Thursday morning I spoke with Mark Newman, Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations for the New York Yankees, asking him several questions about the Yankees farm system, focusing on their philosophy in the draft and Latin America, and looking at some sleeper prospects for the future.
SICKELS: Mark, you've been running the Yankees player development system for more than a decade. As the ultimate large-revenue team, the Yankees have some obvious advantages in terms of player procurement. But is there a downside? Have there been any challenges or problems specific to the situation that the organization has had to overcome?
NEWMAN: That's a broad question. When I look at it from the perspective of player development and scouting, our mandate to win yearly in the majors gives us two main challenges: our draft slot and the fact that we often trade prospects. Where we pick in the draft is always an issue, at least if we're doing our job by winning at the major league level. We almost always have lower picks in the draft, and that makes it harder to get players with high upsides in the draft process, especially for the hitters.
At times we need to trade prospects to build a major league roster that can achieve our goals, the (Javier) Vazquez and (Curtis) Granderson trades are examples. Of course, sometimes we can bring players to the majors as well, like (Robinson) Cano or (Phil) Hughes or (Joba) Chamberlain, and that's always satisfying. But either way, it is an expand/contract cycle that we have to manage in the farm system.
Because of those two factors, especially the draft slot issue, we will take risks on some players to get a high-ceiling guy in the system.
SICKELS: Like a signability risk or an injury risk.
SICKELS: With that in mind, and looking at the list of Yankees top prospects, there are a lot of products of the Latin American operation: Jesus Montero, Gary Sanchez, Manny Banuelos, Kelvin De Leon, etc. Sanchez cost $3 million to sign, De Leon $1.1 million. Generally speaking, do you think it is more cost-effective to give a large bonuses to a smaller number of players, or smaller bonuses to a larger number of players, given the fact that Latin American players can be quite difficult to project.
NEWMAN: That's a debate we have internally all the time. We try to do a bit of both. Cultural and language assimilation is always a risk with the Latin players, so we work hard to assess that risk before we go after a player.
There has to be a solid reason or really outstanding tools to give a Latin player a large bonus, but if we think the risk is worth it, we will take it. It would be fairly rare for a guy with a Montero or Gary Sanchez or Arodys Vizcaino-like upside to fall to us in the draft, so we look hard to find guys with that kind of talent internationally. This is especially true for the position players, since few guys with genuine impact bats will get to us at the bottom of the first round. We have to take the risk to get guys like that somewhere, so we'll look in Latin America. We can find tools there that are hard for us to acquire in the draft.
Montero seems to be working out, and we have high hopes for Sanchez as well. Of course we sign lots of smaller-bonus Latin American players too, and in that way our strategy is to find quality within quantity. Sometimes the guys who don't get big bonuses will surprise you.
SICKELS: Along the same lines, do you have specific positions you concentrate on in the draft, any sort of bias towards college or high school types?
NEWMAN: We have no particular bias towards high school or college players, although we do look for impact guys who might drop to us for reasons not related to their talent. The pitcher we drafted a couple of years ago, Gerrit Cole. We knew that was a risk because he had the UCLA commitment, his family is wealthy, and we knew that he had aggressive bonus demands. Because of his upside, we took the chance that we could make it work, but he went to college instead. That was one risk that didn't pan out. But to be extraordinary involves risk, and our goal is to be extraordinary.
SICKELS: Would Slade Heathcott be another example of a risk/reward player?
NEWMAN: Yes. In his case we knew he wouldn't be cheap to get away from LSU, but we felt the tools are so good that it was worth the risk. In that case we got the player. Another impact bat from last year was J.R. Murphy. We knew it would cost some money to sign him (ed.-Murphy had a Miami scholarship), but we love the bat and that was another risk we were willing to take. He has big-time makeup and a terrific hit tool.
SICKELS: Can Jesus Montero catch?
NEWMAN: When we signed him we knew that was going to be an issue. But I asked our scouts, "is the bat good enough for him to play in the majors if he can't catch?" All of our scouts said "yes." The bat has turned out to be excellent, but the glove has improved a lot over the last year. He is a better defender and in better physical condition now than he's ever been. His throwing has improved dramatically. He has plus arm strength, which has never been an issue, but his footwork is better now. The main thing we are focusing on with Montero is improving his lower body flexibility. He is a very bright guy and can run a game. The jury is still out, but by both objective and subjective measures he's made great progress.
SICKELS: You have several impressive catchers in the system, Montero, Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, Murphy. Was this a deliberate attempt to build depth at that position?
NEWMAN: No, it wasn't deliberate in that way. We do put a premium value on catchers, shortstops, and center fielders when we look for players, but specifically building up catching depth wasn't a concerted effort. Of course, it's worked out nicely because catching is such a valuable commodity.
SICKELS: Andrew Brackman, starter or reliever, and where does he open the season?
NEWMAN: He's a starter and will begin at (Class A) Tampa. I know people think we might move him to relief since he pitched well when we limited his innings late last year, but we still see him as a starter. He looked great in instructional league, and he looked good in major league camp this spring. We think he's made a lot of progress.
SICKELS: I always like looking for sleeper prospects and find them more interesting sometimes than the bigger names. Would D.J. Mitchell fit into that category as a sleeper prospect?
NEWMAN: Yes. He gets great sink on his fastball, commands it well, spins his breaking ball and can change speeds. We see him as a potential (Alfredo) Aceves-type, and Aceves has been very valuable to us.
SICKELS: Jeremy Bleich., fourth starter? And how do you pronounce his name? I've heard it different ways.
NEWMAN: It's pronounced "Bleish." His stuff is better than I thought it was when he came out of college. We thought he'd be an 89-92 MPH guy, but last year he was throwing 92-94 and hit 95 at times. We like his secondary stuff but he needs to command his fastball better. Fourth starter sounds about right, but there might be more in there if he can keep that kind of stuff this year. He will start the season in Double-A.
SICKELS: The famous switch-pitcher Pat Venditte. If he keeps putting up ungodly numbers, how fast can he advance?
NEWMAN: There is no one else like him. From the left side he gets people out with angles and command. From the right side he has an average fastball but a good breaking ball and he throws strikes. We have no comparables for a guy like this, but if he keeps pitching well we will keep promoting him. He will begin him at Tampa but if he keeps up this kind of performance we will advance him aggressively.
SICKELS: Can you give us a few additional sleeper prospects to watch for 2010?
NEWMAN: One guy we really love is Jose A. Ramirez, who was in the Gulf Coast League last year. He can get his fastball up to 95-96, and he has an outstanding changeup to go with it. When we traded Arodys Vizcaino, we had it in the back of our mind that Jose could turn into a very similar prospect.
Another pitcher to watch is Adam Warren, out of North Carolina in the fourth round last year. In college we scouted him at 90-92, but in pro ball he was at 92-94, and after a long college season that was a pleasant surprise to see consistent arm strength. He has four pitches, a very solid delivery, and knows how to pitch.
We also like David Phelps, who we drafted out of Notre Dame (14th round, 2008). Like Bleich and Warren, he throws harder now than he did in college, 92-95 last year. He's improved his curveball and change, and if the secondary stuff keeps developing he will really emerge this year. He has a clean simple delivery, another thing we like.
For hitters I'd watch David Adams out of Virginia (third round, 2008). He's a polished hitter and we really like his glove, he's right there with Cano defensively.
SICKELS: Mark, thanks for your time.