Category Archives: Interviews

A Chat with Jim Abbott

Abbott while pitching for the Calgary Cannons in 1998 (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Abbott while pitching for the Calgary Cannons in 1998 (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The word “perseverance” is thrown around a lot in the world of sports.  Any time an athlete plays through an injury or attains a height they have previously failed to achieve, we laud them for their ability to endure–and rightfully so; but few have had to overcome more than Jim Abbott.  In a sport that requires incredible dexterity and hand-eye-coordination, Abbott was able to succeed at the highest level despite being born without a right hand.

Abbott was born in Flint, Michigan and went on to attend Flint Central High School where he was a standout pitcher and quarterback for the Indians.  He was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 36th round of the ’85 MLB Draft, but decided to forgo his entry into professional baseball in order to attend the University of Michigan.  During his three years with the maize and blue he was a 2-time All-American, won the 1987 Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur baseball player in the nation, and in 1988 was both the Big Ten Player of the Year in baseball and the Big Ten Athlete of the Year. His name is peppered through the Wolverine career record book: wins (5th), ERA (6th), complete games (8th), and strikeouts (13th).

In 1988 Abbott took the mound in the gold medal game of the Summer Olympics, helping the United States earn the victory over Japan.  He was selected 8th overall in the ’88 MLB Draft by the Angels and pitched for California over the next four seasons, finishing 3rd in the 1991 Cy Young vote.

Abbott came to the Yankees in 1993 where he quickly became a fan favorite.  On September 4, 1993 he turned in the most memorable performance of his career, no-hitting the Cleveland Indians in a 4-0 victory at Yankee Stadium.  In 1994 his 9 wins were tied for second-highest on the team as the Yanks built a 6.5 game AL East lead before the strike cut the season short in August.  Though he only wore the pinstripes for two seasons, he is still fondly remembered in New York for his courage and humility as well as his inspiring gem against Cleveland.

Since retiring from the game in 1999, Abbott has received a number of honors and has continued to use his story to inspire and encourage others.  In 2004 he was enshrined in the University of Michigan Hall of Honor and in 2007 he was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame.  In 2009 his #31 was retired by the University of Michigan.  In 2012 his autobiography Imperfect was published and he continues to travel the country as a motivational speaker.

Jim was kind enough to briefly answer a few of my questions amid his busy life as a father, husband, and speaker.

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Carlos Baerga grounds out on September 4, 1993. What’s the first thing that goes through your head?

It’s hard to describe my feelings. There was just this huge rush of adrenaline along with a disbelief that this could actually be happening!  It felt like an electrical current was going through my body.

What was your favorite part about your time in New York?

Playing in Yankee Stadium in the pinstripes with a sold-out crowd.

What teammate were you closest with during your time in New York?

Scott Kamieniecki and Jimmy Key.  Although I loved many of the great characters on those teams.  [Don] Mattingly, [Paul] O’Neill, [Mike] Stanley, [Wade] Boggs, [Mike] Gallego.  It was a really fun group of guys.

What did it feel like to have the strike end the ’94 season when you had helped the Yanks claim 1st place in the AL East?

I was really bummed.  That team was very good.  I think we would have made the playoffs and maybe started the Yankee run one year earlier.

What have you been doing since retiring in ’99?

I have been doing motivational speaking and raising a family in California.  I released a memoir last year called Imperfect.  The structure of the book revolves around the 9 innings of the no hitter in ’93.

What does it mean to you to be able to share your story and inspire others?

I have come to appreciate the connection we all feel to the game.  The fact that I played a little differently helps me to tell the story a bit differently but in the end it is still a baseball story.  I cherish my connections with the game.

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Follow Jim on Twitter @jabbottum31.
Follow Dan on Twitter @161st_and_River.
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YFU Exclusive Interview with 1st Round Draft Pick Ty Hensley

Ty Hensley meets the press at the Stadium

I had a great opportunity to interview Yankees #1 Draft Pick Ty Hensley who recently signed a $1.2 Million contract with the team on July 12th.  Hensley is a 6’5″ 215 pound RHP from Santa Fe High School in Oklahoma who was committed to attend college at Ole Miss before the Draft.  It seemed he would definitely sign with the Yanks but after a routine MRI turned up “abnormalities” in his right shoulder, the negotiations went right down to the wire before Hensley signed right before the deadline.  He was kind enough to offer some insight into the process as well as talk about his  baseball bloodlines and offer an in-depth self-scouting report.  Here is the interview in its entirety with my questions in BLUE.(Great job by Matt to set up this interview)

I know your father (Mike Hensley) was drafted by the Cardinals (53rd overall pick in 1988 Draft) and was a college coach at Oral Roberts & Kansas State.  What was it like to have a Pitching Coach as a Father your whole life?

I was really blessed and fortunate to have that opportunity.  I took every single advantage of that growing up.  He’s so knowledgable about the game and has been through all of the stuff I’m going through – pro ball, the draft.  He was really instrumental in helping me make my decisions as far as college and later professionally.  He’s always been there for me as a father and a coach - and has always known when it’s time to be a Dad and when it’s time to be a coach.  I was really fortunate to have that situation growing up and I can’t say enough good things about him.

Reading some of your interviews and talking to you now, it’s obvious you have a vast knowledge of the game for a young man.  Do you think that helps you on the field?

Growing up around the game and with my father coaching I lived at the baseball field and was always around baseball guys because my Dad had so many connections and he knew so many people.  Growing up around that it just introduced me to the world I’m apart of now. I think it definitely helps me on the field because you get the insight of what other people are thinking and the more you know what others are thinking the better the advantage you have against them.

As a student of the game, give us a Scouting report on yourself and your repertoire.

I throw a 4 seam and 2 seam fastball, sit in the 92-95 range, touching 97-98.  I maintain my velocity well throughout the game and feel like I have good life on my fastball.  My best pitch is my 12 to 6 Curveball, I throw about 78 to 81 mph.  I’m really pleased with how my Changeup is coming along and its gonna be a big pitch for me moving forward…I throw in the 84 to 86 range.

Are you comfortable with your 2-seamer and how do you decide when to throw the 4-seam or 2-seam fastball?

I’m comfortable with both of them.  It’s more of a feel thing – if before I throw a pitch I feel I need a little extra movement I’ll throw the 2-seam, but I definitely throw my 4-seam a lot more often  than the 2-seamer. Read the rest of this entry

YFU Exclusive Interview with Tyler Austin

Tyler Austin leads all Yankee prospects with 10 HRs

Anyone who follows Yankees prospects has heard of Tyler Austin and for those that haven’t, remember the name.  Austin has followed up his big 2011 season in which he hit .354/.418/.579/.997 with an even stronger performance in his first taste of full-season ball in Low A Charleston.   He leads the South Atlantic League in HRs, Triples, Extra-Base Hits, SLG% & OPS.  On a team full of promising young Yankee prospects like Gary Sanchez, Mason Williams & Dante Bichette – Austin has more HRs (10) than the rest of his teammates combined (8).

To give some background, Tyler grew up in Conyers, GA and as one of the top prospects in the nation, his senior year should have been one of the best times in his life as he prepped for the MLB Draft.  However, during that time, he was diagnosed with testicular Cancer in the middle of Showcase Season for the Draft and had to undergo surgery to remove the cancer.  Thankfully, the surgery was successful and his Cancer has been in remission ever since.

He was drafted by the Yankees in the 13th Round in 2010 and signed for an over-slot bonus of $125,000.  Soon after reporting to the Gulf Coast League, he suffered a season-ending hand injury so his first season really wasn’t til last yr. He began 2011 in the GCL and tore it up hitting .390 in 22 games before being promoted to Staten Island where he hit .323/.402/.943 in leading them to the NY-Penn League Championship. He was also a combined 18 for 18 in SBs between levels.

