Earlier this week, Jim Callis wrote quite a bit about the Yankees currently playing in the Arizona Fall League. He understandably focused on breakout right field prospect Aaron Judge, noting that Judge is wrapping up the longest stretch of baseball he’s ever experienced.
Pro ball often forces a young player into a longer and more rigorous schedule than he’s used to, but Judge’s adjustment was delayed because of last year’s quadriceps injury.
“After you get drafted, you just want to show people who you are,” Judge told Callis. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise, though. I met a lot of great big leaguers while I was down in Tampa rehabbing. It kind of helped me with the mental side of baseball. Everyone’s going to have ups and downs, and just trying to stay even keel through that whole process is a huge part of it.”
Check out the Callis story. It has some basic scouting details on all of the Yankees players down in the Fall League.
A few other notes from winter leagues:
• The Yankees top first base prospect, Greg Bird, has played in 12 games in the Fall League, and he has a hit in every one of them. Four of those hits have been home runs. It’s an offense-heavy league, but a .333/.382/.627 is awfully good. The guy can hit. It’s not reflected in the numbers here, but Bird doubled in his first at-bat today, so make that a 13-game hitting streak.
• After getting time at right field, first base and third base in the minor leagues, Tyler Austin is getting some time in left field while on assignment in the Arizona Fall League. In fact, he’s playing left field again tonight (while Judge plays right). It will be his fourth turn in left field, which can’t be a bad thing for a guy who could earn some sort of big league role next season, possibly as a corner bench player. Austin’s had two hits and and two RBI in two of his past four games. Hasn’t shown much power so far, but after 36 at-bats his slash line is a not-bad .278/.366/.361.
• Interesting for Yankees fans that the Scottsdale team has often gone with Yankees prospects in the 2, 3 and 4 spots in the lineup — Austin, Judge, then Bird as the cleanup hitter. Judge has been in the No. 3 spot for each of his starts down in Arizona. He’s hitting .276/.313/.448 with eight RBI in seven games.
• Off to a slow start in Arizona, Dante Bichette Jr. has now reached base seven times in his past four games, which has helped his slash line. He’s still hitting just .226/.306/.226. Only 31 at-bats, though. In his MLB.com piece, Callis notes that Bichette might eventually end up as a DH. The bat is his ticket to the big leagues. Needs the power that he showed his first season of pro ball.
• As expected, catcher Kyle Higashioka is only getting occasional playing time down in Arizona (he’s part of the roster that’s only occasionally active) but he’s making the most of it so far. Through two games, Higashioka has five hits, a home run and a stolen base. The Yankees have long liked his defensive ability, but he’s never shown much offense at all in the lower minors.
• The group picked by the Yankees for the Fall League is heavy on position players, and the pitchers sent to Arizona remain somewhat underwhelming statistically. Alex Smith has allowed at least one earned run in each of his five outings and currently has an 11.81 ERA with more walks (6) than strikeouts (4). … Caleb Cotham has 10 strikeouts and just two walks through seven innings. He also has a 7.71 ERA. Last time he pitched was Monday when Cotham allowed six hits and three earned runs through two innings. … Kyle Haynes hasn’t pitched since Saturday. Through 5.2 innings, he has yet to be charged with an earned run, but he’s allowed three unearned. Has a solid 1.24 WHIP. Tiny sample size, of course.
• Looking for more encouraging pitching numbers? Reliever Diego Moreno, who had some solid moments with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, has pitched well as a closer in the Venezuelan Winter League. He’s 4-for-4 in save opportunities, and he’s allowed just two hits through 5.1 innings. He recently re-signed a minor league deal to return to the Yankees system.
• Also down in Venezuela, Cuban outfielder Adonis Garcia continues to be the regular left fielder and usual No. 3 or 4 hitter for Navegantes del Magallanes. He’s hit for a strong average and stolen a couple of bases, but Garcia’s still waiting for the winter power to show up. He’s hitting .283/.313/.304. Last winter he hit .325/.347/.502 in Venezuela.
• After getting just six winter at-bats last year, and 13 at-bats the year before, young outfielder Ramon Flores continues to get fairly regular playing time this winter. Two weeks into the Venezuelan season, Flores has played in seven games and hit .333/.429/.500 through 18 at-bats. If he weren’t left-handed, Flores might be an even stronger candidate for the Yankees bench next season. As it is, some winter playing time couldn’t hurt after missing so much time this season with an ankle injury.
