Judge’s hot streak is a good sign for his development, not a sign he should be called up

Glow in the dark jersey night! (Jason Farmer/Times Tribune)
Glow in the dark jersey night! (Jason Farmer/Times Tribune)

What a difference four weeks makes. At this time four weeks ago, Aaron Judge was mired in an ugly 0-for-24 slump with Triple-A Scranton, a slump that saw his season batting line dip to .221/.285/.372 (87 wRC+) with a 26.2% strikeout rate through 221 plate appearances. He hit .224/.308/.373 (98 wRC+) with a 28.5% strikeout rate in 260 plate appearances at the same level last year. His performance was going backwards.

Now, four weeks since the end of that 0-for-24 slump, Judge has raised his season batting line to .266/.352/.493 (141 wRC+) in 324 plate appearances while cutting his strikeout rate down to 23.8%. He’s in the middle of a monster home run tear, going deep four times in his last five games, six times in his last ten games, and nine times in his last 15 games. Last night’s homer was a bomb that scared a bird:

Four weeks ago folks were discussing whether Judge’s development was stalling out. We even got a few mailbag questions asking about a possible demotion. Now, after this home run binge, everyone wants him called up. Alex Rodriguez is on the bench and Carlos Beltran is spending more time at DH, creating an opening in right field. Judge is a perfect fit. (Assuming he doesn’t get the Rob Refsnyder treatment, of course.)

“I’m not sure yet,” said Brian Cashman to Ryan Hatch yesterday when asked about the possibility of Judge being promoted. “He’s on a really nice roll right now. There’s some things he’s definitely improved upon, but our first alternative is to see what (Aaron) Hicks can do. And Refsnyder, in fairness.”

The Yankees haven’t given us a reason to think a Judge promotion is imminent, but his recent tear makes this a conversation worth having. After all, once a guy starts producing in Triple-A, that makes him a big league option. Here are three thoughts on the matter.

1. Let’s not overreact to small sample sizes. We go through this every year. A few great weeks does not mean a prospect deserves to be promoted the same way a few awful weeks doesn’t mean he deserves to be demoted. Every player has peaks and valleys throughout the season. When it comes to prospects we don’t watch every single day, the normal ebb and flow of the season can be easily misconstrued as a change in skills. Most of the time it’s just baseball being baseball. We have to keep that in mind.

2. Judge is still making adjustments. Over the winter we heard Judge spent a bunch of time in Tampa working with the player development staff, most notably minor league hitting instructor James Rowson, making adjustments to help him handle soft stuff away. He’s a massive human with a lot of strike zone to cover, and experienced Triple-A pitchers picked Judge apart with soft speed stuff on the outer half.

As a result of that work, Judge showed up to Spring Training with a new leg kick. He also lowered his hands ever so slightly. Here’s a GIF I made back in March. The clip on the left is from Spring Training 2015 and the clip on the right is from Spring Training 2016. The bigger leg kick is impossible to miss.

Aaron Judge 2015 vs 2016

Now here’s the thing: Judge is still making adjustments to his setup and stance at the plate. Did you notice his hands in the home run video above? Take a look at how he’s setting up now:

Aaron Judge hands

The umpire’s black uniform makes it tough to see, but Judge has his hands way out in front now. Before they were up high around his shoulder. Now they’re out in front of his chest and he’s pointing the bat straight up in the air. That’s an awfully big difference, no? Yes, yes it is.

“He made an adjustment to (his) hands,” said Refsnyder to Chad Jennings recently when asked about Judge’s recent home run binge. “I think it was something with his shoulders to get his hands adjusted, to make sure his hands get to the ball as efficiently as possible.”

All the adjustments he’s made this year — the leg kick, lowering his hands, etc. — show Judge is still in the process of finding out what works best for him at the plate. He deserves to be given more time to figure things out. Judge is a very unique prospect because of his size. He’s not your normal college bat. The fact he’s made so many adjustments is encouraging and shows he’s not only a hard worker, but has good baseball aptitude. Give him more time to get comfortable.

3. Not calling him up now doesn’t mean not calling him up ever. As it stands right now, bringing Judge up to the show would essentially be asking him to be a savior. Fair or not, he’d be looked at as someone the Yankees hope will improve their generally underwhelming offense. That’s a lot to put on a young player making his MLB debut — “hey kid, go save the Yankees’ season, and if you don’t, you’re a bum!” — even a young player as impressive as Judge.

