Wednesday, March 21, 2012

If You Trade Jesus ... God (or George from his grave) Had Better Approve

Sure,Kenny Lofton, David Justice, and Randy Johnston were all great players, but when Brian Cashman traded them they were all well past their primes. The most talented young player he ever traded in my view was Alfonso Soriano. In January, Cashman took a really big risk in trading Jesus Montero, perhaps the hottest prospect the Yankees have had in years, to Seattle for Michael Pineda. (Montero was ranked 12th among the top 100 prospects by mlb.com.) Cashman had a lot of support from George Steinbrenner over the years, but if the Boss were still alive he would undoubtedly be saying to Cashman, “You’d better be right, kid.”

Montero hit .288 in Triple A last year with 18 home runs, a .467 Slugging Average and an .814 OPS. He looked impressive in his late season stint with the big team – .328 with 4 home runs and 12 RBI in 69 plate appearances – good enough to earn a spot on the playoff roster. He displayed patience at the plate and the ability to hit to the opposite field with power. The problem is that Montero is not strong behind the plate and the Yankees had obviously decided that he wasn't ever going to be good enough. And not to be overly critical, but if Montero’s biggest asset is his bat why did he not finish in the top 15 in any IL offensive category with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre? (Okay, maybe Rick’s right, maybe I do spend an inordinate amount of time pouring over statistics.)

Affording the Yankees the luxury of trading Montero was the fact that they have a solid receiver in Russell Martin, who hit 18 home runs in 417 at bats last year and hit well after the All-Star Break. At 29 Martin should be at the peak of his career.

And waiting in the wings is Austin Romine, whose chances of making the roster are much improved with Montero gone. Romine, who has a terrific arm, hit only 6 homers in 336 at bats in Triple-A last year but sported a respectable .710 OPS. He stands a good chance of replacing Fransisco Cervelli as the Yanks’ backup backstop. The Yankees may want to give Romine another year in the minors to work on his footwork behind the plate, however. At 24 he is still young for a catcher.

Pineda was expendable because of Seattle's rich depth of starters. The Mariners have Hernandez at the top of their rotation and signed Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma. Those two, combined with lefty Jason Vargas and young prospects Charlie Furbush and Blake Beavan, will likely make up Seattle’s rotation to begin the season. In the minors, three of Seattle’s top prospects are starting pitchers.

Pineda’s fastball averages 94 mph, it often hits 97. He is one of the hardest-throwing starters in the Majors and has also shown a nasty slider and a developing changeup. Overall,he struck out 173 in 171 innings. Surprisingly, only 2 Yankees have struck more than a batter an inning over a full season – Roger Clemens and David Cone (twice). Pineda had two rookie seasons in one last year. In total he was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA.

He started splendidly, then suffered typical rookie struggles. One of Pineda’s high points was starting at home against the Yankees on May 27 when he was already 6-2. But his problems started soon after that. Over his final 17 starts, Pineda was 3-8 and his ERA ballooned to 4.74. Cone (now a YES broadcaster) points out that it’s not unusual for a rookie starter’s arm to be overwhelmed by the grind of the season.

< In a less dramatic but also important move, the Yankees signed free agent Hiroki Kuroda, a 36-year old righty, from the Dodgers to a one-year ($10 million) contract. Kuroda was 13-16, with a 3.07 ERA in2011. Though he has never really had an outstanding season – even with the Hiroshima Carp – his 2011 WHIP was 1.21 and he struck out 166 in 201 innings so he can still throw. One possible cause for concern may be that both Pineda (Safeco Park) and Kuroda (Dodger Stadium) will be pitching in a more hitter-friendly park this year. It wasn’t that long ago that I worried that the Yankees had nowhere near enough starting pitching. Through much of 2011 it was almost a “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” situation – or in their case “Sabathia and Nova and then it’s over”. Now starting pitching seems an area of strength for them. With the return (probably around May the 1st) of unretired Andy Pettitte, Joe Girardi is in the enviable position of having too many starters. (But then remember what they say – “you can never have too much pitching”.) Barring injuries he has a 7-man rotation – Sabathia, Pineda, Pettitte, Nova, Kuroda, Hughes, and Garcia.

On top of that, Yankee fans can drool over the prospects of Manny Banuelos (Man-Ban) joining the rotation. The cocky 19-year old lefty has already drawn comparisons to a young Ron Guidry (Banuelos is just 5 foot 10), John Santana, and Dodger horse Clayton Kershaw. And Ban-Man says he wants to be better than anyone he’s compared to!

Banuelos throws 95 to 97 mph fastballs, has a terrific changeup, and an improving curveball. In a recent Spring Training game against the Red Sox he threw changes on 1-0 counts, biting curves on 2-0 counts,spotted 95 mph fastballs (one out of the stretch) on the corners to righties and displayed an awareness of the importance of pitch sequences.

Dellin Betances is another very promising Triple-A hurler. He throws a 94 to 97 mph fastball with a lot of confidence, has a terrific curve, a decent change, and great presence on the mound. Being 6 foot 8 helps, I suppose.

Postscripts

Who’d have thunk it? The Yankees seeking to drop their payroll below the luxury tax threshold? What's the world coming to? Hal Steinbrenner has been quoted assaying he wants the payroll down to (a measly) $189 million by 2014 and has also been quoted as denying it.

Here, in a nutshell, is why I don’t take Spring Training seriously. As of Sunday, Robinson Cano, a lifetime .308 hitter, was batting .185 for March. Outfielder Dewayne Wise, a lifetime .219 hitter, was tearing up Florida at a .474 pace. I have no idea why Dewane is still in the majors. The Yankees are his seventh team in 10 years. But if you look at how he’s doing this spring, they need to make room for him at Cooperstown.

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