Yanks facing the challenge of monitoring Luis Severino’s workload in 2016

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

During his annual end-of-season press conference, Joe Girardi said one of the ways the Yankees expect to improve next season is by having a full year of Luis Severino. Severino came up in early-August this past season and gave the team 62.1 innings of 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) ball. He was no worse than the Yankees’ second best starter down the stretch. It was pretty cool.

The Yankees will indeed have a full season of Severino in 2016, at least in the sense that he will be with the big league team from Day One. The team will have to monitor his workload to some extent, and unlike last season, the Yankees won’t be able to take advantage of his minor league time. Last summer they limited Severino to short starts in Double-A and Triple-A to make sure enough innings were left for the MLB team.

“I don’t know if there’s a limit, if there is, it’s very short. I don’t know how many innings he ended up with this year, I think 140-ish,” said Girardi at the Winter Meetings last week when asked about Severino’s workload. “We’ll have to watch him, because the rigors of a big league season is different than a minor league season because it’s longer, but I don’t expect a huge limit on him.”

Severino threw 161.2 total innings in 2015, an increase of 48.2 innings from 2014. The Verducci Effect, which says no pitcher should increase their workload by more than 30 innings from one year to the next, is a bit outdated, though obviously there is a point where a big workload increase is dangerous. Every pitcher is different though. The Yankees were comfortable letting Severino increase his workload by 50-ish innings in 2015.

Would the Yankees let Severino increase his workload by another 50 innings next year? That seems unlikely. I can’t imagine they’ll let this kid throw ~210 innings in his age 22 season. Only ten guys have done that in the last quarter century. In fact, if the Yankees let Severino throw even 170 innings next year, he’ll join a pretty exclusive club. Only 25 pitchers have thrown 170 MLB innings in their age 22 season since 2000.

Based on everything I’ve seen the last few years, I’m not sure there’s a good way to limit a pitcher’s workload at the big league level. Well, other than being out of contention and shutting him down in September. That works fine. Skipping starts, short starts … every method comes with its own headaches. Figuring out how to do it with Severino will be a challenge. The Yankees will need him to contend but can’t run him into the ground either.

The Yankees used a spot sixth starter whenever possible this past season and I have no reason to think they won’t do it again next year. That’s one way to control Severino’s workload. I also think the All-Star break is a pretty good opportunity to give a young guy an extended break. It would be possible to give Severino a breather from July 6th until July 19th thanks to the break. It could be July 5th until the 20th with a sixth starter.

Either way, this is something the Yankees will have to address this summer. They did a good job controlling Severino’s workload this season because he started the year in the minors. That won’t be the case next season. The Yankees will have to balance his long-term health with contention, because Severino will be a very important part of the team in both 2016 and beyond.

Yankees should target multi-inning relievers to protect against fragile rotation

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Can Nova be a two or three-inning reliever? (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Do you know who led the Yankees in innings this past season? CC Sabathia. He threw 167.1 of them. That’s the fewest innings thrown by the team leader in a non-strike season in franchise history. Masahiro Tanaka led the Yankees by averaging 6.42 innings per start with Michael Pineda a distant second at 5.95. No other Yankee was over the 5.85 AL average.

Length from the rotation was a big problem last season. We saw it daily and talked about it nearly as often. The bullpen was being asked to get 10-12 outs a night, it seemed. Even if the Yankees do manage to add another starter this offseason, they’ll head into next season with largely the same starting staff, only a year older and with somehow with more health concerns thanks to Nathan Eovaldi‘s season-ending elbow issue.

Getting more innings and length from the rotation is necessary but probably unrealistic. Even when healthy, Eovaldi struggled to complete six innings. Joe Girardi was quick to pull Sabathia after two times through the lineup, and you can be sure Luis Severino will be handled with kid gloves. A few weeks ago Brian Cashman said Ivan Nova was the starter most likely to give the team 200 innings in 2016, which made me laugh until I realized it was true.

The Yankees were able to alleviate the heavy bullpen workload last season with the Scranton shuttle. They always had a fresh reliever or two available because they were swapping out arms almost daily. The Yankees could use the same plan of attack next season — in fact, I’m pretty sure they will — but that only helps so much. Those guys only fill the last bullpen spot or two. They aren’t the core relievers.