That doesn’t mean Judge should not be called up at all. The Yankees have players ahead of him on the right field depth chart (Hicks, Refsnyder, Ben Gamel, etc.) and Judge is still make adjustments, so they can afford to be patient. The team seems much more likely to slip further back in the postseason race than climb back into it, so come the trade deadline, the perception may shift from “Judge is a savior” to “it’s time to look towards the future.” There’s a big difference there. Anything the Yankees can do to ease the jump to MLB is a plus in my book.

* * *

For now, the only thing Judge’s hot streak shows is that he’s capable of recognizing his flaws and making adjustments, and that’s pretty rad. The hot streak does not mean he belongs in the big leagues the same way the cold streak didn’t mean he was a bust. The right field job is wide open for Judge next season and that’s exciting, and yes, it would behoove the Yankees to get his feet wet in the show at some point this year, even if he’s only a September call-up.

The perception of Judge has changed dramatically these last few weeks because of his performance, which went from extremely bad to extremely good seemingly overnight. The home run binge sure is fun, but the Yankees should give their prized youngster some more time in Triple-A to figure out what works best for him, something they didn’t really do with Luis Severino. It’s pretty clear Judge is still working on things.

The Yankees could use a 2005-esque shake-up, but they don’t have a lot of options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Eleven years ago the Yankees had a truly miserable start to their season. They opened the 2005 season by losing 19 of their first 30 games and falling nine games back in the AL East. Nine back after 30 games! Needless to say, fans were pretty uneasy because that slow start followed the 2004 ALCS collapse. It was not a good time around these parts. No siree.

The 2005 Yankees rebounded of course, winning 84 of 132 games following the 11-19 start. Two reasons they turned it around were a pair of early-May call-ups: Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang. The Yankees shook things up and were rewarded when Cano and Wang had an immediate impact. Robbie hit .297/.320/.458 (105 wRC+) in 132 games and Wang had a 4.02 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 116.1 innings. They gave the team a real shot in the arm.

Getting Wang into the rotation was pretty easy because Jaret Wright got hurt. (Remember when Wright failed his physical and George Steinbrenner signed him anyway because he thought it would lure Leo Mazzone to New York? Good times.) Getting Cano into the lineup took more creativity. The Yankees moved Tony Womack to left field, Hideki Matsui to center field, and basically benched Bernie Williams, who was nearing the end of the line.

The 2016 Yankees, like the 2005 team, have gotten off to a terrible start. They’re 8-15 overall and have lost 13 of their last 17 games. The AL East is much more competitive these days too. Back in 2005 it was the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a bunch of pushovers. Erasing that nine-game deficit was much easier. The current Yankees are six games back in the division with four good teams ahead of them. It’ll be an uphill climb, that’s for sure.

Given their sluggish start and the fact the Yankees have underachieved on both sides of the ball in the early going — the offense has been far worse than the pitching, but the rotation hasn’t been all that good either — the team could use an early-May shake-up like the one the 2005 team received. The problem? The Yankees don’t have a Cano and/or Wang waiting in Triple-A. There’s not much depth at the positions of obvious need. Here are some shake-up ideas.

Give A Young Outfielder Regular Playing Time

If there’s one thing the Yankees have in Triple-A, it’s outfield depth. Both Ben Gamel (136 wRC+) and Aaron Judge (125 wRC+) are off to nice starts, though Slade Heathcott (41 wRC+) has mostly struggled. The Yankees also have Aaron Hicks at the big league level, though he hasn’t played much for a variety of reasons. (Hicks may not seem young, but he’s only a year older than Heathcott.)

Brett Gardner (110 wRC+) has been one of New York’s most productive hitters in the early going. Jacoby Ellsbury (85 wRC+) and Carlos Beltran (91 wRC+) have not. Beltran has really struggled of late. He has a 16 wRC+ over the last two weeks. Yikes. Sitting Ellsbury and/or Beltran more often in favor of Hicks or Gamel or Judge or whoever is one way to change the lineup and get some young legs on the field.

