Last night on MLB Network, Jonathan Mayo and the crew at MLB.com counted down their Top 100 prospects in baseball. Three Yankees made the list: Gary Sanchez (36), Mason Williams (41) and Tyler Austin (75). The only player who I thought might make it but didn’t is Slade Heathcott, who will almost certainly shoot onto the list — probably pretty high on the list — if he has a full, healthy and productive season in Double-A.
What does a Top 100 list mean exactly? Not much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a decent snapshot of the way players are viewed. There’s more or less no difference between No. 36 and No. 41. It’s mostly just interesting to see which players rank at the very top and which ones make the list at all.
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: First base • 07.13.11
A little more than two years ago, the Yankees set their course at first base by giving an eight-year deal to Mark Teixeira. He is the Yankees recent past, their obvious present and their distant future at the position.
It was kind of an unusual first half for Teixeira. He’s on pace for a career-high in home runs, but a career-low in batting average. He’s been plenty productive with the team-high in RBI, but he’s also been streaky. Teixeira has homered in three straight games four different times this year, including the first three games of the season. He has all-star type numbers, but at a position with Adrian Gonzalez, Paul Konerko and Miguel Cabrera, Teixeira was crowded out.
He’s not having the same sort of all-around season that he had in his Yankees debut, but if Teixeira keeps up this pace, he’ll probably get some of those back-of-the-ballot MVP votes. Eighth, ninth and tenth-place votes, that sort of thing. He hasn’t done much this July, but Teixeira is typically a better second-half hitter, with his best month-by-month numbers coming in August and September. Teixeira’s not going anywhere, but the Yankees have discovered that they can play Jorge Posada at first base occasionally to give him a few days off.
Jorge Vazquez is nowhere near the top prospect in the system, but he might be the most immediately intriguing. Plucked out of Mexico, Vazquez was a spring training standout, and he’s now a Triple-A all-star with the organization’s minor league lead in home runs. At 29 years old, he is what he is, and that might be enough to be productive should the Yankees find a spot for him. Lower in the minors, Charleston first baseman Kyle Roller hit enough to earn a mid-season call-up to Tampa, and the way down in the Gulf Coast League, last year’s 13th-round pick Tyler Austin is off to a strong start while playing both infield corners.
Should Teixeira fall into the cleanup spot now that Rodriguez is out?
The Yankees could bump Robinson Cano up a spot to fill the cleanup void, or they could move Brett Gardner into the leadoff spot, move Curtis Granderson into the No. 3 hole and give the switch-hitting Teixeira the No. 4 spot between lefties Granderson and Cano.
Nothing has happened this season to change the Yankees long-term plans at first base. Teixeira is still a middle-of-the-order hitter in his prime, and his power numbers have helped make up for Alex Rodriguez’s relative lack of power in the cleanup spot. First base still belong to Teixeira for the foreseeable future.
Associated Press photo