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With the hype machine firing on all cylinders, New York Yankees phenom Manny Banuelos took the mound on Monday night in a nationally televised game against the big league lineup of the Boston Red Sox just one day after his 20th birthday. While he struggled with his command at times, he was otherwise worthy of the praise he's been receiving, as he showcased well above-average velocity and an outstanding changeup that generated silly-looking swings from two of Boston's best hitters: Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. One scout watching the game said he was tempted to put an 80, the highest possible score, on the pitch.
With the Yankees' rotation in more than a bit of flux, the calls from fans for Banuelos to be part of the immediate solution continue. He'll make at least one more appearance with the big league team, likely on Saturday, but he's going to the minors after that, and it's the right decision for the Yankees long term.
Twenty-year-old starting pitchers in the big leagues are rarities, but having a player like Banuelos, who has made just three starts above Class-A ball, in the big leagues would be nearly unprecedented. Seventeen pitchers this decade have come up as starters prior to their 21st birthday, and the one constant among them was a full workload the previous year, as they averaged more than 140 innings in the year prior to their debuts, with all 17 pitching at least 100 frames. In addition, only three of the 17 -- CC Sabathia (2001), Jeremy Bonderman (2003) and Rick Porcello (2009) -- opened their debut year in the majors, with the remaining 14 averaging more than 100 minor league innings in the season they first got the call.
Make no mistake about it, Banuelos could at the very least hold his own in the big leagues right now, but the real question revolves around how long he could do it.
He's never thrown more than 109 innings in any one season, and last year he threw just 65 after an emergency appendectomy delayed his season until June. With many teams believing in no more than a 50 percent increase in workload as a basic rule, that would line Banuelos up for 100 frames this year, and even a plan with fewer limitations would likely keep him under 125.
"He has everything he needs to succeed in the big leagues except the ability to handle the workload," said one AL executive. "They need to stretch him out, get him 100 safe innings, and medical people will tell you that if you jump his innings in a big league environment, that would be an even bigger risk."
That means that even if the Yankees opened the year with Banuelos in their rotation, they'd almost certainly be unable to finish it with him, or have him available for the all-important postseason. One NL executive saw breaking camp with Banuelos as a potential public relations problem, no matter how he pitched.
"If he fails, then they're losing games and they've rushed him, and it could hurt him long term in terms of confidence," the NL exec explained. "But what if he starts off gangbusters and he's 9-2 in July, has pitched 100 innings, and they're battling Boston in the American League East. Are they going to shut him down? How do you think that will go over with the fans and the New York press? I bet there was a part of [the] Yankees' brass that was hoping he got tagged on Monday so they could just treat him like a normal prospect."
The AL executive mostly agreed, but also admitted there are special circumstances in the Big Apple.
"Every other team in baseball would say we're going to build this guy up in the minors, but the Yankees always need to win now and he's their best guy," he explained. "They are not a team that ever likes to go with placeholders."
Opening the year at Double-A Trenton is best for both the Yankees and Banuelos. His innings and pitch counts can become the core of his development, without any concern for the score or the standings, and he can still work on harnessing what is already a good arsenal but is still unquestionably a work in progress. While Joe Girardi continues to not rule anything out, the Yankees' brass insists he's going to the minors, with a focus on his long-term development.
"There are few guys that can bypass Triple-A, and even fewer that can all but skip Double-A," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations. "We understand the excitement, and when we sit behind the net and watch him, we get excited, too. But we have to be objective and rational, and he still has things to do in terms of pitch development."
In the end, the question of Banuelos' readiness is less about the prospect and more about the failures of the Yankees to shore up their rotation in the offseason by putting all their eggs in the baskets of Cliff Lee and the anticipated return of Andy Pettitte.
"If A.J. Burnett is their No. 5 starter, everyone is happy in Yankees land," said the NL executive. "If they signed Lee, if Pettitte came back, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Just because the Yankees [screwed] up this offseason doesn't mean they should sacrifice this kid in the process."
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- A scout watched him move around left field for a couple of games and came away impressed by Martin Prado, who shifted from the infield after Atlanta acquired Dan Uggla. "Like a duck taking to water," the scout said.
From Prado's point of view, the change hasn't been easy. Rather, it has been a product of months of work because outfielders run differently than infielders, and they throw differently, and of course, there is a different mindset. Some infielders who have shifted to the outfield complain about the tedious pace and how they miss being close to the central flow of the game action.