I think the best way to go about this is to use a regular rotation that also includes Alex Rodriguez and the DH spot. Something like this, perhaps:

LF CF RF DH
Game One Gardner Ellsbury Beltran A-Rod
Game Two Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod
Game Three Gardner Young OF Beltran A-Rod
Game Four Gardner Ellsbury Young OF Beltran
Game Five Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod

Ellsbury, A-Rod, and the young outfielder would be playing four out of every five games while Beltran is reduced to playing three times out of every five games, with only two of three starts coming in the outfield. Gardner stays in there full-time because, you know, he’s actually been good this year. The Yankees reduced Bernie’s playing time in 2005 and it’s time to start thinking about doing the same with Beltran.

Calling up Gamel or Judge or Heathcott requires a roster move and cutting someone else loose, and it’s a little too early for that, I think. I’d start by playing Hicks more often. No, he hasn’t hit in the early going (-47 wRC+!), but it’s 28 plate appearances in 23 games. This is a guy who hit .256/.323/.398 (97 wRC+) with eleven homers and 13 steals last year, and we’ve already seen the kind of impact he can have at defense.

Hicks is not going to get his bat going while sitting on the bench. He’s been an everyday player his entire career. This bench thing is new to him. With two of three starting outfielders not really hitting and the team reeling, it’s time to see what Hicks can do with regular at-bats. The Yankees need to figure out what they have in him.

Stick Headley On The Bench

I’ve defended Headley as much as anyone but I can’t do it any longer. He’s been atrocious this year, hitting .156/.267/.156 (24 wRC+) with nary an extra-base hit in 75 plate appearances. As Jared Diamond pointed out yesterday, Headley is only the 13th player in history to start May with a sub-.150 slugging percentage in at least 70 plate appearances. That’s brutal.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

I don’t care how good a player is on defense — Headley has rebounded quite well in the field after last year’s error-fest — there is a minimum acceptable standard on offense and Headley is not meeting it. The Yankees can talk all they want about the quality of his at-bats or how close they think he is to snapping out of it. The bottom line is this is a results oriented business and Headley’s results have been dreadful one month into the season.

The problem at third base is the Yankees don’t have an obvious replacement. Womack stunk back in 2005 and Cano was the obvious candidate to take over. Who can replace Headley at third? Ronald Torreyes? Moving players with bench player skill sets into a full-time role usually turns out poorly. Rob Refsnyder? Pete Kozma? Donovan Solano? Solano is hitting .312/.341/.351 (100 wRC+) in Triple-A, you know.

Since no obvious replacement exists, I’d go with the highest upside candidate: Refsnyder. He’s new to third base — he’s played 153.1 career innings at the hot corner between Spring Training and Triple-A — and his defense is rough, but he might actually hit. Stick him at third, get three at-bats out of him, then pull for defense in the sixth-ish inning. When you hit as poorly as Headley has, you losing playing time. That’s the way it should work.

(Yes, I know Refsnyder hasn’t hit much in Triple-A this year. I’m not too concerned about that though. It’s been cold in Scranton and he’s spent a lot of time learning a new position. As long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll be fine.)

Play Ackley or Swisher?

One the biggest reasons the Yankees scored the second most runs in baseball last year were bounceback seasons from A-Rod and Mark Teixeira. A-Rod was suspended for the entire 2014 season and no one knew what to expect from him in 2015. Teixeira was terrible in the second half of 2014. He hit .179/.271/.302 (63 wRC+) with only five homers after the All-Star break that year.

Dustin Ackley hasn’t played a whole lot this year (18 plate appearances!) because it’s tough to get him into the lineup. He’s stuck in the same role as Garrett Jones last year. Teixeira and A-Rod are not doing much damage right now — Rodriguez has looked much better of late, to be fair — and giving Ackley some of their at-bats could spark the offense. This would complicate the outfield plan outlined above. That’s not worth worrying about right now.

The alternative here would be Nick Swisher, who owns a .340/.370/.540 (167 wRC+) batting line with three homers down in Triple-A. I can’t say I put much stock in a 12-year veteran mashing minor league pitching though. Swisher has two bad knees and he’s hit .204/.291/.326 (75 wRC+) in the big leagues the last two years. Call him up and I suspect you’ll get closer to 2014-15 MLB Swisher than 2016 Triple-A Swisher.