He’s a 6’2″ 210 pound Right-handed Hitter who played 3B & 1B last year but has been playing RF for Charleston thus far.  I rated him as the 10th best Yankee prospect in early January and the major publications basically all had him in the 11-20 range with John Sickels rating him highest at 9th. I was able to talk to Tyler for about 15-20 minutes this week to discuss his time with the Yankees and the obstacles he has overcome.  Here is that interview with my questions in Blue

Year PA 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2011 201 18 2 6 36 18 15 39 .354 .418 .579 .997
2012 120 9 4 10 26 2 9 26 .309 .358 .736 1.095
3 Seasons 325 27 6 16 62 20 24 66 .334 .397 .634 1.031
Rk (2 seasons) 93 8 1 3 22 11 5 17 .381 .441 .607 1.048
A (1 season) 120 9 4 10 26 2 9 26 .309 .358 .736 1.095
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 5/10/2012.

Growing up in Georgia, you must have been an Atlanta Braves fan right?

No sir!  I actually get this question a lot.  I was actually a Yankees fan.  My Grandmother was a Yankees fan her whole entire life, how she became one is beyond me but she had me buy into it.  While watching them, she’d call me in there, sit me down, make me watch the games with her – I always enjoyed watching Jeter play.

When did you go through the testicular Cancer ordeal and how much time did you miss as a result?

The beginning of my Senior yr in HS in 2009.  It was very, very, very scary. I never thought I’d have to go through anything like that at such a young age, but I did and became a better person because of it.  I really didn’t miss any time. I missed the East Coast Pro Showcase I was supposed to be attending.  That Thursday I had the surgery, the following week I was on a plane to San Diego and was playing the next Sunday in the Aflac All-American Games.

That’s incredible.  How did it come about that they found the cancer?

It just hurt really bad one day.  I put it off for a week or two thinking it would go away, then finally I couldn’t bear the pain anymore and I told my Mom, she took me to the hospital.  They told me there that they were 99% sure I had a cancerous tumor.  I had to go to a specialist the next day and he told me the same thing – we scheduled the surgery for 2 or 3 days after that.  they went in, took it out and I’ve been free ever since.

After the surgery, were they able to tell you it was a success?

They told me they were pretty sure it hadn’t spread throughout  my body but I went through a lot of tests to check my white blood cells were OK.

You were committed to Kennesaw State your Senior year, what were your thoughts leading up to the draft?

I thought I would be a pretty high pick. Obviously I didn’t think I’d be going to school – school just wasn’t for me, it wasn’t my thing.  Once the Yankees took me,  it was pretty much decided I would sign.

When the Yankees took you, was Catching ever in the equation?

I caught my Junior and senior year in HS but when I was signed it was as a Third Baseman and Outfielder.

After you signed, explain what kept you out in 2010 after reporting to the Gulf Coast League.

My 4th Ab after I signed, I got hit by a pitch and broke a bone in my left hand.  Right before that I got the flu and missed a week before that and right when I start playing I break my hand and I’m like – what else can go wrong?  They wanted me to take the rest of that full year off and I did so I didn’t start swinging a bat again until January.

So you were finally healthy last yr in 2011 and tore up the Gulf Coast League – got promoted to Staten Island and hit well there also.  How was the competition compared to HS?

It was definitely a lot different from HS but I saw a lot of guys  like that in showcases and during travel ball that pitched like that, I wasnt too surprised by the way I performed last year.

After playing 3B & 1B last yr, what did the organization tell you about positions for this season and going forward?

They said I’m still gonna play third,, still gonna play first a little bit but they wanna see how I do in RF and I’ve made a pretty good adjustment out there so far and I feel real comfortable so that’s pretty much the position right now.  I definitely think I’ll get some time in at 3B & 1B just a matter of when and where.

What position would you say you are most comfortable at?

I’m more comfortable in RF right now but with some more reps and experience I could get better at Third & First, that comes with confidence.

What’s your approach and game plan at the plate?

I just go up there and tell myself I need to be short, smooth and lethal and usually things take care of themselves.  That’s a little thing I bought into from one of the guys on the team last year.

I like that approach – short, smooth & lethal - who gave you that tip?

Nick McCoy

You have been popping HRs all over the field – pulling them, straight away and opposite field.  Are you trying to hit the ball the opposite way?

My approach is to drive the ball to the right side of the field.  When Im driving the ball to the right side that’s usually when Im going pretty good.

Have you always looked to drive the ball the other way or is that something the organization has asked you to do?

I think its something I developed a little over the last few years. Staying inside of the baseball and hitting the ball to the middle and right side of the field and that’s something that’s worked out pretty well.  When I’m going good that’s what I’m doing.

How has it been working with the coaching staff and what have you learned from working with Greg Colbrunn, an ex-Major Leaguer?

He’s great I love working with him.  All of our coaches are great and teach us a ton.  Colby has taught me a lot, he knows what he’s talking about. I listen to everything he says, he’s a great guy in general who knows a ton about this game.

What do you attribute your hot start to and are you surprised by the results?

I’m just getting good pitches and putting a good swing on it. I’m not really too surprised about the results so far.

Have pitchers been changing the way they pitch to you since word has gotten around about your success?

They definitely have  over the last few games started pitching me a little differently.  More breaking balls in fastball counts stuff like that.  Nothing too bad but I definitely see a difference.

What was it like facing Dylan Bundy (#1 pick by Baltimore Orioles – hyped as next Strasburg) last night?

He throws hard.  He has good stuff.  But I wouldn’t say as overpowering as everybody makes it out to be.  Not to take anything away from him.  He’s a great pitcher but I think the hype was a bit much.

How about Tim Hudson?  You guys faced him twice during his rehab. that must have been fun for a kid from Conyers,  Georgia?

It was a big thing for me facing Tim Hudson.  A guy like him is an unbelievable pitcher, a guy that I watched a lot in my life because I used to go to a lot of Braves games.

What do you need to improve on to develop as a player?

Every aspect of my game I need to improve on. As soon as you think you have something figured out in this game you might as well hang it up.

On a stacked team with highly regarded players, do you ever feel like an underdog and use it as motivation?

I don’t think so. I’m not worried about all that.  I have to go out here and play and perform for my team and myself. Work hard and not get caught up in expectations. It does nothing but put added pressure on you that you don’t need.

Which teammate has impressed you so far?

Ali Castillo has only been here for a week. He works hard, he fires everybody up, he’s an unbelievable guy to have on the field with you every day.

Thank for your time Tyler and good luck the rest of the season!

Thank you.

Mickey Rivers Interview

Mickey Rivers was one of the catalysts to the back to back Yankees World Series champions in 1977 and 78. Mickey was generous enough to grant me an interview.  He would like it if you guys would check out his website www.mickthequick.com. There is a lot of great stuff there.

Q: What was your relationship like with George Steinbrenner?

A:  I love George. We had a good relationship.

Q: What is your favorite George Steinbrenner story?

A: One day I got thrown out stealing. That night George called my house and said if you don’t give 100% you are out of here.

Q: For fans that never saw you play how would you describe your game?

A: I just did everything I could to win the game for my team.

Q: What is your number one tip for stealing a base?

A: Watch the pitchers feet.

Q: What was it like to play under Billy Martin?

A: He was a great motivator.

Q: Was the turmoil inside the clubhouse in 1977 exaggerated or was it as crazy as people made it out to be? How did the relationship between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin affect the team?

A: Reggie and Billy did there thing. It didn’t affect me or anyone else.

Q: What is your favorite moment during your time with the Yankees?

A: The 1977 World Series.

Q: How special was it to win back to back championships with the Yankees?                                                                 

A:  Awesome. Something I will always cherish.

Q: What was your reaction when you were traded from the Yankees to the Texas Rangers in 1979?

A: A little surprised but it was fine.

Q: What is it like to come back every year for Old Timers Day?

A:  I like seeing all my old buddies.

Q: How is the game of baseball played differently today from when you played?

A: It’s not much different.

Q: What is your opinion on this year’s Yankees team? Do you think they can bring a 28th World Series back to the Bronx?

A: They can definitely win it this year. It comes down to pitching.

Wally Matthews Interview

I recently had about a 30 minute chat with ESPN New York.com Yankees beat writer Wally Matthews. It was very productive and he gave great detailed answers.  Here is a paraphrasing of the highlights of our interview.

Q: How long do you think Phil Hughes’ leash is? When Andy comes back and if Hughes is still struggling is there a chance David Phelps or D.J Mitchell take his place?

WM: If you follow the Yankees you know they are not married to anybody. They need to do what puts them in the best position to win. Hughes has shown in the past that he can perform in the bullpen. The Yankees will not hesitate to put him there if it gives them the best chance to win.

Q: What is your take on Derek Jeter’s hot start? Do you buy Girardi’s theory of it having to do with less pressure after achieving his 3,000th hit or is it more mechanical?

WM: It is hard to say because Jeter would never admit that it was on his mind whether it was or not. I think it has a lot more to do with mechanics.  Kevin Long’s new approcach for him last year was not working. Now Jeter is getting around on fastballs, staying on the ball better, keeping his hands in and driving the ball the other way. Jeter has not felt pressure the first 15 years of his career, so I do not see why he would feel it when he was going for his 3,000th hit.

Q: With Gardner out why has Girardi not given Nunez a chance in the outfield with Ibanez struggling out there and having no future role with the team?

WM: Nunez is horrible in the infield and balls always seem to find him there. The Yankees are afraid he would boot balls in the outfield as well. Ibanez is getting better in the outfield. The Yankees signed him because they thought he could play the outfield better than Damon or Matsui so they do have some confidence in him out there. Nunez is an infielder and he cannot even handle that. The Yankees have said part of his problem is he is playing too many positions so why make him play more?

Q: With the Yankees wanting to get below $189 million before 2014 what are the chances Nick Swisher resigns with the Yankees?

WM: Swisher’s future depends on October. Not winning the World Series is a team failure for the Yankees. If Swisher continues to put up the same stat line he has his whole Yankees career it will never matter. His regular season numbers will only help the Yankees win the division, which is nice but not the goal.

Q: You wrote a column in Spring Training about how Rafael Soriano should be the closer when Mariano Rivera retires instead of David Robertson. Can you elaborate on that?

WM: Whoever follows up Mariano will have trouble. That spot should be used more for a sacrificial lamp, which is why Soriano would be better for the job than Robertson. Since Robertson will be a part of the Yankees future for many years to come it does not make sense to give him the almost impossible task right away. If Soriano succeeds he will get a big contract to close elsewhere and Robertson can then become the closer. Robertson will soon realize it is better to be the guy after another a guy takes over for Rivera. A pitcher with Robertson’s future should not be exposed to the wrath that the pitcher who succeeds Mariano will get.

Q: What do you make of Cano’s early season slump? Have you heard anything around the team about a reason for it?

WM: Cano’s bad start has fallen under the radar due to Jeter’s hot start, Granderson being on pace to even surpass his numbers from last season if you can believe that, and the Yankees doing pretty well for the most part. Cano is so talented and the way he does things looks so easy. The last few years he has shown improvement in his plate discipline and he will be fine. It is not like when A-Rod and Jeter struggle with their age and you wonder if they could be loosing it. Slumps at the start of the year get to much press because the numbers look bad. If Cano was slumping in May or June people would notice less because the numbers would not look as bad.

Q: Should Brian Cashman be blamed for the Pineda trade or was it just bad luck?

WM: It is more due to bad luck than anything else.  When teams trade guys like Montero and Pineda they make sure to know everything they can about them. The Yankees were going to sign Hideki Okajima to a minor league deal but he did not pass his physical so they did not.  The fact that Pineda tore his labrum is not Cashman’s fault. A dye contrast MRI is only done when something is seriously wrong, especially since most players are afraid of needles anyway. If Pineda was injured when he was traded it would have shown up on the MRI the Yankees gave him then. What Cashman should have done better was keep better tabs on Pineda and his workout schedule yo avoid him coning to Spring Training overweight. Deep down the Yankees know Montero’s flaws. It is not like he is lighting it up in Seattle anyway right now.  Obviously his defense is one of them but Montero’s work ethic and maturity came into question at times as well. Montero admitted to a story that said Alex Rodriguez had to bribe him by paying him $100 to get in the batting cages one time last year. If you want to be the next great player of the Yankees no way should that occur.

Q: What is your overall assessment of Joe Girardi as a manager?

WM: Girardi is a terrific manager. He is great at handling the bullpen and knows when to rest guys and is good at communicating with them about it. He is one of the best clubhouse managers in MLB. Hoverer he is not as personable as Joe Torre was. Torre handled personalities much better. Also, Girardi cares way too much about what the media thinks and what their perception of him is. Media guys have even asked him why he cares so much. As the Yankees manager Girardi cannot care about perception as much as he does.

Q: How much concern do you have about the rotation and how much can Andy Pettitte help?

WM: You never have enough pitchers. Some guys were laughing when the Yankees kept saying that in the spring but of course here we are and they have pitching issues. There definitely should be some level of concern about Andy Pettitte being the savior.  Andy is a pro and will throw strikes as long as he stays healthy. However he did miss 2 full months at the age of 37 so it may not be the best idea to bank. There is also concern over Cashman’s long term pitching hopes with Pineda hurt and Banuelos and Betances having their issues. You have to wonder about Banuelos because he is only 5’9. There is a reason why the Yankees and other teams look for big guys. They tend to be more durable and can throw harder. Banuelos has control issues as well as Betances. Betances has had control problems on all levels including his brief stint with the Yankees last September.

Q; What advice would you give to somebody who wants to be a sportswriter?

WM: Being an expert in what you are talking about is more important than being a good writer. You cannot be a sports writer with just a service knowledge. When I covered basketball and hockey I was not an expert at those sports so it made it difficult. The job is a lot harder than people give it credit for.  If somebody is only covering the Yankees once a week, and ARod goes 0-4, and doesn’t come through in the clutch that person does not know enough about the situation to truly tell the story. That person doesn’t know the other factors surrounding ARod. For example how the hitters around him are hitting, the level of the pitcher he was facing, and how he has been hitting for the last week. It is very important to give information that regular fans would not know otherwise. You have to know everything about everything.

Q: What is your routine day like covering the Yankees?

WM: The clubhouse opens at 3. My routine is first talking to the players who are there, go to Girardi’s press conference, take down my pre game notes, write while watching the game, and I have to have all my stuff done 30 minutes after the game. I usually get home about 2 or 2 ½ hours after the game, go to sleep, get up and take my kids to school, go to the gym, and do it all over again. It is not as easy as people think. The web even has a harder deadline than newspapers. If I do not have my stuff up a half an hour after the game and people go to ESPN New York.com and it does not have the information they are looking for they will go somewhere else.

Q: Are players always willing to talk to you or do you first have to develop a relationship with them?

WM: Establishing a relationship with the players is very important. The Yankees are very civil and quiet. There are no trouble makers on this team and they very committed. Some will take a liking to you and it is important to find something you have in common with them. I play guitar and am a big boxing fan so that is something I looked for in players. Spring Training is an important time because they’re only the 11 beat writers there so we have a chance to build relationships without the outsiders being there. I am not really looking for any big secrets. My main focus is what is happening on the field.

Yankees Fans Unite Exculsive Interview with Cito Culver

Jamie F. and myself had the opportunity to have some questions answered by the New York Yankees 1st-round pick of the 2010 draft Cito Culver.  A native of Rochester, New York, Culver’s a switch-hitter who throws right-handed.  Below is our interview  with our questions in BLUE.  Enjoy.

Year PA R H 2B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2010 233 23 51 8 2 18 7 21 51 .251 .325 .330 .655
2011 312 40 69 14 2 33 10 30 57 .250 .323 .337 .660
Totals 545 63 120 22 4 51 17 51 108 .251 .323 .334 .657
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/12/2012.

1) After 2 seasons in short-season ball, what did you do this Winter to prepare for the grind of your first year in full-season ball?

After playing two season of short season ball I realized the toll it takes on your body. The everyday grind was tough to adjust to. This off-season I felt that I had to come into this year in a lot better shape so I was in the weight room more than ever before I’m trying to get my body ready for this long season.

2) You had much better results hitting right-handed last year (.324 BA) - is that your natural side and which side is more comfortable? How long have you been switch-hitting?

Since I was 3. My dad never let me hit from one side without swinging from the other.  If I tried to hit just one way my dad would stop playing with me.

3) Describe your approach at the plate. Do you like to work the count or jump on the first fastball you see?

I try to keep it as simple as I can.  Get a pitch that I can drive and go from there.  Hitting is hard enough to do. I don’t want to make it any harder.

