Prospect Profile: Albert Abreu

(@MLBpipeline)
(@MLBpipeline)

Albert Abreu | RHP

Background
Back in 2013, the Astros signed the now 21-year-old Abreu out of the relatively small town of Guayubin, in the Dominican Republic. He received a $185,000 bonus. Baseball America did not rank Abreu among the top 30 international prospects available during the 2013-14 international signing period.

The Yankees acquired Abreu from Houston in the Brian McCann trade earlier this offseason. Abreu and fellow right-hander Jorge Guzman went to New York in the two-for-one swap.

Pro Career
Because he wasn’t a high-profile signing, the Astros assigned Abreu to one of their rookie Dominican Summer League affiliates for his pro debut in 2014. He had a 2.78 ERA (3.41 FIP) with 19.4% strikeouts and 10.4% walks in 14 starts and 68 innings that year.

The ‘Stros brought Abreu to the U.S. in 2015 and sent him to their rookie Appalachian League affiliate. That summer he made seven starts and six relief appearances, and threw 46.2 innings with a 2.51 ERA (3.56 FIP) with 26.0% strikeouts and 10.7% walks. Baseball America ranked Abreu as the sixth best prospect in the league after the season.

Abreu opened the 2016 season in the Low-A Midwest League. He managed a 3.50 ERA (3.85 FIP) with 27.1% strikeouts and 12.8% walks in 90 innings spread across 14 starts and seven relief appearances at that level. Houston bumped Abreu up to the High-A California League at the end of the season, where he allowed eight runs in 14.1 innings.

All told, Abreu had a 3.71 ERA (4.07 FIP) with 26.3% strikeouts and 12.9% walks in 104.1 innings in 2016. Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked him as the 14th best prospect in the league, one spot ahead of Angels catcher Matt Thaiss, the 16th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Abreu was ranked the Astros’ tenth best prospect prior to the trade by Baseball America.

Scouting Report
When the Astros signed Abreu, he was 6-foot-2 and rail thin with an 87-91 mph fastball. He still stands 6-foot-2, but he’s filled out a bit and now checks in at 175 pounds. His fastball has climbed into the 93-96 mph range and will top out at 99 mph. Abreu’s arm is really loose and the ball jumps out of his hand.

Depending on the day, either the slider or the changeup will look like Abreu’s second best pitch. The slider has hard break in the mid-to-upper-80s while the changeup fades down and away to lefties when thrown properly. Abreu also has a big breaking power curveball. He’s still working to gain consistency with all three non-fastballs. Here’s some video:

Abreu is a good athlete with a really quick arm, though his control suffers because he tends to rush through his delivery. He’s still learning to repeat his mechanics, especially from the stretch, and once he does that, it should improve his presently below-average control. Abreu is very much a young pitcher with tantalizing stuff who is still learning how to pitch.

2017 Outlook
Given his success at Low-A last season, the Yankees figure to assign Abreu to High-A Tampa to begin the 2017 season, his first in the organization. I wouldn’t count on a midseason promotion. Abreu just turned 21 in September and he’s not very experienced. A full season at High-A is in the cards, even if he dominates.

My Take
I’m not gonna lie, I’m not much of an Abreu fan. The kid has a great arm, no doubt about that. Four pitches and a good delivery is a nice starting point. I just see too many obstacles to overcome. Abreu needs to refine multiple secondary pitches, hone his mechanics, and learn to throw strikes. His upside is enormous, possibly the highest of any pitcher in the system, but there’s a very long way to go before Abreu approaches that ceiling. And, frankly, the Yankees haven’t much success developing these high-risk/high-reward kids. Abreu is a quality prospect. I’m just not his biggest fan. That’s all.

Prospect Profile: Justus Sheffield

(@MiLB)
(@MiLB)

Justus Sheffield | LHP

Background
Sheffield, 20, grew up in Tullahoma, Tennessee, which is about halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga. As a senior at Tullahoma High School, Sheffield struck out 131 batters in 61.2 innings while allowing only three earned runs. That’s a 0.34 ERA with seven-inning games. He had a 17-strikeout game and also hit .405 with three home runs, which earned him Gatorade National Player of the Year honors. No, he is not related to Gary Sheffield.

Like his older brother Jordan, Justus committed to Vanderbilt, which meant he figured to be a tough sign. Vandy is typically a tough commitment to break. Baseball America ranked Sheffield as the 49th best prospect in the 2014 draft class and the second best prospect in Tennessee, behind Vanderbilt righty Tyler Beede. Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked Justus as the 21st best prospect in the draft class while MLB.com had him 39th.

