Sorting out the projected 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster

Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)
Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)

Over the last few seasons the Yankees and every other team in baseball have begun to use their Triple-A affiliate as an extension of their big league roster. They not only send relievers up and down whenever a fresh arm is needed, they’ll also shuttle platoon players in and out based on upcoming pitching matchups. Clubs look for every advantage possible, and these days that means having MLB and Triple-A roster flexibility.

The Yankees have built an exceptional farm system with many high-caliber prospects ticketed for Triple-A. They also have several big league roster openings with young players slated to compete in Spring Training. The refreshing emphasis on youth means projecting the 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster is damn near impossible, but that won’t stop me from trying. I do this every winter and I ain’t stoppin’ now.

Now that the non-roster invitees have been announced, let’s try to figure out what the RailRiders’ roster will look like on Opening Day. After all, these players are depth players for the Yankees, and inevitably we’re going to see many of them in MLB at some point. The top prospects get all the attention, understandably, but don’t sleep on the Chris Parmelees and Anthony Swarzaks of the world either. Those guys have a way of finding themselves in the Bronx.

Let’s begin by looking at position player candidates for the Triple-A Scranton roster. An asterisk (*) denotes the player is on the 40-man roster, which, in this situation, is kind of a big deal.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Utility
Kyle Higashioka* Greg Bird* Aaron Judge* Tyler Austin*
Wilkin Castillo Ronald Torreyes* Mason Williams* Rob Refsnyder*
Francisco Diaz Ji-Man Choi Jake Cave Tyler Wade
Kellin Deglan Cito Culver Dustin Fowler
Mike Ford Clint Frazier
Pete Kozma
Donovan Solano
Ruben Tejada

I have 20 position players in the table and these days Triple-A rosters run 25 players deep. As recent as 2011, Triple-A and Double-A teams fielded only 24-man rosters. For real. It is not at all uncommon for Triple-A clubs to carry eight-man bullpens, especially early in the season when pitchers are still getting in the swing of things and also having their workloads monitored. We need to pare that list of 20 players down to 13 or even 12.

Catchers: Barring injury, the Yankees are set with Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine behind the plate at the big league level. Romine did an okay job as the full-time backup last year, and while I wouldn’t completely rule out Higashioka winning the job in camp, it would surprise me. Remember, Romine is out of minor league options, which means if he’s not the backup catcher, he’s out of the organization. (Even if he clears waivers, he’d likely elect free agency and look for a big league opportunity elsewhere.)

The odds are strongly in favor of Romine backing up Sanchez with Higashioka biding his time as the third string catcher in Triple-A. The real question is who will back up Higashioka? Castillo seems like the safe bet considering he’s a 32-year-old journeyman with (a little) big league experience and a ton of Triple-A experience. Diaz has two games of Triple-A experience and that’s it. Deglan has barely played above Single-A. Those two figure to be the Double-A Trenton catching tandem with Higashioka and Castillo in Scranton. That’s two of our 12 position player roster spots.

Infielders: Austin, Bird, and Refsnyder are essentially competing for two big league roster spots: the first base job and a bench job. Everyone wants Bird to win the first base job, including the Yankees themselves. But, if he needs more time to shake off the rust following shoulder surgery, a return trip to Scranton could very well be in the cards. Either way, one of these three players figures to start the season with the RailRiders while the other two are with the Yankees. My guess is Refsnyder winds up in Triple-A, but who knows. Three of our 12 Triple-A roster spots are now taken.

Back to Triple-A for Mr. Refsnyder? (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

Solano, Tejada, and Torreyes will all compete for the big league reserve infielder’s job in Spring Training, or at least appear to compete for the job. Maybe even Kozma too. Torreyes not only filled the role admirably last season, he’s also on the 40-man roster and the other three are not. That’s one heck of a tiebreaker. Torreyes can be sent to Triple-A, he has options remaining, it’s just hard to think he could lose the bench job in Spring Training. Lil’ Ronnie in the show with the other three in Scranton seems to be the most likely outcome here. That’s six Triple-A roster spots accounted for now.

Choi has big league time and while I suppose it’s not completely impossible he wins the big league first base job should Bird need more time in Triple-A, I’d bet against it. The big league service time all but ensures Choi will start the season in Scranton, not Double-A Trenton. That figures to spell bad news for Ford, who has played only 42 career games at the Double-A level. Hard to think the Yankees would send two pure first basemen to Scranton. Choi is position player number seven.

Before we found out the Yankees re-signed Kozma, the final Triple-A infield spot came down to Culver or Ford. Now neither of them figures to get a Triple-A roster spot. They’ll likely have to go back to Double-A to begin the season. Either that, or the RailRiders will carry a six-man bullpen, and there’s no chance of that happening.

Outfield: In a roundabout way, Judge and Williams are competing for one big league roster spot. Judge will be given every opportunity to win the starting right field job, but if the Yankees determine he’s not ready for it, he could wind up back in Triple-A. In that case, Aaron Hicks would presumably take over in right field and Williams would get the fourth outfielder’s job. I suppose it could go to Refsnyder or Austin, but I think the Yankees would want an actual outfielder on the bench. There’s the eighth position player. (Hicks, by the way, is out of options and can’t be sent to Triple-A.)

