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.

Mauer Wins MVP, Teixeira Second, Jeter Third

Joe Mauer convincingly and deservedly won the AL MVP this afternoon. He was named first on 27 of 28 ballots, and second on the other. He finished with 387 points.

The remaining first place vote went to Detroit's Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera received only one second place vote, but was as low as tenth on three ballots and finished fourth overall. Coincidentally, the only AL Cy Young first place vote that didn't go to Zack Greinke or Felix Hernandez went to Detroit's Justin Verlander, who didn't finish higher than third on any other ballot. Looks like someone in Detroit should have his voting privileges revoked.

[UPDATE 4:30 PM: The Cabrera vote did not come from a Detroit writer, but from a member of the Seattle chapter, Keizo Konishi of Kyodo News. Whouda thunk it?]

For the Yankees, Mark Teixeira finished second, 162 points behind Mauer with 225. His 15 second place votes were the most cast, and his six third place votes were the second highest total. He was named on all 28 ballots and finished no lower than eighth on any of them.

Derek Jeter finished third, with 193 points. His nine second place votes were the second most cast, and his five third place votes tied for third most cast. He too was named on all 28 ballots, finishing 6th or higher on all but three of them.

Alex Rodriguez finished tied for tenth with 31 points. He was named on seven ballots, with highest vote being a single one for third place.

Mariano Rivera was named on four ballots, with two sixth place votes, and one each for seventh and eighth, finishing with 17 points. Robinson Cano received three seventh place votes, CC Sabathia a single seventh place vote. No other Yankees were named on any ballots.

Blog favorite Kevin Youkilis finished sixth. He was named on 25 ballots and received two votes for second place. Full results are available here.

For all the grunting and groaning all year about who should and who would win the post-season awards, let's give the voters a bit of credit. They've picked the right guy for the AL and NL Cy Young Awards, and now the AL MVP as well. A win for Albert Pujols in the NL MVP vote tomorrow would make it a clean sweep for the big four awards.

Looking Back On The Arizona Fall League

The Arizona Fall League finished up Saturday with the Peoria Javelinas taking the Championship Game. All the Yankee prospects played for the Surprise Rafters, who finished two games behind Peoria in the West Division.

Seven Yankee farmhands took part in the league:
Colin Curtis, OF: .397/.472/.731, 19 R, 11 BB, 7 doubles, 2 triples, 5 HR
Brandon Laird, 3B: .333/.406/.633, 18 R, 10 BB, 9 doubles, 6 HR
Austin Romine, C: .400/.438/.400, 2 R, 1 BB

Ian Kennedy, SP: 4.25 ERA, 28 K, 5 BB, 1 HR, in 29.2 IP over 7 starts
Zach Kroenke, RP: 5.28 ERA, 14 K, 4 BB, 2 HR in 15.1 IP over 11 appearances
Mike Dunn: RP: 4.35 ERA, 20 K, 10 BB, 2 HR in 10.1 IP over 10 appearances
Grant Duff, RP: 2.89 ERA, 4 K, 5 BB, 0 HR, in 9.1 IP over 10 appearances

Traditionally, the AZFL has been a very offense-friendly league. Curtis led the league in SLG and OPS, finished second in AVG and OBP, and tied for fourth in HR and TB. Laird finished sixth in SLG, seventh in OPS, second in HR, tied for third in 2B, and tied for fourth in TB. Romine played in just four games due to a finger injury, but it isn't considered to be serious.

For the pitchers, Kennedy led the league in IP and tied for the lead league in starts. His 28 Ks trailed the league leader by one and he had the fifth best WHIP amongst starters. With 59.2 Major League innings to his credit, Kennedy was one of the most seasoned players in the league and it likely contributed to his sterling performance. Still, Kennedy's performance in such an offense-friendly league is an encouraging sign as he continues his comeback from aneurysm surgery in May. The mere fact that he got another 30 innings in after missing nearly the entire season is great for him.

Dunn finished tied for seventh in Ks, despite throwing at least eight fewer innings than all those ahead of him. Of course, as we addressed in September, the problem with Dunn is the number of free passes he issues. He had the eleventh most walks in the league despite working exclusively in relief. In his defense though, a handful of pitchers ahead of him on the BB leader board had walk rates similar to or worse than Dunn's 8.71 per 9.

We've seen both Kennedy and Dunn before, and at least Kennedy - if not both - figure to see time in the Bronx in 2010. Romine is amongst the Yankees' top three or five prospects, won the Florida State League Player of the Year in 2009, and figures to be about two years away. Laird is the younger brother of Tigers' catcher Gerald Laird. He's just completed his third pro season with high A Tampa, and may be moved to first base.

Curtis, Duff, and Kroenke are all Rule 5 eligible and none were protected when the Yankees made their roster moves Friday. Despite his strong showing, Curtis is considered a non-propsect, who like Kennedy, may have been so successful because of his level of experience relative to the league. Duff throws gas, but walks a lot of batters, didn't make it above A ball until this year, and will 27 by year's end. Kroenke has promise and was taken and returned in the Rule 5 last year, but the Yankees already have four other lefty relievers on their 40 man roster.

I don't have a particular problem with leaving any of them exposed, but I don't see much difference between them and the lower tier players that were added to the 40 man. Still, I do find it odd that the Yankees thought enough of them to use three of their seven Fall League allotments on them, but not enough to protect any of them.

