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Category: Minor Leagues

On Tap

Observations From Cooperstown: The Old Guard, Chavez, and Stone Gloves

So just how long should the Yankees wait before making some kind of move with Derek Jeter and/or Jorge Posada? While it’s become fashionable to proclaim both players as fully cooked and ready to begin their five-year waits for Hall of Fame consideration, those calls convey ignorance and a lack of knowledge about the Yankee organization. First off, it’s foolish to make full judgments based on the first month of the season. The same people that always cry out “sample size” conveniently forget about the principle when it involves players they don’t like. Jeter has been so reviled by some in the Sabermetric community that they’re ready to drop the guillotine at a moment’s notice.

His critics will quickly add that Jeter’s poor performance is a continuation of his 2010 finish, but his overall 2010 numbers were hardly as bad as what he’s done early in 2011. On the whole, Jeter was a passable player in 2010. So let’s give it more than a month before we proclaim a death knell. I would suggest the Yankees give Jeter at least until the end of May, if not until the middle of June, before they drop him to a lower spot in the batting order. And if his lack of hitting continues beyond that, let’s say into July, then it would certainly be fair for the Yankees to consider removing him entirely from the starting lineup.

There is another reason to have patience. Who exactly is ready to step in to become the starting shortstop? Bucky Dent and Tony Kubek are not available. Eduardo Nunez’ throwing problems make it clear that he’s not ready NOW; he might be later this season, he might be in 2012, but he’s clearly not ready at the present time. Ramiro Pena, starting at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, is an excellent defensive shortstop but isn’t likely to represent any improvement over Jeter’s current hitting. Are Yankee fans really ready to wade through a bottom-third of the lineup that has both Pena and Brett Gardner? I know I’m not.

Then there’s the case of Posada, who’s coming off a respectable season in 2010. Would it be smart to give up on Posada so quickly, especially when he’s at least shown significant power over the first 30 games? I don’t think so. I would suggest a similar timetable with Posada. If he’s still struggling badly at the end of May, it would be fair to consider a platoon with another player, perhaps Andruw Jones. And if Posada is still struggling into July, and the Yankees are in danger of falling out of contention, then yes, it might be the right time for a total replacement.

In the case of Posada, the Yankees DO have tangible replacement options. Jones is one; the other is super prospect Jesus Montero, who is close to being ready to hit in the major leagues, if not handle regular catching duties. (Montero is finally drawing a few walks and has his batting average up to .372.) Montero could be just what an aging offense needs, particularly if Jeter’s punchless hitting continues. The problem with demoting Posada is what to do with him? Teams do not need backup DH’s who cannot play the field and cannot run the bases. Unless the Yankees change their mind about using Posada as a backup catcher, he could become a roster albatross by the middle of the summer.

It’s certainly possible that Posada and Jeter, who’s been nicknamed “Captain Groundout” by Rob Neyer, might be done as useful players. It’s just too early in a long season to draw that conclusion once and for all. So let’s give it a little more time before we make them walk the plank…

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Slouching Towards Fargo

The other day I mused offhandedly about how cool it would be to own a baseball team, and also how completely impossible. And that made me think of minor-league or independent-league team ownership, which is still kind of a possibility for mere mortals – and which, these days, has a lot more room for quirk. Given the choice between two clubs, as a general rule of thumb, you’re probably better off joining the one that doesn’t require Bud Selig’s approval.

Back in the fall I read Neal Karlen’s Slouching Towards Fargo, which is an affectionate portrait of the St. Paul Saints circa 1996 and 1997, an independent Northern League team owned in part by Bill Veeck’s son Mike (decades after his Disco Demolition Night debacle) that boasts a pig delivering baseballs to the mound, a nun in the stands  offering massages, appearances by part-owner Bill Murray, sumo-wrestling contests for opposing managers between innings, and much more. “Fun Is Good,” is the Saints’ motto, and it’s refreshing to watch a team that doesn’t take itself too seriously. (Bless the Yankees, but you know it would do them good to lighten up once in a while). Daryl Strawberry, who redeemed himself with the Saints shortly before joining the Yankees and salvaging his career, serves as something of a focal point in the book, representing the Saints’ function as a haven of second- and third-chances for baseball types and locals; there are also draft holdouts, washups, career minor leaguers and female pitcher Ila Borders. The Saints have room for just about everyone.