4) You threw 95 MPH in High School. Was there ever a thought of pitching professionally and do you miss taking the mound?

No. I never wanted to pitch. I was just a hard thrower. I like playing everyday. I’ve always wanted to play shortstop.

5) How has your strength and size improved since you were drafted? Have you added weight?

Yes I have.  I’ve gained 8 pounds this off-season. And I feel better than ever.

6) You and the other H.S. kids drafted in 2010 made up the core of the Staten Island Championship team – do you guys talk about moving up together and eventually to New York?

We had a great group of guys and we have been lucky to have success as a team at a young age and we love playing with each other. We all talk about playing with each other over then next few years and how great that would be. But it’s out of our control.

7) Which of your Staten Island teammates impressed you the most?

That team had a lot of bright spots on it. And a lot of the players had something different to offer. Mason (Williams), Ben G.(Gamel), Tyler A.(Austin), Branden P.(Pinder), Bryan M.(Mitchell), Matt T.(Tracy).   These guys are all great players and I look forward to playing with them again.

8) What are your strengths as a hitter and what do you need to work on?

As a hitter I can put the bat on the ball a lot of the time. I don’t swing and miss often but I have a lot to work on. There is always room for improvement. I want to be as good as I can be and still be a student of the game.

9) Same question about your defense – what are your strengths and what do you need to improve?

My strength is my arm I think. But I love playing defense and there still is a lot more I can get better with. I’m excited to learn more about my position and be the best I can possible be.

10) What are your individual goals for this season?

I try to just play to the best of my ability and win. That is the most important thing to me.

11) Any last thoughts to tell the fans of the Yankees?

Just keep watching and cheering the Yankees we aren’t anything without the fans. Best fans in the world.

Yankees Fans Unite Exclusive Interview with David Aardsma

Fishjam and I had the privilege of interviewing newly acquired Yankee David Aardsma. Aardsma went to Rice University where he set the school record in single-season and career saves in 2002-2003. He was also on the team that won the College World Series in 2003 where he notched two wins and a save.

Aardsma was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 1st round (22nd overall) in 2003. He made the team with them in 2004 skipping Double-A and Triple-A.  He then bounced from several teams in trades landing with the Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox and then finally the Mariners. In 2009, he earned the closer role and had 2 great seasons with Seattle.  He saved 69 games with a 2.90 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 9.6 k/9 rate over the 2009 and 2010 seasons before suffering an injury that led to Tommy John surgery.   Aardsma was not offered arbitration by the Mariners and became a free agent.  On February 22nd he singed a one year deal with the Yankees with a club option for 2013.  Below is our interview with him.  Our questions are in BLUE.  Enjoy.

You struggled a bit in your early career, playing with 4 different teams from 2004-08. What finally clicked that led to your 2 great seasons in Seattle?

Things started clicking with the red sox in 08. I started to throw more strikes and attack hitters better, but with a mid-season groin pull it killed my second half attempting to pitch through it. In 09 I really worked with John Wettland and slowed myself down and focused on what I wanted to accomplish with every pitch. Learning how to slow myself down turned into much greater control of my self.

All Yankee fans know you are coming back from Tommy John Surgery, but you also had labral surgery on your hip last January – how is your hip now?

Hip has been good, really did a great job of strengthening it and since it hasn’t been an issue.

You had Tommy John surgery in July 2011 – where are you in your rehab? Have you begun throwing?

I’m throwing at 90 ft right now for about 5 min. I’ll increase length/duration every week or so.

Were you disappointed that Seattle didn’t offer a Major league contract after saving 69 games in 2009 & 2010?

I expected to get released (too much money if I had arbitration). I mean, in the back of my mind I would have liked them to be a little more aggressive with wanting me back but believe me, I’m excited and happy about being a Yankee. This is a special place to be.

You’ve always been a hard thrower in the 93-96 range. Explain what type of pitcher you are and what other pitches you throw.

I come right after you, make you hit the ball. I have had my fair share of walks but I don’t give them up easy. I also throw a split and slider.

You’ve enjoyed success vs. Left handed Hitters & Right Handers. Is your split-finger the pitch most effective vs. LH hitters?

I use it mainly as a strike out pitch or when I know they are sitting fastball.

When you injured your elbow, was it a gradual break-down or was there one specific pitch you threw where you just felt it pop?

After a game it was tight then got worst every game. It wasn’t one pitch like most guys.

Do you have any reservations or concerns with pitching in NY?

Not really. I’m more focused on getting healthy than anything after that. I also look forward to new challenges.

Do you expect to pitch in the Majors this year or are you realistically just trying to get yourself in 100% condition for 2013?

I’m focused on mid July as a return date. Every doc and trainer has told me plan on 12 months. I’m planning on being ready in July.

Interview with LHP Matt Tracy

Matt Tracy led Staten Island to a Championship (photo from Mike Ashmore's Thunder Thoughts)

I had the privilege to speak with Yankee left-handed pitching prospect Matt Tracy who is down in Minor-League Training Camp in Tampa.  Tracy was a 24th-rd selection by the Yankees in the 2011 draft out of the University of Mississippi. The 6’3” 212 pound southpaw pitched out of the bullpen for the Staten island Yankees and was extremely effective allowing just 1 earned run in 22.3 IP and holding hitters to a puny .108 Batting Average.

His effectiveness out of the pen led Manager Tom Slater to stretch him out to see what he could do as a starter. It took Tracy a few weeks to build up innings and he made 6 starts to finish the regular season.  In the post-season, Tracy really stepped up, throwing a pair of 6-inning shutouts to lead Staten Island to the NY Penn League Championship. Overall, Tracy finished the year going 3-2 with a 2.43 ERA/1.06 WHIP , 56 Ks & 17 BBs in 59.3 IP. He held hitters to a .211 BA with just 1 HR and an impressive 2.26 Ground Out to Air Out Ratio.

Tracy was overlooked by a lot of prospect evaluators (myself included) because he was an older college grad in the NYPL who pitched most of the season out of the pen. He’s a very promising lefty with 3 quality offerings who can induce grounders and be effective vs. LH & RH hitters. 2012 will be an opportunity for Tracy to pitch as a full-time pitcher for the first time right out of ST and could move up through the system very quickly. My questions are in BLUE.

You were drafted by the Marlins after your Junior year in college but elected not to sign and returned to Ole Miss. What went in to that decision?

I felt like I still wanted to finish up my degree so I had that out of the way, and I felt there was still stuff for me to do at Ole Miss. I wanted to see how the team could do my Senior yr and I just wasn’t ready for pro ball yet.

You were a 2-way player in college at Ole Miss as an OF and Pitcher – Do you think that may have hurt your development as a pitcher?

Its definitely a challenge when you are doing both because you don’t get to spend your full time and energy on one specific thing. But it also helped me in ways too because I learned how to be a hitter and how I don’t like to be pitched and stuff like that so I had the hitters perspective.

You pitched in a big-time baseball conference in college at Ole Miss – how did the competition in the New York Penn League compare to the SEC?

The NYPL has a lot of talented players. That’s the way it will be in pro ball – these guys are here for a reason. In the SEC I faced a lot of talented guys as well. It’s the toughest college baseball conference in the country so I think it prepared me very well for this type of setting.

After they drafted you, did the Yankees discuss whether they viewed you as a Starter or Reliever?

Not much was discussed, I went to Staten Island to see where I fit in. They used me in the pen and then about half way through the season they had me starting.

What was it like to make the transition from relieving to starting in the middle of the season?

There’s a little bit of a difference but starting is something I did my whole career. I did it growing up, in high school and I did it in college. I’m used to it so it wasn’t a huge difference to make the transition.

What does your arsenal consist of?

Fastball – 2-seamer & 4-seamer, Curveball & Change Up.  The Fastball was between 90-94 mph this summer

What is your best pitch?

I like my Fastball. I think its one of the most important pitches for a pitcher. Having good command of the Fastball and being able to attack hitters with that. My best off-speed pitch is my changeup

On video your changeup looks very effective pitch against RH hitters – Is that why you had success vs. Righties? ( RH hitters hit .221 vs. Tracy while LH hitters hit .270)

My out-pitch depends on the hitter but I generally feel real comfortable against RH hitters because I have a good feel for my Changeup.

