‘Baby Bombers’ Shine Now But Future Is Brighter

It is no big secret that the New York Yankees are pretty much nearing their yearly limit on their healthcare plan. So much for “A-Rodcare,” literally! But with the slew of injuries has come the necessity for the Yankees to dip into their minor-league system for rookies. With the team in first place it is obvious that they are getting contributions from the so-called “Baby Bombers.” Let’s see how they are doing and rank them by their potential for what they will provide the team in the long run. 

1) PRESTON CLAIBORNE, RIGHT-HANDED RELIEVER, 0-0, 0.69 ERA

Claiborne’s star has been rising quickly the past two seasons. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, the 25-year-old Dallas native presents the typical power arm frame.

At Double-A Trenton in 2012, Claiborne was 2-2 with a 2.22 ERA and he saved five of the six games he closed. He struck out 49 batters in 48 2/3 innings over 30 appearances. He moved up to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and was 4-0 with a 4.05 ERA and saved one of his two opportunities. He struck out 29 in 33 1/3 innings there.

But the Yankees were absolutely ecstatic over his performance during spring training. He was 1-0 with a 0.84 ERA and he struck out 11 batters in 10 2/3 innings over 10 appearances. Manager Joe Girardi praised Claiborne for not looking overmatched against top-flight major-league hitters. But the Yankees’ bullpen was full and Claiborne was assigned back to Scranton.

In eight games there, Claiborne was 0-0 with a 3.48 ERA and he had saved all three of his save opportunities.

So when right-hander Joba Chamberlain was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a left oblique strain on May 3, Claiborne was summoned to get his first taste of the majors. By the way Claiborne has pitched, he does not want to wash that great taste out of his mouth for a long time.

The rookie flamethrower is 0-0 with 0.69 ERA and he has struck out 10 batters without issuing a walk in 13 innings covering nine appearances.

It is odd that Claiborne has replaced Chamberlain so seamlessly because most scouts compare the two. He even has been called “Joba Jr.” because of his resemblance to the veteran reliever.

Claiborne features a fastball and slider combination with an occasional change. Girardi likes him because he is fearless in attacking hitters, which shows in the fact he has not issued a walk yet. Though Claiborne is not looked upon as a future closer, he could contribute nicely as a late-inning setup man in the mold of David Robertson or Chamberlain before injuries sidetracked his career lately.

Claiborne is, by far, the most impressive rookie the Yankees have used this season and he probably has the highest long-term ceiling because of his refusal to nibble on the corners. Claiborne is an attack pitcher with a low-to-mid 90s fastball and a slider with a good bite.

He may be less heralded than Chamberlain was because he was not a No. 1 draft pick. He was chosen in the 17th round in 2010 out of Tulane University. But he has exceeded expectations much like the way David Phelps has progressed through the minors as a starter.

Claiborne looks like a long-term keeper for the Yankees and he should not be sent down when Chamberlain returns from his rehab stint. Unfortunately, it is looking like either he or right-hander Adam Warren will have to go.

2) DAVID ADAMS, INFIELDER, 2 HRS, 3 RBIs, .306

You can probably call Adams the “greatest forgotten Yankees prospect in history.” The reason is that Adams has been detouring through the system because of a nagging ankle injury he suffered in 2010 at Double-A Trenton.

That was the famous injury that killed the Cliff Lee trade with the Seattle Mariners. Adams was packaged along with Jose Montero and Ivan Nova in July 2010 in a deal for Lee. But the Mariners rejected the deal because of Adams and they asked for shortstop Eduardo Nunez instead.

At that asking price, general manager Brian Cashman balked and Lee was traded to the Texas Rangers instead.

Since then Adams has been trying to get back on what he hoped would be a major-league track. Adams’ ankle injury was far more serious than anyone thought at the time and he missed pretty much all of the 2011 minor-league season.

The former 2008 third-round pick out of the University of Virginia did manage to play in 86 games at Double-A Trenton in 2012 and hit .306 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs.

However, the Yankees ran into a bit of a jam with their 40-man roster this spring. Adams, who was not invited to spring training, was released by the Yankees so they could get outfielder Vernon Wells on the roster. Because no other team called Adams with an offer he remained a free agent.

