2014 Season Preview: Breakout Prospect Candidates

Spring Training Game Thread: Split Squad
Sherman: Yankees sign remaining pre-arbitration players
Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Last season was not a good one for the Yankees’ farm system, and the team has admitted as much in recent weeks. That doesn’t happen often. Usually clubs will say their system is underrated and all that stuff. The Yankees made some non-personnel changes to their player development system over the winter in an effort to get things back on track, though we’re going to have to wait to if those changes actually work.

That said, the Yankees’ system is unique because it has the potential to get a lot better in 2014. The team is adding what amounts to five first round talents to the organization in 3B Eric Jagielo, OF Aaron Judge, LHP Ian Clarkin (2013’s three first rounders), RHP Ty Hensley (2012’s first rounder), and LHP Manny Banuelos. The first three guys are entering their first full year of professional baseball while Hensley (hip) and Banuelos (elbow) are returning from injury. That’s a lot of talent that was not available for most of last summer.

I think we all know who the obvious breakout prospects are. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Judge or OF Mason Williams or C Gary Sanchez took big steps forward and became top 100 type of prospects. The smaller, unexpected breakouts are the ones that will really help the farm system going forward. Think RHP Shane Greene and C John Ryan Murphy, for example. They were interesting guys who improved and took that big step forward last summer. Who will be this year’s Greene or Murphy? Here are some candidates.

OF Jake Cave
Cave, 21, was the team’s sixth round pick in the 2011 draft, though he missed all of 2012 with a fractured kneecap. He joined Low-A Charleston in mid-April last year and was the team’s best non-1B Greg Bird player, hitting .282/.347/.401 (117 wRC+) with two homers, 18 steals, and a whopping 37 doubles in a tough hitter’s park. The knee, obviously, is fine.

Cave’s breakout potential is built on his all-around game and innate ability to barrel up the ball with his left-handed swing. He’s cut from the OF Slade Heathcott cloth in that he plays very hard — he hurt his knee in a home plate collision — though he is not out of control, and his makeup and work ethic are considered pluses. Cave is really starting to fill out his 6-foot-0 and 180 lb. frame, so some of those doubles could start clearing the fence for homers. I wouldn’t necessarily say he has a chance to become a top prospect, but a strong year at High-A and continued improvement will definitely get him a prominent place on the map.

SS Cito Culver
The Yankees caught a lot of heat for making Culver their first round pick in 2010 and he really hasn’t done anything to justify the selection yet. He struggled so much with the River Dogs in 2012 (75 wRC+) that he decided to stop switch-hitting — Culver made the decision himself and the team went along — sticking to the right side of the plate even though his numbers were better as a left-handed hitter (.642 OPS vs. .508 OPS in 2012). The result: an improved though still not great .248/.322/.362 (100 wRC+) batting line split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa in 2013.

Cito. (Andy in Sunny Daytona)
Cito. (Andy in Sunny Daytona)

So why is Culver a breakout candidate despite three years of impressive performance? Two reasons. One, he now has a full year of being a right-handed hitter exclusively under his belt. Dropping switch-hitting is easier said than done. Remember, he’d never seen a breaking ball that moves away from him until last season. Two, his age. Culver was drafted at 17 and he will spend almost the entire 2014 minor league season at age 21. He’s several months younger than Jagielo and Judge even though he’s about to entire his fifth pro season and fourth full season.

Is Culver ever going to live up being the 32nd overall pick in the country? Almost certainly not. Is there some hope he may not be a total lost cause? Yes. His defense at shortstop is still solid and that’s pretty big. Scrapping switch-hitting and focusing on the stronger side has already helped his offense and could help even more as he gets comfortable. The bar at shortstop is so impossibly low these days that, even with an 80-85 wRC+, Culver can be league average at the position because of his defense. The decision to stop switch-hitting has kept his career alive.

RHP Brady Lail
I did not rank Lail as one of the organization’s top 30 prospects last month, but he was among the final cuts. I think he might be the most unheralded potentially great prospect in the system. The 20-year-old from Utah was the team’s 18th round pick in 2012, and last year he pitched to a 2.33 ERA (1.64 FIP) with 51 strikeouts, five walks, and zero homers allowed in 54 innings down in the Rookie Gulf Coast League. He was even trusted to make two emergency appearances for High-A Tampa (that were disasters).

Lail’s fastball sat in the upper-80s when he was drafted but that has ticked up into the low-90s thanks to pro instruction and workouts, and his changeup is improved as well. The pitch was already advanced for a high schooler when he was drafted. His go-to pitch is bat-missing curveball with big break. At 6-foot-2 and 175 lbs., Lail was a classic projection pick who the team hopes will get better and better and he fills out and gains more experience. What sets him apart is his three-pitch mix and his ability to throw strikes, a combination that a) overwhelmed rookie ball hitters, and b) isn’t all that common among pitchers from cold weather states.