• Notable at least partially because of the Yankees total lack of standout shortstop prospects in the upper levels, utility type Ali Castillo continues to hit in Venezuela. He’s playing shortstop everyday — he was the regular shortstop for Trenton this year — and he’s hitting .395/.429/.447 through 38 at-bats in 10 games. He’s also stolen five bases in seven attempts. He’s been hitting leadoff. The same winter ball team used Castillo all over the infield and hit him ninth last year.
Some winter leagues have not even started yet, and the ones that have started are only a week or so into their schedules, so these updates come with really small sample sizes. But almost three weeks into the season, perhaps it’s nice to see some actual stats from young Yankees who are still playing actual baseball games. Here are a few winter and fall league updates.
• Getting regular turns as his team’s cleanup hitter, Greg Bird is off to a strong start down in the Arizona Fall League. The Yankees top first base prospect has a hit in each of his first seven games, he started with a four-RBI performance in the Fall opener, he had two hits and a walk last night, and he’s so far hitting .379/.438/.586 in an admittedly tiny sample size. It’s always dangerous to make too much of Arizona Fall League results — and that’s especially true after 29 at-bats — but Bird’s been good so far. Better than the alternative, I suppose.
• Interesting Scottsdale Scorpions lineup last night if only because it had Tyler Austin in left field. That’s relevant because Austin has actually never played left field in the minor leagues. He’s played the other corners — first base, third base, right field — but he’d never seen time in left until this Fall. He played left field on Monday and again on Wednesday. Probably not a huge leap for Austin to move to the other outfield corner, but for a player who could hit his way into a big league role at some point next year, being able to play left field and bring some right-handed balance to the outfield would be a plus.
• Each time that Austin has played left field, it’s opened right field for another Yankees prospect, Aaron Judge. Last night, Judge homered and drove in two runs. So far, Austin has gotten more Fall League at-bats. Might stay that way considering Judge had more regular season at-bats and, in theory, has less need to play regularly this Fall.
• Catcher Kyle Higashioka is only a part-time player in Arizona — rosters down there have guys who aren’t active for every game — but he made the most of his first bit of playing time. He started a game last weekend and went 3-for-5 with a home run. Needs playing time and plenty of production to get back on the fringes of the prospect radar after injuries and unimpressive seasons. The Yankees other Fall League position player, Dante Bichette Jr., is playing fairly regularly but still has fewer than 20 at-bats and just three hits. Doesn’t mean much.
• The Yankees have far more high-profile hitters than pitchers in the Fall League this year. A quick update, though, on the guys on the mound: Caleb Cotham made his third appearance last night and went two hitless innings. He allowed two homers in his first Fall outing, so this was a step in the right direction. Seems like every year a Yankees pitcher gets absolutely rocked in the Fall League, and it might be Alex Smith who has that unfortunate distinction this year. Through three outings, Smith has this line: 2 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 2 K, 22.50 ERA and a .533 opponents batting average. Much, much better numbers for late Fall League assignee Kyle Haynes. His line through three outings: 4.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K. Covering the AFL for Baseball America, Josh Norris reported that Haynes has a 93-95 mph fastball with an mid- to upper-80s slider and changeup.
• Presumably because of his age and relative inexperience, outfield prospect Ramon Flores has rarely gotten many at-bats with his Venezuelan Winter League team. So far this winter season, though, Flores is playing pretty regularly. Might change as we get deeper into the winter season, but Flores has 15 at-bats so far, and that’s more than he had an either of the past two winters. He’s played both center field and left field, and some regular winter playing time would be a good thing for a guy who missed a lot of time this season with an ankle injury. Flores has a spot on the 40-man roster and he does a lot of things well, so he really could come into spring training with a chance to push for some sort of big league role. Winter at-bats probably won’t hurt.
• Adonis Garcia is used to getting regular winter at-bats, and this year he’s been the everyday left fielder and No. 3 hitter for the Navegantes del Magallanes in Venezuela. Hasn’t hit for much power yet — just 29 at-bats into the season — but last winter he slugged .502, so there’s reason to think the power will arrive. Last winter, Garcia got a ton of time at second base and third base during winter ball. It’ll be interesting to see whether that happens again this winter. Garcia got a solid amount of third base playing time with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, so it seems the Yankees haven’t completely ruled out some sort of infield flexibility.