Frazier is a Triple-A lock because he reached the level last season and is a priority guy as a top prospect. The Yankees aren’t going to send him to Double-A to clear a roster spot because Culver has tenure in the organization or anything like that. Fowler is another high-end prospect who had a successful season at Double-A in 2016, so an assignment to Triple-A is the natural order of things. Cave is a Triple-A veteran and the logical candidate for the fourth outfield spot. Frazier, Fowler, and Cave are position players nine, ten, and eleven.

Utility: I listed Austin and Refsnyder as utility players only because they can play the infield and outfield. They were already covered in the infield section. Wade, who is primarily an infielder but started working out in the outfield in the Arizona Fall League, had a solid Double-A season a year ago, so, like Fowler, an assignment to Triple-A makes sense. Wade is out 12th and final Triple-A position player.

Let’s quickly recap everything we just went through:

  • Catchers (2): Higashioka and Castillo
  • Infielders (4): Choi, Kozma, Solano, and Tejada
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and either Judge or Williams
  • Utility (2): Wade, and one of Bird, Austin, or Refsnyder

That’s a dozen position players right there, and I suppose if the RailRiders open the season with a normal seven-man bullpen, either Culver or Ford would make the team as the 13th position player. Probably Culver. I still expect an eight-man bullpen, at least initially.

The perfect world scenario for the Yankees is Bird and Judge winning the first base and right field jobs, respectively, and Austin beating out Refsnyder for a bench spot. So, assuming that happens, here are the projected Triple-A position players, with a batting order written out because why not?

1. SS Tyler Wade
2. CF Dustin Fowler
3. LF Clint Frazier
4. DH Rob Refsnyder
5. C Kyle Higashioka
6. 3B Donovan Solano
7. 1B Ji-Man Choi
8. 2B Ruben Tejada
9. RF Mason Williams

Bench: C Wilkin Castillo, IF Pete Kozma, OF Jake Cave

The batting order is just for fun. Don’t take it to heart. Remember, players are going move around. Refsnyder won’t always DH. Wade will undoubtedly see some time in the outfield. Frazier and Williams will probably see time in all three outfield spots. Heck, Solano and Tejada will probably roam around the infield too. These things are very fluid. That, however, is the projected Triple-A Scranton group of position players based on everything we know at the moment. Now let’s get to the pitchers.

Starters Righty Relievers Lefty Relievers
Luis Cessa* Johnny Barbato* Richard Bleier*
Dietrich Enns* Gio Gallegos* Chasen Shreve*
Chad Green* Ben Heller* Joe Mantiply
Ronald Herrera* Jonathan Holder* Jason Gurka
Bryan Mitchell* J.P. Feyereisen Evan Rutckyj
Luis Severino* Mark Montgomery
Chance Adams Matt Wotherspoon
Daniel Camarena
Kyle Haynes
Brady Lail
Jordan Montgomery

Lots of pitchers. Lots and lots of pitchers. There are 23 of ’em in the table, and if that sounds like a lot, consider the RailRiders used 37 different pitchers last season, including 22 different starters. They used 45 pitchers and 24 different starters in 2015. So yeah, 23 pitches in the table seems like a lot, but it’s maybe half as many as Scranton will need to get through the season. Before you know it they’ll be signing Phil Coke out of an independent league again. That’s baseball, yo.

Rotation: At the moment, the Yankees have to two open big league rotation spots, which Brian Cashman & Co. insist will go to two young pitchers. Cashman has specifically singled out Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Severino as the candidates for those jobs. (Adam Warren too, but I don’t think he’ll actually open the season in the rotation unless all hell breaks loose in camp.) My money is on Severino and Cessa getting the rotation spots. We’ll see.

In theory, the Yankees would send the two losers of the rotation competition to Triple-A, where they would bide their time until they need another starter in the Bronx. Sounds simple enough. That’s not necessarily how it will work though. In 2014 the Yankees held a three-way competition for the long reliever job — not even a rotation spot, the long reliever spot — between Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno. The Yankees ended up carrying all three on the Opening Day roster because they were the best men for the job.

Who’s to say that, if Cessa and Severino were to win the two rotation spots, that Green and Mitchell wouldn’t be in the bullpen? That really complicates things and is why I included guys like Haynes and Lail in this exercise. More than a few of those 40-man roster Triple-A rotation candidates could wind up in the big league bullpen, creating a need for starters in Scranton. Geez, that’s a mouthful.

Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)
Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)

Anyway, this is what I think will happen: two of the Cessa/Green/Mitchell/Severino quartet get big league rotation spots and a third winds up in the bullpen as the long man. The fourth goes to Scranton as the de facto sixth starter. That means, based our table, we’re left with seven candidates for the four remaining Triple-A rotation spots: Adams, Camarena, Enns, Haynes, Herrera, Lail, and Montgomery.

Two of the four spots are easy. They’ll go to Adams and Montgomery, two of the better pitching prospects in the organization, both of whom are ready for Triple-A. (Montgomery thrived there in his brief stint last year.) Enns and Herrera are on the 40-man roster, which could give them a leg up for the final two Triple-A rotation spots. I do wonder whether the Yankees will move Enns to the bullpen since that’s likely his ultimate destination.

