I try not to think of prospect rankings as any sort of definitive analysis. They’re more useful as a tool for discussion. Slade Heathcott falling out of Baseball America’s top 10 list for the Yankees, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t be an impact player, but it says a lot about his injuries and the uncertainty he faces going forward. By the same token, a guy like Jorge Mateo jumping into the top three doesn’t mean he’s absolutely going to be the Yankees starting shortstop in a few years, but it says a lot about his raw talent and high-end potential.
Top 10 lists like this one point out some organizational highlights, and they spark plenty of conversation about not only the names that made the cut, but also those players who didn’t. They’re interesting. They’re not definitive.
Josh Norris — who used to cover the Yankees system and put together this particular top 10 list — will be chatting over at BA’s website at 2 p.m. ET. Go jump into that conversation. For now, here are a few of my own thoughts about this year’s Baseball America Top 10 Yankees prospects.
1. RHP Luis Severino
In my mind, this is a no brainer. Big fastball. Already has a feel for the good changeup. Undeniable numbers. Clearly being fast-tracked through the system. Even as the Yankees have struggled to produce big league position players, they’ve had some success with big league pitchers. Perhaps not an ace — Phil Hughes carried that expectation and settled for being simply a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy — but the Yankees have added plenty of minor league arms to the big league pitching staff. And Severino could follow that path as early as next year. Can’t reveal everything about the Baseball America scouting reports, but BA does note that Severino is “likely” to open next season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after making just six Double-A starts this season. The Yankees have publicly mentioned Severino as a guy who could help them next season. This kid is really good, and he’s moving very quickly.
2. RF Aaron Judge
The Yankees were in Oakland when Judge showed up for batting practice just after being drafted in 2013. It seems most everyone had heard about him at that point — mostly we’d heard that he was huge — and Judge did not disappoint. His massive frame suggests an all-or-nothing slugger, but his first season of pro ball proved otherwise. He was patient, hit for average, and showed a willingness to send line drives to the gap rather than constantly go for massive home runs. There’s very real power, no doubt, but there’s also an advanced hitting approach that should have Judge in Double-A to start next season. Although there was some talk of center field after he was drafted, Judge has played only right field since joining the Yankees, and that’s clearly his position of the future. There’s so far little indication that he’ll have to move to first base or designated hitter. There are two years left on Carlos Beltran’s contract, and when it runs out, Judge just might be ready to take over.
3. SS Jorge Mateo
Just a personal preference of mine: I’m always hesitant to make too much of a toolsy teenage prospect. I’ve only seen a very small first-hand glimpse of Mateo as a player, but I’ve heard enough about him to understand why Baseball America ranked him this high. The kid has all of the tools to be a Jose Reyes-type shortstop. His speed is off the charts, and his defensive ability suggests he’ll be able to stay at the position. I’ve heard former vice president of baseball operations get pretty excited talking about some young kids, but he saved some of his most colorful descriptions for Mateo. “Holy (cow) tools!” he said, and you can imagine which word he said instead of “cow.” My only hesitation about Mateo is that he has 58 at-bats in rookie ball, and I like to hold off on setting expectations until a player moves up the chain a little bit. Last year, Baseball America had Severino and No. 9 and then adjusted after seeing him pitch a full season and move quickly. That’s more the way I would have approached ranking Mateo. But the kid is awfully talented. There’s a reason he’s this high.
4. 1B Greg Bird
I think it was two years ago that Bird was invited to big league camp. He was really young at the time, but the Yankees needed some extra bodies because of the World Baseball Classic, and so Bird took his place in the clubhouse and observed. He was 20 years old, in a locker room with some of the biggest names in baseball, and he carried himself with a surprising amount of quiet confidence. Bird hardly played, but he made a strong first impression for the way he went about his work and largely blended into the background. He seemed comfortable, even though he was barely out of high school. Since then, it’s been a mature approach at the plate that’s kept Bird’s stock high. He’s been a steady hitter who gets on base at a good clip. He’s also shown some increased power, and he’s currently raking in the Arizona Fall League. A converted catcher, Bird does not get strong reviews on defense, but I’ve also never had a scout tell me that he’ll have to give up the position. If he can play a passable first base, keep putting together smart at-bats and continue his recent power surge, he could legitimately emerge in the next year or two as the heir to Mark Teixeiera.
5. C Gary Sanchez
I’m not necessarily the biggest Sanchez believer in the world — and I’m a big Bird believer — but even for me, this ranking is a little low. I can completely understand it, just would have put Sanchez up at No. 3. In my mind, Severino, Judge and Sanchez are the clear standouts in the system. As for why Baseball America has Sanchez slightly lower: Obviously this year’s offensive numbers weren’t overwhelming, there’s still some question about his ability to stay behind the plate, and the discipline issues are concerning. But Sanchez is still just 21 years old. He’s less than three years older than Mateo, and just like every kid his age — kids in and out of baseball — there’s some maturing that has to happen. Even though he’s ready for Triple-A, Sanchez still faces a lot of questions, and those can’t be ignored. But he also has a strong mix of being advanced in the system with a high ceiling if things work out.
6. LHP Ian Clarkin
Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that it’s pretty easy to overlook Clarkin. Maybe it’s because he missed time with an ankle injury his first season. Maybe it’s because Judge and top pick Eric Jagielo get the bulk of the attention from the 2013 draft class. Maybe it’s because Severino has so clearly emerged as the top pitching prospect in the system. For whatever reason, Clarkin kind of falls into the shadows a little bit, but I don’t think there’s any doubt he belongs in the Top 10. Somewhere in the middle of the Top 10 seems about right, too. The sense I’ve always had about him is that, while there’s no single thing that really shines, Clarkin does a lot of things very well. And Baseball America notes that he added a cutter this season, which has further enhanced his ability to get ground balls. He’s only a few months older than Mateo, and he’s already pitched to a 3.21 ERA in a half season with Low-A Charleston (he also made one solid start with High-A Tampa). He’s light on innings and experience, so I doubt the Yankees will rush him too much, but Clarkin could really emerge with a strong full season next year.
7. 2B Rob Refsnyder
This is where prospect rankings really depend on personal preference. Do you prefer Mateo’s high-ceiling with a long way to go, or do you prefer Refsnyder’s reliable impact with perhaps limited upside? Probably depends on what you make of rankings in the first place. Ultimately, there is no high-end Yankees prospect better poised to make an immediate impact than Refsnyder. He’s obviously still learning second base — played outfield in college — but the bat has been outstanding. In fact, Refsnyder has advanced to the very top of the minor league system and his numbers are still terrific. That said, there are still doubters. When the World Series started, I mentioned in a blog post that multiple scouts and executives saw comparisons between Refsnyder and Giants second baseman Joe Panik. A couple of days after that piece ran, another executive got back to me saying his organization still had Refnsyder projected as nothing more than a backup. We’ll see. It seems a safe bet that Refsnyder can and will play some sort of role in New York (probably soon). The question is, just how will great that impact be?
8. LHP Jacob Lindgren
Two names that were not on Baseball America’s Top 10 Yankees list a year ago: Dellin Betances and Shane Greene. Betances obviously carried some of the doubt that he’d generated throughout his up-and-down minor league career. Greene was coming off a breakout season and there was a sense of wait-and-see with him. There’s no such hesitation with Lindgren, the Yankees top draft pick from this summer. Hard to remember the Yankees ever drafting more of a sure thing. As a left-handed college reliever, Lindgren entered the Yankees system perfectly poised to move quickly, and he did exactly that with eight games in Double-A this year. If the big league team were realistically in the playoff hunt, I wonder if Lindgren might have moved even faster. As it is, he’s kind of like Refsnyder in that he’s a safe bet to play a big league role, the only question is how significant that role will be. Is he strictly a left-on-left guy (which would be the extreme low end), or can he establish himself as a setup man or closer? Good chance for both immediate and long-term impact here.
9. C Luis Torrens
As I’ve written many times, I’m hesitant to make too much of extremely young players, but I would have been surprised to see Torrens not make the cut here. Still just 18 years old, Torrens gets rave reviews for his ability behind the plate, which is pretty stunning for such a young kid who’s relatively new to the position. He’s also shown some ability to hit, though he’s obviously still maturing. Time will tell just how good he’ll be, but this is another case of the tools being simply too good to ignore. “We have people who think he’s the best catcher out of the whole group,” Newman said late in the year. “But he’s 18. He’s got a long way to go. Slow down.” Fair enough. There has to be time for Torrens to develop, and there’s incredible uncertainty with any 18-year-old, but I tend to think of Top 10 lists like this one as a way to highlight certain aspects of a system. And Torrens deserves to be highlighted.
10. 3B Miguel Andujar
Naturally could have gone any number of directions with the No. 10 slot. Could have mentioned Manny Banuelos and his return from Tommy John surgery. Could have chosen Slade Heathcott, with an acknowledgement that his injuries might be too much to overcome. Could have gone with a guy like Bryan Mitchell as a relatively safe bet to play some kind of big league role. And could have gone with top 2013 draft pick Eric Jagielo after he showed impressive power during an injury-shortened season in Tampa. Instead, Baseball America went with another low-level guy in Andujar, who had a rough first half but reestablished himself with a .319/.367/.456 second-half slash line in Low-A Charleston. It’s an interesting choice for this spot on the list if only because he’s a guy who can easily go unnoticed. Clearly one of the better prospects in the system, but at this point in a ranking, it’s a matter of preference and who gets highlighted. Andujar joins Jagielo and Dante Bichette Jr. as legitimate third base prospects in the organization.
Associated Press photo of Sanchez
What to do about second base? • 10.27.14
The Yankees really don’t have a problem at second base. They have a perfectly capable big league option in place with Martin Prado, and they have on-the-verge second base prospects in Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela. They’re set in the short term, and they have some hope for the long term.
None of these guys is Robinson Cano, but the options aren’t bad.
Problem is, what happens at second base is connected to what happens at third base, and so there’s still a bit of uncertainty. Move Prado to third and second base becomes all about potential and nothing about proven experience.
So what to do about second base?
