TAMPA—When Manuel Banuelos took the mound at Legends Field the other day to throw live batting practice, everyone stopped to watch the Yankees' little left-handed pitching prospect. Included in that group was Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra.
"Pretty impressive," was Berra's summation of the 19-year-old Banuelos, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 155 pounds. "The kid has got a good arm."
In the early days of spring training, the Yankees have been raving about Banuelos and many of their other pitching prospects, including Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman, Hector Noesi, David Phelps, and Adam Warren. Yet while the Yankees have question marks in their starting rotation beyond CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, none of the aforementioned kids figure to be in the rotation at the start of the season.
"You never want to predict what's going to happen, especially this early in spring training," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Ideally, though, you would like the younger guys to gain a little more experience in the minor leagues."
A.J. Burnett, hoping to bounce back from an at times disastrous 2010 season, is set as the No. 3 starter. But there remain two open spots in the rotation, with four right-handers vying for them: Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre, and rookie Ivan Nova. With the Yankees' imposing lineup and deep bullpen, the 4 and 5 starters could go a long way in determining whether this team ends up having a good season or a great one.
"It's certainly our biggest area of concern," said general manager Brian Cashman.
Mitre and Nova are holdovers from last season. Nova had 0.7 WXRL in 42 innings, but Mitre, who served as a swingman, was below replacement level as a starter with -0.2 SNVLAR.
What makes this competition interesting is the presence of Colon and Garcia, once two of the game's premier pitchers. Garcia resurrected his career last season, pitching 157 innings and posting a 4.64 ERA for the White Sox after working a combined 129 innings over the three previous seasons. Colon is trying to make an even bigger comeback, as he was out of baseball last season. Since winning the American League Cy Young in 2005, the burly 37-year-old has pitched just 257 innings in four seasons, while posting a 5.18 ERA and -1.2 WARP.
This past offseason, Colon played winter ball in his native Dominican Republic on a team managed by Yankees bench coach Tony Pena. Colon, in his limited English, said he had "different offers than from just the Yankees," but wanted to be on a team with a chance to win.
Whether Colon can help the Yankees win remains to be seen. He will get a long look this spring, starting Saturday afternoon when he faces the Phillies in the Yankees' Grapefruit League opener.
"He's looked like the Bartolo Colon I remember," Girardi said. "He's throwing strikes. He's locating his pitches."
"[Pena] recommended Bartolo very highly, and everyone knows what he's done in the past," Cashman said. "We're not expecting the same Bartolo Colon who was in his prime, but Tony and our scouts felt strongly he was worth bringing to camp. He's had an outstanding career. He certainly deserves a chance to be in our camp with a chance to make the club. Whether he will or not remains to be seen, but it's really no risk to us, and hopefully it will be high-reward."
Garcia has more of a recent track record than Colon but is no longer the pitcher who worked 200 or more innings six straight seasons from 2001-06. Yet here's an interesting tidbit: Garcia and Cliff Lee each made 28 major-league starts last season and had 12 wins. The Yankees offered Lee a seven-year, $150 million contract last December as a free agent and were turned down, then signed Garcia on the open market for just $1 million guaranteed on a one-year contract.
Of course, wins don't tell the true story of pitchers, as Felix Hernandez's 13-victory AL Cy Young season proved last year. Lee had a combined 7.4 SNLVAR in 2010 for the Mariners and Rangers while Garcia had 2.7 for the White Sox. While the Yankees aren't expecting Lee-like performance from Garcia, they do feel he has something to offer.
"Freddy is a really hard guy to scout because his fastball tops out at 88 mph now, and he's not the pitcher he used to be," Cashman said. "What he has done, though, is learn how to adapt without great stuff. He knows how to pitch and get people out. We certainly believe he can help us."
Rumors and rumblings:
The Cardinals' first choice for replacing Adam Wainwright in the rotation is converting Kyle McClellan into a starting pitcher. If that doesn't work, right-handed prospect Lance Lynn is next in line, though former Pirates and Mariners righty Ian Snell is looming as a dark horse. One major-league executive believes the Cardinals won't be able to overcome the loss of Wainwright without acquiring a frontline starting pitcher, something almost impossible to do at this time of year: "I think they are sunk. You just don't replace an Adam Wainwright, and the Cardinals' pitching depth was really suspect to begin with." … Here is a blunt take on Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera from a player who had alcohol-related problems in the minor leagues: "He still won't admit he is an alcoholic, and that worries me. It's like he won't completely face up to the problem, and you can't recover until you admit you have a problem." … Girardi isn't ruling out 21-year-old top prospect Jesus Montero making the team as the backup to catcher Russell Martin: "I think you have to look at two things. First, is he talented enough to play in the major leagues? Second, would he be better served by staying in the major leagues? Those are the questions we'll answer this spring."
The Phillies are considering re-signing reliever Chad Durbin to a minor-league contract, though the Indians, Rays, and Rangers are also interested … The Giants would like to sign catcher Buster Posey through his arbitration years, which would likely mean a contract of six years and $40 million. … The Braves continue to make right-hander Kenshin Kawakami available in trade and are willing a sizeable portion of his $6.7 million but there has been no interest so far. … Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts needing X-rays on a stiff neck less than a week into spring training was discouraging after he was limited to 59 games last season because of a back injury. However, the Orioles feel they are better protected at second base this season should Roberts need to go on the disabled list, as they have Cesar Izturis, Brendan Harris, and Nick Green as potential fill-ins. … Jason Isringhausen, trying to come back from a year's layoff after Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in 2009, is opening eyes in the Mets' camp in his bid to win a bullpen job. Meanwhile, the Mets' plan for Luis Castillo is clear this spring: he either must win the starting second baseman's job or he'll be released, as they feel he has no value as a one-position bench player.
Many scouts believe rookie left-hander Jake McGee will emerge as the Rays' closer this year, even if he does not start the season in that role. … Wil Nieves, who is expected to beat out George Kottaras to be the Brewers' backup catcher, will be the Opening Day starter if Jonathan Lucroy's broken right pinky does not heal by then. … Left-hander Scott Olsen and right-hander Charlie Morton are emerging as the top candidates to be the Pirates' No. 5 starter, as manager Clint Hurdle would prefer to utilize Jeff Karstens as a utility pitcher out of the bullpen. … Anthony Reyes, who has been beset by injuries since winning Game 1 of the 2006 World Series for the Cardinals as a rookie, is making a strong impression in the Indians' camp and has joined Josh Tomlin, Jeanmar Gomez, and David Huff in the running for the last rotation spot. … The Astros have decided to use rookie left-hander Fernando Abad as a reliever this season, which leaves Nelson Figueroa, Ryan Rowland-Smith, and top prospect Jordan Lyles competing to be the fifth starter.