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April 18, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Sunday Night Special

by Jay Jaffe

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Like Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando spent the spring getting stretched out while being considered for a rotation spot, but in late March, the Rangers decided that they were more content with their rotation alternatives than their late-game bullpen ones. On the same day they announced that Feliz would return to closing, with Ogando as the top righty set-up man, Tommy Hunter left his exhibition start with a groin strain. Rather than tab the far more heralded Feliz, whose minor-league performance as a starter turned him into one of the game's elite prospects, the team turned to Ogando, a 27-year-old whose career has unfolded in far different fashion, to say the least. Through two starts, he had been everything the Rangers could have dreamt, throwing 13 scoreless innings in his two starts prior to Sunday night's game against the Yankees, helping his club to the league's second-best ERA among starters at 2.63.

Ogando's path to the rotation was particularly circuitous. Signed out of the Dominican Republic by the A's in 2002, he spent two seasons as an outfielder, hitting a promising .297/.357/.482 in the low minors. Alas, his progress was stalled when he became ensnared in a human trafficking ring in 2005, one of some 30 players involved in a marriage-for-money scandal in which many of the women were forced into prostitution or underpaid labor. Banned from the U.S., he was drafted by Texas in the Double-A phase of the December 2005 Rule 5 draft; scout A.J. Preller had seen the strength of the arm attached to Ogando's lanky 6-foot-4 frame and envisioned a pitcher. The team committed to helping Ogando make restitution and earn his visa; once educated on the issue, the contrite hurler made public service announcements and spoke out against trafficking at various Dominican baseball academies.

Meanwhile, Ogando took to pitching like a duck to water, using his high-90s heat to post a 0.72 ERA and 73/11 K/BB ratio in 62 2/3 innings in the Dominican Summer League in 2006-2007. But not until last season was he able to pitch in the States, when he rocketed through Double-A and Triple-A, with a 42/11 K/BB ratio in 30 2/3 innings before being recalled in mid-June. For the Rangers, he sparkled in low- to medium-leverage duty, striking out 8.4 per nine with a 1.30 ERA (2.18 Fair Run Average) in 41 2/3 innings, and throwing six strong innings in the postseason before departing Game Four of the World Series due to an oblique strain.

In moving Ogando to the rotation, the Rangers initially hinted that his stay would only be temporary, with Hunter, Scott Feldman, and Brandon Webb in various states of rehab to provide other options as the season progressed. Indeed, Ogando's reliance on his fastball-slider combo—61 percent of the former, 35 percent of the latter, with just four percent changeups coming into the night—suggested it was only a matter of time before hitters better than the Mariners and Tigers (the two teams he'd faced thus far) cracked the code.

On Sunday night, the Yankees exposed Ogando's limitations. Offering only 95-97 mph fastballs and sliders—44 in all—through his first four innings the righty was economical, consistently getting ahead of hitters and avoiding deep counts. He faced just one batter above the minimum in that span, with Robinson Cano poking a solo homer in the second off of a hanging slider. But by the fifth inning, he had lost a couple clicks of velocity and had failed to establish his slider as a strike pitch; of the seven he'd throw in that span, five were balls, and one had hit Russell Martin. He yielded a two-out, two-run homer to Martin on a 94 mph fastball, and in the sixth, surrendered another two-run homer to Curtis Granderson on a 93.6 mph fastball. Not until Mark Teixeira followed Granderson in the sixth did Ogando unveil his first changeup of the night. Though he had allowed five runs, Rangers manager Ron Washington pushed him to 92 pitches, his highest total for the year. Ogando departed with a decidedly untidy line: 6 1/3 innings, six hits, five runs, one walk, and one strikeout, with the three home runs more than doubling his major-league career total.

Ogando's opposite number, CC Sabathia, didn't have a stellar night either. In the absence of the injured Josh Hamilton, the Rangers batted Michael Young third and Adrian Beltre fourth, and the duo wore the big lefty out. Beltre clubbed a two-run homer in the first inning to put the Yankees in quick hole, and the Rangers added another run in the fourth when Young doubled and Beltre followed with a single, running the score to 3-1. In the sixth, after Martin had tied it up, it was Young singling with Beltre doubling him home. The Yankees reclaimed the lead on Granderson's shot, and they still led when Sabathia departed after striking out Julio Borbon to lead off the seventh, but his line—6 1/3 innings, eight hits, four runs, two walks, six strikeouts—was hardly prize-worthy.

