I spent the past few days back home in New York, and now I’m returning to a slightly more spacious Yankees clubhouse. On Sunday, the Yankees made their first 10 cuts. None were particularly surprising — all were expected to landed in the minor leagues as some point — but some were significant if only because they’d generated quite a bit of early attention.
RHP Luis Severino
Most notable name of the bunch for two reasons: He’s one of the system’s top prospects (I’d argue he’s No. 1, some might argue No. 2), and there was actually some support within the fan base for giving him a rotation spot after Chris Capuano went down with an injury. Severino breaking camp with the Yankees never seemed particularly likely, and the Yankees took the possibility off the table with an early assignment across the street. Looked good when he did get into games, though. Can’t rule him out for a late-season call-up.
OF Aaron Judge
No prospect in camp earned as much early attention as Judge, who put on several batting practice shows — more hard line drives than towering home runs — before putting up good numbers in limited Grapefruit League at-bats. Judge earned raves for the way he handled himself in camp, but he was always going to end up playing right field in Trenton on Opening Day. Could move quickly, but too early to think he was going to break camp in the big leagues. Strong first impression, no doubt.
LHP Tyler Webb
Got to Triple-A last season and seemed to have a slim but still realistic chance of making the roster if the cards fell just right. Instead, the Yankees quickly sent Webb back to the minor leagues. The wealth of lefties in camp — including young guys Chasen Shreve and Jacob Lindgren — probably made Webb a little more expendable, so he’ll get his innings across the street while other relievers get priority opportunities in big league camp.
OF Jake Cave
Another guy who came into camp destined for the Double-A outfield, but before was dismissed, Cave hit .417/.417/.750 in 12 at-bats. That’s a pretty strong first impression for a guy capable of playing all three outfield positions. Cave has emerged as one of the top outfield prospects in the system, no longer overshadowed by fellow left-handed hitters Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott and Ramon Flores (though those three will get to stick around big league camp a little longer).
LHP James Pazos
In a big group of bullpen lefties brought to camp, Pazos was probably at the bottom of the pecking order. The Yankees like him and believe he could have a future in the big leagues, but he’s never pitched above Double-A and seemed to fall somewhere behind Shreve, Lindgren and Webb in terms of having an immediate opportunity. Little surprise, then, that he was one of the first sent down. His next challenge is standing out from the crowd.
SS Cito Culver
Former top draft pick showed off his greatest asset early in camp when he made a good play and then a terrific throw on a ball in the hole. With one hit in 13 at-bats, Culver also showed the limited bat that creates real questions about whether he’ll ever actually crack the big leagues. Culver’s never played above High-A, but the Yankees say they haven’t given up on him. Needs a good year in Double-A to stay on the radar. Right now he looks like a lesser version of Brendan Ryan, but his glove could open doors under the right circumstances.
RHP Nick Goody
Had an ankle injury the first time he was invited to big league camp, then he needed Tommy John surgery, but now Goody is back and healthy and on the radar as one of the organization’s legitimate relief prospects. Missed time has slowed his development, but this year’s invitation to camp was a pretty good indication that the Yankees have neither forgotten about him nor given up on him. Might not be knocking on the door, but bullpen guys can move quickly if they get on a roll.
RHP Diego Moreno
For me, this was perhaps the biggest surprise among all the non-roster invitations. Despite pitching in Triple-A last season, Moreno seemed pretty easily overshadowed by other relievers in the system (including at least one who wasn’t invited to camp). Moreno actually pitched a lot — only three guys had more innings before Sunday’s cuts — but one particularly bad outing pushed his ERA to 5.68. Worth wondering what the Yankees will do with him this year given all the bullpen depth.
C Trent Garrison
Young guy brought to camp strictly to give the team an extra catcher to handle all the bullpens and live batting practice sessions. This was more about getting experience than getting a chance. He got into three games and will now likely head to either Tampa or Trenton to open the season. Each spring seems to have at least one young catcher like this. This year, it was Garrison.
C Juan Graterol
Signed as a minor league free agent, Graterol was rehabbing all through his stint in big league camp. He caught bullpens and did other baseball drills, but he’s coming back from an arm injury and so never got into an actual game. He’s basically upper-level catching depth and could plug holes in Double-A or Triple-A depending on where he’s needed. My guess is he falls somewhere behind Francisco Arcia and Eddy Rodriguez in the pecking order.
Associated Press photos
Tyler Wade just turned 20 in November. He’s too far from the major league radar to have gotten a real invitation to big league camp, but the Yankees keep bringing him up from the minor league complex day after day to play a little middle infield in the late innings.
The guy already has more spring training hits than Alex Rodriguez, Jacoby Ellsbury or Brett Gardner.
With the Yankees trailing by one in the ninth inning this afternoon, it was Wade who started the game-winning rally with a leadoff single to right. Jonathan Galvez and Jake Cave added singles of their own. Nick Noonan walked in the tying run, Rob Refsnyder put the Yankees in front with a two-run single, and Greg Bird put the game out of reach with a home run.
“Really (exciting) to see that our system has a lot of good players,” Joe Girardi said. “And a lot of kids are going to contribute along the way here is what we’re going to see at some point. That’s what you need. We need to continue to have young players come up and contribute, and a lot of it’s been in the bullpen the last couple of years, but it looks like you’re getting some real position players who are coming up too.”
To be fair, a lot of minor league players began hitting at the minor league complex long before the big league hitters arrived. In the late innings, minor league hitters are usually facing minor league pitchers, and it seems that minor leaguers — eager to open eyes — go all out early in camp, while big league hitters take their time and try to fine tune specifics without really trying to get early results.
That said, the Yankees have hit a total of five home runs so far this spring, and each one was hit by a minor leaguer (Bird, Cave, Ramon Flores, Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge). Eight players have more than two hits, and only one of them — Garrett Jones — seems to have a spot on the big league roster. Wade already has two hits, and he’s not even officially here.
“It’s pretty fun to watch young players contribute and what they’re capable of doing,” Girardi said. “… You watch their at-bats. You watch the pitches that they’re swinging at. If they’re over-swinging. Their approach. How the ball comes off the bat. You saw a lot of good things.”
• After this morning’s simulated game, Masahiro Tanaka said once again that he feels ready to pitch in a real game. He seems to really feel that the elbow is a non-issue at this point. “It’s obviously really good and I really don’t think about it at all,” he said. “I think all of the pitches I threw today, I’m pretty satisfied with.”
• While Tanaka’s split gets a lot of understandable attention, Tanaka said that’s not the pitch that tells him his elbow is fine. “I do look at the split, how it moves and all that,” he said. “But I actually look at my fastball the most when I’m pitching. The fastballs are coming off my hand pretty good right now.”
• Although Girardi wouldn’t give an exact date, he said Tanaka’s next outing will in fact be a real game.
• Speaking of pitchers in a real game, Scott Baker said he felt better than the numbers indicate. He was disappointed with some of the pitches he made early in counts, and the Astros came out swinging, which caused problems. But he got better later in the inning. “They jumped on Baker pretty quick,” Girardi said. “He made some adjustments as the inning went along and got his split going and got some outs with that. His first outing, I don’t make too much of that.”
• Asked a broad question about today’s pitching, Girardi singled out Nick Rumbelow and Jose De Paula — who was making his spring debut — as guys who pitched well. Rumbelow was charged with a run, but only after he went out for a second inning of work (when he didn’t end up recording an out). His first inning was clean with a strikeout.
• Shortstop Didi Gregorius got another start against a left-handed pitcher, and the Yankees seem to like that. They want him to see lefties in hopes of improving his numbers against them. “To be honest, it’s the only way you’re going to get better,” Gregorius said. “Not getting better if you’re not doing work. For me, facing all these lefties means I’ll stay in there and get more comfortable against lefties.”
• Gregorius said he’s already made a minor mechanical change. “Just trying to stay a little bit taller and a little bit closer (with the hands) too,” he said. “I tend to fly open. I’m going to try not to do that and stay on the ball more and drive the ball the other way.”
• Jose Pirela struck out during that go-ahead, six-run ninth inning, but Girardi was quick to point out that he really helped get the rally going with an RBI double in the eighth. That’s what pulled the Yankees within a run (after Cave had homered earlier in the inning).
• Girardi on the fact it’s taking CC Sabathia a long time to get into games this spring: “We’re taking it slow. We just think it’s a good idea to do it. He’s probably going to throw a couple of innings tomorrow. It’s like starting in a game but you can control it more, that’s all.”
• We’ll give the final word to Gregorius, talking about the Yankees infield defense. “It looks really good, I’m not going to lie. Defensively we look really good. Offense is getting there. It’s Spring Training, so we’re getting there. It’s really good guys we’re playing with. … Today (Headley) cut one of my ground balls off. That means he plays hard. Trying to catch everything. The whole infield is like that and it’s great.”
Associated Press photos (that’s Wade and Judge at the top, Flores in the middle, Bird at the bottom)
With Slade Heathcott re-signed to a minor league deal, the Yankees now have a ton of outfield depth, but still not the kind of depth that necessitates a trade or a particularly difficult decision. It’s not like the Francisco Cervelli situation in which the Yankees have a player with a defined value, along with the need to move someone in order to open up the proper at-bats for everyone else. Here’s a rough look at the Yankees top upper-level outfielders. Each comes with some good, some bad, and some reason — either because of the team’s needs or because of his own value — that limits his trade possibilities.
The good: Already a borderline Hall of Famer expected to be healthy again after last year’s elbow injury.
The bad: About to turn 38 years old — are we sure last year’s .703 OPS was strictly the product of injury?
Trade him? Not a lot of trade value in an aging player, coming of a bad year, with $30 million left on his deal.
The good: Signed a hefty deal last winter and more or less delivered an as-expected season in his Yankees debut.
The bad: Even coming off a solid season, seven years and $153 million is a massive contract.
Trade him? Might be the best position player on the roster right now.
The good: Power numbers spiked, and for a while he looked like a better player than Ellsbury last year.
The bad: Still a rather streaky player with limited power for a corner outfielder.
Trade him? Might be the most valuable trade chip on the big league roster, but also signed to a reasonable extension.
The good: History of left-handed power with an ability to backup first base, right field and designated hitter.
The bad: Turns 34 in June and his power numbers have been down the past two seasons.
Trade him? Would be more of a salary dump than an actual effort to get anything valuable in return (also provides first base insurance).
The good: Returns to bring right-handed balance after reestablishing himself with a terrific September.
The bad: Other than one good month, last season was bad enough to get him released … by the Mets.
Trade him? Plays a role the Yankees need as a veteran right-handed bat with power and speed off the bench.
The good: Last year’s terrific second half brought back memories of how good a hitter he was earlier in his career.
The bad: A wrist injury contributed to much less exciting numbers before that second-half resurgence.
Trade him? Of all the outfielders ticketed for Triple-A, Austin probably has the most offensive impact potential.
The good: Left-handed hitters with speed and some defensive flexibility; looks like a nice fourth outfielder down the road.
The bad: Coming off an ankle injury and isn’t a great fit while Gardner and Ellsbury are on the roster.
Trade him? Low power potential probably limits his value to more of a second or third piece in a significant trade.
The good: Right-handed hitter who’s shown some speed, defense and on-base ability in the minor leagues.
The bad: Plucked off waivers, suggesting he was not exactly a high commodity (also put up bad winter ball numbers this year).
Trade him? Value is pretty low just a few months after being placed on the waiver wire; DFA might be more likely than a trade.
The good: Offensive utility man put himself back on the prospect map — and in the big league picture — with a terrific Triple-A season.
The bad: Can’t really play shortstop and hasn’t really established whether he hits enough to keep a job in the big leagues.
Trade him? First and foremost, he seems to have a legitimate shot at the big league second base job heading into spring training.
The good: Speed and defense were deemed major-league ready, enough to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this winter.
The bad: Hasn’t hit the past two years, doing a number on his once elite prospect status.
Trade him? Would be selling awfully low — Williams no longer has the value to remotely headline a significant deal.
The good: Might have surpassed Williams and Heathcott as the system’s top center field prospect.
The bad: Doesn’t have overwhelming speed or power, and doesn’t have more than 42 games above A ball.
Trade him? Could be a nice complementary trade piece; could also be the most viable center fielder in the minor league system.
The good: The guys gets on base way too much to ignore; played his way out of the shadows and up to Triple-A last year.
The bad: Never a standout prospect, doesn’t run much, very little power, has spent more time in left field than center.
Trade him? Has never moved the needle among prospect watchers, suggesting his stock is too low to be considered a real chip.
The good: Has been a solid hitter throughout the minor leagues, even when easily overshadowed by other prospects.
The bad: Always kind of a sleeper prospect, but not one who’s forced people to really wake up and take notice.
Trade him? Hasn’t done nearly enough; could more easily simply become a Double-A bench player behind all of this depth.
The good: Has been a pretty nice hitter both in Triple-A and in winter ball (able to play center field and third base in a pinch).
The bad: Turns 30 years old in April so the upside is probably limited.
Trade him? Sure, if some team values a 30-year-old with no major league experience; could be another Ronnier Mustelier.
The good: No one seems to question the former first-round pick’s raw talent and ultimate potential.
The bad: Just can’t stay healthy, which has cost valuable development time; hard to gauge his ceiling at this point.
Trade him? Was a free agent until yesterday; if another team valued him highly, he probably wouldn’t have come back.
The good: After a standout first full season, he emerged as the top offensive prospect in the entire minor league system.
The bad: Ultimately we’re talking about fewer than 500 minor league at-bats; he’s promising but unproven.
Trade him? Plenty of value here, but Judge could be the best middle-of-the-order bat the Yankees have developed since Robinson Cano.
Associated Press photos
The Yankees first significant signing came this weekend when they agreed to a new one-year deal with Chris Young, bringing some right-handed balance to the outfield and some power/speed potential to the bench. With that signing, the Yankees seem set in the outfield with no need to add either a big league bat or additional minor league depth.
As it is, the Yankees have seven full-time outfielders on their 40-man roster — that’s to say nothing of the three 40-man infielders who have a solid amount of outfield experience — and they’re likely to add one or two more outfielders when it comes time to protect Tyler Austin and possibly Mason Williams from the Rule 5 draft.
Just taking a look at the projected big league roster, and the potential options at the highest levels of the minor league system, it seems the Yankees should have all that they need in the outfield. The depth could also leaves the Yankees with trade options should they decide to make a move.