Going forward, the best approach may be to load up on potential multi-inning relievers, guys who can go three innings or 50 pitches every three days or so. A long man, but someone good enough to pitch with a small lead (or deficit). The Yankees had the perfect guy for this job in Adam Warren, but he’s gone now. In fact, his new team, the Cubs, now have Warren, Trevor Cahill, and Travis Wood in the bullpen. All three can go multiple innings.

Either the Cubs are ahead of the curve — starters in general are throwing fewer innings each year, so a bullpen of one-inning relievers won’t cut it much longer — or it’s just a coincidence. (It’s the former. Theo Epstein & Co. are pretty smart.) Finding relievers who can throw multiple innings and are good enough to see high-leverage work is really hard. Warren was crazy valuable. Find two or three guys like him will be damn near impossible.

Among players currently in the organization, Nova and Bryan Mitchell stand out as the best candidates for a multi-inning relief role in 2016. Nova has good stuff and rather than stick him in a one-inning role, why not let him face 9-12 batters each time out? That may be the best way to maximize his production. Plus it would keep him stretched out a bit in case he’s needed in the rotation. Same applies to Mitchell.

Looking at free agent possibilities … yeesh. First of all, you have to find guys who probably aren’t good enough to start — if they are good enough to start, they’ll get jobs as starters — but are good enough to throw two or three innings at a time in relief. Tim Lincecum stands out as a candidate for that role, though he’s coming off hip surgery and may not be ready for Spring Training. Joe Blanton? Don’t laugh, he had a 2.04 ERA (2.56 FIP) in 57.1 innings across 32 relief appearances in 2015. Justin Masterson? Carlos Villanueva?

In a perfect world, the bullpen would be something like Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, three guys who can give you two or three innings at a clip and 100-110 innings over the full season, a shuttle reliever, and a mop-up guy for games that get out of hand. That’s not going to happen though. It doesn’t change the fact the Yankees probably won’t get many innings from the rotation next season.

The one-inning middle reliever model is slowly dying. Relievers who can throw multiple innings are no longer luxuries. They’re becoming necessities.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Scott Kazmir

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

The top three free agent pitchers have now signed with new teams, and several second tier options have come off the board as well, most notably Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann, Hisashi Iwakuma, and John Lackey. This is a very good free agent class though, so there are plenty of solid pitchers still on the board, waiting to be signed.

One of them is left-hander Scott Kazmir, whose comeback story is truly remarkable. He was out of baseball almost completely four years ago due to ongoing injury problems, but he got healthy, reinvented himself on the mound, and has put together three very good big league seasons since. Is the current version of Kazmir a fit for the Yankees? Let’s take a look.

The Performance

The Indians brought Kazmir back from baseball purgatory three years ago with a low cost one-year contract. He took advantage and turned it into a two-year contract with the Athletics. Oakland traded him to the Astros at the deadline this past season. Here are Kazmir’s last three seasons.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2013 158.0 4.04 3.51 24.1% 7.0% 40.9% .348 .253
2014 190.1 3.55 3.35 21.1% 6.4% 43.8% .285 .304
2015 183.0 3.10 3.98 20.3% 7.7% 42.9% .285 .337
Total 531.1 3.54 3.61 21.8% 7.1% 42.6% .304 .299

Kazmir is a true fly ball pitcher. He’s not one of those guys with a low ground ball rate who makes up for it by getting a lot of infield pop-ups or something like that. (The pre-2015 version of Michael Pineda, basically.) His pop-up rate the last three years is 7.6%, below the league average, which hovers around 9.0% each year. Kazmir allows a lot of fly balls to the outfield and spacious O.co Coliseum definitely helped his ERA from 2014-15.

That said, Kazmir’s peripherals are pretty good too. His strikeout and walk rates are above-average for a starting pitcher, and his homer rate (0.93 HR/9 and 9.7 HR/FB%) is basically league average. I would expect the homer numbers to climb a bit with a move into Yankee Stadium because of the short porch and stuff. Kazmir hasn’t had a significant platoon split over the last three seasons but he has gotten progressively worse against lefties, which is weird.

So the overall numbers are good, but dig a tiny bit deeper and you’ll see Kazmir is basically a first half hitter. We hear about position players being first or second half hitters all the time, but we rarely hear about first or second half pitchers. Here are Kazmir’s first and second half splits over the last three seasons:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 Opp. Avg/OBP/SLG
First Half 304.2 3.04 3.61 22.9% 7.3% .92 .225/.287/.363
Second Half 226.2 4.21 3.86 20.3% 6.6% .96 .270/.324/.406

Kazmir’s performance has suffered in the second half since he resurfaced, especially the last two years. He had a 2.38 ERA (3.19 FIP) in the first half last year, then a 5.42 ERA (3.61 FIP) in the second half. This past season it was a 2.49 ERA (3.23 FIP) in the first half and a 3.86 ERA (4.90 FIP) in the second half. Given all the injuries he had earlier in this career, it’s entirely possible Kazmir can no longer hold his stuff over a full season, so his performance suffers.

Either way, Kazmir’s overall performance has been very good these last three seasons. So it’s skewed towards the first half. Big deal. The first half counts too. Kazmir can still miss bats and he doesn’t have a platoon split, plus I think the successful comeback — he was limited to 17.1 innings in 2011 by injuries, then pitched in an independent league and winter ball in 2012 in an effort to get noticed — is an indication he’s a pretty tough guy. He’s been through the grinder to get to where he is.

The Change In Stuff

Once upon a time, Kazmir led the AL in strikeouts as a 23-year-old because he had mid-90s gas and one of the best sliders you’ll ever see. That guy is long gone. Kazmir has morphed from a four-seamer/slider pitcher into a four-seamer/sinker/changeup pitcher. He’s also added a little cutter. Kazmir still throws some sliders, but the changeup is his go-to secondary pitch now.

Given his injury history and the way pitchers age in general, I’m not sure looking at Kazmir’s stuff from even three years ago tells us much about him going forward. He turns 32 in January, an age where even healthy pitchers start to slip, so I’m going to focus on his 2015 stuff. Here’s a quick breakdown (MLB averages for starters in parentheses.)

% Thrown Velo. Whiff% GB%
Four-Seamer 31.0% 93.1 (91.9) 10.6% (6.9%) 28.7% (37.9%)
Sinker 26.8% 91.8 (90.8) 6.5% (5.4%) 45.4% (49.5%)
Slider 7.7% 81.7 (84.5) 13.3% (15.2%) 41.9% (43.9%)
Changeup 18.1% 77.0 (83.3) 18.4%  (14.9%) 45.2% (47.8%)
Cutter 12.6% 87.8 (87.2) 11.0% (9.7%) 57.8% (43.0%)

Kazmir generated an above-average number of swings and misses with every pitch but the slider, which is funny because the slider was the pitch he rode to the AL strikeout crown in 2007. The cutter was his only reliable ground ball pitch this past season and it was only his fourth pitch based on usage. That changeup Kazmir now relies on gets an above-average number of whiffs and a league-average-ish number of grounders.

Interestingly, Kazmir is still able to generate above-average fastball velocity despite all those injuries. He has lost some oomph from his halcyon days with the (Devil) Rays, but overall the velocity is still above average. Of course, Kazmir has lost velocity as the season has progressed the last few years, leading to those second half slumps (via Brooks Baseball).

Scott Kazmir velocity

Kazmir’s fastball velocity actually improved as the 2013 season progressed, but the last two years the four-seamer and sinker have faded in the second half. The changeup velocity has faded too, allowing him to maintain that incredible separation with his fastball — the gap between his sinker and change was 14.8 mph in 2015, which is insane — but losing velocity is when bad things happens. Here’s some video of good Kazmir.

The current version of Kazmir is a five-pitch guy with two fastballs, a quality changeup, plus usable fourth (cutter) and fifth (slider) pitches. As cliche as it is, he’s become a pitcher now, getting outs by locating and keeping hitters off balance. Back in the day he used to be able to overpower hitters with his fastball and slider. His stuff was so good. He’s had to adjust due to the injuries and, as the results show these last three seasons, Kazmir’s made that adjustment.

Injury History

The arm injuries first started to set in back in 2006 and they continued through 2010. Kazmir’s back then gave him problems in 2011. Here’s a quick run down of his major injury issues.

2006: Shoulder fatigue and inflammation (52 days missed)
2008: Elbow strain (43 days missed)
2009: Quad strain (37 days missed)
2010: Shoulder soreness (48 days missed) and hamstring strain (24 days missed)
2011: Lower back strain (72 days missed)

Some of the injuries also lingered into the offseason. Kazmir has avoided major injuries the last few years but he has missed a few starts with nagging day-to-day stuff. Some general arm soreness hampered him early last year, and this past season he missed time with a triceps problem. You may remember Kazmir leaving a start against the Yankees after only three innings back in July. That’s when the triceps acted up.

The good news: Kazmir has never had any kind of surgery. He’s just had a lot of strains and fatigue and soreness and stuff like that. This isn’t a guy who had to go under the knife because of major structural damage. Still, Kazmir’s velocity is not what it once was and he’s had to revamp his pitching style to remain effective because the injuries robbed him of stuff. Give him credit for doing it. It doesn’t make his injury history any prettier though.

Contract Estimates

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a pretty big disconnect between how we perceive the market and the actual market. We’re a year or two behind, it seems. Contracts aren’t crazy, we’re just behind. Teams obviously have lots of money to spend and a willingness to spend it. Here are some estimates for Kazmir:

The dollars make perfect sense to me. I think Bowden’s $16.5M average annual value projection is closest to what Kazmir will actually get. (Remember, Samardzija got $18M per year.) The years are where it gets interesting. You want to keep it to three years because Kazmir’s had so many injury problems and he’s faded in the second half the last two years, but in this market he has every reason to ask for four years.

I get the feeling this is going to be one of those “the team that offers the fourth year is the team that gets him” situations. Kazmir is arguably the top pitcher left on the free agent market — it’s either Kazmir, Mike Leake, or Wei-Yin Chen at this point — and that gives him some leverage. The Dodgers and Cardinals figure to be in the mix, among others.

Wrapping Up

Kazmir’s reinvention really fascinates me. The guy has carved out a successful MLB career with two totally different pitching styles before his 32nd birthday. He still has velocity but has gotten away from relying on overpowering hitters, so in theory he should age better, assuming he stays healthy. At the same time, his arm feels like a ticking time bomb.

The Yankees have not been connected to Kazmir or really any free agent so far this offseason. They do need rotation help and Kazmir won’t require a substantial commitment, but he’s not going to be cheap either. The Yankees would have to change their “we’re not spending” approach to get him. Odds of that happening? Pretty small, I’d say.

Kazmir fits the Yankees because he’s quite good, first and foremost, plus he’s also a Yankee Stadium friendly left-hander who is familiar with the AL East to some extent. (It’s been a while since he was with Tampa though.) That said, I’m not sure another pitcher with health concerns who isn’t a lock for a lot of innings moves the needle much. The Yankees need reliability.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

After two months and 43 posts — assuming I tagged everything properly along the way — our 2015 Season Review series finally came to an end today. Here’s the archive in case you missed anything. And with that, my attention officially turns to the rest of the offseason and the 2016 season. The Yankees still have work to do this winter, particularly on the pitching side. Two months and two days until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, as the countdown in the sidebar says.

Here is the nightly open thread. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, plus there’s some college hoops on the schedule as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Jason Heyward’s comments suggest Yankees never really had a chance to sign him

(David Banks/Getty)
(David Banks/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon, the Cubs officially introduced outfielder Jason Heyward with a press conference at Wrigley Field. His eight-year, $184M contract is now official. The brain trust gave Heyward a jersey, both sides said they’re excited … you know the press conference drill. There were many smiles. A good time was had by all.

At one point during the press conference Heyward was inevitably asked about the Cardinals, his former team, who tried desperately to re-sign him. Here’s what Heyward had to say about St. Louis, according to Jesse Rogers:

“Being 26 years old and knowing that my contract would put me in any clubhouse for longer than most people there, you have to look at age, how fast the team is changing and how soon those changes will come about.”

“The St. Louis Cardinals are always going to be a great organization, and I don’t think anyone would ever be surprised if they win a World Series any year,” Heyward said. “[But] if I were to look up in three years and saw a completely different team, that would be kind of different for me.”

