Yankees organizational depth: Center field • 01.13.11
A little more than a year ago, the Yankees sacrificed their perceived center fielder of the future to obtain a proven center fielder of the future (and the present). Within months of the trade, the Yankees watched Austin Jackson get off to a terrific start in Detroit while Curtis Granderson struggled in New York. By the end of the season, the tide had shifted, and now the Yankees are left hoping Granderson’s second-half momentum carries into 2011.
In the big leagues
The Yankees gave up a lot to land Granderson. He was seen as a plus defensive player with unusual power for a center fielder, and he was also significantly more proven than Jackson, whose lack of power and strikeout totals were obvious concerns. Granderson finished last season by hitting .261/.356/.564 in his final 48 games, and he carried that into a terrific postseason. The Yankees are one of the few teams with two legitimate big league center fielders — Brett Gardner is also more than capable in center — but there’s no question Granderson will be the everyday man at the position. The only question is whether he’ll continue to improve as he steps further into what should be the prime of his career.
On the verge
Greg Golson and Colin Curtis are able to play a role in the big leagues right now. They proved that last season, and although neither got much time in center field at Yankee Stadium, both are able to play the position. Curtis and Golson seem likely to go into spring training competing with Jordan Parraz to be the Yankees fifth outfielder (if the Yankees carry five outfielders). Coming up behind them is one of the great wild cards of the Yankees system. Melky Mesa has tools to spare — arm, speed, power — but he also struck out 297 times the past two seasons, and his .260 average and .338 on-base percentage last season were both career highs, by a lot. If he makes progress, Mesa could be a legitimate everyday player in the big leagues. If not, he could top out at Double-A.
Deep in the system
Abraham Almonte is still on the prospect radar after a injury shortened season in Tampa — my friend Patrick Teale has always been very high on Almonte — but most of the Yankees young center field talent is coming up from the very lowest levels. Slade Heathcott, the Yankees first-round pick in ’09, didn’t put up big numbers in Charleston last year, but he’s still very young with considerable tools and talent. If Heathcott returns to Charleston this season, he could be joined in the outfield by Eduardo Sosa, a natural center fielder who’s bat has yet to match his glove. A half step behind them is last year’s fourth-round pick Mason Williams, another super-athletic kid taken out of high school. There is a lot of raw talent and athleticism here, but that talent has a long way to go. It’s just as you’d expect from this position in the lower levels.
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: Curtis Granderson
Scranton/WB: Greg Golson
Trenton: Melky Mesa
Tampa: Abe Almonte
Charleston: Slade Heathcott
The true center field depth chart in New York is two names deep: Granderson and Gardner. Both are plus defenders, and the Yankees showed last season that if Granderson gets hurt, Gardner will immediately slide over from left field. Golson and Curtis can certainly handle the position, but as long as at least one of Granderson and Gardner is healthy, there will be no reason for anyone else to see significant time in center field.
As for the minor leagues, the system is full of outfielders who are able to handle center field, it’s a matter of prioritizing that playing time. Curtis will get some center field time in Triple-A, and Damon Sublett could get some time in Double-A. It gets a little more tricky in the lower levels depending on assignments. Whether he’s in Tampa or Charleston, Heathcott will almost certainly be the priority in center field, but Sosa, Williams and Gumbs are coming up behind him and also need time at the position. If the Yankees decide Heathcott needs a little more Low A time — that’s how I have it predicted, at least to start the season — Sosa could see significant time in the outfield corners for the first time. If Heathcott does open in Charleston, the best-case scenario would be for him to finish in Tampa.
Associated Press photo of Granderson and Gardner, headshots of Granderson, Mesa and Almonte
The Yankees first-round pick in 2009 was also a high school position player, and Slade Heathcott was moved cautiously in his first full season. Heathcott opened last year in extended spring training and didn’t join Low-A Charleston until June.
Vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said the Yankees will “most likely” do the same thing this season with both Culver and second-round pick Angelo Gumbs. Both are 18 years old and developing at key defensive positions. Rushing them is not in the plans.
The same sort of caution could be true for fourth-round pick Mason Williams, a 19-year-old center fielder who played five Gulf Coast League games last season. Newman said the Yankees will “see where he is” in spring training before deciding where Williams opens the season.
