This is kind of a strange exercise, but I started thinking about this as soon as I wrote the last sentence in the previous post: It really is possible that each of the Yankees current Top 10 prospects could be eligible for the list next season. With that in mind, what’s the best-case scenario for a Yankees Top 10 Prospects list a year from now? Obviously the team doesn’t want anyone in the current Top 10 to have a bad year and fall out of the rankings, but there’s also some real motivation to have other names emerge as can’t-keep-them-out elite prospects.
Here’s an attempt at a Top 10 Yankees prospects heading into 2015 — actually, I went Top 15 just to make it easier on myself — assuming things go really, really well this season.
1. LHP Manny Banuelos
Here’s the way I’m thinking about it: Two years ago, Banuelos was generally ranked No. 2 behind Jesus Montero. He was considered one of the better left-handed pitching prospects in the game, and then he had Tommy John surgery. In this best-case-scenario world, Banuelos has a dominant return to Triple-A (but the Yankees rotation is solidified by Michael Pineda, meaning the Yankees don’t have to push Banuelos to New York). A true high-end pitching prospect, with a cup of coffee in September, ready to slide into the big league rotation in 2015? That would be huge for the Yankees, and impossible to overlook for anyone creating this sort of ranking.
2. C Gary Sanchez
The key is, Banuelos can’t move to the top just because Sanchez has struggled. A few more strides behind the plate, and some overall production to go with that raw hitting ability, might bump Sanchez among the Top 30 prospects in all of baseball. Even in a best-case scenario, it’s hard to imagine him suddenly erasing all defensive concerns, but if he remains an elite bat, that would be big.
3. CF Mason Williams
In the upper levels of their system, the Yankees have two high-end center field prospects who are fairly similar. In the best-case world, I’m saying Slade Heathcott stays healthy and is so productive in Triple-A that he burns through 150 at-bats in the big leagues. Maybe he’s a second-half replacement for Ichiro Suzuki, getting his feet wet and gradually earning more and more playing time in the outfield. So, if Heathcott isn’t eligible for this ranking — and is instead penciled into the big league lineup for 2015 — that leaves No. 3 for Williams, who was No. 1 on Baseball America’s Yankees list just one year ago. Needs a bounce back year.
4. RHP Rafael De Paula
Combination of two things makes De Paula an ideal Top Five prospect for the Yankees: High-end potential and a relatively high-level of competition. Guys like Ian Clarkin, Ty Hensley and Luis Severino are unlikely to get beyond Class-A even with a good season. De Paula, though, turns 23 in March and already has a half-season in High-A. If he’s able to bring last year’s Low-A results to High-A — which will require an obvious adjustment, and probably better secondary pitchers — he could then jump to Double-A for the second, and continued success at that level would go a long way toward solidifying him as a potential impact starter. A lot of questions right now. He has a chance to answer them, and do so against fairly advanced hitters.
5. RF Tyler Austin
It’s all about the bat and the need. In 2013, Austin looked like a world beater when he crushed Low-A and High-A in his first taste of full-season ball. If last year’s underwhelming results really were the product of a wrist injury that’s healed this offseason, Austin could erase some of that uneasiness that he created by hitting just six homers this year. If he can show something in a return to third base, even better. Mostly, though, it’s all about the bat.
6. CF Aaron Judge
He wasn’t the Yankees highest draft pick last year — that went to the relatively safe choice that we’ll find lower on this list — but he did come with perhaps the most tantalizing potential. He’s a monster at 6-foot-7, and you can imagine the daydreams of that sort of size turning on a fastball. He’s a good athlete, with some reason to wonder if he might even be able to play center field. Even if he’s destined for an outfield corner, the Yankees have already said they’re considering an aggressive High-A assignment for Judge. If he hits a bunch of bombs there, the only thing keeping him out of the top five would be his relative lack of experience.
7. 3B Eric Jagielo
Here’s the Yankees top pick in last year’s draft. He’s a proven college hitter at a position of need and he hits left-handed. What’s not to like? Jagielo was the Yankees top third base prospect the moment his name was announced on draft day, and he was a departure from the Yankees recent trend of using their first picks on high-risk high schoolers who’ve shown a tendency to flame out in the lower levels. Fair or not, Jagielo is not seen as having an extreme, superstar ceiling. But he certainly has the upside of a productive everyday player, and given the Yankees uncertainty at third base, the team certainly wants him to remain a consensus top t0 prospect.
8. RHP Ty Hensley
There are a lot of younger, high-upside starting pitchers who the Yankees would like to have forcing their way into the Top 10 at this time next year. You could put Ian Clarkin here, or Jose Campos, or Luis Severino. I’m going to go with Hensley as my best-case-scenario option, largely because he was a first-rounder back in 2012. He’s a big guy, he’s still just 20 years old, and for reasons of both production and perception, the Yankees would certainly love to have another recent first-round draft pick making everyone’s organizational prospect rankings next year. It would really be nice, though, if the Yankees had a bunch of similar options for this spot.
9. 1B Greg Bird
I thought about leaving Bird off this best-case-scenario list because, let’s face it, the development of a first baseman usually isn’t the highest priority. But then you re-read Dan Barbarisi’s story about Mark Teixeira’s wrist — and you look remember that those spring training invitations didn’t include a single minor league first baseman — and you realize that Bird really could be a huge part of the Yankees future. For such a young guy, Bird seems to have an advanced approach at the plate. If more power comes as Bird ages, he could fit the typical profile of a slugging first baseman (which the Yankees might need pretty soon). If the power shows up big time this year, then No. 9 will be far too low for Bird.
10. SS Abiatal Avelino
Here’s the problem with doing something like this: In a best-case scenario, there too many Top 10 prospects to actually fit in a Top 10 list! You could certainly make a case for the Yankees desperately wanting J.R. Murphy or Mark Montgomery or Jose Ramirez to be Top 10 guys next year (assuming they don’t burn through their rookie status this year). And there’s a lot to be said for a guy like Bryan Mitchell having a huge year in Double-A, or Peter O’Brien continuing to hit for massive power, or Gosuke Katoh proving this year’s numbers were no fluke. All of those are viable, but just for fun, what about the emergence — at last — of a shortstop who just might be able to take over the position at some point? It would take some kind of year for a teenager to win a spot on this list (assuming we’re in a best-case world where a bunch of guys have great seasons), which might be all the most reason to think including Avelino would be a really good sign.
Associated Press photo