The Indians selected Sheffield with the 31st overall pick in the 2014 draft, the supplemental first round pick they received as compensation for losing Ubaldo Jimenez to free agency. Rather than be a tough sign, Sheffield was literally the first 2014 draftee to agree to terms. (That we know of, anyway.) The two sides agreed to a below-slot $1.6M bonus only hours after the MLB Network broadcast of Day One of the draft. Slot money for the 31st pick was $1.733M.

The Yankees acquired Sheffield from Cleveland in the five-player Andrew Miller trade at the 2016 deadline. Miller went to the Indians for Sheffield, outfielder Clint Frazier, and righties Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. It was a four-for-one swap.

Pro Career
Because he signed quickly, the Indians sent Sheffield to their rookie level Arizona League affiliate for his pro debut. Sheffield had a 4.79 ERA (2.67 FIP) with 29 strikeouts and nine walks in 20.2 innings after signing. That’s a 30.9% strikeout rate and a 9.6% walk rate. After the season, Baseball America ranked him Cleveland’s fourth best prospect.

During the 2014-15 offseason, Sheffield was arrested back home in Tullahoma for underage drinking and aggravated burglary after breaking into a home in the early morning hours to confront one of the residents about a personal matter. Sheffield pled guilty to underage drinking and a reduced charge of aggravated criminal trespassing, and was sentenced to probation. He also had to donate $500 to a local charity and was allowed to have the charges expunged from his record one year later.

Once the 2015 season began, the Indians assigned Sheffield to their Low-A affiliate in the Midwest League, where he was the sixth youngest player and second youngest pitcher in the league on Opening Day. He spent the entire season at the level and posted a 3.31 ERA (2.99 FIP) with 24.9% strikeouts and 6.9% walks in 26 starts and 127.2 innings while being nearly three years younger than the average Midwest League player. Baseball America ranked Sheffield as the club’s fourth best prospect and 81st best prospect in baseball after the season.

The Indians moved Sheffield up to the High-A Carolina League to begin 2016 — he was the sixth youngest player and youngest pitcher in the league on Opening Day — and he had a 3.59 ERA (3.80 FIP) with 22.8% strikeouts and 9.8% walks in 19 starts and 95.1 innings there before the trade. Baseball America ranked Sheffield as the 69th best prospect in the game in early-July, in their midseason top 100 update.

After the trade the Yankees initially assigned Sheffield to High-A Tampa, where he made five starts and had a 1.73 ERA (2.33 FIP) with 27.3% strikeouts and 10.1% walks in 26 innings. A late season bump to Double-A Trenton saw Sheffield make three more starts, postseason included, during which he managed a 4.97 ERA (4.86 FIP) with 17 strikeouts and nine walks in 12.2 innings.

All told, Sheffield pitched to a 3.36 ERA (3.61 FIP) with 24.2% strikeouts and 10.4% walks in 27 starts and 134 innings in 2016. He was three years younger than the competition in both High-A leagues. After the season, Baseball America ranked Sheffield as the seventh best prospect in New York’s stacked farm system. He should be in the middle of all the top 100 prospect lists that come out this spring.

Scouting Report
Sheffield is a short little southpaw — he’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 lbs. — with big stuff. His fastball is more of a two-seamer than a four-seamer, with run down and back in on left-handed batters. It sits mostly in the low-90s and has topped out at 96 mph. That’s pretty good velocity given his age (he doesn’t turn 21 until May) and size.

A low-to-mid-80s slider is Sheffield’s primary secondary pitch. He used to throw a curveball back in the day, but it’s morphed into a slider since signing and become a more reliable offering. Sheffield also throws a mid-80s changeup that has made a lot of progress since high school and is now an average-ish offering. On his best days, he’ll take two swing-and-miss secondary pitches out to the mound. Here’s some video from September.

Throwing strikes has been an issue for Sheffield at times, which is surprising because he’s a great athlete and repeats his delivery well. The hope is he’ll iron out his location with more experience. Sheffield has mid-rotation upside, but as a lefty with three quality pitches, he could exceed that ceiling with much improved command. Keep in mind it’s not unusual for a 20-year-old kid to lack pristine location.

The arrest a few years ago was a surprise because Sheffield was praised for his makeup prior to the 2014 draft. He completed his probation and hasn’t had any other legal problems, either before or since the arrest.

2017 Outlook
Sheffield will open the 2017 season as a 20-year-old in Double-A, where he figures to be one of the youngest players and pitchers in the Eastern League on Opening Day. You can never rule out a player starting extremely well and forcing a promotion, but I think Sheffield will remain with Double-A Trenton almost all season. He could make a handful of Triple-A starts at the end of the regular season and in the postseason or something like that, I suppose. The Yankees like to do that stuff. A midseason promotion seems unlikely though given his age and developmental needs.

My Take
It’s easy to overlook Sheffield in the system, isn’t it? He wasn’t even the headliner in his own trade (that was Frazier), and the Yankees landed other bigger name prospects like Gleyber Torres and Dillon Tate at the deadline. And they drafted Blake Rutherford. And guys like Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo, and James Kaprielian are prospect list holdovers from last year. It’s really easy to forget about Sheffield.

