Not Ready For CenterStage

Despite all the hype and lusty predictions regarding Yankees prospect Manny Banuelos, he’s not ready for the big leagues right now.

I saw Banuelos for the first time last night and was very impressed; but there are other factors that have to be considered before anointing a 20-year-old as the cornerstone of the starting rotation for a club that has its eye on a championship every single year.

Let’s take a look at Banuelos without the blind cluelessness and rampant desperation prevalent today.

His motion and repertoire:

With a free and easy delivery and no leg drive, Banuelos is able to pop his fastball into the low-mid 90s effortlessly.

At the start of his delivery, he stands straight with his glove in front of his face, looks down at his feet as he steps back, brings his leg up, cocks and fires. The motion is similar to that of Scott Kazmir before he releases and follows through, but he doesn’t have the arm-wrecking violence of Kazmir so his comparable size (Banuelos is listed at 5’10″, 155 lbs but appears heavier) to Kazmir isn’t a concern for arm trouble the likes which Kazmir has experienced.

On release, he maintains a short stride without any discernible explosiveness from his legs; the gentleness is reminiscent of Mark Mulder who, while with the Athletics, had one of the smoothest deliveries I’ve seen in recent years.

With his short stride and simplified “step-and-throw” style, he reminded me of a very good and durable pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in the mid-1980s-early 1990s, Tom Browning. Browning’s money pitch was a screwball.

As for his pitches, Banuelos displayed an power fastball with life and a superior changeup. He only threw 1-2 curveballs while I was watching. The movement and deception of the curve had a Barry Zito-quality (when Zito was in his heyday as a rotation-mate of Mulder). There was a sameness of of arm action until he ripped off the curve which adds to a hitter’s confusion.

If he’s able to maintain that when he’s throwing a fastball, change or curve and control the latter pitches enough so no one’s sitting and waiting for a fastball, he’s going to have big-time success.

The delivery is so repeatable and easy (like that of Cliff Lee), that mechanical issues are easily repaired as they occur. This is one of the problems Zito, Rick Ankiel and Steve Avery had (along with disappearing fastballs or non-existent control)—their motions were herky-jerky and complex; once one thing goes out of whack, everything is out of whack. Dontrelle Willis had the same issue.

While a major part of the success of the above pitchers were their fastballs and unique deliveries, once things came apart, it was all but impossible to retrace the steps and get it back in line. If that happens, the success disappears; once the success disappears, they spiral and listen to anyone and everyone trying to get back what they lost and they gradually become worse.

That will not happen with Banuelos.

Banuelos isn’t exactly overexerting himself on the mound and as long as he throws strikes, he’ll be durable and consistent. He’s poised and polished from both the windup and stretch and didn’t appear overwhelmed by facing the Red Sox.

Competitive vs ready:

Outside voices like David Wells have suggested that Banuelos is ready to pitch in the majors immediately.

For some highly fathomable and diverse reason(s), I don’t see anyone involved in any fashion with the Yankees listening to Wells.

Then you have Buster Olney saying that Banuelos might be ready to contribute in the big leagues as a reliever late in the season with the following on Twitter:

Banuelos just turned 20 on Sunday, and while he’s expected to start the year in Class AA, could see him as matchup LHer in Aug., Sept.

Yes.

Well.

The expertise of Wells and Olney aside, Banuelos is not going to pitch meaningfully in the big leagues this year.

Nor should he.

The Yankees are being intelligently cautious and resistant to outside influences. Banuelos has pitched 215 innings in 3 minor league seasons; never more than 109 in one season. To bring him to the majors in 2011—in any capacity other than for him to have a look around in a probable pennant race in September—would be counterproductive and perhaps damaging.

The question becomes the narrow line between competitiveness and preparedness.

Is he ready to be competitive in the majors right now?

Absolutely.

Is he prepared for the majors? To pitch for a Yankees team that is short in starting pitching and will be sorely tempted to push Banuelos if he’s doing well and they need him to stay in playoff position? To handle New York City as an up-and-coming Yankee?

For every Derek Jeter who was able to enter into a party city’s cauldron and deal with the temptations and differentiate between where to go, what to do, whom to be associated with, there are players like Miguel Cabrera who was physically ready for big league action at age 20, found himself in Miami, contributed mightily to the Marlins World Series win and has had his off-field life come apart as he’s gotten older.

No amount of guidance, watchfulness, warnings, advice and protection can avoid the inevitable mistakes for a 20-year-old.

As for the Olney idea that Banuelos can relieve late in the season, does anyone really believe that they’re going down that road again? That they’ll take a hot prospect, insert him into the bullpen (as a lefty specialist no less!!!) and have a possible Joba Chamberlain revisited?

Certain pitchers benefit from a year in the big leagues as a relief pitcher before being inserted into the starting rotation. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver was a proponent of that in the 1970s with the Orioles. Wayne Garland, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor all relieved to start their careers. Tony La Russa has successfully done it with Adam Wainwright and Dan Haren.

The Yankees are not doing that with Banuelos.

He’s never relieved at any level; it’s a different style and speed of warming up; and it resulted in the Chamberlain disaster.

It’s idiotic.

The future:

If he stays healthy, Banuelos is going to be a 15-18 game winner in the big leagues and provide 200+ innings.

But it’s not going to happen in 2011; in fact, he might not be in the big leagues to stay before mid-season 2012.

While I’ve savaged the Yankees organization for the yoke of expectations and designations as the “future” of the franchise that were placed on the shoulders of Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy; ripped into the limitations placed on those youngsters in a cookie-cutter style and produced poor results in two of the three, they’re handling Banuelos exactly right by not pushing him; by sticking to the script and stating unequivocally that he’s not making the team and will pitch in Double A this season.

If he doesn’t make it when he is deemed ready, it won’t be the fault of the Yankees as it’s been with Chamberlain.

Banuelos is going to be an All Star, but it’s not happening this year and if it costs the club a playoff spot in 2011, so be it. Certain things are more important, like the potential stardom of a promising young pitcher.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN.


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