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Observations From Cooperstown: What's Up in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre?

From time to time, I’ll be spotlighting key players and highlight moments for the Yankees’ Triple-A team at Scranton/Wilkes Barre. Though I wish the team was still called the Red Barons (back when the city was affiliated with the Phillies), Scranton will be an interesting stopping point for both veteran and younger minor leaguers this season. In this week’s first sampling, let’s take an overview of Dave Miley’s team.

Given the mix of established veterans and legitimately talented prospects the Yankees have assembled at Triple-A, I expected the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Yankees to be a powerhouse this spring and summer. Well, they have not disappointed. Through the first 21 games of the International League season, the Scranton Yankees have posted a record of 14-7, despite playing the majority of their games on the road. Only the Columbus Clippers, the former affiliate of the Yankees, have fared better. The Indians’ affiliate has gone 16-5 to lead the Western Division.

So is there help on the way? Yes, both in terms of immediate reinforcements and future assistance. Francisco Cervelli will be completing his rehab stint any day now; when he does, he’ll take the place of the very limited Gustavo Molina as the No. 2 catcher. The Yankees face a tougher decision with veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood, whose velocity has been spotty. In his first game for Scranton, Millwood pitched a seven-inning complete game (as part of a doubleheader). But then on Thursday night, Millwood was torched for six runs and sent to the whirlpool after only two innings. Here’s the dilemma facing the Yankees. They have a Sunday deadline by which they must promote Millwood to the major league roster, or else he can opt out and become a free agent. The Yankees could always make room for Millwood by cutting the non-descript Buddy Carlyle; Millwood has the better resume and could conceivably work as a spot starter and long reliever. My bet’s on Millwood being promoted, but don’t place any money on that possibility.

From an offensive standpoint, Scranton has two regulars slugging over .650. They are veteran minor leaguers Jorge Vazquez, who’s playing first base, and Justin “Cornbread” Maxwell, who’s been sharing time with Greg Golson in center field. Both have eight home runs, but Vazquez is outhitting Mad Max by 100 points, .345 to .246, and has an OPS of 1.021. He’s also riding a nine-game hitting streak heading into weekend play. Right now, the Yankees don’t have a need for either Vazquez or Maxwell, simply because of how strong the Eric Chavez/Andruw Jones bench has been. One of the Yankees’ corner infielders or outfielders would have to go down with an injury; otherwise, there’s just no room at the inn for the free-swinging Vazquez and the fleet-footed Mad Max.

The two top position player prospects, Jesus Montero and Brandon Laird, have produced a mixed bag of results. Laird is slugging only .265, so he has a long way to go just to build himself up for a September call-up. To no one’s surprise, Montero is hitting a robust .365, but he has only home run and has strangely failed to draw a single walk in 64 at-bats. (He also missed a few games this week with an injured groin before returning on Thursday.) The Yankee brass will want to see significantly more power and patience before even considering Montero as a replacement for the slumping Jorge Posada at DH.

Then there’s the starting rotation, where Scranton has an abundance of riches. Eight different pitchers have made starts, including the five prospects (Andrew Brackman, Adam Warren, D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, and Hector Noesi). None have been dominant, but Mitchell has been the most efficient, with a 2.95 ERA and one complete game to his credit. Mitchell will have to cut down on his walks, though; he has walked almost as any batters as he has struck out. In terms of the veterans, Mark Prior just made his season debut with a one-inning relief stint, but hefty Carlos Silva remains in no-man’s land. He has yet to be assigned to Scranton, which is only delaying his possible elevation to the Bronx.

All in all, returning manager Miley (one of the better minor league skippers around) and batting coach Butch Wynegar have plenty of options to work with. Miley’s biggest challenge may be finding sufficient playing time for all of his talented regulars; many of them deserve to play every day, but like former Red and Brewer Chris Dickerson, they may be subject to platooning at some point this spring. Still, it’s a pleasant problem to have.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

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