Granted, it’s not remotely a lock that Pirela is going to make the team, and there’s a solid chance Wheeler will be designated for assignment at some point, but this is still a clear picture of three obvious starters, an experienced fourth outfielder, and at least one infielder who can play the outfield regularly if necessary. This roster also has three guys who can play center field when necessary, so the Yankees are covered as the most difficult-to-fill outfield position. Maybe another outfielder comes to camp on a non-roster invitation just in case — stranger things have happened — but there’s no overwhelming need here. Especially if the Yankees carrying a versatile utility guy like Pirela, they have plenty of big league outfield options as it is.
Picking the three “starting” outfielders for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre next season isn’t an easy task. I assume Austin will move up after his finishing strong in Double-A, and the bulk of his playing time will surely come in the outfield corners (perhaps with a little bit of corner infield now and then). Flores and Perez clearly need regular at-bats as well — they could be first in line for an outfield call-up — and both Dugas and Garcia have played well enough to also deserve playing time. Chances are Refsnyder will be strictly a second baseman, but he’s listed here just to show the Yankees have yet another guy who could play some Triple-A outfield if necessary. There’s also the chance that Pirela and/or Wheeler could end up back in Triple-A providing even more depth. There’s not much big league experience here, but there are only so many Triple-A at-bats to go around, and the Yankees surely want to prioritize legitimate prospects ahead of minor league veterans. Bringing back a guy like Antoan Richardson or signing someone similar would only take away at-bats from young guys who need the playing time.
Kind of like the Triple-A outfield, the Double-A outfield has more than three guys who seem worth of everyday at-bats. The tough part here is predicting what the Yankees are going to do with Heathcott and Williams. Is Heathcott going to be healthy enough to stay on the field (and if so, is he going back to Double-A or finally jumping to Triple-A)? Is Williams going to be lost in the Rule 5 draft (and if not, would he get priority playing time ahead of the other guys listed here)? Like with Austin, I’m assuming Judge will be challenged with a jump up a level, which means right field is taken, and Cave has played too well to be anything less than an everyday outfielder next season. In terms of immediate outfield depth, the important thing to notice here is that Heathcott and Williams are still looming as upper-level outfielders who could be on the 40-man roster and still warrant playing time as well. That leaves the Yankees with a lot of outfielders who need at-bats.
Associated Press photo
State of the organization: Left field • 10.15.14
Our final state of the organization stop among position players is left field, where the Yankees have committed long-term to a bit of an unconventional choice for the position (more speed and on-base than true power). It’s also a position that leaves open the option of making a trade and eventually opening the door for one of many possible alternatives down the road. The left fielder of the future doesn’t necessarily have to be a guy who’s playing left field right now.
Signed through 2019
When the Yankees locked Jacoby Ellsbury into a long-term contract last winter, it seemed like bad news for Gardner’s staying power. Having long been considered a kind of poor-man’s version of Ellsbury, Gardner was giving up his leadoff spot and his defensive position to a what seemed to be a superior player, and free agency was fast approaching. But the Yankees changed that in spring training with a four-year contract extension plus a team option. Gardner responded with a unusually typical season. His .749 OPS was just slightly higher than his career OPS, and his 111 OPS+ was right in line with the previous season. But Gardner got there by hitting for a surprising amount of power with a career-high 17 homers. Those home runs came with a career-low .327 on-base percentage. There were stretches when Gardner looked like the best hitter in the Yankees lineup, and he finished with the highest OPS among the regulars. When this year started, it seemed Gardner might be on his way out. Now his production and contract essentially lock him into an everyday job for the foreseeable future (unless the Yankees decide to do something drastic).
On the verge
You could make a case for several “on the verge” left field options — and in a lot of ways, Ramon Flores is the best fit for this distinction because he’s a true left fielder who had a solid year when he was healthy — but if there’s an in-house guy who’s well positioned to actually help out in left field out of spring training, it’s probably Pirela. He’s a right-handed hitter, which makes him a nice complement to Gardner. He’s also versatile, which makes him a nice fit on a Yankees roster with so much uncertainty at various positions. Pirela came up as an infielder, but he’s been getting regular reps in left field for a few years now. He will surely try to win an everyday job at second base during spring training, but it might be easier for him a win a job as a bench player who can play the outfielder corners while providing additional depth in the infield. Adonis Garcia and Zelous Wheeler (if he’s not DFA) could also be right-handed corner outfield options off the bench.
Hard to find a true left field prospect. Quite often a young player comes up at another position and plays his way into a left field job (or, in the case of Gardner, ends up shifting to left field because the other outfield positions are filled). Flores, though, has been primarily a left fielder throughout his career. He can play center, and he has experience as a right fielder and first baseman, but the vast majority of his time has come in left. And he has a set of tools that might actually profile pretty well for a fourth outfielder type who can run a little, get on base and handle all three spots in the outfield. He has a spot on the 40-man roster and he hit .247/.339/.443 in Triple-A this year (though his season was limited to 63 games because of an ankle injury). There are bigger names who could end up in left field depending on various circumstances, but Flores is a left fielder by trade, and he’s done enough to stay on the prospect radar into the upper levels of the system.