But Prado embraced the shift in December, when he and his personal trainer started going to the Braves' spring training complex. The trainer would hit him one fly ball after another, without tipping him off as to where he was aiming the ball, and Prado would take off in pursuit -- using longer strides, he explained, rather than the short, quick steps of an infielder.
And he spent more time long-tossing, to extend his arm action. Middle infielders will often propel the ball with a quick flick of the wrist, without the extension, to release rapidly, to get the ball to a fellow infielder to start the double play. As a left fielder, Prado has to make longer, more powerful throws, using his shoulder more than he would while playing second base. "It was about two months before I was comfortable," Prado said.
There are still three aspects of playing in the outfield that concern him:
1. He continues to learn how to charge a ball hit in front of him and how to use his feet in the approach.
2. He wants a better feel for the line drive hit right at him. Recently, he was playing against the Cardinals, positioned deep, and Matt Holliday mashed a ball over his head. Prado felt afterward that he had misjudged the ball. "That's something I have to learn," he said. Almost all outfielders will tell you that the toughest ball for them to read is the line drive smashed right at them.
3. Prado's experience in the outfield this spring has been exclusively in day games, and he wants to learn more about catching liners and fly balls in night games, in which he'll have to combat the glare of the lights. Prado could get his first shot tonight, actually, when the Braves play host to the Tigers, in a game that starts at 6 ET.
Chipper Jones has had an excellent spring playing third base, and the Braves have other infield options -- Diory Hernandez has been impressive -- but the presumption is that if Jones went down Prado could be an option to shift to third base. So a couple of times a week, he is taking grounders in the infield ... just in case.
• Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has a very Steinbrenner-*%$ world view about Florida' poor spring record, writes Joe Capozzi. From Joe's story:
Asked about his team's play so far, Loria quickly vented his frustration. "Uninspired baseball,' he said. "Inconsistent and not acceptable. Very few guys have focused on what they're here for. Very few.' Loria wouldn't single out any players but clearly is concerned by the club's 5-13 record -- second worst in baseball -- even though it's only the Grapefruit League.
"I know it's only spring training," he said, "but it's time to take a look in the mirror. We're better than this. It's time to show it. We need to be playing as a team and we need to hit."
• Terry Francona announced, officially, that Jon Lester will be his Opening Day starter. But the conversation about that between manager and pitcher took place via text messages in the offseason, on a day Lester was sitting in a deer blind. Francona sent Lester a text asking him if he wanted to be the Opening Day starter, and according to Francona, Lester replied: "Yeah."
"He deserves it," Francona said.
• Brian McCann asked to be in the Atlanta lineup yesterday against Lester because he wants some at-bats against a lefty pitcher. Another left-handed hitter, Eric Hinske, groaned when he heard from a teammate Lester was pitching, as Hinske sat as his locker.
What's it like to hit against Lester, I asked.
Hinkse stood up and moved to within about two feet of my face, staring down at me with his hands in front of him, as if he was Lester. "He looks like he's right here," Hinske said, chuckling. "Because he's like 6-foot-10."
Lester is 6-foot-4, but you get the point; it's as if he's throwing downhill, with power.
• Derek Lowe, who was officially picked to start on Opening Day, needs to write a book, given his anecdotal memory. But for now he'll continue his work as a major league pitcher -- and along the way, there have been adjustments. Lowe said as he has gotten older, he has thrown less between starts. The day after a start, most pitchers will play catch, just to stretch out their arms. Lowe does not. He will long toss and have a bullpen session of 30 to 40 pitches on the second and third days after a start and then not throw the day before a start.
"You have to be smart," Lowe said. "Every time I throw a baseball now, it's for a purpose."
He also devotes a lot more time to stretching than he ever did as a younger pitcher -- about 20 to 30 minutes three times between starts.
• Jason Heyward said he felt like he got good news about his back from the Braves' team doctor on Wednesday morning. He has battled stiffness in his lower back since he was a young teenager, he said, and the doctor explained that Heyward has less cartilage between his discs than normal. "It's like bone against bone," Heyward said. "So I know now that I can't hurt it any worse than he is."
Heyward knows he will have to maintain a stretching regimen, and he told his manager he's ready to play.
