01/11/09 4:37 PM EST
Brackman nearing Yankees debut
Top '07 pick could join fellow rejuvenated hurlers in spring
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
With the approach of Spring Training, it looks like they will finally see one of their top prospects in a pinstripe uniform top.
Make that a big pinstripe uniform top.
The newly turned 23-year-old stands 6-foot-10 and weighs around 240 pounds, down from when he tipped the scales around 270 at the beginning of '08 Spring Training.
And while the answer to the obvious question is, "Yes, he played basketball for the Wolfpack," it was only briefly. He dropped his two-sport status after his sophomore year to focus exclusively on baseball.
A standout in high school in Cincinnati, where he posted a 1.04 ERA as a senior for baseball factory Moeller High, Brackman was sidelined off and on through his college career by a variety of injuries, including a hip injury as a sophomore and a sore elbow as a junior.
The elbow woes kept him out of NCAA postseason action that spring, but his 3.81 ERA as a junior at NC State combined with his strong showing in the Cape Cod League the previous summer and his potentially overpowering stuff prompted the Yankees to call his name with the 30th overall pick. And on the Aug. 15 deadline, they signed him to a big league deal worth more than $4 million.
Not long after that he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, and as a result, he's yet to make his official pro debut for the club.
This past summer, Brackman worked his way back through a rehab program with the Yankees down at their Tampa facility. But any faint hopes that he might take the mound for the Gulf Coast League's Rookie-level team before the end of August ended when he underwent an emergency appendectomy which set back his timetable by another month.
He finally took the mound in instructional league and given the "all clear" sign, he was dispatched to Hawaii where he made eight starts for the Waikiki BeachBoys in the Hawaii Winter Baseball League.
Brackman went 3-4 with a 5.56 ERA, striking out 36 batters in 34 innings and limiting the league's batters to a .235 average. He went five or more innings in four of his starts, including three of the last four.
"His velocity was between 94-97 [mph], so he had no problems and he's ready to go for Major League camp," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations. "His stuff is outstanding, and he's getting a feel for his delivery and throwing strikes. But first and foremost, he was healthy and, at times, dominant."
The delivery and mechanics are definitely the biggest challenge for Brackman, and not just because he has had so little mound time. For a pitcher of his size, there are both benefits and challenges.
"The benefits are the power and deception because the ball is released closer to the plate," Newman explained. "But the downside is you have long levers to manage, and it takes time. There aren't many of those guys in the environment to use as test cases, but most people believe that taller guys take a little longer to get their command."
That said, Newman added that Brackman has the advantage of being an exceptional athlete.
"To watch him run, he looks like he's 6-foot-2," Newman said of the young man who offsets that explosive heat with a knuckle curve and a developing changeup.
So while it's impossible at this point to make a prediction on Brackman's ETA to the big leagues, it's equally impossible not to dream about his upside.
With a top prospect looking to make that return to the mound from Tommy John surgery, it's hard not to look back at last year at this time, when the club anticipated the pending return of not one but three top young pitchers coming back from the same operation after all missed the '07 season.
Right-handers Humberto Sanchez, Mark Melancon and J.B. Cox were all on the comeback trail heading into '08 Spring Training, so they know what Brackman is going through right now.
So what advice would they give him as he approaches his first big league camp action?
"Just don't overdo it," said Sanchez, who also had to wait from the day he was acquired from Detroit in late '06 until mid-'08 to actually take the mound as a Yankee. "He's a great athlete, one of those guys who makes it look easy, so hopefully he'll understand he doesn't need to overdo it."
Of that trio, Sanchez was the last to make it back to the mound, but the first -- and so far only one -- to reach the big leagues.
Acquired in the '06 trade for Gary Sheffield, Sanchez underwent his surgery in April '07, and after a second operation to remove calcified bone spurs in his elbow, he began his comeback in the Gulf Coast League with two-thirds of an inning of work June 24.
After 11 more outings of an inning apiece in that cloistered environment, two more at Class A Tampa and one at Double-A Trenton, followed by two scoreless innings for the Eastern League champion Thunder in the playoffs, Sanchez was brought to the big leagues.
And on Sept. 18, just blocks from where he spent most of his childhood and teenage years, Sanchez made his big league debut at Yankee Stadium, appearing in two games for the Bronx Bombers.
Right now, Sanchez is working hard on his fitness and conditioning regimen in Arizona so he will be at 100 percent when he joins the team in Tampa in mid-February for big league Spring Training.
"I feel pretty good, but honestly, I forgot what 100 percent feels like," he joked from Arizona, where he was enjoying a few hours off watching his beloved New York Giants. "I feel as good as I can going into Spring Training, and being out here has helped a lot. Along with the conditioning and fitness work, we've also been doing what we call 'prehab' to try to prevent injuries."
Some famous cleats to fill?
Melancon was the pitcher who saw the most immediate on-field success in his return, pitching well at three levels right out of the chute.
As with Brackman, the Yankees knew when they selected the right-hander out of Arizona in the ninth round of '06 that they were getting a pitcher who had missed time with elbow trouble. After just a handful of innings that summer, he underwent surgery.
In '08, though, Melancon climbed the ranks quickly, with a 2.84 ERA in 13 games at Tampa, a 1.81 in 49 2/3 innings at Trenton and a 2.70 mark in 12 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, along with three shutout innings for that club in the International League playoffs. He combined to strike out 89 batters in 95 innings while walking just 22. Coming into '09, he could factor into the big league bullpen mix from the get-go.
But whether he starts the spring in New York or in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Melancon is probably the Yankees' most promising heir to the throne of Mariano Rivera, both thanks to his stuff and his mound makeup.
His '08 campaign proved that stuff -- a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, a power curve and a newly added changeup -- are all present and accounted for. All he needs now are more reps.
Cox was also back on the mound to open '08, allowing just four earned runs for a 1.44 ERA over the first two months spanning 25 innings between Tampa, Trenton and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, before going on the DL for two weeks with a sore shoulder. After his return to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he gave up 18 earned runs in his next 23 2/3 innings, though eight of those runs came in two outings. Overall, his '08 numbers filtered out to a 4.07 ERA and 21 walks vs. 24 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings.
A second-round pick in '05 out of Texas, where he was the top closer in the country with an out-pitch combo of sinker and slider, Cox posted a 1.75 ERA in 41 games with Trenton in '06 before his injury.
Newman confirms Cox is healthy and ready to roll for '09.
"He's fine," Newman said. "He's just been out for a year and got to the point in terms of his innings where we didn't want to overload him. We consider those guys 'rehabs' for a full year."
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.