That said, I think Justus is the Yankees’ best pitching prospect at the moment. His medical history is cleaner than Kaprielian’s — Sheffield has never had an injury, arm or otherwise — and his arsenal is more advanced than Albert Abreu’s. Fastball plane and homeritis is always a concern with sub-6-foot pitchers because they tend to lack downhill plane on their fastballs, but Sheffield has some natural sink on his heater and has kept the ball in the park as a pro (career 0.46 HR/9), which is encouraging.

There is no such thing as a low-risk pitching prospect — Sheffield has been healthy to date, but that doesn’t mean he can’t blow out his arm on the first day of Spring Training — but I feel like Sheffield carries less risk than the typical 20-year-old hurler. He has three pitches already, and he’s athletic and he repeats his delivery well. I’m optimistic his control will improve in time. Sheffield has less to figure out than most kids this age.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how Sheffield handles his assignment to Double-A this season. A good season at that level would put him in the game’s top tier of pitching prospects and make him a potential big league option for the Yankees as soon as 2018. It’s not often a high school pitcher reaches the big leagues within four calendar years of being drafted, but Sheffield has a chance to do it. That’s pretty awesome.

2017 Rule 5 Draft status suggests the Yankees will have to trade some prospects this year

Gleyber will be protected, because duh. (Presswire)
Gleyber will be protected, because duh. (Presswire)

The busiest day for the Yankees this offseason — and most teams, for that matter — was November 18th, the day clubs had to finalize their 40-man roster for the Rule 5 Draft. The Yankees made 12 transactions involving 13 players that day. The team’s deep farm system meant six players were added to the 40-man roster. Even then, the Yankees still lost four players in the MLB phase of the Rule 5 Draft.

The Rule 5 Draft and 40-man roster crunch was pretty significant this offseason. The Yankees lost several potentially useful players, most notably Jacob Lindgren and Nick Goody, simply because there was no room for them. Having a great farm system comes with a cost. The Rule 5 Draft crunch is poised to be even more severe next offseason too. Check out the (partial) list of prospects who will have to be added to the 40-man after the 2017 season:

Catchers: None
Infielders: Abi Avelino, Thairo Estrada, Gleyber Torres, Tyler Wade
Outfielders: Rashad Crawford, Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Billy McKinney, Leonardo Molina, Tito Polo
Pitchers: Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Ian Clarkin, Nestor Cortes, J.P. Feyereisen, Zack Littell, Jordan Montgomery, Eric Swanson, Stephen Tarpley

That list doesn’t include outfielder Jake Cave, righty Nick Rumbelow, and lefties Daniel Camarena and Chaz Hebert, all of whom will become minor league free agents after the 2017 season. I know those guys are easy to overlook, but who knows what’ll happen this summer. Who would have guessed Kyle Higashioka would play his way on to the 40-man last year?

Also, that “none” under catchers may only be temporary. If Luis Torrens doesn’t stick with the Padres as a Rule 5 Draft pick, he’ll come back to the Yankees and have to be added to the 40-man roster after the season. That’s a must. If Torrens is picked in the Rule 5 Draft again in December, he’ll be able to elect free agency rather than come back to New York. Can’t let that happen. If Torrens does come back, he’ll land on the 40-man in November.

Okay, so anyway, that’s an awful lot of quality prospects, huh? Torres and Frazier are in a league of their own as top 100 prospects, but many of the other guys figure to be worth protecting too. Wade and Fowler are slated to spend 2017 with Triple-A Scranton. A successful season there means they’re a lock to be picked in the Rule 5 Draft. Others like Abreu and Acevedo have considerable upside, and those guys are always worth protecting.

The Yankees had to make compromises in November because 40-man roster spots are a finite resource. Would they have liked to protect, say, Torrens and Tyler Webb, and keep Lindgren? Yeah, probably, but there’s only so much space to go around. The Yankees will run into a similar problem next offseason, only to a much greater degree. They not only have more prospects eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, they have more high-end prospects eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The solution is simple though, isn’t it? Just trade some of them. It’s basically impossible to protect them all, so rather than lose them for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft, just trade them. Package three or four together for one player, preferably a young starting pitcher with several years of control. Boom, problem solved. Two problems solved, really. The Yankees clear up the Rule 5 Draft logjam and add the young pitcher they’ve seemingly been craving for months. It’s perfect!

Except it’s not that easy. It never is. For starters, you have to find another team with the available 40-man roster space to make such a trade. No team is going to trade for these prospects only to expose them to the Rule 5 Draft. The other team’s 40-man situation is an obstacle. Prospects are like kids, teams always love their own more than they love everyone else’s. Not many clubs may be willing to cut one or two of their own players to make room for your players in a hypothetical four-for-one trade. There’s a reason trades like this are rare.

