In George We Trust
A(nother) blog about the most storied franchise in sports
Monday, May 01, 2006
Farm system report: April
The minor league season is now a month old - give or take a couple of days - and as always there's been some interesting developments, including Radhames Liz and his ridiculous K totals, Gaby Sanchez and his bat, and a born-again JR House's return from prospect limbo (and college football). As far as the Yankees system goes, here's a wrap-up of the first month of the season (all stats, etc. are as of May 1st).

Triple-A Columbus (9-15, 4.0 GB)
Top pitching performance:
Darrell Rasner (April 10): 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 11 K - 61 of 85 pitches were strikes
Top hitting performance:
Russ Johnson (April 12): 4 for 5, 2 R, 1 3B, 1 HR, 1 RBI

Heading into the season there wasn't too much to get excited about regarding the Yankees Triple-A affiliate thanks to the organization's lack of talent in the upper levels. Unfortunately that hasn't changed much, as the only reason to check up on the team is to see how Eric Duncan and Matt DeSalvo are doing in their first foray at the level. Arguably their 2 best pitchers aren't even with the team anymore as lefty reliever Matt Smith was summoned to the big league squad barely a week into the season, and fellow southpaw Sean Henn hit the DL with an arm injury 3 days later.

Duncan has been far from impressive, as he's struggling to keep his BA in the .240-.250 range. Even more troubling is his power - or lack thereof - as he's smacked only 4 XBH (zero HR) in 79 ABs, a rate that would give him 30 XBH over 600 ABs, or 15 less than Brady Clark had leading off for the Brewers last year. In terms of highly-touted, power-hitting third basemen that moved across the diamond, Duncan is significantly closer to being the next Jamie D'Antona than the next Mark Teixeira at this point. The Yankees unjustifiably promoted Duncan to Triple-A this year when he clearly needed at least another 100 ABs or so at Double-A, and are now seeing his stock drop somewhat significantly because of it.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year so far has been Scott Erickson version 56,498,723. To say the 38-yr old has taken to new role as a set-up man would be understatement, as he's allowed only 7 hits and 6 walks in 15 IPs. His Kper9 of 6.60 is the highest he's posted since 1994 (with at least as many IPs at any given level), and just as important is his GB/FB ratio, which is hovering around a solid 2.0. The feeling on my part is that he could be effective for the Yankees in a short relief role, or at least more effective than Tanyon Sturtze has been.

Double-A Trenton (7-14, 6.0 GB)
Top pitching performance:
Steven White (April 11): 7.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 8 K, 11-3 GB/FB ratio
Top hitting performance:
Kevin Howard (Opening Day): 3 for 4, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K

The Yanks Double-A affiliate started the season off in dreadful fashion, going 10 games before logging their first W on April 17. Since then they've gone 7-4, including a current 4 game winning streak. The Thunder have gone 6-1 in their last 7 games, but still find themselves in the Northern Division's cellar. So what happened on the 17th to spark the turn around you ask? Justin Christian happened.

Christian had been receiving erratic playing time early in the year (like most of the team), but manager Bill Masse decided to permanently shift Christian to the leadoff spot and the team has taken off. Christian himself hasn't seen a drastic improved in his stats, however his affect on the rest of the lineup is readily apparent. Prior to the 17th, the team had an aggregate line of .196-.245-.288-.533 and averaged 2.0 runs a game; since Christian moved to the leadoff spot, the team's aggregate line has improved to a respectable .252-.335-.355-.690, and they are now averaging 4.91 runs a game.

Call it a coincidence if you want, I see it as a team finally feeling comfortable with a lineup and reaping the benefits of having a guy hit in front of them that gets on base (.321 OBP) and creates havoc when he gets there (14 for 14 in SB attempts, best in all of baseball).

