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.

2015 Draft & International Free Agent Links: Rankings, Scouting Reports

At the moment, the Yankees currently hold the 17th overall pick in the 2015 draft. They could still move up a few slots if the Marlins, Padres, Rays, Braves, and/or Brewers sign one of the nine unsigned qualified free agents, one of whom is David Robertson. All of the details are at our 2015 Draft Order page. Of course, the Yankees could also forfeit that 17th overall pick if they sign a qualified free agents. Here are some links about next year’s draft and international free agent class.

  • Both Baseball America and Keith Law/Chris Crawford wrote up their lists of the top 30 prospects for the 2015 draft. Both links are subscriber-only, unfortunately. LHP Brady Aiken, who didn’t sign with the Astros as the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, tops the ESPN list while Florida HS SS Brendan Rogers is atop the Baseball America list. Aiken is second. He’s heading to a junior college and will be draft-eligible again in 2015.
  • Draft to the Show put together a series of (free!) rankings and mini-scouting reports for the top prospects for the 2015 draft: top 15 high school pitchers, top 15 high school hitters, top 15 college pitchers, and top 15 college hitters. Seems like the strength of this draft is quick-moving college arms, which is a shame because it seems like you could pull any schmuck from the stands and get a 3.50 ERA these days.
  • Kiley McDaniel wrote up scouting reports for several of the top international prospects for the 2015-16 signing period. Because the Yankees exceeded their 2014-15 bonus pool, they won’t be able to sign a player for more than $300,000 in both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods. So I guess you can get to know the Yankees can’t sign as amateurs but will try to sign as free agents in ten years.

Badler: Yankees sign Colombian outfielder Bryan Emery

3:41pm: Emery received a $500,000 signing bonus, according to Jesse Sanchez. So with the tax it’s a total cost of $1M to the Yankees. They’ve now spent approximately $28.5M total on international players during the 2014-15 signing period (that we know of).

12:37pm: According to Ben Badler, the Yankees have signed 16-year-old Colombian outfielder Bryan Emery. Emery is the latest addition to the team’s massive international spending spree that includes at least 22 players and over $26M in bonuses and penalties. Kiley McDaniel says Emery received a six-figure bonus — it will be taxed at 100% because the club is over their spending pool — after asking for seven figures a few months ago.

Baseball America and MLB.com ranked Emery as the 23rd and 29th best international prospect this summer, respectively. He’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 195 lbs., and was a switch-hitter who recently abandoned hitting right-handed according to Badler. “He’s strong and generates easy, explosive power … a simplified hitting approach and a cleaner setup (has helped) him stay more direct to the ball,” wrote Badler.

MLB.com’s free scouting report provides 20-80 scouting grades and some more information:

Scouting Grades: Hit: 55 | Power: 50 | Run: 55 | Arm: 60 | Field: 60

One of the top outfielders in this year’s class, Emery can play center field, but he could end up in right field because of his overall skill set.

Scouts like Emery’s athletic body and how he covers ground in the outfield. He’s also impressed evaluators with his throwing arm, which is projected to be above average in the future.

Emery has international experience on his resume and is not afraid of playing in the spotlight. Scouts have been impressed with his mature demeanor and positive attitude. From Colombia, Emery trains in Nigua, Dominican Republic, with Ivan Noboa.

The Yankees signed ten of the top 30 international prospects this summer according to both Baseball America and MLB.com. Because they exceeded their spending pool, they will not be able to sign a player for more than $300,000 during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods. The Yankees put all their eggs in the 2014-15 basket.

Nineteen-year-old Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is the (latest) prize of the international market and will reportedly command a signing bonus of $30M to $40M. If he is unblocked by the Office of Foreign Assets Control before next June 15th, the Yankees will be able to offer him any amount and it will count towards the current signing period. After that date, they’ll only be able to offer him $300,000. Moncada would be one hell of a cherry on top of what is already a spectacular international haul.

Prospect Profile: Jordan Foley

(Robert Pimpsner)
(Robert Pimpsner)

Jordan Foley | RHP

Background
Foley was born and raised in The Colony, a suburb of Dallas, and he played baseball at The Colony High School. (The name of the city is literally The Colony.) He was not very highly regarded out of his school — Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked Foley as the 112th best prospect in Texas for the 2011 draft — and opted to follow through on his commitment to Central Michigan after the Yankees made him their 26th round pick (809th overall).

As a freshman with the Chippewas, Foley had an ugly 8.20 ERA with more walks (34) than strikeouts (25) in 37.1 innings spread across six starts and seven relief appearances. He moved into the rotation full-time as a sophomore and was much better, pitching to a 3.08 ERA with 90 strikeouts and 44 walks in 15 starts and 90.2 innings. After the season, Foley had a 3.00 ERA with 34 strikeouts and ten walks in 27 innings for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks of the Cape Cod League.

Foley had another strong season as a junior this spring, throwing 97.2 innings across 15 starts with a 3.69 ERA. He struck out 81 and cut his walk total down to 28. Baseball America (no subs. req’d) ranked Foley as the 128th best prospect in the 2014 draft class while Keith Law (subs. req’d) did not rank him among his top 100 draft prospects. The Yankees selected Foley again, this time in the fifth round with the 152nd overall pick. He signed quickly for a straight slot $317,500 bonus.

Pro Debut
After a quick tune-up appearance with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees, Foley was bumped up to Short Season Staten Island, where he had a 4.46 ERA (3.15 FIP) in 34.1 innings. He made five starts and six relief appearances as pair of the team’s tandem-starter system. Foley allowed just one homer and posted an excellent strikeout rate (9.70 K/9 and 24.8 K%) with a workable walk rate (3.67 BB/9 and 9.4 BB%).

Scouting Report
The first thing everyone seems to talk about with Foley his unconventional follow through. His leg kick and everything else is fairly standard, but he has a big head whack after releasing the ball and it’s not the prettiest thing you’ll ever see on the mound. Check it out:

Foley struggles to repeat that delivery and it’s why his command is spotty at best and many project him as a reliever down the road. You don’t see many starters with a delivery like that throwing 100+ pitches every fifth day. Despite the delivery, Foley hasn’t had any injury problems since getting to Central Michigan.

Foley has a classic pitcher’s frame at 6-foot-4 and 215 lbs., and he sits in the 90-94 range while touching 96-97 as a starter with his four-seam fastball. He hit 96-97 more regularly when working out of the bullpen this past summer. Foley is one of the rare pitchers who comes to pro ball with a splitter — he uses the mid-80s offering as a changeup to combat left-handers. A promising low-80s slider rounds out his repertoire.

2015 Outlook
Because he’s not as refined as many college pitchers, I expect Foley to open next season in the Low-A Charleston rotation, and he just might stay there all year and focus on repeating his delivery and improving his location. If he does that, he can move up to High-A Tampa in 2016 and get on the fast track. I would be very surprised if Foley opened 2015 with Tampa unless he’s moved into the bullpen full-time, and it’s way too early in his career to do that.

My Take
I like Foley and was pleasantly surprised the Yankees were able to get him in the fifth round. He was considered more of a third rounder heading into the draft. That delivery is kinda scary and I’m not sure he’ll be able to start long-term without some serious cleanup, but he has a nice power repertoire — I dig the splitter, it’s a devastating pitch when thrown properly — that misses bats and the control issues are a little easier to stomach in short one-inning relief outings. I think Foley has a chance to be an impact high-strikeout reliever down the line.