More realistically, we may see the Yankees make a series of smaller moves. One-for-one, two-for-one trades. Trades that swap a Rule 5 Draft eligible prospect for a non-Rule 5 Draft eligible prospect. That’s similar to the James Pazos-for-Zack Littell trade. The Yankees needed the 40-man space, so they sent Pazos to the Mariners for Littell, who is a year away from Rule 5 Draft eligibility. It bought them some time, basically. Not the sexiest move, but necessary.

There’s eleven months between now and the deadline to set the 40-man roster for the 2017 Rule 5 Draft, so this is hardly a pressing issue. It is something the Yankees have to plan for, obviously, and you can be sure it’ll affect their decision-making over the summer. In fact, Brian Cashman even admitted Rule 5 Draft status was a consideration when making trades last summer. How could it not be?

The Yankees did some great work rebuilding their farm system over the last few months and it’s set them up for sustainable success in the near future. Baseball doesn’t allow teams to keep prospects forever though, and rightfully so. There comes a time when you have to ether commit to the player (add him to the 40-man) or give him a chance to reach MLB with another organization (Rule 5 Draft). The Yankees will reach that point with several of their best prospects next winter, and since they can’t protect everyone, they figure to move a few in trades to clear the logjam.

DotF: Winter ball season comes to an end

Last month, OF Clint Frazier called in to MLB Network to talk about 2016 and some things he’s been working on this winter. The video is above. “As far as physicality goes, I think my power’s still the best thing, but as we get further I think I’ve done a lot of work on my mental game right now and I think I’m in a good spot right now,” said Frazier when asked about his best attribute. Here are some other links and notes to check out:

  • The Staten Island Yankees are still the Staten Island Yankees. The name change as been put on hold, the team announced. Womp womp. “Over time it became clear that the approval and acceptance of the new name and artwork would take longer than initially anticipated,” said the release. The potential names (Bridge Trolls, Heroes, Killer Bees, Pizza Rats, Rock Pigeons) reportedly didn’t sit well with city officials.
  • In a mailbag column, Jim Callis teased his personal top 50 prospects list. He said SS Gleyber Torres is second, sandwiched between White Sox IF Yoan Moncada and Red Sox OF Andrew Benintendi. Hot damn. On Twitter, Callis added Frazier is 26th and OF Blake Rutherford is 37th. They’re his top three Yankees prospects.
  • Jonathan Mayo surveyed 20 executives about the best prospect in baseball. Benintendi received ten first place votes, most among any player, while Torres received two first place votes of his own. Moncada and Braves SS Dansby Swanson split the other first place votes.
  • In a separate piece, Mayo listed ten players who didn’t make MLB.com’s upcoming top 100 list, but could in the future. RHP James Kaprielian was one of the ten. “The good news is that he looked very good in the Arizona Fall League, and if he stays healthy in ’17, there should be more of that to come,” said the write-up.
  • Not surprisingly, Callis said the Yankees improved their farm system more than any other team in 2016. “The Yanks haven’t had this much talent in the Minors since Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams were developing in the early 1990s,” he wrote.
  • Mike Rosenbaum ranked the ten best prospects traded this offseason. Moncada tops the list, because duh. RHP Albert Abreu is eighth. “Abreu has the chance to pitch in the front half of a big league rotation based solely on stuff, and his control and command should improve as he learns to better repeat his delivery,” said the write-up.
  • And finally, sad news to pass along: LHP Alexander Figueredo was shot and killed in his native Venezuela back in November. He was only 20. Figueredo signed with the Yankees in 2013 and had a 1.89 ERA in 57 career innings, all in the Dominican Summer League. He didn’t pitch at all in 2016 due to a suspension. Our condolences go out to Figueredo’s family.

It’s been a few weeks since the last winter ball update because of the holidays, so we have some catching up to do. The regular season for the various winter leagues in the Caribbean are over, so these stats are final. That means this is the final winter ball update of the offseason. I’ll still post links and whatnot as they come along, but the next stats update won’t come until the minor league regular season begins in April. See you then.

The Arizona Fall League season ended in November. Torres became the young batting champion and MVP in league history. Here are the final stats.