1. Make third base a separate issue
This means, essentially, committing to Prado as the Opening Day second baseman. Pirela could still play his way into a bench role, and Refsnyder could force a change if he rakes in spring training (or in the first month or so back at Triple-A) but the Yankees could essentially approach this offseason with Prado locked in at second base, making the third base uncertainty a separate issue. If the second base situation is what it is – with Prado and the two young guys – then there’s little else to discuss at the position.
2. Commit to one of the young guys
Essentially, do nothing at either second base or third base. The roster stays as it is, but instead of Prado being penciled in at second base, he’s penciled in at third base. Alex Rodriguez is the regular designated hitter, and the Yankees commit to either Refsnyder or Pirela playing second base on Opening Day. It would essentially let them spend money elsewhere, but would force some level of belief and patience through inevitable growing pains.
3. Prepare to mix and match
Don’t commit to anything at either second base or third base. Simply try to find three options for two infield positions: Rodriguez, Prado and someone else. That likely means signing some sort of veteran second baseman – maybe a Mark Ellis type – to add an experienced option just in case Refsnyder and Pirela each fall flat. Mixing and matching would not require the kind of contract that absolutely has to be in the lineup, but it would likely involve some sort of free agent who has experience.
4. Focus on a second base upgrade
Maybe Chase Headley is too expensive for a defense-first player. Maybe Pablo Sandoval is too expensive, period. Maybe there’s not a great third-base option out there, so instead of focusing on third base a position of uncertainty, the Yankees decide that Prado is the third baseman, Rodriguez is the DH, and they go looking for help at second. That could mean finding a low-cost veteran to compete with Pirela and Refsnyder – perhaps that’s all the market will allow – but it would surely mean a more concentrated effort to do more. For example: how readily available and viable is Chase Utley? Essentially, instead of signing a new third baseman, the Yankees commit resources toward a regular second baseman.
Associated Press photos
For anyone wanting the Yankees to go with prospect Rob Refsnyder at second base next season, it might be worth keeping an eye on the kid playing second base for the Giants this week. Three different scouts, all from different organizations, said they saw pretty solid similarities between Refsnyder and San Francisco rookie Joe Panik.
“I think that’s a very good comparison,” one scout said. “Two guys making the most of their ability, and both have the knack of putting the barrel to the ball.”
Reading through most any scouting report on Panik feels almost exactly like reading a report on Refsnyder. At least, in terms of offensive ability and intangible makeup.
Panik is a “fundamentally sound line drive hitter who makes contact but doesn’t have a ton of power.” Through the minor leagues he showed “an advanced approach with a lean toward patience.” Even if he doesn’t have a standout tool, Panik “rarely strikes out, draws walks and looks like he should be able to continue hitting for a high average.” One of his minor league hitting coaches said that Panik was “professional, came from a decent family, and a good school at St. John’s.”
But the favorable comparisons largely end when it comes to defensive ability. Refsnyder was a college outfielder who’s made progress at second base but remains a work in progress. Panik was a college shortstop, so his move to second base was from a harder position to an easier one. Panik is seen as a better defensive player.
“Offensively I would make that comparison,” another scout said, noting that he’s seen far more of Refsnyder. “(Panik) looks smoother at second base.”
Called up to the big leagues in mid June, 23-year-old Panik hit .305/.343/.368 in his rookie season. He was regularly batting eighth, then seventh, and by the end of August he was San Francisco’s No. 2 hitter. He’s stayed in that spot through the postseason. Panik hit only one home run and had no stolen bases, but the bat itself — ability to make contact and get on base — largely lived up to its billing.
Refsnyder is five months younger and he was drafted one year later (Panik was a first-rounder in 2011; Refsnyder went in the fifth round in 2012). It’s hard to perfectly compare their minor league careers — Panik moved one step at a time, one year at each level; Refsnyder got an early-season promotion in back-to-back years; there’s also no league overlap — but their career numbers are fairly similar.
Panik: .296/.365/.403 in 1,620 career at-bats
.321/.382/.447 in 74 Triple-A games
Refsnyder: .297/.389/.444 in 1,144 career at-bats
.300/.389/.456 in 77 Triple-A games
Overall, Refsnyder has the better numbers, and that’s with Panik playing in a more hitter-friendly Triple-A league. Refsnyder has struck out more frequently, but he’s also walked more often. He’s also stolen more bases as a better success rate, but ultimately, the numbers are too similar to pick out any overwhelming differences. Give Refsnyder an additional 500 at-bats, and his career slugging percentage might dip a bit.
“Solid baseball guys that find a way to get better,” one scout said.
It’s risky business to assume two players will handle the major leagues in the same way, but baseball is often a game of comparisons, especially when it comes to on-the-verge prospects. Right now the Yankees have a young second baseman on the verge of the big leagues, and at least on the offensive side, there might be a solid comparison currently playing in the World Series.
Associated Press photo
The good people over at Baseball America — including our old friend Josh Norris — have completed their Top 20 prospect lists for each league. The lists are free, but the scouting reports are behind a worthwhile pay wall. Along with each detailed list, Baseball America also shows it’s Top 20 lists for each league from five years ago. It’s a nice bit of perspective on what might (or might not) happen down the road. Here are the Yankees prospects who made Baseball America’s cut.
