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Josh Norris has covered the Trenton Thunder and the Yankees farm system for The Trentonian for the last six seasons and spends his free time filming prospects in plush locales like Scranton, Allentown, Wilmington, Lakewood and Staten Island. Previously, he covered the Eugene Emeralds for Scout.com and Oregon club baseball (before NCAA baseball returned) for the Oregon Daily Emerald.
In the six years that I’ve covered the Yankees farm system, and more specifically the Trenton Thunder, I’ve heard more than my share of complaints from Yankees fans regarding the way their team develops players. By far the most common gripe has been New York’s extreme lack of success at developing starting pitching.
And although the fan base (like all fan bases) can get a bit hyperbolic at times, their words carry a degree of validity. The Yankees haven’t pushed an impact starter through their ranks and into the pinstripes since Andy Pettitte.
The closest, perhaps, is Phil Hughes, though he’s had just one year in which he tapped the potential the Yankees saw when they drafted him in 2004—with, ironically, the compensation pick they gained for the loss of Pettitte to the Astros. Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, and David Phelps have shown flashes of potential this year, but each has a long way to go before breaking New York’s hex.
For the last few years, however, there has been a silver lining to be found in New York’s bullpen. Gradually, and almost solely through the draft, the Yankees have become a stopper-making machine. If this trend continues, the Yankees, by some point in 2014, could produce an entirely homegrown bullpen, something virtually unseen in the sport.
The obvious beginning is David Robertson. His low-to-mid-90s heater and dastardly hook helped him breeze through the minor leagues and establish himself not only as one of the league’s premier setup men, but also the most viable in a series of fizzled heirs to Mariano Rivera’s closer job.
If the Yankees produced only Robertson, that would be spectacular. Setup men of his age and caliber don’t come along every day, or even every year. But there’s more, a lot more, coming from a farm system that is beginning to churn out lightning-armed relievers like a Xerox machine with a stuck start button.
The first young arm to make an impact this year is Preston Claiborne. And what an impact it’s been.
Years ago, when Claiborne was in High-A and a scout described him to me as a thrower instead of a pitcher, it was hard to see him having much of a future in the show. Instead, he refined himself, tightened his slider, and earned a promotion after a month more of seasoning in Triple-A.
He went 19 1/3 innings before walking his first hitter, and he has just one run on his ledger in 15 outings. He hasn’t been quite as good as Joba Chamberlain in 2007, but he’s been close. Don’t believe me? Take a look:
Chamberlain’s stuff was clearly a grade or two higher than Claiborne’s, and the innings he pitched were obviously more high-leverage. Still, just like Joba, Claiborne has proven that he can get out big league hitters with regularity. It shouldn’t be long before the Yankees start trusting him in the big-money situations.
Waiting behind Claiborne at Triple-A is Mark Montgomery, whose fastball-slider combination torched its way through the minor leagues over his first two seasons.
To call what Montgomery did between 2011 and 2012 video-game numbers would be a lie—even over 92 2/3 innings in the fantasy world, it’d be nearly impossible to produce 150 strikeouts while allowing just 55 hits (with only one long ball, a cycle-completing grand slam to Manny Machado) and 35 walks.
When Montgomery is right, his fastball sits between 92-94 miles per hour and sets up hitters to be pulverized by his power slider. He’s dealing with a bit of trouble right now stemming from a loss of zip on his heater, so the Yankees have decided to back off for a little while.
It’s probably only a bump, though, and Montgomery should be contributing in pinstripes soon—if not late this year, then at some point early next season.
Beyond Montgomery, there’s Dellin Betances, who finally, after countless chances in the rotation, was moved to a reliever’s role this season. He still has the same power fastball, hammer curveball, and changeup, but now he doesn’t have to worry about rationing his arsenal to make it last for six or seven innings. He can rear back and let it rip.
He hasn’t been in his new role long, but his walks have dropped (six in 18 1/3 innings as a reliever, compared to 16 in 24 innings as a starter), and control has really been the only problem with him throughout his career. The stuff was never questioned.
Case in point: Betances sat between 92-95 miles per hour in a recent outing against Lehigh Valley and touched as high as 98 in his two hitless innings. He threw first-pitch strikes to each of the seven hitters he faced, a feat that seemed nearly impossible when he was a starter.
It was the best outing I’ve seen him throw, and a scout I was sitting with who has known Betances since high school concurred. If he can keep this up, the Yankees might yet salvage something from the $1 million they bet on him in 2006.