Have you noticed a change in your stuff or velocity once you started pitching full-time with Staten Island?

Yes, I definitely saw an up tick in velocity this summer. I started throwing a little harder this summer because I was surrounded by a couple of great coaches. First we had Danny Borrell, pitching coach for Staten Island, he helped me out tremendously with my mechanics and cleaning everything up. Then Rosie (coach Jose Rosado) came up when Danny got hurt and he also helped me out. Definitely, mechanic-wise, because of the good coaches, I feel more comfortable and the ball seems to be coming out a little better. There were small things we saw while looking at tape, some stuff with my leg kick and some stuff with my front side.

You only got 6 starts under your belt as a starter before the post-season started. What clicked for you in the Playoffs that made you so successful?

I just got back to the same old stuff that makes a good pitcher – making quality pitches, getting ahead of guys, attacking hitters and making good quality pitches down in the zone. As the season progressed, my Curveball got a little better and more consistent. That helped me out, having that 3rd pitch that I could throw for a strike that maybe wasn’t there for me in the middle of the summer.

What is your approach out there on the mound?

My approach on the mound is to attack the hitters and make quality pitches. Its really as simple as that – just trying to execute. I attack different hitters differently – I throw more changeups to righties and more Curveballs to lefties.

After the season ended in late September, did you pitch in the Fall and what were you trying to improve upon?

I went to the Instructional League here in Tampa for 2 weeks. I enjoyed that. Working on my delivery in front of a lot of different coaches. I worked on my Curveball a lot down in Instructs – that was my main focus. I think I improved that and played in some games. I got some stuff done and got a little better.

How about the Winter – where did you workout?

Working out down at Ole Miss with 6 or 7 other pro guys from Ole Miss. Working out and throwing. Good to be surrounded by other guys with the same goals to push each other. Worked on full-body stuff, Core, legs & upper body.

What was it like wining a championship at Staten Island in your first year of pro ball?

NY Penn Lg Championship Cup (photo from Mjtracy17 twitter's page)

It was definitely cool. We had a great group of guys and some good team chemistry. I really like all those guys and we clicked really well. Winning is fun. Any time you’re in a postseason atmosphere when the games mean a little more, it’s a really great feeling to win.

Your SI team was filled with talent -which of your teammates really impressed you?

We really did have a lot talented guys. Game to game someone else stood out.  Mason Williams in CF was terrific all yr. What was impressive was a lot of those guys were so young to be able to perform at that level. We had a lot of HS guys, it’s a different dynamic and I thought we meshed really well – the college kids and the HS kids.

What do you feel you need to improve and what are your goals for 2012?

Continue in my progression as a pitcher. Getting more consistent with my Curveball is definitely going to be up there – getting more consistent all around that’s what makes you a good pitcher. Being able to attack the zone and throw quality strikes to make things tough on hitters

What pitchers in the majors do you try to emulate or who would you compare yourself to?

I’m a huge baseball fan and there’s stuff I pick up from a bunch of guys. I like watching all the great pitchers to try and pick something up whether its Chris Carpenter or Roy Halladay they’re both so great I love watching them pitch.

I know you grew up as a Cardinals fan in St.Louis – What was it like being drafted by the Yankees?

Been a great opportunity to be part of this organization and they do things right so its definitely a blessing.

Previewing the 2012 Rangers | Interview Series

Over the course of the next month or two, we will be previewing the Yankees’ competition in the American League. To do this, I will interview one blog for each team in the league.

So far in the AL West we have taken a look at the Oakland Athletics. Now we head southeast all the way to the Texas Rangers. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean-Luc Tilly of Nolan Writin’….

1) For the second year in a row, the Rangers made it to the World Series, but lost. How degrading is such a turn of events for the Rangers?

I would argue that this turn of events is, if anything, demoralizing rather than degrading. The Rangers still won a championship both years, just not THE championship. There is still a fair amount of pride there, although mixed with a certain feeling of frustration, especially for those involved in some of the more crucial plays. The Rangers have attempted to address that by basically overhauling the less successful portion of their postseason bullpen, by moving Feliz to the rotation, not resigning Darren Oliver, acquiring Darvish to add Ogando or possibly Harrison to the bullpen which moves Mark Lowe out of high-leverage situations, and trading Koji Uehara to the Athletics or some other interested party. I think the fact that they failed to reach the ultimate goal will serve as a source of motivation rather than despondency, especially for some of the younger players who are eager to make their mark on a championship team.

2) What are your thoughts of the Rangers’ offseason, which has mainly included the signing of Yu Darvish? Have the team’s needs appropriately been addressed?

Going into the offseason, I identified 3 areas of need for the Rangers: frontline SP and revamped bullpen, and, where fiscally responsible, a 1B or CF upgrade. I’ve discussed the revamped bullpen in question 1, so I won’t go into that much, save to say that I think acquiring Joe Nathan (2 yr/$14 mil) was a terrific move when you look at the preposterous Heath Bell (3/30) and Papelbon (4/50) contracts, and an underwhelming move when compared to the Madson (1/8.5) contract. The problem there was that the Rangers had identified Nathan early on as “their guy” and went ahead and got him rather than risk losing him (he was receiving several other offers, some reported to be higher). Unfortunately, that prevented them from playing the waiting game with Madson and his agent Scott Boras. A “proven closer” (Nathan has several seasons of closing experience, Madson has half a season) is something manager Ron Washington has consistently identified as crucial to a team’s success, so I understand the impulse to secure your candidate of choice, but a better deal could probably have been had.

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Previewing the 2012 Athletics | Interview Series

Among the A's offseason moves was extending GM Billy Beane through 2019.

Over the course of the next month or two, we will be previewing the Yankees’ competition in the American League. To do this, I will interview one blog for each team in the league.

With Spring Training approaching quickly, we’ll finish this interview series up with the AL West. Let’s start with the Oakland A’s. I had the pleasure of interviewing David Wishinsky of the Todd Van Poppel Rookie Card Retirement Plan. It is important to note that this interview took place before Yoenis Cespedes signed with the A’s.

1. In 2011, the Athletics went 74-88 finishing in 3rd place ahead of the Mariners. What could Oakland have done a better job at to achieve more success?

First and foremost the A’s featured an anemic offense. David DeJesus, Hideki Matsui, Mark Ellis, Daric Barton to name just a few put in career worst years. Josh Willingham had a lot of home runs but his other offensive numbers were down. Kevin Kouzmanoff failed to hit, Coco Crisp had a terrible on-base-percentage for a leadoff hitter and Kurt Suzuki had another disappointing season. Basically there was little to nothing positive about the offensive contributions from the 2011 A’s. Two bright spots, were Jemile Weeks and Scott Sizemore‘s additions. They both did a decent job to be sparks in the second half, but it was at that point too little too late.

2. The A’s have had a pretty busy offseason, trading away starting pitching talents Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill along with closer Andrew Bailey. How do you feel about the A’s offseason?

I loved the first half of the A’s offseason. The haul that came back in particular for Gio Gonzalez was incredible given that he is a guy who had some serious upisde but some very serious flaws (a lack of control namely). The take for Trevor Cahill was great as they have a potential future ace in Jarrod Parker. While I wasn’t as enamored of the price we paid in the trade of Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney to acquire Josh Reddick, Raul Alcantara and Miles Head (who I am unimpressed by) it was still a good deal to convert a reliever with injury problems into some future pieces. The second half of the offseason after the New Year, I am much less impressed by. The signing of Coco Crisp was terrilble, especially given that it was two years, the trade for Seth Smith – who is an intriguing ballplayer mind you – took two players who could have served as a needed block to protect our new young starters (Josh Outman and Guillermo Moscoso) and then in turn blocked prospects in the outfield where it seemed like we’d have a chance to see who we have that could pan out. I liked the signing of Bartolo Colon for that very reason that it means not all these young guys need to start in MLB, but I didn’t like the Jonny Gomes signing for the fact that it again served to block guys like Michael Taylor and Brandon Allen. So it is overall a mixed bag. Signing a DH would in my mind be more blocking of young guys and would be a poor decision, but acquiring another starter would be something I’d be fine with.