High-A Tampa (10-14, 4.5 GB)
Top pitching performance:
Brett Smith (Opening Day): 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 9-4 GB/FB ratio
Top hitting performance:
Matt Carson (April 24): 4 for 4, 4 R, 1 3B, 3 HR, 5 RBI, 1 BB, 15 total bases

This team figured to be the focus of the Yanks minor league season this year with all it's talent, and they've managed to surpass expectations thanks to the law firm of Hughes, Gardner & Ehlers. Not all has been good however, as two players with tremendous talent in Tim Battle and Marcos Vechionacci are, ahem, "struggling" in there first venture into the world of High-A ball.

The Yanks have turned Phil Hughes loose this year, allowing him to resume throwing his slider while refraining from babying him with IP limits and unreasonable pitch counts. He sports an ungodly 30-2 K/BB ratio, a Mariano Rivera-like .70 WHIP (.02 off the league lead) and a 32-27 GB/FB ratio, which is good for a power-strikeout guy (don't believe me? Look at the career GB/FB ratio of the Rocket, the Big Unit and the Big Mouth). Oh yeah, (ready for this) he's given up only 2 XBH (0 homers) all season, and both of those came off the bat of the same batter (Drew Anderson of Sarasota) in the same game. Most importantly, he's been completely healthy. Hughes recently earned himself a trip to Double-A, and this time it's for real. It's Phil Hughes' farm system, we all just follow it.

In addition to Hughes, Brett Gardner has been tearing up Florida State League pitching, recorded a hit in 19 of the 23 games he's played, and reaching base safely in 22 of 23. He recently put together a 12 game hit streak, which was the second longest in the minors this year behind the aforementioned JR House's 18 game hit streak. Gardner leads the league by a considerable margin in OBP (.515), and even after 2 hitless games he still ranks second in the league in BA (.364), short of first by only 3 points. Gardner hasn't shown much power, collecting only 6 XBH (0 HR), but power isn't his game anyway. He's offset his high K totals with equally high BB totals (25-23 K/BB ratio) and has proven himself lethal on the basepaths with 9 SBs, putting him on pace for 64 over a typical minor league season of 500 ABs.

While Gardner has been getting on base at a mindblowing rate, Cody Ehlers has been the one driving him in. After a 4 year career as two-way player at the University of Missouri, Ehlers seems to have found his niche as an offense-first first basemen. Ehlers has a mean game of Scrabble going, as he leads the Florida State League in HR (7), RBI (26), SLG (.687) and OPS (1.091). By the time May's farm system report rolls around, there's a good chance both Ehlers and Gardner will have already joined Hughes in Double-A.

Poor Tim Battle. After being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2003 draft, Battle was diagnosed with bone cancer only to have George Steinbrenner pay his medical bills and bring him to the Stadium as a special guest during the 2003 World Series. He had what typically would be considered a breakout year in 2005 with Low-A Charleston, clubbing 60 XBH and stealing 40 bases in 134 games. The problem? He struck out 195 times. For his career, Battle's KA (strikeout average - it's the same as BA just with K's instead of H's) is .360, or 107 points higher than his BA. The problem continues to manifest itself this year, as Battle's KA is .409, which is higher than his OPS (.399).

Marcos Vechionnaci's season may not be going as badly as Battle's, but it's likely Vech isn't writing home about his performances. He's hitting only .136-.226-.185-.411 with a 22-9 K/BB ratio. After starting the year as the team's number 3 hitter, he's been demoted to 5th, then 6th, and now he's hitting 7th. His defense at the hot corner - by far his best attribute - hasn't been up to par with his skills as he's already committed 6 errors this season, putting him on a pace for 40 errors over the course of the season. It's painfully obvious Vechionacci wasn't ready for High-A level pitching, especially after last year's less than awe-inspiring performance.

Low-A Charleston (14-9, 3.5 GB)
Top pitching performance:
Phil Coke (April 9): 5 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 5 K - hit batter ended perfect game
Top hitting performance:
Austin Jackson & Jose Tabata (doubleheader on April 9): combined 10 for 15, 4 R, 10 RBI

Heading into the season there was cause for great excitement by Yankee fans regarding this team as 3 of the organization's top 5 prospects were ticketed for Charleston. Austin Jackson, Jose Tabata and CJ Henry - a trio so talented they should really have a nickname, just not the "Three Amigos" cause that's been beaten to death, plus it's kinda gay (not that there's anything wrong with that) - started the year occupying the River Dogs leadoff, 3rd and 5th spots in the lineup respectively. While Henry hit the DL with an undisclosed injury (Reegie Corona is filling in admirably), Jackson and Tabata have been a 2 man show.