For now, I’m guessing Enns remains a starter, meaning Scranton’s five-man rotation to start the season will be, in whatever order, Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green Mitchell, or Severino. That leaves Camarena, Haynes, and Lail out in the cold. The projected Double-A rotation is pretty stacked (Ian Clarkin, Josh Rogers, Justus Sheffield, etc.) so it’s not as simple as bumping them down a level. Hmmm.

Bullpen: Right now, the Yankees have five big league bullpen spots accounted for: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, and Warren. Layne is out of options, so if he doesn’t make the big league bullpen, he’s probably out of the organization. No Triple-A for him. I assumed in the previous section one of the four young starters winds up in the bullpen, which means six of seven big league bullpen spots are accounted for in this little exercise.

I have 12 relievers in the table plus Camarena, Haynes, and Lail to consider, so that’s 15 pitchers total. One of those 15 is going to get the final big league bullpen spot, so it’s really 14 pitchers for eight Triple-A bullpen spots. In all likelihood one of the 40-man roster guys will get that last bullpen job with the Yankees. It doesn’t really matter which one, specifically. My money is on Bleier because the Yankees really seem to like him, but ultimately the name doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter? Because there are six 40-man relievers in that table, and whichever ones don’t get that final MLB bullpen spot will wind up in Triple-A, no questions asked. None of ’em are going to Double-A. That’s five Triple-A bullpen spots accounted for already, which leaves us nine pitchers for the final two or three bullpen spots (depending whether they carry a seven or eight-man bullpen): Camarena, Feyereisen, Gurka, Haynes, Lail, Mantiply, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon.

The Yankees signed Gurka as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason and he has some big league bullpen time with the Rockies, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot. Cashman talked up Mantiply at the town hall two weeks ago and he has a tiny little bit of big league time too, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot as well. If the RailRiders employ an eight-man bullpen — and to be clear, the Yankees make that decision, not the RailRiders — I think it would be Feyereisen. Just a hunch. Camarena, Haynes, Lail, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon end up in Double-A for the time being. (One or two might even get released.)

Alright, so after all of that, my projected 13-man Triple-A Scranton pitching staff shakes out like this:

  • Rotation (5): Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green, Mitchell, or Severino.
  • Bullpen (8): Feyereisen, Gurka, Mantiply, and five of Barbato, Bleier, Gallegos, Heller, Holder, or Shreve.

After going through all of that, I must point out the odds are strongly in favor of this post being a complete waste of time. Guys are going to get hurt in Spring Training, released before the end of camp, whatever. These things change and they change a lot. Trying to project the Triple-A Opening Day roster in late January is a fool’s errand, so I guess that makes me a fool.

I still think it can be instructive to go through this exercise each year, even though it’s prone to blowing up in my face. It’s good to get an idea of how the Triple-A roster will shake out, see where the Yankees have depth, and who the call-up candidates are at any given moment. I have a tendency to forget about Herrera, personally. Laying this all out is a good reminder that hey, he’s probably going to be in the Scranton rotation. So even though this is all very subject to change, I think we get a good grasp of what the Triple-A roster may look like come April.

Prospect Profile: Nestor Cortes

(MiLB.com)
(MiLB.com)

Nestor Cortes | LHP

Background

Cortes (22-years-old as of December 10) was born and raised in Hialeah, the sixth-largest city in the state of Florida. He attended Hialeah High School, which is at least semi-well-known for winning back-to-back state titles in baseball in 2001 and 2002, and for being the alma mater of former Yankee Bucky Dent, the knuckleballing Charlie Hough, and Gio Gonzalez (who transferred after his junior season). Cortes was no slouch in high school, and was named a Louisville Slugger Pre-Season High School All-American and a Florida All-Region 1st Teamer by Perfect Game USA heading into his senior year, and winning the Most Outstanding Player award in the prestigious Sunshine Classic a few months later.

The Yankees drafted Cortes in the 36th round (1094th overall) in the 2013 draft, and bought him out of a commitment to Florida International. The best player drafted at that position is probably Mark Johnson, who batted .232/.338/.402 (95 wRC+) over parts of seven seasons, amassing 1.4 fWAR along the way.

Pro Career

Cortes made his professional debut at the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League, and performed fairly well. He pitched to a 4.42 ERA (2.26 FIP) in 18.1 IP, allowing 22 hits and 5 walks while striking out 20. Cortes returned to the GCL in 2014, and improved across the board to the tune of 31.2 IP, 35 H, 5 BB, 38 K, and a 2.27 ERA (2.09 FIP). He appeared in just 21 games (five of which were starts) over those first two years, as the Yankees brought him along slowly.

It was in 2015 that Cortes first sprung into the consciousness of the more prospect-inclined Yankees fans, as he was borderline dominant in the Appalachian League. His 2.26 ERA was fourth among pitchers who tossed at least 30 IP, and his 63.2 IP were third in the league. He also racked up 9.3 K/9 against just 1.4 BB/9 and 6.8 H/9. As a result of his strong production, Cortes was named an Appalachian League All-Star after the season.

Cortes had what some would call a breakout season in 2016, splitting his season between Low-A and High-A, and making cameo appearances at Double-A and Triple-A. He made short work of the South Atlantic League, posting a 0.79 ERA (2.48 FIP) and 5.00 K/BB in 68.1 IP. The brilliance continued at High-A (albeit in just 28.0 IP), as he managed a 3.21 ERA (2.25 FIP) and 7.75 K/BB. All told, Cortes threw 108.1 innings of 1.53 ERA ball, with 4.79 K/BB.

Cortes also spent time in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, appearing in 6 games and throwing 7.2 IP. His 4.70 ERA and 7.04 BB/9 were ugly, but he struck out 10 batters in those innings, and didn’t allow a home run in the bandboxes and dryness of the desert.

Scouting Report

I won’t bury the lede here: Cortes is optimistically listed at 5’11” and 190 pounds. He is a solid, strong, and athletic 5’11” and 190 pounds – but it’s difficult for many to overlook his comparatively slight build.

Cortes works with a four-pitch arsenal, and is generally described as a ‘pitchability’ or ‘finesse’ southpaw as a result. His fastball sits in the upper-80s to low-90s range (reaching 93 at its best), and he has strong command of the offering. The difference between his fastball and his mid-70s change-up helps him pick up whiffs, as he does a good job of repeating his delivery and release point on both pitches. He also throws a low-to-mid 70s curve and a slider in the upper-70s.

It’s largely a command and control profile, but his fastball and change-up play up a bit due to the natural deception in his delivery. Cortes hides the ball well in his wind-up, which helps to alleviate the issues presented by his shorter frame. Preventing batters from picking up the ball for an additional split second or two mitigates the extra distance between his release point and home plate when compared to the average 6’2″ or 6’3″ starting pitcher.

2017 Outlook

Cortes will probably open the season back at High-A Tampa, though I wouldn’t be shocked if he was give a shot at Double-A; it may well depend on how he performs in the Spring. The Yankees willingness to bounce him to Double-A and Triple-A in times of need and his time in the Arizona Fall League may indicate that they’re going to be aggressive. Barring an injury or poor performance, he’ll end up at Double-A by the time the Summer roles around.

My Take

There have been some strange comparisons made with Cortes already, ranging from Manny Banuelos (both are short lefties, get it?) to Ramiro Mendoza (as he, too, bounced between starting and relieving – though Mendoza was a sinkerballer, and Cortes … isn’t). The truth is that Cortes is going to face an uphill battle finding success in the Majors, if only because the track record of success for pitchers of his build and stuff is minimal.

That being said, the Yankees are always in need of left-handed specialists, and prefer those that could handle righties in a pinch. Cortes’s deception should make him a nightmare to face for lefties, and his command and fringe-average stuff could help him be competent against opposite-handed hitters. The bullpen feels like his ultimate role, in short – but they should give him a chance to ply his trade against upper-level hitters nonetheless.

Three surprise 2017 Spring Training invitees and three notable omissions

Camarena. (Del Mar Times)
Camarena. (Del Mar Times)

Twelve days from now pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa, and the Yankees will officially open Spring Training. Hooray for that. Earlier this week the Yankees announced their list of 23 non-roster invitees to camp. Some are top prospects (Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier), some are journeymen (Pete Kozma, Jason Gurka), and others are there just to catch bullpen sessions (Kellin Deglan, Jorge Saez).

As always, some non-roster invitees are more notable than others. Some are flat out surprises. There were no reports the Yankees had re-signed Kozma this offseason, for example, so seeing his name among the non-roster players was a surprise. And, of course, there are always some notable omissions each year. Last spring Tyler Austin did not get an invite to big league camp after being designated for assignment and clearing waivers the previous September. His stock was down. Way down.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at three of this year’s biggest surprise non-roster invitees and three of the most notable omissions from big league camp.

Three Surprise Invitees

LHP Daniel Camarena: Two weeks ago I mentioned the 24-year-old Camarena as a potential longtime minor leaguer turned prospect for this coming season, a la Kyle Higashioka last year and Ben Gamel the year before, so I’m glad to see him getting an invite. (Validation!) I still didn’t expect it though. Camarena had a fine 2016, throwing 147 innings with a 3.55 ERA (3.52 FIP) at mostly Double-A. He struck out 19.8% of batters faced and walked 4.2%. That’s a nice bounceback season. Camarena missed all of 2015 after having bone spurs removed from his elbow. He’s not a top prospect by any means, but a three-pitch lefty with good command is worth keeping an eye on. The Yankees liked what they saw from Camarena last season enough to give him his first invite to big league camp this year. (It’s worth noting he can become a minor league free agent after 2017.)

RHP Brady Lail: Lail, 23, was a non-roster invitee last spring. He only threw two Grapefruit League innings, but he was there. That speaks to his standing in the organization at the time. Lail was considered a potential call-up candidate. His 2016 season didn’t go so well — he had a 4.34 ERA (4.27 FIP) in 137 total innings, including a 5.07 ERA (4.50 FIP) in 92.1 innings at Triple-A — and he kinda got lost in shuffle later in the season, but the Yankees still like Lail enough to bring him to camp as a non-roster player again this year. They have plenty of arms. He’s not there as a roster filler or anything. It can be easy to overlook Lail given all the quality pitching prospects the Yankees have right now, but the Yankees still believe in him. He wouldn’t be in camp otherwise.

