With time and options running out for Dellin Betances to stick at the big league level for the Yankees, the team decided that his best chance at staying in the Bronx might be a move to the bullpen. Prior to that move, the 25-year-old had struggled mightily as a starter. He was demoted from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to Double-A Trenton last season to hopefully stumble upon the success he had at the level earlier in his career. That didn't happen. It seemed unlikely that a move from starter to reliever would have any real impact on the disappointing results.
Betances started six games for the RailRiders in 2013, pitching to a 6.00 ERA in 24.0 innings. There wasn't a clearly defined issue with Betances beyond questionable mechanics that would suggest a move to the bullpen would cure what ailed him. The first inning had been as much of a problem as the second or fifth, if he got there. The Yankees gambled on the idea that converting him to a reliever could work to hopefully salvage his status as a prospect without options for next season and their gamble has paid off handsomely so far.
Since his move to the RailRiders' bullpen, Betances has pitched to a 1.48 ERA in 48.2 innings. Opponents have been limited to a .169 batting average against Betances, who has managed to strike out 63 batters since his move to the bullpen. Betances had a 1.47 ERA in June and didn't give up a single earned run in 16.1 July innings. His walks issued are still a little on the high side with 21 free passes being issued since he was removed from the rotation. Betances had walked 16 batters in half as many innings before being converted to a reliever.
The Yankees' faith that Betances might be able to figure out his issues and salvage his career with a move to the bullpen has been rewarded with great success so far. The relievers at the major league level, with the exception of Joba Chamberlain, have been a true strength of an otherwise unimpressive team in 2013, but why not see if Betances' success can translate to the next level in what may very well end up being a lost season? Sure, there is little doubt that Betances would join the team when rosters expand next month and there's also the chance that he struggles and mentally falls apart to the point that it erases all the progress he's made. There's also the chance that the Yankees see what he can do to help them determine which bullpen pieces should be retained for next year.
If 2013 is going to be a season that ends up being a footnote to all the success of Yankees teams in recent memory, why not see what pieces that are ready for the next step can do when it hardly counts? The chances of this team making the playoffs seems to dwindle every day, so the inevitable growing pains might hurt a little bit less if they come with an eye toward the future. It's strange to write about the Yankees this way, but that's the reality of a team that doesn't seem to have a necessary hot streak in them as the season winds down.
Nathan Mikolas was drafted out of high school by the Yankees in the third round of the 2012 MLB Draft. The left-handed hitting outfielder is currently hitting .242/.351/.379 in his second season in the Gulf Coast League. Mikolas was nice enough to answer a few questions for me about his career.
What is the thing you do best on the field?
The thing I do best on the field would probably be my understanding of the game and how hard I play. I try to be a good competitor, teammate, and always give 110%. I'm a blue collar player and my effort is all that I can control.
What was the biggest challenge in making the transition from high school to pro ball?
There were many adjustments transitioning from high school to pro ball. First, learning a new routine that worked for me, was challenging. There were also physical challenges, in that there are long hours spent in practice and playing. Other physical challenges were proper offensive and defensive skills, which I am still continuing to learn. The emotional challenges were learning how to accept failure which, in baseball, is a given.
What lessons did you learn in 2012 that you have applied in 2013?
The best lessons I've learned is that in baseball you need to do two things: have confidence and believe in yourself. If you want to be successful in this game you can't believe in yourself and not have confidence, or vise versa. They both go hand and hand.
What are you still looking to improve on?
I'm still working on improving all parts of my game. I'm here to learn and take everything in in order to improve. I'm working on becoming a better teammate, outfielder, baserunner, and having a repeatable swing to become more consistent. There's always something to work on in baseball. Whenever you feel like you start to figure this game out, the game has a way of humbling you, and bringing you back to the grind. I try my best everyday to get everything out of myself so I can become the best player I can be.
What do you focus on when you work on your defense?
I have really been focusing on getting to the ball quickly on ground balls and then getting rid of it quickly to the cut off. Professional baseball is played much faster than high school baseball and the base runners now are always trying to take that extra base. So the quicker I can get the ball in, the more it will prevent players from taking extra bases.
Do you have a specific goal in 2013 and how do you determine if you've reached that goal?
Obviously I have my own personal goals I made for myself before the season, but my main goals are to hit the ball hard and to help the team win. I want to wake up everyday and be ready to compete. I am in control of how I think and how I prepare myself for the day. Everyday is a clean slate and I'm trying to forget about the day before even if I was 4-4 or 0-4 because that pitcher doesn't care what I did the day before.
JR Murphy is on the verge of finally making it to the big leagues. However, with Chris Stewart and Austin Romine already in the fold, how often will we get to see Murphy behind the plate?
With roster expansion comes exciting players emerging from the farm, at least in most cases. That is true for the Yankees, as they'll be calling up catching prospect JR Murphy from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre today. The righty backstop has done very well in both Double-A and Triple-A this season, hitting a combined .269/.347/.426 across 108 games and 468 plate appearances. That type of offense behind the plate is something the Yankees could sorely use.
Even with Austin Romine's hot surge behind the dish the past month, Yankee catchers are sporting just a .228/.299/.324 line and a wRC+ of 71 on the season, good for 26th in the majors, ahead of just the Mariners, Blue Jays, Marlins, and White Sox. One would think that calling up JR Murphy, who posted wRC+'s of 117 and 116 in Double-A and Triple-A this season, respectively, should have been a move that was made a while ago. Adding someone like Murphy to the roster would be a welcomed addition; he can step right in, become the everyday catcher, and finally fix the black hole behind the plate, but I'm not so sure that will happen.
The Yankees love Chris Stewart. That is no secret. They love his so-called defensive "skills" behind the plate, they love his "veteran leadership," (at least that's what noted Chris Stewart defender John Flaherty said during yesterday's telecast), and they love how he handles the pitching staff behind the plate. Even with Romine hitting .353/.433/.529 in his last 61 plate appearances (small sample size, I know), Stewart continues to get the majority of the at-bats behind the plate. Why Romine hasn't taken the reins from Stewart is beyond me. Maybe they don't like Romine's defense. Maybe they really, really love Stewart's defense, despite his offensive shortcomings. Or maybe they're afraid Romine will re-injure his back, an injury that cost him nearly all of 2012, if they give him regular at-bats. We may never know. Because of this, it's hard seeing Murphy getting regular at-bats, or even a backup's worth of at-bats, when he gets promoted.
I don't know if JR Murphy is ready to step in full-time just yet. Offensively, he appears to be ready. There's no doubt about that. Defensively, at least in terms of throwing out base runners (37% success-rate), he might be ready, but we all know throwing out base runners doesn't tell the entire story. He also has 13 passed balls in 105 games (0.12 passed balls per game). Chris Stewart, who has been ridiculed for his eight passed balls in 90 games (0.088 passed balls per game), has also committed just two errors, while Murphy has committed 10. Of course these metrics may not give us the clearest of pictures in terms of catcher defense, but, on the surface, it wouldn't be a surprise if Murphy were treated just like a typical third catcher the rest of the way.