Deeper in the system
You can dig into the lower levels of the system and find a few names worth watching in left field. Former third-rounder Michael O’Neill still strikes out a lot, but he was better this year than last year. A pretty young kid named Frank Frias had a solid year in rookie ball. A 2012 draftee named Chris Breen hit .281/.376/.504 in Staten Island. In terms of organizational depth at the position, though, the Yankees abundance of left field options basically revolves around all the guys who can play center field. If Slade Heathcott gets healthy or Mason Williams gets back on track, either one could become a left field alternative as long as Ellsbury remains in New York. Same for emerging center field standout Jake Cave. Right fielders Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge would presumably become left field options if circumstances forced the change. One interesting name that stands out, though, is Dugas. An eighth-round pick out of the University of Alabama, Dugas can play center and right but he’s mostly been a left fielder in pro ball. He’s undersized — listed at 5-foot-9 — but he’s done a terrific job of getting on base. This year he hit .299/.399/.390 between Double-A and Triple-A, essentially forcing the Yankees to not only give him regular at-bats but also to promote him to the highest level of the minors. Easy to overlook a year ago, Dugas put up numbers that can’t be ignored.
Making a trade to open a door
Aside from the year he was hurt most of the season, Gardner’s been a pretty steady player since moving into the everyday lineup. He doesn’t run as much as his speed suggests he should, and he strikes out a lot for a top-of-the-order guy, but he’s been a good lineup regular. This season’s power surge was a welcome surprise, he remains a patient hitter, and his outfield defense is a plus. Right now, Gardner’s spring contract extension looks like a pretty good one for the Yankees. So it’s worth asking, should they trade him? Gardner’s contract should make him an attractive trade chip, and the upper levels of the Yankees system have a lot of outfielders — many of them left-handed hitters like Gardner — who could become alternatives in left field. If Jake Cave, for example, builds off last season, could he be an even cheaper version of Gardner? Very little guarantee that any of the outfield prospects will be able to match Gardner’s big league production, but Gardner himself is proof that a prospect labeled as an eventual fourth outfielder can eventually play his way into being a productive everyday guy. If the Yankees want someone to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, they might first have to open Gardner’s position.
Associated Press photo
State of the organization: Center field • 10.14.14
Up next in our position-by-position look at the Yankees organization is a position that has a long-term solution already in place at the major-league level. It’s also a position with quite a bit of depth — and a good amount of both disappointment and production — within the minor league system. The Yankees have a lot of young center fielders who might or might not work out, but right now there’s not really a place to put them even if they do emerge as immediate big league options.
Signed through 2020
The Yankees lineup didn’t have much in 2013, but one thing it did have was a speedy, left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder. And so, of course, when the Yankees got into the offseason and needed to find a high-end position player, they gave seven years and more than $150 million to a speedy, left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder. For the most part, Ellsbury lived up to expectation in his first season with the Yankees. He had a 113 OPS+ in 2013, then a 111 in 2014. He had 246 total bases in 2013, 241 in 2014. Home runs were up, stolen bases were slightly down, but ultimately this was a reasonable and productive year for Ellsbury. Whether the contract will still be reasonable and productive at the end of the decade remains to be seen, but for the time being, the Yankees seem to have gotten the player they expected. And having Ellsbury in center field has allowed the Yankees to move Brett Gardner back into left field, giving them a ton of outfield range and a double-dose of speed near the top of the order.
On the verge
I’m using Richardson’s name here mostly to make a point about the uncertainty of all the organization’s upper-level center fielders. The Yankees have a lot of center fielders who could push themselves onto the big league roster early next season — Can Slade Heathcott get healthy? Mason Williams has the defense, what about the bat? Will Jake Cave keep moving up? Is Taylor Dugas for real? Are Adonis Garcia and Ramon Flores good enough in center? — but this September, when the Yankees wanted a speedy center field type to bring up in September, they called on the veteran Richardson. Even with a lot of center field talent in Double-A and Triple-A, Richardson was the choice. Ideally, one of the true center field prospects will push for that sort of call-up next year. Williams is Rule 5 eligible this offseason. Heathcott and Flores are already on the 40-man. Cave and Dugas had great 2014 seasons. Both Garcia and Flores are intriguing hitters who primarily play in the corners but have center field experience. With both Ellsbury and Gardner on the big league roster, the Yankees have ready-made depth in center field, so the development of a center fielder isn’t overwhelmingly important. But the Yankees have a lot of upper-level talent at the position, and they’ll surely need some of that talent to play some sort of role going forward.
Two things are at play here. The first is all about Cave himself. The 21-year-old missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, but he made a strong showing with Low-A Charleston in 2013, and he did so well with High-A Tampa this season that he forced a mid-July promotion to Double-A Trenton. When he got there, Cave’s power numbers actually spiked. He finished the year with a .294/.351/.414 slash line between the two levels. He can run, but he hasn’t stolen a ton of bases. He has some power, but it mostly plays out in a lot of doubles. He’s noted for a strong arm in the outfield. Good as Cave has been these past two years, though, some of his move to the top of the organizational pecking order at center field is because of the decline of both Williams and Heathcott. Williams hit just .223/.290/.304, which was another a step backwards after a disappointing 2013. His speed, defense and upside might be enough for a 40-man spot this winter, but Williams’ prospect stock is falling fast. Heathcott, on the other hand, remains one of the highest-potential players in the organization, but he had yet another surgery this season. He simply missed too much time and remains too injury prone to still consider him the top center field prospect in the system.