• Dominican Winter League gets started tonight and the Puerto Rican Winter League gets started at the very end of this month. For now, here a few other Yankees minor leaguers who are already playing in Venezuela (and all playing for the same team, no less): Trenton shortstop Ali Castillo is hitting .313 through 16 at-bats while pretty regularly playing shortstop for Zulia, recently re-signed catcher Francisco Arcia has five RBI through five games as Zulia’s regular behind the plate, and recently re-signed reliever Diego Moreno already has three saves with a 0.75 WHIP as one of Zulia’s go-to late-inning options.
Associated Press photo of Flores
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
Looking ahead to September • 08.18.14
This post contains way too many words about possible September call-ups.
Why is this way too many? Because aside from the possibility of a left-handed reliever, there really don’t seem to be any impact September call-ups on the horizon. A few guys will come up to provide pitching and bench depth, but that’s about it. There isn’t a ton of playing time up for grabs, and there aren’t many obvious auditions that could take place. A left-handed reliever might get into some key situations, but that’s about it. If the Yankees fall completely out of contention, I suppose they could give a guy like Bryan Mitchell a start or maybe give Zoilo Almonte a chance to make a fresh impression with some right field starts. Ultimately, though, I wouldn’t expect a ton out of the September additions.
But, I like minor league baseball and I think September call-ups are interesting, so here are a few thoughts and possibilities broken into four pretty typical September call-up categories.
Pretty standard September addition. The Yankees have been playing with an eight-man pitching staff for quite a while now, but even so, they’re still likely to add a few guys just to give them depth down the stretch.
Best bet: RHP Bryan Mitchell
He’s been up and down a few times, and he’s been pitching well out of the Triple-A rotation. He’s pretty much custom-made for providing innings, and there’s a real benefit to giving him some more big league experience. Seems like a strong candidate to be a rotation candidate at some point next season, even if he opens the year in Triple-A.
Keep in mind: RHP David Phelps
Worth remembering that Phelps is currently on the disabled list but due to be reevaluated today. Phelps was pitching pretty well before that mess of a start in Boston, and he could certainly move right back into the rotation once he’s healthy again. That could essentially push Chris Capuano into a bullpen role as another long man.
Uncertainty: RHP Preston Claiborne and RHP Matt Daley
Both are on the 40-man roster, but both are also on the Triple-A disabled list. If they’re healthy, it would be easy to call up both Claiborne and Daley to be extra middle-inning or extra-inning arms. Claiborne seems pretty close to coming off the disabled list. Another injured Triple-A reliever, Jose Ramirez, won’t be healthy in time to come up next month.
Worth mentioning: RHP Brandon Pinder, RHP Diego Moreno, RHP Mark Montgomery, RHP Danny Burawa
Montgomery and Burawa have been demoted to Double-A, which probably isn’t a good sign for them getting a call-up to the big leagues. Worth mentioning, though, because all four have been pretty good at times this season, and all four should be Rule 5 eligible this winter. If any of these pitchers are going to be protected in the offseason, might make sense to go ahead and add them to the roster now. My guess would be that Pinder is at the top of this particular pecking order right now. Veteran RHP Jim Miller could also be part of this discussion if the Yankees want a short-term roster addition just to provide some innings.
Probably not: RHP Nick Rumbelow
He’s moved quickly through the system and has been alright since getting to Triple-A, but he’s not Rule 5 eligible yet and there’s probably no reason to have him filling a 40-man spot all winter just so he can get a mopup inning or two in September.
The Yankees might very well bring up a new lefty before September 1, but given the fact they’re not carrying a true left-on-left specialist, it seems like a solid bet that they’ll eventually give some young lefty a call-up. Might even try more than one.
Best bet: LHP Manny Banuelos
Can’t say for certain that Banuelos is the “best bet” to come up as a left-on-left reliever, but he’s the only option who’s currently on the 40-man roster. He’s also pitched pretty well lately, which is surely easing some of the concerns about his early season inconsistency. Whether a career starter — and a young one at that — would be a viable situational lefty, I have no idea. But having a spot on the 40-man makes him an easy call-up if the Yankees want to either get his feet wet or see what he can do in a fairly important role.