13. Rob Refsnyder, 2B
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre roster had a lot of young, in-house players this season — of the 13 players with 200 at-bats, nine were homegrown — but it didn’t have many of the organization’s high-end prospects. Refsnyder was the biggest exception, and he made Baseball America’s cut. Since the scouting reports are behind a pay wall, I’m not going to give many details, but there are no real surprises in the BA write-up about Refsnyder. He’s a work-in-progress at second base, but he can hit.
Five years ago: Interestingly, the No. 13 IL prospect five years ago was Jose Tabata. At the time he was in Triple-A with the Pirates, but he’d spent most of his developmental years with the Yankees. He’s developed into a useful but not great big leaguer.
Off the list: Although they’re promising young starters, neither Shane Greene nor Bryan Mitchell has ever gotten much prospect hype beyond the hope and expectations of those inside the Yankees organization. Neither made Baseball America’s IL list (to be fair, Greene was actually better in the big leagues than in the minors this season). Jose Pirela, Ramon Flores, Kyle Roller and John Ryan Murphy were also left off. Again, no surprises there.
11. Gary Sanchez, C
Considering how much attention his bat gets, it’s easy to be underwhelmed by Sanchez’s .270/.338/.406 slash line in Double-A this year. It’s also easy to be concerned with the fact he was benched for disciplinary reasons mid-season. The Yankees, though, will point out that at 21 years old, Sanchez is still maturing as a person and as a player. BA’s ranking reflects that. Big hitting potential, strong arm, questions about makeup and receiving ability.
Five years ago: The Eastern League’s 11th-best prospect five years ago, according to Baseball America, was right-handed pitcher Hector Rondon. Converted to the bullpen, he had a great year as the Cubs closer this season. If Sanchez becomes the catching version of a good young closer, that’s a big win for the Yankees.
13. Rob Refsnyder, 2B
Funny that he fell at the exact same spot for each league in which he qualified. Refsnyder was a monster during his relatively brief stint in the Eastern League. Again, there’s little mystery in a scouting report. Refsnyder can hit. He’s still learning to play second.
Five years ago: No. 13 on this list in 2009 was Mets first baseman Ike Davis. A year later he was in the big leagues and looked like a pretty good player. Today he’s been traded away and looks like he might not have enough bat for his position.
Off the list: Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott have lost their grip on lists like this one. A half season of production from Tyler Austin wasn’t enough to make the cut, and it seems the jury is still out on whether Manny Banuelos can regain his old traction and his former ceiling. A lot of interesting players in Trenton this year, just not very many reliable ones.
Florida State League
15. Aaron Judge, RF
Top position prospect in the Yankees system is surely a debate between Judge and Sanchez. Both generate raves for their offensive power potential, and in his pro debut, Judge seemed to impress everyone with his patience and command of the strike zone. He also seems to have the range and plenty of arm strength to stick in right field without a need to move to first base or designated hitter. It’s been only one year, but Judge has earned the attention.
Five years ago: A Twins right-hander named David Bromberg ranked 15th on Baseball America’s FSL list five years ago. He’d been excellent that season, and he got to Triple-A the next year, but he has yet to make his major-league debut. The lesson: A lot can happen between High-A and the big leagues.
Off the list: Don’t want to reveal too much about the scouting reports, but in writing about Judge, BA did note that his fellow 2013 draftee Eric Jagielo also “had supporters among league observers.” Greg Bird is also a name that was worth consideration for this list. Jake Cave probably doesn’t have the perceived ceiling for a list like this, and Luis Severino wasn’t in the league long enough to qualify.
South Atlantic League
4. Luis Severino, RHP
Baseball America noted that it was basically a toss-up between Severino and Reynaldo Lopez for the second-best pitching prospect in the league (former 16th-overall draft pick Lucas Giolito was at the top of BA’s list). Severino began to make a name for himself last year, and this was the year he really emerged as one of the better pitching prospects in baseball. The Yankees have even left open the possibility of Severino pitching his way to New York as early as next season. The kid is really, really good.
Five years ago: A’s catcher Derek Norris ranked fourth on BA’s Sally list in 2009, and he’s become a pretty good big league regular. It’s worth noting that, at the time, Norris ranked between a pair of Rays prospects: pitcher Matt Moore and shortstop Tim Beckham. Hard to peg guys when they’re this young.
8. Aaron Judge, RF
Ranks a little higher on the Low-A list than the did on the High-A list, but the scouting reports read about the same: Lots of tools, good approach, enough defense for right field. Baseball America does note that Judge was expected to take advantage of inexperienced Low-A pitchers and did exactly that.
Five years ago: Back in 2009 the eighth name on this list was a White Sox outfielder named Jared Mitchell, a first-round pick who was hurt the next year and still hasn’t reached the big leagues. He did do a nice job getting on base in Double-A and Triple-A this year, though. Was a huge White Sox prospect when he was younger. No. 9 five years ago was Manny Banuelos.
