These are perilous times in Yankeeland, friends. Injuries have the lineup disintegrating into one giant platoon (or more accurately, TWO giant platoons), the rotation is still operating at just 60% of its ideal capacity, the bullpen is essentially Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and pray for 7 strong from the starter and no extra innings, and there’s still over a month of regular season baseball to play. The division lead that felt safe and sound 2 months ago (opening myself up to some ridicule there) has shrunk to a competitive level and the Yankees are limping to the finish line.
There isn’t much that can be done to address the holes in the lineup or rotation. They will take care of themselves as guys come back from injury or continue to operate as they are if it turns out those guys can’t make it back. But the bullpen can be helped, and when rosters expand in a few days the Yankees will have a chance to really help themselves if they call up a certain pitcher. And I’m not talking about Justin Thomas or Pedro Feliciano here, I’m talking Mark Montgomery. More than any other roster expansion addition, he can offer exactly what the bullpen needs right now.
With Boone Logan overworked, Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley each being platoon pitchers, Joba Chamberlain experiencing the growing pains associated with a return from TJS, and Derek Lowe being Derek Lowe, the Yankees ‘pen finds itself without one viable middle relief option. The mix-and-match game doesn’t work nearly as effectively as Joe would like it to when he has to start implementing it in the 5th or 6th inning of games. With the problems in the rotation, that’s been the case more often than not recently and it’s causing D-Rob and Soriano to start teetering on the edge of being overworked. Joe needs another guy who can come in and effectively work through an inning, against right and left-handed hitters, and that’s exactly what Montgomery can offer.
Montgomery has yet to pitch an inning above Double-A in his career, but he’s already on the fast track to the show and his results thus far indicate that he’s the type of pitcher who could make the jump successfully. Between Tampa and Trenton, Montgomery has allowed just 11 ER in 61.1 innings pitched over 44 appearances this season, with 95 strikeouts to just 22 walks. Since making the move from High-A to Double-A, Montgomery has seen his K rate (13.61 to 14.57 K/9) go up, and his BB rate (3.57 to 2.57 BB/9) and FIP (1.59 to 1.44) go down.
Those improvement have come in almost 20 fewer IP than what he threw in Tampa, but even in that small of a sample it’s pretty obvious that Montgomery is having no trouble adjusting to life in Double-A and should probably already be in Triple-A. He can command his fastball, his slider has been rated as a devastating Major League-quality pitch by nearly every scout who’s written about him, and he comes with the added benefit of being more than just a 1-batter or even 1-inning reliever. 22 of his 44 appearances this season have been for more than 1 inning, 16 of those 22 have been for 2, and as Matt Keegan pointed out, Montgomery has been dynamite against both righties and lefties.
It would be a bit of a drastic move, but not unprecedented, especially not in the Yankee organization. They called up D-Rob after only a combined 53.2 IP in Trenton and SWB in 2008 and his K and BB rates in Double-A weren’t as good as Montgomery’s are this season. And there’s this guy you might have heard of named Joba Chamberlain who got his ticket to the show in 2007 after less than 85 career MiL innings, just 8.0 IP at Triple-A, and only 3 professional relief appearances. Montgomery’s fastball-slider combo might not be as electric as ’07 Joba’s, but his numbers stack up well against those other 2 guys and he already has plenty of experience as a reliever pitching in big situations. That exclusive relief experience also eliminates any risk of the team tampering with his future role like they did with Joba.
The relief corps is the one crack that can be easily fixed when rosters expand, or at least the one crack that the Yankees can most easily attempt to fix. If they thought Cory Wade was the answer, they would have called him back up by now, so clearly he’s not. There isn’t much else to be excited about in the Triple-A pitching staff, at least not in a way that meets the bullpen’s needs, so why not call up Montgomery? It’ll take a roster move to clear a spot for him on the 40-man, but that can be as easy as DFA’ing Thomas or Wade. They’re only going to be used in garbage time anyway if they do get called up in September. Just dump one of them to make room for Montgomery and let Eppley and Lowe slide down into the garbage time roles for which they’re better suited. The future is always now for the Yankees, and calling Montgomery up in September could be a move that helps both the now and the future.
Melky Mesa was a late addition, which explains his locker. It’s made of wood, positioned in a small chunk of open space in the middle of the Fenway Park visitors clubhouse, where all the other lockers are made of green metal lining the edges of the room. Mesa’s spot either stands out or doesn’t quite fit, depending on your point of view.
Of course, Mesa should be used to that by now.
Depending on your point of view, he’s either a uniquely gifted athlete — easy power, good speed, all the tools for center field — or an overwhelming disappointment who strikes out far too often to put that athleticism to use.
“Working, I’ve been working,” Mesa said, explaining how he got into that unusual spot in the Yankees clubhouse. “Working on everything. I never give up. I’ve got to keep working, and you can see the result.”