Australian Baseball League

  • RHP Brandon Stenhouse: 6 G, 5.2 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 7 K, 1 WP (7.94 ERA and 2.12 FIP)

Dominican Winter League

  • IF Abi Avelino: 27 G, 12-53, 4 R, 1 2B, 5 RBI, 3 BB, 8 K, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.226/.281/.245)
  • SS Jorge Mateo: 20 G, 7-42, 8 R, 1 2B, 1 3B, 2 RBI, 3 BB, 10 K, 5 SB, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.167/.239/.238) — played his final game on November 26th … a three-game stint might have been the plan all along … either way, not the best finish to a tough 2016 for Mateo
  • RHP Anyelo Gomez: 3 G, 2.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K (6.75 ERA and 1.50 WHIP)

Mexican Pacific League

  • OF Tito Polo: 18 G, 15-66, 13 R, 4 2B, 1 RBI, 5 BB, 19 K, 8 SB, 1 CS, 4 HBP (.227/.320/.288) — he got hurt, came back, then got hurt again … so it goes

No Yankees played in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League (Puerto Rico) this year.

Venezuelan Winter League

  • IF Angel Aguilar: 19 G, 4-26, 7 R, 12 K, 1 SB (.154/.154/.154) — not the best winter ball showing after a tough regular season
  • C Francisco Diaz: 44 G, 25-126, 11 R, 5 2B, 2 3B, 5 RBI, 10 BB, 22 K, 1 SB, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.198/.263/.270)
  • RHP Luis Cedeno: 4 G, 2 GS, 11.1 IP, 13 H, 9 R, 7 ER, 6 BB, 7 K, 2 HR, 2 HB, 2 WP (5.56 ERA and 1.68 WHIP)
  • RHP David Kubiak: 9 G, 3 GS, 22 IP, 21 H, 15 R, 13 ER, 10 BB, 16 K, 1 HR, 3 HB, 3 WP (5.32 ERA and 1.91 WHIP)
  • RHP Mark Montgomery: 5 G, 3.2 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 3 K (7.36 ERA and 1.91 WHIP) — went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft for the second straight year

Prospect Profile: Gleyber Torres

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Gleyber Torres | SS

Background
Torres, who turned 20 last month, grew up in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela. Baseball America ranked him as the second best prospect in the 2013-14 international class, and the Cubs landed him with a $1.7M signing bonus. Chicago exceeded their bonus pool to sign Torres and outfielder Eloy Jimenez, Baseball America’s best available prospect that signing period.

The Yankees acquired Torres from the Cubs as the headliner in the Aroldis Chapman trade at the 2016 trade deadline. Torres, outfielders Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford, and righty Adam Warren went to New York for Chapman, an impending free agent. It was a four-for-one swap.

Pro Career
Torres signed at age 16 and the Cubs moved him up the ladder pretty aggressively. He split the 2014 season, his pro debut, between the rookie level Arizona League and short season Northwest League, where he hit .291/.381/.429 (132 wRC+) with two homers, ten steals, 18.4% strikeouts, and 13.5% walks in 52 games and 223 total plate appearances. Torres was nearly three years younger than the competition overall.

In 2015, the Cubs sent Torres to their Low-A affiliate in the Midwest League, where he was the youngest player in the league on Opening Day by five months. Gleyber was excellent, hitting .293/.353/.386 (116 wRC+) with three homers, 22 steals, 21.0% strikeouts, and 8.4% walks in 119 games and 514 plate appearances. The Cubs had him finish the season with seven-game cameo at Low-A. After the season, Torres was ranked the team’s top prospect and the 41st best prospect in baseball by Baseball America.

Chicago moved Torres up to their High-A affiliate in the Carolina League to start last season, where he was the circuit’s second youngest player on Opening Day. Gleyber hit .275/.359/.433 (121 wRC+) with nine homers, 19 steals, 21.3% strikeouts, and 10.3% walks in 94 games and 409 plate appearances before the trade, prompting Baseball America to rank him the 27th best prospect in the game at midseason. MLB.com ranked him 17th.

After the trade, Torres hit .254/.341/.385 (115 wRC+) with two homers, two steals, 16.7% strikeouts, and 11.6% walks in 31 games and 138 plate appearances with High-A Tampa. He played the entire season at age 19 and was nearly four years younger than the competition. The Yankees sent Torres to the Arizona Fall League after the season, where he hit .403/.513/.645 (218 wRC+) with three homers and four steals in 18 games. He became the youngest MVP and batting champion in league history.

“I heard everything he did, and we’ve been very excited about this young kid ever since we’ve had him,” said Joe Girardi to Mike Mazzeo last month. “He went out and played at a very, very high level, with kids that are older than him, with kids that played at a higher level than him. He was one of the kids that really shined. I think that really bodes well for us, and I look forward to seeing him (in the spring).”

Scouting Report
Torres, who’s grown three inches since signing and now stands 6-foot-1 and 175 lbs., stands out most for his ultra-advanced offensive approach. He knows the strike zone, recognizes spin, and has a plan at the plate. His right-handed swing is controlled but aggressive; Gleyber doesn’t get cheated when he swings, though he’s not a wild hacker either. Torres has good bat-to-ball skills and uses the entire field, though most of his over-the-fence power is to the pull side at the moment.