Author Neal Karlen also tries to tell the story of his own sort of redemption, as he was initially sent to Saint Paul by Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner to dig up mud and write a story eviscerating Bill Murray and Strawberry. But there’s little suspense or originality in the story of how he ultimately grows a conscience once away from the big city. This part of the book was less successful, for me – partly because Karlen’s writing (and, to be fair, editing – the book is very unevenly paced) is not up to the standards of his material, and partly because his view of cynical and immoral New York City media types vs. big-hearted Midwesterners struck me as overly pat. He frequently brings up petty grudges against other writers or media-world denizens, and he’s too on-the-nose when writing about how baseball and the Saints will heal us all; it’s a theme that would have benefited from subtlety. Still, Karlen does a good job of chronicling the fascinating collection of individuals who cluster around the Saints, a haven for nonconformists, and whatever his flaws as a writer, they don’t prevent the charm of the team itself from coming through loud and clear.

Down on the Farm…

If you are into following the Yankees’ minor leaguers, peep what Greg Fertel is doing over at Pending Pinstripes. Mike Axisa also does a good job over at River Ave, and now Stephani Bee is adding to the conversation over at PB.

Diggum.

Bush Wackers

When you have a few extra minutes, do yourself a favor and check out this excellent piece by Mike Ashmore, beat writer for the Trenton Thunder. It’s about the less-than-glamorous life of a minor league ball player:

The minimum annual salary in Major League Baseball currently sits at $400,000. Meanwhile, most players at the minor league level who haven’t reached minor league free agency are lucky to make $10,000 over the course of a season; a survey of players revealed that those in rookie ball make $1,250-1,300 a month while players in Triple-A, the highest level of the minors, can make roughly $1,000 more per month while under the contracted amount.

“I think the way things are today, most people look at professional athletes and assume they’re rolling in money,” said New York Yankees Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, Mark Newman.

“And these guys are not.”

Most players in the minor leagues — some estimates have the number as high as 90 percent — will not play in the big leagues. For most, dreams of a career at the highest level are nothing more than that, just dreams.

[Drawing by Robert Weaver, 1962]

Check It Out

I have a couple of pieces up on SI.com today. The first is my Rookie of the Year Awards Watch. It was a frustrating column to write this week because of the glut of strong rookies in the National League and lack thereof in the American League, though I squeezed in a lot of NL honorable mentions in the introduction. [Update: I initially had an old column linked. The link is now fixed to this week's Awards Watch.]

The second is my look at the top waiver-trade pickups of the Wild Card era. No Yankees make my top 5, though the botched Pat Listach trade in 1996 yielded Graeme Lloyd, who after struggling mightily down the stretch, got some huge outs in the postseason as the Yankees won their first championship under Joe Torre. Other notable Yankee waiver trades were the returns of Mike Stanley in 1997 and Luis Sojo in 2000, and the dumping of Mariano Duncan and addition of Rey Sanchez as a second-base solution in ’97. Meanwhile, Sterling Hitchcock went 5-1 with a 3.78 ERA for the Cardinals after the Yankees traded him to St. Louis in August 2003.

Elsewhere, the latest edition of Kevin Goldstein’s Future Shock at Baseball Prospectus kicks off with good words on a pair of red-hot Yankee prospects:

Dellin Betances, RHP, Yankees(High-A Tampa): 6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 11 K

Of Betances 11 starts this year, eight of them could arguably be described as dominant, with none more so than last night’s when Betances retired the last 14 batters he faced, nine via the strikeout.  With a fastball that is all the way back (94-98 mph) and control that we’ve never seen before, the 22-year-old has whiffed 68 over 57 innings while allowing just 31 hits and walking 15.  Only an ugly ttrack record when it comes to staying healthy prevents him from being labeled with an elite tag.

