With the Yankees first workout now seven days away, we’ll continue counting down some of the key spring training decisions by looking at the most wide open spot on the roster. The Yankees have a two-way competition for the backup catcher, they could be convinced to change their plans at second base, but there’s only one roster spot that has a slew of candidates and no obvious favorites heading into camp.
Who’s going to fill the final spot in the bullpen?
Granted, that one open spot could be two or three open spots by the time Opening Day rolls around. But that’s always the case. What’s unusual about this particular bullpen spot is there’s really no telling which direction the Yankees might go.
To be clear, these are the 11 spots on the pitching staff that have clear favorites:
Rotation: Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Capuano
Bullpen: Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, David Carpenter, Adam Warren, Justin Wilson, Esmil Rogers
Of course “favorites” aren’t guarantees, but based on what we know today, those 11 feel like safe bets. The 12th spot, on the other hand, is thoroughly up in the air. The Yankees could go several directions with that final spot in the bullpen, and nearly every direction comes with its own set of options.
A hard-throwing right-hander
Based on pure numbers, this might be the most likely decision. Protecting Danny Burawa and Branden Pinder from the Rule 5 draft added two hard-throwing, right-handed prospects to the 40-man roster. Acquiring Chris Martin from the Rockies added yet another. As long as Jose Ramirez is fully healthy, he’ll be another possibility (having made his big league debut last season). Nick Rumbelow isn’t on the 40-man, but he was invited to big league camp and finished last season in Triple-A. Minor league free agent Wilking Rodriguez seems like a long shot, but he did pitch in the big leagues with the Royals last season. It’s worth remembering that one of these guys could fill, essentially, the role Betances had at the beginning of last season. Joe Girardi often talks about taking the 12 best pitchers, and it’s worth wondering if one of these guys could really take advantage of the opportunity.
A third left-hander
With Miller and Wilson, the Yankees seem to have two left-handed relievers with big league spots waiting for them. Miller is certainly going to make the team, and Wilson seems like a near lock, if not an absolute lock. But is there room for a third lefty? Neither Miller nor Wilson is purely a left-on-left specialist, the Yankees could ease a young pitcher into the big leagues by starting him in a situational role. Maybe that’s the way top draft pick Jacob Lindgren gets his feet wet. Or it could be the way the Yankees get their first up-close look at Chasen Shreve, who broke into the big leagues with Atlanta last season. Tyler Webb didn’t have standout splits last season, but he did put up good numbers in Triple-A. James Pazos would seem like the long shot of this group, but he was dominant against Double-A lefties last year.
A former big league closer
Only one guy in all of Yankees camp fits this description, and it’s not any of the guys listed as favorites for the big league bullpen. After missing all of last year while recovering from shoulder surgery, former Oakland closer Andrew Bailey signed a new minor league deal with the Yankees this offseason. He’s said to be healthy and expected to be pitching off a mound this spring. It’s hard to know what to expect from Bailey, but that’s part of what makes him so intriguing. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2009, an all-star in 2010, and as recently as 2013 he had huge strikeout numbers with the Red Sox. Hard to know what he can do at this point, but there could be high-end potential if he’s close to his pre-surgery form.
A pure long man
With plans to have Warren and Rogers work as starters in spring training — just in case they’re needed in the rotation — the Yankees projected bullpen already has two guys who could serve as long relievers. They also have both Betances and Miller who aren’t necessarily restricted to one inning at a time. But there could still be room for a long reliever/sixth starter. Perhaps Chase Whitley, who worked as a reliever most of his career before getting to the big leagues as a starter last season. Or maybe Bryan Mitchell, who’s become one of the Yankees top upper-level rotation prospects, but could find an immediate role in the bullpen. Long relief could also open a big league door for new lefty Jose De Paula. If the Yankees prefer a veteran, both Scott Baker and Kyle Davies are coming to camp, each with multiple years of big league rotation experience.
Associated Press photo of Whitley
Eight days before the Yankees’ first spring workout, we’ll continue looking at some of the key issue the Yankees have to figure out in spring training. We’ve already discussed the backup catcher competition and the batting order possibilities, today we’ll look at a fairly hard to define bit of decision making.
Who’s first in line to fill the inevitable roster needs during the season?
While much of spring training is spent sorting out the Opening Day roster — assigning roles and weeding out the lesser candidates — the Yankees have to pay especially close attention this spring to the guys who won’t break camp with the team. That’s an impossible to ignore aspect of a team that has serious health concerns in the rotation and serious production concerns in the lineup. It’s also a good bit of reality for an organization that finally has a wave of young players getting close to the majors.
Basically, the Yankees have to figure out who can help right away, because chances are, they’re going to need some help at some point.
And in the case of this group of next-in-line possibilities, there are few cut-and-dry decisions. The Yankees have a lot of upper-level outfielders, but there’s not one who definitely fits the current roster better than anyone else. Is Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder the best choice for an infield opening? Is Gary Sanchez ready if the Yankees need another catcher? What about that long list of relievers; who stands out in that pack?