LHP Evan Rutckyj: Last spring Rutckyj was in camp with the Braves as a Rule 5 Draft pick. He didn’t make the team, was returned to the Yankees, then became a minor league free agent after the season. New York re-signed the 25-year-old and invited him to their big league camp for the first time. Rutckyj missed most of last season with a minor elbow injury — he returned in mid-August and threw ten innings in the regular season — but the year before he had a 2.63 ERA (2.59 FIP) with 31.5% strikeouts and 8.1% walks in 61.2 innings at High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton. We know the Yankees are looking for a cheap lefty reliever. Even if he doesn’t win an Opening Day roster spot, Rutckyj could put himself in position for an early season call up should the Richard Bleiers and Chasen Shreves and Joe Mantiplys (Mantipli?) of the world not work out.

Three Notable Omissions

Cave. (AP)
Cave. (AP)

OF Jake Cave: Like Rutckyj, Cave was a Rule 5 Draft pick last spring. He was in camp with the Reds, and again like Rutckyj, he didn’t make the team, so he was returned to the Yankees. Cave had a good 2016 season with Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, hitting .274/.339/.435 (119 wRC+) with nine homers and seven steals in 124 games. You’d think a young (24) left-handed hitting, good defending outfielder would get a non-roster invite to camp, but nope. You’d also think that player would get popped again in this offseason’s Rule 5 Draft as a potential cheap fourth outfielder, but again nope. Any team could have selected Cave in the Rule 5 Draft and kept him long-term — as a two-time Rule 5 guy, Cave would have been able to elect free agency rather than return to the Yankees, allowing him to re-sign with his new team and remain on the 40-man, even in Triple-A — yet it didn’t happen. Cave might not even have a starting spot in Scranton this year. The lack of a non-roster invite suggests his days in the organization are numbered.

RHP Branden Pinder: This is trivial, though I couldn’t help but notice Nick Rumbelow received a non-roster invite to camp and Pinder did not. Both are currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and they figure to be on similar timetables — Rumbelow had his surgery on April 19th and Pinder had his on April 26th — yet one got a non-roster invite and the other did not. Hmmm. Is this is an indication Rumbelow is further along in his rehab? Perhaps it has to do with their contract statuses. Pinder was outrighted back in November. Rumbelow was released and re-signed. Maybe Rumbelow leveraged an opportunity with another team into a non-roster invite with the Yankees. Pinder didn’t have that same opportunity because he was never actually a free agent. This isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. Chances are neither guy will pitch in spring games anyway, but the difference between big league camp and minor league camp is pretty substantial. Better lodging, more meal money … it can mean a lot to a young player.

RHP Dillon Tate: I’m not completely shocked Tate isn’t coming to camp as a non-roster player. He wasn’t great statistically last season (4.56 ERA and 4.30 FIP in 92.2 innings), and, more importantly, his stuff and mechanics were all over the place. The Yankees moved him to the bullpen to simplify things after the trade, and they’re reportedly moving him back into the rotation this year, which is the smart thing to do. I still thought there was a chance they would bring Tate to Spring Training, even if only to show him off for a Grapefruit League inning or two. Tate, 22, was the headliner in the Carlos Beltran trade — you could argue only Clint Frazier was a bigger “name” prospect among those acquired by the Yankees last summer — and I thought the Yankees would want the big league coaches to get to know him a bit. He’ll have to wait until next year to get his first taste of big league camp.

* * *

The Yankees have a very deep farm system and it’s just not possible for them to invite all their big name prospects. There are only so many innings and at-bats to go around. Blake Rutherford, for example, is a 19-year-old kid fresh out of high school. You won’t see many players fitting that description in big league camp around the league in any year. Ian Clarkin, Domingo Acevedo, and Albert Abreu have yet to pitch above Single-A. Billy McKinney? He hasn’t shown enough to deserve to come to big league camp. Non-roster invites aren’t arbitrary. There’s a method to this madness.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

The Yankees have packed their bags and are ready to ship them off to Tampa for Spring Training. I know this because the team said so on Instagram. How’s that for #journalism? There are already a bunch players in Tampa, mostly prospects for Captain’s Camp, but soon enough the big leaguers will join them. Hooray for that. I’m going through baseball withdrawals here.

This is the open thread for the evening. If you’re desperate for baseball, ESPN Deportes is airing a Caribbean Series game later tonight. Also, the Knicks and Nets are playing (each other), and there are a handful of college basketball games on the schedule too. Discuss those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not politics or religion. Have at it.

Thoughts on Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

Last Friday, Keith Law released his annual top 100 prospects list, which included six Yankees. This week ESPN is publishing Law’s individual team reports, and those include not only the top ten prospects in each organization, but guys beyond that as well. It’s a crazy deep dive for each club.

Here is Law’s organizational report for the Yankees. This is all behind the Insider paywall, so I can’t give away too much. These are the top ten prospects, which are the six top 100 prospects plus four new names (duh):

  1. SS Gleyber Torres (No. 4 on top 100)
  2. OF Blake Rutherford (No. 22)
  3. OF Clint Frazier (No. 27)
  4. RHP James Kaprielian (No. 28)
  5. OF Aaron Judge (No. 44)
  6. LHP Justus Sheffield (No. 88)
  7. SS Jorge Mateo
  8. SS Tyler Wade
  9. RHP Chance Adams
  10. 3B Miguel Andujar

In all, Law goes through and lists his top 24 Yankees prospects. I won’t list all 24, but Brendan Kuty has you covered. I have some thoughts on the non-top 100 guys.