Rogers says Heyward then rattled off a list of Cardinals veterans who either won’t be around in a few years, or will no longer be significant contributors. Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina … guys like that. Players who have formed the core of the Cardinals teams that have gone to the playoffs six times in the last seven years, winning one World Series (2011) and going to another (2013).

In a nutshell, Heyward said he didn’t want to go somewhere where a bunch of roster turnover would soon take place. “I don’t want to take the highest dollar amount when my gut is telling me to go somewhere else,” he added. The Cubs will pay Heyward handsomely, and yet Jeff Passan reports he turned down three larger offers to go to Chicago, including two $200M+ offers. Other teams can not offer the kind of young core the Cubbies boast, however.

The Yankees are in a similar situation as the Cardinals. (Yes, the Cardinals have had more recent success, yadda yadda yadda.) They’re going to lose a lot of key veterans in the coming years, starting with Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran next year. Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia (and maybe Masahiro Tanaka) will be gone the next offseason. Eventually Brian McCann‘s workload as the starting catcher will be scaled back too.

The Yankees are currently making an effort to get younger, and perhaps in two or three years they’ve have the kind of young core Heyward was looking for this offseason. They don’t have it right now though. Heyward’s a very good player who would have been a huge addition to the Yankees. The Yankees were not a good fit for Heyward though, not if his comments about looking for a team with a stable young core were sincere.

Prospect Profile: Luis Cessa

(Toledo Blade)
(Toledo Blade)

Luis Cessa | RHP

Background
The Mets originally signed Cessa as a 16-year-old shortstop out of Mexico in June 2008. I can’t find any information about his signing bonus, though Cessa was not a significant amateur prospect, so chances are the bonus was relatively small.

Pro Career
Cessa spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons in the Dominican Summer League and he didn’t hit, putting up a .178/.319/.229 batting line in 57 total games. The Mets put an end to his shortstop days and decided to try to take advantage of his arm on the mound. Cessa converted to pitching for the 2011 season.

In his first year as a moundsman, Cessa had a 3.19 ERA (2.64 FIP) in 53.2 rookie ball innings. He moved up to the Short Season NY-Penn League in 2012 and managed a 2.53 ERA (3.51 FIP) in 13 starts and 72.1 innings. The Mets bumped Cessa up to their Low Class-A affiliate in 2013 and he responded with a 3.20 ERA (3.14 FIP) in 21 starts and 130 innings. The pitching thing was working out.

The 2014 season saw Cessa pitch to a 4.26 ERA (3.76 FIP) in 118.1 innings, almost all at High-A. (He made one spot start in Double-A.) The Mets opted not to add him to their 40-man roster after the season and the gamble paid off — Cessa went unpicked in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft. He was assigned to the club’s Double-A affiliate to start 2015.

Cessa broke out this past season, pitching to a 2.56 ERA (2.69 FIP) in 13 starts and 77.1 Double-A innings. The Mets moved him up Triple-A for five starts (8.51 ERA and 3.85 FIP), then traded him to the Tigers as the second piece in the Yoenis Cespedes deal. Cessa made seven more Triple-A starts with the Tigers (5.97 ERA and 3.40 FIP) after the trade.

All told, Cessa had a 4.52 ERA (3.08 FIP) in 25 starts and 139.1 innings this season between the Mets and Tigers, Double-A and Triple-A. His strikeout (19.6%) and walk (5.9%) rates were right in line with his career averages (19.6 K% and 5.1 BB%). The Yankees acquired Cessa from the Tigers in the Justin Wilson trade last week.

Scouting Report
Most position player-to-pitcher conversion guys are hard throwers with no real idea where the ball is going. That doesn’t really describe Cessa. The 23-year-old right-hander has a low-90s fastball and will touch 95 mph regularly, and he throws both a changeup and a slider. The change is the more reliable of the two secondary pitches — the Mets had him emphasize the changeup over the years — but the slider flashes above-average potential.

Cessa has a good pitcher’s body at 6-foot-3 and 190 lbs., and he has the kind of athleticism you’d expect from a former shortstop. His delivery is really smooth and he does a very good job repeating it. Most converted guys short arm the ball or have herky jerky motions. Not Cessa.

The delivery and athleticism give Cessa very good control and solid command. He throws strikes and can spot his fastball well, though the changeup and slider command are still improving. Cessa took to pitching quickly, so I guess it’s no surprise he has a reputation for being coachable and having a strong work ethic.