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Q & A With Dante Bichette Jr.

I was able to have the honor to interview the 2011 Yankees first round draft pick Dante Bichette Jr. I would like to thank Dante Bichette Jr. for the opportunity of this interview. If you are on Twitter, follow him at @Dante19Jr. I would also like to thank Fishjam for helping me come up with questions for the interview. You’ve been a big help! The questions of the interview will be in Purple.

How important was it to sign quickly and get a full season in the Gulf Coast Lg?

It was extremely important to sign early and get playing. I really felt like getting out on the field quickly was one of the big reasons I did well this year.

You got off to a slow start-what adjustments did you make to turn things around?

I actually didn’t make too many adjustments. I stayed with my same approach and as I started getting used to the speed of the game, things started to happen or me.

Baseball America rated you the top prospect in the GCL, did you think you’d have so much success this early?

I mean I knew I would figure it out eventually, I am just happy it was early enough in the season to make an impact on the team and help the guys win a championship.

How do you feel growing up around MLB players/parks has helped you as a player?

Well I was young when my dad was playing. So I spent most of the time in the family rooms, but the parts that I do remember definitely helped in the fact that it makes me want to make it there even more.

What GCL teammates impressed you the most with their talent?

To be honest, I was absolutely blown away with all of my teammates last year. But if one stood out to me it had to be Mariel Checo. He ended up to be our closer, and I know everyone in the stadium knew the game was over when he came in to close the championship game.

What do you feel you need to improve upon most to become a Major Leaguer.

I just need to continue to get more consistent. Also hit the gym hard in the off-season.

Describe your approach at the plate. Do you like to work the count or jump on the first fastball you see?

I like to keep it very simple when I’m at the plate. Look for a pitch that I can drive and crush it.

How was your adjustment to using Wood bats full time?

I actually use wood bats throughout the whole summer since I was a freshman in high school so the adjustment there wasn’t too hard.

Critique yourself defensively. Has the team asked you to work out at any other positions besides 3B?

They haven’t asked me to move positions. I feel good at third and I’ll stay there as long as that’s where they’ll want me.

What are your goals for 2012?

For 2012, I just want to get better from last year and I really want to end up with another championship.

What was running through your mind when you found out you were the first round draft pick for the New York Yankees in the 2011 draft?

It was a surreal feeling. It’s a dream come true. The entire dream isn’t fulfilled but that’s definitely the beginning.

Interview with Biz of Baseball’s Maury Brown

I had the pleasure of sending in some questions pertaining to the financial side of the Yankees and the new CBA to Maury Brown.  For those that do not know, Brown is one of the most respected writers/analysts on the topic of Business & Sports and is the founder of the Business of Sports Network, including the site The Biz of Baseball.    He is also a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, was formerly on the staff of The Hardball Times and also formerly the co-chair of SABR’s Business of Baseball committee.

Brown has been sourced for analysis and commentary in mostly every major sports publication including the NY Times, Time Magazine, USA Today & NY Daily News.  He’s been on ESPN2′s First Take, CNBC’s On the Money & CBS Evening News as well as being featured regularly on XM Radio’s Home Plate and other shows.  In short, he knows what he’s talking about! His complete bio can be seen here.

The questions I asked were all Yankees-related but for context’s sake, they were asked just before the blockbuster Montero-Pineda trade.  Thanks again to Maury for taking the time!  Now to the questions:

1) The new CBA brings only a $10M raise in the Luxury tax threshold over 5 years after increasing by $42M over the last 5 years.  Along with the 50% tax for repeat offenders, the roughly $10M in incentives per team to stay under the threshold and the huge limits placed on Amateur Bonuses, this deal seems to greatly inhibit team spending in many ways.  How did the MLBPA agree to all of these things without much fight and what, if any, effect will it have on the next negotiation when this agreement expires?

M.B. – When you think about it, there really are only a handful of clubs that can come close to spending near or over the threshold levels. As one person who was made abreast of the creation of the CBT (Luxury Tax)  said to me, “It really should be called the ‘Yankees Tax’.” So, the “concessions” by the MLBPA are there, but really only influence approx. five clubs. In that, I believe the changes work to suppress spending by those clubs, while other changes in the CBA offset that aspect by creating incentive to spend at the middle and toward the bottom.

2) There has been a lot of speculation that the Yankees want to get under the CBT Threshold when it increases to $189 Million in 2014.  Do you think the financial benefits are great enough that the team is serious about this or just using it as a negotiation tactic with agents?

M.B. – No. I believe they honestly will spend less. It may not be that way every year (it depends on who is available via free agency and how the market is set), but both the Yankees and Red Sox are likely to spend “less” in the coming season.

3) For Luxury tax calculations, the AAV of a contract is used.  Derek Jeter signed a 3yr - $48M deal with an $8M player option for 2014 and $3M buyout.  Do the Yankees have any say whether Jeter comes back in 2014 and what would be his AAV for Luxury Tax purposes if he plays or retires in 2014?

M.B. – The option year on his contract is, for all intents and purposes, a “player option.” I would expect him back. If that money becomes active, it’s factored into the AAV for the contract life.

4) ARod’s monstrosity of a contract includes a $30M Marketing  Agreement that pays him $6M every time he hits a milestone HR. What does this mean and how will that money effect the AAV of his deal for Luxury Tax calculations?

M.B. – It does factor, minus the AAV. The money in the marketing deal gets amortized differently. But, it counts against the CBT and revenue-sharing, once they kick in.

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Previewing the 2012 Indians | Interview Series

Over the course of the next month or two, we will be previewing the Yankees’ competition in the American League. To do this, I will interview one blog for each team in the league.

Today we’ll finish up the AL Central by looking at the Cleveland Indians. I interviewed Matt Van Wormer of Did The Tribe Win Last Night?

1) The Tribe finished in 2nd place in the AL Central with a 80-82 record last year. What are your reflections on the 2011 season?

The 2011 was a very fun, exciting and memorable season.  The Tribe started off hotter than the sun and cooled just a bit too much to make it into the playoffs.  Magic seemed to intervene every single game, from walk-off Grand Slams one night to a walk-off single the next.  There was a game winning run scored via the suicide squeeze.  It was ALMOST a great season.  Hopefully, 2012 will be a bit more successful.

 

2) At the trade deadline last year, the Indians traded a sizable package of prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez. How imperative is it for Ubaldo to return to his elite 2010 form in 2012 and make the trade worth it for Cleveland?

 

The starting rotation is going to be very important in relation to the Indians success in 2012.  Ubaldo has worked much more this offseason than he did last offseason and I think that will definitely help him return to the form that we saw him in while playing for Colorado in 2010.  If we can get 2010 Ubaldo, we are in for a real treat.  If not, well, it will just be one of those moves that gets questioned for the next 3 or 4 years.

 

3) How do you feel about the Indians’ offseason to this point? Do you feel that GM Chris Antonetti has done a good job in addressing the team’s possible weaknesses?

 

The one thing that is really irking me is the handling of the 1st base situation.  Matt LaPorta can NOT be part of the plans when it comes to setting the lineup for 2012.  He showed us over and over that he cannot handle the duties of an everyday 1st baseman and Antonetti has not addressed that position at all.  It also doesn’t help that we traded a 28 year old Fausto Carmona for a 31 year old Roberto Hernandez Heredia.  But that’s a whole other story.

 

4) Considering the Tigers just signed Prince Fielder and look to be the clear favorite for the AL Central, currently what is the general confidence level of Tribe fans?

 

The Prince Fielder signing was huge for the Tigers but that move was a necessity for them after the possible season-ending injury to Victor Martinez. While a lineup with Miguel Cabrera and Fielder is scary, the Tigers have a lot of people who will need to step up to make the Tigers go like they did in 2011. Cabrera and Fielder can’t bat before and after themselves and Justin Verlander won’t be able to start 162 games. Yes, the Tigers are a good team but they aren’t unbeatable.

 

5) What do you think of the Indians’ farm system at this time? Are there any noticeable strengths or glaring weaknesses? Are there any young prospects that could have an impact on the 2012 major-league club?

