Big league camp opens in four weeks, but the Yankees minor league complex is already busy. Some of the organization’s prospects are already showing up for pre-spring workouts. Most of the big names have yet to arrive — Slade Heathcott is supposed to be there next Monday, Manny Banuelos and Michael Pineda aren’t scheduled for another two weeks or so — but there’s work being done. Tyler Austin is already down there. So is Aaron Judge. Things are getting started.
Over the phone, Yankees vice president of player operations Mark Newman provided a few updates from the complex.
Expected assignments for 2014
I only asked Newman about the assignment plans for handful of minor leaguers. There are many more to be curious about — I realize I touched only only a fraction — but the minor league season is still two and a half months away, and it’s hard to expect the team to give much concrete assignment information this early. That said, here are a few things to keep in mind.
· Newman said it’s entirely possible both Eric Jagielo and Aaron Judge will open the season in High-A Tampa. Could very well be in Low-A Charleston as well, but the Yankees are considering High-A for each of their top two picks in last year’s draft. That’s particularly meaningful for Judge, who didn’t play at all for the Yankees last year. “Big guy,” Newman said. “Nice kid. Just an outstanding kid.”
· Plans seem less aggressive for second-rounder Gosuke Katoh. Even after a terrific debut in the Gulf Coast League, Newman said it’s likely Katoh will go to the New York-Penn League — not Charleston — this season. The Yankees are awfully high on Katoh, though. “He can run. He’s got some pop. He can really play second base,” Newman said.
· Still undecided whether Slade Heathcott will open in Triple-A or Double-A. Newman said either one seems possible. After having relatively minor surgery at the end of last season, Heathcott is rehabbing. If he’s not 100 percent by the start of spring training, “It’ll be close,” Newman said. Also, Heathcott just got married.
· Newman said he’s not sure where Ian Clarkin or Ty Hensley — first-round pitchers draft the past two years — will start the season. “We’ve got to see how spring training goes,” Newman said. Hensley is healthy after missing all of last season.
· No assignment plans here, but it’s worth noting that Newman specifically said that Manny Banuelos, Michael Pineda and Jose Campos — three guys with some medical issues the past two years — spent the winter doing “just their basic offseason (throwing) program.” All three are expected to be ready to pitch.
Winter league impressions
Always hard to know what to make of winter league stats. Some guys have raked in the winter and been complete non-factors during the season. Others have done the opposite. A few of the offseason numbers that stood out to Newman, beginning with a name that he mentioned unprompted.
· I believe I started talking winter ball by asking about Adonis Garcia’s time in the infield, but Newman very quickly brought up the name Jose Pirela all on his own. Kind of a fringy prospect most of his career, Pirela’s strikeout-to-walk ratio has significantly improved the past two years, as have his power numbers. This winter, he hit .332/.415/.514 during the Venezuelan regular season. Newman said those numbers are meaningful. “I think so,” Newman said. “He’s still just 23 (actually, 24). He’s been around or a while, but he’s not old. … He’s really made strides in the last couple of years. He’s really improving offensively he’s really made a lot of progress.”
· Of the guys in the Arizona Fall League, Newman said it was center fielder Mason Williams who stood out. “His numbers were so-so,” Newman said. “But he really swung it well.” Williams hit .267/.330/.337 in Arizona.
· Also, Newman said, lefty James Pazos made a strong impression in the Fall League. “Looks like he could be a left-handed reliever in the big leagues,” Newman said.
· Newman seemed happy but not surprised by Zoilo Almonte‘s .316/.343/.454 slash line in the Dominican Winter League. Newman noted that the parks down there are huge, making home runs difficult. Almonte had four of them. “He’s done a nice job this winter,” Newman said. “And the Dominican’s a good league.”
The guys who can — but might not — play third base
For whatever reason, the Yankees have a bunch of legitimate prospects who primarily play some other position — outfielder and catcher, mostly — but have at least a little bit of time at third base. The Yankees like to add defensively flexibility when guys are in the minor leagues, and Newman indicated these guys are likely to stick with their primary positions rather than becoming full-time third baseman
· Tyler Austin was scheduled to get some time at first and third in the Arizona Fall League, but the Yankees pulled him out because of ongoing wrist problems. Austin’s healthy again and working out in Tampa, and Newman said he’s still considered a right fielder first and foremost. “He’s predominantly a corner outfielder,” Newman said. “(But) we’re going to maintain some of that flexibility with him.”
· Similar story with Peter O’Brien, the power-hitting catcher who got a bunch of time at third base in the second half of last season, and played there some more during the Arizona Fall League. “He’s a catcher,” Newman said. “Trying to see if he can do some other things, but he is a catcher.”
· As for all that third base time Adonis Garcia got in winter ball, Newman said that could carry into this season. Although he’s been almost exclusively an outfielder with the Yankees, they signed him as a guy who could play second, third and all three outfield positions. Newman said it’s entirely possible Garcia could get some infield time this year. “Oh yeah, there’s always a chance,” Newman said. “He can do it. … That happens to be where he got a lot of innings this winter, and that’s great.”
· Despite all the emails I’ve gotten about it, you can probably forget about J.R. Murphy getting much third base time going forward. The Yankees have been extremely impressed with his improvement behind the plate, and they want to keep him there. “He’s a high caliber defender at a premium position,” Newman said. “He was a conversion catcher in high school, and we weren’t sure when we drafted him how good of a catcher he was going to be. We liked his offensive potential, and he’s turned out to be a very good catcher.”