In the Minors: While the major-league Yankees continue to play .700 ball and lead their division, the rest of the organization’s ballplayers are having less success. The record of the Yankees’ four minor-league affiliates is just 52-60, and only one team, the Battle Creek Yankees in the Midwest League, stands above .500, at just 15-14.
Despite the Yankees’ relentless pursuit of high-profile international talent, they lack a strong minor-league system thanks to poor work–and in some years, a lack of picks–in the June draft. For years now, the roster at Triple-A Columbus has been a veritable Who’s Who of failed C prospects and Quadruple-A lifers. This year, the fans in central Ohio are enjoying the work of Marcus Jensen, Ryan McGuire, Bobby Smith, Craig Wilson and Matt Beech, among others.
There are some bright spots in the system, most of them on the mound. Two left-handed products of the 2000 draft, Danny Borrell and Andy Beal are off to good starts. Borrell, who has yet to struggle since being drafted in the second round out of Wake Forest, has a 2.00 ERA in 27 innings over five starts in his first Triple-A go’ round. At Double-A Trenton, Beal is off to a 2.59 ERA start, with 24 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings. Beal was the team’s fifth-round pick in 2000 out of Vanderbilt.
No discussion of Yankee prospects is complete without an update on Drew Henson. Henson, three years into a contract that will pay him $17 million through 2006, is “hitting” .172/.265/.333, with 24 strikeouts and seven walks in 87 at-bats. This is on the heels of poor performances in 2002 in both the International League and the Arizona Fall League, and a quick demotion to minor-league camp this spring. Even Hensley Meulens gave Yankee fans more reason to get excited.
Last Saturday, Henson was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Houston Texans. While he insists he will continue to play baseball, the fact is he is regressing as a hitter, not progressing, and there is still no evidence that he can be an adequate major leaguer. His future in professional sports lies on the gridiron, and the longer he waits to get on with it, the more difficult the transition back to his best sport will be.
Streaks: Nick Johnson‘s 16-game walk streak ended with a pinch-hit flyout against Keith Foulke on Sunday afternoon. Johnson fell just shy of Willie Randolph‘s franchise record of 17 games, but more importantly, he may have cemented his role with the team during the run, in which he hit .321/.550/.509 and scored 17 runs.
Johnson’s emergence into one of the game’s better young hitters actually began last summer, when he made the adjustment to major-league pitching after struggling in the season’s first two months. His development during 2002 is evident in his improved command of the strike zone:
Month AB K BB AB/K K/BB April 84 24 8 3.50 3.00 May 89 21 6 4.24 3.50 June 65 15 8 4.33 1.88 July 61 12 17 5.08 0.71 August 17 2 3 8.50 0.67 September 62 12 18 5.17 0.67
A bone bruise suffered while playing the field last August 7 cost Johnson three weeks just as he was beginning to hit well (.295/.442/.475 in July), and contributed to the perception that he’d been a disappointment last year. Without the injury, he may have completed his strong second half and come into this season with the same buzz as someone like Austin Kearns.
Regardless, Johnson now has the left-handed DH slot wrapped up, while sharing time at first base with the defensively-challenged Jason Giambi. He may not have the franchise record for walks in consecutive games, but he does have something he wants a whole lot more: a job.
Injuries: You likely have heard about A.J. Burnett‘s devastating torn elbow ligament, which will sideline him for at least a year. If there is any good to come of this, it might be that baseball’s establishment is so publicly distraught. Jeff Torborg’s handling of Burnett, whatever you might think of it, would barely have rated a mention in the mainstream media a decade ago. When Jim Leyland shredded Alex Fernandez‘s career in 1997 (400 pitches in nine days at one point), it was just considered an unfortunate stroke of luck by the talking heads on Baseball Tonight. To see Harold Reynolds (!) and Bobby Valentine pile on Torborg last week was an indication of progress. Let’s all root for Burnett to make it back, hopefully for a different skipper.
Just as the Marlins were reeling from the Burnett injury, they lost Mark Redman for several weeks when he broke his left (pitching) thumb while trying to lay down a bunt on April 29. Although not the commodity that Burnett is, Redman has been the team’s best starter in 2003, making his loss a big blow to the club’s slim hopes for some kind of playoff contention. Considering that he had thrown 130 pitches in his previous start, Redman might have decided that a busted digit would be a way to avoid ripping up his elbow or shoulder. He might well be right, although next time, Mark, you might consider breaking your right thumb.