Spring training gives the entire organization — especially the big league coaching staff — a chance to really evaluation the options, and there’s a good chance one of these mid-season call-ups will end up playing a much bigger role than some of the guys who make the Opening Day roster. Last year, the Yankees had to make moves to fill holes. The hope is they can plug holes from within this time.
A few possibilities they’ll have to consider:
1. What if the Yankees need an outfielder?
Right now, it seems Chris Young and Garrett Jones are fourth and fifth on the outfield depth chart, but the Yankees have four other outfielders on the 40-man (counting Jose Pirela) and another three outfielders coming to camp on non-roster invitations. That’s a big group to consider, and who gets the call might depend on need and production. When the time comes for a call-up, is there room for another left-handed bat, and if so, who stands out among Ramon Flores, Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams? If an offensive-minded right-handed hitter fits best, does Tyler Austin seem ready? How close is Aaron Judge? Has Pirela picked up where he left off last season?
2. What if the Yankees need an infielder?
Obviously this question could depend on specific positions, but the Yankees have enough flexibility with Jones, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan that they could move pieces around and simply call-up the best infielder available. That means, even if they don’t make the team, Pirela and Refsnyder will be competing for big league attention. And after seeing Yangervis Solarte last season, it’s hard to dismiss a guy like Nick Noonan (how good is he at short?) or Jonathan Galvez (can he hit enough to be a big league utility man?).
3. What if the Yankees need an offensive boost?
Given what we saw last year, it’s not out of the question that the Yankees might need a bat at some point. Maybe Alex Rodriguez stinks at designated hitter, or Carlos Beltran hasn’t fully recovered from elbow surgery, or Mark Teixeira’s still battling nagging injuries. If the Yankees have to go looking for offense, Kyle Roller should be worth serious consideration. Maybe Austin is still rolling after last year’s strong second half. Maybe Judge or Greg Bird deserve consideration straight from Double-A.
4. What if the Yankees need a catcher?
If the Yankees pick Austin Romine as their backup and option John Ryan Murphy to Triple-A, then this question is easy to answer. If, however, the Yankees keep Murphy and lost Romine on waivers, it could get complicated. Sanchez is on the 40-man and should be playing everyday in Triple-A, but he also carries significant questions about his defense and maturity. Is he ready for a big league job (even a part-time one) at this point, or should the Yankees keep an eye on guys like Eddy Rodriguez and Francisco Arcia as just-in-case alternatives.
5. What if the Yankees need a spot starter?
When the rotation began to fall apart last season, the Yankees first turned to a pair of relievers in David Phelps and Vidal Nuno. This year, though, Phelps and Nuno are gone. If there’s a need early in the season, perhaps Adam Warren or Esmil Rogers could play the Phelps/Nuno role, sliding out of the bullpen and into the rotation. If not, who’s the best alternative among Chase Whitley, Bryan Mitchell, Jose De Paula, Kyle Davis and Scott Baker? Whitley got an early call-up last year. Mitchell pitched well late in the season. Shane Greene made a strong first impression in big league camp last spring, and we all know where that led.
6. What if the Yankees need a reliever?
Inevitable, isn’t it? Bullpens always evolve in the course of a season, and the Yankees are loaded with upper-level relievers who seem fully capable of filling in at any point this season. If all goes as planned, the Yankees will have just one bullpen opening out of spring training, but they’ll have no fewer than 10 guys looking to fill it (Bailey, Whitley, Mitchell, Ramirez, Pinder, Burawa, Martin, Rumbelow, Shreve, Lindgren, Webb). There won’t be room for everyone in New York, so the Yankees will have to make some judgments about who ranks 13th and 14th on a 12-man pitching staff.
7. What if the Yankees need to make a trade?
Kind of the opposite of every other question on this list: the Yankees not only have to figure out who can help them in the short term, they also have to decide which players are most expendable in the long term. If Sanchez looks less and less like a catcher, maybe he looks more and more like trade bait. If Williams, Heathcott and Jake Cave all seem to be making strides toward playing a role in New York, maybe it’s best to whittle down a group of similar players. If that bullpen depth is legitimate, maybe it’s easy to include an arm as a way to push a trade package over the top.
Associated Press photos
On the 40-man: Jose Ramirez • 02.07.15
Continuing to look at every player on the Yankees 40-man roster, we’ll next look at a high-end pitching prospect who’s development has been slowed and altered by a series of injury problems. Long treated as a starter, he’s now moved to the bullpen and made his big league debut before yet another injury last season.
Age on Opening Day: 25
Acquired: International free agent in 2007
Added to the 40-man: Protected from the Rule 5 in 2012
In the past: Consistently ranked among the Yankees top-20-or-so prospects as a young starter, Ramirez generally put up good numbers in the minor leagues, but he never pitched more than 117.2 innings in a season. After yet another good-but-limited year in 2013, the Ramirez was moved full-time to the bullpen last season. He made 10 appearances in the big leagues but ultimately went back on the disabled list with a lat injury.
Role in 2015: One of many relievers who could bounce back and forth between New York and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Last I heard, Ramirez was expected to be healthy in time for spring training, and he should be a candidate for that wide-open spot in the big league bullpen. If he doesn’t win that, he’ll surely go to Triple-A to wait for another opportunity. Although he’s no longer a starter, Ramirez doesn’t have to be limited to one inning at a time. Could be a multi-inning guy.
Best case scenario: You know how Baseball America ranks individual tools in each system? Well, Ramirez has at various times been picked for having the Yankees’ best fastball and their best changeup. That’s a pretty good combination, and the upside is pretty high. Ramirez has impressed in flashes, so the hope is that he’ll stay healthy enough to really capitalize on his raw stuff. He might not have Dellin Betances potential, but in an ideal world he’ll follow that path: opening as the last guy in the pen and emerging as a young go-to setup man.
Worst case scenario: A lot of young pitchers get to the big leagues and simply don’t pitch well enough to stick around. In the case of Ramirez, that might not be the nightmare scenario. Instead, the worst-case scenario is a lingering question of “what if?” If Ramirez breaks down again this season, he might miss his last chance to stick with the Yankees. He should be out of options next season, and would the Yankees really hold a roster spot for an unproven guy who simply can’t stay healthy?
What the future holds: Two things going against Ramirez: his injuries and the Yankees’ wealth of young bullpen alternatives. On thing going in his favor: his raw talent. The Yankees didn’t cut ties with Ramirez this winter, which shows they still believe he could have an impact, and perhaps a lasting one. He needs to establish himself soon, though, or the Yankees could easily move on.
Associated Press photo
We’ve known for months that the Yankees would lose their longest-tenured, homegrown player this offseason. But as it’s turned out, Derek Jeter’s not not the organization’s only familiar face who’s moved on this winter. The Yankees lost some of their other longest-tenured, homegrown players when Zoilo Almonte reached free agency, Francisco Cervelli was traded to Pittsburgh, and Dave Robertson signed a contract with the White Sox.
It’s now kind of amazing now to look at which players stand as the longest-tenured Yankees who have never played for another organization. Based on the year they were acquired (without nitpicking about the precise date) here are the 10 longest-tenured, homegrown Yankees who remain in the system.
1. Ivan Nova
Signed: international free agent, 2004
Debut: May 13, 2010
The Yankees nearly lost Nova before they had a chance to really see what he could do. Back in 2008, Nova was left exposed to the Rule 5 draft, and the Padres picked him. Coming off a solid but uninspiring year in High-A, Nova got a little bit of a look in spring training, didn’t make the San Diego roster, and returned to the Yankees. The next year, he was added to the 40-man roster, and now he stands — with the next two players on this list — as one of the top three homegrown big leaguers in the organization. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery, but would otherwise have a rotation spot waiting for him in spring training.
2. Brett Gardner
Signed: amateur draft, 2005
Debut: June 30, 2008
One of the most talked-about drafts of the past several decades, the 2005 draft was mostly a bust for the Yankees. They thoroughly missed the boat on first-rounder C.J. Henry, and second-rounder J.B. Cox was too injured to ever reach his future-closer ceiling, but their third-round pick was one of their most successful of the decade. Gardner has outplayed his detractors to become a legitimate everyday outfielder, and the Yankees have rewarded him with a long-term deal through the 2018 season. By the way, despite being mostly a bust for the Yankees, that 2005 draft also yielded Austin Jackson, another of the Yankees best draft picks of the past decade.
3. Dellin Betances
Signed: amateur draft, 2006
Debut: September 22, 2011
That 2006 draft class was a great one for the Yankees. Ten picks made it to the majors and seven are still legitimate big leaguers in some capacity, but the only one who’s still with the Yankees is Betances. Slow to develop with a lot of bumps along the way, Betances could very well replace one of his draft-mates as the Yankees closer this season. The other members of that Yankees draft class to reach the big leagues: Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Zach McAllister, Colin Curtis, George Kontos, Mark Melancon, Daniel McCutchen, Dave Robertson and Kevin Russo.
4. Jose Pirela
Signed: international free agent, 2006
Debut: September 22, 2014
Signed out of Venezuela, Pirela built some prospect status as a teenager in the lower levels of the minor league system. As he climbed into the upper levels, though, he was moved away from shortstop, his offensive production faded and Pirela more or less fell off the prospect map. He hit his way back on the map with a couple of strong years in Double-A, a potent year in Triple-A, and finally a September call-up. Now with a spot on the 40-man roster, Pirela has a legitimate chance to win a big league bench job. And he’s still just 25 years old.