This is where Greg Bird‘s injury really hurts. Calling up Bird to take at-bats away from Teixeira and A-Rod would be far more realistic and, likely, far more successful than the Ackley/Swisher plan. With those two you’re just hoping small sample size success translates to long-term success. Ackley was terrible all those years with the Mariners before raking in pinstripes in September. Swisher was bad from 2014-15 and has had a few good weeks in Triple-A. That’s all it is.

The Yankees have had some success turning veterans who looked washed up into useful players (see Chavez, Eric), so we shouldn’t completely write off Swisher as a possibility. Either way, Ackley or Swisher, taking at-bats away from A-Rod or Teixeira is one potential way to inject some life into the offense. For what it’s worth, I think this is the least likely suggestion in this post.

* * *

I’m not sure what the Yankees could do to shake-up the pitching staff other than maybe swap out some relievers. I guess they could replace Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, or Luis Severino with Ivan Nova. My guess is Nova’s going to end up making a bunch of starts at some point anyway. Point is, the Yankees have reached the point where some kind of change needs to be made. The problem is they don’t have a lot of internal options. What you see is what you’re going to get with this team.

A-Rod and Hicks injuries create some short-term roster headaches for the Yankees

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The just completed nine-game homestand did not go well for the Yankees. Not at all. They lost six times in the nine games, and, over the weekend, they lost both Alex Rodriguez and Aaron Hicks to injury. A-Rod hurt his oblique taking swings in the indoor batting cage between at-bats Sunday, and Hicks jammed his shoulder attempting a diving catch Friday.

The good news is neither A-Rod nor Hicks suffered a serious long-term injury. The MRI on A-Rod’s oblique came back negative, and he did travel with the team to Texas for their upcoming series with the Rangers. Hicks’ MRI showed “traumatic bursitis,” which sounds a lot worse than it really is. He received a cortisone shot and is only expected to miss a few days.

That A-Rod and Hicks only suffered day-to-day injuries is good news. The bad news is the two simultaneous injuries create some roster headaches for the Yankees. They have 23 healthy players on their 25-man roster right now, which means only a two-man bench. Playing short for a few days while one player nurses an injury is one thing. Playing short two position players is very different.

“That would be pretty hard to do … Playing two short would be really difficult,” said Joe Girardi to Daniel Popper following yesterday’s game. The Yankees said they were not going to make an immediate roster move when they announced the results of A-Rod’s MRI last night, but the key word there is immediate. They could still make a move prior to tonight’s game and I expect they will.

What I think will happen and what I think should happen are different things. I think the Yankees will place Hicks on the DL and ride out A-Rod’s injury for a few days. I think the Yankees should place both Hicks and A-Rod on the DL to not only avoid playing short-handed, but also to give the two players as much time as necessary to get healthy. A DL stint means no temptation to bring them back early.

Remember, oblique injuries are very tricky and very easy to re-aggravate. Plus A-Rod is 40 now, and 40-year-olds tend to take longer to heal that 25-year-olds. I can’t help but feel like something the Yankees believe will keep Alex out for, say, four or five days will end up sidelining him for nine or ten days. Same with Hicks to a lesser extent. He won’t be back until the end of the week at the earliest based on the five or six day timetable the team threw out there.

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

The Yankees have 40-man roster flexibility — they have one open spot thanks to Aroldis Chapman‘s suspension, plus two 60-day DL candidates (Greg Bird, Bryan Mitchell) and likely a third (Branden Pinder) — and a bunch of call-up options in Triple-A. A right-handed hitter(s) who can play a little outfield would be ideal, though not completely necessary. Here are the main candidates:

1. Nick Swisher. Swisher has raked in his short time with Triple-A Scranton (175 wRC+), which is good to see, but be careful not to read too much into a 12-year veteran mashing Triple-A pitching. He’s healthy and that’s good. Swisher also stunk the last two years and his knees are shot, so he’s basically a first baseman and DH at this point. (He hasn’t played the outfield at all with Scranton.) Also, Swisher can’t be sent back down when Hicks and A-Rod are healthy.

2. Ben Gamel. Gamel is a left-handed hitter and the Yankees already have three of those in the outfield if you include Dustin Ackley. He has hit this year though (118 wRC+), and he’s far better suited to play right field than Ackley. In a perfect world Carlos Beltran will slide into the DH spot full-time while A-Rod is on the shelf. Gamel may be the best option in terms of expected performance on both sides of the ball.