Lineup Changes: The Marlins have likely employed the most stable lineup in baseball. In the team’s 283 defensive innings through Saturday, left fielder Todd Hollandsworth‘s 232 innings are the lowest among the club’s regulars. This is partly because everyone has stayed healthy, but also because the lineup has performed quite well. Alex Gonzalez, Mike Lowell, and Ivan Rodriguez have been among the league’s best at their positions, and the rest of the lineup has been solid. In fact, through Saturday the team was 9th in the majors in EqA.
This is not going to last, of course, but it’s not a bad group if fronted by a solid pitching staff. This was the plan, of course, but the pitchers have struggled and are now dropping like flies. When the hitting comes back to earth, the team can put all of its energy into what Torborg built it to do: manufacture runs. As a hint of their potential, they have out-stolen their opponents 52-10–this without the benefit of legends like The Panamanian Express.
Wretched Performance: With a team built around young pitching, it’s good practice to have some organizational depth in the rotation when the inevitable injury occurs. When Burnett went down, the Marlins turned to Justin Wayne, who was fairly ineffective (seven hits and two walks in 5.1 innings) on April 28. He was quickly returned to Albuquerque, but just as quickly recalled when Redman hit the DL. Wayne’s next outing on May 3 was ghastly: single, double, walk, walk, hit batter, walk, New Mexico here we come. In 23 pitches he managed four “strikes,” if we count the two hits as strikes, which we shouldn’t. Torborg, employing some tough love, opined: “He wasn’t even close. I don’t know if his confidence is gone or what. That was a mess.”
The Marlins put Michael Tejera in Redman’s spot, but still need to decide on another starter for May 9. It will not be Justin Wayne.
Star Performer: Sure, we’re only 30 games into the season, but it’s becoming clear that Jason Kendall is finally returning to the form that made him the best young receiver in baseball a few years ago and prompted the Pirates to wrap him up with a six-year, $60 million deal. Kendall ripped a path through the Grapefruit League this spring (.422/.493/.578) and has continued getting on base at a .400 clip since the games started counting in the standings.
Memories are faulty devices. Many blame Kendall’s grisly Independence Day 1999 shattered ankle for his subsequent troubles at the plate. However, the numbers he posted the following year were right in line with his career figures. Rather, his depressed 2001-02 totals are directly attributable to a series of thumb and finger injuries that he played through. Kendall is wearing contact lenses for the first time and says he now has 10 fully functioning digits. The early results back up his claim.
Kendall recently suffered from lower back spasms. Back injuries tend to linger, and with Craig Wilson available, Manager Lloyd McClendon would be wise to rest Kendall more frequently. Entering this season, no backstop in history had caught a higher percentage of his team’s games when on the active roster than Kendall.
A Winning Attitude: Under GM Dave Littlefield, Pittsburgh has placed a strong emphasis on winning at all levels of the minor league system. The results began showing last year when the team’s affiliates logged the second-best winning percentage (.571) in the minors, trailing only Cleveland. The Corsairs’ farm clubs are doing even better this year; through Saturday they led all organizations with a combined 70-36 record.
Unfortunately, there is no direct relationship between the winning percentage of the big league ball club and the teams in its system. And in the Pirates’ case, gaudy records on the farm don’t mean there is any help close at hand to boost the parent club’s popgun offense. Even if the Bucs weren’t committed to the cadre of fading veterans they signed over the off-season for this year, Triple-A Nashville’s roster is mainly stocked with minor league soldiers, not long-term answers.
The organization’s best talent is found in its lower levels, primarily High-A Lynchburg (15-8) and Low-A Hickory (22-6). While help is on the way, it’s not much solace to Pirates fans, who aren’t going to pack the majors’ best new ballpark until they see some positive results on the PNC Park turf. Ten straight years of losing will do that.
Injury Update: Brian Giles has been hitting and doing some straight-ahead running the past few days, but hasn’t tried making any hard lateral movements. After the Pirates see how his right knee responds to those drills, they’ll have a better idea of when the team’s top offensive weapon can return to the lineup.
When he does come back, Giles will probably be restricted to left field for the rest of the season. That effectively kills any notion of moving him to center and punting outfield defense in hopes of breathing life into an offense that is last in the NL in runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging. As a result, the Steel City will be stuck viewing Kenny Lofton’s remains on a daily basis. Darren Baker’s favorite player was surprised at his lack of suitors this past off-season, but has done nothing to disprove their doubts. Lofton’s leadoff skills have deteriorated to Omar Moreno on codeine, and his poor defense in last year’s World Series is now the rule, not the exception.