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Minor League Ramble: Early Triple-A Performances

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For Jesus Montero, who thought he would be the Yankees' starting catcher this winter, Russell Martin's early success must be like a kick in the . . . what's that? Oohhhhh. (AP)

The minor-league season is just two weeks old, but already the Yankees have already seen injuries to three top prospects, two first-time promotions to the major leagues, and one big-league debut for a former Rule 5 draft pick. Oh, and there has also been some baseball played here and there. Since there are so many teams in action, I’m going to break this up into three pieces. We start today with what’s going on in Triple-A.

Andrew Brackman, RHP, Triple-A Scranton

Coming into the season, the questions surrounding Brackman were whether the strides he made last year were legit. Has he really found the strike zone? Is he going to keep the ball out of the air? Will he stay out of the trainer’s room? We’ll have to be a bit more patient in finding an answer, since the 6-foot-11 pitcher has only tossed 16 innings through three starts, but let’s take a look at the data we have so far.

Brackman has allowed more hits (17) than innings pitched, which isn’t abnormal for him, but giving up two home runs in one game, which he did on April 18 for just the fourth time in his career, is. Because of his enormous size and downward throwing slope, Brackman gets oodles of worm-beaters (1.75 career ground-ball/fly-ball ratio), but right now he’s only getting 1.06 of his outs on the ground. That, combined with his seven walks and things like this, suggest that he’s missing his targets and leaving the ball up. Most of the damage has come with Brackman behind in the count and working from the stretch. What’s more, this is the first time that Brackman has found himself pitching in cold weather, and that could also be affecting his pitches.

Brackman hasn’t had any truly hideous starts so far. If he can get back to keeping the ball low and reintroduce himself to the strike zone (no small order for big guys), he should be fine. If this is still a problem in the summer months, then we can start to worry.

Chris Dickerson, CF, Triple-A Scranton

Armed with the triple threat of Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, and Sergio Mitre during spring training, the Yankees had long-relief depth to peddle on the market. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, struggling to find pitching after the injury to Zack Greinke, grabbed the phone and worked out a deal that brought Mitre to the Brew Crew for Dickerson. As Jay wrote at the time of the deal, it’s Dickerson’s penchant for injuries that has kept him from getting an extended shot in the majors. He’s an admirable fourth outfielder, with speed and pop as his main selling points.

When Curtis Granderson’s sore oblique was good to go on Opening Day, Dickerson was shipped to Triple-A. Despite ripping moonshots in batting practice, Dickerson had a .175/.262/.150 line through his first eight games, which might make you think he had switched to a balsa wood bat for the games. Dickerson found sturdier lumber during a five-game hit streak in which he smacked nine hits, including three doubles and a triple, but he is just 3-for-18 in his last five games. There have been a few encouraging signs in Dickerson’s performance, including his shrinking strikeout rate; he has 17 strikeouts in 69 at-bats (24.6 K%), a sizeable drop from his career average (30.8%). Another good sign is that Dickerson is hitting .364/.472/.477 on the road, unfortunately half of his games come at home, where he is "hitting" .080/.148/.080.

Brandon Laird, 3B, Triple-A Scranton

Let’s start with the happy news: Laird isn’t striking out as often as he did when he was promoted to Scranton last year. Now for the less happy news: he ain’t doing a whole lot of anything else at the plate, either. The advanced pitching at Triple-A has kept Laird, who was never great shakes at drawing a free pass, from reaching base consistently. Through 68 at-bats, Laird is batting .162/.194/.265 with four doubles, one homer, and 11 strikeouts.

Though he is making contact, Laird isn’t getting hits to fall in. It might be luck—a .192 BABIP screams fluke—but he could also be struggling with pitch recognition. After making the jump from High-A to Double-A last year, Laird did his best work at the plate, but it has taken him more time to adjust to the jump to Triple-A. Pitchers at the upper levels aren’t just leaning on their top two pitches, they’re tightening their secondary offerings and learning to paint corners. Laird has shown strike-zone awareness and pitch recognition in the past, but it’s possible that the better control and improved stuff of the pitchers he's facing has caught the Southern Californian off-guard.

While waiting for Laird's bat to come up to speed, the Yankees will scoot his glove around the infield and outfield corners to increase his value. He’s not a superb defender at his natural third base, and he can make fly balls into mini-adventures as he gallops after them in the outfield, but he has enough athleticism to slide by. The main question is whether he will hit enough to maintain a utility role in the majors. Despite his poor start to the season, he has the tools to do so.

Jesus Montero, C/DH, Triple-A Scranton

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Jesus Montero can hit. Even if you’ve been hiding under a rock for a year, surely you know the legend of Jesus from sources even outside The Big Book. There were tales of woe a year ago, when the baby Bomber floundered in his first taste of Triple-A, but he rose again in June and pulverized pitchers for the rest of the year.

The scripture begins anew this year, and Montero is busy writing a new introduction. Instead of a second opening month of failure to launch, the 21-year-old wunderkind is making consistent contact and rapping out a whole lot of hits. Despite having only a single homer to his credit, and no walks, Montero is cruising along to the tune of .407/.400/.525 and has only whiffed nine times in 59 plate appearances. Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein says Montero was a very aggressive swinger in the spring. I expect that Montero will show more patience if the hits stop falling in, but Montero wasn’t the most patient swinger in the first place; his 46 walks in 123 games at Scranton last year were a career-best.

The biggest knock on Montero continues to be his defense, and it’s just not going to come. Though he hasn't allowed a passed ball, he's just 3-for-15 in nabbing base robbers (a sub-par 20 percent). Runners with even average wheels will continue to run the 90-yard dash when Montero is behind the dish, and even if he were gifted with Aroldis Chapman’s supposed 106 mph arm, if a backstop can’t get clean transfers and solid pop times, he won’t stand a chance.

On Sunday, Montero buckled behind the dish, but it wasn’t because of shoddy defense. Though he wasn’t pulling an Adrian Beltre, it took three guys to help Montero off the field, and after the game he was limping around the clubhouse. There’s no timetable for when Jesus may rise again (perhaps three days?), but it’s safe to say he’ll probably have at least a couple of games to . . . er, rest.

Kevin Russo, 2B, Triple-A Scranton

The competition for the utility infielder spot going into spring training had only two contestants: the incumbent Ramiro Peña, and whippy challenger Eduardo Nuñez. One guy who never got a mention was Russo, who didn’t play well in limited time in the majors last year, though he rusted while riding pine. The Yankees try to build as much positional flexibility with their bubble prospects as possible, and Russo has been part of that program. For the last two years, he has shuttled around the horn and played all of the outfield positions, though his best work comes at his natural position, second base. Unfortunately, Russo can’t quite cut it at short, which has taken him down a peg in the utility competition.

Russo hasn’t done much in the early going to atone for a disappointing .259/.333/.328 performance in 2010. His bat was on ice in his eight games played, as he had just three hits in 34 at-bats, with no walks and 11 strikeouts. Russo’s lumber obviously needs thawing, but after some icicles melted during a five-game hit streak (8-for-21), he slipped below the ice again and is 3-for-16 in his last five games. His biggest problem right now is his strikeouts; Russo has racked up 13 whiffs in his last 11 games. Given how little action Nuñez is seeing in the majors, and the Bombers’ strange affinity for Peña, Russo looks like the odd man out for now, which should give him time to work on cutting down on that massive strikeout rate (32.4%, a far cry from his career rate of 16.4%).

Jorge Vazquez, 1B, Triple-A Scranton

Vazquez gave pitchers whiplash in spring training by smacking a trio of homers and as many doubles to produce a .412/.444/.765 line in 34 at-bats. He wasn’t expected to contend for a roster spot, but his performance helped him gain consideration. Vazquez was cut in the final weeks of camp, but he hasn’t slowed his roll since arriving in Scranton for the 2011 campaign. The right-handed slugger has eight bombs in 19 games (78 at-bats), with two doubles thrown in for good measure. As Scranton beat writer Donnie Collins points out, Vazquez could still snap the Scranton franchise record for homers in a month (10, held by former Red Barons Wendell Magee Jr. and Gary Alexander).

After going 11-for-26 with five jacks and 11 RBI between April 11 and 17, Vazquez earned the International League Batter of the Week honors. His overall line stands at .333/.349/.667, and he snapped out of a six-game homerless streak Sunday, by far his longest drought of the year and a sure sign he was almost washed up. All kidding aside, Vazquez is a 29-year-old in his prime and should be pummelling Triple-A pitching (though doing so to this extent is insane). He has never known patience in the box—the most walks he has ever coaxed (25) came when he played in the Mexican League—and he’s a two true outcomes guy: He’ll homer or strike out. Still, if he continues to be productive, and the Yankees need a power player off the bench (think Shelley Duncan), the team could reward him with a callup. Vazquez has a more compact swing than Duncan and could have a similar impact, minus the massive forearm bashes.