Deeper in the system
The Yankees top five draft picks this year were all pitchers. The first position player they selected was Payton, a University of Texas center fielder who made a strong first impression by hitting .320/.418/.497 between Low-A and High-A. Just like almost all of the other center fielders in the system, Payton is a left-handed hitter, and most scouting reports suggest a fourth-outfielder upside. He seems to be one of those guys who does a lot of things pretty well but no one thing extremely well (could say that about a lot of the Yankees other center field prospects as well). Have to assume Payton will head back to Tampa next season, looking to basically follow Cave’s footsteps with a mid-season bump to Double-A. Also coming up from the lower levels, Dustin Fowler hit for some power in Charleston this year, but Leonardo Molina is the name to watch. He’s just 17 years old and put up bad numbers in rookie ball, but the Yankees see considerable potential. Needs time to develop.
Getting things right
It’s not unusual or surprising to see a lot of left-handed center fielders in the organization. Most high school teams tend to stick their best players at shortstop, but if that best player is left-handed, center field seems to be the best alternative. And it seems the Yankees organization is seeing the trickle-down impact. Ellsbury, Gardner, Cave, Dugas, Flores, Heathcott, Williams and Payton are all left-handed hitters. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a redundant thing. With Ellsbury and Gardner locked into multi-year contracts, the Yankees most immediate opening for a young center fielder is in fourth outfielder role, and it would be convenient to have that fourth outfielder bat right-handed (if only to balance the two guys already in place). At some point the Yankees might have to trade away some of this center field depth to find a player who’s not so repetitive within their own system. Problem is, Heathcott and Williams have lost considerable trade value, and guys like Flores and Dugas (and probably even Cave) aren’t likely to headline a particularly significant deal.
Associated Press photo
Haven’t done this in a while, so here’s a quick update on a few guys in the minor league system. Now that we’re approaching the end of August, there’s a heavy emphasis on the upper-levels in this post. Just seems more relevant with September call-ups around the corner. Minor league seasons will end in just a few weeks, and at that point it will be a little easier to take a big-picture look at what everyone — including the low-level guys — did and did not do this season. For now, it seems more worthwhile to focus on the Triple-A and Double-A guys who could be on the big league radar either next month or early next year.
• Strictly my own speculation, but don’t rule out Manny Banuelos as either a September call-up candidate or perhaps a left-handed relief possibility. Once the Yankees top pitching prospect — and one of the better left-handed pitching prospects in baseball — Banuelos is beginning to look like a standout again. On Tuesday he returned to Triple-A for the first time since his 2012 Tommy John surgery, and he allowed one run on two hits through five innings. He had an up-and-down year in Double-A, but in his last five Trenton starts before the promotion Banuelos had a 3.00 ERA with a .151 opponents’ batting average through 21 innings. Probably still some work to be done, but at least showing signs of life again.
• Other left-handed pitchers to have in mind now that the Yankees don’t have a true lefty specialist: In 10 games since moving up to Triple-A, Tyler Webb has 18 strikeouts through 13.1 innings. Lefties, though, are hitting .357 with two home runs against him. Nik Turley is still working as a Triple-A starter, with kind of up-and-down results, but lefties are hitting just .179 against him (with a bunch of walks). Not sure the Yankees would go that direction, but I suppose it’s a possibility. Down in Double-A, first-round pick Jacob Lindgren has faced just two lefties in three games, but he was dominant against them in similarly limited chances with High-A Tampa. Another Double-A reliever, James Pazos, is having a really nice year and has a .143/.205/.143 slash line against lefties (though surely if he were close to a big league call-up, he would have been pushed to Triple-A at this point). There’s also Pat Venditte, who’s overall Triple-A numbers are solid, with lefties hitting .246/.313/.298 against him.
• Rob Refsnyder just keeps hitting in Triple-A. He’s hit .300/.345/.440 in the month of August and he’s hitting .300/.391/.480 overall since getting to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. True to Brian Cashman’s word, Refsnyder has not played right field since the trade deadline. He’s strictly a second baseman with a few DH turns that let Jose Pirela get occasional time at second.
• If the Yankees can get Carlos Beltran into the outfield, I wonder if they would consider giving DH at-bats to Kyle Roller. Clearly Joe Girardi isn’t sold on Zoilo Almonte, who would also seem to be a prime candidate to bring some left-handed power to the lineup. But Roller might be an interesting alternative. Strictly a first baseman when he’s in the field, Roller is hitting .284/.374/.510 against Triple-A right-handers — and lefties don’t exactly give him trouble, he has an .858 OPS against them. Plus, Roller’s hit .316/.420/.600 in his past 95 overall at-bats, and he’s homered in three of his past six games. This guy has been forced to perform in order to keep himself (or get himself) on the map. Not a big name, but plenty of people speak pretty highly of his bat and work ethic.
