2014 Season Review: The Farm System

The 2013 season was a total mess for the Yankees, both at the MLB level and down in the minors. Hal Steinbrenner and his staff reviewed the team’s player development system late last year, opting for minor personnel changes and some procedural adjustments instead of a major overhaul. The result in 2014 was a slightly improved system and, well, that major overhaul. Let’s review the year that was down on the farm.

Gary Denbo, the new head of the farm system. (NY Post)
Gary Denbo, the new head of the farm system. (NY Post)

New Leadership

More than anything else, the biggest story to come out of the farm system this year was the personnel changes after the season. Significant ones. Long-time VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman, who had run the system for more than a decade, retired when his contract expired in October, though there was speculation the team wasn’t going to retain him anyway. His assistant Billy Hart was cut loose as well. So was Pat Roessler, the club’s director of player development since 1995. Several minor league coaches and coordinators were also let go.

After a series of interviews, the Yankees replaced Newman with Gary Denbo, whose hiring still has not been officially announced. That’s just a formality at this point. Denbo has had three different stints with the organization over the years, most recently serving as a scouting and player development consultant since 2009. We still don’t know who the Yankees will bring in replace Roessler or Hart — rumor has it Roessler’s assistant Eric Schmitt will take over as the director of player development, but that is unconfirmed — or how the rest of the farm system staff will shake out.

Regardless, these are significant changes. The leadership core in charge of developing players has been completely changed these last few weeks. And that’s a good thing. The Yankees have done a pretty terrible job of producing anything more than relievers and back-end starters in recent years. The talent acquisition has been mostly fine in my opinion. The Yankees do bring in a lot of high-upside players, but turning them from prospects into big leaguers just hasn’t happened. It’s been a long time since the team had a raw prospect take a big step forward in his development and help at the MLB level.

Whether the new leadership will result in improved player development going forward is a total unknown. Your guess is as good as mine. Evaluating front office hires like this is a fool’s errand if you’re on the outside looking in, which we are as fans. We’re just going to have to wait and see, which is boring but it is what it is. I think these changes should have been made last year, when it was clear player development was a problem. I guess waiting one year isn’t the end of the world. At least the changes happened. Whatever they were doing flat out wasn’t working. Now, maybe, it might.

Clarkin. (The Post and Courier)
Clarkin. (The Post and Courier)

Promising Returns From 2013 Draft

On the field, the Yankees watched as their three first round picks (well, technically one first rounder and two supplemental first rounders) from the 2013 draft had strong full season debuts. OF Aaron Judge emerged as the organization’s top prospect and not only because he hit .308/.419/.486 (~158 wRC+) with 17 homers in 131 games split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. Reports indicate he showed a much more advanced hitting approach than initially expected, focusing on driving the ball to the middle of the field rather than selling out for power. Judge is also a legitimate right fielder with a strong arm. He’s pretty much the total package. A true two-way threat.

3B Eric Jagielo, who was the first of those three first round picks, hit .259/.354/.460 (132 wRC+) with 16 homers in 85 games for Tampa around an oblique injury. He was scheduled to play in the Arizona Fall League with Judge until an errant pitch in Instructional League hit him in the face and broke some bones. Jagielo is expected to make a full recovery and be ready in plenty of time for Spring Training. When healthy, he showed off his impressive left-handed power, though there are lingering concerns about his defense at the hot corner. It seems like everyone just decided to saw he couldn’t play third all of a sudden. The Yankees will still keep Jagielo at the position for the time being.

The third and final of those three first rounders was LHP Ian Clarkin, who opened the year in Extended Spring Training before joining the Low-A Charleston rotation in early-May. He pitched to a 3.21 ERA (3.74 FIP) in 70 innings for the River Dogs and had very promising strikeout (9.13 K/9 and 25.0 K%) and walk (2.83 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) rates for a 19-year-old in a full season league. Clarkin reported added a cutter — cutters are the new curveballs; the Yankees used to teach all of their prospects curveballs and now they teach everyone cutters — during the summer as well, giving him four distinct pitches before his 20th birthday. He might not have true ace upside, but Clarkin is mighty impressive for a teenager.

Judge, Jagielo, and Clarkin all had strong first full seasons in pro ball — Jagielo was the worst of the bunch and he was one of the five best hitters in the system this summer — and the Yankees desperately needed that kind of talent infusion. Having three first rounders was a very rare opportunity for this club and so far it appears they nailed their selections. It’s early, of course, and not all three of these guys will work out, that’s just how these things go, but one year in and everything is so far, so good. The organization really needed that.

Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)
Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)

Actual Position Player Prospects

In case you haven’t noticed, no one can hit these days. Offense is at a premium throughout baseball. That’s why a) the Yankees’ inability to produce even an average position player the last six years has hurt, and b) Judge and Jagielo are so important. They also have several other position player prospects at Double-A and above, most notably 2B Rob Refsnyder. The 23-year-old hit .318/.387/.497 (~146 wRC+) with 38 doubles and 14 homers in 137 games split between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton.

One level down is 1B Greg Bird, who missed the start of the year with a back issue but returned to hit .271/.376/.472 (~140 wRC+) with 30 doubles and 14 homers in only 102 games, mostly with High-A Tampa. He then won the AzFL MVP earlier this month. Both Refsnyder and Bird carry serious concerns about their defense, but again, offense is at a premium. The bat is the most important thing. At this point I think the expectations for both guys far exceeds the scouting reports and what they’re likely to do in MLB, but that’s inevitable. There’s a clear path for both to get MLB playing time in near future, Refsnyder in 2015 and Bird as soon as 2016.

C Gary Sanchez was New York’s top prospect coming into the year, but, like so many of the team’s other top prospects in recent years, he didn’t take a step forward. He wasn’t bad by any means, hitting .278/.338/.406 (108 wRC+) with 13 homers as a 21-year-old in Double-A while catching 90+ games for the third straight year, though the improvement offensively and defensively wasn’t there. OF Jake Cave had a big year split between Tampa and Trenton: .294/.315/.414 (~118 wRC+) with 28 doubles, nine triples, and seven homers. The hype may be exceeding reality there but he’s performing and that counts for something.

Pitchers, Because Teams Need Them Too

Severino. (Hannah Foslien/Getty)
Severino. (Hannah Foslien/Getty)

The Yankees graduated both Dellin Betances and Shane Greene to the big league staff this summer, continuing the trend of producing relievers and back-end starters but little else. In the minors, RHP Luis Severino emerged as a force, pitching to a 2.46 ERA (~2.41 FIP) with excellent strikeout (10.09 K/9 and 27.8 K%) and walk (2.14 BB and 5.9 BB%) rates in 113.1 innings. The 20-year-old righty made 24 starts and the Yankees promoted him aggressively — Severino made 14 starts with Low-A Charleston, four with High-A Tampa, and six with Double-A Trenton. There’s talk he could open 2015 in Triple-A. No matter where he starts, he is clearly the team’s top pitching prospect and arguably their top prospect overall thanks to his fastball/slider combo.

RHP Bryan Mitchell had a typical Bryan Mitchell year, including flashes of dominance and a bunch of walks (3.93 BB/9 and 10.0 BB%). He did make his MLB debut though, including a spot start in which he held the Orioles to two runs in five innings at Camden Yards. Mitchell will open 2015 back with Triple-A Scranton and is poised to be the next David Phelps/Vidal Nuno/Shane Greene — the guy who comes up from the minors to contribute in a swing man/spot starter role. Relievers RHP Nick Rumbelow, LHP Tyler Webb, RHP Danny Burawa, RHP Branden Pinder, and LHP Jacob Lindgren are in the 2015 bullpen mix as well. Lindgren was the team’s top pick in the 2014 draft.

Healthy Returns

The Yankees had two once top pitching prospects return from injury and actually stay on the field to shake off rust this past season. One was LHP Manny Banuelos, who we discussed earlier today. He missed most of the last two years with elbow problems. The other is RHP Ty Hensley, the team’s first round pick in 2012. The 21-year-old missed all of 2013 with hip and hernia surgery, then returned in 2014 to pitch in Extended Spring Training and briefly for the rookie Gulf Coast League team and Short Season Staten Island. Hensley had a 2.93 ERA and struck out 40 in 30.1 innings. RHP Gabe Encinas returned from Tommy John surgery in the second half of the year as well.

