With the advent of the free-agent signing season coming, the New York Yankees obviously are in the market for some starting pitching help. We have already detailed the Yankees’ likely interest in the Rangers’ C.J. Wilson, Japanese star Yu Darvish and longtime White Sox ace Mark Buerhle. But what if the best laid plans of general manager Brian Cashman do not work out as planned and the Yankees sign none of those players? What if they are unable to make a trade for a starter? Let’s see if there is a creditable Plan C if free agents and trades are unavailable. This is a two-part report. The first part already dealt with the Yankees options at the major-league level. Part two will deal with their minor-league options.
PART 2: MINOR-LEAGUE OPTIONS
Yankee history is littered with young pitchers they developed only to use as in trades for more experienced hitters or pitchers. For years the veteran pitchers the Yankees acquired fizzled and the young pitchers they let go later on helped other teams.
The list includes Jose Rijo, Doug Drabek, Al Leiter, Ted Lilly and look at the record Ian Kennedy posted with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.
But general manager Brian Cashman would eventually like to end that history. The problem is with the Yankees always aiming their sights on winning the World Series it is hard to allow young pitchers develop at the major-league level as other teams might. Patience is a virtue that the Yankees have never shown with very many pitchers they have developed. That possibly could change soon.
The Yankees boast a collection of six pitchers who can potentially contribute as starters with the Yankees in 2012. They include: right-hander Hector Noesi, right-hander Adam Warren, right-hander D.J. Mitchell, right-hander David Phelps, right-hander Dellin Betances and left-hander Manny Banuelos.
Let’s look at each one and see if any of them have the potential to help the Yankees in 2012:
Noesi, 24, pitched most of the season in bullpen for the Yankees, logging 56 1/3 innings in 28 relief stints and two late-season spot starts. He was 2-2 with a 4.47 ERA. At Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he was 1-1 with a 3.28 ERA in five starts.
Despite the fact he was needed to fill a spot in the bullpen in 2011, he is still considered a starter by the Yankees. He also comes into spring training with a leg up on the other five because he has the most major-league experience and manager Joe Girardi was comfortable using him out of the bullpen down the stretch.
Noesi’s main calling card is his exceptional control. But he did walk 3.5 batters per nine innings with the Yankees last season. He also gave up six home runs, which would translate to 24 in a 200-inning season. But Noesi was nevertheless effective enough as a middle-inning reliever to stay with the club.
Noesi was slow to reach the majors because he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2007. But he rose like a meteor in the Yankees’ eyes because of his exceptional minor-league walk rate of 1.6 and an exceptional 2009 season with Double-A Trenton and Scranton. Last season, Noesi was considered a “second-tier” pitching prospect behind Betances, Banuelos and Andrew Brackman (who has since been released). Noesi has a nice 91-94 mph fastball and a decent curve and change-up. But his long-term pitching prospects with the Yankees are clouded because so many other pitchers in the organization have what is perceived to be better stuff.
So Noesi must enter spring training throwing strikes and proving he can get outs without having what would be considered strikeout stuff. If he exhibits any sign of wildness or a propensity to give up gopher balls in the spring, he is likely to be ticketed for Scranton again. But if injuries should crop up in the bullpen, Noesi could be offered a return engagement since he did not embarrass himself there in 2011.
Mitchell is also 24 and he put a pretty good season together at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2011. He was 13-9 with a 3.18 ERA and was the ace of the staff.
The 6-foot, 175-pound right-hander also struck out 112 batters and walked 63 in 161 1/3 innings. He is part of a trio of right-handers (along with Warren and Phelps) who were selected in the draft as college players. Mitchell attended Clemson and was selected in the 10th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.
Mitchell has an excellent two-seam fastball, which translated into an impressive 62% ground-ball rate in the minors. He also has a smooth and controlled delivery. Scouts believe his two-seam fastball is enough of a weapon to get him and keep him in the major leagues. Mitchell can not only induce ground balls with his sinker, he can strike out batters with also.
Mitchell is still working on his secondary pitches and his curve has developed into a plus pitch, too. His four-seam fastball sits in the 91-93 mph range and he is even developing a cutter to use on left-handed batters. His change-up needs a lot of work.
Mitchell’s stuff is good enough to help the Yankees at some point but it is unclear whether that will come as a starter or as a reliever. Mitchell enters spring training as a longshot to make the Yankees’ starting rotation but he might be an excellent choice for a in-season call-up to fill in as a starter or reliever. He could actually benefit from another season at Triple-A to fully develop his secondary pitches.
There is a lot to like about Mitchell. It is just up to him to step up his game when he is given chances to pitch in spring training.
Unlike Mitchell, Warren has been on a fast-track to the major leagues despite the fact he is also 24.
Warren is a 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-hander the Yankees selected in the fourth round of the 2009 draft out of the University of North Carolina. Like Mitchell he spent all of the 2011 season at Scranton.
His record was nothing special at 6-8 but his ERA was 3.60 and he fanned 111 batters and walked 53 in 152 1/3 innings. Like Mitchell, Warren is a command and control pitcher who will not blow hitters away. He pitches in the 88-92 mph range and pounds the strike zone and changes speed on his pitches well.
He gets a lot of ground balls off his two-seam fastball and change-up but he needs work on some of his other secondary pitches like his curve and slider. Warren has pitched in high=pressure games at North Carolina and he has a competitive streak in him. The question becomes how high is Warren’s ceiling?
At this stage, Warren might make a nice No. 4 starter someday but he lacks the weapons to be considered anything more. He will get an honest look in spring training and you can’t help but root for a guy who flew under the radar for the past two seasons before his rise to Scranton last season.
The Yankees are hopeful he will be able to contribute down the road but Warren looks like a lock to spend the season back with Scranton.
If you ask Cashman about Phelps, his first reaction is a wide smile. Phelps, also 24, is one of those pitchers who has a habit of exceeding expectations.
Last season, Phelps began pitching at Double-A Trenton and was promoted quickly to Scranton. His combined numbers were a modest 7-7 with an eye-popping 2.99 ERA. Even more impressive was his 95 K’s and just 27 walks in 114 1/3 innings.
Phelps was selected by the Yankees in the 14th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft out of Notre Dame. Phelps was written off by a lot of scouts after his junior season at Notre Dame did not measure up to his spectacular sophomore season in which he was 8-5 with a 1.88 ERA in 15 starts.
Phelps promptly became the ace of his rookie Staten Island team in 2008 and he has succeeded at every level he has pitched since. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-hander just exudes confidence on the mound and he attacks hitters despite not possessing an above-average fastball.
Phelps throws in the low 90s but has impeccable control, as the 27 walks he issued in 2011 indicate. What sets Phelps apart from Warren and Mitchell is his slider, which translated into a 7.51 K rate at Class-A Tampa. His pitches to contact and that also keeps his pitch count down.
His deceptive delivery actually makes his average fastball seem livelier than it actually is and Phelps is an absolute bulldog on the mound, brimming with confidence to throw any of his pitches in any count.
There are a lot of pitchers like Phelps in the minor leagues. Some make it to the majors and some don’t. The Yankees actually might motivate Phelps by betting that he won’t because Phelps is determined to prove doubters wrong and be successful in the major leagues. Don’t bet against him.
This spring training the Yankees hope to see that Phelps has improved his curve and change-up. The rest of the arsenal is there and Phelps already has the makeup any pitching coach would love all his pitchers to have. Phelps is the most likely of the three college right-handers who could be of help in 2012.
Of course, that could come as a starter or a reliever, given what the Yankees may need. Phelps has a chance, like Ivan Nova, to develop into a nice starter for the Yankees at some point. It is just a matter of time. But he will be a middle of the rotation guy, at best. But isn’t it there where the Yankees need the help?
He is Brooklyn boy, though at 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, he is very large boy at age 23.
Betances was selected by the Yankees in the eight round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft despite the fact the velocity on his pitches dropped in his senior season at Grand Street Campus High School.
But the tall righty overcame that and some forearm tightness in his first minor-league season to pitch very well with Charleston in the South Atlantic League in 2008. Betances was 9-4 with a 3.87 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 115 1/3 innings. That caught the Yankees’ attention and he advanced to Class-A Tampa in 2009.
But Betances was shut down with elbow pain and ended up having elbow reinforcement surgery. But he overcame that and became one of the prize pitchers in the Yankees’ farm system with a 8-1 record and an eye-popping 1.77 ERA in 14 starts for Tampa. He struck out 88 batters in 71 innings.
I guess the elbow was fixed.
It was no surprise that a lot of Yankees wanted Betances to succeed in spring training in 2011. He and Banuelos had their every move documented for fans interested in seeing the two most prized pitching prospects in the organization. But it was a foregone conclusion that Betances would be sent to Double-A Trenton to work on his command and his secondary pitches.
Betances features gas. He can dial it up to 98 mph on his fastball but he throws in the mid-90s mostly. His height allows him to force a downward plane on his pitches so the Yankees want him to work on a two-seam fastball. He also features a power knuckle curve that could be a solid swing-and-miss pitch for him. He has pretty good command of the curve.
Betances’ weakness is his large frame. Much like CC Sabathia at a young age, Betances finds that it is hard to keep his balance in his delivery. When he flies open he is apt to miss with his pitches, fall behind in counts and either he gets hit or walks batters. Finding a consistent release point is a struggle for him.
Last season, Betances was a combined 4-9 with a 3.70 ERA between Trenton and Scranton. He struck out 142 in 126 1/3 innings. But he also walked 70.
Betances is a pitcher worth being patient with because he is a potential front-of-the-rotation pitcher. If he stays healthy and progresses in finding a way to repeat his delivery consistently he could one of the best pitchers the Yankees have developed in their minor-league system. He is that good.
He will get a long look in spring training but realistically it would be very surprising if Cashman would allow Betances to make the 2012 major-league roster. Betances really needs to put in a season at Triple-A honing his craft. If he was pitching for a team like Kansas City he could learn at the major-league level. But not with the Yankees.
Cashman believes in being cautious especially given Betances’ past elbow problems. Betances could be called up late in the 2012 season when the rosters expand. But set your clock on him for 2013. That is when he should get a shot to make the rotation.
At age 20, Banuelos is already a legend in smart Yankee circles.
The reason is that Banuelos’ promise is limitless and there is so much to like about the 5-foot-11, 155-pound left-hander.
Signed as a non-drafted free agent in March 2008 out of Vergelito, Mexico, Banuelos impressed the Yankee scout who signed him just when he was warming up with his brother before showing the scout what he could really do. The scout marveled at the ease in which the ball came out of Banuelos’ hand.
He advised the Yankees he needed to sign him quickly and the rest is history.
Banuelos features a fastball, a change-up and a curve. But the pitch that draws the most raves is actually the change-up because so few young pitchers ever truly master the pitch. Banuelos has a quality change-up that makes his fastball even more deadly. Betances has better velocity on his fastball. But because of Banuelos’ change-up his 92 mph fastball looks like it 100 mph compared to it.
Banuelos, unlike Betances, has a nice, free-and-easy motion that makes it easy for him repeat his delivery over and over again. That also means he can maintain control and Banuelos – at a tender age – has learned how to add and subtract his pitches. That makes him special and it also places him as the No. 1 pitching prospect in the Yankees’ farm system.
Last spring training, Banuelos was pressed into starting against the Red Sox in a spring training start in Tampa. The most impressive pitch Banuelos threw was a 3-2 change-up that absolutely stunned Jason Varitek. Varitek watched it glide over the plate, shook his head and walked back into the dugout stunned.
The legend of Banuelos was born.
There was some hope the Yankees might promote Banuelos to pitch out of the bullpen for the stretch drive, given their need for a second lefty. But Banuelos was just 6-7 with a 3.75 ERA and he struck out 125 and walked 71 in 129 2/3 innings between stints at Trenton and Scranton. The Yankees felt his control needed more refining before they could bring him up.
So Banuelos will get his chance to pitch a lot in spring training in 2012 but he is likely going to be ticketed for Scranton. (If you have some money to bet you might want to put it on Scranton winning the International League with its projected starters).
But do not bet against Banuelos making it up to the majors at some point in 2012 – as a starter or reliever. Make no mistake, Banuelos has a chance to be a very special pitcher for the Yankees and that is the reason Yankee fans absolutely buzz about him as much as they do about Jesus Montero.
The Yankees are well-stocked with pitchers just on the verge of making the major leagues as starters. You would think the Yankees would be looking to push a few into what is undoubtedly the biggest weakness on the team in 2012. But the Yankees are not a team who promote young pitchers and ask them to take them to a World Series.
The Yankees look for veterans and free agents who can buy them time to develop pitchers to either promote or trade.
At the moment, Mitchell, Noesi and Warren are the most advanced of the young pitchers in experience. However, they also are the pitchers with lower ceilings. One of them could surprise but they likely will either stay in Triple-A or be dealt or released down the line.
But Phelps, Betances and Banuelos are worth watching. They seem to have the ability, they know how to pitch and they are determined to make it to the major leagues. Phelps is loaded with heart, Banuelos is wise beyond his years and Betances looks like a budding right-handed version of Sabathia.
Though 2013 looks like the year they might reach the big stage, don’t be shocked if any one or all three of them pitch in some capacity for the Yankees in 2012.
Like the old saying goes: “You can never have enough pitching.”