Brandon Laird, 3B, Yankees(Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre): 4-for-4, 2 HR (2), 3 R, 2 RBI

It’s been a darn good year overall for the Yankee farm system, and one of the brightest points of light has been Laird, who entered the year as a nice little hitter with some upside, and is now considered one of the better offensive prospects in the system.  After batting .291/.355/.523 in the Eastern League, you couldn’t have asked for a better Triple-A debut, but much like Jesus Montero, it’s hard to figure out where his big league future lies if he remains a Yankee.

Observations From Cooperstown: Call-ups, Helmets, and Lookalikes

Let’s file this in the category of “taking nothing for granted.” Even with a sizeable lead over the Red Sox, I’m happy to see that the Yankees haven’t waited for Scranton’s Triple-A playoff season to end before bringing some reinforcements to New York. Francisco Cervelli, Ramiro Pena, Mark Melancon, Edwar Ramirez, Mike Dunn, and Jon Albaladejo represent the first wave of call-ups, giving Joe Girardi additional options for the final month of the regular season. As painful as it is for fans of the minor league affiliates to hear, the priorities and needs of the major league team should always come first. Given the frequent rest needed by Jorge Posada and the semi-ludicrous pitching limitations being placed on Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees can use some bolstering in the areas of pitching and catching depth.

Once Scranton’s postseason run is complete, the Yankees should then promote their two best everyday players at Triple-A: Austin “Ajax” Jackson and Shelley “Slam” Duncan. If nothing else, both players deserve to be rewarded for fine seasons in Triple-A; minor league players need to know that they will be promoted if they produce at lower levels. Jackson still has flaws in his game (including a surprising lack of power and too many strikeouts), but did well enough to be named the International League’s Rookie of the Year. Duncan has had nothing less than a terrific season for Scranton-Wilkes Barre, leading the league in home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage. Hopefully, the Yankees will be able to put an early clinch on the AL East and give Duncan some at-bats in which to impress opposing scouts. He could help any one of a number of teams, including the Indians, A’s, Diamondbacks, and Pirates. Heck, he’d be a good fit for the cross-town Mets, who probably won’t be re-signing Carlos Delgado and desperately need an infusion of power and enthusiasm. If someone gives Duncan a chance, they might just get some Dave Kingman-type numbers in return, with slightly better defense and significantly better attitude…

In pioneering the oversized S100 helmet made by Rawlings, David Wright has started me thinking about the history of batting helmets. Former Yankee great Phil Rizzuto is generally acknowledged as the first major leaguer to wear a full batting helmet in a game. “The Scooter” made the move from cap to hard hat in 1951, one year before the Pirates outfitted all of their players with helmets and a full 20 years before helmets became mandatory throughout the major leagues. Rizzuto wasn’t just a great shortstop and a funny broadcaster; he was a smart guy who realized the value of protecting oneself in an era when most pitchers felt comfortable pitching high and tight.

As much of a pioneer as Rizzuto was, he was not the first professional ballplayer to don a helmet in a game. That honor belongs to another Hall of Fame shortstop—longtime Negro Leagues great Willie “El Diablo” Wells. After being beaned and knocked unconscious in a 1942 game, the Newark Eagles’ legend returned to action wearing a workman’s helmet, which he found at a New Jersey construction site. Deciding that the construction helmet would work at bat, Wells donned the hard hat in his next game. El Diablo might have looked a little odd, but who could have blamed him?

Speaking of Wright, his use of the S100 helmet has conjured images of two of Hollywood’s beloved characters: The Great Gazoo from “The Flintstones” and the laughable Dark Helmet from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. So whom do you think Wright more closely resembles? It’s a close call, but I’ll place my vote with Gazoo, as portrayed by the brilliant Harvey Korman. In the immortal words of Gazoo, “Goodbye dum-dums.”…

Finally, has anyone else noticed how much Alfredo Aceves looks like former Yankee Jim Leyritz? Every time I see Aceves take the mound, I have to remind myself that “The King” is no longer playing. I had similar flashbacks when Bobby Abreu played for the Yankees; he always reminded me of former Yankee outfielder Matty Alou, at least in terms of their facial resemblance. Then again, maybe I’ve just been looking at too many old Topps baseball cards.

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

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver