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Minor League Year in Review: Low-A

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No Yankees affiliate opened the season with as much buzz as Low-A Charleston. It’s Opening Day lineup was loaded with legitimate prospects, it’s rotation included the organization’s newest elite young pitcher, and there were massive expectations for a team rich on talent and low on experience.

The results were … mixed.

The Yankees true breakout prospect came out of Charleston, but so did some of their most glaring disappointments. The RiverDogs went 73-63 but missed the playoffs. After many of the top players moved on, Charleston played below .500 in the second half. Overall, its pitching and offense were basically middle-of-the-pack in the South Atlantic League.

[3]Player of the Year
RF Tyler Austin
Despite spending only three months in Charleston, Austin led the team in home runs and runs scored. He was third in RBI, third in doubles and second in total bases. Ben Gamel had a very nice year, and Gamel was with Charleston all year, but it’s impossible to ignore Austin’s impact. No Yankees prospect had a breakout year quite like Austin, who combined to hit .322/.400/.559 while playing climbing from Low-A to High-A and finally to Double-A at the very end of the season. Austin was a 13th-round pick in 2010, and he proved he could hit in 2011, but this season was his arrival as one of the five best prospects in the organization. His move from third base to right field went well, and he could be a year away from the big leagues.

[4]Pitcher of the Year
RHP Pedro Guerra
Jose Campos couldn’t stay healthy, Bryan Mitchell couldn’t maintain his first-half pace, and Scottie Allen was only good in the second half. The best pitcher in Charleston was ultimately their 22-year-old closer, a former Twins prospect, who had 61 strikeouts, 16 walks and a .178 opponents batting average through 56 innings. If he were younger, his season would get more attention, but Guerra was older and more experienced than a lot of the guys he was facing. He had a very good year, no question, but it’s hard to make too much of it. The more interesting seasons in terms of future impact probably belonged to Mitchell (3.75 ERA, .224 opponents’ average in the first half) and Allen (3.07 ERA, .226 opponents’ average in the second half), but neither put together a truly complete season.

[5]Breakout performance
OF Ben Gamel
Most of Charleston’s top performers were expected to perform that way. Expectations were sky high for Mason Williams and Gary Sanchez and (to a lesser extent) Tyler Austin. Certainly Austin wasn’t expected to be this good, but he was expected to be good. Gamel was much more of an unknown heading into the season, but he was Charleston’s best player at the end of the year. He hit .306/.342/.394 for the year, but it was his .320/.347/.419 second half that really stood out as he shifted from left field to center field after Williams was promoted to Tampa. Casey Stevenson, Ali Castillo and — for a while anyway — Francisco Arcia had nice seasons as part-time players, but Gamel truly outperformed some of the top prospects in the organization.

3B Dante Bichette Jr.
At this point, offensive expectations for Cito Culver aren’t very high to begin with, so it’s hard to be overly disappointed by his .215 average as a defense-first shortstop. But there were high hopes for Bichette, who put himself on the map in a big way with his terrific rookie-ball season in 2011. He opened this season as Charleston’s No. 3 hitter for a reason, but Bichette’s bat never got going. He hit just three home runs all year, and despite being a regular in the middle of the order for 122 games, he had fewer RBI than he had in 54 games last season. No one gives up on high school kid just because he struggles in Low-A during his first full year out of high school — it was an aggressive assignment to begin with — but certainly there’s less reason to be excited than there was at this time last year.

[7]Prospect watch
C Gary Sanchez
Forced to return to Low-A after an uneven 2011, Sanchez got himself back on track by hitting .297/.353/.517 through 68 games with Charleston. That performance prompted a mid-season promotion to High-A Tampa, where Sanchez continued to hit, especially in the month of August (.319/.354/.479). There was plenty of prospect watching to be done on this Charleston roster. Williams and Austin pushed their careers forward, Culver and Bichette seemed to stall, Angelo Gumbs and Jose Campos had promising seasons cut short by injuries. Sanchez stands out because he’s different in good ways: He’s not part of that long list of outfielders, he plays a position that’s not blocked by any long-term fixture in New York, and he’s a potential replacement for the lost promise of Jesus Montero. Sanchez could be a real difference maker for the Yankees. This season got him one step closer.

[8]Odds and ends
There’s a good chance Mason Williams will be considered the Yankees best overall prospect this winter. He hit .304/.359/.489 through 69 games in Charleston, and he was getting hot in Tampa when a shoulder injury ended his season in late July. Williams is still poised to move fairly quickly, and will likely return to Tampa to start next season. … Second baseman Angelo Gumbs was limited to just 67 games, but he hit .272/.320/.432 and at this point has to be more highly touted than shortstop Culver, who was drafted ahead of Gumbs in 2010. … As a backup catcher in the first half, Francisco Arcia hit .326/.406/.535. When Sanchez was promoted and Arcia became the regular guy in the second half, he hit .196/.261/.290. … Second baseman Anderson Feliz hit .315/.398/.466 in 22 games with Charleston, but a series of injuries really derailed his season. Not a huge name, but a guy worth knowing. … Pitching was not a strength of this team, but Allen and Mitchell showed some good things for a extended stretches, and Caleb Cotham was finally healthy enough to pitch his way out of Charleston after eight strong starts.

Big picture

There’s a reason I don’t start paying too much attention to prospects until they reach Double-A. Lower-level prospects have a long way to go, and they’re too young and inexperienced to know much of anything for certain.

The Yankees say they still believe in Culver, especially defensively. Campos still has significant potential despite his elbow problems. Bichette is going to keep getting chances despite his rough season. On the flip side, Williams, Sanchez and even Austin still have a lot to prove before they reach the big leagues. This Low-A season did two things: Showed why some of these guys have generated so much hype, and showed that hype doesn’t always lead to results.

Prospects are suspects. That’s the way Brian Cashman often phrases it, and it’s true. There’s a lot of young talent in the Yankees system, and that means a lot of excitement and disappointment along the way.

Associated Press photo of Williams