You can be forgiven for not watching the middle innings of Rays-White Sox on Tuesday afternoon.
I mean, it’s a Tuesday afternoon. Even if you’re an obsessed scoreboard watcher of AL East contenders such as myself, you’re more likely to focus on the Red Sox’s opener with Chris Sale on the hill. The Rays have been better, but it’s early April … and they’re playing the White Sox.
Furthermore, the game was already a blowout with Tampa Bay hitting three homers in the first three innings and knocking out Ervin Santana with seven runs in the first four frames. This, however, is all about what came next, the pitcher who came in after Santana: Manny Banuelos.
For 3 1/3 innings, Banuelos was everything we dreamed he would be. He struck out four, allowed three baserunners and held the Rays off the board, keeping the Sox in the game. Tampa couldn’t get the ball in the air outside of one pop out and Banuelos had them swinging and missing at his offspeed stuff. The southpaw was the only pitcher to retire Austin Meadows on the outfielder’s career day.
Despite yesterday’s outing, Banuelos represents a story of promise and failure around these parts. In the next wave of prospects after the Big Three, Banuelos topped Yankees’ prospect lists at the same time as Jesus Montero, Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman. With Betances ticketed for relief and Brackman flaming out, Banuelos was the best hope for a homegrown ace.
Banuelos was poised to fulfill that potential despite a 5-foot-11 frame. He reached Triple-A at 20 years old in 2011. He was the No. 13 prospect before the 2012 season according to MLB.com and Baseball America ranked him No. 29, his second straight year in the top 50. Mariano Rivera called him the best pitching prospect he’d ever seen, forebodingly in the same article that he discussed Brien Taylor.
As with nearly every pitcher with a mid-90s fastball, Banuelos succumbed to injuries, though they came at the worst time for the lefty. He struggled with injuries in 2012 and eventually had to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery. The left-hander was never the same in the Yankees’ system and was traded to Atlanta for relievers before the 2015 season.
He had success in Atlanta, although briefly. His best career outing was his debut in 2015, where he threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings and struck out the NL MVP, Bryce Harper, all three times he faced him.
But then bone spurs came for Banuelos and he’s bounced between both Los Angeles teams and now to Chicago, still searching for his breakthrough at age 28.
And that brings up back to Tuesday. Banuelos looked like a version of his old self, the one we all heard about but never saw in pinstripes. The mid-90s heat is gone, but he’s making do with a low-90s sinker and still has the curve, slider and changeup. Look at this slider!
To end his outing, he gave up his only hit, a seeing-eye single to Tommy Pham, but the southpaw picked off Pham a pitch later. After getting confirmation that the Rays wouldn’t challenge, Banuelos walked off the field, stretched his glove into the air and put it down to his lips while looking skyward, seemingly thanking the heavens as his day was done and perhaps with the relief of having a clean performance.
Already on the wrong side of 25, Banuelos’ prospect shine is long gone. The idea of him headlining a rotation just isn’t in the cards. But that’s OK. Even if Banuelos hadn’t cracked the rebuilding Chicago roster this year, he’d have ended his career a Major Leaguer. There could be even brighter days ahead, and he even gets to finally pitch at Yankee Stadium this weekend, nearly a half-decade after he was unceremoniously traded.
As for us, the Yankee faithful, Banuelos is a permanent lesson of the tantalizing pitching prospect. He wasn’t flawless, particularly his height, but he was the no-doubt pitcher of the time. We’ve had to adjust our concept of pitching prospects and you’ll see that reflected on Baseball America and the like; Most evaluators have begun shying away from populating tops of lists with pitchers. No matter how good a 20-year-old pitcher looks, they’re one injury away from missing out or plateauing.
For one day though, in front of a sparse crowd of 10,799 fans, the promise of Manny Banuelos came through again . Too late for the Yankees? Surely. But it’s fulfilling nonetheless to see the prospect dreams of the last decade live, even if it’s just a random Tuesday in April.