RHP Bryan Mitchell
I’m pretty sure I’m going to continue listing Mitchell as a possible breakout prospect every year until he either breaks out or flames out. It feels like the 22-year-old has had the same statistical season every year since being drafted in 16th round of the 2009 draft, but he did cut his walk rate from 13.6% in 2012 to 9.0% in 2013. It’s a sign of progress and I’ll take it.

Mitchell’s breakout potential stems from his fastball-curveball combination, which might be the best two-pitch mix in the organization. His heater sits in the mid-90s and will touch 97 while the curveball is a low-80s hammer, rivaled only by David Robertson‘s in the entire organization. Can he ever put it all together by throwing strikes with his fastball and getting the curveball down and out of the zone for consistent swings and misses? I hope so. As I said earlier, Mitchell is a breakout candidate until either breaks out of flames out. The stuff is simply too good.

* * *

More than anything, the Yankees need their current top prospects to perform like top prospects. Heathcott, Banuelos, Hensley, and OF Tyler Austin have to stay healthy. Jagielo, Clarkin, Judge, 2B Gosuke Katoh, SS Abi Avelino, RHP Luis Severino, and 3B Miguel Andujar have to have strong years in their first full pro season this summer. Will all of that happen? No, of course not. Most of those guys will flame out. But if a few of them can make some progress in 2014 while someone like Cave and/or Lail breaks out, the system will be much better off next spring than it is right now.

Spring Training Game Thread: Split Squad
Sherman: Yankees sign remaining pre-arbitration players
  • MPierce

    Hearing that little tidbit about Mitchell’s curveball being second to only Robertson makes me wonder if he should be considered for the bullpen shortly. Sounds like he already has the tools to be a reliever right now. How long do we wait knowing how porous our bullpen is?

    • RetroRob

      The Yankees have plenty of options for their bullpen so they don’t really gain by taking a potential breakout starter and putting him in the pen. There’s time.

    • pat

      The bullpen is porous?

      • W.B. Mason Williams

        Yeah man, haven’t you seen the chain-link fence in YSIII?

        There’s no way that thing could hold water.

      • MPierce

        Outside of Robertson, there’s not an arm in the projected bullpen that I’d feel comfortable giving a one-run game to. There’s potential, sure, but for every guy that pans out, three or more are probably going to suck it up.

        • Mr. Roth

          And how would adding Bryan Mitchell change any of this?

          • MPierce

            Well, for starters, if he is capable of David Robertson-esque results, that’s probably going to be helpful long term. I’d rather not wait until the last minute like we did with Betances. We probably could have had Betances all of last season in the bullpen if we’d pulled the trigger when we should have.

            I’m not even saying Mitchell needs to move to the bullpen, just thinking about a long-term plan. I’d rather not pay out the ass for relief pitchers down the road and if he throws mid-to-high 90’s with a killer curve but can’t put it together as a starter, we could have Robertson 2.0 here. That’d be a better alternative to just letting him continue to be lack-luster in hopes he figures it out.

            • Mr. Roth

              So in other words, you plan on addressing the uncertainty of the bullpen by adding some more uncertainty?

              Mitchell isn’t in the majors yet because he hasn’t been able to pitch consistently in the minors. If we knew he was going to get “David Robertson-esque results” he’d already be in the majors.

              • Mr. Roth

                Not to mention the fact that he’s only pitched 18 innings above single-A.

              • MPierce

                Again… Not saying that he should move to the bullpen, he could very well figure it out and be a break-out starter this year. But at some point, we should consider it an option and it might be this season that we start to have the conversation of whether the move should be made.

                I’m definitely not saying put him in the MLB bullpen right now. I’m not even saying put him in the Double-A bullpen now. I’m saying that if he doesn’t show improvement by mid-season, it’s something that should be considered because he could move up quickly that way. Even with that plan, which still might be a little too quick to give up on him, we’re talking 2015 unless he’s completely dominant.

                • Mr. Roth

                  “Sounds like he already has the tools to be a reliever right now. How long do we wait knowing how porous our bullpen is?”

                  “I’m definitely not saying put him in the MLB bullpen right now.”

                  My bad, I thought you were talking about putting him in the MLB bullpen.

                  If you’re not advocating moving him to the MLB bullpen, then what does our “porous bullpen” have to do with anything?

        • Jorge Steinbrenner

          At some point, he’s considered for pretty much the same reasons Dellin Betances wound up in the bullpen. He’s got a bit to go before we get there, though.

          I think the bullpen’s a risk, but I don’t share the panic there. I think this is often how you build a bullpen.

          • Mr. Roth

            I’m not worried about the bullpen either. You’d be hard pressed to find a team in the league that goes into spring training without a lot of question marks in the bullpen. Those questions will be taken care of once they start playing games that count.

            • Jorge Steinbrenner

              We applaud when other teams build solid no-name bullpens, but those bullpens were just that for a reason.

          • MPierce

            I’m not panicked, exactly. Just when you read about a guy throwing in the mid-to-high 90’s with a filthy curveball, but doesn’t get results as a starter, you kind of wonder if he can be a mid-season addition to the bullpen, and don’t want to pay insane money for relievers in free agency. We’d all like to wait and see on these guys, but just like Jose Ramirez, some of these guys could be top-notch relievers. I’d rather have a shutdown reliever than a back-end starter.

            • Jorge Steinbrenner

              I think that, at his age, and where he is with his options, he’s probably got more opportunities coming to him to make it click. At some point, sure, you see where he’s more effective.

              Apologies for putting the word “panic” in your mouth.

        • stuckey

          Then we’re ahead of the game. Many teams don’t even have one of those guys.

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        Thank God. All that water retention otherwise.

        • lightSABR

          Forget the bullpen. The Yankees have a bullpond.

          • W.B. Mason Williams

            The bullpen is mightier than the bullsword?

            • Mr. Roth

              That’s bullshit.

  • Cool Lester Smooth

    Don’t forget Jordan Cote!

    (Ignore me, I just love fellow NE kids who grew up Yanks fans).

  • Johnny5

    “It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Judge or OF Mason Williams or C Gary Sanchez took big steps forward and became top 100 type of prospects.”

    Isn’t Sanchez already a top 100 type prospect?

    • Mr. Roth

      Mason Williams is on some top 100 lists too if I remember correctly.

    • gageagainstthemachine

      My assumption in that sentence was that it meant they have the potential this year to actually move pretty high up the list….not just to be on those lists.

  • Mike Myers

    You forgot about D B Jr…..oh wait…nope

  • W.B. Mason Williams

    Big years from Austin, De Paula, Severino, Jagielo, Culver and Refsnyder would do a lot to make me feel better.

  • The Other Matt

    I’d also watch out for Rob Refsnyder. He had a very good year with the bat last season in Tampa, and reports say that he is coming along with his glove at 2B (he played the OF in college). I’m hopeful that he ca put together another solid year at AA this season, and possibly be an option at 2B next spring.

  • Randy Keisler

    I have no hope for Culver ever contributing anything to the major league team. Such a reach he was by the Yankees.

    • Govin

      Personally I was encouraged by what he did last year. For one he had better power this year compared to last year. Also he really started hitting at the end of the year especially after being promoted to Tampa (.355/.394/.484). In no way am I defending the Yankees for taking him in the first round. I just agree with Mike that he is not a lost cause yet.

      • lightSABR

        Right. We’ve been spoiled by Jeter so long that before we post about shortstop prospects, we should recite ten times, “Most shortstops can’t hit. Most shortstops can’t hit. Most shorstops can’t…”

    • Cool Lester Smooth

      Yeah, he only had the same wRC+ at the same age and level as Blake Swihart!

      Why can’t we draft like the Red Sox?!

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    The answer is some kid in the DSL Wayne will tell us about in the overnight thread, then tell us the team is screwing him up and that his arm is falling off AND that he’ll be in the rotation in 2016.

    It must have really hurt not to list Dan Camarena there, Axisa.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    I was going to say my prediction would be simultaneous ejaculations about Miguel Andujar on here by August, but he’s sort of listed already.

    Fine, then. Omar Luis actually becomes the fast riser he needs to be given his contract situation in 2014. BOOK IT.

  • Bryan

    I could see Cave blowing up. He looked really good last year and should could become a younger version of GGBG just as BG is slowing down.

  • Coolerking101

    What about Rob Segedin? The Yanks certainly have an opening for a 3B and this is a guy who has swung the bat at every level. Given the injury last year, I assume he starts again at AA. However, if he mashes like he did last year, I have to assume he could find himself up in the big leagues pretty quickly.

    • Cool Lester Smooth

      He’s 25 years old and he’s always hurt.

  • OB/GYN Kenobi

    Our system is unique in that it could get much better?

    Okay then.

    • Bryan

      Unique in it being a bottom level system (per most of the minor league providers)yet also with so many players with high potential that it could end up moving upwards 15-20 spots in less than 12 months.