The Yankees only full-season affiliate to finish with a sub-.500 record, the Tampa Yankees were caught somewhere in between Low-A Charleston’s big names and Double-A Trenton’s steady results. There were some standouts in Tampa, but there were also a lot of partial seasons as elite players came and went throughout the season.
Slade Heathcott showed up late, J.R. Murphy left early and Tyler Austin made only a pit stop.
On this roster, you had to look for the flashes. And there were enough of them to make this group worth watching.
Player of the Year
LF Ramon Flores
He’s not one of the big three outfield prospects — Heathcott, Williams, Austin — but Flores deserves a spot in that next tier. He hasn’t hit for typical left-field power, but he’s shown an ability to hit for average, get on base and steal a bag. Because of the position he plays, and because of the other outfielders all around him, Flores is understandably overshadowed. He probably should be. His skill set isn’t a slam dunk to play at the big league level (I once heard him compared to Jose Tabata, and look at Tabata’s ups and downs). But after hitting just .207 in the month of April, Flores finished the year with a .302/.370/.420 slash line in Tampa. He moved up to Trenton at the very end of the season, and will almost certainly start next season in Double-A (probably in an outfield with Heathcott and Austin). First baseman Kyle Roller was Tampa’s biggest run producer, but Flores finished second in the league in runs while ranking Top 10 in on-base percentage, batting average, doubles, triples, total bases and stolen bases.
Pitcher of the Year
LHP Nik Turley
Blisters limited his workload early in the year, but Turley ultimately topped 100 innings for the first time and finished tied for the team lead in innings pitched. He also led the Florida State League with a 2.89 ERA before an end-of-the-year promotion to Trenton. Turley is a big guy — listed at 6-foot-6 — and he’s always been something of a project ever since the Yankees took him in the 50th round and coaxed him out of a commitment to BYU. Opponents hit .235 against him, and he went 7-2 with a 2.33 ERA after the All-Star break. Although the individual innings were limited, this wasn’t a bad rotation with Matt Tracy, Zach Nuding and Jose Ramirez, but it was Turley who most stood out from start to finish.
Reliever of the Year
RHP Mark Montgomery
It’s worth noting that there has to be a separate category here for Montgomery. Turley was excellent while pitching nearly three times as many High-A innings as Montgomery, but the real star of this pitching staff might have been their closer. Montgomery built on his tremendous 2011 debut, and through 40.1 High-A innings, he struck out 61, walked 16 and allowed just 23 hits, none of which were home runs. Tommy Kahnle was nearly just as impressive with 72 strikeouts and 24 walks through 55 innings. Aaron Dott and Brandon Pinder were also good out of the bullpen. Hard to ignore a starter’s workload, but on this roster, the bullpen really shined.
RHP Jose Ramirez
This guy has been a legitimate prospect for quite a while, but injury and inconsistency made him such an uncertainty that Baseball American left Ramirez out of their Top 30 Yankees prospects this season. My friend Patrick Teale — who follows the lowest levels of the minor league system closely and as well as anyone — kept Ramirez among his Top 15 Yankees prospects, but even Patrick acknowledged that Ramirez had likely pitched his way out of rotation consideration and into the bullpen. Of course, that was before Ramirez delivered a 3.19 ERA with 94 strikeouts in 98.2 innings this season. He missed about a month with a strained lat, but his true breakout came in the second half when he had a 2.17 ERA with a .205 opponents batting average through 10 starts and three scattered relief appearances. Ramirez has a big fastball and a good changeup, and he truly pushed himself forward this season. I always consider Double-A a huge test, and that’s next for a guy who could establish himself as a legitimate rotation prospect for the not-so-distant future.
CF Eduardo Sosa
Given the outfield depth in the Yankees system, opportunities for borderline center field prospects are getting harder and harder to come by. But Sosa was given one this season. Slade Heathcott wasn’t ready to open the season, Mason Williams and Ravel Santana weren’t ready for High-A, and so Sosa was Tampa’s starting center fielder and leadoff hitter on Opening Day. By mid-July, he’d been demoted to Charleston. Sosa hit just .237/.297/.307 in 241 High-A at-bats, and the results weren’t much better after he was sent down. He’d shown some life in the first half of 2011, but at this point it’s hard to put much stock into what was once considered an intriguing young player with good speed and a good glove. He’s still young — just turned 21 this year — but how many more chances is he going to get in this outfield-heavy organization?
CF Slade Heathcott
Two shoulder surgeries and two strikeout-heavy seasons were enough to create real doubt about Heathcott’s ability to truly capitalize on his enormous talent. The Yankees moved slowly with him this season, keeping him in extended spring training, then limiting his time in the outfield, but the results were as encouraging as anything Heathcott’s done as a professional. He hit .307/.378/.470 in 60 games with Tampa, and he’s since moved to the Arizona Fall League where he’s continued to produce. Heathcott still strikes out a lot, but his .374/.430/.516 month of August — when he had 10 stolen bases without getting caught — gave some idea of his lofty upside. The Yankees still need to see him get more than 300 at-bats in a season, but this year was a unmistakable positive, reviving Heathcotts status as one of the Yankees elite prospects.
Odds and ends
Very similar to his 2011 season, first baseman Kyle Roller hit .266/.357/.471, and this time he was tied for the organizational lead with 85 RBI. He was outstanding in the second half — .286/.371/.521 with 11 homers — and remains in that fringy prospect area as a guy who has produced without generating any buzz. He’s a first baseman, so the bat is really going to have to play up for him to get much of a look, but he hasn’t faded away and Double-A could be a significant step next season. … Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, Gary Sanchez and Anderson Feliz each hit their way to Tampa after opening the season with Low-A Charleston. Austin finished the year in Double-A, Williams wound up on the disabled list, and Feliz got just 67 High-A at-bats, but Sanchez wound up really hitting his stride in Tampa. After a rocky month of July, Sanchez hit .319/.354/.479 in the month of August, further establishing himself as an elite young hitter. … It didn’t carry over to Double-A, but Rob Segedin did hit .297/.362/.448 in 290 High-A at-bats. … I would love to see catcher Kyle Higashioka take off because he’s such a good guy, but he just hasn’t been able to hit. … Finally healthy again, former supplemental-round pick Jeremy Bleich had mixed results in 16.1 innings with Tampa. Next year could really define whether he’s still worth following. … Big right-hander Zach Nuding is getting extra innings in the Arizona Fall League after pitching to a 3.89 ERA with Tampa. There’s some thought that he might eventually land in the bullpen, but for now the Yankees are letting him start. He’s even working as a starter in Arizona.
Out of spring training, Tampa had the most boring roster in the Yankees system. The elite young players were down in Charleston, the top pitchers were up with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and Tampa was kind of barren step in between.
Along the way, though, Tampa saw some of the system’s more intriguing performances. Montgomery seems to be a legitimate standout, Heathcott returned in a big way, and guys like Flores, Ramirez, Turley and Kahnle began to emerge from the shadows. That’s to say nothing of the mid-season arrivals of Williams, Austin and Sanchez.
This was not the most exciting or successful team in the system, but you couldn’t ignore it either.