Newman said there’s “no question” Culver will continue to be developed as a shortstop, but Gumbs will be tested at different positions. He could see some time at second base, and center field is a legitimate option. “We’re still in the evaluation stage,” Newman said.
• Speaking of Heathcott, he hit .258/.359/.352 with 101 strikeouts in 76 games with Charleston last season. It’s entirely possible he’ll return to Charleston for the beginning of the 2011 season. “We’ll see,” Newman said.
• Last year’s third-round draft pick, Rob Segedin, was selected out of Tulane, so he’s older and more advanced than Culver and Gumbs. Segedin will open in Charleston, where he’ll continue to play third base while also getting some reps in right field.
• If David Adams, Corban Joseph and Brad Suttle all open the season in Double-A, they’ll have to mix and match positions, including some reps at DH, to give all three regular at-bats. Newman said there’s a chance one of those three could open at a different level, but it’s a “low” chance.
• Outfielder Cody Johnson, acquired from the Braves this winter, is most likely heading for Double-A instead of Triple-A. He’s been in Double-A for part of the past two seasons, but he has yet to hit above .189 at that level. The guy does have some power, though.
• Don’t rule out lefty Shaeffer Hall for Double-A. He opened last season in Low-A Charleston but pitched his way to High-A Tampa where he had nine wins and a 3.91 ERA in 15 appearances. This is only his second full season, but Hall is already 23 years old, so the Yankees might push him to Trenton to open the season.
• The Yankees have not decided where shortstop Carmen Angelini will open the season — Tampa or Charleston — but this is clearly a season when Angelini needs to finally show something at the plate. “He needs to get it going,” Newman said. Culver and Gumbs are already overshadowing him in the lower levels.
• Pretty much every scouting report you’ll ever read about Graham Stoneburner suggests his ultimate role could be as a reliever rather than a starter. The Yankees, though, will continue to use Stoneburner out of the rotation, and they believe that he could remain a starter if his changeup continues to develop. Stoneburner had a 2.41 ERA between Tampa and Charleston last season, and the Yankees won’t change his role until he pitches himself out of the rotation. “The game is smarter than us,” Newman said.
• I mentioned Anderson Feliz in yesterday’s look at the Yankees second base depth, and Newman sounds excited about the young middle infielder. “He’s a good player,” Newman said. “He’s got hitting ability. He’s got power. He can run.” Feliz is probably going to open in Charleston.
• Fu-Lin Kuo, a third baseman out of Taiwan, could be developing into a legitimate prospect. “He looked like it at times last year,” Newman said. Last season Kuo hit .243 in the Gulf Coast League, but that was his first season in the United States, and Newman said it’s hard to make much of those stats because of the significant cultural adjustment. The Yankees saw some flashes of promise at the plate. Kuo is probably going to open the season back in extended spring training, but he’s a player to keep the name in the back of your mind for now.
Pretty sure Pete took that picture of Heathcott. I just found it in the blog archives.
Let’s go heavy on prospects today, shall we? This is Baseball America’s Top 30 Yankees prospects heading into this season, listed with each player’s rank at the beginning of the season and the level where he finished the season.
No. 1 Jesus Montero
After a rocky start to the season, Montero turned things around in the second half and could fight for a big league job in spring training. He remains one of the elite prospects in baseball, with the only significant questions being where he’ll play in the field.
No. 2 Austin Romine
Romine dropped to sixth in this year’s rankings, but I’m not sure his ceiling or expectations have fallen. He had a kind of Derek Jeter-type season, starting strong and finishing strong, with three rough months in the middle. He’s in the Arizona Fall League now, and it’s easy to forget that he hasn’t turned 22 yet. Still very highly regarded, but he was passed on Baseball America’s list by young players and injured players whose stock soared after strong seasons.
No. 3 Arodys Vizcaino
Traded to the Braves
The big prospect in The Boone Logan Trade had a 2.74 ERA between two Class-A levels this season, but he was shutdown with an elbow injury.
