By Sweeny Murti
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A few thoughts as the Yankees near completion of the first third of the baseball season:
— This is a good team. It’s not a great team. They have holes. But they have passed the Memorial Day marker in striking distance of the surprising frontrunner, Toronto.
The status of Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran remind us that this is an old team. They need Jacoby Ellsbury to play like he did in April and they need Brett Gardner to stay consistent so they can score runs without as much home-run power in their lineup. Brian McCann could help that cause though if he can get a hot streak together. Derek Jeter is not having a year like 2012, but he’s also not having a year like 2013, and he’s doing more than just tipping his cap four times a game.
The starting pitching has held up surprisingly well, considering the injuries to CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova. Unfortunately, Pineda is the only one the Yankees can count on coming back this season to pick up where he left off. Sabathia wasn’t pitching well enough before he got hurt, but he certainly will be given the chance when he’s healthy again. The Yankees need to know what they have in him by the All-Star break so they can be prepared to make a move for a starter if needed.
Pineda is still kind of a wild card here. Don’t let the Pine Tar Incident smear your memory of how well he was pitching before he was suspended and then injured. Pineda was showing the ability to dominate. That’s the type of pitcher that as a Yankees fan you want the team to acquire before the trade deadline. And the Yanks are fortunate enough to have him here, and barring a setback, ready to join the rotation within a couple weeks.
Guys like David Phelps, Vidal Nuno and Chase Whitley have proven serviceable, but it’s likely the Yanks will need to acquire an upgrade to become a true playoff contender. Better that they pitch well now so the Yankees don’t appear as desperate as trading season heats up.
— You are likely to hear more about the merits and the warts of some of the Yankees’ top prospects as the trading deadline nears. I recently spoke to another team’s scout who told me the Yankees have some players they could use in a bulk package, but none that they could consider untouchable. These are guys like catcher Gary Sanchez and pitcher Jose Ramirez.
The young outfielders that held much promise a year ago have not distinguished themselves, namely Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams and Tyler Austin. Ramon Flores has played well at Triple-A this year after a strong big league spring training. My gut feeling is the Yankees would be reluctant to move Flores most of this group because he could be a player for them later this year and is a viable outfield option for next year when Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki are gone, and Carlos Beltran is a year older.
Pete O’Brien’s stock is rising due to his raw power, which is in shorter supply these days. A 23-year old second-round pick from The University of Miami (FL) two years ago, O’Brien’s high strikeouts are seen as some concern, but that doesn’t scare anyone as much as it used to. He has some work to do catching as well, but there is still some potential there and he is seeing some time in the outfield too. As long as he keeps hitting home runs (18 across Single- and Double-A through Memorial Day) he will have value.
Dante Bichette Jr. may be moving back up the prospect list. The Yankees top pick in 2011 had a strong start before scuffling in two full seasons at low-A Charleston. But he is off to a good start at high-A Tampa, where he was just named Florida State League Player of the Week. Bichette doesn’t turn 22 until the end of September and could conceivably find his way to Double-A before the year is over.
I don’t know how many of these names, if any, will be enough to land a Jeff Samardzija in July. But it will be worth watching how they perform between now and then.
— One interesting name is Dellin Betances. Flourishing in his relief role, you might soon start hearing his name in conversation for the All-Star team. That seemed implausible a year ago. But his mind and his mechanics have finally caught up to his talent and Betances has been the most pleasant surprise to the first third of this 2014 season.
Now consider this: would you trade him to get a starter? Would you include Betances in a package for a trade that would improve your rotation at the expense of your bullpen? This is not about trading a prospect who may or may not become a player for you. Granted, it’s only been two months, but Betances has turned into one of the most valuable members of the 25-man roster. After all the time spent nurturing that talent and finally seeing the results, would you be willing to give up his future now to help the 2014 Yankees rotation?
— A shout out to Mike Ford of the low-A Charleston RiverDogs for his performance last Sunday. Ford became only the third player in South Atlantic League history to hit four home runs in a single game. Ford was undrafted out of Princeton last summer, but was impressive enough in the Cape Cod League that the Yankees needed to win a minor bidding war to sign him. The lefty hitting first baseman is hitting .313 with eight home runs through Memorial Day.
After consulting a SABR list of four homer games at all levels, I believe Ford became the first player in the Yankee organization to hit four homers in one game since Suitcase Bob Seeds of the 1938 Newark Bears. The only Yankee to do it at the major league level was Lou Gehrig in 1932. Former Yankee farmhand Jorge Vazquez hit four home runs in a Mexican League game in 2006.
I don’t know what kind of prospect Ford will turn out to be, but he certainly deserves a laurel — and hearty handshake for his achievement.
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