Keep in mind: LHP Jacob Lindgren
The Yankees first-round draft pick back in June was a college reliever who throws pretty hard from the left side, and the Yankees have already pushed him all the way to Double-A. Pitching in Trenton isn’t exactly knocking on the door, but Lindgren has a big arm and a bunch of strikeouts and it’s not unheard of for a team to push a college reliever all the way to the big leagues in his first pro season.
Uncertainty: LHP Chris Capuano
He won’t be a September call-up, but Capuano factors into this discussion because of David Phelps. If Phelps is ready to return to the rotation fairly quickly, he could takeover for Capuano, who could move into a left-on-left role out of the bullpen. A possibility if the Yankees aren’t sure any of the young guys can handle the job.
Worth mentioning: LHP Tyler Webb, LHP James Pazos, LHP Francisco Rondon, SHP Pat Venditte
My guess is that all of these except Webb should be considered real long shots. I mention Pazos because he has good numbers in Double-A and the Yankees seem to like his arm; Rondon because he was once on the 40-man and has had the Yankees attention at various points; and Venditte because he’s been a pretty solid reliever for years now and has generally been pretty good with that side-arm delivery against lefties. Webb, though, is the left-handed relief prospect who’s most on the radar. Doesn’t have to be protected from the Rule 5 draft yet, but the Yankees have been pretty aggressive with him and he’s probably their most advanced left-handed relief prospect.
Probably not: LHP Nik Turley
There are actually a ton of lefties on the Triple-A pitching staff right now, including Turley, Matt Tracy and Jeremy Bleich, all of whom would be capable of giving multiple innings and — in theory — matching up against a left-handed hitter. My thinking, though, is: If the Yankees are going to try a long-time starter in this role in September, why not just try Banuelos? That’s easier than putting some of the other non-traditional relievers onto the roster. Know who else is a probably not? Cesar Cabral. The guy was actually in the big leagues at one point this year, but he’s fallen completely off the radar. Double-A lefties are knocking him around.
Happens basically every September that teams give themselves an extra catcher for the final month of the season. The question with the Yankees isn’t whether they’ll call up a third catcher, it’s whether they’ll call up a fourth catcher.
Best bet: C John Ryan Murphy
Even thought it was Austin Romine who came up when Brian McCann went on the disabled list, I’m still going to bet that Murphy is the best bet for a September call-up. I’m basing that almost entirely on the fact that Murphy played well during his extended big league call-up earlier this season, and based on the fact that Mark Newman has said Murphy is likely to come off the Triple-A disabled list pretty soon.
Keep in mind: C Austin Romine
These days, Murphy generates much more prospect buzz than Romine. But, down in Triple-A, it’s actually Romine who has better offensive numbers this season. He’s also played a decent amount of first base and could, in theory, fill in for Mark Teixeira in some late innings. Romine hasn’t played much in August, but he hit .342/.385/.466 in July, and it’s not like the big league staff is unfamiliar with him.
Uncertainty: Why not both?
Does it make sense to go ahead and bring both Murphy and Romine to the big leagues in September? Maybe leave one of them behind to play that last Triple-A game, and then just carry four catchers in the final month? In blowouts, one could get behind the plate and the other could rest Teixeira by playing first base.
Worth mentioning: C Francisco Cervelli
There’s only one other catcher call-up candidate worth mentioning, and we’ll get to him in a second. For now, it’s worth mentioning that the Yankees are facing an offseason decision about whether to bring back Cervelli — who’s been awfully good — or to give the backup catcher job fulltime to either Murphy or Romine. If the Yankees are out of it in September, one of these September call-up catchers could step into some serious playing time just to see what they’ve got.
Probably not: C Gary Sanchez
He’s on the 40-man roster, and he’s one of the biggest names in the Yankees minor league system, but it’s hard to predict a Sanchez call-up this year. He’s been alright this season, but he’s also been benched for disciplinary reasons, and it’s hard to imagine much playing time being available for him. Just doesn’t seem that he’s on the verge of getting his feet wet, but I guess you never know. If he’s sorted out his disciplinary issues, maybe he’s rewarded. My guess is that he won’t be.