• Been a strange year for pitching throughout the upper levels of the Yankees organization. Obviously the big league issues are well documented, but all of the injuries and turnover in New York have left Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shorthanded several times this season. Last night, Venditte had to make a spot start, and that game went 13 innings — Venditte and four other relievers pitched at least two innings — ending with outfielder Taylor Dugas making his second pitching appearance of the season. Everything can run smoothly, and Triple-A pitching staffs are still left short-handed from time to time. It’s the nature of the beast, but it’s occasionally gotten awfully tough for the Railriders this season. They’re feeling the impact of all of those big league pitching problems.
• By the way, when he’s not filling in on the mound, Taylor Dugas is having an awfully good season. When the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury and extended Brett Gardner, it seemed a little odd at least partially because the Yankees farm system was already overloaded with left-handed center field types. At this point, though, Ramon Flores has been hurt most of the year, Slade Heathcott once again had season-ending surgery, Mason Williams has underperformed, and Ben Gamel hasn’t hit a ton. Dugas is kind of the last man standing, having emerged from that group with a .299/.393/.398 slash line between Double-A and Triple-A. Doesn’t get nearly the recognition of those other guys, but he’s the only one consistently performing and staying on the field. We’ll see if that means anything this winter. Could make a case for himself as a fifth outfielder type.
• Speaking of left-handed outfielders, another emerging possibility is Jake Cave. He’s always generated some prospect attention, but because of injuries he’d never reached high enough into the upper levels to join the conversation with Williams and Heathcott. That’s surely changed at this point. Still just 21 years old, Cave moved up to Double-A in mid July and has hit .287/.368/.455 since getting there. He’s played all three outfield positions, occasionally forcing Williams into the corners. Cave already has five triples in 25 Double-A games.
• When the Yankees picked Cave in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, it came one round after they selected first baseman Greg Bird. Both were high schoolers at the time, and both have already reached Double-A. Bird jumped up to Trenton at the beginning of August, so he has just a 10-game sample size. So far, though, he’s hitting .273/.400/.636 with three home runs, all of which came in a pair of back-to-back games. Bird basically came up to Double-A as soon as Pete O’Brien was traded away. Bird got the available first-base playing time (and I have to believe Bird’s steady bat is part of the reason the Yankees felt comfortable trading O’Brien). Different kind of hitters, for sure, but each seemed more likely to settle in at first base than at any other position. Bird, by the way, was also drafted as a catcher, just like O’Brien.
• In case you’re curious about Pete O’Brien, he was assigned to Double-A and landed on the disabled list just four games after the trade. Interestingly, he didn’t play first base in any of those four games after the trade. He caught three times and played right field once after moving into the Diamondbacks organization.
• One more note about that 2011 draft class: It’s top pick, Dante Bichette, is also up to Double-A at this point. Having rejuvenated his prospect stock down in Tampa, Bichette was moved up to Trenton a week ago. He has five hits in six games. He was hitting .271/.352/.410 in Tampa.
• And one last note about that 2011 draft class: Big relief pitcher Branden Pinder has pitched 3.2 scoreless innings in four appearances since coming off the Triple-A disabled list. I wouldn’t necessarily consider him a favorite for a September call-up, but he is Rule 5 eligible this winter, and he’s been a pretty good reliever, and the Yankees currently have both Jose Ramirez and Preston Claiborne on the disabled list, meaning they might not be healthy enough to come up in September. If the Yankees are planning to protect Pinder this offseason, might make sense to give him a 40-man spot next month and bring him on up. Maybe. They could just bring up Banuelos, Matt Daley and Bryan Mitchell — guys already on the 40-man — and have a pretty massive pitching staff for the final month (especially if Masahiro Tanaka and David Phelps are off the disabled list at that point).
• Top pitching prospect Luis Severino has been placed on the Double-A disabled list with that oblique injury that was previously described as “very slight.” Could be that it really is a very slight injury, and the Yankees are just being extra cautious with their best young arm. Not like it would be unusual for them. Another top prospect, Ian Clarkin, has also been added to the disabled list. I emailed Mark Newman today to ask about the severity of the injury — could be little more than innings management with Clarkin — but I haven’t heard back just yet.
• A few very quick hits from the lower levels: Tampa right fielder Aaron Judge continues to be pretty awesome, in my mind solidifying himself as the team’s top hitting prospect ahead of Gary Sanchez. He’s homered three times in his past eight games, and he’s still taking a ton of walks. … Tampa shortstop Cito Culver‘s bat has actually regressed in the second half of the season. … Also in Tampa, third baseman Eric Jagielo is back from the disabled list and continues to hit for more power than average. He’s hit .233/.346/.433 in 90 at-bats since coming off the DL. He’s homered in his past two games. … In Charleston, second baseman Gosuke Katoh has hit .280/.378/.382 through 49 games in the second half. That’s after hitting .190/.302/.315 in the first half.