1. The gap between Mateo and Wade is small. It’s no secret Mateo had a disappointing 2016 season. He didn’t just perform poorly, he also got himself suspended for two weeks for violating an unknown team policy. It was a tough year for Jorge. No doubt. In the write-up, Law calls Wade a superior shortstop and hitter, though there is still “enough industry faith in Mateo’s speed and body” that he gets the higher ranking. We know Law’s rankings do not reflect the consensus — Baseball Prospectus ranked Mateo third and Wade ninth in the system while Baseball America had Mateo fourth and Wade outside the top ten, so those sites had a much larger gap between the two — and the story here should be the positive report on Wade, not Mateo’s tumble down Law’s rankings. The Yankees had Wade play the outfield in the Arizona Fall League because they’re clearing a path for him to get to the big leagues. He may not offer the upside of Mateo (or Torres), but Wade is a damn good prospect himself.

2. Law has the good Clarkin scouting report. Scouting reports on LHP Ian Clarkin were all over the place last season. On his best days, he’d sit in the low-90s with a hammer curveball and a quality changeup. On his worst days, he was in the upper-80s with a loopy breaking ball. Law gives the positive scouting report on Clarkin, saying he spent last season “pitching in the low 90s with a good curveball.” Now that he’s a full year removed from the elbow injury that sidelined him for all of 2016, I’m hopeful we’ll see more of the good version of Clarkin this year. He’s going to be Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season, remember. This is a big year for him. “Double-A will be a good test of his ability to use his two above-average pitches to get guys on both sides of the plate, as hitters there will lay off the curveball if he can’t locate it,” added Law’s write-up.

3. McKinney’s stock is tumbling. Last season was a tough one for OF Billy McKinney, who came over from the Cubs in the Aroldis Chapman trade. He was a first round pick back in 2013, though the combination of a knee injury and poor performance have him slipping down the rankings. Law says McKinney, who he dubbed the system’s falling prospect, has a sound swing and a plan at the plate, but the “projections from high school that had him getting to average power aren’t coming to fruition.” The Yankees got McKinney as the third piece in the Chapman trade — Torres was the headliner (duh) and Adam Warren was the second piece, right? that how I’ve always seen it — and it was only a year ago that Law ranked him 69th on his top 100 list, so the kid has talent. As Brian Cashman likes to say, McKinney is an asset in distress. The Yankees have to build him back up.

4. The 2016 draft gets some love. The Yankees had a very good 2016 draft thanks to Rutherford all by himself. He was one of the best prospects in the draft class. Unfortunately, the current draft pool system doesn’t allow teams to spend freely, so the Yankees had to skimp elsewhere to pay Rutherford. Eight of their top ten picks received below-slot bonuses. The team’s draft haul was top heavy, but two other 2016 draftees still made Law’s top 24 Yankees prospects. RHP Nolan Martinez placed 21st because he “throws 88-93 mph with a huge spin rate on his fastball and good depth on his curve,” though he’s still working to develop his changeup. RHP Nick Nelson, who Law seems to love based on what he’s written dating back to the draft, ranked 22nd after “pumping 96-97 mph in instructional league with a big curveball.” Hmmm. Anyway, point is, the Yankees landed some other nice prospects in last summer’s draft. It wasn’t only Rutherford.

5. A few lesser known prospects make the top 24. Lesser known probably isn’t the correct term. Less thought about? Maybe that’s better. Anyway, among the players to pop up on Law’s farm system deep dive are SS Kyle Holder (“at least a 70 defender”), RHP Freicer Perez (“6-foot-8 and throws up to 98 mph already with good angle”), SS Oswaldo Cabrera (“an average defender with a promising hit tool”), and RHP Jorge Guzman (“has hit 103 mph and will sit at 99-100”). Guzman is the other guy the Yankees got from the Astros in the Brian McCann trade. We all focus on the top prospects and understandably so. They’re the headliners, and there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to see several of them in the big leagues this summer. Further down in the minors, it’s guys like Cabrera and Guzman that separate New York’s farm system from the rest of the pack. Talented players like those two don’t even crack the top 20 prospects in the farm system — Cabrera ranks 23rd and Guzman ranked 24th in the system, per Law — yet they’d be top ten in more than a few other organizations.

Prospect Profile: Jonathan Holder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Jonathan Holder | RHP

Background
Holder, now 23, is from Gulfport, Mississippi, where he earned several All-State Team selections at Gulfport High School as a two-way player. He hit .383/.455/.723 with eight home runs in 30 games as a senior while going 8-1 with a 1.36 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 61.2 innings. Despite that performance, Baseball America did not rank Holder among the top 40 prospects from Mississippi or the top 200 prospects overall for the 2011 draft, and he went undrafted out of high school.

Holder instead followed through on his commitment to Mississippi State, where he took over as closer for the Bulldogs almost immediately. He started his college career with a 27.1-inning scoreless streak, longest in school history, and he finished the season with a 0.32 ERA in 28.1 innings. Holder struck out 30, walked five, and saved nine games. Not surprisingly, he was a Freshman All-American.

After the season, Holder suited up for the Wareham Gatemen in the Cape Cod League. He had a 1.99 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 22.2 innings against basically the best college players in the country. The Cape is for the cream of the crop. The best of the best. Wareham won the league championship that year.

