Monday, November 23, 2009

Minor League Monday: Kevin Russo

Two weeks ago, we filed our final Jackson Report for 2009, taking a look at top Yankee prospect Austin Jackson. In it, I mentioned that we hoped to fill the void of the off-season by taking a look at some of the prospects in the Yankee system. To that end, we'll be running a Minor League Monday series, taking a look at a Yankees' prospect each week.

This week it'll be infielder Kevin Russo, who was just added to the Yankees 40 man roster. Russo isn't quite the highly touted prospect that Jackson is or some of our future subjects are, but he is close to Big League ready and likely will see time in the Bronx in 2010.

A native of Suffolk County, Russo is 25 and was drafted out of Baylor in the 20th round of the 2006 draft. He made his professional debut in the Gulf Coast Rookie League that summer, spent 2007 with High-A Tampa, 2008 with AA Trenton, and 2009 with AAA Scranton. He's increased his batting average in each of his four seasons, peaking at .326 this year thanks to a double digit jump in his line drive percentage. He's a .300 hitter for his minor league career, has shown good plate discipline with a .360 career OBP, including a .397 mark in AAA last year. He's also a good contact hitter, with a career K% of 15.7% and no more than 66 strikeouts in any one season.

Defensively, Russo is primarily a second baseman. He's seen a decent amount of time at third base, has made a half dozen appearances at both shortstop and left field, and has made one apperance in right field. Clearly, Russo will not usurp Robinson Cano as the Yankee second baseman, so his role be that of a utility infielder. As such, he'll have to show an ability to play a passable shortstop if he's going to be of any value. He never appeared at the position until this past season, and has both the least experience at short and the poorest defensive reputation of any of the four utility infielders currently on the Yankees 40 man roster. He does, however, have easily the best offensive skill set of the four. If he can continue to be servicable in the outfield that would only add to his value. As I stated way back in July, I'd like to see Russo get the Ramiro Pena treatment and see some time in center field as well.

Russo greatest skill is his ability to get on base. However, as we saw with Brett Gardner, minor leaguers with good on base skills but poor power often struggle at the Big League level. The pitching is of a higher quality, the control is generally better, and the pitchers are unafraid to challenge such hitters when they know there's little chance of a ball leaving the yard. It took Gardner some time to make the adjustment and we may see something similar with Russo when he gets his chance.

2009 was easily Russo's best season as a pro, and it came in his first year at AAA. He was named a post-season All-Star by the International League and a AAA All-Star by Topps. With the exception of a hiccup in 2007, he's shown steady improvement throughout his minor league career, and has done so while advancing a level each year. His performance at Scranton this past season translates to a Major League equivalent of .280/.344/.363. Two of those numbers will play at the Major League level; the third is pretty abysmal and would have in the bottom twenty amongst American Leaguers with at least 350 PA in 2009.

CHONE has him at .272/.326/.382, The Replacement Level Yankees Weblog has him at .249/.311/.338 in their first CAIRO projections, and ZiPS has him at .260/.312/.351 with an OPS+ of 78, while providing average defense at second and third. For what it's worth, CAIRO was the most accurate projection system in 2009 - and unfortunately for Russo that's the one that takes the most pessimistic outlook on him. As far as I know, PECOTA and Marcel are unreleased at present, and I think Marcel just puts rookies at league average anyway.

Depending upon how the off-season shakes out, Russo has a small chance to make the club as a bench player out of Spring Training. More likely though, he'll start the season at Scranton. I'd expect the organization to try to get him some time at shortstop and in the outfield to round out his value as a utility player and perhaps implement a program or approach to attempt to increase his power a bit. Either way, I expect to see Kevin Russo in pinstripes at some point in 2010.

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