 

The Indians farm system is consistently ranked as one of the best in baseball.  The Columbus Clippers, Akron Aeros and Lake County Captains have experienced quite a bit of success over the past few seasons but I don’t know that any of them will be ready to jump to the Show in 2012.  Jason Kipnis’ success during the 2nd half of 2011 wasn’t a surprise to anyone but it was surprising how quickly he became successful.  When you can turn two prospects into a player like Ubaldo Jimenez, you know your farm system is good.

 

6) Finally, how do you project the team will do in 2012?

 

Simply answered, better than 2011.  I see this team making a nice jump as they come together and fight for a win each and every day of the season.  The only thing I am weary of is the 1st base position.  Other than that, I am very confident about the prospects of the 2012 season.

Interview with Charleston Hitting Coach Greg Colbrunn

Charleston RiverDogs Hitting Coach Greg Colbrunn

I had a great opportunity to interview Greg Colbrunn yesterday and he provided a lot of feedback on the hitters in the Yankees organization.  Colbrunn played 13 seasons in the Major Leagues as a career .289/.336/.460 hitter and was part of the World Series Champion Arizona Diamondbacks team that beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 season.

He has been with the Yankees since 2007, serving as Hitting Coach of the Charleston RiverDogs every season except for 2010 when he stepped in as Manager.  This will be his 6th season with the team so he has worked with nearly every hitter in the Yankee system above the Rookie ball level.  With his knowledge and experience I thought he’d be a great resource to find out more about the hitters in the Yankee chain.  My questions are in BLUE.

How did you get into coaching for the Yankees and do you prefer Managing or coaching hitting?

I live here in Charleston, we moved her in 1999/2000 when I was still playing. I took a year off after I stopped playing but I knew I wanted to get into coaching. I met Gary Denbo (Yankee organization hitting coordinator), and we had some of the same beliefs about hitting. It seemed like a great fit and great opportunity to coach for the RiverDogs and the Yanks have been a very good organization.

I enjoyed Managing but I prefer Hitting Coach more. I have more impact on the kids and I really enjoy working in the cage. I relate well to hitters.

Between Kevin Long, Gary Denbo, Butch Wynegar, yourself, etc., a young hitter progressing through the system will work with different hitting coaches all the time. How much communication is there between you and the other hitting instructors talking about individual players, tendencies and areas to work on?

Its kind of the same philosophy. We have good communication. When one guy moves from one level to another, we talk about him and what type of drills he’s doing. When you have different coaches that are on the same page but may go about it in different ways , you can find out what works with certain hitters.

It seems the Yankees at the MLB-level, stress the importance of going deep into counts and wearing down pitchers. Is that an organizational philosophy they try to instill early on?

When kids are starting out you want to see what a kid can do first. See what they do well, see what they can and can’t hit so we can develop a program from there. The main thing we stress is to get a good pitch and hit it hard somewhere. Learn how to recognize a curve ball from a Fastball. We talk about the importance of OBP.

During their 1st or 2nd year, the kids are still developing so you don’t want to tell them they can’t hit a certain way or that’s not gonna work. When you watch the big leagues, you see a lot of different styles, different stances – hands up, hands down. There are a lot of different ways to hit. We kind of let them go and just put them in a good position where they can have some success and be able to repeat their swing. If we see something that’s getting in the way of having success I’ll make an adjustment. I might alter hand position or something like that. But for most part in the 1st or 2nd year, I kind of let them go and make some suggestions here and there. If they’re struggling I might step in and tell them what I think but as far as any big mechanical adjustments, I try to stay away from that for the most part.

You’ve been in the organization sine 2007 and have worked with most of the highly thought of hitters. If I were to list some specific characteristics, tell me who comes to mind as the prospect in the organization that best epitomizes these skills/strengths. (NOTE: Greg hasn’t seen the hitters below the Charleston level yet)

Strike zone Recognition

Ramon Flores gets rave reviews from Colbrunn

Ramon Flores. It’s something we work on but for some reason he’s always had a real good sense. He picks up pitches as well as anyone I’ve seen come through here. He picks up pitches right out of the pitcher’s hands and has real good strike zone discipline and pitch recognition – and he recognizes it real early. The biggest thing with him was getting him to be more aggressive in counts where he could take advantage of it and let some of his natural ability take off more.

Pure bat speed

JR (Murphy) has some bat speed…….Kyle Roller, big 1B – he’s got some unbelievable bat speed coming through the zone and that’s something you cant really teach. Of course Montero.

Pull Power

Montero, Gary Sanchez. Melky Mesa hit some balls a long way when he was here but Montero had the most pure power.

Power to All Fields

Gary Sanchez, Kyle Roller had some tremendous power, he hit some balls that were unbelievable. Great all around power, oppo power. Gary, being only 18 is impressive and has ability to drive the ball the other way.

Hits for Average

Rob Segedin, he was 22 but he kind of dominated, he uses the whole field and I could see him hitting for a high average throughout the system as he gets acclimated and gets his feet on the ground. Also David Adams and Corban Joseph too.

Uses the Whole Field

Segedin, Corban Joseph. Gary (Sanchez) does a good job when we convince him to use the whole field. He’s still only 18 and gonna be real good.

Best Fastball Hitter

Brandon Laird. Romine was a good fastball hitter.

Best Breaking Ball Hitter

(Ramon)Flores does a real good job, Laird was good at hitting the hanging breaking balls, Montero, Sanchez

When I watched Slade Heathcott play this year, his physique and immense natural talent really stood out. What are his strengths as a hitter and how do you see his shoulder injuries effecting his development?

He’s got all the talent in the world. His first year here, he was 19 yrs old and we just let him go. This year he was able to make adjustments and apply them early on until his shoulder started bothering him. Hopefully the shoulder thing he can put it past him and go out there and get enough ABs so he can move up through the system. He has ability to adjust his swing, we call it “Adjustability” with his swing – he can be fooled and still get the bat head to the ball. He definitely has the power, has the bat speed, can run, put the ball in play, get on base…..so he has all the things you look for in a Major League player

Gary Sanchez has been getting some high praise as one of the best hitters in all of the Minors. Talk about Gary’s strengths and what you see for him down the road.

Gary Sanchez is the top hitter in the system

I see a bright future. He has a cannon for an arm, he’s got power, he’s got bat speed, uses the whole field, has good pitch recognition – all the things you look for in a good young hitter The praise is justifiable. He’s still learning how to play. This was the first year he played every day and was just getting the feel for it and it took him until the last 3 or 4 weeks of the season to really get going and put it all together before he got hurt. He just needs repetitions, getting games behind the plate and playing baseball.

JR Murphy looked like he was hitting everything hard with Charleston in 2011. Do you see him developing his gap to gap line drives into HRs as he progresses?

Yes, I do. He’s still 20/21. He swung the bat real well the first half of last year where he was hitting 3 or 4 balls hard per game. He ran into a little lull before he was promoted. In Charleston, the wind blows in 80% of the time, it’s not a big HR park, so power numbers might be down when you look at Charleston hitters. I think he’s gonna hit some HRs since he does hit the ball hard. As he gets bigger and stronger, when he learns to sit on pitches and take advantage of some pitches he can really handle the HRs will come.

Ramon Flores has a pretty swing for a 19-yr old. Do you see him developing enough power to be a Corner OF in the Bigs?

I do. He has one of the most natural swings we’ve had come through here. And he does have some power. Last year he took advantage, he hit 11 HRs which is pretty good for a 19 year old in Charleston. The difference between 2 years ago when I first saw him and last year when his body filled out and the strength he had was big and hopefully he’ll continue to make that progress. I’m looking forward to see him in the spring to see what kind of shape he comes in. He hit some balls well, has a great swing, a natural swing, and a real great feel. Definitely one of the best natural hitters I’ve seen come through here.

Austin Romine seems like his Catching skills will lead to a long MLB career. Do you see him being a good hitter once comfortable in the Majors?

Yes, especially for a catcher. He had a real high leg kick when he was here 3 years ago – kind of out of control with it. The time he spent here we calmed it down some, got it under control some. In the bigs, the more he gets accustomed to better pitching, he’ll hit. He has characteristics of a big league hitter – real good feel for the barrel, power, power to all fields and ability to use the whole field too. That’s something he did show as a young hitter. I think he will be an above-average hitter.