3. Aaron Judge. Well, if the Yankees want a right-handed batter, Judge would fit the bill. He’s played well in the early going (125 wRC+) despite some strikeout issues (30.9%). The Yankees have been going young whenever possible lately, and Judge would be a better fit than Gamel because he is a righty. That said, he’s not on the 40-man roster, and sending him back down when Hicks and A-Rod return would burn his first minor league option year. Also, Judge simply might need more time in Triple-A. That strikeout rate is no bueno. You’d hate to rush a guy this talented before he’s ready.

4. Lane Adams. The Yankees claimed Adams off waivers this winter specifically because he’s a right-handed hitting outfielder, something they lacked at the upper levels. He started the year in Double-A before moving up to Triple-A when Cesar Puello got hurt, and so far he hasn’t stood out with the bat (78 wRC+). Adams is the best defender among the team’s outfield options, which is not nothing. It’s unknown how much any of these guys will contribute with the bat right now. Adams could help the most in the field.

5. Rob Refsnyder? Once upon a time Refsnyder was a right fielder, though he has played only nine games at the position since 2013. The Yankees had him work out exclusively at second and third base in Spring Training and Triple-A. That said, he’s a right-handed hitter, and he did some damage against lefties late last year. The Yankees could use the help against southpaws. Would they stick Refsnyder in right field for a few days until Hicks returns? My guess is no, but it is an option.

Gamel is the easy move because he’s already on the 40-man roster and is playing the best on both sides of the ball right now. Swisher is the “old Yankees” move in that he’s a veteran who would be getting priority over younger players. Adams is the boring option, Judge is the bold option, and Refsnyder is the out of the box option. If the Yankees do stick someone (Hicks) on the DL, I think Gamel would get the call. I’m wrong all the time though.

Neither A-Rod nor Hicks have been hitting all that much in the early going, so it’s possible whoever gets called up will actually improve the team in the short-term. Still, the Yankees want to get those two going, and they’re at their best when those two guys are playing up to their potential. A-Rod and Hicks won’t be able to snap out of their funks while injured. There’s nothing the team can do about that though. They just have to hope they can return soon.

Point is, having A-Rod and Hicks hurt at the same time really creates some problems. The injuries remove two right-handed bats from a team struggling against lefties (74 wRC+) and they could be left playing shorthanded for a few days. These are only day-to-day injuries, but the fact both happened at the same time gives the Yankees little choice but to stick someone on the DL for the time being.

Poll Results: The James Kaprielian Watch

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

The poll results are in and this year’s Prospect Watch prospect will be RHP James Kaprielian. He beat out OF Dustin Fowler, OF Aaron Judge, SS Jorge Mateo, and C Gary Sanchez to earn a place in this year’s sidebar. Here are the final tallies after I removed all the spam votes:

  • Kaprielian: 2,819 (54.7%)
  • Mateo: 1,240 (24.0%)
  • Judge: 803 (15.6%)
  • Fowler: 209 (4.1%)
  • Sanchez: 87 (1.7%)

The 5,158 total votes are a new Prospect Watch poll record, so thanks for that. Last year we had 3,020 votes. Poor Gary Sanchez was barely a blip on the poll radar. No one voted for him because he’s probably going to end up spending a bunch of time as Brian McCann‘s backup, meaning the Prospect Watch wouldn’t be updated often. I’m sure he’ll be much happier in the show than in our sidebar.

So anyway, what does this mean? It means we’ll carve out a spot in the sidebar — right where the Opening Day Countdown is, I figure — to track Kaprielian’s performance throughout the season, both his overall season performance and his most recent game. Because he’s a starting pitcher, the Prospect Watch will only be updated once every five days or so. Kinda lame, but the people have spoken.

Kaprielian will begin the season with High-A Tampa — Brian Cashman confirmed it during a radio interview a few days ago — and the four full season affiliates begin their regular seasons next Thursday. I’ll get the Prospect Watch up at some point before then. I’m not sure when exactly Kaprielian will make his first start, but it’ll be soon.

The Farm System [2016 Season Preview]

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

The Yankees ignored their farm system for a number of years in the early and mid-2000s. They forfeited first round picks left and right to sign free agents, and they traded the few prospects they had for big leaguers every chance they got. I don’t think that’s automatically a bad thing! There’s a time and a place to go for it, and when you’re winning 90+ games every year, you go for it.