When he was a 22-year-old in Low-A, Mesa hit 20 home runs and stole 18 bases, but he also struck out 168 times in 133 games. This year, as a 25-year-old who finally reached Triple-A, he hit 23 homers, stole 22 bases and cut the strikeouts to 118 in 121 games. He homered just nine times last year, so his power must have improved this season, right?
“It’s the same,” he said. “Maybe more contact and then the ball will go out.”
Despite the Yankees trouble against lefties, it’s hard to envision Mesa getting regular playing time during this call-up. He seems more likely to pinch run a little bit and play some defense, but his .524 Triple-A slugging percentage suggests he can give the team some real outfield depth next season. There’s still an all-or-nothing quality to him — you’re either going to like his potential or feel he’s
“I just feel good because I just tried to put everything together to have a good season, and it’s working,” Mesa said. “I just feel proud. … I’m here. Part of the team. If they need me for something, just be here all the time. Be ready.
I’ve seen Yankees catching prospect Gary Sanchez as much as any other prospect this season and while I have a good feel for what he can do, I’m still not certain what he’ll become. I saw him in spring training, at Lo-A Charleston, at Hi-A Tampa and again recently in instructs; he’s shown the same tools each time but has also been making some adjustments, mostly at the plate.
Sanchez has a number of things that command your attention: a $3 million bonus at age 16, present 70 raw power to all fields and a 65 arm. He’s still just 19 and these kinds of tools and accomplishments as a teenager put him in rarified territory. The list of players who have that resume is littered with stars and even Hall of Famers. Therein lies the problem: Sanchez has always been the best player on every field he’s been on until this season, so his tools alone could dominate and he hasn’t had to make adjustments.
Sanchez has a few issues to address with his swing and after seeing him make improvements during instructs, a Yankees executive confirmed they have been proactively addressing this with the player. Sanchez’s swing is suited for power, so he’s understandably aggressive in a number of ways but his late hand pump and long stride both weren’t creating more power and were harming his ability to hit certain kinds of pitches. He also appeared to close his stance some in instructs, letting him stay on the ball longer and control his bat speed and aggression as he has to travel farther to get off-balance. The Yankees exec put these tweaks under the umbrella of “teaching Gary that sometimes extra effort doesn’t create extra power.”
Looking at Sanchez’s hit tool in the three categories I’ve mentioned in previous articles shows why I’m a little unsure how to project him. Sanchez clearly has plus or even plus-plus tools: plus bat speed and strength along with a direct path, high finish, great eye/hand coordination and an ability to hit the ball where it’s pitched. As normally follows with great tools, Sanchez has shown good bat control but I think the mechanical issues mentioned above affect his ability in this area and his plate discipline.
When protecting the plate with two strikes, Sanchez is forced to swing at anything close and Hi-A pitchers would throw fastballs in and above his hands. His late hand pump didn’t allow to him get around on these pitches. Sanchez could lay off this pitch earlier in the count, but two strike counts will expose any weaknesses, particularly against pitchers with advanced feel.
Two-strike counts also showed that Sanchez’s approach can improve. While his long stride can make him susceptible to off-speed pitches and his aggressive approach had him chasing pitches out of the zone early in the count, he could square up almost any pitch near the zone with two strikes. He also would be much more selective, proving that the looser concept of the zone earlier in the count was a choice, not deficient pitch recognition. This is where tools can help plate discipline: quieting his swing would make it even easier for Sanchez to lay off bad pitches early in the count and he can make solid contact even when off-balance.
His prodigious power will often show up in games, but similarly with his plate discipline, Sanchez’s mechanics and approach can affect how frequently we see it. He made strides in converting raw power to game power while with Tampa, including many doubles to the gap in right-center, incredibly rare to see from 19-year-old facing pitchers in their mid-20’s. In instructs, I saw him connect with a two-strike fastball above his hands, yanking it out to left field. Only players with great tools are capable of this, but it’s made much easier with Sanchez’s noticeably quieter hands pre-pitch.
All that detail goes to show that Sanchez’s future with the hit and power tools will come down to how well he can simplify his swing and approach at the plate. His improvements in-season and in instructs show he has the ability to make adjustments, something we hadn’t seen before the season. His age allows me to give him the benefit of the doubt and while his hitting ceiling is elite—something like .285 and 30 homers—I see a realistic outcome a notch lower at .270 and 25 bombs.
The real question is if Sanchez can produce that hitting line while playing catcher, as that would make him a potential MVP candidate. While he has a better chance to stick behind the plate than the last Yankees’ slugging catcher prospect Jesus Montero, I think Sanchez’s future is at 1B or DH. While Sanchez’s arm would play at any position, he’s a 20 runner without much lateral quickness, so if he can’t catch, 1B/DH is the only other option. His hands are fringy; they’re acceptable given the other tools he has but he’ll still box some pitches and he has some trouble handling hard stuff to his glove side. The issue is his feet, which limit his agility and mute his pop times as his lower half drags behind (best in-game pop time was 1.94, often above 2.00).