In the field, Torres combines great instincts with good defensive tools. He has soft hands, good range, and a strong arm. There’s very little doubt he can remain at shortstop long-term, though the Yankees are loaded at the position, so they’ve had Gleyber work out at second base. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees some time at third base going forward as well. Torres is a good runner who can steal bags and push the envelope on the bases.

The total package points to a future star. Torres projects to be a complete hitter who hits for average and power, and draws enough walks to post high on-base percentages as well. He’ll also swipe some bags and save runs in the field, regardless of whether he remains at short or slides over to second or third. Torres is a very hard worker — he spent a lot of time with Chicago’s infield instructors and erased doubts about his ability to remain at short early in his career — and a mature player. There’s very little not to like.

2017 Outlook
Brian Cashman has already said Torres will begin the 2017 season with Double-A Trenton, and hinted at the possibility of a midseason promotion to Triple-A Scranton. Remember, Torres just turned 20 last month. He’ll be one of the youngest players in the Eastern League on Opening Day, if not the youngest, so it’s entirely possible he’ll make his MLB debut before his 22nd birthday. I don’t think he’ll reach the show this coming season, but I wouldn’t completely rule it out either. He could tear up Double-A, earn a quick bump to Triple-A, and force the issue.

My Take
When the Yankees were gauging the market for Chapman, I was hoping they’d get a Torres-caliber prospect in a one-for-one swap, and they managed to get Torres and three other players. Amazing. The trade far exceeded my expectations.

As far Torres himself, how can you not love the kid? The tools are as good as it gets, he’s a mature player who carries himself like someone who’s been in the league ten years, and he projects to have two-way impact. Torres is New York’s top prospect and one of the best 10-15 prospects in all of baseball. He and Gary Sanchez figure to be the faces of the franchise going forward, as the Yankees work to build their next championship team.

Mailbag: Other top NPB players who could come to MLB

The mailbag inbox was pretty empty this week thanks to the holidays. That’s okay, because every so often we get a great question that is worth its own post, and that was the case this week. So, rather than the usual multi-question format, we’ve got one question and one big answer this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions.

Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)
Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)

Dan asks: Are there any other players on the Japanese market besides Otani that we can be excited about in the future?

There are definitely a few, but none come close to Shohei Otani in terms of potential big league impact. He is truly in a class all by himself right now. Otani is the best player in Japan and has the tools to be an ace-caliber pitcher in MLB, if not a reliable hitter as well. I’m curious to see if a team will let him hit and pitch when the time comes. That just might be what it takes to sign him.

Anyway, most of the top talent in Japan in terms of big league potential is on the mound right now. These things to tend to be cyclical, and right now there are more high-end arms than high-end bats. Check back in a few years and the opposite will probably be true. So, with that in mind, here are five non-Otani players in Nippon Pro Baseball who could interest MLB teams in the near future. This isn’t a comprehensive list. It’s just a few of the most notable. The players are listed alphabetically.

RHP Kohei Arihara

Arihara, 24, just finished his second season with the Nippon Ham Fighters, during which he had a 2.94 ERA with 103 strikeouts (16.1 K%) and 38 walks (5.9 BB%) in 22 starts and 156 innings. He runs his fastball up to 96 mph and uses a wide array of offspeed pitches, and while nothing he throws is a truly dominant offering, Arihara has good command and really knows how to pitch.

Arihara has gotten plenty of extra scouting exposure recently as Otani’s teammate. Once he gets some more experience under his belt — he missed time in college with elbow injury, which is obviously a red flag — Arihara will be a candidate to come over to MLB. His upside may be limited, but there’s a chance for mid-rotation production here.

RHP Shintaro Fujinami

Back in 2012, Otani and Fujinami were the top two prospects in the NPB draft, and plenty of folks at the time preferred Fujinami because his secondary pitchers were more advanced. Otani went first overall — Fujinami was selected by four teams in the first round, then was awarded to the Hanshin Tigers after a lottery drawing (the NPB draft is weird) — and has since developed into the better NPB player and MLB prospect, but Fujinami is damn good himself.

The 22-year-old Fujinami had a 3.25 ERA in 26 starts and 169 innings in 2016, striking out 176 (24.0 K%) and walking 70 (9.6 BB%). Control has been his biggest issue — he’s walked 9.2% of batters faced in his four NPB seasons — but he misses plenty of bats with a 92-95 mph fastball, a mid-80s splitter, and a low-80s slider. His 221 strikeouts a year ago were by far the most in the Central League, Japan’s non-DH league. Only one other player had more than 175 strikeouts. (Randy Messenger had 194.)

Fujinami is widely considered the second best MLB prospect in Japan, but he’s in the same boat as Otani. He’s only 22, which means he’ll be subject to the international hard cap for the next three years. Also, Fujinami is five years away from qualifying for international free agency, so he’ll have to go through the posting system to come over at any point before the 2021-22 offseason. It’s not only Otani who is getting screwed over by the hard cap.