15. Ian Clarkin, LHP
As I’ve said, I don’t want to give away much of these scouting reports, but I will note that Baseball America gave Clarkin credit for being one of the “safer bets” among South Atlantic League pitchers. They go into detail about his stuff and mechanics, all of which would be welcome words for the Yankees. Clarkin is fully healthy and ready to roll after missing some early time because of injuries. He was another first-rounder in 2013 along with Judge and Jagielo. Still very young.
Five years ago: Here’s the risk of getting too excited about a young prospect, especially a pitcher: Five years ago, Baseball America had a college draftee named Dexter Carter in this spot on the SAL list. He never made it out of A ball and wound up released before the 2012 season.
Off the list: A lot of sleeper-type prospects hanging around that Charleston roster this season. Shortstops Tyler Wade and Abiatal Avelino, third baseman Miguel Andujar, and underperfoming second baseman Gosuke Katoh. There’s also a pitcher named Brady Lail who the Yankees like, but who’s not likely to land on a list like this one.
New York-Penn League
4. Luis Torrens, C
An 18-year-old out of Venezuela, Torrens was extremely young for this level (Baseball American notes that he was the youngest player in the league this year), and he generates raves for his defensive work. He has a huge arm, he’s apparently has an advanced feel for catching, and there’s promise in the bat. Last month, Mark Newman noted that there are those who believe Torrens will ultimately be the best everyday catcher in the Yankees farm system — and that’s a deep position — but he’s too young to think of him as a remotely finished product. A ton of promise, and a lot of good stuff in place already, just needs time and patience.
Five years ago: A pretty good cautionary tale, five years ago it was another young catcher named Sebastian Valle who ranked fourth on Baseball America’s list of NYP-League prospects. He was also a teenager — more bat than glove — and the Phillies liked him, but his bat has diminished considerably and Valle has yet to reach the big leagues. Not even on the 40-man. Adam Warren ranked 12th on this list five years ago.
Off the list: In a chat, Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt mentioned that no other Yankees were particularly close to making the New York-Penn list — though he did go into specifics about quite a few other Yankees prospects, so check that out — but it’s worth wondering if Ty Hensley might have pitched his way into the mix had he thrown enough innings to qualify. He was awfully good in a small sample size.
Gulf Coast League
4. Jorge Mateo, SS
The Yankees love this kid. Incredible amount of speed, there’s a belief that he’ll be perfectly fine staying at shortstop, and he has real tools pretty much across the board. This was an international investment back in 2012, and Mateo is quickly becoming one of the real high-ceiling prospects in the system. A long way to go, but Mateo has real high-end potential. He’s 19 years old and has a chance to be — eventually — the shortstop of the future.
Five years ago: This is a promising comparison. Rookie-level kids are hard to predict, but five years ago, Baseball America ranked a fairly raw but talented pitcher name Jarred Cosart as the fourth-best prospect in the GCL. He’s since emerged as a good young starting pitcher, first with Houston and now with Miami. Hard to bank on kids this young, but some of them clear all the hurdles. Yankees are hoping that’s the case with Mateo.
15. Angel Aguilar, SS
What is it with the Yankees landing at No. 4 and No. 15 on these lists? Weird. But the addition of Aguilar actually fits well with the Yankees minor league system because the team has really built a lot of low-level depth at shortstop. They’ve focused on the position with a flurry of recent international signings. Aguilar signed in 2012 and hit .311/.373/.536 in his first season playing in the United States. Intriguing bat for a guy who seems to have a chance to stick at shortstop.
Five years ago: Would it mean anything to you to find out that the 15th player on the GCL list five years ago was a guy named Brooks Pounders? He was a second-round pick out of high school and now has fewer than 20 starts above Class A. Incredible amount of uncertainty with rookie ball players.
Off the list: Extremely young even for rookie ball, center fielder Leonardo Molina put up ugly GCL number this year but could get another shot next year (when he’ll still be young for the level). The Yankees like him, but recognize that he was probably pushed over his head this season. Third-rounder Austin DeCarr had a promising stint in the GCL but didn’t make Baseball America’s cut.
State of the organization: Second base • 10.08.14
Moving around the diamond in our look at the state of the Yankees organization, we settle into second base where the Yankees made a massive decision last winter to pass on the 10-year deal it would take to sign Robinson Cano. Recognizing that Cano was the team’s best short-term fit, the team instead made a long-term decision to avoid a potential repeat of the Alex Rodriguez contract. Passing on Cano has left uncertainty but also opportunity at the position.
Signed through 2016
For now, Prado projects as the Opening Day second baseman, but that’s hardly a sure thing. In fact, it’s Prado’s ability to play so many other positions that makes him a nice fit for this current Yankees roster. If the lineup is full uncertainty, it’s nice to have a guy who can plug a lot of holes, and that’s Prado. In a perfect world, Alex Rodriguez will be able to play third base, Carlos Beltran will be able to play right field, and second base will belong to Prado until one of the young guys is ready to take over. But if Rodriguez isn’t moving well in spring training — and if the Yankees haven’t signed a go-to backup — then Prado could shift to third base. If Beltran suffers some sort of setback and can’t handle right field, then Prado could become an outfield regular (which is the way the Yankees planned to use him this season when they acquired him at the trade deadline). Through most of his career, Prado has hit for a strong average while showing a decent amount of power, especially for a middle infielder, and he’s clearly going to play regularly. If it’s not at second base, it will be somewhere.