5. Austin Romine
Signed: amateur draft, 2007
Debut: September 11, 2011
Immediately after that successful class of 2006, the Yankees had a real letdown with the draft of 2007. Andrew Brackman was the first rounder, and the only others to actually reach New York were Brandon Laird and Romine. There’s a solid chance that, by the end of spring training, the Yankees won’t have anyone from that class left in the organization. Remarkably, shortstop Carmen Angelini — largely seen as a bust — is actually one of the more successful members of that class.
6. Jose Ramirez
Signed: international free agent, 2007
Debut: June 4, 2014
On the 40-man roster, with 10 innings of big league experience and his 25th birthday coming up in January, Ramirez is a longtime prospect who’s put himself in position to begin playing a legitimate role in the big leagues. Of course, that’s largely a matter of staying healthy, which has been an issue throughout his career. Once seen as a high-potential rotation prospect, Ramirez is now an interesting bullpen option. From a year when the Yankees didn’t add much lasting talent into the organization, Ramirez stands out as a possible exception. He could play at least some role in the immediate and long-term future.
7. Ali Castillo
Signed: international free agent, 2007
Doesn’t have a spot on the 40-man roster, and doesn’t have much chance of actually playing a role in New York, but Castillo remains one of the longest-tenured players in the organization. Signed out of Venezuela in late 2007, he’s been essentially an organizational utility man. He’s putting up nice numbers in winter ball this offseason, and he spent the regular season as the starting shortstop in Double-A Trenton. He signed a new minor league deal this fall. Could play a role in Triple-A this season, if only because the Yankees lack middle infield alternatives.
8. David Phelps
Signed: amateur draft, 2008
Debut: April 8, 2012
In the first 10 rounds of the 2008 draft, the Yankees selected five guys who have reached the big leagues. Their top pick was Gerrit Cole (who wouldn’t sign and wound up with the Pirates years later), then they went on to draft David Adams, Corban Joseph, Brett Marshall and D.J. Mitchell. Those four played minor roles in New York, and it’s now 14th rounder Phelps who stands out as the key piece of that draft class. That draft class, by the way, is the one that just reached free agent status this offseason, so Phelps really has emerged as the last man standing (though catcher Kyle Higashioka has re-signed on a minor league deal).
9. Manny Banuelos
Signed: international free agent, 2008
Two years ago, it seemed Banuelos was knocking on the door to the big leagues and on the verge of taking a lasting spot in the Yankees rotation. Then he had Tommy John surgery and his steady climb was thrown off track. Now Baneulos is back to the doorstep of the big leagues, but taking that next step will be a matter of pitching effectively one year after an inconsistent season in Double-A and Triple-A. Banuelos still has an option remaining, so he doesn’t have to make the big league roster out of spring training. It remains to be seen whether he’ll live up to his lofty potential and become a rotation mainstay for years to come.
10. Ramon Flores
Signed: international free agent, 2008
There are a few other players from the international class of 2008 who are still hanging around, but Flores and Banuelos stand out as the ones with easily the most reasonable chance of actually playing a role in New York at some point (the others are not on the 40-man and not making much impact in system). Back in 2008, Flores got the 10th-highest bonus during the international signing period (he was a much bigger name than Baneulos at the time). If it seems lousy that the Yankees have so little impact from that international class, check out the other names who got top-20 international bonuses that year. Those young international guys always come with a high level of risk.
Associated Press photo
Here’s an interesting lineup note: Tonight’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre infield has Ronnier Mustelier at third, Corban Joseph at second and David Adams at first.
We’ve already seen the Yankees send Joseph to first base a few times this season. Now Adams is getting a turn, and as far as I can tell, it’s his first time ever playing the position.
As for what to read into that…
Given the current first base situation in New York, where Lyle Overbay has no real backup, it makes sense to have two pretty solid utility-types learn the position. But it’s also worth noting, that while Joseph and Adams are pretty good offensive infielders, neither one stands out as a first-base type bat. Learning first base in order to play it in a pinch makes sense, but it’s hard to imagine either one being truly converted to the position.
Another thing to consider is that it makes sense to use first base almost like a second DH. The Yankees want to give Adams some time at second base, and when that happens, they can keep Joseph in the lineup by playing him at first. They also want to give Mustelier some time at third, and when that happens, they can move Adams to first. First base could be little more than a way for these guys to get at-bats.
More playing time, with a little extra defensive flexibility? Why not?
• This morning, Zoilo Almonte was named International League Player of the Week. He had a hit in all eight RailRiders games, batting .355 with two home runs and a league-best seven RBI. His season slash line is pretty terrific — .293/.393/.455 — but the problem with Almonte, from the Yankees perspective, is that he’s a switch hitter who’s much better from the left side. He’s hitting .299/.400/.494 against righties, but .273/.370/.318 against lefties. He has 10 extra-base hits this season, only one of them against a left-hander. The Yankees would have far more use for Almonte from the right side.