LHP Yusei Kikuchi

A few years ago Kikuchi, now 25, was considering jumping to MLB straight out of high school, which would have been unprecedented. (Junichi Tazawa was undrafted out of high school, played one year in a Japanese independent league, then chose to forego NPB for MLB.) NPB doesn’t like the idea of the best young Japanese players not playing in Japan, so nowadays anyone who signs with an MLB team out of high school is banned from NPB for at least three years. Not surprisingly, no one has done it.

Anyway, Kikuchi has spent the last six seasons with the Seibu Lions and has career has been up and down, mostly due to shoulder problems. He had a 2.58 ERA with 127 strikeouts (21.3 K%) and 67 walks (11.3 K%) in 22 starts and 143 innings this past season, though the blazing mid-to-upper-90s fastball that made him such a hot commodity as a teenager now resides mostly in the low-90s. Kikuchi relies on his three offspeed pitches (curveball, slider, changeup) to get most of his outs these days.

It’s no secret Kikuchi wants to come over to MLB at some point — he met with several clubs, including the Yankees, back in 2009 when he considered coming over after high school — and since he’s 25, the international hard cap won’t apply to him. It’s up to Seibu to post him because he’s still three years from international free agency. Kikuchi is not the tippy top MLB prospect he was a few years ago, but lefties who can miss bats are always going to get a look.

RHP Takahiro Norimoto

Three years ago the 26-year-old Norimoto took over as staff ace of the Rakuten Golden Eagles after Masahiro Tanaka left via the posting system. His last two seasons have been eerily similar:

IP ERA Strikeouts Walks Homers
2015 194.2 2.91 215 (26.9%) 48 (6.0%) 14 (0.65 HR/9)
2016 195 2.91 216 (26.3%) 50 (6.1%) 12 (0.55 HR/9)

Freaky. Norimoto has big stuff but not big size. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 178 lbs., and fair or not, teams are always wary of undersized righties. Durability is a concern, and so is fastball plane. Teams worry short pitchers will be fly ball and home run prone because they can’t pitch downhill. Still, Norimoto has a mid-90s fastball and can miss bats with both his splitter and slider. That’ll play.

Norimoto signed a three-year extension worth $1.72M per season last month, so he’s not coming over to MLB anytime soon. That’s a shame. He wouldn’t have been subject to any international spending restrictions because of his age. Not the bonus pools this signing period or the hard cap that takes effect next signing period. Womp womp. Norimoto will be 29 before he’s eligible to come over to MLB.

IF Tetsuto Yamada

Over the last three years, and especially the last two, Yamada has established himself as one of the most dominant hitters in Japan. Last season he hit .329/.416/.610 with 38 home runs and 34 stolen bases en route to being named Central League MVP. He was the first player in NPB history to win both the home run and stolen base titles. Yamada also had a Reggie Jackson moment in the postseason, swatting three home runs in three consecutive plate appearances in Game Three of the Japan Series.

This past season the 24-year-old Yamada managed a .304/.425/.607 batting line with 38 homers and 30 stolen bases for the Yakult Swallows. He’s a right-handed hitter with tremendous bat speed and quick twitch athleticism, plus he knows how to control the strike zone (17.2 K% and 14.4 BB% from 2015-16). While going 30-30 in the big leagues might not happen, Yamada has 20-20 potential, which would be pretty damn valuable from a good defensive middle infielder. (Reports indicate he fits best at second.)

Yamada has supposedly expressed interest in coming over to MLB, and since he’ll turn 25 in July, he won’t be subject to the international hard cap next offseason. The Swallows can post him and Yamada can sign a contract of any size. Unless the posting agreement gets changed again, that is. MLB seems to like making it difficult for top overseas players to play in their league for whatever reason.

It’s worth noting most of the biggest busts among Japanese players in MLB have been infielders (Kaz Matsui, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, etc.), and I’ve seen speculation that the game is so much faster here that infielders have a tough time adjusting, and their defensive issues carry over at the plate. Who knows whether that’s true. There’s risk with every signing, and it is fair to wonder whether Yamada’s big leg kick will play over here. My guess is some team will bet millions on his power-speed combination.

* * *

The Yankees have shown they will get involved in the Japanese market if there’s a player they really like, though they’re going to do their homework first. They won’t rush into anything like they did with Kei Igawa again. Otani is clearly the best Japan has to offer for a few years. Others like Fujinami and Norimoto are intriguing, though they face obstacles coming over (hard cap for Fujinami, contract extension for Norimoto).

