Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Russo Excited to Help the Yankees

Recent injuries have given some lesser known Yankee prospects an opportunity to shine. During this weekend Kevin Russo got his chance in the Subway Series against the Mets. His biggest hit so far was a game winning, opposite field double which drove in the only 2 runs the Yankees could muster Friday night in their 2-1 victory.

Russo's 5-11 and 180 pound frame doesn't standout in the Yankee dugout and neither does he seem to fit in with a team full of high priced superstars. Scott Cacciola provided some interesting insight about Russo and his reaction to his recent role as a hero Friday night in an article in the Wall Street Journal called An Atypical Yankee:
After the game, Mr. Russo, a recent minor-league call-up and 25-year-old rookie, appeared utterly shocked—and a little unnerved—to find 20 reporters huddled at his locker. Not long ago, he was playing against the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs. He kept using the word "exciting."
Cacciola also discussed the bond Russo had with Baylor coach Steve Smith and his family:
Mr. Smith said he feels a unique bond with Mr. Russo, in large part because he watched him cope with trauma while he was at Baylor. Mr. Russo's father, Steve, a lifelong Yankees fan who grew up in the Bronx, was succumbing to cancer. He died in 2007.

So this weekend was special and poignant for Mr. Russo, who said he plans to give the baseball from his first major-league hit to his mother, Colleen. In the meantime, he will quietly continue to go about his work.

"His fire," Mr. Smith said, "is burning inside."
A tough, all around athlete he was named one of two all-state running backs in high school by the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado. The other by the way was LenDale White, who went on to star at USC and now is with the Seattle Seahawks. Drafted by the Yankees in the 20th round of the 2006 draft out of Baylor, Russo helped his team reach the College World Series in 2005. Since 2006 he has progressed through the organization, improving offensively and defensively at every level. His production has actually improved against stronger competition—from the Gulf Coast League in 2006 (.273), to Tampa in 2007 (.281), to Trenton in 2008 (.307) and to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2009 (.326).

He earned FSL all star honors in 2007 and was sent to the AFL where he hit .309 after a good year at Trenton in 2008. He had a solid season in his first year at Triple-A last year, reaching career highs in many categories. A contact hitter, he batted mostly lead off, and finished his first Triple A season with a .326 batting average, 13 stolen bases and a .397 OBP. He improved throughout the year with the bat. He hit .343 after the all star break, with a .411 OBP and made the International League post season all star team, finishing 4th in the league in batting average. This year he started off slow in Triple-A, but was starting to heat up before this recent call up to the majors. So far with the Yankees this season he has 3 major league hits in 10 at bats.

What we could be seeing is the development of a solid utility player. Mainly an infielder so far in his professional career, Russo's best position is second base. In fact he was named the best defensive second baseman in the FSL by Baseball America in 2007. He has also played third base in the minors and a few games at shortstop. According to Brian Cashman, the Yankees' current plans are to make him into a "Jerry Hairston type" utility player. His development has included more playing time in Triple-A as an outfielder but he has not clocked much time at the position so far. Through this season, he has played the outfield a total of 13 times over 5 minor league seasons, but he did look comfortable in left field during the Mets series.

In 6 career major league games in the field so far, he has played 3 at third base, 2 in the outfield and 1 at second base. The Yankees have always known Russo could hit and their confidence in him as a versatile utility player is growing by the game. Russo's thoughts in the Wall Street Journal article about his most recent role:
"Wherever I can play, I don't care," said Mr. Russo, who was born in West Babylon on Long Island before moving to Colorado when he was 3. "As long as I'm playing baseball, it's fine with me."
You have to love his attitude and as Yankee fans watch him play more, they will love his aggressive, head first style of play. He is a competitor and has the talent to make a contribution. The organization seems to agree because they felt highly enough about him to protect him this off season by placing him on the 40 man roster. It will be interesting to see how he does against major league level talent as he gets more playing time.

(Photo credit to Reuters)

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