Things changed not too long ago. The Yankees decided to scale back the “go for it” mentality and instead focus on getting younger and building from within. Draft picks are precious, especially now that it’s harder to get extra ones, and top prospects are off limits in trades. Or at least the team says they are. Last summer the Yankees dipped into their farm system to fill a number of holes, most notably by sticking Luis Severino in the second half rotation.

The Yankees doubled down on their farm system this offseason. They signed zero Major League free agents for the first time in franchise history (as far as I can tell), and they didn’t go bonkers with trades either. They added a new second baseman, a new fourth outfielder, and a new closer. That’s about it. Any additional help is going to come from within in 2016. Let’s preview the farm system.

The Top Prospects

The Yankees have four prospects who are clearly a notch above everyone else in the system: OF Aaron Judge, C Gary Sanchez, SS Jorge Mateo, and RHP James Kaprielian. Put them in any order you want. I won’t argue (much). Those are the four guys though. They’re the cream of the farm system crop. And cool part is all four could play in MLB in 2016. I wouldn’t call it likely, but it’s not completely impossible.

Judge is a behemoth — he’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 275 lbs. — with the kind of raw power you’d expect from that frame, though he doesn’t fit the one-dimensional slugger stereotype because he has a good hit tool and can play quality right field defense. Triple-A pitchers beat him with soft stuff away last year, so he’ll focus on the outer half this year. He’s already made some adjustments. Judge is not on the 40-man roster and the Yankees do have a lot of Triple-A outfield depth, but he will be Rule 5 Draft eligible next offseason, so the team could add him to the 40-man ahead of time and bring him up in September. Perhaps even sooner.

As soon as John Ryan Murphy was traded, Sanchez became the favorite for the backup catcher’s job. Over time it became clear sending him down was the right move, and not only because he went 1-for-21 (.048) in Spring Training. Five weeks in the minors equals an extra year of team control down the line and that is too good to pass up. Sanchez will continue to work on his defense in Triple-A for the time being. It’s only a matter of time until he takes over as Brian McCann‘s backup.

Mateo and Kaprielian are both going to start the season in High-A and they could conceivably reach MLB late in the season. Kaprielian, a polished college arm, could follow the Ian Kennedy path and zoom up the ladder, capping off his season with a few big league starts. Mateo, a speedster who can do a little of everything, could be the team’s designated pinch-runner in September. He’ll be Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season, so the Yankees could add him to the 40-man roster a few weeks early and put those legs to good use.

Judge, Sanchez, Mateo, and Kaprielian are the club’s tippy top prospects, and even if they don’t help at the MLB level this season, they’re all big parts of the future. Judge is the obvious long-term replacement for Carlos Beltran. Sanchez is McCann’s long-term replacement. The Yankees have one big league starter under team control beyond 2017 (Severino), so Kaprielian’s place is obvious. Mateo? They’ll figure that out when the time comes. For now, these four will continue to hone their skills and inch closer to an MLB job.

Ready To Help

In addition to the four top prospects, the Yankees have a few minor leaguers on the cusp of helping at the MLB level right now. First and foremost, they have about a dozen arms for the bullpen shuttle, and frankly I’m kinda sick of talking about them. We know the names, right? LHP Jacob Lindgren, RHP Nick Rumbelow, RHP Nick Goody, RHP Branden Pinder, LHP James Pazos, on and on the list goes. We’re going to see them all at some point in 2016. I’m sure of it.

Gamel. (Presswire)
Gamel. (Presswire)

Beyond the bullpen shuttle, the Yankees have a small army of Triple-A outfielders who can help at a moment’s notice. Need a bat? OF Ben Gamel is there. Need defense? OF Mason Williams is the best bet once he fully recovers from shoulder surgery. Need a little of both? There’s OF Slade Heathcott. 2B Rob Refsnyder provides infield depth, or at least he will once he spends more time at third base. IF Ronald Torreyes, who will open the season in the show, is another infield candidate.

RHP Bryan Mitchell is also going to open to season in MLB, though he’s still a piece of rotation depth. If he’s the best man for the job, the Yankees will pull him out of the bullpen and stick him in the rotation whenever a starter is needed. RHP Luis Cessa, who came over in the Justin Wilson trade, looked very good this spring and is probably next in line for a call-up. RHP Brady Lail and RHP Chad Green are behind him. Cessa is on the 40-man. Lail and Green are not.