Yamada could end up being a very big deal next offseason, assuming the Swallows agree to post him for MLB teams, which is far from a given. Middle infielders in their mid-20s with power and speed are always in demand. Even with Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro up the middle, plus a ton of shortstop prospects in the system, the Yankees may get involved should Yamada be posted. Third base is a question long-term and Yamada could help solve that (Yamada at second, Castro to third?).

Yankees rolling the dice on upside with Billy McKinney

(Martin Griff/Pinstriped Prospects)
(Martin Griff/Pinstriped Prospects)

When the Yankees took the plunge and sold at the trade deadline, they wound up acquiring a dozen prospects (and one Adam Warren) in their four seller trades. Gleyber Torres, Justus Sheffield, and Clint Frazier were the headliners and the prospects everyone is talking about, understandably so. They’re all legitimate top 100 prospects and among the best young players in the organization.

The trades were not only geared towards impact players, however. The Yankees also added a ton of depth — again, they acquired 12 prospects — and the secondary pieces shouldn’t be overlooked. Ben Heller has already pitched in the big leagues. Erik Swanson and J.P. Feyereisen have sneaky good arms. Tito Polo is a pretty good bet to carve out a Major League career as an extra outfielder. Those guys have value too.

The most high-profile secondary piece the Yankees added at the deadline is outfielder Billy McKinney, who came over from the Cubs with Torres and Warren in the Aroldis Chapman trade. McKinney was the 24th overall pick in the 2013 draft — he had been connected to the Yankees often enough at the time that I wrote a draft profile — and was later traded from the A’s to the Cubs in the Addison Russell/Jeff Samardzija trade.

The Yankees picked up McKinney while his stock was down. Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked the 22-year-old as the 69th best prospect in baseball coming into the season — not last year or the year before, this year, 2016 — but, at the time of the trade, he was hitting .252/.355/.322 (102 wRC+) with one home run in 349 Double-A plate appearances while repeating the level. Last year he hit .285/.346/.420 (116 wRC+) at Double-A.

McKinney performed quite a bit better after the trade, putting up a .265/.337/.444 (117 wRC+) batting line with four homers in 169 plate appearances with Double-A Trenton, including the postseason. That looks good on the surface, but for close to a bat-only dude repeating the level, it’s not nearly enough to maintain top 100 prospect status. McKinney is, to paraphrase Brian Cashman, an asset in distress. They bought low and hope to build him back up.

There are reasons to believe McKinney can be built back up. For starters, his age. He turned 22 in August. Had he gone to college, McKinney would have been a draft-eligible junior this year. Secondly, his raw talent. He wasn’t a first rounder by accident. McKinney has impressive hitting tools, which were on display just last season. And third, his health. His 2015 season ended in mid-August after he fouled a pitch into his knee and suffered a hairline fracture, Mark Teixeira style.

Everything in baseball starts from the ground up, including hitting. It’s tough to hit when you don’t have a solid base underneath you, and thanks to the knee injury, McKinney’s lower half was compromised this year. How much? We don’t know exactly. Player development chief Gary Denbo thinks the injury was at least somewhat a factor in McKinney’s disappointing season. From Jim Callis:

“He had issues with his knee and didn’t have all his balance and stability in his lower half, which makes it difficult to be a consistent hitter,” Denbo said. “He’s just now getting healthy. He’s working very hard to improve his timing and lower-half stability, and also to let his raw power play in games. He started to do that late in the season and he has been one of our best performers down here.”

It’s not crazy to think a healthy McKinney could bounce back next season. Not considering his age and talent. That’s what the Yankees are hoping, anyway. They got him almost as a throw in, after all. McKinney is not the centerpiece of the farm system or anything like that. He’s a reclamation project.

Now, what happens if McKinney does rebound next season? First, celebrate! That’d be cool. Secondly, the logjam of upper level outfielders could become even logjam-ier. Right now, the Triple-A Scranton outfield figures to feature some combination of Frazier, Mason Williams, Jake Cave, and Dustin Fowler. Maybe Aaron Judge too. That leaves McKinney back in Double-A for a third straight season. Not ideal, but what can the Yankees do?

Given the state of the organization right now, it appears the best thing for both McKinney and the Yankees is that he plays well enough to re-establish some trade value. Instead of being the No. 3 piece like he was in the Chapman deal, he could maybe be the No. 2 piece in a deal at some point in future. Or maybe even the headliner in a smaller trade that brings immediate MLB help. That seems to be the best case scenario. McKinney rebuilds value and the Yankees flip him elsewhere, where he’ll have a better opportunity for MLB playing time.

As far as the Yankees are concerned, anything they get from McKinney is gravy. He’s not one of their top prospects and they’re not relying on him to fill a roster spot long-term. They rolled the dice on his talent as the third piece in the Chapman trade, and if he rebounds, great! If not, well, that’s baseball. When a guy like McKinney is one of your second tier prospects and almost an afterthought in your system, things are looking up.