On the verge
Really, there are two second basemen who qualify as “on the verge” of winning a big league job. The bigger name, and arguably the safer bet, is Rob Refsnyder, but he fits best in the next category. So we’ll use Pirela in this spot. Despite his standout season in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre — hit .305/.351/.441 and made the postseason All-Star team — the Yankees initially held off on giving Pirela a September call-up. It wasn’t until Prado with down with a season-ending appendectomy that Pirela got to make his big league debut, and it seems telling that he was the Yankees starting second baseman for each of those final three games in Boston. The Yankees big league staff got a chance to see him at the position before heading into the winter. Pirela does not have a great defensive reputation, but he does have plenty of defensive flexibility. He’s played every position except catcher and pitcher, and while he would be more of an emergency option at shortstop or center field, he seems at least passable at second, third, first and the outfield corners. He’s on the 40-man roster now, which suggests the Yankees intend to keep him and give him a look in spring training. Could be a utility man off the bench, or he could play his way into more regular playing time if he carries this year’s offensive success to the next level.
Of the Yankees top position prospects, Refsnyder is the one most immediately in the discussion for a big league job. Aaron Judge, Eric Jagielo, Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez aren’t ready to compete for jobs this spring, John Ryan Murphy is blocked at his position, and it’s hard to call Slade Heathcott or Mason Williams a top position prospect at this point. Refsnyder, though, has moved quickly, and he spent most of this year hitting .300/.389/.456 in Triple-A. His bat was impressive enough that the Yankees began to prepare him for a possible outfield job until trade deadline reinforcements let Refsnyder continue to get reps at second base, where the team has been impressed by his improvement. So far Refsnyder has lived up to his billing as an advanced hitter, and he seems to impress everyone around him with his work ethic and maturity. When the Yankees decide Refsnyder is ready, there may be no easing-in process. He could very well show up in New York — either on Opening Day or soon after — already holding the keys to the second base job.
Deeper in the system
A second-round draft pick out of a California high school, Katoh was drafted a year and a half ago, and he’s just now — on this very day, actually — turning 20 years old. He’s young, and his first full season of pro ball seemed to show some of that youthful inexperience along with some of the tools that made the Yankees draft him so highly in the first place. Katoh’s overall slash line in Charleston wasn’t overly impressive (.222/.345/.326) but the on-base percentage stands out. He struck out a whopping 142 times, but he also walked 71 times. And he showed improvement, hitting .190/.302/.315 in the first half before hitting .251/.382/.337 in the second half. “He’s a good defender,” Mark Newman said. “He can run. He can play. He’s smart. He’s got the kind of approach at the plate that’s going to allow him to get on base. It was a big jump for him.” That’s true. A full season at Low-A is pretty aggressive for a 19 year old. Katoh’s performance was a sign of what he could be, with proof that he’s not there yet. Even so, he’s clearly ahead of Angelo Gumbs and Anderson Feliz among organizational second base prospects, and he’s still a step ahead of 2014 draftee Ty McFarland (who had a solid debut in Staten Island) and versatile Dominican Junior Valera (who had a nice U.S. debut in rookie ball).
A game of adjustments
Cano’s first year of pro ball, he played shortstop and third base. Pirela was primarily a shortstop through Double-A. Refsnyder was an outfielder in college. Point is, predicting long-term second basemen is often tough when looking through a minor league system. At this point it seems safe to assume Refsnyder is a second baseman barring a surprising twist of fate — or a complete inability to do the job in New York — but as long as we’re looking at the state of the entire organization, it’s worth recognizing that the long-term future of second base could depend on a young kid who’s never played the position at this point. Shortstop prospect Abe Avelino, for example. Just this year, the Yankees spent heavily on young international free agents, and many of them were infielders who currently profile at shortstop — guys like Wilkerman Garcia, Diego Castillo, Hyo-Jun Park — but their position could certainly change as they get older. The biggest name of that bunch is Jorge Mateo, an incredibly toolsy young shortstop out of the Dominican Republic. Expectation is that he can stay at short, but circumstances and opportunity may dictate that he’s eventually part of the second base conversation. Think about what happened with Manny Machado moving off shortstop for a while in Baltimore. It happens.
Associated Press photo
Haven’t done this in a while, so here’s a quick update on a few guys in the minor league system. Now that we’re approaching the end of August, there’s a heavy emphasis on the upper-levels in this post. Just seems more relevant with September call-ups around the corner. Minor league seasons will end in just a few weeks, and at that point it will be a little easier to take a big-picture look at what everyone — including the low-level guys — did and did not do this season. For now, it seems more worthwhile to focus on the Triple-A and Double-A guys who could be on the big league radar either next month or early next year.
• Strictly my own speculation, but don’t rule out Manny Banuelos as either a September call-up candidate or perhaps a left-handed relief possibility. Once the Yankees top pitching prospect — and one of the better left-handed pitching prospects in baseball — Banuelos is beginning to look like a standout again. On Tuesday he returned to Triple-A for the first time since his 2012 Tommy John surgery, and he allowed one run on two hits through five innings. He had an up-and-down year in Double-A, but in his last five Trenton starts before the promotion Banuelos had a 3.00 ERA with a .151 opponents’ batting average through 21 innings. Probably still some work to be done, but at least showing signs of life again.