No. 4 Slade Heathcott
Low-A center fielder
Got to Charleston at the start of June, and he might have lost a little ground in the prospect standings — he hit .258 with 101 strikeouts — but it’s hard to read too much into a 19-year-old’s first season of pro ball. He still in Baseball America’s Top 10 for the orgnization.
No. 5 Zach McAllister
Traded to Cleveland
This was the cost for two months of Austin Kearns. Had he stuck around, McAllister probably would have fallen out of the Top 10 after a 5.09 ERA in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He was certainly overshadowed by several other upper-level pitchers.
No. 6 Manny Banuelos
Double-A left-handed starter
After a healthy second half that took him from High-A to Double-A, Banuelos is living up to expectations. Building up his workload seems to be the next step in his development. He’s in the Arizona Fall League right now and could pitch himself to the cusp of the big leagues next season. At 19 years old, he’s the youngest of the Yankees Killer B pitching prospects.
No. 7 Gary Sanchez
He’s been compared to Montero, except with more defensive tools. That’s why he moved all the way to No. 2 on this year’s Baseball America list. There is a ton of talent, but also a long way to go.
No. 8 J.R. Murphy
In so many ways, Murphy is “the other” catching prospect in the Yankees system. He’s only 19 years old — one year older than Sanchez — and he already held his own in Charleston. The power started to show in the second half.
No. 9 Jeremy Bleich
Injured Double-A left-handed starter
Stock took a hit because of shoulder surgery. He made only eight starts for Trenton. Hard to learn much about him from this season.
No. 10 Andrew Brackman
Double-A right-handed starter
This season might have been the best-case scenario for Brackman, the towering right-hander who had Tommy John surgery before throwing a single professional pitch. Brackman has always been a high-end talent, but he lived up to those expectations with a healthy and much-improved second season.
No. 11 Bryan Mitchell
Short-season right-handed starter
Opened in extended spring training, then pitched in the Gulf Coast League and got up to Staten Island in September. Still young, and Rookie Ball opponents hit .190 against him. Obvious potential. Obviously young.
No. 12 Mike Dunn
Traded to Atlanta
Another part of The Boone Logan Trade, he pitched his way to Atlanta but the Yankees might have gotten the better of the two young lefties in that trade.
No. 13 Corban Joseph
Double-A second baseman
Terrific numbers in Tampa sparked a second-half call-up to Trenton, where Joseph struggled with his first taste of upper-level pitching. Could play second or third base. Nothing especially flashy, but he lived up to expectation and might have exceeded it with his promotion.
No. 14 Eduardo Nunez
Major League shortstop
Nunez had to prove that 2009 was not a fluke, and he did just that with a terrific Triple-A season that ended with a call-up to New York and a late spot on the postseason roster. He hit .289 in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but also showed an improved glove. That combination pushed him into the Yankees Top 10.
No. 15 Mark Melancon
Traded to Houston
Sent to the Astros in the Lance Berkman deal, Melancon simply never made that final step with the Yankees. He pitched pretty well in 20 appearances for the Astros.
No. 16 Ivan Nova
Major League right-handed starter
The Yankees always liked Nova’s potential, but he developed slowly until a strong 2009 season that landed him a spot on the 40-man. Now he’s a candidate for a spot in the back of the big league rotation. He’s the most advanced of the Yankees many upper-level pitching prospects.
No. 17 D.J. Mitchell
Triple-A right-handed starter
Moved into the Yankees Top 20 prospects, then got an invitation to big league camp, then pitched his way from Double-A to Triple-A. He generated better than a 2-to-1 ground out to fly out ratio in Double-A, then had a 3.57 ERA in three Triple-A starts. Overshadowed by some teammates, but he had a very nice season.
No. 18 Melky Mesa
High-A center fielder
He obviously did something right because now he’s on the 40-man roster. The MVP of the Florida State League has legitimate power and speed, but he also strikes out a ton and this year’s .260 average was actually his career-high. A complete wild card in this system.
No. 19 Kelvin DeLeon
Short-season right fielder
Stock might have slipped through a .236 average with six home runs and 80 strikeouts. Just turned 20, so there’s plenty of room to grow, but also a long way to go.