2016 Outlook
The Tigers did not roll the dice like the Mets last year. Detroit added Cessa to the 40-man roster last month to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, so he is on New York’s 40-man right now. That means he’ll be in big league camp next spring and I’m sure we’ll see him often, especially if bullpen jobs are up for grabs. More than likely, Cessa will head to Triple-A Scranton and be an up-and-down arm in 2016. Depending what happens with Bryan Mitchell, Cessa could be as high as seventh on the rotation depth chart come Opening Day.

My Take
I didn’t know a whole lot about Cessa before the trade so I haven’t had much time to form an opinion. He’s certainly not a high ceiling prospect. He’s more of a back-end starter who succeeds by limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground (51.2% ground ball rate in 2015). Cessa does give the Yankees something they lack though: Triple-A rotation depth. The system has been short on arms for a while now and Cessa helps address the upper level depth problem.

The Suddenly Productive Farm System [2015 Season Review]

Judge at the Futures Game. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Judge at the Futures Game. (Rob Carr/Getty)

This past season the Yankees received more production from their farm system than they did in any year since Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang arrived in 2005. And because of that, they’ll take a hit in the various farm system rankings next spring. Top prospects Luis Severino and Greg Bird graduated to MLB, as did the since traded John Ryan Murphy.

When you lose two high-end talents like Severino and Bird to the big leagues, your system is going to take a hit. That’s life. You’d rather the system take a hit because of graduations than failing prospects, and in recent years the Yankees were dealing with too much of the latter. With new farm system head Gary Denbo in charge, the system took a step forward this summer and gave the MLB team help, the kind of help that wasn’t always available in recent years. Let’s review the season on the farm.

The Top Prospect

Coming into the season it was debatable whether Severino or OF Aaron Judge was the Yankees’ top prospect. I went with Judge for a number of reasons, including the inherent injury risk with pitchers. Severino zoomed to the big leagues this summer while Judge split the season between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, hitting .258/.332/.446 (124 wRC+) with 20 home runs in 127 total games.

Judge dominated the Double-A level (147 wRC+ with 12 HR in 63 games) but had a tougher time in Triple-A (98 wRC+ with 8 HR in 61 games), which isn’t all that uncommon. He was facing pitchers with big league experience for the first time and they picked him apart, mostly by taking advantage of his big strike zone — Judge is 6-foot-7, remember — with high fastballs and soft stuff away.

Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, Judge’s strikeout rate did not spike in Triple-A, at least not insanely so. He had a 25.3% strikeout rate at High-A, a 25.0% strikeout rate in Double-A, and a 28.5% strikeout rate in Triple-A. That’s three extra strikeouts per 100 plate appearances. Judge did have some ugly strikeout heavy slumps with the RailRiders, but overall the strikeout increase was not alarming.

That isn’t to say Judge’s strikeouts aren’t an issue. He’s always going to strike out a lot, he’s a huge guy with a big zone, but you’d rather see him hover around 25.0 K% rather than 28.0+ K% long-term. The power is there though. Judge hit three more homers and two more doubles in 2015 than 2014 despite getting 23 fewer plate appearances, playing against better competition, and playing in worse hitters parks.

The less than stellar showing at Triple-A ensures Judge will return to the RailRiders to start 2016 so he can work on controlling the strike zone a little better (his 9.8% walk rate was above-average, for what it’s worth) and laying off soft stuff off the plate. Judge has big power and his right field defense is easy to overlook. He’s a really good athlete with a strong arm who’s an asset in the field. Hiccup in Triple-A notwithstanding, Judge remains New York’s top prospect in my book.

Mateo. (Jerry Coli)
Mateo. (Jerry Coli)

The Big Name Breakout Prospects

It’s weird to consider C Gary Sanchez a breakout prospect because he’s been one of the best prospects in the organization for a few years now, but a few things finally clicked this year, mostly in terms of his maturity. It helped him reach the big leagues in September. Sanchez is now a candidate — if not the favorite — to replace Murphy as the Brian McCann‘s backup next summer.

