. The second method that the Yankees use to fill the system with premium talents is to be major players on the international markets, where there are no constraints on the Yankees signing any players that interest them. The combination of these two strategies should help the Yankees keep pace with most teams in the area of talent procurement.

Mar 192010

As I see it, one of the more interesting minor-league story-lines for the Yankees this season will center upon the development of ambidextrous reliever, Pat Venditte. For those who are unfamiliar with Venditte, for whatever reason, and therefore are confused by the thought of an ambidextrous pitcher, this video clip from 2007 should help to explain what he is, exactly. Basically, he can throw as a right-hander, over-the-top, and as a left-hander, side-arm (3/4 angle). His fastball as a righty sits in the 85-89 mph range, and, as a southpaw, he generally works in the high-70s, low 80s. Venditte also throws two very good breaking pitches—a slow, looping curveball, which is used as a secondary offering from the right side, and a “frisbee-like” slider from the other side that is used as his main left-handed pitch. Venditte’s pitching style is hardly conventional, but it has been effective for him in his short minor-league career.

In 2008, while with the Staten Island Yankees and in his first season as a Yankee farmhand, Venditte tossed 32 2/3 innings and saved 23 games. He struck out 42, walked 10, and allowed 2 homers. Remarkably, the switch-pitcher only gave up 3 earned runs – that’s with the 2 home runs – and posted a 0.83 ERA (2.34 FIP). In 2009, splitting time between Charleston and Tampa, Venditte posted a 1.87 ERA – 1.21 FIP in Charleston, 1.73 FIP in Tampa – in 49 games, striking out 87 over 67 1/3 innings pitched, while walking 11, allowing 2 home runs, and 14 earned runs, in total. His splits against left-handers and right-handers were impressive, as neither set of opponents seemed to bother him on the mound. Regardless of process, results matter, and Venditte has delivered in the minors. However, process – how you “look” when you get outs – also matters and I wonder if Venditte will be hurt by his unorthodox style.

Yesterday, in an interview between John Sickels and Yankees Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, Mark Newman (fresh off his recent DUI), Newman noted that Venditte would begin the 2010 season in High-A Tampa. When asked how quickly the successful switch-pitcher could advance through the minor-league ranks, Newman said that if Venditte “keeps up this kind of performance we will advance him aggressively.” As an inherent skeptic, I wonders whether or not Newman is just paying lip service to an aggressive advancement. So far, the Yankees have taken small steps with Venditte, as if they too are in disbelief of both his style and success. An incremental approach is to be expected in the minors, that much is obvious, but if Venditte represented a more normative view of pitching, perhaps he would have started the year in Trenton, pitching in Double-A, rather than High-A Tampa. If Venditte pitches well this season yet remains in Tampa for the entire year, it could be because of his marked uniqueness. To prove themselves, these types of pitchers – Chad Bradford-like anomalies – always seem to have to jump threw a few extra hoops.

Mar 092010

One of the Yankee execs most closely involved with player development was arrested and charged  with DWI Monday night. Here’s the story:

Longtime Yankees executive Mark Newman was arrested and charged with driving under the influence Monday night, according to the Hillsborough County Sherriff’s Office.

Newman, in his 11th season as the Yankees’ senior vice president of baseball operations, refused to take a blood-alcohol test, according to the arrest inquiry.

“We were informed that Mark Newman was arrested last night on suspicion of driving under the influence,” the Yankees said last night in a statement. “The New York Yankees do not condone this kind of behavior. We take this situation seriously and we are looking into the matter. We will have no further comment at this time.”

The report said Newman, 60, was released Tuesdayon $500 bail.

The arrest was first reported by The Associated Press.

According to the inquiry, Newman was pulled over at 10:56 p.m. near the corner of Hudson Lane and North Dale Mabry Highway, about five miles from his office at George M. Steinbrenner Field and just over a mile from his home.

What this will mean is unclear, but it’s worth noting that a more senior exec in Steve Swindal, who was George Steinbrenner’s son in law at the time (married to Jennifer Steinbrenner) and was widely thought of at the time as being George Steinbrenner’s successor, was given the boot after his DWI arrest in  February of 2007. Newman would fairly be described as being lower on the food chain. Kevin Towers, anyone?

UPDATE: The team released a statement in response to the incident last night, the NY Post has it:

“The New York Yankees do not condone this kind of behavior,” the statement said. “We take this situation seriously and we are looking into the matter. We will have no further comment at this time.”

GM Brian Cashman or Newman didn’t immediately return phone calls.

May 052009

Sharpe’s Peril release The international free agent signing period doesn’t begin for another 2 months, but it is always fun to keep track of the rumored signings and the mysterious top prospects.  There is rarely much reliable information out there, and most of the info often comes by way of subscriber sites such as Baseball America and scout.com.  However, there is a new blog called Dominican Baseball Universe (no relation to our site), whose writer appears to be very in touch with the Dominican amateur scene, that looks like it will have some good information on the potential amateur signings.

The writer for DBU, speaks highly of Mark Newman (the Yankees’ senior VP of baseball operations and scouting director) and the Yankees’ international scouting team as being among the best at what they do (along with the international scouting team from the Red Sox, Rangers, and Padres).

You know that someone here is well known because of the way people refer to them, Mark Newman over here is just Newman, people talk of him as he was their neighbor, some guys even think that Newman is living in the Dominican Republic, any day you can find Newman in his short shorts old NBA style talking in Spanish with just about anyone, even if the Yankees are the richest team in baseball you can’t say that they just sit down and let money talk, those guys do their jobs.

As the first piece of news, the writer for DBU is reporting that the Yankees will sign “super prospect” Gary Sanchez.  I have no idea how credible this information is nor what type of prospect Sanchez actually is, but I will be checking in periodically to see if there is new news.  It should be good reading, and hopefully there will be first-hand info.

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