1B/OF Tyler Austin played through a bone bruise in his wrist for much of last season, which hurt his performance, and he again tried to play through it early in 2014. Austin, 23, hit .249/.318/.350 (87 wRC+) with two homers in his first 52 games of the season for Double-A Trenton, then hit .302/.355/.487 (133 wRC+) with seven homers in his final 53 games of the year. He also mashed in the AzFL before suffering a minor knee injury in an outfield collision. It would make for a neat story if Austin simply got over the wrist issue at midseason and that’s why he started to rake, but we don’t really know if that’s what happened. I do think that’s a reasonable assumption though.

Lower Level Risers

A pet peeve of mine is when people tout a club’s farm system because they have a lot of high-upside talent in the lower minors. Every team has high-upside guys in the low minors. Every one of them. It’s not a separator in my opinion so I’m not going to focus too much on it here. C Luis Torrens and 3B Miguel Andujar had nice seasons in 2014 — Andujar had a monster second half and Torrens was especially good after he hurt his shoulder and was moved down from Charleston to Staten Island, a more appropriate level — and everyone is talking about SS Jorge Mateo as the next great Yankees prospect after his 15-game cameo in the Gulf Coast League. Others like SS Tyler Wade and OF Dustin Fowler had promising summers with the River Dogs. The Yankees have some really interesting talent in the lower minors. So do the other 29 teams. Let’s move on.

Williams. (Scott Iskowitz/Getty)
Williams. (Scott Iskowitz/Getty)

The Duds

It wasn’t all good in 2014, you know. This is baseball — minor league baseball at that — and things are going to go wrong. Guys are going to get hurt, like OF Slade Heathcott and RHP Jose Campos. Heathcott played in only nine games with Double-A Trenton before needing yet another knee surgery. Campos blew out his elbow in the spring and underwent Tommy John surgery. It’s his second major elbow injury in the last three years. Heathcott and Campos are two former top prospects who haven’t been able to stay on the field. This past season was no different.

OF Mason Williams was arguably the best prospect in the system two years ago, but he struggled in 2013 and hit a woeful .223/.290/.304 (66 wRC+) in 128 games with Double-A Trenton in 2014. He was also benched on a few occasions for insubordination and for playing with a lack of energy, a concern that has followed him since his days in high school. Just a brutal year for Williams. And yet, the Yankees put him on the 40-man roster last week to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft anyway. Not sure I get that but whatever.

And then there’s 2B Gosuke Katoh, who had a dynamite pro debut after being the team’s second round pick in the 2013. He hit .222/.345/.326 (96 wRC+) with a sky high 30.5% strikeout rate in 121 games with Low-A Charleston this year. I guess a 96 wRC+ isn’t terrible for a 20-year-old in Low-A, but the scouting reports were not exactly glowing either. From Baseball America (subs. req’d):

Frank (Chicago, IL): What went wrong with Gosuke Katoh this year, if you could summarize for us?
Josh Norris: Hooooo boy. It was hard to find a scout with anything positive to say about him at all. Here’s what went right. He took a ton of walks. Scouts knocked his defense, his body, his projection, his hitting ability. A few I spoke to didn’t turn him it all. It was a bad, bad year.

That doesn’t sound very promising. Katoh wasn’t exactly a top top prospect coming into the year, but his strong debut in rookie ball last summer made it appear he could be better than expected. We kinda fell for the same thing with 3B Dante Bichette Jr. a few years ago. Not a good year for Katoh at all.

Elsewhere in the system, many others either got hurt (OF Ramon Flores, RHP Jose Ramirez) or simply disappointed (LHP Nik Turley, SS Abi Avelino). That’s baseball. Not everyone is going to work out. Turley has since been released, but the other three are still so young that bouncing back next season wouldn’t be a surprise at all. If they don’t, then so be it. Win some, lose a lot. That’s the nature of player development.

Wrapping Up

Overall, I think this was a positive year for the Yankees’ farm system but not overwhelmingly so. Judge and Severino are clearly the headliners right now, and others like Jagielo, Clarkin, Refsnyder, and Bird are more than interesting. It would have been nice if just one of Heathcott or Williams started to approach their potential, but it doesn’t appear that will happen anytime soon (if ever). The system is tilted heavily towards position players at the moment and that’s totally cool with me given the offense-less nature of baseball these days.