Corban Joseph and David Adams have shown ability to hit at every level. What is your opinion of them as hitters?

Colbrunn called David Adams a poor man's Jeff Kent

They are hitters. We’re fortunate that the Yanks do a great job in the amateur scouting department to bring in pure hitters. They are natural hitters. David went through some changes at Virginia (in college), when he came to us we simplified some things and he just took off, took right to it. He’s gonna hit wherever he goes, a line drive hitter who works hard. If there’s one guy I could compare him to probably a poor mans Jeff Kent, that type of hitter.

Corban is natural, gets bigger & stronger every year, ball comes off the bat a little crisper. He has an uncanny ability to get the barrel to the ball. He can be fooled, he can be beaten by a fastball and still be able to get the barrel to the ball. Great set of hands on him, he can go out and flick some things or jump on some things. Corban’s going to hit wherever he goes.

How does it feel to work with a kid, watch him progress up the ladder, then see him traded to another club right when he’s ready to make an impact in the Majors a la Montero?

I’m happy for him. I’m glad he’s going to get the chance. When I came up through the Montreal system, that was one thing they always told us – there are 27 (now 29) other teams out there. Working for the Yankees you want to see a young player come up and play for the Yankees but you have to be realistic. We try to get them better whether they are gonna help us out or help another team out.

Twitter Interview with Yankee Prospect Slade Heathcott

Slade Heathcott who was drafted by the Yankees in the 1st round in 2009 was kind enough to give me some time to answer some questions on twitter. The questions come from me and fishjam25.  Slade is one of the jewels in the Yankee system.   Thanks again to Slade for his time. If you would like to follow Slade on twitter his name is @SladeHeathcott

Baseball Reference has all his stats to date click the link to see what he has done so far as a Yankee prospect

1) How is your shoulder? What have you been doing for rehab and will you be 100 percent when Spring Training starts?

It’s feeling good, just taking it slow. I plan on being in games around May.

2) Do you work out in Tampa at Yanks facility in Winter or home (if home where do you currently reside?)

I pretty much live in Tampa now, I work out at complex and also with Speed Source in Tampa at powerhouse gym.

3) Critique yourself as a ballplayer…what are your strengths and weaknesses?

That’s a tough one I have a lot of weaknesses…a lot of things I need to mature on as a player.

4) Has the team told you if you will start in Extended Spring Training this year or right to playing for the Tampa Yankees?

It just depends on how the shoulder rehab goes, I’m not sure where I’ll start yet.

5) You have blinding speed and use it to play a great CF. What do you need to do to become more of a successful base stealer?

I’m not that fast I get good reads and good first steps which makes it seem like I’m faster, I need to work on my reaction.

6) When I saw you play in person, my first impression of you was (Brett Gardner with muscles). Do you think you are similar to Brett and what Major Leaguers do you pattern yourself after?

I don’t know if I can say I pattern myself after any big leaguers, Brett Gardner is a hell of a player.

He plays hard as hell every single day and that should be very respected.

7) Do you feel any pressure to produce to prove to people you are as good as any CF/OF in the organization?

No I don’t really feel pressure from the organization, more of my family and wanting to make them proud.

The Yankees know I’ll do everything possible and work hard to do everything possible. I also trust in my path.

8) I’m really excited to see what you can accomplish with a full year of 100% health – what are your goals for this season?

Just to stay healthy and have my ups and downs because thus what they are and not because of injures..

Previewing the 2012 Royals | Interview Series

 

The Royals' Kauffman Stadium - the site of the 2012 All Star Game.

Over the course of the next month or two, we will be previewing the Yankees’ competition in the American League. To do this, I will interview one blog for each team in the league.

Now that we’ve interviewed the Twins, Tigers, and White Sox, we now will be looking at the Kansas City Royals. I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Engel of Kings of Kauffman

1. Finishing in 4th place with a 71-91 record, the Royals had another primarily unsuccessful season. What are your thoughts looking back at the 2011 season? What could the Royals have done a better job at in order to achieve greater success?

That record is similar to how the Royals have finished in the past, but 2011 was a much different year than others. With so many prospects graduating to the big leagues, a winning season wasn’t expected, but by the end of the year, most of them were having success in some fashion. The starting rotation was a weak link, of course, but a lot of the damage was done by Kyle Davies, Vin Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan – three starters who didn’t really pitch at all past the all-star break.

2. With the exception of trading Melky Cabrera to the Giants for Jonathan Sanchez, it seems to have been a rather quiet offseason for KC. How do you feel about the Royals’ off-season to this point?

Early on, I wanted them to either go after everyone they could possibly get, or to sit tight. I advocated they sign Mark Buehrle and Roy Oswalt both if they were going to go for it, but neither happened, obviously. That’s okay with me. I have a hard time holding back my optimism after how the team started to look late last year, but it’s a tough job going for the division with mostly second year players.

I’m happy that they didn’t get a strange feeling to start selling off their still-strong prospect depth. There were a ton of fans on our side who were more than willing to give up Wil Myers and change for Gio Gonzalez. Personally, I don’t buy Gio outside of Oakland, so I’m glad that move didn’t happen, especially for our top hitting prospect. Dayton Moore trusts the players he has in his system and while 2012 may not be the year, he’s got the players around to have a big window for annual contention.

3. What do you think of the Royals’ Kauffman Stadium being the host of the 2012 All Star Game?

It’s really exciting. The renovations they’ve done make the stadium even better than it already was and Major League Baseball noticed. I think fans from all over will love the stadium and I’m going to be sure to make it, too. It’s a once in a generation kind of event for our region.

4. Although they haven’t had much major-league success in recent years, the Royals are said to have one of the best (probably the best) farm systems. How do you feel about the current state of the Royals’ prospects, and minor-leagues? Do any exciting young prospects figure to have an impact on the 2012 team?

A lot of the guys who came up in 2011 are the same guys who’ll be making the most impact in 2012. The one player who didn’t make it to Kansas City who might be on track for it is Mike Montgomery. He’s got the highest upside of any pitcher right now in the system, even though he’s coming off a pretty bad season in Triple A.

Behind him, the Royals have a lot of depth still to come. Jake Odorizzi might not be up in 2012, but he’s going to be a part of a future Royals rotation. Chris Dwyer is getting invited to camp and might be close to Montgomery’s upside – but he’s got more potential to bust, too. The system as it stands now has a second wave of young talent coming along, most of whom are in the lower levels – guys like Cheslor Cuthbert, Jason Adam, Jorge Bonifacio – who might be a bit behind Eric Hosmer and company, but they’re a lot of 19 and 20 year olds.

There’s a very small chance that Wil Myers could see time in Kansas City. If so, it’ll be during a September call-up situation. He had a rough 2011 as a 20-year-old in Double A and fended off some fluke knee problems (he endured a laceration/bruise early on that kept him out, then it became infected and kept him out again). He still held his own at the level and had a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. He’ll see Triple A before the end of 2012, at least.

5. Lastly, how do you project the team will do in 2012? Are fans confident in the organization both in the short-term and the long-term?

My expectations are a little weird. I’ve been a Royals fan for so long that I’ve seen this kind of excitement before. In 1990, the Royals had a good mix of young and veteran talent, but it fell apart and they didn’t meet expectations. In 1994, they were the hottest team in baseball and then the players went on strike. Even with the best young outfield trio in recent memory (Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon), they didn’t have any pitching to keep them in games and the 2003 season was a mirage. So Royals fans will have to pardon me for checking my optimism. I see them as a good shot for 78 wins, which is progress.

There are a lot of fans who say .500 is within reach, and honestly, I see that too. There are some fans who think 88 wins or so is in reach. At least my way, .500 is a bonus, but it’s disappointing for the second group.

Long-term, I think the Royals could end up with one of the better offensive teams in the league. A lot depends on the pitching. If Danny Duffy, Montgomery, Odorizzi and John Lamb (who’s out until at least mid-season after Tommy John Surgery last June) can reach their potential, the team will be fantastic for a good four year stretch while the other players – the Jason Adams, Cuthberts and others I’ve mentioned – move up to keep the ladder and keep the momentum going.

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