Associated Press photos of Banuelos and Roller; headshots of Dugas, Bird and Pinder
State of the organization: Corner outfield • 01.18.13
There’s a reason — beyond the obvious talent — that Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Upton and Mike Morse generated so much trade talk among Yankees fans this winter. A big, power-hitting, prototypical corner outfielder would fit incredibly well on this roster. The minor league system might have a legitimate outfield slugger on the way, but he’s at least a year away, and for the time being, the Yankees outfield is filled with two small-ball players and one all-or-nothing free agent to be. Those are three legitimate pieces, but the Yankees outfield could certainly make room for one of Brian Cashman’s big, hairy monsters if he could find one.
Curtis Granderson / Ichiro Suzuki
Signed through 2013 /2014
We know Suzuki will be in right field. We can only guess whether Granderson or Brett Gardner will be in left (as I wrote a couple of days ago, I’m heading into spring training expecting Gardner to shift to center). Either way, the Yankees are going to have considerable speed in their outfield and should cover a lot of ground. They’re going to count on Gardner and Ichiro to run on offense, and on Granderson to hit home runs. What’s still unclear is who they’re going to count on to hit against lefties. Matt Diaz is coming to camp on a minor league deal, and Russ Canzler is going to try to win a job in spring training, but Cashman has made no secret of the fact he’d like to add another right-handed hitting corner outfielder. Nick Swisher gave the Yankees a steady right field presence for four years, and he’s been difficult to fully replace this winter.
On the verge
Maybe Tyler Austin can play his way into the big league picture this year, but it’s more likely that immediate help will have to come from either Zoilo Almonte or Ronnier Mustelier, two players who really weren’t even worth watching two years ago. Almonte was signed way back in 2005, but he didn’t put himself on the map until 2011 when he cut down on his strikeouts and hit .276/.345/.459 between High-A and Double-A. His power numbers went up during a full Double-A season last year, and now he has a 40-man spot with a Triple-A job on the way. He’s a switch hitter who was especially good against righties last year (it hasn’t always been that way). Mustelier is a Cuban defector who didn’t join the Yankees until 2011 when he was already 26 years old. He’s too old to be considered a typical prospect, but he’s hit .324/.378/.497 through two pro seasons, including a pretty good 89 games in Triple-A last year. He’s played some second base and center field, but Mustelier’s ticket to the big leagues might be his ability to play all four corners. He’s kind of a less proven version of Canzler, who’s probably higher in the pecking order. Under certain circumstances, center fielders Melky Mesa and Abe Almonte could also factor into the corner conversation.
Deeper in the system
Austin is easily the top corner outfield prospect in the system, and he appears to have been a 13th-round steal. Drafted out of high school in 2010, Austin was the unquestionable breakout star of the Yankees minor league system last year. He hit .322/.400/.559 while climbing all the way from Charleston to Trenton. Despite that little bit of Double-A experience, the Yankees are considering sending Austin back to High-A to open this season. If he repeats last year’s results, he won’t stay there for long. Austin’s breakout season easily overshadowed Ramon Flores, a left-fielder who has a knack for getting on base (.362 on-base percentage in his minor league career). Flores was added to the 40-man this winter and is ticketed for Trenton. It’s hard to mention all of the system’s mildly interesting corner outfielders — converted third baseman Rob Segedin, under-the-radar Cuban prospect Adonis Garcia, does-a-little-of-everything Ben Gamel, and 2012 draftees Taylor Dugas and Nathan Mikolas are names worth knowing — but I’ll save room for Jake Cave, the Yankees sixth-round pick in 2011 who’s hardly played since being drafted because of a knee injury. Cave could have been drafted as either a left-handed pitcher or an outfielder, but the Yankees liked his bat. There’s upside to him, just no professional track record.
On the move
College outfielder Rob Refsnyder played right field for the Yankees Low-A team last year but seems likely to shift to second base next season. On the flip side, long-time middle infielder Jose Pirela began to see considerable time in left field last year and kept at least a little bit of prospect status alive with a strong Double-A season. The Yankees have shown a willingness to move players into the outfield corners when necessary — that’s how Austin got there after signing as a corner infielder — and they could eventually do that with last year’s second-round pick Austin Aune, who will first get a chance to sink or swim as a shortstop. Obviously, if top center field prospects Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott each get to New York, one of them will have to shift to left field.
What to watch
The development of Austin is among the most interesting aspects of the Yankees system this season. Last year was a revelation, the kind of year that suggested he just might be a real life, in-house, power-hitting corner outfielder that can rise through the system and get to New York within two years. That would be huge for the Yankees. For now, the thing to watch is the Yankees on-going pursuit of a right-handed outfield bat and the how-long-can-he-last uncertainty of Ichiro’s two-year deal.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Granderson, Ichiro, Almonte, Mustelier, Austin, Flores, Williams and Heathcott