• Chien-Ming Wang is making another Triple-A start tonight. Wang’s numbers are terrific — 0.95 ERA through three starts — but Brian Cashman said last week that the Yankees want Wang to be more effective with his offspeed stuff. He still has the sinker, but it doesn’t have the same velocity that he had when he was a 19-game winner. The Yankees believe he’ll need to use his secondary stuff to have success with the current fastball.
• If this Eduardo Nunez rib cage injury is a real issue that requires a DL stint, who would the Yankees bring up? Gil Velazquez is a steady veteran, but he’s hitting .197 with no extra-base hits in Triple-A. Addison Maruszak is less proven defensively, but he has a .390 Triple-A on-base percentage and can play basically any position except pitcher. The bigger issue might be this: There’s not another shortstop on the 40-man roster. If the Yankees had to make a call-up, it might make more sense to recall Joseph and simply consider Chris Nelson the emergency shortstop for a couple of weeks.
• This really has little impact on the big league roster, but it seems like a real issue for the Triple-A team: Cody Johnson, Dan Johnson and Luke Murton have combined for three home runs for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Dan Johnson has always raked at that level, and both Murton and Cody Johnson have — at the very least — shown legitimate power in Double-A. I have to imagine that the Yankees expected their Triple-A roster to get a power boost from at least one of those three.
• Down in Double-A, Slade Heathcott is hitting just .198/.276/.291, Tyler Austin is slugging just .394 — granted, his on-base percentage is also .394 — and Ramon Flores recently hit a cold spell that’s dropped his batting average from .333 to .263 in a span of two weeks. So who’s the prospect standout in Trenton? It has to be catcher J.R. Murphy who’s hitting .309/.408/.543 with more walks than strikeouts.
• It’s worth noting that Rob Segedin was also putting up terrific Double-A numbers — .338/.390/.606 with 10 doubles — before landing on the disabled list with a hip injury. The down side: He’d also made nine errors at third base, the most errors of anyone in the system.
• After making a huge impression in spring training, Jose Ramirez was kept back in extended spring for a few weeks before finally making his regular season debut with four scoreless innings on April 26. He then pitched five innings with one hit and one unearned run on Wednesday. He’s scheduled to make his third appearance tomorrow. So far, he has 12 strikeouts and two walks through nine innings.
• Francisco Rondon as a starter this season: 7.16 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 22 strikeouts and 17 walks through 27.2 innings. Wonder how long this experiment will continue if the numbers don’t improve drastically.
• Most eye-opening offensive stats in the Yankees organization? Has to be Rob Refsnyder. An NCAA standout at Arizona, Refsnyder is moving from the outfield back to second base — where he played in high school and, I believe, early in college — and his 11 errors show that there’s a bit of a learning curve. But the bat… my goodness. Refsnyder has already been promoted from Low-A to High-A, and between the two stops he’s hitting a combined .374/.486/.504 with more walks than strikeouts and 12 stolen bases without being caught. His numbers have actually been better since the promotion. He’s played 16 High-A games, and he’s had multiple hits in eight of them. Crazy.
• Yonkers native Dan Fiorito — signed last year out of Manhattanville after impressing the Yankees during a workout for non-drafted players — was sent to Tampa on April 22 to help out at shortstop. He’s basically become the everyday guy hitting .400/.478/.425 through 40 at-bats. He’s not a name on the prospect radar, but because of where he’s from I know him a little and was actually paying attention to him every time I was at the minor league complex this spring. He really, really stood out as a guy who seemed willing and able to lead. Heard him talking to teammates a lot between innings. A lot of “Let’s go, we can do this” kind of stuff. It stood out considering it was coming from a guy who’d never been in spring training and didn’t have the draft pedigree of most of the guys around him. Not saying he’s a future Jeter, just something that caught my attention.
• Back-to-back two-hit games by Gary Sanchez and his slash line is back up to .269/.355/.472 with five home runs, most of anyone in the system.
• Big strikeout numbers from Tampa starters Corey Black (36 in 30.2 innings), Mikey O’Brien (34 in 26.2 innings) and Shane Greene (33 in 36.1 innings) but the Tampa starter with the lowest ERA and lost opponents batting average is Bryan Mitchell with a 3.06 ERA and .235 opponents average. His down side has been the 18 walks. Lowest WHIP in that Tampa rotation belongs to the other starter, Scottie Allen, at 1.19. Pretty decent young arms in that group.
• We head all the way down to Charleston to find the organizational leader in walks. Low-A first baseman Greg Bird has 25 walks, good for a .425 on-base percentage. He slugged .494 in limited at-bats last season, but that power hasn’t shown up so far this season (only a .364 slugging percentage with one homer) but obviously the approach is encouraging for a 20-year-old.