Unlike last season, the Yankees don’t have a Severino waiting in the wings. They don’t have that prospect who can come up and provide immediate impact. Well, I should rephrase that. They don’t have a prospect you would reasonably project to come up and have an impact right away. Cessa could come up and throw 60 innings with a sub-2.00 ERA, but no one expects that. Either way, the Yankees have depth pieces in Triple-A. Expect them to dip into their farm system for short-term help again this year, regardless of what they need at the MLB level.

The Next Top Prospects

A year ago at this time Mateo looked like a prospect who was ready to explode onto the scene and become a top tier prospect. Two years ago it was Severino. This summer, the best candidate for such a breakout is SS Wilkerman Garcia, who was part of that massive international spending spree two years ago. He’s a switch-hitter with good defense and I swear, every scouting report I read about him is better than the last. I’m excited to see what Wilkerman does this year.

Beyond Wilkerman, OF Dustin Fowler and C Luis Torrens have a chance to become top prospects this year. Fowler is a do-it-all outfielder and Torrens is a defense-first catcher with a promising bat. He’s coming back from shoulder surgery though, so maybe expecting a breakout after missing the entire 2015 season is too much to ask. 3B Miguel Andujar has high-end tools. We’re just waiting for the performance to match. SS Hoy Jun Park is another toolsy shortstop like Garcia.

The Yankees have a very position player heavy farm system, though they do have some pitching prospects poised to break out this summer. RHP Drew Finley is the No. 1 guy. He’s got three pitches and he locates. I feel like he’s going to sneak up on people this year. RHP Domingo Acevedo is the quintessential huge fastball guy. He just has to figure everything else out. LHP Jeff Degano needs to develop a changeup but already has the fastball and breaking ball.

Then, of course, there’s whoever the Yankees take with their first round pick (18th overall) in this June’s amateur draft. That player — the smart money is on a college player based on the team’s recent draft tendencies — figures to be one of their better prospects a year from now. Wilkerman, Fowler, and Finley are my picks. Those are the guys I see having big 2016 seasons developmentally and becoming true top prospects year from now.

Returning From Injury

Torrens missed all of last season with his injury, but man, he’s not the only one. LHP Ian Clarkin missed the regular season with elbow inflammation, which stinks. The good news is he did not need surgery and was able to throw some innings in the Arizona Fall League. RHP Ty Hensley, RHP Austin DeCarr, and RHP Domingo German all had Tommy John surgery last spring and are still working their way back. Lindgren (elbow), Heathcott (quad), and Williams (shoulder) all missed big chunks of the season too. That’s a lot of talent coming back. Hopefully all of them come back at full strength, or at least something close to it.

Sladerunner. (Presswire)
Sladerunner. (Presswire)

Last Chance?

Prospects are fun and everyone loves them, but they will break your heart. Over and over again. Some players are entering make or break years, and I don’t mean 2015 Gary Sanchez make or break years. I mean real make or break years. 1B/OF Tyler Austin is the most obvious last chance guy. He’s battled injuries and ineffectiveness the last few years, and he lost his 40-man roster spot in September. The 2016 season is his last chance to show the Yankees he’s worth keeping around.

Heathcott’s another make or break player for me. The Yankees gave him a second chance last year and he rewarded them with his big September home run against the Rays. That said, he again missed a bunch of time due to injury, and when healthy he didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball in Triple-A. Another year like that might spell the end of Slade’s time in the organization, especially since he will be out of options following the season.

I’m also inclined to include RHP Vicente Campos in the make or break category. He’s had a lot of injuries over the years, most notably missing the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery, which has really cut into his development time. This is his final minor league option year, and if he doesn’t show the Yankees he can help as soon next year, it may be time to move on. Baseball is cruel, man.

The Deep Sleepers

Remember that “The Next Top Prospects” section? Consider this the Next Next Top Prospects section. These are the deepest sleepers in the farm system. They’re way off the beaten path. The new hotness right now is OF Estevan Florial, an ulta-tooled up 18-year-old the Yankees got on the cheap because identity issues — he used a relative’s identity to enroll in school in the Dominican Republic — put him in purgatory before signing. He’s going to make his stateside debut this year and jump onto the prospect map in a big way.

