Arizona Fall League gets started today • 10.07.14
Today is Opening Day for the Arizona Fall League. While it’s always dangerous to make too much of Fall League numbers — it’s typically an offense-heavy league, and the competition is kind of unusual just because of the mix of experience and inexperience, plus some guys who might be a little drained after already playing through a full season — the Yankees are sending some of their heavy hitters into the desert, which will make those box scores a little more interesting this year.
Here are the eight Yankees assigned to the Scottsdale Scorpions:
OF/INF Tyler Austin — Listed as an outfielder on the Scottsdale roster, Austin is really more of a four-corners guy who could become a big league option at first base, third base, left field or right field (he actually hasn’t played any left field as a pro, but it seems safe to assume that wouldn’t be ruled out as a possibility). The real key for Austin is that he continues to hit. He had a terrific 2012 season which put him squarely on the prospect map, but that breakout year was followed by a disappointing 2013 year in Double-A when he was bothered by a wrist injury that lingered through much of this season. In the second half of this year, though, Austin was back to his old self hitting .336/.397/.557 in his final 122 at-bats with Double-A Trenton. He’ll almost certainly be added to the 40-man roster this winter.
3B Dante Bichette Jr. — The Yankees intended to send their top third base prospect, Eric Jagielo, but that plan was scrapped after Jagielo was hit in the face by a pitch last month in instructs. In his place, they’ll send Bichette. Jagielo was a better fit largely because he missed a decent amount of time with an injury this season, but Bichette is an interesting alternative coming off a strong bounce-back season. His first half was better than his second half, and he didn’t hit much after a late-season bump to Double-A, so a strong Fall League would be a better way to wrap up the year.
1B Greg Bird — On the disabled list through the month of April, Bird got a late start this season, which explains his inclusion on the Fall League roster. A former fifth-round pick out of a Colorado high school, Bird entered pro ball as a catcher but has emerged as the top first-base prospect in the Yankees system. He’s shown an advanced approach for a young hitter, and he hit for quite a bit of power this season. Given a late promotion to Double-A in early August, he finished the year by hitting seven home runs in just 27 games with Trenton. He’s also shown a good eye throughout his pro career. The left-handed hitter is one of several legitimate corner bats in the system, many of which are joining him in Arizona.
RHP Caleb Cotham — Of the three Yankees pitchers going to Arizona, I’d say that Cotham is the biggest name. He was a fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt back in 2009, but his career was almost immediately thrown off track by knee and shoulder injuries. He missed time again this season and pitched just 54 innings, most of them split between Double-A and Triple-A, and the results were underwhelming. He had an ERA well over 5.00 with each upper-level affiliate, and the same thing happened in Triple-A last year. Cotham turns 27 in November, and he’s clearly trying to reestablish himself after some lost years and some down seasons.
RHP Kyle Haynes — Triple-A reliever Brandon Pinder was originally assigned to the Fall League, but he’s been replaced by Haynes, who was the player to be named later in last winter’s Chris Stewart trade with the Pirates. He’s a former 20th-round draft pick, and a relatively small name among the Yankees assigned to Arizona. He’s been a reliever nearly all of his career, but he made a brief rotation cameo last season, and this year he regularly went two innings or more out of the High-A Tampa bullpen. Haynes turns 24 in February, so he’s not particularly young for his level, but he was steady throughout the year. He actually had a .250 opponents’ batting average for the month of May, then again for the month of June, and again for the month of July.
C Kyle Higashioka — Injury limited Higashioka to just 49 at-bats this season, so he’s going to Arizona to get some much-needed playing time. That said, he probably won’t play much. Each roster has a handful of guys not assigned to play regularly, and Higashioka is one of those. He’ll get in a few games a week but won’t be a regular catcher. A seventh-round pick out of high school in 2008, I believe Higashioka spent one spring as the youngest player in Yankees big league camp (that’s how I remember it, anyway). Problem is he’s never hit much and he’s had trouble staying on the field (just 68 games the past three seasons). A thoroughly forgotten name in an organization still deep at catcher, Higashioka really needs to play to get himself back on radar.