• Less encouraging are the numbers for Low-A third baseman Dante Bichette Jr., who’s still trying to recapture his standout 2011 results. Sent to Charleston for a second season, Bichette is hitting just .186/.246/.265 with two homers, seven walks and 33 strikeouts. Speaking of repeating Low-A, shortstop Cito Culver has always been a glove-first player, but his .212/.305/.354 slash line is basically the same as last season except with a more power (Culver hit two homers last year, he’s already hit three this year).
• Want more good news in the Charleston lineup? Catcher Peter O’Brien has seven hits in his past three games and is hitting .313/.348/.563 for the year. He played in 21 games and has more than one hit in nine of them. He’s thrown out just over 25 percent of base stealers, which ranks him near the bottom of the South Atlantic League.
• Welcome to the U.S., Rafael De Paula. I was beginning to think he was more myth than man, but he’s finally pitching in the states and has an unreal 46 strikeouts through 27.1 innings with Charleston. Opponents are hitting .188 against him. That’s called living up to the hype, but Gabe Encinas is not sitting quietly in the shadows. Drafted in 2010, Encinas hasn’t put up particularly impressive numbers until this season. Through six starts he has a 0.84 ERA while holding opponents to a .175 average. His 28 strikeouts aren’t as impressive as De Paula’s massive number of Ks, but Encinas’ 1.05 WHIP is lower than De Paula’s 1.21.
Adams photo from my great friends at the Scranton Times-Tribune; headshots of Almonte, Murphy, Refsnyder and Bird
There is perhaps no higher commodity in baseball than a young starting pitcher. As the Yankees have discovered this winter, finding a reliable starter on the trade market is difficult and costly, and the free agent market is no sure thing. The bad news for the Yankees is that the back of their big league rotation is still unsettled. The good news is that there are a lot of legitimate pitching prospects nearly ready for the show.
In the big leagues
The Yankees have their ace in CC Sabathia. They have their young gun in Phil Hughes. They have their erratic talent in A.J. Burnett. Beyond that, the Yankees have high-hopes for Ivan Nova and a whole lot of praying for rain. For now, Sergio Mitre seems to be the top in-house option to round out the rotation, but that will almost certainly change — in one way or another — between now and spring training. There is still hope that Andy Pettitte will come back, and if he doesn’t, the free agent market still offers a handful of risk-reward pitchers coming back from injury, plus a few veterans looking for some sort of resurgence. The Yankees top pitching target went elsewhere, and now they’ll have to build a rotation with the pieces that are left.
On the verge
At this point, Nova seems nearly locked into a big league rotation spot, but the Triple-A rotation could still have five legitimate prospects, headlined by Hector Noesi and Andrew Brackman, each of whom is on the 40-man, possibly leaving them in line for early promotions should the Yankees need an additional starter. D.J. Mitchell and David Phelps are also in line to open in Triple-A after finishing last season at that level. Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos — considered, along with Brackman, to be the top pitching prospects in the system, affectionately known as the Killer Bs — will likely return to Double-A, but they could move quickly.
Adam Warren, Gordon Stoneburner and Shaeffer Hall are also legitimate rotation prospects who would be far more prominent in most systems but fall somewhat into the shadows because of the Yankees upper-level depth. Warren in the most advanced of those three, having made 10 Double-A starts, but Stoneburner might be generating the most buzz after a 2.41 ERA between Low-A and High-A last season. Hall is a lefty out of Florida State, and the Yankees are willing to push him aggressively.
Deep in the system
The bulk of the Yankees rotation prospects are actually in the upper levels of the system, having already cleared several minor league hurdles. That’s one of the most impressive things about the system as a whole. In the lowest levels, there are three names that stand out: Brett Marshall, Jose Ramirez and Bryan Mitchell. Back from Tommy John surgery, Marshall had a 2.50 ERA and a .199 opponents batting average in Charleston last season. Ramirez put himself firmly on the map in 2009 with a terrific first season in the States. He followed that with a 3.60 ERA and 105 strikeouts last season in Charleston. Mitchell is the youngest of this trio, and he pitched well in the short-season leagues in his first taste of pro ball. He was a 16th-round pick in 2009, falling only because of signability issues. He’s considered a front-line talent.
As a rule, I’m hesitant to get too caught up in players at the Class A level — pitchers especially — because they have so far to go, but those three standout as names to know and follow right now. Other names to keep tucked away: Jairo Heredia (talent slowed by health and conditioning issues), Gabe Encinas (the top starter taken in last year’s draft) and Sean Black (seventh-round pick in ’09 had a 3.88 ERA in Charleston and made two Tampa starts last season).