VERSATILITY ON THE BENCH
There’s no one currently in the system who seems on the verge of a September call-up to play a significant role in the everyday lineup. Position players who come up are most likely going to be complimentary pieces given very occasional playing time.
Best bet: OF Zoilo Almonte
Joe Girardi hasn’t seemed sold on Almonte ever since his so-so performance last season, but he’s still a powerful left-handed hitter — technically switch hitter, but he’s significantly better from the left side — and he’s on the 40-man roster with some big league time already this season. Not sure he’ll actually get at-bats, but he seems like an obvious choice to bring up at least serve as an option for some pop as a pinch hitter or occasional platoon starter.
Keep in mind: UT Zelous Wheeler
In a lot of ways, Wheeler is an ideal September call-up. He’s already on the 40-man, he’s held his own in the big leagues already this season, and he can play almost any position on the field, which means he provides terrific versatility down the stretch. As long as Wheeler stays on the 40-man roster, there’s little reason not to give him a call-up.
Uncertainty: UT Jose Pirela
The one reason not to call up Wheeler would be to call up a somewhat similar but younger player in Pirela. Wheeler is probably the better defensive player, but they’re both versatile right-handed hitters who are putting up good numbers in Triple-A. If the Yankees aren’t planning to keep Wheeler through the offseason — but are interested in keeping Pirela — they could basically swap the two, putting Pirela on the roster in Wheeler’s place and giving Pirela the September call-up. Pirela can play second base and left field, and he could play third base, first base, right field and presumably shortstop in a pinch.
Worth mentioning: OF Ramon Flores, 1B Kyle Roller, OF Adonis Garcia, OF Taylor Dugas
Of these four, only Flores is on the 40-man, and he’s a nice fit for September. He can run, he can play all three outfield spots, he has some first base experience, and he was playing pretty well in Triple-A before an injury. Indications are that Flores could be off the DL and active by the time September rolls around, but would the Yankees call up a guy who’s hardly played since the start of June. The other three listed are not on the 40-man, and I’m not sure they’d play roles significant enough to find a way to get them on the roster. Dugas in particular has been terrific this year, but he’s not yet Rule 5 eligible, so there’s probably little sense having him take up a 40-man spot all winter. I would suggest OF Antoan Richardson as an interesting possibility as well — speed off the bench, ability to play all three outfield spots — but he’s currently on the temporarily inactive list, and I’m not sure what that’s about or how long he’ll be there. Could temporarily add him without worrying about a DFA this winter.
Probably not: 2B Rob Refsnyder
Arguably the most buzzworthy September call-up possibility. Probably is, Refsnyder is just like a handful of guys on this list in that he’s playing in Triple-A already but won’t be Rule 5 eligible this winter. If he’s only going to come up to sit the bench and maybe get his feet wet, is that really worth taking up an otherwise valuable 40-man spot all winter? If he were coming up to play every day, that would be one thing. But bringing him up to backup Stephen Drew probably isn’t worthwhile.
Associated Press photos
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
Yankees at the break: Outfield corners • 07.13.11
Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher each started the season with horrible numbers. Gardner lost his grip on the leadoff spot by the end of April, and Swisher sat for two days so that he could get his swing together. Lately, they’ve both been back to last year’s level of production.
As recently as May 25, Swisher was hitting just .208 with just two home runs. He was frustrated and it was beginning to show. Since then, he’s hit .302/.420/.566 with eight homers and the same over-the-top attitude that made him a fan favorite. Gardner was hitting .188 with a .273 on-base percentage at the end of April, but in the past two and a half months he’s hit .292 with a .374 on-base. He’s also become a much more dangerous and effective base stealer. He’s been streaky, but he’s also been productive, and he’s played his usual Gold Glove caliber defense.
Unless the Yankees decide to replace Andruw Jones on the bench, they really have no need for an outfield upgrade. Gardner’s not a typical corner outfielder, but he’s been effective with his unusual approach at the plate and his game-changing speed on the bases. Swisher has regained last year’s form and is once again one of the Yankees most dangerous and versatile hitters. Where they best fit in the lineup might be a legitimate question, but whether to play them regularly shouldn’t be.