With Mississippi State the following year, his sophomore season, Holder threw 54.2 innings with a 1.65 ERA. He struck out 90, walked 17, and tied the SEC single-season record with 21 saves. Holder was a First Team All-American and a finalist for the Stopper of the Year award, which goes to the best reliever in college baseball each year. He struck out a dozen in 9.2 innings with Wareham after the season.

During his junior season Holder saved seven games with a 2.22 ERA in 52.2 innings. He struck out 71 and walked nine. All told, Holder had a 1.59 ERA with 191 strikeouts and 31 walks in 136 innings at Mississippi State. He and Jacob Lindgren formed the best setup man-closer tandem in college baseball in 2014. (Lindgren was the setup man, Holder the closer.)

Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked Holder as the 11th best prospect in Mississippi and the 286th best prospect overall for the 2014 draft. The Yankees selected him in the sixth round (182nd overall) and signed him quickly for a $170,000 bonus, below the $237,600 slot value.

Pro Career
Following the draft, Holder made a pair of quick tune-up appearances with the rookie Gulf Coast League Yankees before being moved up to Short Season Staten Island. All told, he had a 3.96 ERA (3.01 FIP) with 22.1% strikeouts and 8.4% walk in 36.1 total innings. Holder threw 89 innings between college and pro ball in 2014.

The Yankees, as they’ve been known to do with relief prospects, moved Holder into the rotation in 2015, his first full pro season. And he pitched really well too. In 118 total innings, almost all with High-A Tampa, Holder had a 2.52 ERA (2.85 FIP) with 18.7% strikeouts and 5.2% walks. It seemed like the conversion took, but alas.

Last season the Yankees moved Holder back to the bullpen full-time, and good golly, he destroyed the minors. He threw 65.1 innings while climbing from High-A Tampa to Triple-A Scranton, and in those 65.1 innings he had a 1.65 ERA (1.30 FIP) with 42.4% strikeouts and 2.9% walks. In his final Triple-A outing, Holder struck out 12 of 13 batters faced as part of a four-inning save that clinched a postseason berth for the RailRiders.

That performance — not just the four-inning save with Triple-A Scranton, the entire season — earned Holder a September call-up. He allowed five runs in 8.1 innings with the Yankees, striking out five and walking four. Not the best big league debut, but that’s okay. Last season was an overwhelming success for Holder overall. No doubt about it.

Scouting Report
Big and physical at 6-foot-2 and 235 lbs., Holder is a three-pitch reliever. He sits 92-94 mph with his fastball and will touch 96 mph, and the pitch has a little sink too. His cutter typically hovers around 90 mph. Holder’s put-away pitch is a big breaking mid-to-upper-70s curveball. The separation between his fastball and curveball is pretty substantial. Here’s some video:

Holder also has a changeup left over from his days as a starter, though he doesn’t use it much in relief at all. He’s a fastball/cutter/curveball guy nowadays. Holder is a classic bulldog on the mound and an extreme strike-thrower. His fastball command is quite good as well. He likes to pitch up in the zone with his heater to get swings and misses.

The Yankees pulled the plug on Holder as a starter not because of the results, those were excellent, but because his stuff backed up big time. His fastball sat closer to 90 mph as a starter and he couldn’t hold that velocity into the middle innings. Some guys are just made for the bullpen. That’s Holder.

2017 Outlook
It’s not often I write a prospect profile about a guy who has already played in the big leagues. Holder debuted last September and he’ll come to Spring Training with a chance to win an Opening Day bullpen spot. In all likelihood, he’ll ride the shuttle all season and go back and forth between Scranton and the Bronx. That’s how pretty much every reliever breaks into the show.

My Take
I love Holder relative to his draft slot, though I’m not sold on him as a high-leverage reliever at the big league level. These days 92-94 mph is not overpowering velocity, and he’s a max effort guy who puts just about everything he has into his fastball to get to that velocity. Also, the curveball is good but not great. It’s not a David Robertson curveball, for example. That’s okay! Holder is a big league caliber reliever and hey, once upon a time I didn’t think Robertson could be a high-leverage guy, so don’t listen to me. Either way, we’re about to see a whole lot of Holder going forward.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Luke Hochevar

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

We are just two weeks away from Spring Training and things are pretty quiet. All the big free agents (but not The Big Piece!) are off the market and most teams are merely filling out their benches, bullpens or simply taking flyers on intriguing talents. The Yankees haven’t made a significant move since they signed Aroldis Chapman a month and a half ago, and it is easy to wonder whether they’re going to make any more before camp starts.

One place where the Yankees have room for improvement is middle relief. Beyond Chapman and Dellin Betances, they have Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard and then an army of unproven young pitchers. Veteran relievers looking to catch on somewhere are in abundance right now. Let’s take a look at Luke Hochevar, who once won the clinching game of a World Series but is coming off a significant injury.

Injury History

There’s a reason the Kansas City Royals didn’t pick up Luke Hochevar’s option this winter despite another strong season for the 33-year-old righty. That reason is a significant surgery, his second in four years. He had surgery in August to fix thoracic outlet syndrome, which involves the compression of nerves near the neck and upper chest/shoulder. Pitchers from Matt Harvey to Tyson Ross to former Yankee Phil Hughes have dealt with TOS in the last year while it essentially ended the career of Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter. However, Royals reliever Chris Young overcame the surgery for an effective second act to his career.