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and a free agent
Scranton/WB: Hector Noesi, Andrew Brackman, David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell and Lance Pendleton
Trenton: Adam Warren, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Graham Stoneburner, Shaeffer Hall
Tampa: Jose Ramirez, Brett Marshall, Sean Black, Jairo Heredia, Josh Romanski
Charleston: Bryan Mitchell, Shane Greene, Michael O’Brien, Nik Turley, Zachary Varce
Even this late into the offseason, the big league rotation remains a work in progress. As for who gets the first call beyond those top five, that’s also up in the air. There should be enough talent in Scranton to build a legitimate competition for any spot-starter needs that pop up during the season.
For now, I’ve projected a Scranton rotation that includes Pendleton, a Rule 5 pick currently hoping to win a spot in the Astros rotation. Minor league signee Andy Sisco could also work as a Triple-A starter, as could Kei Igawa if necessary. When he’s ready to come back from surgery, Jeremy Bleich could rejoin the Trenton rotation. He made eight starts there last season. Craig Heyer, who was sent to the Arizona Fall League and has worked as both a starter and reliever, could fit into the Trenton rotation at some point, especially if Pendleton sticks with Houston. As for the lower levels, those rotations are more difficult for me to predict, and some of those assignments might be based on what these pitches show in spring training.
Associated Press photo of Hughes, headshots of Sabathia, Brackman and Marshall
Let’s go heavy on prospects today, shall we? This is Baseball America’s Top 30 Yankees prospects heading into this season, listed with each player’s rank at the beginning of the season and the level where he finished the season.
No. 1 Jesus Montero
After a rocky start to the season, Montero turned things around in the second half and could fight for a big league job in spring training. He remains one of the elite prospects in baseball, with the only significant questions being where he’ll play in the field.
No. 2 Austin Romine
Romine dropped to sixth in this year’s rankings, but I’m not sure his ceiling or expectations have fallen. He had a kind of Derek Jeter-type season, starting strong and finishing strong, with three rough months in the middle. He’s in the Arizona Fall League now, and it’s easy to forget that he hasn’t turned 22 yet. Still very highly regarded, but he was passed on Baseball America’s list by young players and injured players whose stock soared after strong seasons.
No. 3 Arodys Vizcaino
Traded to the Braves
The big prospect in The Boone Logan Trade had a 2.74 ERA between two Class-A levels this season, but he was shutdown with an elbow injury.
No. 4 Slade Heathcott
Low-A center fielder
Got to Charleston at the start of June, and he might have lost a little ground in the prospect standings — he hit .258 with 101 strikeouts — but it’s hard to read too much into a 19-year-old’s first season of pro ball. He still in Baseball America’s Top 10 for the orgnization.
No. 5 Zach McAllister
Traded to Cleveland
This was the cost for two months of Austin Kearns. Had he stuck around, McAllister probably would have fallen out of the Top 10 after a 5.09 ERA in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He was certainly overshadowed by several other upper-level pitchers.
No. 6 Manny Banuelos
Double-A left-handed starter
After a healthy second half that took him from High-A to Double-A, Banuelos is living up to expectations. Building up his workload seems to be the next step in his development. He’s in the Arizona Fall League right now and could pitch himself to the cusp of the big leagues next season. At 19 years old, he’s the youngest of the Yankees Killer B pitching prospects.
No. 7 Gary Sanchez
He’s been compared to Montero, except with more defensive tools. That’s why he moved all the way to No. 2 on this year’s Baseball America list. There is a ton of talent, but also a long way to go.
No. 8 J.R. Murphy
In so many ways, Murphy is “the other” catching prospect in the Yankees system. He’s only 19 years old — one year older than Sanchez — and he already held his own in Charleston. The power started to show in the second half.
No. 9 Jeremy Bleich
Injured Double-A left-handed starter
Stock took a hit because of shoulder surgery. He made only eight starts for Trenton. Hard to learn much about him from this season.
No. 10 Andrew Brackman
Double-A right-handed starter
This season might have been the best-case scenario for Brackman, the towering right-hander who had Tommy John surgery before throwing a single professional pitch. Brackman has always been a high-end talent, but he lived up to those expectations with a healthy and much-improved second season.
No. 11 Bryan Mitchell
Short-season right-handed starter
Opened in extended spring training, then pitched in the Gulf Coast League and got up to Staten Island in September. Still young, and Rookie Ball opponents hit .190 against him. Obvious potential. Obviously young.
No. 12 Mike Dunn
Traded to Atlanta
Another part of The Boone Logan Trade, he pitched his way to Atlanta but the Yankees might have gotten the better of the two young lefties in that trade.
No. 13 Corban Joseph
Double-A second baseman
Terrific numbers in Tampa sparked a second-half call-up to Trenton, where Joseph struggled with his first taste of upper-level pitching. Could play second or third base. Nothing especially flashy, but he lived up to expectation and might have exceeded it with his promotion.
No. 14 Eduardo Nunez
Major League shortstop
Nunez had to prove that 2009 was not a fluke, and he did just that with a terrific Triple-A season that ended with a call-up to New York and a late spot on the postseason roster. He hit .289 in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but also showed an improved glove. That combination pushed him into the Yankees Top 10.