RF Aaron Judge — This is a strong group the Yankees have chosen for the Fall League, and Judge is the headliner. Listed at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Judge looks like a strong safety and leaves little down that he can drive the ball, but he impressed this season by showing patience and an ability to hit for average. He’s arguably the top prospect in the Yankees minor league system — I would put him second behind Luis Severino, but that’s just me — and it will be hard to improve upon his .308/.419/.486 slash line for the season. Judge turns 23 in April and seems likely ticketed for Double-A Trenton next season. Question is, how quickly can he move up if he keeps hitting like he did this season?
RHP Alex Smith — The Yankees have had some success with non-drafted guys, and Smith has pitched pretty well since signing in 2012 out of the University of New Haven. Statistically he’s pretty similar to Haynes as a right-handed reliever who’s been used regularly to pitch two innings. Also like Haynes, he’s not a particularly big name in the system, and he’d be pretty easy to overlook if the Yankees hadn’t picked him for Arizona. He does have good numbers, though. Pitching all year with High-A Tampa, Smith had a 1.17 WHIP and 11 saves. He also kept the ball on the ground, with more than twice as many ground ball outs as fly ball outs.
CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon each pitched six scoreless “innings” this morning. They faced the same series of four minor league hitters over and over again — two righties and two lefties — with Austin Romine taking occasional at-bats here and there.
“I threw some changeups to lefties, backdoor my cutter,” Sabathia said. “It was good to work on that stuff and not have to worry about really worrying about the result.”
Sabathia said the best part of the day might have been working with Russell Martin, talking about things pitches and strategies while he was still on the mound facing hitters. For Colon, it was a day to continue working on his slider, keeping it in to left-handed hitters.
“Whenever you go out there to pitch, in your mind you’re pitching and you think the stadium is packed,” Colon said, using Tony Pena as his translator.
• Joe Girardi said he expects Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman to each get at least one more outing in big league camp before being sent down.
• The Yankees will probably use all of their regulars in tomorrow’s night game. As for the lineup, Girardi wouldn’t give us an exact order. “We might do some things, we might play around with some things,” Girardi said.
• Sergio Mitre is throwing a bullpen tomorrow, meaning he won’t pitch in Thursday’s game. But Girardi said his level of concern is still very low. “The trainers thought (a bullpen) was the best thing to do,” he said.
• Joba Chamberlain had an MRI yesterday but continues to tell the Yankees that he feels pretty good. “Functionally I think he’s fine,” Girardi said. Even so, it’s going to be a few days before Chamberlain pitches. There is no plan in place for when exactly he’ll pitch next.
• Mark Prior threw today and is feeling better. Girardi said it’s best not to go into detail about Priors symptoms yesterday, and I’ll take his word for it.
• Francisco Cervelli is off crutches. He came in for treatment today.
• Next four Yankees starters: Ivan Nova on Wednesday, followed by Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and Freddy Garcia.
Yankees organizational depth: Catcher • 01.08.11
Let’s start a position-by-position look at the Yankees organization by looking behind the plate. It’s probably the most intriguing spot in the entire system, both because of what’s happening at the big league level and what’s coming up from the minor leagues. This has been Jorge Posada’s position for more than a decade, but that’s about to change.
In the big leagues
The transition is about to begin, and it will start with Russell Martin. Signed this winter to a one-year deal, Martin says he’s healthy and that he’s shifted his workout routine to try to regain the power that made him a coveted young player just three years ago. Martin is a short-term fix, but at 27 years old, he could have some long-term upside if he returns to form. Can’t count him out beyond this season. Francisco Cervelli is, of course, poised to return to his backup role, while Posada is still around for occasional starts behind the plate. If you count Posada, it seems entirely possible that the Yankees will carry three catchers at all times this year.