The Battle for Jobs
1. Brandon Belt had a great day, and Henry Schulman writes about where he might fit into the San Francisco lineup. He's making a convincing argument to be part of the Opening Day lineup, writes Alex Pavlovic.
3. Michael Pineda continues to make his case to be part of the Seattle rotation. That Eric Wedge complimented the pitcher's secondary stuff is a strong indication the manager would like Pineda to be part of his rotation.
4. The other day, I asked Mike Cameron what had caught his eye this spring. "How about Mike Morse killing the ball?" he replied. He's a former teammate of Morse in Seattle. Morse has been anointed as the left fielder for the Nationals, Adam Kilgore writes.
5. The Rangers want to develop Julio Borbon in center field.
6. Reid Brignac's bat is a work in progress, writes Roger Mooney.
8. A couple of youngsters might have the inside track on bench jobs with the Jays, writes Richard Griffin.
Dings and Dents
1. Adam Wainwright is ready to start his rehab, Derrick Goold writes. Wainwright is happy the contract can be voided after this year, he said. From the story:
"I'm actually really happy that I have that option, that I have that clause in there right now," Wainwright said Wednesday morning at the Cardinals' spring training clubhouse. "One way or the other, if I'm hurt and I can never come back, I would feel bad taking that much money from a team I couldn't help. If (the Cardinals) don't want to pick it up, then I'll be a free agent sooner."
2. Because of injury, Florida's starting outfield hasn't had much of a chance to work together, writes Clark Spencer.
6. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke wants to understand why so many of his players have gotten hurt this year.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Raul Ibanez might be the guy who fills Chase Utley's spot in the Philly lineup. Because of the Philadelphia lineup questions, Ryan Howard might have to carry the team, writes Bob Brookover.
About that: I've heard from many, many opposing players and scouts that Howard will see a river of breaking balls this year. Regardless of who hits behind Howard -- whether it's Ben Francisco, Placido Polanco or Ibanez -- none of them are anything close to being the threat Howard is at the plate. "There's no reason to pitch to him if you don't have to," one veteran pitcher said.
And the view of Howard is that type of approach can feed into a perceived weakness of the slugger. Said a scout: "The thing about Howard is that he can get frustrated if you don't give him anything to hit; a lot of hitters are like that. If you throw a lot of breaking balls to him, he will expand his strike zone."
2. The Rangers' Chris Davis has been outspoken in the last couple of days -- with a respectful tone -- about how he thinks the team should, in effect, play him or trade him. In fairness to the Rangers, it is worth noting that the Texas front office has given Davis multiple opportunities to establish himself, and whatever the reason the results have not been there. He played 113 games in 2009 and started last year as the everyday first baseman, and after 806 at-bats in the majors -- about 1.5 seasons' worth of at-bats -- he has posted a .300 on-base percentage, with 278 strikeouts, 59 walks and 39 homers. Davis turns 25 today and it makes sense that he wants to play, but the Rangers really don't owe him anything other than to let the process play itself out. At this point, the best thing for the organization, as it tries to extract as much value out of Davis as possible, might be to wait for him to establish himself within their organization or to rebuild his trade value (as with the Royals and Alex Gordon).
Davis is putting up big numbers this spring.
3. The heart of the Houston lineup is a concern, writes Zachary Levine.
5. The White Sox never tried to trade Ozzie Guillen, Jerry Reinsdorf said.
1. J.J. Putz got terrible results, but his fastball was clocked at 92-94 mph -- a good sign.
2. Chris Carpenter's outing went OK, writes Rick Hummel.
11. The Orioles were nearly no-hit.
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Typically, when you're coming off a World Series appearance, spring training is fairly free of controversy. But that hasn't been the case for the Texas Rangers. Now that all the Michael Young trade-demand drama has died down, the Rangers must figure out what to do with Neftali Feliz. Last week, he said he wanted to remain the team's closer even though the team was trying to stretch him out as a starter. And then, after shutting down the Los Angeles Dodgers over four innings Tuesday, the 22-year-old flamethrower said he's on board with becoming a starting pitcher.
In the long run, it makes sense for both Feliz and the Rangers if he's in the rotation. As he probably figured out, even average starters earn a lot more money than elite closers. And that's because, as the Rangers know full well, even average starters are usually more valuable than good relievers. Of course, that's all true in a vacuum, and the 2011 season will not be played in one. The Rangers will likely be in a three-team battle for the AL West title, and messing with Feliz's success from 2010 could easily undermine their season.