Injuries, Promotions, and the Nitty-Gritty

Noesi Tries to Answer the Phone…

When Luis Ayala’s lat muscle cried foul, the Yankees dipped into their pitching depth and grabbed Hector Noesi from the Triple-A Scranton rotation. The team’s 40-man options were limited at the time: Andrew Brackman and Steve Garrison had pitched the night before, Ryan Pope and Jose Ortegano were on Triple-A disabled list, and the team wasn’t likely to recall Dellin Betances. Noesi was the default choice, but was a good one . . . if only he were kept fresh.

During his one-game tune-up at Triple-A, Noesi didn’t have the greatest line—five innings pitched, nine hits, three runs (two earned), two walks, and four strikeouts—but it was acceptable (and a BABIP fairy apparition to boot). That game came on April 9. Surely the Yankees had the Dominican throwing bullpens to keep sharp, but he never got the opportunity to pitch in a game and one wonders how the long layoff might effect him.

With Phil Hughes on the DL, the plan was to use Noesi to replace newly-minted fifth starter (and the second-best starter on staff) Bartolo Colon as the long-man in the bullpen, but after another week of no action, the team made the right choice in sending Noesi back to Triple-A. The northpaw needs to get back to pitching and regular innings, which just wasn’t going to happen in New York. Instead, the Yankees released Ortegano and have now turned to journeyman right-hander Buddy Carlyle to munch the innings that aren’t consumed by rainouts. Fair warning: balls coming out of Carlyle's hand may log some frequent flier miles en route to the outfield and stands.

Camp Pendleton Called to Duty

At 27, completely removed from the prospect radar, and returned to the Yankees after failing to stick with the Houston Astros as a Rule 5 pick this spring, Lance Pendleton was a surprising pick for a major league promotion on April 15 (replacing Phil Hughes). However, after spending more than six years buried in the minors and on the depth charts, Pendleton earned his opportunity.

In his major-league debut (which also came on the 15th), the right-hander spun three masterful innings, and even struck out the first two batters he faced, but as he demonstrated on Wednesday against Toronto, things won’t always be quite as hunky-dory when Pendleton is summoned from the pen. He’s not going to overwhelm batters with any of his offerings (his career strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2.57), and his fly-balling ways are ill-suited for Yankee Stadium, but for a team that needs length and stability, Pendleton will be fine for now.

The "B" in “Killer B” Stands for “Blister”

Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances impressed in their time with the big club during spring training and weren’t cut until very late in camp. As it turns out, that might have cost the pair of hurlers at least one start apiece; both developed blisters on their pitching hand, which general manager Brian Cashman attributed to the smaller seams on the baseballs used in the minor leagues. However, Banuelos says that it was his heater that originally created the blister.

Certainly nobody wants to see a prospect hit the disabled list, but this is about the best possible outcome the Yankees could have hoped for when their two top pitching prospects were shelved. Blisters aren’t serious injuries and don’t take long to heal, and it’s crucial that Banuelos and Betances get as many innings as possible this season.

Banuelos has already been reinstated from the DL and taken the ball twice for Trenton, going a combined 8 2/3 innings pitched, giving up seven hits, three runs (two earned), four walks, and nine strikeouts while topping out around 92. He’s running on a strict pitch limit because spending so much time in big-league camp kept him from getting stretched out properly, but the early returns have been fantastic.

As for Betances, he’s scheduled to toe the rubber tomorrow when the Thunder face off against the Richmond Flying Squirrels.

He’s ABSolutely Fine

The other injury to major prospect came when Gary Sanchez suffered an abdominal muscle strain. After serving his seven days on the DL, Sanchez was reinstated and had an o-fer in his first game back. He’s struggling in the early going, with a .213/.255/.340 line in 47 at-bats, and his pitch recognition and strike-zone discipline haven’t improved; Sanchez has 17 whiffs so far.

And Now for Something Completely Different . . .

. . . or not. In a positively stunning turn of events, Mark Prior has been placed on the seven-day disabled list in Scranton with a groin injury. But let’s try boarding the positivity train for a second: At least it’s not his shoulder or arm.