The surgery involves the removal of a rib near the shoulder (here’s more from the Cleveland Clinic if you’re interested). The recovery time takes about six months, so Hochevar is on track to be ready for Spring Training, provided that someone has actually signed him.

Unfortunately for Hochevar, this isn’t his only major surgery in recent years. He lost his entire 2014 season and part of 2015 to Tommy John surgery, four years after he had suffered a partial tear of the UCL ligament but rehabbed it to return. His performance post-TJ surgery was well below his breakout 2013 numbers and are cause for concern. A pitcher two surgeries removed from his best season is no doubt a risk and that likely plays a large role in why he’s on the market right now.

Recent Performance

Hochevar the reliever has been an effective part of a competitive Royals team in the last few seasons. The former No. 1 overall pick made his debut in 2007 against, who else, the Yankees and was a struggling starter with ERAs well above 4.50 from 2008 to 2012.

The conversion to a reliever in 2013 was a revelation. He threw 70 1/3 innings that season, striking out 82 batters and allowing just 60 baserunners en route to a 1.92 ERA (2.96 FIP). He was buoyed a bit by a .214 BABIP, which can be explained in part by a career-best 21.6 percent hard contact rate.

After undergoing Tommy John, Hochevar’s numbers took a step back in 2015 and ’16. His strikeout percentage fell from 31.3 percent in 2013 to 22.9 and 26.5 percent in ’15 and ’16, respectively. His BABIP rose to .298 in 2015 and his ERA shot up to 3.73 (4.00 FIP). He produced a remarkably similar season in 2016 with a 3.86 ERA (4.06 FIP). His peripherals improved with better strikeout and walk rates, but his home run/fly ball rate rose to 12.8 percent. Perhaps the most alarming factor was the rise in hard contact percentage from 24.3 percent in 2015 to 39.4 percent in 2016.

He only threw 37 1/3 innings in 2016 after 61 1/3 (including postseason) in 2015. Hochevar was back to striking out more than a batter per inning and he sported a WHIP of just 1.07 in 2016, but his stuff may have taken a step back.

Present Stuff

When Hochevar was a starter, he had 5-6 pitches, but he cut his repertoire down to just three primary pitches as a reliever, eliminating an ineffective slider and changeup. He now relies on two fastballs (a four-seamer and a cutter) while using a curveball with knuckle curve grip. His fastball velocity jumped from 92.6 mph to 95.5 when he converted to relief pitching, but it is down to 94.4 post-TJ surgery.

Originally a seldom-used pitch, his cutter is now thrown over 40 percent of the time (46.8 last year). The cutter sits in the high 80s and is his go-to pitch because inducing a lot of swings and misses for a cutter. His four-seam fastball wasn’t as effective in 2016 after it used to be his most-used pitch before his Tommy John surgery. The curveball, which he throws with a knuckle curve grip, sits between 75-80 and can get swings and misses. Here are the whiffs per swing for each of his pitches in the last two years, via Brooks Baseball.

brooksbaseball-chart

Last season, his knuckle curve was his most effective pitch with batters posting a paltry 31 wRC+ against it. The opposition hit .205/.280/.329 (76 wRC+) vs. his cutter but had a 208 wRC+ against his four-seamer. His slider, which he only threw 26 times (compared to over 100 times for each of the other pitches), was hit around to the tune of a 244 wRC+. The less he uses the slider, the better.

If you want to see what his stuff looks like, check out the video below. He gets two strikeouts on his curveball and one on a cutter. He really has a lot of bite on the cutter.

Contract Estimate

As mentioned above, the Royals declined their option on Hochevar this offseason. It was worth $7 million and they chose instead to buy him out for $500,000. Assuming Hochevar is, in fact, healthy and ready to go for the spring, he would likely get a one-year, incentive-laden deal. Almost definitely less than that $7 million option, but maybe something around $3-4 million?

If Hochevar wants to bet on himself a bit more, there could also be a team option for the 2018 season. It’s also not hard to see the reliever market bottoming out and relievers like Hochevar having to settle for one-year deals or even MiLB deals.

Does He Fit The Yankees

Hochevar was weirdly connected to the Yankees before the trade deadline this year in conjunction with Carlos Beltran rumors. It didn’t make too much sense for Hochevar, who at the time just had an option for 2017, to be the headline of a return for Beltran, but the rumors may signify some interest from the Yankees’ front office.

Beyond their top four, the Yankees don’t have anything too reliable in their bullpen, not that Hochevar can necessarily be relied upon next year. He would represent a possible upgrade in the middle innings over rookies and other younger 40-man options like Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder. Hochevar can throw multiple innings — he did it only 13 times over the last two years, plus three more times in the 2015 playoffs — but he has thrown fewer and fewer innings each of his last three seasons.

If the Yankees truly see themselves as contenders, a move for a veteran reliever makes a lot of sense with the lack of depth in the rotation and the team’s desire for a dominant bullpen in past years. He has 10 2/3 innings of shutout playoff experience from 2015, whatever that’s worth, and likely doesn’t require a major cash outlay that would affect the team’s desire to get under the luxury tax in the next couple years.