"CC made some pitches, they seemed to just find ways to put the barrel on the ball, especially Beltre and Young; they didn't miss many pitches," said Martin of his batterymate. "If you take away those two hitters I think you have a great outing." 

Martin himself had a better outing, going 2-for-3 with a hit-by-pitch. Brought in to buy time for top prospect Jesus Montero to shore up his defensive game, Martin has asserted himself as an offensive weapon thus far, hitting .289/.333/.600, albeit with just one walk. The homer was his fourth of the year, this from a player who hit just five in 97 games last year before a pelvic fracture sidelined him in early August. Martin's power has been in decline for years; he hasn't reached double digits in homers since 2008, and hasn't slugged above .400 since 2007.

The catcher attributes his resurgent power to more than his improved health after not only healing from the fracture, but also undergoing off-season knee surgery. "It's a little bit of everything," he said. "My workout in the offseason. The smaller ballpark I'm playing in. Most of these ballparks in this division feel like they're smaller than the ones on the West Coast. There are some pretty big pitcher’s parks over there."

The Yankees would need more than the three long balls to get the win. Joba Chamberlain came on in relief of Sabathia to protect a 5-4 lead with one out in the seventh, but wasn't as sharp as he'd been for most of the young season, immediately walking Ian Kinsler on four pitches. Kinsler took second on an Elvis Andrus squibber that drew the ejection of Rangers first-base coach Gary Pettis, who argued that Martin's throw failed to beat Andrus to the bag. Young followed with his third hit of the night, a ground-rule double to right-center field that scored Kinsler and tied the game.

As they've done seemingly a million times over the years, the Yankees mounted an eighth-inning rally against Arthur Rhodes. The 41-year-old lefty has been particularly bedeviled by the pinstripes, getting hit by them at a .295/.382/.506 clip en route to a 7.45 ERA in 83 1/3 career innings. Rhodes got Ogando off the hook by stranding two runners in the seventh, but he found trouble in the eighth via a one-out walk by Teixeira and a two-out single by Nick Swisher. It looked as though he had an escape hatch in the form of Eric Chavez, who was in the lineup in place of Alex Rodriguez, who sat due to back tightness. The 33-year-old Chavez isn't much of a bomber against lefties (.238/.305/.393 career, compared to .280/.359/.515 against righties), but he nonetheless poked a single up the middle to bring home the go-ahead run.

The sight of Chavez in pinstripes is a jarring one, but even seeing him in an upright position itself could catch an observer off balance. He came to the Yankees this spring via a non-roster invitation after 13 seasons with the A's, the last four so marred by a litany of lower back, shoulder, elbow, and neck injuries that he served five separate stints on the 60-day disabled list. Chavez played just 64 games from 2008-2010 while bottoming out at .222/.265/.330, but he was the picture of health this spring, scalding the ball, earning a roster spot, and exiling the execrable Ramiro Pena to Triple-A.

With Rodriguez and Teixeira ensconced at the infield corners, Chavez doesn't figure to see much playing time this season, but he's made his limited opportunities count. In his first start of the year, he went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles in a 9-4 win against the Red Sox on April 9, and he came into Sunday night's game 5-for-11 on the year. His fifth-inning single was just the Yankees' second hit off Ogando all night, and it put him on base for Martin's two-run homer.

Chavez had the honor of sealing the win. Mariano Rivera came in to close out the Rangers and got two quick outs via a Mitch Moreland popup and a Kinsler strikeout. Andrus hit a grounder to third that the five-time Gold Glove-winner picked up while charging toward the mound. "It was tough. I bobbled it and almost decided not to throw it because I was afraid that I would throw it down the right field line but as soon as I got a grip on it, I figured I could give [Teixeira] a decent throw."

 The loss was the Rangers' fourth in five games, bumping them to 10-5, and into a tie with the Angels for the AL West lead. Even so, they still have the majors’ top run differential (+30), and are tied with the Halos as the league's stingiest run-prevention unit at 3.2 per game; the two teams will face off in a three-game series starting tonight. The win ran the Yankees' record to 9-5 and expanded their AL East lead to 2.5 games; two-and-a-half weeks into the season, they're the only team in the division with a record above .500, a surprise given the East's reputed strength. The Yanks still have plenty of cause for concern, particularly in a rotation that ranks 13th in the league in ERA (5.40) and 14th in innings pitched per start (5.2), but on Sunday night, their offense helped them club their way past those limitations and past an inexperienced opposing starter whom they could wait out, just as they've done so many times before. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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