No. 20 Jose Ramirez
Low-A right-handed starter
A good arm lurking in the lower-levels of the Yankees minor league system, he had a 3.60 ERA with 105 strikeouts in Charleston this season. For now, he exists in the shadows of the pitchers ahead of him, but he’s certainly not an unknown. He’s a legitimate prospect in his own right.
No. 21 Graham Stoneburner
High-A right-handed starter
Leading into this season, Stoneburner was a favorite among writers and bloggers who closely follow the Yankees minor league system. He proved those believers right with a 2.41 ERA between Charleston and Tampa. He could be one of the fastest-rising stars in the organization, and there is considerable speculation that he could eventually end up in the bullpen, making ascent even faster.
No. 22 David Adams
Injured Double-A second baseman
Off to a .309 start in Trenton, Adams’ season was cut short by an ankle injury that cost him the bulk of the year and might have cost the Yankees a shot at Cliff Lee. I tend to lump Adams and Joseph together as Double-A guys able to play second or third. He seemed to be showing a lot this season, but it’s hard to make much of 39 games.
No. 23 Caleb Cotham
Cotham should have been in Charleston, but a pair of surgeries left him unable to pitch in an actual game this season. He has only eight professional innings to his name.
No. 24. Hector Noesi
Triple-A right-handed starter
Noesi had pitched only nine games above Low A when the Yankees put him on the 40-man roster this season. That said a lot about their expectations, and Noesi lived up them with a season that catapulted him into Baseball America’s Top 10. From High-A to Double-A to Triple-A, he could be next year’s Ivan Nova.
No. 25 David Phelps
Triple-A right-handed starter
There’s a common theme among most of these back-end starting pitchers: Except the injured Cotham, they were all outstanding. This was Phelps’ second full season, and he finished it with a 3.07 ERA in 12 Triple-A outings.
No. 26 Adam Warren
Double-A right-handed starter
Kind of like a one-year-younger version of Phelps, Warren had a 3.15 ERA in 10 Double-A starts after opening the year with a 2.22 in Tampa. The upper-level pitching depth in this system is incredible, as evidenced by the fact neither Phelps nor Warren deserved a spot among the Yankees Top 10 prospects.
No. 27 Kevin Russo
Major League utility
Russo’s value is in his ability to do a lot of things well. He served that role perfectly as a call-up who shifted to left-field when the Yankees were searching for outfield help. Nothing flashy, but when he was getting regular at-bats, he was contributing. He could easily play that same role next season.
No. 28 Dellin Betances
Double-A right-handed starter
This is the biggest leap of the bunch, and his jump into the Top 10 had as much to do with his health as his performance. Betances has always been a premier talent, but this year he got healthy and stayed healthy through a dominant second half. Expectations are sky
high again. He just has to stay off the disabled list this time.
No. 29 Jairo Heredia
High-A right-handed starter
Kind of like Nova in 2008 and Noesi in 2009, the Yankees have to decide whether to protect Heredia from the Rule 5 or take their chances that an unproven but talented young pitcher will sneak through. Heredia just turned 21, but he pitched just six times above Low A this season. Opponents there hit .359 against him.
No. 30 Jamie Hoffmann
Rule 5 pick sent back to Dodgers
The Yankees were clearly never planning to bring back Brian Bruney this offseason, so they traded him away for the right to draft Hoffmann. He hung around spring training for a while, but was ultimately sent back to the Dodgers. He hit .310 with eight home runs, 17 steals and 36 doubles in Triple-A.
Baseball America was scheduled to release its Yankees Top 10 prospects today, but the schedule changed and the list will now hit the website next week. Given the Daily News report about Jesus Montero, though, today actually seems to be the perfect day for the Yankees Top 10.
The good news is, the list is already out in print editions and it’s hitting the web. I first saw it on the Trenton blog run by Josh Norris. I’ll be sure to link to Baseball America when their scouting reports go live. For now, here are the names that make up the Yankees Top 10, beginning with the guy who might be starting at catcher next season.