So the Yankees re-signed him and shipped him to Scranton, where he was hitting .316 with homer and three RBIs in 27 games. If the Yankees had a choice they would have recalled Adams when Kevin Youkilis was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a lower back sprain on April 30.

But major-league rules prevent teams from calling up former free agents re-signed by their original club until May 15. So the Yankees recalled fellow rookie infielder Corban Joseph for a time and then they signed Chris Nelson when he was released by the Colorado Rockies.

But on May 15, which also was Adams’ 26th birthday, the Yankees released Nelson, brought Adams up from Scranton and he was installed as the team’s starting third baseman that very evening.

Originally a second baseman, Adams has been used at third base during stretches of his career because Joseph was the team’s biggest prospect at second base.

But Adams  –  now fully recovered from that nagging ankle injury some thee years later  –  is showing why he was such a highly touted prospect all those years. In nine games, Adams has at least one hit in eight of them and he is batting a robust .306 (11 for 36) with two home runs and three RBIs.

Though Adams’ defense is not listed by scouts as a strong suit because the ankle injury kept him off the field and perhaps reduced his range a bit, his defense with the Yankees has been better than advertised. He has not committed an error in his first 26 chances but it is obvious that a Gold Glove is not is in future either.

But playing solid defense while contributing offensively is just what the Yankees want him to do until Youkilis is activated from the disabled list sometime within the next week or so.

Adams likely will have to be sent back to Scranton but there is no doubt he has made an impression on the Yankees.

With Alex Rodriguez and Youkilis ahead of him at third base, Adams future there is a bit murky. But Robinson Cano can leave the Yankees as a free agent in 2014 and Youkilis only has a one-year contract. So Adams does have some potential value to the Yankees in the next year.

Adams also could have some value in potential trades the Yankees might consider down the line. But there is no doubt that after three seasons of futility dealing with a serious injury, Adams is back on track for a major-league career.

The Yankees are pleased with what he has contributed so far. If it were up to Adams it would be more of a long-term engagement.

3) VIDAL NUNO, LEFT-HANDED STARTER, 1-1, 1.93 ERA

While Adams and Claiborne were products of the Yankees’ farm system, Nuno actually was a 48th round draft pick in 2009 of the Cleveland Indians.

But after two seasons in the Cleveland minor-league system, he was released and he ended up signing with the Washington (PA) Wild Things in the independent Frontier League. There Nuno developed a change up and he caught the eye of scouts for the Yankees.

The Yankees signed him and the 25-year-old southpaw has breezed through the Yankees’ minor-league system the past two seasons.

In two stops in 2011, Nuno was 7-1 with a 1.38 ERA in 15 games (seven starts). In 2012, Nuno was a combined 10-6 with a 2.54 ERA between stops at High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton.

But Nuno really opened eyes when he became a late addition to the Yankees’ spring training roster. Nuno was 1-1 with a 0.61 ERA in seven games (two starts) with the Yankees. But what really opened the Yankees’ eyes was in a game he pitched against the Yankees as a loaner to the Dominican Republic team in an exhibition game.

Nuno shut out the Yankees over five innings and he ended up being selected as the winner of the James P. Dawson Award as the team’s top rookie of the spring.

Though Nuno was shipped out to Scranton he had made an impression.

So when Nova was placed on the 15-day disabled list on April 27, Nuno was called up to take his place on the roster.

In his major-league debut, Nuno pitched three scoreless innings of relief against the Houston Astros on April 29.

On May 13, he shut out the Indians over five innings in his first major-league start and was promptly optioned back to Scranton on May 14. But he was recalled on May 17 when Andy Pettitte was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left trapezius muscle.

Nuno finally got tagged for his first run and home run allowed and took his first major-league loss on Tuesday when gave up a leadoff walk-off solo home run in the 10th inning to Nate McLouth of the Baltimore Orioles.

But, in true bounce-back fashion, Nuno pitched well in his second major-league start by limiting the Tampa Bay Rays to just one run on five hits in six innings on Saturday.

It is easy to see why Nuno was rapidly released by the Indians when you look at his fastball velocity. It is in the upper 80s and rarely reaches 90. That means Nuno must stay away from the middle of the plate and rely on his control to be effective.

