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GrouchoNYY
08-28-01, 01:05 PM
You've Gotta Like Their Prospects
That's the hopeful attitude of Yanks' Norwich pitchers

Ken Davidoff
STAFF CORRESPONDENT

August 28, 2001

Trenton - It takes just one poor pitching performance, one misstep on a path that requires years to complete, for the gallows humor to kick in with the Norwich Navigators.

"We talk about it, make sarcastic remarks," righthander Brian Rogers said. "We'll say, 'There goes our chance!"'

They laugh, the prospects who are developing with the Yankees' Double-A affiliate, yet they understand the truth behind the humor. They know that if there is any downside to the dynasty taking place above them, it is that their road to the major leagues is the most challenging in the game.

"The Yankees, they try to win not only in the World Series, but every single day," lefthander Brandon Claussen said before the Navigators took on the Trenton Thunder at Waterfront Stadium recently.

"It's so much work to get to the big leagues, especially with the Yankees," said Alex Graman, another lefthander.

"The patience factor is not what it is in other organizations," agreed Stump Merrill, the Norwich manager. "You don't get an opportunity to learn how to pitch at the major-league level. The margin of error is different in our system."

It's a system that has produced many of the components that Joe Torre has managed to a very special place in baseball history.

Shortstop Derek Jeter, centerfielder Bernie Williams, catcher Jorge Posada, second baseman Alfonso Soriano, starting pitcher Andy Pettitte, setup man Ramiro Mendoza and closer Mariano Rivera all grew up in the Yankees' farm system, just as these Navigators are.

Yet with all of those components now in place and surrounded by talent imported from elsewhere, it's a system that can frustrate those currently developing inside it.

Ted Lilly spent almost four months in the Yankees' starting rotation this season, and pitched respectably for most of that period. Yet a week ago today, he returned to Triple-A Columbus, and he probably won't be on the Yankees' postseason roster.

Randy Keisler served two different stints in the Yankees' starting rotation before being demoted to Columbus. Keisler, the overly excitable, overly talkative lefthander, drew the anger of many in April after his first stint when he said (among many other things), "Sometimes I feel that I have no room for error."

"Certainly, there's an amount of self-inflicted pressure," Merrill said.

To succeed here, one must work past that mentality. "The biggest key is how you handle it," Rogers said. "You can't let your emotions take over your reactions."

"There is no reason that our young pitchers can't go there and succeed, any more than our position players," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations. To blame the pressure of the Yankees, Newman said, is "a crutch. That's an excuse. That's unacceptable."

The Yankees develop their prospects, make them better and talk up their potential to the media, with the idea that they'll help either by playing for them or by helping them snag someone else in a trade. Righthander Jake Westbrook, for example, pitched terribly in three games with the Yankees last year. But the team used him as part of the package to get David Justice from Cleveland. Righthander Ben Ford also struggled last year in a limited audition, yet the Cubs took him and another prospect in return for Glenallen Hill. Justice and Hill were two of the Yankees' most important offensive players last season.

The players who get traded, meanwhile, get a chance to prove themselves elsewhere, under less stressful conditions. Eric Milton, part of the Chuck Knoblauch deal in 1998, is in his fourth year with the Twins and made his first All-Star team this year.

Sterling Hitchcock, who in 1994 made complaints similar to Keisler's, established himself with the Padres, then returned to the Yankees last month as a veteran pitcher.

This has been a particularly encouraging season for the Yankees' pitching crop. Lilly and Keisler have shown flashes of promise. Christian Parker, who came with Lilly from the Expos in the Hideki Irabu deal, won the fifth starter's job in spring training before going down with a right shoulder injury.

The Navigators boast a five-man starting rotation with only one non-prospect. Lefthander Randy Flores, 26, also has hopes of making the majors, but as evidenced by his age, Flores will have a tougher time making it because he gets by on off-speed pitches.

The Yankees currently are most excited about Claussen, 22, a 34th-round pick from the 1998 amateur draft who has surged into prominence this year. One opposing scout recently raved about Claussen's poise on the mound. His fastball hits 94 mph on the radar gun and he has a slider and curveball. In 19 starts for Norwich since his midseason promotion from Tampa, he is 8-2 with a 2.25 ERA, with 140 strikeouts and 51 walks in 124 innings. "We have very high hopes for him," Newman said.

"I've tried to spot up my fastball better," Claussen said. "Some days I can't do this. But I've managed to keep competing.

"Who knows how long I'll play this game? If I go to the big leagues and this works out, that's great. If not, I'll have had fun while I was doing it."

Graman, 23, tall and thin at 6-4, 195, ranks higher than Claussen in the minds of most team officials. His climb has been steadier since the Yankees chose him in the third round of the 1999 draft. Last year, while pitching right outside George Steinbrenner's office at Class A Tampa, he became one of The Boss' favorites. When the Cubs asked for Graman in the trade discussions involving Sammy Sosa, the Yankees balked. "It's nice to know that they wouldn't give me up for a player like that," he said.

But he understands that one can lose the untouchable label quite quickly here. He had a rough beginning to this, his first season at Norwich. With a 12-9 record and 3.39 ERA, the adjustments are coming. He throws a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup.

He focuses on making the big leagues rather than the Yankees specifically, yet he acknowledges that climbing all the way to the top here would be quite meaningful. This winter, he plans on living in Tampa, reporting to the Yankees' minor-league complex daily and trying to add 15 pounds of muscle.

The 6-6 Rogers, 24, already is on the Yankees' 40-man roster, and he started this past season in the major- league spring training. "It was like a dream world," he said. "Just walking in, I was pretty much in awe, seeing Clemens, Pettitte, Mussina, Jeter."

This is Rogers' second season at Norwich, and he is 9-8 with a 4.01 ERA. "I would love to make it with the Yankees, but in the future, if things don't work out, it's fine," he said. "I'll still hopefully, sometime in my career, pitch for the Yankees, but anywhere will be fine with me."

The North Carolina native, a fifth-round pick in the 1998 draft, follows the Yankees regularly in the newspaper, as do most of his teammates. Their home clubhouse receives MSG on the television so they can watch their big-league superiors when they're done with their own games.

"Those guys all have a chance," Newman said. "They all have to improve their command. They've got to be able to do something behind in the count besides throwing a fastball. That comes with experience."

So will dealing with the pressure, Newman and his fellow officials hope. Sometimes, after a bad game, Merrill will take command on the team bus and explain that their efforts won't cut it in New York. He'll refer to his own harsh experience in the Bronx, when he managed the Yankees from June 1990 through the end of the 1991 season, and tell them how the media savaged him.

His charges take the wisdom and file it away, wondering if they can defy the odds by making the Yankees and then sticking with them.

They have no choice but to think they can. As Claussen notes, putting his own take on the phrase immortalized by Frank Sinatra, "If you do get a shot, if you can play for them, you can play for any team."

Gator
08-29-01, 10:49 PM
Great stuff, thanks for posting.

Claussen, Graman, Henn, Arnold. The Yankees have a good crop of young pitchers (especially lefties) ready to contribute in the very near future.

PinstripePride
08-30-01, 07:51 PM
Originally posted by ElDuque110
Great stuff, thanks for posting.

Claussen, Graman, Henn, Arnold. The Yankees have a good crop of young pitchers (especially lefties) ready to contribute in the very near future.
To bad Henn is out for the season...&po'd&