Scranton also has starter Jose Ramirez, who is tall and skinny, but somehow produces lively mid-to-upper 90s heat. He couples that with a plus changeup and a slider that is at least average, if not plus. He can get strikeouts by the boatload, but does have a tendency to get way off track and lose any rumor of command. He doesn’t field his position well, either, but all the ingredients are there for—at worst—a very good setup guy.
Scouts are split on his future, but if he doesn’t achieve his ceiling as a mid-rotation starter, right-hander Ramirez has the arsenal to be one of the best back-end relievers in the league, and possibly a closer.
Take a trip down the road to Trenton and you’ll find a host of bullpen arms bettering themselves at the first taste of the upper levels.
The two biggest-name options are Danny Burawa and Tommy Kahnle, two premium arms who throw smoke but, like Ramirez, can have bouts of command trouble. Scouts say that Burawa has the better stuff—especially secondary offerings—but right now Kahnle is in the lead.
The Yankees’ fifth-rounder from 2010 brings it in the upper 90s and complements it with a tight slider and a changeup that features plenty of fade. So far this season he’s walked 14 in 28 2/3 frames but has issued just one since May 9, a span of 15 2/3 frames over a dozen appearances. He’s allowed just eight hits in that stretch and has fanned 16.
The most interesting of all, however, might be Francisco Rondon, a power-armed lefty who struggled so badly with command earlier in the season that the Yankees designated him for assignment to make room for fellow southpaw David Huff.
Since that wake-up call, however, Rondon has looked like a new man. After clearing waivers, he’s pitched nine shutout innings, allowed four hits, walked six and fanned a dozen. Moreover, he’s still shackling lefties to the tune of a .196 batting average over 13.1 innings.
Every evaluator I’ve spoken with agrees that Rondon boasts three above-average pitches: fastball, slider and changeup. Control and command have always been the real dings against him, but those could be minimized by using him only against lefties.
Fellow lefty Jeremy Bleich—the Yankees’ supplemental first-rounder from 2008, the year Gerrit Cole spurned New York’s advances—also is intriguing. He’s come all the way back from labrum surgery in the middle of 2010 and is now being used out of the bullpen. He’s got a low-90s heater that he couples with a curve and a changeup, and he should be advanced to Triple-A at some point this season.
Even if two of Warren, Nuno, Phelps and Nova wind up in next year’s rotation, for which the only real lock is CC Sabathia, that leaves two guys capable of filling the important but underrated swingman role. Fans who grew up watching the dynastic mid-90s Yankees surely will remember all the contributions over the years from Ramiro Mendoza, and how much help a solid swingman can provide.
Some of these arms, as is often the case, are failed starters. It’s the same fate that found Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain (although Yankees will forever argue over whether Job was given the chance to fail as a starter), and Betances, Bleich, and Ramirez (if the Yankees convert him) could wind up the same way.
Lately, however, the Yankees have used the draft to find college relievers and put them on the fast track to the show.
Here’s a list of some of the notable bullpen arms the Yankees have plucked from the college ranks in recent years. In parentheses is the round they were drafted.
2013 – Nick Rumbelow (7), Tyler Webb (10)
2012 – Taylor Garrison (7), James Pazos (13), Dietrich Enns (19)
2011 – Phil Wetherell (8) Mark Montgomery (11), Nick Goody (22)
2010 – Tommy Kahnle (5), Dan Burawa (12), Chase Whitley (15), Preston Claiborne (17)
Of the above group, one pitcher (Claiborne) is in the majors, two (Montgomery and Whitley) are on the doorstep, and two (Burawa and Kahnle) are in Double-A. Garrison and Enns could see the upper levels by season’s end. If Chamberlain and Boone Logan leave this winter, cheap reinforcements are ready and waiting.
If the Yankees can turn some of their recent picks into MLB relievers and pull off an entirely homegrown bullpen, it would accomplish a couple of things. First, it would help immensely in their quest to get their payroll under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for next season. With Mariano Rivera gone after the season, Robertson might be the only guy in the pen making more than $2 million. The only real roadblock to a solely farm-raised bullpen is Shawn Kelley, whom the Yankees got from Seattle for the low price of outfielder Abe Almonte this offseason. Still, he’s making less than $1 million this year and will be cheap again in 2014.
(By comparison, seven free agent relievers this winter signed for less than $2 million: Jon Rauch, Manny Parra, Chad Durbin, Kyle Farnsworth, Shawn Camp, Jason Frasor and Oliver Perez. Someone from your farm system with more upside and a fraction of the cost is obviously a more appealing option than someone from that not-so-tantalizing group.)
Second, and most important, a cheap, homegrown relief corps would return a bit of respectability to an organization whose farm system has produced a lot of names but until recently hasn’t produced much in the way of results.
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