On the verge
The catching future of the Yankees starts with Jesus Montero. He’s the most highly touted player in the system, and he’s one step away from the big leagues. There are still questions about his ability to catch, but he seems to convince more and more people each year. He might never be great, but his defense might play enough to keep his bat in the lineup without clogging the DH spot. Behind him is Austin Romine. The Yankees expected him to open this season in Triple-A before the Martin signing. Now it’s entirely possible Romine will be bumped back to Double-A, at least to start the year. He was good but didn’t exactly dominate that level last year — .268/.324/.402 and the league’s worst caught stealing percentage — so a return isn’t exactly a waste of time. Gustavo Molina, who has some big league time, was signed as a minor league free agent and could help in a pinch. He’ll likely start the season coming off the bench in Triple-A.
Deep in the system
It’s unusual that a minor league system would have the Yankees combination of talent and depth at the catcher position. Montero is obviously the star of the show, but 18-year-old Gary Sanchez could be a similar talent. He’s considered a better defensive prospect, and although he doesn’t have quite Montero’s power, he does have considerable pop in his bat. He’s an elite prospect himself. JR Murphy’s ultimate position is unclear, but he also has enough bat to be worth following. Kyle Higashioka doesn’t generate nearly the same buzz, but he was the youngest player invited to big league camp last year. He’s on the radar.
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: Russell Martin
Scranton/WB: Jesus Montero
Trenton: Austin Romine
Tampa: Kyle Higashioka
Charleston: Gary Sanchez
There are six players who could, given the right circumstances, get some big league time at catcher this season: Martin, Cervelli, Posada, Montero, Molina and Romine. All of those come with different levels of concern, but that’s also a lot of depth at a position that’s often very thin.
Further down in the system, Murphy figures into this depth chart mix somewhere — either Tampa or Charleston — but he’ll also see some time at the infield and outfield corners. He shouldn’t be overlooked, even in this catching-rich system. Tyler Austin was the top catcher selected by the Yankees in last year’s draft (13th round), but it seems uncertain whether he’ll stay behind the plate as a pro. He played only two games last season before an injury. Those two games were at DH and first base.
Associated Press photo of Posada, headshots of Martin, Montero and Murphy
Five questions with Kyle Higashioka • 03.13.10
Class-A catcher Kyle Higashioka was the youngest guy in camp this spring. He’s less than half Mariano Rivera’s age, and he only got a handful of at-bats before being reassigned to the minor league complex this afternoon. He’s a long way from New York, but how many 19-year-old kids have ever had a locker four feet from Derek Jeter? I did this Q&A several weeks ago but kept holding off on posting it. It might take a few years, but I hope you start hearing more about him down the line. Good guy with a good head on his shoulders, respectful and polite without being overwhelmed or intimidated.
When did you find out you were coming to big league camp?
Higashioka: I think I got called at the end of January. It was just really exciting. I kind of had a suspicion that I was going because the farm director, the vice president of the team, left a message on my phone rather than (assistant director of baseball operations) Eric Schmitt. When Mark Newman leaves a message on your phone, usually it’s a pretty big deal.
What’s the experience been like?
Higashioka: It’s almost like you’re playing in the big leagues. It’s like you get that taste. Once I go back, I’m just going to have even more hunger to get back here.
Have you been able to pick up anything from Jorge Posada?
Higashioka: The older guys like Posada and Rivera and Cervelli, they always help out, give us tips if we’re screwing up. They’re willing to help us out, which I think is great. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can here, and having them around is definitely great… Sometimes just hanging around practicing with all the big dogs, sometimes makes you better without even knowing it. You want to perform at their level, so you automatically elevate your game so that you can compete with them. I think this is definitely going to make me better.
What’s your background? What led you to this point?
Higashioka: I’m from Huntington Beach, California. I got drafted in the seventh round. This was actually one of the teams I really wanted to play for, and it ended up just working out. I came up and played in the GCL for three weeks or so after I signed. Last year I played in Staten Island. I thought I did alright. I could have put up some better numbers, but for the most part, I did an alright job. Getting the invite to big league camp, that was a big thing.
You’re in an organization that’s very deep at catcher. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Higashioka: I feel that we push each other. It’s not to the point where we’re really worrying about one another. We know that we just need to do our own thing and we can’t really control what happens as far as the organization goes. If one of us is going to get traded or who’s first in line, we can’t control that. We just work on making each of ourselves better every day and try to be the best player we can be.