Jackson is proving why many considered him the second best high school player (behind Justin Upton) available heading into the 2005 draft (he fell to the 8th round because of a commitment to play basketball at Georgia Tech). Despite batting leadoff, he's second on the team in RBI with 12, and he's stealing bases (9 SBs) when he reaches base (.396 OBP). He is striking out more than twice as much as he walks, but the plate discipline will come eventually, as will his over-the-fence power (although he did chip in a solo HR this past Saturday). His outfield play has been impeccable, as he's catching everything that comes his way and then some.

As good as Jackson has been, Tabata has been even better. The lone negative has been Tabata's plate approach and discipline, which was considered one of his strongest skills heading into 2006. He boasts a Phil Hughes like 20-2 K/BB ratio, but he's still getting on base at a .368 clip thanks to a superb BA of .344. He has hit only 1 HR this season (which came yesterday), but power is considered his weakest tool and he doesn't project to hit more anything more than average power anyway. He's still a threat with the bat, ripping 10 doubles (2nd in the league) and driving in runs at a staggering pace (23 RBI in 23 games, good for 2nd in the league). Tabata looks like he could become one of those rare 100+ RBI guys who hit less than 20 HRs a year. Once again he's the second youngest player in his league, this time at age seven-frickin'-teen, and he's only 14 days older than the youngest player - Elvis Andrus of the Braves.

Not to get lost in the Jackson-Tabata lovefest has been the ascension of Phil Coke - a 26th round draft choice in 2002 out of San Joaquin Delta College - from suspect to prospect. Coke's allowed only 14 baserunners (10 hits) in 17 IP while striking out 19 this year. He's put up a rock solid 20-10 GB/FB ratio, but maybe most impressive of all is that he's been perfect in 7 of his 17 IPs this year (41.2%), which simply is an inhuman rate. To help put that in perspective, consider this: during Mo's great 2005 campaign, 32 of his 78.1 IP were of the 1-2-3 variety, or 40.9%. I'm not in anyway saying Coke is the next Rivera, but his performance up to this point in the season has been tremendous and warrants great praise.

In-Season Top 10 Prospects (based on April's performance):
  1. Phil Hughes and no one's even a close second.
  2. Brett Gardner is turning into the next Kenny Lofton (when he was with Cleveland) right before our eyes.
  3. Jose Tabata looks like he'll be worth every penny of that $500,000 price tag.
  4. Austin Jackson could have easily been prospect #3, but Tabs gets the nod cause he's 18 months younger.
  5. Steven White went from a potential flameout to potential stud in a mere 4 weeks.
  6. Justin Christian is working all his magic despite changing positions from second base to the outfield.
  7. Cody Ehlers looks like he could hit big league pitching right now (I said looks like, not could).
  8. Phil Coke is making hitters look like Sammy Sosa - the 2005 version.
  9. Tyler Clippard has pitched significantly better than his 0-4 record suggests.
  10. Melky Cabrera has slowed down after a hot start, but he still sports a .903 OPS.

Notably Absent: JB Cox, Eric Duncan, Christian Garcia, CJ Henry, Eduardo Nunez, Marcos Vechionnaci

Anonymous Fabian said...
Tabata actually projects to hit for significant power at the big league level. He has plus plus bat speed and when taken into account with his physical stature, some scouts have compared his offensive potential to that of Manny Ramirez. He's also the third youngest player in the league, behind Fernando Martinez. Anyway, great blog, I love stopping by to read up on your opinions on the farm.

Blogger Mike A said...
My bad on Martinez, has him incorrectly list as being born in 1988, not 1989.

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