Of course, little did the Indians know, but Nuno excels at throwing strikes and limiting walks. In 385 innings, Nuno has walked only 69 batters while he has struck out 371. That is nearly a 5 1/2 strikeouts per walk ratio.

The Yankees plan to send him back to Scranton when Pettitte is activated on June 1. But Nuno may have a future as a starter with a major-league team, even if it is not the Yankees. Nuno mainly will have to prove he can continue to get hitters out and he does a need a season at the Triple-A level.

But his long-term future can be bright with the Yankees because Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda are pitching under one-year contracts and Phil Hughes can hit the free-agent market this winter. So Nuno may be needed to fill a vacancy in the rotation next season.

If nothing else, Nuno could fill a need as a left-hander out the bullpen, though Nuno has shined much more brightly as a starter throughout his minor-league career.

In any event, Nuno has carved out a big spot in the Yankees’ future plans because left-handers with control can have very long careers in the major leagues. Ask David Wells.

4) AUSTIN ROMINE, CATCHER, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs, .118 BA

Unlike the others, Romine is in the Yankees’ listing of the Top 20 prospects in the organization. He is ranked at No. 17.

The main calling for Romine, 24, is his defense, which Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena rate as “major-league quality.” Romine has managed to remain with the Yankees while Montero has not because of his defense.

The only things that have held Romine back is a recurring back problem  –  which Romine has deal with on a daily basis with stretching exercises  –  and his bat. Romine is a career .280 hitter in the minors but it has not, as yet, translated to the major-league level.

But when Francisco Cervelli sustained a fractured right hand on April 26, Romine was summoned from Scranton, where he was hitting .333 with a homer and four RBIs in 14 games.

Chris Stewart was elevated to the starter behind the plate and Romine was expected to catch a game each week, at best.

But Stewart suffered a mild strain of his left groin on May 16 and Romine was thrust into the starter’s role for six games this week until Stewart returned on Saturday. Romine was 3-for-18 (.167) with no home runs and one RBI. Overall, he is hitting .118 with a no home runs and two RBIs.

What Romine lacks as a hitter he still excels at as a catcher. He calls a solid game (that is a work in progress), he is excellent at blocking pitches and he has a very good arm that deters base-stealers. He has thrown out 25 percent of potential base-stealers at the minor-league level in his career.

With Cervelli sidelined until sometime after the All-Star break, Romine will remain the backup catcher for the Yankees until he returns.

That will allow Romine to have some time to develop his hitting at the major-league level and learn more of the fundamentals of defense from Girardi and Pena.

The Yankees are actually loaded at the position with their No. 1 prospect Gary Sanchez and hard-hitting J.R. Murphy making their way through the Yankees’ system. The Yankees are going to have to make a determination of where Romine fits in their long-range plans.

They hope he can improve with the bat enough to stick with the Yankees. They would love for him to take the starting job in 2014. That, however, is up to Romine and how much he able to benefit from the major-league experience he is getting now.

The son of former major-league outfielder Kevin Romine will have to step it up overtake Cervelli and Stewart soon and keep Sanchez and Murphy at bay down the road. There is a long way to go and Romine just happens to have time on his side.

In addition to these four rookies who debuted this season, two other rookies have played for the Yankees this season: right-hander Warren and infielder Joseph. Warren, 26, was not included in the original list because he made his major-league debut in 2012, but he is still considered as a rookie this season. Joseph, 24, was called  up from Scranton on April 30 to replace Youkilis. But he hit .167 in six at-bats before he was sent back Scranton May 14.  Warren, however, is contributing very well out of the bullpen, where he is 1-0 with a 3.12 ERA.  

COMBINED TOTALS

The rookie pitchers (Claiborne, Nuno and Warren) are 2-1 with a 1.24 ERA and 34 strikeouts and 10 walks in 50 2/3 innings covering 22 appearances (two starts). Adams, Romine and Joseph have combined to go 16-for-76 (.211) with two home runs and five RBIs. Those contributions from the rookies has been a huge part of the reason why the Yankees have been able to weather the devastating injuries to their veterans this season and remain in first place. It is a testament to the scouting and the evaluations made under the direction of Cashman. The odd thing is these rookies are not considered among the team’s top prospects. There are many more at the Double-A and Single-A levels. That would indicate that the Yankees might not need to be signing many high-priced free agents in the immediate future.

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