In what has been an up-and-down season for precocious lefty Manny Banuelos, a somewhat surprising promotion indicates that he might be making an earlier-than-anticipated major league debut.
Banuelos turned heads in spring training, showing a combination of frontline stuff, impressive command, and a cool, poised presence that belied his 19 years. Even mainstream baseball writers who spend little time following the minor leagues were impressed with Banuelos’ performance, and many wrote that it was only a matter of time before he forced his way into the shallow Yankee rotation.
This has not according to the perceived plan, and for the Yankees, that is a fortunate outcome. The intended stopgaps, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, have outperformed even the most optimistic projections for their performances, pitching like legitimate #2 or #3 starters instead of back-end fodder. They haven’t needed to rush Banuelos, Dellin Betances, or other potential rotation options like David Phelps or Adam Warren. I know Brian Cashman insisted that he was not going to rush Banuelos to the majors, but I’m sure it was in the back of his mind should the combination of Colon, Garcia, and Ivan Nova have failed to hold down two rotation spots.
This has allowed the Yankees to be patient with Banuelos (and fellow Killer B Dellin Betances), allowing them to hone their craft in AA and focus on refining their secondary offerings and build up their innings totals. The innings are of particular importance, since Banuelos missed time in 2010 due to an appendectomy, and the Yankees would like to have him able to operate without major innings restrictions when he finally does make his major league debut. In 2010, Banuelos was limited to just 64 2/3 minor league innings, plus about 25 in the Arizona Fall League.
Banuelos is up to 95 innings on the season already, and has not been as dominant as he was in 2010, when he posted a combined ERA of 2.51 across 2 levels, with 85 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings. Banuelos has maintained his strikeout stuff in 2011 (striking out nearly a batter per inning), but has shown uncharacteristic control problems (walking nearly 5 per 9 innings, perhaps exacerbated by some bouts with blisters). His performance has not exactly trended upward either, so it was somewhat strange to hear the news that Banuelos was being promoted to AAA, and might get an opportunity to work out of the major league bullpen down the stretch.
Despite maybe not totally deserving the big league promotion because of his performance, I understand the move. Given the significant uncertainty about the Yankees’ left-handed relief options, Banuelos may very well be the best choice available for helping the Yankees’ playoff chances. It is unclear whether Manny’s utilization will primarily be as a lefty specialist, or more as a middle reliever. Banuelos has been death to lefties in the minors this season (1.24 ERA, with no homers allowed, over a strikeout/inning, and a k:bb approaching 3), so using him as a LOOGY (left-handed one out guy) would make some sense.
It would also make some sense given the Yankees’ present bullpen construction. They have a dominant setup man in David Robertson, and hopefully will have another one in Rafael Soriano, which combined should take care of the crucial 7th and 8th innings. If Boone Logan continues to be erratic, Banuelos could usurp his role as the go-to guy to get lefties out, though Banuelos will likely be able to have success against righties too with his changeup.
The bullpen move also makes sense because of a potential innings limit. I am not entirely certain where the Yankees foresee Banuelos’ innings ceiling this season, but given that he is about to surpass his career high (including the AFL innings from last year)), it is understandable that the Yankees would consider slowing him down for the season.
Two somewhat analogous situations come to mind, but I argue (with some optimism) that Banuelos is a different case than both Joba Chamberlain and Jesus Montero. In the Joba situation, the Yankees had an unsteady bullpen in need of a dominant setup man (and potential Mariano successor), but the presence of both Robertson and Soriano should prevent people from wanting the Yankees to keep Banuelos in the ‘pen. Hopefully, the Yankees are more committed to Banuelos as a starter, and do not see the potential red flags that kept them from returning Joba to the rotation. As for Montero, I argued against promoting him earlier because he needed development time, and was not a clear upgrade to available options. In the case of Banuelos, the innings limit puts some restriction on his additional development time, and I don’t really see a better alternative available if Logan continues to be unreliable.
Overall, I’m somewhat surprised by the aggressive promotion of Banuelos (and probably Betances soon), but I understand the Yankees needing to balance the often competing priorities of winning always and developing players. I think if handled correctly Banuelos will not be a casualty of this tension, and could be an asset to the Yankees going down the stretch.
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