With Feliz in the bullpen, the Rangers have a pretty good idea of what they're going to get. Sure, reliever performance tends to be volatile from year to year, but Feliz's outstanding strikeout rate (9.9 per nine for his career) makes him less susceptible to variances on balls in play. In the rotation, however, Texas doesn't know how he will perform. The right-hander has all of the tools to be a great starter and is earning raves for his new cutter, but he still hasn't shown he can succeed as a starter in the regular season. Even in the minors, when Feliz was groomed mostly as a starter, he never threw more than 128 innings in a season.
The Rangers are likely emboldened by the success of C.J. Wilson, who was converted into a starter last year after five years as a reliever and posted a 3.35 ERA in over 200 innings. But there's a big difference between Wilson and Feliz: While the former was a good reliever, the Rangers weren't putting much on the line by acquiescing to his request to start. If he failed, Texas wasn't risking one of the most valuable assets in baseball.
If the Feliz conversion goes poorly, we could be looking at another Joba Chamberlain-type of season, where a pitcher enters the season with mixed signals about his role. Even if Feliz begins the year in the rotation, you can be sure he'd be on an innings limit and likely converted back to the bullpen at some point during the season. Largely because of Feliz, Texas' bullpen is one of the best in baseball. (Rangers relievers combined for a 3.38 ERA in 2010, second-best in the AL.)
If the Rangers want to maximize Feliz's value, they should prepare him for starting in 2012 by announcing right now that this will be his final season in the bullpen. That way, they won't have to deal with all of the "Joba Rules"-type scenarios where every outing raises questions about his role.
Second, they should do everything they can to use him in high-leverage situations. Feliz allowed just one run in seven postseason appearances last fall, but his performance was practically worthless because four of those appearances came with Rangers leading by four or more runs. In fact, only once did he enter a game in which the difference was less than two runs in either direction. And during the regular season, Feliz came into a game with a lead of three runs or more in 26 of his 78 appearances (33.3 percent of the time). Frank Francisco, a markedly worse reliever, entered games with a lead of three or more 32.1 percent of the time. In some sense, Feliz was pitching in garbage time more frequently than Francisco, a far less effective pitcher.
Obviously, the Rangers aren't the only team that lets the save rule dictate their closer usage. And part of the reason the gap between starter and reliever value is so large is because teams often use their closers in low-leverage situations. But this hasn't always been the case, and relievers can generate far more value if they're allowed to. For example, in 1982 Goose Gossage finished fifth in the AL in wins above replacement for pitchers, even though he was pitching out of the bullpen. How? He threw 93 innings in varying high-leverage situations and was not a slave to the save. Feliz had only a 2.4 WAR in 2010 because he pitched just 69 1/3 innings and was often wasted in low-leverage spots. There were no relievers among the top 10 of pitcher WAR in 2010, but if Feliz is allowed to throw a few more innings and not waste so many in low-leverage situations, he could crack the list.
The Rangers have garnered a lot of praise under Nolan Ryan for their old-school approach to pitcher usage. It's time to take it one step further: Loosen the reins on Feliz in the bullpen and let him pitch in a traditional fireman role. Not only would it maximize his value in 2011, but some of those extra innings could also help prepare him for starting in 2012.
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Parra pushing for left field job
Gerardo Parra | Diamondbacks
Xavier Nady, penciled in as the starting left fielder over the winter, may now be looking over his shoulder. Parra had two more hits on Wednesday, making him 14 for 37 (.378) in the Cactus League while drawing praise from manager Kirk Gibson.
Nady is hitting .194 and Piecoro cites opposing scouts who say Nady "is showing neither bat speed nor arm strength from left field."
Parra saw his average plummet 29 points to .261 last season, so the D-backs may be reluctant to simply hand him the left field job outright. At the very least, he may have secured himself more early season at-bats.
- Doug Mittler
Davis the odd man out in Texas?
Chris Davis | Rangers
Davis has seen his batting average plummet each of the last two seasons, settling below the Mendoza Line at .192 last season. According to the Dallas Morning News, the Rangers have received some inquiries this spring, but are under no obligation to trade him.
A .405 average in Cactus League play has some teams paying attention, but Davis has little chance of earning a roster spot at first base in Arlington and could end up back in Triple-A. Mitch Moreland appears to have first base locked up, and Michael Young and Mike Napoli are also expected to see time there.