The on-field developments were nice, but the most important stuff to happen in the organization this year were the changes made at the top of the player development system. Newman, Hart, and Roessler are out with Denbo and some other unannounced folks taking over. The Yankees just spent over $28M (and counting) on international players this summer and that has the potential to be a franchise-altering investment. The player development needs to be better though. The Yankees took steps these last few weeks to make that happen and, if things go well, those changes will help the system going forward more than any single prospect.

Manny Banuelos’ arrival on tap for 2015, finally

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

We’ve been talking about left-hander Manny Banuelos here at RAB so long that it’s easy to forget he’s still only 23 years old. He’s younger than both 2014 Rookies of the Year and everyone who finished in the top five of the voting in each league as well. Yet because we’ve been talking about him since he was an 18-year-old pitching in High Class-A, it feels like Banuelos is much older than he really is.

These last few years have obviously been tough for Banuelos, who’s battled injury and ineffectiveness, occasionally at the same time. He had a 4.50 ERA (3.79 FIP) in six starts with Triple-A Scranton in 2012 before suffering a bone bruise in his elbow, then he torn his UCL during the rehab and needed Tommy John surgery. Banuelos did not pitch in an official minor league game from May 18th, 2012 until April 3rd, 2014 because of the elbow issues.

In his return from close to two lost seasons this year, Banuelos pitched to a 4.11 ERA (4.66 FIP) in 76.2 innings while climbing from High-A to Double-A and finally back to Triple-A. His workload was very closely monitored — he didn’t complete five full innings until late-July, in his 19th outing of the season — and a well-timed blister gave him a nice little two-week breather in late-June. Banuelos stayed healthy all summer and that was the big goal in 2014.

“He was able to achieve the objective to build innings and increase the workload. He was on a plan designed by (pitching coordinator) Gil Patterson and monitored by our medical people. He then made four more starts in the Instructional League to go a little longer,” said assistant GM Billy Eppler to George King (subs. req’d). “Everybody walked away feeling good. He is still in the stage of where you have to watch him but he will be ready to roll in Spring Training. He will come in and compete for a job. The velocity was there and he developed a cutter as well.”

Now that he’s shaken off the rust after missing close to two full seasons, the objective for Banuelos goes from staying healthy all year to contributing at the MLB level. Finally. We all thought he would come up in 2012 and help out in some capacity, but the injuries threw a big wrench into that. Rotation, bullpen, whatever. Banuelos’ exact role will be determined by the team’s need at that time. The Yankees at least kicked around the idea of bringing him up relief this season, so we know they’re willing to do that.

In Justin Wilson and Jose DePaula, the Yankees added two left-handers a week or two ago who figure to be ahead of Banuelos on the depth chart. At least Wilson will be. I’m not sure about DePaula yet. Those two give the team the ability to be patient with Banuelos if they don’t think he’s ready. That said, everything is lined up for 2015 to be the year Banuelos finally breaks through and arrives in the big leagues. Will he be an impact pitcher right away? Maybe! But even if he isn’t, just reaching the show is the next step in his development. Banuelos has dealt with injury and rehab for the better part of three years now. Next year will be his chance to reclaim his top prospect glory and help the Yankees.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 24th, 2014

2014 Record: 84-78 (633 RS, 664 RA, 77-85 pythag. record), did not qualify for postseason

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?

Weekend Open Thread

Happy Friday everyone. Buster Olney (subs. req’d) continued looking at the top ten players at each position today with shortstop. Andrelton Simmons, not Troy Tulowitzki, claimed the top spot. That’s weird. A hundred games of Tulo is still more valuable than 162 games of any other shortstop these days. Current Yankees starting shortstop Brendan Ryan did not make the list. Here are some other links for the weekend:

