Yankees are in need of left-handed help

BY Ken Rosenthal • May 12, 2011

The Yankees need another left-hander. Two, actually.

One for the rotation, one for the bullpen. A starter besides CC Sabathia and a reliever besides Boone Logan to counter the Red Sox’s predominantly left-handed lineup.

Alas, Double-A lefty Manny Banuelos can’t fill both roles. For this season at least, it’s a stretch to envision him filling even one, though a rival scout told me Thursday, “I just put in about as high a grade on him as I’ve ever put in on anybody.”

Banuelos, the prize of the Yankees’ farm system, just turned 20 on March 13. He never has thrown more than 109 innings in a season. And the Yankees are handling him with extreme care; Banuelos, 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, has averaged 4 1/3 innings in his first six starts at Double A, “stretching out” to five innings in his most recent start.

The kid should spend the entire season in the minors — period.

Yet Yankees fans might start longing for Banuelos this weekend when the Red Sox’s lefty bats — Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford — make their first visit to Yankee Stadium (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 7 p.m. ET).

The Yankees wanted to add another lefty starter last winter, but free agent Cliff Lee joined the Phillies and Andy Pettitte retired. Free agent Pedro Feliciano, signed to be the Yankees’ top left-handed relief specialist, might as well be elsewhere, too; he has been on the disabled list all season with a rotator-cuff strain.

Logan, intended to be the secondary lefty, should be busy all weekend against the Red Sox — or maybe not. True, left-handed hitters batted only .190/.286/.215 in 90 plate appearances against Logan last season. But this season they’re 8 for 23 with two doubles and a homer. Too bad; the Sox’s Ellsbury, Gonzalez and Crawford have been particularly susceptible to lefties thus far.

The Yankees’ saving grace is that their top four right-handed relievers — Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain — all are historically successful against lefties. However, frequent right-left matchups would increase the pressure on the right-handed setup men.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman does not attempt to downplay the void in his bullpen. But if quality lefty relievers were easily obtained, he would not have signed the heavily used Feliciano in the first place.

“I’d like to have another left-hander,” Cashman said. “I’m just not going to get one right now. And I don’t know if I’ll get one this summer.”

Which brings us to Banuelos. Born just over a year before the Yankees drafted Derek Jeter, the lefty from Monterrey, Mexico, was the talk of spring training.

At one point, Red Sox manager Terry Francona jokingly advised the Yankees to keep Banuelos in the minors as long as possible.

“For this young man’s future, they should go slow with him. Very slow,” Francona said. “You rush a guy like that, it can be pretty bad.”

Nice try, Tito.

Banuelos made yet another memorable impression on the rival scout who witnessed his most recent start at Double A.

“When he’s right, he has a Cole Hamels changeup, an early Johan (Santana) fastball,” the scout said. “And I can’t even think of who has as powerful a curveball from the left side in the big leagues.”

No wonder Cashman acknowledges that Banuelos could join the Yankees as either a starter or reliever this season. But either move would carry risk.

Banuelos’ innings limit, whatever it might be, would be an issue as a starter. His splits do not suggest he would be a dominant left-on-left reliever.

The Yankees always could break in Banuelos as a reliever and then return him to starting, the way they did with righty Phil Hughes and attempted to do with righty Joba Chamberlain.

Interesting stuff to think about. But the issue is not a hot topic in the Yankees’ front office, Cashman said.

“It’s too early to really define it,” Cashman said. “You always hope guys can be starters. But where they settle in the big leagues remains to be seen.

“His experience level is still not big enough to declare, all of a sudden, what he’s going to be in the big leagues if he makes it. That’s assuming he makes it. We believe he will.”

A rival executive, however, makes a strong argument against ever using Banuelos — or any other young phenom — as a reliever. For the most part, the exec says, the industry does a good job of keeping starters healthy — and a terrible job helping relievers maintain an even keel.

Starters are protected, even babied. Effective relievers, on the other hand, are used as often as possible.

They don’t always get hurt. Sometimes they just lose the crispness on their stuff. But their usage patterns, the exec says, are one reason why relievers’ performances are so volatile from year to year.

The Yankees could pick their spots with Banuelos, trying to use him only in the most critical situations. But what are the odds they would manage him so optimally? The temptation to win is so great, the Yankees would want to use their new toy.

The solution, then, is to find at least one more veteran starter, right-handed or left-handed, plus a veteran lefty reliever.

Let Manny become Manny. A treasured member of the Yankees’ rotation. No sooner than 2012.

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