Forty Spots, Little Freedom

Good morning Fackers. So how was your weekend? Mine - I took Friday off and shot up to enemy territory - Boston. Got to hang out with some old friends, ate some kickass BBQ at Redbones, got to bust on a good friend who's a big Phillie fan, and watched another friend drink a fifth of Captain Morgan 100 proof straight before 11 AM and still make it through the game on two feet. Very impressive. Less impressive was BC's performance - five picks, first home loss of the season, and officially eliminated from the ACC Atlantic race. Also unimpressive was the scene at our tailgate - pretty weak, it ain't like it used to be. But hey, at least we have a short workweek, capped by my absolute favorite holiday. Now, back to baseball.

As we mentioned last week, midnight Friday morning was the deadline for clubs to finalize their 40 man rosters in preparation for next month's Rule 5 Draft. It took several hours for the news to get out, but the Yankees' moves were announced late in the day Friday.

As expected, top prospect Austin Jackson, second baseman/utility man Kevin Russo, and starting pitcher Ivan Nova were all added. Surprisingly though, the Yankees also chose to protect an additional four players: middle infielders Reegie Corona and Eduardo Nunez, and pitchers Romulo Sanchez and Hector Noesi.

With Andy Pettitte finally filing for free agency and Shelley Duncan being outrighted to Scranton, Friday's moves leave the Yankees with 39 spots spoken for on their 40 man roster. Technically, this gives them the freedom to select one player in the Rule 5 Draft - but I wouldn't count on that happening. Firstly, the Yankees are not constructed in a manner that would make it easy for them to fulfill the Rule 5 requirement of keeping a selected player on their Major League roster for all of 2010. Secondly, the Yankees are going to need that one roster spot and likely a few others to add Major League free agents this off-season - which makes the 40 man decisions all the more curious.

The Yankees currently have seven players from the 2009 roster who are free agents: Pettitte, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Jose Molina, Jerry Hairston Jr, Eric Hinske, and Xavier Nady. While Nady was a non-factor all year as an injured player, and back-ups like Molina, Hairston, and Hinske can be replaced by internal options (Francisco Cervelli, Ramiro Pena, Russo, Juan Miranda), Pettitte, Damon, and Matsui all figure to be either resigned or replaced by a comparable Major League talent. And since any free agent inked to a Major League contract needs to be added to the 40 man roster, the Yankees are going to need more than just that one open roster spot.

Thus, it's curious as to why the Yankees chose to protect so many players. I'm sure there was sound reasoning behind it, but it isn't readily evident to me. At the most basic level, the Yankees protected these seven players because they wanted to ensure they would retain their services. But because of the nature of the Rule 5 draft, sometimes the best way to retain a Rule 5 eligible player is to expose him - particularly in the cases of "fringey" players like Corona, Nunez, Sanchez, and Noesi. Last year for example, the Yankees lost four players in the Rule 5 Draft: Corona, Nova, Zach Kroenke, and Jason Jones. All four were returned to the Yankees as they were unable to win Major League jobs with the clubs that selected them.

So in choosing to protect protect the likes of Corona, Nunez, Sanchez, and Noesi the Yankees are saying not only that they want to retain these players, but also that they're reasonably confident that the players could win Major League jobs elsewhere. I find this surprising, as Noesi has pitched just 41.1 innings in High A, Nunez has spent just a single season as high as AA, and Corona struggled terribly in a 44 game cameo at AAA last year, earning a demotion back to AA. The Yankees might have had a good chance to retain all four by leaving them exposed while keeping some flexibility with the 40 man roster.

Also curious is that in adding Corona and Nunez, the Yankees now have a glut of utility infielders on their 40 man. Incumbent Ramiro Pena and newly added Kevin Russo give the Yanks a good glove/good stick pairing, adding Corona and Nunez respectively seems to only duplicate that pairing while giving the Yankees twice as many utility infielders on their 40 man as they could rightly need.

The Yankees have a few options as to how to create the necessary spots for free agent signings. Chien-Ming Wang will likely be non-tendered to avoid arbitration, but if he's resigned to a Major League deal he'll need to be re-added. Brian Bruney and Sergio Mitre are non-tender candidates, but the early buzz is that both will be back. Relievers Jonathan Albaladejo and Edwar Ramirez, perpetually injured Christian Garcia, and first baseman Juan Miranda could all be removed from the roster, but all ostensibly represent better options than the players just added.

A more likely scenario could be the Yankees clearing room via trade. Last year's Nick Swisher trade opened a spot by moving Wilson Betemit and Jeff Marquez from the 40 man. Albaladejo and Ramirez may be of some value to a lesser club, and Miranda, blocked by Mark Teixeira, may be of some worth on the market as well. I think the Yanks may want to wait to see how the Damon and Matsui situations play out before moving potential DH candidate Miranda though. A rumored Roy Halladay trade, however unlikely, would clearly remove several players from the 40 man.

Finally, the 40 man roster situation might preclude the Yankees from jumping into the free agent pool right away. The market likely won't materialize until after December 1st anyway, but the non-tender deadline isn't until December 12th. Barring a trade, it might not be until then that the Yankees have the 40 man flexibility to add more than a single free agent. This will be an interesting situation to monitor as the Hot Stove heats up over the next several weeks. The Yankees need a little more freedom with their forty man.