  • If you’re only going to click only one link this week, make it this one: Ben Lindbergh researched the transaction tree for every 40-man roster player in baseball and figured out which one dates back the longest for each team. So, as an example, the Yankees got Nick Swisher for Wilson Betemit, got Betemit for Scott Proctor, got Proctor for Robin Ventura, got Ventura for David Justice, got Justice for Jake Westbrook, got Westbrook for Hideki Irabu, and got Irabu for Ruben Rivera. Make sure you check it out.
  • Brian MacPherson spoke to several executives about the importance of makeup, particularly for young players who may initially struggle in MLB. “How they handle it, truly, is how they handle adversity. If you’re good, it’s hard. If, mentally, you can’t handle the failure, that speaks volumes about you needing more time. If you struggle mentally, it’s going to carry over to some part of your game and you’re not going to produce,” said Marlins GM Dan Jennings. “You hope you can see that failure down below, and see how they handle it at Double-A or Triple-A. But at the big-league level, it’s a production league, and you’re always gauging and trying to read that, your time to allow that to allow that to go is really predicated on, No. 1, are you willing to commit for ‘X’ number of at-bats or ‘X’ number of games, and No. 2, is it affecting you in the standings?”
  • In a related piece, Kiley McDaniel mused about the importance of failure in the minor leagues for top prospects. Learning how to cope with failure for the first time at the MLB level ain’t easy. It’s a positive thing in a player’s development for them to hit the skids at some point in the minors so they can learn how to adjust — physically and mentally — and get back on track.
  • Russell Carlton wrote about three people who explain where baseball is right now. One is Hank Conger, who represents the emphasis teams are placing on pitch-framing. Another is Michael Cuddyer, who represents the wonkiness of the qualifying offer system. And the last is Gabe Kapler, who represents what may be market inefficiencies in the front office.
  • And finally, Kevin Ruprecht attempted to use PitchFX data to measure the quality of a hitter’s contact. There’s some scary math in there, but it’s interesting stuff. There’s a significant increase in production when a fly ball is hit more than 310 feet — balls hit 310 feet went for a .151 AVG and a .398 SLG from 2012-14 while balls hit 311 feet went for a .197 AVG and a .505 SLG.

Friday: Here is your open thread for the night. The Islanders, Nets, and Devils are all playing — the Rangers were postponed because of the snow in Buffalo — plus there’s college basketball happening somewhere. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Saturday: This is your open thread once again. All of the local hockey and basketball teams are playing except the Rangers, and there’s college basketball and football on as well. Anything goes here. Talk about whatever.

Sunday: Here’s your open thread one final time. The (hockey) Rangers are playing and the late NFL game is the Cowboys and Giants. You know what to do by now, so keep doing it here.

DotF: Flores & Pirela continue strong winter ball seasons

Before we get into this week’s winter ball recap, here are some mostly Arizona Fall League related links:

  • Baseball America published their list of the top ten prospects in the AzFL. Twins OF Buxton claimed the top spot with Dodgers SS Corey Seager, Indians SS Francisco Lindor, and Cubs SS Addison Russell behind him, in that order. No Yankees farmhands made the list, but, in a separate piece (subs. req’d), Baseball America said OF Aaron Judge and 1B Greg Bird “both impressed with the bat.” “Scouts question whether (Bird will) be an adequate defender at first base due to below-average athleticism, but the former high school catcher is relatively new to the position,” added the write-up. “Judge showed off his raw power and a plus arm from right field, but scouts were mixed on his ability to hit at higher levels.”
  • Jim Callis ranked the top 25 prospects in the AzFL. Buxton claimed the top spot and was followed by three shortstops: Lindor, Russell, and Seager. Judge ranked 12th and Bird ranked 19th. Sounds about right. The AzFL is loaded with the best prospects in the game and you’ve got to be a top of line guy to crack a top ten list.
  • Assistant GM Billy Eppler spoke to George King (subs. req’d) about OF Tyler Austin‘s return from last year’s wrist injury, which lingering into 2014. “It wasn’t just the numbers, it was the quality and the impact of his swing that we were getting (better) day in and day out,” said Eppler. “Our hitting coaches monitor all hit balls, and according to our guys the sound off the bat is good.”
  • One more note from King: the Yankees fired Billy Hart, who was the team’s assistant director of baseball operations. He spent the last three years working under retired VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman. The player development system overhaul continues. Also, former director of player development Pat Roessler was hired by the Mets to be their assistant hitting coach, according to Mike Puma. The Yankees fired him a few weeks ago.
  • Carson Cistulli at FanGraphs put together a statistical breakdown of the top AzFL hitters and pitchers using homer rates, walk rates, and strikeout rates. Bird ranked as the fourth best hitter — the difference between the top five guys is tiny — right behind old pal C/1B Peter O’Brien.

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