1. Jesus Montero
2. Gary Sanchez
3. Dellin Betances
4. Manny Banuelos
5. Andrew Brackman
6. Austin Romine
7. Hector Noesi
8. Eduardo Nunez
9. Slade Heathcott
10. Brandon Laird
Montero is the clear No. 1. His bat is one of the best in minor league baseball, and it should play at the Major League level regardless of his glove.
Nos. 2 through 6 are probably easy choices, though the order might change depending on the person doing the ranking. I probably would have ranked Banuelos second, but that’s extreme nitpicking.
In an organization so rich in upper-level pitching, I agree with Donnie Collins that it’s interesting — though not right or wrong — that Noesi got a Top 10 spot ahead of guys like David Phelps or Adam Warren or even Graham Stoneburner. Again, not saying I disagree, I just find it interesting that Baseball America values him at the top of that second tier of organizational pitching prospects.
Nunez proved 2009 wasn’t a fluke, and that moved him into the Top 10. Heathcott’s performance was shaky this season, but his talent kept him in the Top 10. Rounding out the list is Laird, who didn’t even crack Baseball America’s Top 30 last season. Says a lot about how far he’s climbed in the eyes of scouts and front-office types. When a player keeps hitting in the upper levels, the rest of baseball pays attention.
Those are headshots of Montero and Betances
State of the Yankees: Center field • 02.13.10
The alignment of the Yankees outfield remains undecided. For the sake of this series, we’ll call Curtis Granderson the center fielder and leave Brett Gardner as the front-runner in left, but those roles could switch. Whatever the alignment, the Yankees have a young center fielder with either. A: Terrific power for the position, or B: Terrific speed for any position. And that center fielder is locked up for at least the next four years.
Starter: Curtis Granderson
Backup: Brett Gardner
Veteran insurance: Randy Winn
Almost ready: Colin Curtis, Greg Golson
Low rising: Abraham Almonte, Slade Heathcott
The center field depth chart is more of a flow chart than a 1-2-3 ranking of options. Even if Gardner is the starter in left field, he’ll likely be the No. 2 man in center for days Granderson takes a game off. Randy Winn is the veteran of the group, Jamie Hoffmann might fit into the mix from time to time and both Curtis and Golson — plus minor league free agent Reid Gorecki — are likely be toolsy options waiting in Triple-A. Ultimately, the Yankees have some options for mixing and matching depending on different scenarios, but Granderson and Gardner seem pretty well established at the top. The minor league system’s top center fielders are in the lower levels, headlined by Heathcott, with Eduardo Sosa and Melky Mesa possibly fitting into the conversation somewhere.
Worst-case scenario: Granderson strikes out too much to take advantage of his power. Gardner strikes out too much to take advantage of his speed. Winn has aged far too much to be a reasonable center field option. Hoffmann is an obvious roster cut in spring training. Golson’s potential continues to go untapped. Curtis can’t come close to his Arizona Fall League numbers. Heathcott stumbles out of the gate, gets hurt and looks like an obvious over-draft as a first-round pick. Does that pretty much cover it?
Best-case scenario: Left field or center field, it really doesn’t matter. Gardner continues his trend of improving year-by-year. He falls behind in the count much less, gets on base much more and proves the bunt can be a legitimate weapon. Granderson takes advantage of Yankee Stadium to repeat last year’s home run total, but it comes with a batting average that bounces back close to .300 like it was in 2007 and 2008. Kevin Long fixes a glitch in his swing that help’s Granderson improve against left-handed pitchers. Winn proves 2009 was a fluke, Golson and Curtis finally live up to their tools in Triple-A and Heathcott stays healthy to be the top center fielder in the South-Atlantic League.
The future: Granderson is signed through 2013 – though the Yankees can buyout his last year — and Gardner still has two years before he’s eligible for arbitration. The future in center field can belong to either of them, assuming they produce. If not, Heathcott could be the center fielder of the future now that Austin Jackson is gone. If Heathcott moves one level at a time, he’ll be ready for the big leagues on opening day 2014, exactly the year Granderson’s contract runs out.
An attempt at the complete depth chart
An educated guess, but just a guess
Scranton: Greg Golson
Trenton: Austin Krum
Tampa: Abraham Almonte
Charleston: Slade Heathcott
Extended: Eduardo Sosa