SS Jorge Mateo, another one of the team’s top prospects, also broke out this past season in the sense that he played his first full season. The 20-year-old speedster hit .278/.345/.392 (114 wRC+) with a minor league leading 82 steals in 99 attempts (83% success rate) in 117 games with (mostly) Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. No other player stole more than 75 bases this year. If you want to argue Mateo (or Sanchez) is the Yankees’ top prospect and not Judge, I’d disagree, but I’d understand.

A few years ago RHP Rookie Davis was an interesting name literally because of his name. His real name is William but a nickname like Rookie gets you noticed. Davis took a big step forward this year, especially with the command of his mid-90s heater/curveball combination. Walk rate is a control stat, not a command stat, though it is notable he cut his walk rate from 7.6% last year to 4.7% his year. Davis had a 3.86 ERA (2.47 FIP) in 130.2 innings with High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton.

OF Dustin Fowler, 20, also made the jump from sleeper to bonafide prospect this summer by hitting .298/.334/.394 (113 wRC+) with 20 doubles, five homers, and 30 stolen bases in 123 games at Low-A and High-A. He then had a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. Fowler has been playing baseball full-time for only two years now — he was also a top football recruit in high school — and he’s starting to turn his power/speed/defense tool package into baseball ability.

And finally, the biggest breakout prospect of the summer was OF Ben Gamel, who’s spent the last few years as a depth player and not an actual prospect. Thee 23-year-old hit .300/.358/.472 (138 wRC+) with 28 doubles, 14 triples, ten homers, and 13 steals in 129 games, all at Triple-A. Gamel’s power finally started to blossom and he’s now a legitimate big league candidate. He and Davis were added to the 40-man roster last month.

The Emerging Depth

Farm systems will always be defined by their star power, that’s just the way it goes, though depth is important as well. The Yankees had several lower profile prospects — guys who don’t necessarily project to be stars but do have a chance to contribute at the big league level in a meaningful way — emerge this summer, including SS Tyler Wade, RHP Brady Lail, LHP Jordan Montgomery, RHP Cale Coshow, and RHP Domingo Acevedo.

Wade. (The Times of Trenton)
Wade. (The Times of Trenton)

Wade, 21, had an ugly 21-game cameo with Double-A Trenton (37 wRC+) late in the season after a strong showing with High-A Tampa (117 wRC+). He hit .262/.321/.333 (99 wRC+) in 127 total games overall in 2015 and is a contact-oriented left-handed hitting middle infielder with the defensive chops for either side of the second base bag. At the very least, Wade is in position to have a long career as a backup infielder.

The 22-year-old Lail is a major player development success for the Yankees. He was the team’s 18th round pick in the 2012 draft as an extremely raw high schooler from Utah. The Yankees have helped mold him into a four-pitch righty who is in position to give the team serviceable innings soon. Lail had a 2.91 ERA (3.51 FIP) in 148.1 innings for Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton in 2015, though he didn’t miss any bats (13.8 K%). He offers a fastball, curveball, cutter, and changeup. The ceiling is not all that high here, but Lail can help.

Unsurprisingly, the 22-year-old Montgomery was one of the best pitchers in the system this season, posting a 2.95 ERA (2.61 FIP) with very good strikeout (24.1%) and walk (6.6%) rates in 134 innings at Low-A and High-A. Montgomery spent three years in South Carolina’s rotation facing tough SEC lineups, so Single-A lineups were no challenge. He’s another four-pitch guy (fastball, cutter, curve, change) and we’ll find out if Montgomery is for real next season, when he heads to Double-A Trenton.

Coshow is an interesting prospect. For starters, the guy is listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 lbs., so he’s an intimidating presence on the mound. Secondly, he had a 2.45 ERA (2.80 FIP) with good strikeout (21.5%) and walk (6.2%) numbers in 114 innings at three levels in 2015. He topped out at Double-A. Coshow, 23, performed so well the Yankees moved him from a relief role into a starting role at midseason. He’s got a huge fastball, sitting 95-97 and hitting 100 mph in relief, and he backs it up with a wipeout slider. I don’t think Coshow’s a starter long-term, but gosh, that’s a nice looking relief prospect.