Justin Maxwell was crushing the baseball in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and might have hit his way onto the big league roster if not for a season-ending injury. With Maxwell on the DL, Jordan Parraz as been the top corner outfielder in Triple-A, and Tampa left fielder Ziolo Almonte has been the best corner outfielder in the system. Almonte has been hitting for average and power while stealing bases, and he has to be considered a promotion candidate in the second half. Ray Kruml has emerged as a terrific leadoff man in Trenton, while Ramon Flores has lived up to his reputation for outstanding plate discipline for a teenager in Charleston.
Is Gardner about to win his first Gold Glove?
Gardner’s always had great speed, and last year he seemed to slowly make people realize just how well that speed plays in the outfield. This year, he’s also been effective throwing the ball. His four outfield assists aren’t near the AL leaders, but runners seem to be respecting his arm a little bit more this season and not taking as many chances. I’m guessing manager have noticed.
Gardner is heading for his first year of arbitration, so he’s still relatively cheap for next season. Swisher has a $10.25-million club option for next year, and the Yankees have to decide whether to exercise it. Given the money that Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth got this winter, they might not think twice about getting Swisher at that price.
Associated Press photo
Kevin Whelan opened this season as a rather forgettable part of a potentially memorable Triple-A pitching staff. Legitimate prospects filled the rotation, and the bullpen was dotted with returned Rule 5 picks and veterans with big league experience.
Then there was Whelan, the last remaining piece of the 2006 Gary Sheffield trade. He was a fallen prospect, a guy who always walked too many batters and finally reached a new low with a 6.02 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A last season.
Whelan’s been a completely different pitcher this year. As Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s closer, he’s cut down on the walks significantly. He has a 1.73 ERA, 17 saves, and he’s allowed just 17 hits and six walks through 26 innings. He’s struck out 28, and his 0.88 WHIP is the lowest on the team.
“It is the command, which translates to confidence,” pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras said in an email.
Contraras was the second person I talked to who mentioned confidence when explaining Whelan’s sudden improvement. He’s always had a good fastball and a big splitfinger — and he’s had some real success from time to time — but it seems that things are just now coming together. If the Yankees find an opening for a one-inning guy, Whelan would surely be the front-runner for the job. It’s worth noting that he’s been especially good against left-handers, holding them to a .178 batting average with 19 strikeouts and only two walks.
It’s also worth noting that Whelan’s not on the 40-man, and the Yankees have found more openings for multi-inning relievers than short relievers this season. Jonathan Albaladejo had even better numbers as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s closer last season — and he actually was on the 40-man — but Albaladejo barely got a look at the Major League level. So Whelan might not be looking for apartments in the city, but he’s surely put himself on the map. It’s impossible to ignore a guy who’s always had the potential and is just now finding the consistent results.
• Gary Sanchez is back on the Charleston active roster. He returned Saturday after being sent to extended spring training for what appears to be some combination of a bad back and a bad attitude, probably more of one than the other. He had a hit and drew a walk in his first game back.
• Greg Golson has been activated from the Triple-A disabled list, a move came one day after Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s most productive outfielder, Justin Maxwell, went on the disabled list with a jammed shoulder. Maxwell actually has a higher slugging percentage than Jorge Vazquez and homered in three games in a row just before the injury. For the season he’s hitting .260/.358/.588 and might have hit his way into a big league role had Andruw Jones not started hitting lately.
• Speaking of banged-up Triple-A players who might or might not be playing their way into a call-up: Carlos Silva was scratched from a start on Sunday because of tightness in his shoulder. Doesn’t seem too serious. Manager Dave Miley told Donnie Collins, “We’re just pushing him back.”
• If there’s no spot for Whelan as a short reliever in New York, the Yankees certainly have options for long relief out of Triple-A. George Kontos and Buddy Carlyle are still pitching well in long relief for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Kontos is holding right-handers to a .143 average with 24 strikeouts and four walks. Out of the rotation, tonight’s starter D.J. Mitchell has a 2.78 ERA and pitched seven scoreless in his most recent outing.
• After hitting .218/.292/.287 in April, Kevin Russo hit .316/.384/.408 in May. Brandon Laird made a similar turnaround, from .184/.213/.289 in April to .307/.343/.406 in May. Jesus Montero went the other way, from .365/.360/.473 to .269/.333/.413.
• Strange stuff in Double-A Trenton where hitting coach Julius Matos was ejected last week, then got into some sort of argument with manager Tony Franklin and has since been removed from his role. Popular roving hitting instructor James Rowson has taken over the job for now. It’s unclear whether Matos will return in any capacity.
