As we all noted yesterday, Hal Steinbrenner spent a good portion of his radio interviews expressing his disappointment at the production from the Yankees minor league system this year. But in talking about the team’s goal of cutting payroll, Steinbrenner also said this to Michael Kay:
“We still need some of these younger players to step up and perform, there’s no doubt about it, or the math isn’t going to work.”
If the minor league system wasn’t prepared to have a Major League impact this season, which pieces might be ready to make an impact next year? Is it really reasonable to think the organization will be better prepared just six months from now?
As with most things this time of year, it depends on different factors at different positions.
Candidates: Austin Romine, J.R. Murphy
I guess you could throw Francisco Cervelli into this mix as well, because if he were healthy this season — and if he’d built on that strong month of April — he just might have emerged as a productive everyday catcher, and one who’d been signed and developed by the Yankees.
There are plenty of other high-potential catchers in the system (Gary Sanchez, Peter O’Brien, Luis Torrens), but assuming Cervelli isn’t the answer — and assuming the Yankees aren’t going to spend money on a proven catcher — the immediate impact needs to come from Romine or Murphy. Romine clearly has the experience advantage, and he seemed to gain Girardi’s trust as this year progressed. He was hitting just .132/145/.176 in the middle of July, but he hit .284/.355/.418 the rest of the way. That’s legitimately promising, and Murphy had a bit of a breakout year that suggests he’s also on the verge. Whether either of those two is capable of being an everyday catcher, remains to be seen, but they do seem to be better prepared for 2014 than they were for 2013.
Candidates: David Adams, Corban Joseph, Ronnier Mustelier
Infield is a weakness of the Yankees system, especially in the upper levels. You could make a case for Jose Pirela being on this list based on a nice year in Double-A, but he’s never generated much prospect buzz — I’ve literally never had a scout mention his name to me — and it seems like a stretch to believe he could immediately make an impact in New York. Instead, it’s guys like Adams, Joseph and Mustelier who might first have to prove they’re viable bench options before trying to emerge as regulars at either second or third base.
You know which young in-house infielder might be the most important for an immediate impact? Eduardo Nunez. Last night, when I wrote about in-house guys who were asked to step up last season, I failed to mention Nunez, and that was a significant oversight. Nunez was asked to fill in for Derek Jeter, but he got off to a brutal start and then got hurt. That said, he just might be the system’s most big-league-ready solution at three different positions (second, third and short). Although there are still obvious questions about his defense, he did prove to be more reliable this year than in the past, and after returning from the disabled list in early July, Nunez hit .281/.314/.406, including .295/.321/.487 in the month of September. He might not be the most trusted player, but given the questions throughout the infield, he might be necessary.
Candidates: Zoilo Almonte, Ronnier Mustelier, Adonis Garcia, Slade Heathcott, Ramon Flores, Tyler Austin
Here’s what’s interesting about this group: The high-ceiling guys — Heathcott, Flores, Austin and even Mason Williams — probably won’t be ready until the second half of 2014 at the earliest, but that’s not a horrible fit considering the Yankees have Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki in the last years of their contracts. In theory, that timing could workout pretty well as the veterans fade away and the young guys take over. But again, that’s only in theory.
In the short term, what the Yankees have are quite a few mystery options, and it’s impossible to say that any one of them is ready to replace Curtis Granderson. Even if Almonte, Mustelier or Garcia were to make the big league roster, they’d surely have to prove themselves in a smaller role before getting a chance to carry a significant part of the burden. As for the higher-end talent, Austin struggled in Double-A last year, but while Heathcott and Flores had only so-so overall numbers, they did show significant improvement throughout the season. Heathcott hit .279/.339/.514 after the All-Star break and Flores hit .292/.381/.416 in the second half. It’s not unreasonable to think one of these guys could become an impact player next season, but it would be hard to bank on that coming out of spring training.
Candidates: Michael Pineda, Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, Brett Marshall, Manny Banuelos
Three-fifths of the Yankees regular rotation is heading into free agency this winter, and that’s an obvious problem. But consider this scenario, which doesn’t seem beyond the realm of realistic possibility: CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova return, Pineda earns a rotation spot in spring training, and just one of Warren, Nuno, Marshall, Banuelos, David Phelps and David Huff (and maybe even Jose Ramirez) take hold of the fifth starter spot. That would leave the Yankees in need of just one more starter, which is obviously far less daunting than looking for three of them.
How realistic is that scenario? It all depends on Pineda (I think it’s perfectly fair to believe that one of six options can be a serviceable back-of-the-rotation solution). During those radio interviews yesterday, Steinbrenner specifically mentioned Pineda as someone the Yankees legitimately need going forward. Pineda was part of a huge risk-reward trade, and no matter how much Jesus Montero has struggled, the trade only really works for the Yankees if Pineda provides some sort of high-end value. He’s a different sort of prospect — a solid first year in the big leagues, then massive shoulder surgery — but he carries the same sort of potential and uncertainty that comes with any young, unproven pitcher. If you’re looking for a young player who’s both ready in terms of development and significant in terms of potential impact, Pineda could be the Yankees key young addition heading into next season. The wild card, naturally, would be Banuelos after a year of rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. There’s still high-end potential there as well.
Candidates: Dellin Betances, Cesar Cabral, Mark Montgomery, Chase Whitley, Danny Burawa, Tommy Kahnle
There are others who could fit on this list, which is kind of the nature of reliever development (not sure anyone would have put Joba Chamberlain’s name on this sort of list back in 2007). There are rotation candidates who could emerge as bullpen candidates (any of the names in the category above, maybe even a guy like Shane Greene), and there are lower-level relievers who could dazzle and move quickly (perhaps a guy like Branden Pinder).
Based on what the Yankees have right now, I’d have to put at least Betances and Cabral in any early prediction of the 2014 bullpen, and both have legitimate potential. Both have big arms, and the Betances upside in particular is significant assuming this year’s Triple-A bullpen results are repeatable. Whitley has also had Triple-A success, and Montgomery — despite a down year — still has significant potential, possibly as a late-inning option. Burawa and Kahnle kind of remind me of Preston Claiborne as guys who aren’t necessarily in the center of the radar, but could earn their way into a big league opportunity. Most relievers — at least the ones not named Mariano Rivera — are tough to predict from year to year. It seems entirely possible, if not likely, that the Yankees are going to give Dave Robertson a shot in the closer role next season, and they could fill several other immediate bullpen openings with players they’ve signed and developed. It’s not unreasonable to think some of these guys are both ready and capable in the short-term.
Associated Press photos