And finally, the 21-year-old Acevedo is either one of the best prospects in the organization or just an interesting arm with a long way to go, depending who you ask. Acevedo had a 1.81 ERA (2.89 FIP) with a lot of strikeouts (26.6%) and an average number of walks (7.9%) in 49.2 innings with mostly Short Season Staten Island this summer. He’s another huge guy (6-foot-7) who has touched triple digits, and his changeup is pretty good too. Acevedo needs to figure out a breaking ball at some point to avoid a future in the bullpen.

The Reclamation Prospects

At this time last year both OF Mason Williams and OF Slade Heathcott were afterthoughts. Williams didn’t hit at all from 2013-14 and he was dogged by maturity issues. Heathcott simply couldn’t stay healthy. The two came to Spring Training healthy this year and with positive attitudes, and they put themselves back on the prospect map. Both made their MLB debuts in the first half. It might not sound like much, but Williams and Heathcott went from non-factors to the show in about six months. That’s pretty darn cool.

The Best of the Rest

The Yankees had to be pleased with what they saw from 3B Eric Jagielo (141 wRC+ with Double-A Trenton) before he jammed his knee sliding into home plate in June and had to have it scoped, ending his season. Jagielo’s defense is still a huge question, but the guy can hit, especially for power. IF Abi Avelino and IF Thairo Estrada both had nice seasons in the low minors — Avelino stole 54 bases and Estrada had a 108 wRC+ with Short Season Staten Island.

OF Rob Refsnyder, LHP Jacob Lindgren, and RHP Bryan Mitchell gave the Yankees some mileage at the big league level, and the team turned OF Ramon Flores and RHP Jose Ramirez into Dustin Ackley. The 2014-15 international spending spree added a bevy of prospects to the system and the 2015 draft added even more talent, with RHP James Kaprielian, SS Wilkerman Garcia, RHP Drew Finley, SS Hoy Jun Park, 3B Dermis Garcia, and RHP Chance Adams among the most notable new additions. Also, 2B Tony Renda came over in the David Carpenter trade.

The Disappointing Prospects

It’s not all good news, of course. Several prospects had disappointing seasons, most notably OF Tyler Austin. He hit .240/.315/.343 (92 wRC+) in 94 regular season games and was demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Double-A Trenton at midseason. The Yankees dropped Austin from the 40-man roster in September and he slipped through waivers unclaimed.

3B Miguel Andujar did the bad first half/good second half thing again, though the end result was a .243/.288/.363 (98 wRC+) line in 130 High-A Tampa games. At some point Andujar has to put together a full productive season. Bonus baby OF Leonardo Molina hit .247/.290/.364 (96 wRC+) while repeating the Rookie Gulf Coast League. Age is on his side though — Molina turned 18 in July. Yes, he’s still only 18. Austin, Andujar, and Molina were the biggest disappointments among the team’s top 30 prospects.

Clarkin. (MLB.com screen grab)
Clarkin. (MLB.com screen grab)

The Inevitable Injures

Injuries are part of baseball. That’s just the way it is. The Yankees had several high-profile prospects suffer significant injuries in 2015. LHP Ian Clarkin (elbow inflammation), C Luis Torrens (shoulder surgery), RHP Domingo German (Tommy John surgery), RHP Austin DeCarr (Tommy John surgery), and RHP Ty Hensley (Tommy John surgery) combined for zero regular season games played this year. Zero.

That is two of the top six, three of the top eleven, and five of the top 18 prospects in the organization according to my preseason rankings. (Four of the top seven pitching prospects!) Ouch. Literally and figuratively. On the bright side, Clarkin did avoid the zipper and was able to throw 24.2 innings in the Arizona Fall League. But still, that’s a lot of really good prospects going down with major injuries. The Clarkin and Torrens injuries really took a bite out of the system. They have the most upside.

* * *

Overall, the 2015 season was a big success for the Yankees’ farm system because they graduated some impact talent to the big leagues. Severino and Bird look like keepers and future core players. Murphy had a very good season before being traded a few weeks ago. Sanchez and Mateo emerged, Kaprielian was drafted, and Judge reached Triple-A.

The Yankees dipped into their farm system for help whenever possible this season, and I have to think that serves as motivation for the guys still in the minors. They see that if they stay healthy and produce, they’ll get a chance too. Calling up guys like LHP Matt Tracy and OF Taylor Dugas shows the Yankees will now give anyone and everyone an opportunity if they’re the right man for the job.