• Austin Romine is the only Trenton regular hitting better than .277, and he’s missed a few games with a stiff neck and back after a home plate collision. Romine has certainly been the high point of the Double-A lineup. Melky Mesa is back to being an all-or-nothing hitter, Bradley Suttle is hitting for good power but a .233 average and Corban Joseph has been good but not great.
• I talked about him a little bit in today’s chat: Trenton reliever Tim Norton is starting to get some attention. Injuries have always been the biggest knock on the guy. This year he’s healthy and putting up incredible numbers (44 strikeouts in 29 innings, for example). One scout told Bill Madden that Norton is, “better than (Joba) Chamberlain right now.”
• Manny Banuelos has a 2.12 ERA and Dellin Betances has a 1.99, so those two are doing just fine despite higher-than-you’d-like walk totals. Craig Heyer, a guy the Yankees sent to the Fall League this offseason, has been awfully good since stepping into the rotation to fill in for some injuries.
• Tampa third baseman Rob Lyerly made the Florida State League all-star team, but as expected, the High-A roster is lowest of the four affiliates in terms of prospect buzz. Starters Brett Marshall and Jairo Heredia, though, are starting to do some things. In Heredia’s past three starts he’s allowed one earned run through 21 innings. He’s walked two and struck out 22. He’s another of those “if-things-go-right” prospects.
• J.R. Murphy remains the best all-around hitter in Low-A Charleston, but first baseman Kyle Roller leads the team with a .563 slugging percentage and corner outfielder Ramon Flores leads with a .407 on-base percentage.
• Slade Heathcott in April: .370/.453/.630. — Slade Heathcott in May: .216/.283/.289.
• The amateur draft begins tonight. The Yankees don’t have a pick until the supplemental first round — No. 51 overall — but they’ll almost certainly be part of the story with pick No. 1. The Pirates are reportedly planning to take Gerrit Cole, the former Yankees first-round pick who ultimately signed with UCLA rather than join the Yankees minor league system.
Headshots of Whelan, Sanchez, Golson, Romine and Norton
The Yankees 1-2 punch in Triple-A • 04.18.11
Nine games into the Triple-A season, Vazquez is still hitting, and Montero has finally started.
This afternoon, Vazquez was named the International League Player of the Week. All he did was hit .423 with five home runs and 11 RBI through six games. For the season he’s hitting .325/.333/.775 with a team-high 15 RBI (more than twice as many as any one of his teammates). Vazquez is always going to strike out a bunch, and he’s not going to walk much, but that’s a big bat to have in reserve behind Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Eric Chavez.
Montero has played in eight games this season, and he has three hits in half of them. He has one home run and three doubles, and my line earlier about him finally hitting was kind of a lie. Reports were positive about Montero from the moment he was assigned to minor league camp. He showed this spring that there might still be room to grow, but he’s shown this season that his bat is still one of the elite tools in minor league baseball.
Some other off day notes from the minor leagues:
• The early standout from the deep Triple-A outfield has been Jordan Parraz, the guy who was claimed this winter and designated for assignment just before spring training. Parraz has two homers, two triples and a .395 average. Ramiro Pena and Justin Maxwell are also off to strong starts in Triple-A. Off to surprisingly slow starts: Brandon Laird, Kevin Russo and Chris Dickerson.
• Kevin Millwood was mostly 86-87 mph in his Double-A start on Sunday. Freddy Garcia showed on Saturday that a veteran pitcher can have success at that velocity, but it’s still hard to see a place for Millwood in New York. He’s going to have to prove he’s not only worth a call-up, but worth taking someone off the 40-man roster. For what it’s worth, Millwood’s line on Sunday was impressive: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB and 3 K.
• Ten games into the Eastern League season, Trenton has two home runs as a team, one by Cody Johnson and one by Melky Mesa. Only Johnson and Ray Kruml are hitting better than .265.
• Stats from a name you might not know: Tampa starter Josh Romanski is 2-0 with a 0.82 ERA through two stats. He’s allowed five hits and two walks through 11 innings. The only run he’s allowed came on a homer.