- Doug Mittler
San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy insists he is keeping an open mind regarding the status of top prospect Brandon Belt.
Belt has done all the Giants have asked of him this spring, including a big day at the plate (3-for-4, HR, double) in Wednesday's win over the White Sox. If Belt were to land the starting first base job, that would necessitate the move of Aubrey Huff to left field.
Despite his success, the Giants still might be inclined to have Belt start the season in Triple-A Fresno in order to delay his eligibility for arbitration. As Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle points out, Huff has not played one inning in left field this spring, which might be a hint that general manager Brian Sabean is inclined to get Belt more time in the minors.
Keeping Belt also could force the Giants to part ways with Aaron Rowand, who is hitting just .207 this spring.
- Doug Mittler
Thornton the White Sox closer?
Matt Thornton | White Sox
Thornton, an All-Star last season, has been competing all spring with Sale, who had four saves in as many opportunities for the Sox last season. Sale has endured a rocky spring (7.36 ERA) and the main culprit is the inability to throw quality strikes, writes Daryl Van Schouwen of the Sun-Times.
The White Sox already have placed a high value on Thornton, signing him to a two-year, $12 million contract earlier this month. The 34-year-old Thornton has the tools to be a closer -- he led all AL relievers in strikeouts per nine innings last season (12.02).
- Doug Mittler
Impact of Downs injury
Scott Downs | Angels
The Angels will have to wait until mid April before cashing in on the three-year, $15 million deal with Scott Downs. The reliever will open the season on the disabled list with a broken bone in his left big toe suffered while playing with his kids.
Manager Mike Scioscia will have to kick around some options to his bullpen, and the beneficiary could be right-handers Jason Bulger and Rich Thompson, reports Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times.
DiGiovanna says five relievers -- Fernando Rodney, left-hander Hisanori Takahashi, Kevin Jepsen, Jordan Walden and Michael Kohn -- appear to be roster locks with Bulger and Thompson, both of whom are out of options, competing for the sixth spot. Both could now end up on the Opening Day roster thanks to Downs' painful toe.
- Doug Mittler
Nova a lock for fourth spot?
Ivan Nova | Yankees
Ivan Nova was penciled in as the fourth starter over the winter, and Nova's status can now be written in ink following six no-hit innings against the Baltimore Orioles Wednesday night. "Coming out of the game, it now looks as if someone will have to pry that spot out of his hands with a crowbar," writes Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com.
- Doug Mittler
Mets pass on Eckstein
David Eckstein | Padres
New York Mets manager Terry Collins insists he hasn't decided on a second baseman.
The idea seemed plausible since two of the Mets' top executives, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, had Eckstein in San Diego and Toronto, respectively, in recent years. The Mets likely have no interest in taking on any additional salary.
- Doug Mittler
Second base options in Philly
Chase Utley | Phillies
All of this doubt has drawn speculations of the club taking a look at Michael Young as a possible replacement. That appears unlikely and ESPN.com's Jayson Stark says there are no indications the Phillies plan to fill Utley's chasm by making a deal, at least for now.
Stark says Josh Barfield seems to have the edge over Pete Orr for the backup infielder job, with Rule 5 pick Michael Martinez a long shot. At this point, Delwyn Young also appears to have a spot as a bat off the bench.
In a Monday interview with MLB Network Radio, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said the payroll is maxed out and the team could not take on additional salary in any deal.
- Doug Mittler
Phils looking at Jon Jay?
Jon Jay | Cardinals
Stark adds that Jay could play some center field if Shane Victorino gets hurt or needs a break. The Phillies also could be looking to add a major-league ready outfielder after losing Jayson Werth to free agency.
The pursuit of the reasonably-priced Jay makes sense for financial reasons. In a Monday interview with MLB Network Radio, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said the payroll is maxed out and the Phils could not take on additional salary in any deal.
- Doug Mittler
NYY keeping an eye on free agent
Kevin Millwood | Orioles
Millwood could still be a fit in several spots where clubs' competitions at the back end are not or will not work out the way they'd planned, potentially including the Texas Rangers.
The Cardinals appear to be fine with Kyle McClellan earning the final spot in their rotation, however, and there has been nothing reported about Millwood preferring to retire, so something will have to give soon if the veteran is to pitch early in the season.