When the season started, it was the Tampa roster that created the least buzz of any Yankees affiliate. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances had moved up to Double-A, Slade Heathcott and Gary Sanchez were still in Low-A, and High-A Tampa was left to a handful of mid-level prospects and unknowns.
Of course, it was Tampa that won more games than any other Yankees minor league affiliate, primarily on the strength of a solid lineup and a group of pitchers who weren’t quite overwhelming but held their own. The team’s ERA was near the bottom of the Florida State League, but individually, enough pitchers did well enough to win 74 games, one more than Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and nearly 20 more than more highly touted Charleston.
Hitter of the Year: LF Zoilo Almonte
Part of the reason the Tampa roster thrived is that Almonte finally had a breakout season. He played in only 70 games before a promotion to Double-A, but he still led Tampa in home runs, finished second in RBI and put together the team’s most impressive slash line at .293/.368/.514. Signed out of the Dominican Republic way back in 2005, Almonte finally had a decent year in Staten Island in 2009. He was a little bit better last year in Charleston and Tampa, and this year he showed a mix of power and speed before his Double-A promotion. He didn’t do nearly as much with Trenton, and he’ll likely try to avoid following Melky Mesa’s footsteps with a return to Trenton next season.
Starter of the Year: RHP Brett Marshall
In his last 10 outings, Marshall allowed more then three runs only once and more than two runs only twice. He had a 2.84 ERA through that stretch, finishing the year at his very best, despite the fact he easily surpassed his career-high for innings pitched. In his second year back from Tommy John surgery — a year in which Baseball America ranked him the 11th-best Yankees prospect — Marshall got better as the year progressed. He turns 22 next spring, and should have Double-A in his sights coming out of spring training.
Reliever of the Year: RHP Ryan Flannery
Could have gone several ways here — Chase Whitley, Preston Claiborne, Jose Quintana — but I’ll go with the Tampa closer who walked only five guys all year, had more than twice as many ground outs as fly outs, and led the team with a 0.89 WHIP. He was a 47th-round pick in 2008, and he’s certainly not a big name in the system, but that’s a nice year. Looking for the reliever who made the biggest name for himself, that’s probably Whitley, who had a 1.68 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and earned a Double-A call-up in his first full season.
Breakout performance: OF/2B Ronnier Mustelier
Really, Almonte is probably the best pick here, but I’ll go with an odd pick. Mustelier is a 27-year-old out of Cuba. He’s too old for this level, and he’s in his first year with the Yankees, but he also hit .333/.378/.524 while playing all over the field. It’s only 126 at-bats, but that line makes you take notice, and a guy in Mustelier’s spot needs to make people pay attention quickly. There’s no time to wait a few years for a breakout season. He needed to make a quick impression, and he did, and now he’s playing in the Arizona Fall League (he’s hitting out there as well).
Disappointing numbers: CF Slade Heathcott
The number that matters is the number five, as in five at-bats. The Yankees top pick in 2009 was expected to start the year in Low-A, move fairly quickly to High-A and improve on last year’s so-so numbers. He got off to an incredible start in Low-A, moved up despite a considerable drop in production, and wound up on the disabled list after only one game with Tampa. He didn’t play past the end June. Starter Jairo Heredia also had his season cut short at the end of June, and another starter, Jose Ramirez, struggled in a brief High-A strint, but Heathcott’s injury was one of the biggest blows to the system this year.
Top prospect watch: CF Abe Almonte
Aside from Marshall — who’s something of a wild card given the injury history — none of the Yankees elite, big-name prospects spent a lot of time in Tampa this year. Whitley could certainly fit here, but we’ll go with a guy who seems perpetually on the verge of building some legitimate prospect buzz. A converted infielder, Almonte put up season totals perfectly in line with his previous two years, but in the second half he hit .317/.367/.478 with 17 stolen bases and nine triples. The Yankees have to hope it as a sign of things finally coming together, or was it too little, too late?
Notable: In no way is SS Walter Ibarra an elite prospect, but he did give the Yankees his best season this year with a .297/.333/.421 slash line and 10 stolen bases… 3B Rob Lyerly hit .315/.363/.462 to earn a promotion to Double-A in the middle of June. The 2009 sixth-rounder hasn’t shown typical corner infield power, but he’s hit and advanced… RHP Scottie Allen, the player the Yankees got from Arizona for Juan Miranda, opened the season in Tampa but went down to Charleston after a 7.21 ERA through 16 appearances. The Charleston numbers were even worse… Mentioned LHP Jose Quintana briefly above, but he did have a terrific year while splitting time between the rotation and bullpen. He had 10 wins, a 2.91 ERA and 1.12 WHIP… Signed as a free agent last year, RHP Josh Romanski had a 3.16 ERA in the Tampa rotation, went to Trenton and had a 2.04 ERA as a reliever… 1B Luke Murton led Tampa with 62 RBI and 28 doubles… OF Deangelo Mack hit .300/.364/.464 to earn a Double-A promotion, while C Kyle Higashioka hit .238/.300/.372 to earn a demotion to Low-A, where his numbers were even worse… Best pitching stats on the team belonged to INF Emerson Landoni who pitched in one game, threw two scoreless innings and got the win.