• Speaking of Tampa, the High-A corner infielders are off to strong starts. Third baseman Rob Lyerly is hitting .364 with two doubles, two triples, two homers and 14 RBI. First baseman Luke Murton is hitting .341 with two homers, a triple and four doubles.
• Ten games into the Low-A season, former first-round pick Slade Heathcott is hitting .364/.396/.705, though he has struck out 15 times. Another name to keep in mind on that Charleston roster is corner outfielder/first baseman Ramon Flores. He popped onto the radar with an impressive turn in the Gulf Coast League last year, and now he’s hitting .353/.522/.471 in Low-A. He’s played in 10 games and drawn 10 walks with seven strikeouts.
For this sort of exercise, it’s much easier to lump left field and right field into one category. They aren’t exactly the same position — teams prefer a better glove in left, a better arm in right — but in terms of organizational depth, the two positions are pretty interchangeable. In New York, though, they’re occupied by two very different players.
In the big leagues
Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher are different hitters who share a similar approach at the plate. They are two of the most selective hitters in baseball, but that’s where the common ground ends. Gardner’s game is built on speed, Swisher’s is built on power, and each had his own sort of breakout season in 2010. Gardner is 27 years old and established himself as a legitimate everyday outfielder. With over-the-top patience, he led the Yankees in on-base percentage and stolen bases. He’s arguably the best defensive left fielder in baseball with exceptional range and a better-than-expected arm. Swisher just turned 30 and made his first all-star team. He’s in the final year of his contract, but there is a club option for 2012. With no obvious replacement in the upper levels of the minor league system, the Yankees could exercise that option if Swisher has another productive year.
On the verge
Unless one of them finds a spot on the big league roster, a Triple-A outfield of Colin Curtis, Greg Golson and Jordan Parraz will give the Yankees plenty of reserves: All three on the 40-man, all three able to play each outfield spot, and all three ready to play a role in New York as needed. Third baseman Brandon Laird will also get some time in the outfield, and his power bat fits the profile of a corner outfielder. The Double-A outfield is more of a hit-or-miss group. Center fielder Melky Mesa has more than enough arm for right field and is perhaps the biggest wild card in the system’s upper levels. Cody Johnson, acquired from the Braves this winter, is a former first-round pick who’s shown significant power but a complete inability to hit for average. Dan Brewer — who could jump to Triple-A if there’s an opening — hit 10 homers and 34 doubles in Trenton last season, but he’s never been considered a prominent prospect.
Deep in the system
Long-term, the Yankees depth in the outfield corners will probably be built on their current depth at other positions. For now, Slade Heathcott, Eduardo Sosa, Mason Williams and Abe Almonte are best suited for center field, but they could move to the corners as necessary. Catcher J.R. Murphy will see some time in right field this season, as will third baseman Rob Segedin. For now, the lower levels should have guys like Zoilo Almonte, Taylor Grote and Kelvin De Leon getting considerable time in the outfield corners (all three have generated some prospect buzz but haven’t done much either because of injury or lack of production). The name to remember seems to be Ramon Flores. One talent evaluator was raving about him during the Winter Meetings, comparing him favorably to former Yankees prospect Jose Tabata. Flores hit .303/.390/.419 last year and should be ready for a full season in Charleston.
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: Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher
Scranton/WB: Colin Curtis and Jordan Parraz
Trenton: Cody Johnson and Dan Brewer
Tampa: Taylor Grote and Zoilo Almonte
Charleston: Eduardo Sosa and Ramon Flores
The big league depth chart is incomplete until the Yankees sign a fourth outfielder. The Yankees have been strongly linked to Andruw Jones, and if he’s signed, Jones will become the primary backup in both left and right field. The Yankees have no shortage of additional players ready to step into a corner outfield role as necessary: Curtis, Golson, Parraz, Laird and Kevin Russo are all in the mix.
Lower in the minor league system, I based my projections on Heathcott opening in Charleston, forcing Sosa to open in left field instead of center. As is always the case, the Yankees have plenty of additional outfielders who could see time in the corners. In rough top-to-bottom order: Austin Krum, Damon Sublett, Jack Rye, Raymond Kruml and Deangelo Mack are among the guys who will get corner outfield time for the full-season teams. The impact of multi-position guys like Segedin and Murphy, though, will probably be more significant.
Associated Press photo of Swisher, headshots of Gardner, Curtis and Zoilo Almonte