There are ways to improve flexibility, quickness and catching skills to where Sanchez could offer a fringy defensive package, but he’s got a long way to go and I’m not sure he has enough quick-twitch in his lower half to get there. At times, Sanchez’s body language indicates he isn’t too interested in catching but the Yankees would be foolish to move him until they’re certain the 19 year old can’t improve any further behind the dish.
While there’s a non-zero chance Sanchez turns into an everyday All-Star catcher, it’s more likely he’s an above-average everyday 1B that can also serve as a backup or third catcher. And as far as realistic prospect outcomes go, that’s still among the best in the minors.
Dante Bichette stormed onto the scene last season after surprising many by going in the sandwich round and tearing the GCL apart. He struggled to make as much contact this year in Low-A and his power evaporated. What I saw in a short look in the regular season is still what’s causing problems for Bichette currently.
Bichette has an active swing with a lot of early hand movement; his hands end up in a good position but all that activity makes it much easier for him to drift forward, fly open and generally be off-balance. This only needs to happen occasionally to get in a player’s head and cause him to overcompensate. I’ve seen Bichette locked in and while his swing is higher maintenance than many and his tools aren’t overwhelming, his pure hitting ability lets it all work. When he starts pressing, expanding his zone and getting pull-conscious, his swing breaks down and that’s what I saw too much of in instructs.
Bichette is a below-average runner that works hard on his defense at third base but he still looks a little too stiff to stick long-term. His instincts are fine, his footwork is improving and his arm is solid-average but his defensive ceiling is below-average. Bichette will likely move to right field and he has above-average raw power that will profile in right, giving him solid regular upside if he can get back to what works for him at the plate.
Dellin Betanceshas always struggled with command, mainly due to the trouble he has consistently syncing his giant, 6’8, 260 pound frame. He dropped in on instructs for a quick tune-up before heading to the Arizona Fall League and was what I expected from a guy that walked almost a batter per inning in 74.2 innings in AAA this season.
His delivery is stiff and slightly awkward as he over-strides and lands on his heel, sacrificing balance and body control while his arm almost stops at the bottom of his arm swing, causes it to drag behind his body. Betances’ frame presents a lot of problems that can’t all be solved by a new delivery and he’s getting better extension than in the past, but I can’t see a scenario where he’s a useful big league starter.
The good news is even in a short stint coming off of a long layoff, Betances showed the stuff that will allow him to pitch in late relief if he can get develop acceptable command. He worked at 91-93 and hit 94 mph but had trouble locating, frequently elevating his heater. Betances also threw a slider at 82-84 mph with three-quarter tilt that had some bite and depth at times. It was usually an average pitch but showed the elements to be above-average. I’ll assume his stuff is crisper in Arizona, but the priority here is to find a consistently repeatable, comfortable delivery to allow Betances’ stuff to play.
Yankees seventeen-year-old third baseman Miguel Andujar was one of the more interesting young players I saw in instructs. He’s raw and toolsy as his age suggests, with a toolset that profiles as an everyday third baseman. Andujar has solid hands, an above-average arm and solid-average speed. He’s got the quickness to be above-average defensively, though he has expected troubles with footwork, angles and playing under control at times.
Andujar’s above-average bat speed and looseness to his swing set him apart, but he still has a lot of adjustments to make. Power isn’t a big part of his game presently, but he has natural gap power with some projection remaining in his 6’0, 190 pound frame. Andujar shows advanced bat control for his age, but can fall in love with this ability and can drastically expand his zone for stretches. He also can get pull-happy and have a soft front side pull his mechanics apart, but that’s common with talented young hitters that haven’t faced much advanced pitching.
In games, Andujar barrels up more than his fair share of pitches even against pitchers many years older. His upside is limited by his well below-average plate discipline and ordinary power for a corner, but Andujar is so young and talented that a lot could still happen. The Yankees know they have a real prospect here and have a history of aggressively promoting players they think have the talent to survive, so there’s a chance he could start his age 18 season at Low-A.
I saw the Bombers recent 2nd round pick Peter O’Brien a few times this spring playing for the Hurricanes but, like Tyler Austin, he was fresh off a lengthy DL stint for my look, so instructs were a good opportunity to revise a tentative evaluation. O’Brien has a hand fracture, so he wasn’t catching most of the college season but he was behind the plate in instructs and didn’t look very comfortable. While he appeared to be healthy, O’Brien was slow to react to pitches in the dirt and lacked flexibility. This was my first opportunity to see him catch, but most scouts I talked to before the draft felt he was a first baseman despite his plus arm, due to his below-average hands, slow feet and 6’4, 225 pound frame. O’Brien is a 20 runner destined to find a home as a 1B/DH.
Those negatives aside, O’Brien went in the second round because of his bat. His strength, leverage and bat speed combine for big plus power. It looks like the Yankees have lowered his hands a bit to give him a shorter path to the ball and a better chance to hit for average. O’Brien has a surprisingly loose swing for a guy with his size and strength, and his feel to hit gives him a better chance to hit for power and average than most guys his size.