No. 15 Mark Melancon
Traded to Houston
Sent to the Astros in the Lance Berkman deal, Melancon simply never made that final step with the Yankees. He pitched pretty well in 20 appearances for the Astros.
No. 16 Ivan Nova
Major League right-handed starter
The Yankees always liked Nova’s potential, but he developed slowly until a strong 2009 season that landed him a spot on the 40-man. Now he’s a candidate for a spot in the back of the big league rotation. He’s the most advanced of the Yankees many upper-level pitching prospects.
No. 17 D.J. Mitchell
Triple-A right-handed starter
Moved into the Yankees Top 20 prospects, then got an invitation to big league camp, then pitched his way from Double-A to Triple-A. He generated better than a 2-to-1 ground out to fly out ratio in Double-A, then had a 3.57 ERA in three Triple-A starts. Overshadowed by some teammates, but he had a very nice season.
No. 18 Melky Mesa
High-A center fielder
He obviously did something right because now he’s on the 40-man roster. The MVP of the Florida State League has legitimate power and speed, but he also strikes out a ton and this year’s .260 average was actually his career-high. A complete wild card in this system.
No. 19 Kelvin DeLeon
Short-season right fielder
Stock might have slipped through a .236 average with six home runs and 80 strikeouts. Just turned 20, so there’s plenty of room to grow, but also a long way to go.
No. 20 Jose Ramirez
Low-A right-handed starter
A good arm lurking in the lower-levels of the Yankees minor league system, he had a 3.60 ERA with 105 strikeouts in Charleston this season. For now, he exists in the shadows of the pitchers ahead of him, but he’s certainly not an unknown. He’s a legitimate prospect in his own right.
No. 21 Graham Stoneburner
High-A right-handed starter
Leading into this season, Stoneburner was a favorite among writers and bloggers who closely follow the Yankees minor league system. He proved those believers right with a 2.41 ERA between Charleston and Tampa. He could be one of the fastest-rising stars in the organization, and there is considerable speculation that he could eventually end up in the bullpen, making ascent even faster.
No. 22 David Adams
Injured Double-A second baseman
Off to a .309 start in Trenton, Adams’ season was cut short by an ankle injury that cost him the bulk of the year and might have cost the Yankees a shot at Cliff Lee. I tend to lump Adams and Joseph together as Double-A guys able to play second or third. He seemed to be showing a lot this season, but it’s hard to make much of 39 games.
No. 23 Caleb Cotham
Cotham should have been in Charleston, but a pair of surgeries left him unable to pitch in an actual game this season. He has only eight professional innings to his name.
No. 24. Hector Noesi
Triple-A right-handed starter
Noesi had pitched only nine games above Low A when the Yankees put him on the 40-man roster this season. That said a lot about their expectations, and Noesi lived up them with a season that catapulted him into Baseball America’s Top 10. From High-A to Double-A to Triple-A, he could be next year’s Ivan Nova.
No. 25 David Phelps
Triple-A right-handed starter
There’s a common theme among most of these back-end starting pitchers: Except the injured Cotham, they were all outstanding. This was Phelps’ second full season, and he finished it with a 3.07 ERA in 12 Triple-A outings.
No. 26 Adam Warren
Double-A right-handed starter
Kind of like a one-year-younger version of Phelps, Warren had a 3.15 ERA in 10 Double-A starts after opening the year with a 2.22 in Tampa. The upper-level pitching depth in this system is incredible, as evidenced by the fact neither Phelps nor Warren deserved a spot among the Yankees Top 10 prospects.
No. 27 Kevin Russo
Major League utility
Russo’s value is in his ability to do a lot of things well. He served that role perfectly as a call-up who shifted to left-field when the Yankees were searching for outfield help. Nothing flashy, but when he was getting regular at-bats, he was contributing. He could easily play that same role next season.
No. 28 Dellin Betances
Double-A right-handed starter
This is the biggest leap of the bunch, and his jump into the Top 10 had as much to do with his health as his performance. Betances has always been a premier talent, but this year he got healthy and stayed healthy through a dominant second half. Expectations are sky
high again. He just has to stay off the disabled list this time.
No. 29 Jairo Heredia
High-A right-handed starter
Kind of like Nova in 2008 and Noesi in 2009, the Yankees have to decide whether to protect Heredia from the Rule 5 or take their chances that an unproven but talented young pitcher will sneak through. Heredia just turned 21, but he pitched just six times above Low A this season. Opponents there hit .359 against him.
No. 30 Jamie Hoffmann
Rule 5 pick sent back to Dodgers
The Yankees were clearly never planning to bring back Brian Bruney this offseason, so they traded him away for the right to draft Hoffmann. He hung around spring training for a while, but was ultimately sent back to the Dodgers. He hit .310 with eight home runs, 17 steals and 36 doubles in Triple-A.