• Other left-handed pitchers to have in mind now that the Yankees don’t have a true lefty specialist: In 10 games since moving up to Triple-A, Tyler Webb has 18 strikeouts through 13.1 innings. Lefties, though, are hitting .357 with two home runs against him. Nik Turley is still working as a Triple-A starter, with kind of up-and-down results, but lefties are hitting just .179 against him (with a bunch of walks). Not sure the Yankees would go that direction, but I suppose it’s a possibility. Down in Double-A, first-round pick Jacob Lindgren has faced just two lefties in three games, but he was dominant against them in similarly limited chances with High-A Tampa. Another Double-A reliever, James Pazos, is having a really nice year and has a .143/.205/.143 slash line against lefties (though surely if he were close to a big league call-up, he would have been pushed to Triple-A at this point). There’s also Pat Venditte, who’s overall Triple-A numbers are solid, with lefties hitting .246/.313/.298 against him.
• Rob Refsnyder just keeps hitting in Triple-A. He’s hit .300/.345/.440 in the month of August and he’s hitting .300/.391/.480 overall since getting to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. True to Brian Cashman’s word, Refsnyder has not played right field since the trade deadline. He’s strictly a second baseman with a few DH turns that let Jose Pirela get occasional time at second.
• If the Yankees can get Carlos Beltran into the outfield, I wonder if they would consider giving DH at-bats to Kyle Roller. Clearly Joe Girardi isn’t sold on Zoilo Almonte, who would also seem to be a prime candidate to bring some left-handed power to the lineup. But Roller might be an interesting alternative. Strictly a first baseman when he’s in the field, Roller is hitting .284/.374/.510 against Triple-A right-handers — and lefties don’t exactly give him trouble, he has an .858 OPS against them. Plus, Roller’s hit .316/.420/.600 in his past 95 overall at-bats, and he’s homered in three of his past six games. This guy has been forced to perform in order to keep himself (or get himself) on the map. Not a big name, but plenty of people speak pretty highly of his bat and work ethic.
• Been a strange year for pitching throughout the upper levels of the Yankees organization. Obviously the big league issues are well documented, but all of the injuries and turnover in New York have left Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shorthanded several times this season. Last night, Venditte had to make a spot start, and that game went 13 innings — Venditte and four other relievers pitched at least two innings — ending with outfielder Taylor Dugas making his second pitching appearance of the season. Everything can run smoothly, and Triple-A pitching staffs are still left short-handed from time to time. It’s the nature of the beast, but it’s occasionally gotten awfully tough for the Railriders this season. They’re feeling the impact of all of those big league pitching problems.
• By the way, when he’s not filling in on the mound, Taylor Dugas is having an awfully good season. When the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury and extended Brett Gardner, it seemed a little odd at least partially because the Yankees farm system was already overloaded with left-handed center field types. At this point, though, Ramon Flores has been hurt most of the year, Slade Heathcott once again had season-ending surgery, Mason Williams has underperformed, and Ben Gamel hasn’t hit a ton. Dugas is kind of the last man standing, having emerged from that group with a .299/.393/.398 slash line between Double-A and Triple-A. Doesn’t get nearly the recognition of those other guys, but he’s the only one consistently performing and staying on the field. We’ll see if that means anything this winter. Could make a case for himself as a fifth outfielder type.
• Speaking of left-handed outfielders, another emerging possibility is Jake Cave. He’s always generated some prospect attention, but because of injuries he’d never reached high enough into the upper levels to join the conversation with Williams and Heathcott. That’s surely changed at this point. Still just 21 years old, Cave moved up to Double-A in mid July and has hit .287/.368/.455 since getting there. He’s played all three outfield positions, occasionally forcing Williams into the corners. Cave already has five triples in 25 Double-A games.
• When the Yankees picked Cave in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, it came one round after they selected first baseman Greg Bird. Both were high schoolers at the time, and both have already reached Double-A. Bird jumped up to Trenton at the beginning of August, so he has just a 10-game sample size. So far, though, he’s hitting .273/.400/.636 with three home runs, all of which came in a pair of back-to-back games. Bird basically came up to Double-A as soon as Pete O’Brien was traded away. Bird got the available first-base playing time (and I have to believe Bird’s steady bat is part of the reason the Yankees felt comfortable trading O’Brien). Different kind of hitters, for sure, but each seemed more likely to settle in at first base than at any other position. Bird, by the way, was also drafted as a catcher, just like O’Brien.
• In case you’re curious about Pete O’Brien, he was assigned to Double-A and landed on the disabled list just four games after the trade. Interestingly, he didn’t play first base in any of those four games after the trade. He caught three times and played right field once after moving into the Diamondbacks organization.
• One more note about that 2011 draft class: It’s top pick, Dante Bichette, is also up to Double-A at this point. Having rejuvenated his prospect stock down in Tampa, Bichette was moved up to Trenton a week ago. He has five hits in six games. He was hitting .271/.352/.410 in Tampa.
• And one last note about that 2011 draft class: Big relief pitcher Branden Pinder has pitched 3.2 scoreless innings in four appearances since coming off the Triple-A disabled list. I wouldn’t necessarily consider him a favorite for a September call-up, but he is Rule 5 eligible this winter, and he’s been a pretty good reliever, and the Yankees currently have both Jose Ramirez and Preston Claiborne on the disabled list, meaning they might not be healthy enough to come up in September. If the Yankees are planning to protect Pinder this offseason, might make sense to give him a 40-man spot next month and bring him on up. Maybe. They could just bring up Banuelos, Matt Daley and Bryan Mitchell — guys already on the 40-man — and have a pretty massive pitching staff for the final month (especially if Masahiro Tanaka and David Phelps are off the disabled list at that point).
• Top pitching prospect Luis Severino has been placed on the Double-A disabled list with that oblique injury that was previously described as “very slight.” Could be that it really is a very slight injury, and the Yankees are just being extra cautious with their best young arm. Not like it would be unusual for them. Another top prospect, Ian Clarkin, has also been added to the disabled list. I emailed Mark Newman today to ask about the severity of the injury — could be little more than innings management with Clarkin — but I haven’t heard back just yet.
• A few very quick hits from the lower levels: Tampa right fielder Aaron Judge continues to be pretty awesome, in my mind solidifying himself as the team’s top hitting prospect ahead of Gary Sanchez. He’s homered three times in his past eight games, and he’s still taking a ton of walks. … Tampa shortstop Cito Culver‘s bat has actually regressed in the second half of the season. … Also in Tampa, third baseman Eric Jagielo is back from the disabled list and continues to hit for more power than average. He’s hit .233/.346/.433 in 90 at-bats since coming off the DL. He’s homered in his past two games. … In Charleston, second baseman Gosuke Katoh has hit .280/.378/.382 through 49 games in the second half. That’s after hitting .190/.302/.315 in the first half.
Associated Press photos of Banuelos and Roller; headshots of Dugas, Bird and Pinder
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
Best case, worst case: Second base • 01.24.13
For the Yankees best player, the best-case scenario is so high that he just might price himself out of the Yankees future plans. It’s the position that brings short-term security and long-term uncertainty.
Dollars and sense
At age 30, coming off three straight seasons finishing top six in MVP voting, Robinson Cano’s best-case scenario has something to do with being the best player in the American League. He’s a Gold Glove defender, a Silver Slugger hitter and a legitimate MVP candidate in his prime. Improve with runners in scoring position, move past last year’s struggles against lefties, and Cano could legitimately have the best season of any hitter in the American League.
But if we’re talking about the best-case scenario for the next 12 months, it’s all about what happens in November and December. Cano is a homegrown force; a middle-of-the-order slugger who plays a defensive position more accustomed to No. 8 hitters without much pop. He’s been durable and, until last year, had a pretty good track record in the playoffs. If the Yankees could lock him into a reasonable long-term contract — good luck with that — they could have second base figured out through the end of the decade. Might be impossible given his open-market value, but finding a way to fit Cano into the Yankees financial plans would be ideal.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to have Corban Joseph and David Adams repeat last year’s offensive results. Joseph showed surprising power last season, and Adams finally moved beyond a lingering ankle injury to restore his prospect status. In a best-case scenario, those two could become offensive second base options almost immediately (and certainly by next year if Cano prices himself out of the Yankees plans). There’s also Angelo Gumbs to consider. Long touted for his athleticism and potential — a good mix of speed and power, especially for a middle infielder — an injury free season could solidify his status as the Yankees top infield prospect.
Small numbers and a big number
Two signs of trouble from Cano’s 2012 season: .239/.309/.337 vLHP and .207/.333/.379 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Make no mistake, Cano was terrific last season, but his struggles against lefties were surprising, and he was especially bad in RISP situations early in the season. It’s silly to think Cano will suddenly have a terrible year at the plate — he could slump quite a bit and still have an OPS well above .850 — but it’s possible that he could put up terrific overall numbers while still experiencing a handful of situational struggles that keep him from being as productive as those overall numbers suggest.
But, of course, even a down season from Cano won’t keep him from demanding — and getting — a huge contract from someone in the offseason. Cano could take a mild step back this season, and still price himself well outside of the Yankees spending plans. Or, perhaps it’s an even worse scenario to have the Yankees cave to his demands and give an Alex Rodriguez-sized contract that eventually blows up into an Alex Rodriguez-sized disaster.
The willingness to cave to Cano might grow more likely if Joseph and Adams take a step back. Joseph never hit more than six homers in a season before he hit 16 last year. What happens if his power slips in his first full-season attempt at Triple-A? Adams’ strong Double-A season wasn’t quite a full season — limited to 86 games — and he still hasn’t faced a single Triple-A pitch. If those Double-A numbers don’t translate and Joseph takes a step back, the Yankees won’t have a fallback plan at second. Add in another injury for Gumbs, and a sloppy infield adjustment for Rob Refsnyder, and the Yankees could be left without Cano and without an in-house replacement on the horizon.
Associated Press photos