SS Diego Castillo and OF Brayan Emery were part of the 2014-15 international spending spree, and both possess tools that far exceed their six-figure bonuses. Castillo in particular already looks like a steal at $750,000. He should come to the U.S. this year and is in line to follow Mateo and Wilkerman as the next great Yankees shortstop prospect. RHP Luis Medina, who signed last July, is already running his fastball up to 98-100 mph. And then there’s OF Leonardo Molina, who is still only 18. It feels like he’s been around forever. Florial is the big name to know here, but Castillo’s not far behind. Expect to hear a lot about those two in 2016 and beyond.

The Best of the Rest

There is nothing sexy about being a mid-range prospect, but you know what? Mid-range prospects are often the difference between good teams and great teams. They provide depth and they’re valuable trade chips. Guys like Adam Warren and Brett Gardner don’t grow on trees, you know. You’d rather draft and develop them yourself than have to go out and buy them from someone else.

SS Tyler Wade, SS Kyle Holder, LHP Jordan Montgomery, IF Thairo Estrada, IF Abi Avelino, OF Carlos Vidal, 1B Chris Gittens, RHP Cale Coshow, RHP Chance Adams, OF Trey Amburgey, and OF Jhalan Jackson all fit into this group. They’re good prospects, not great prospects, and they all project to be big leaguers of varying usefulness. I’m not sure if we’ll see any of these players in the show this year, but I bet several pop-up in trade rumors, and one or two could be moved for help at the MLB level. That’s what the farm system is for, after all. Call-ups and trades.

Poll: The 2016 Prospect Watch

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

One of our longest running quasi-features here at RAB is the annual Prospect Watch. It’s pretty simple. We pick a prospect each year, then track his performance in the sidebar with daily updates throughout the season. Think of it as the nuts and bolts of the player’s Baseball Reference page in our sidebar. Easy, right?

In the past I would make an executive decision and pick the prospect myself. It was pretty easy back in the days of Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Andrew Brackman, and Jesus Montero. I can’t remember who else has been featured in the Prospect Watch over the years — definitely Mason Williams and Eric Jagielo, I’m pretty sure Manny Banuelos too — but it’s not really important now.

Rather than pick a prospect myself, these days I turn it over to you folks, the readers. Over the last few years I’ve picked a handful of prospects and let readers vote for the Prospect Watch prospect. Some say the Prospect Watch is cursed, you know. I only wish the pixels in our sidebar were so powerful. Anyway, here are the five candidates for the 2016 Prospect Watch, presented alphabetically.

OF Dustin Fowler

The Case For: Fowler, 21, was one of the breakout stars of the farm system last year, hitting .298/.334/.403 (114 wRC+) with 22 doubles, eight homers, and 37 steals in 587 plate appearances split between Low-A, High-A, and the Arizona Fall League. Didn’t realize he stole 37 bags, did you? He drew rave reviews for his tools in the AzFL as well. Fowler fills all the columns and stands to improve even more now that he has another year as a full-time baseball player under his felt. (He split his time between three sports in high school.)

The Case Against: At this point Fowler is not expected to put up big power numbers. In fact, it took a strong AzFL showing to get his season slugging percentage over .400. (He slugged .394 at the two Single-A levels.) He could very well be a single-digit home run guy in 2016. Fowler’s not a huge numbers prospect; a lot of his value is to tied to his defense and raw athleticism, which he’s still working to turn into baseball skills.

OF Aaron Judge

The Case For: Last year’s Prospect Watch prospect — we’ve had the same Prospect Watch prospect in consecutive years before, that’s no issue — is the best prospect in the farm system. The 23-year-old Judge managed a .258/.332/.446 (124 wRC+) batting line with 26 doubles, 20 homers, and seven steals in 552 total plate appearances last year despite his second half skid at Triple-A. He’s got power and he draws walks, and he’s scheduled to start the season back with the RailRiders. Repeating a level usually provides a nice boost to a player’s stats. Out of everyone in this post, I think Judge has the best chance to put up “holy crap” numbers in 2016.

The Case Against: Judge did scuffle at Triple-A last season, hitting .224/.308/.373 (98 wRC+) with eight home runs and an eyesore of a 28.5% strikeout rate in 260 plate appearances. Experienced pitchers took advantage of his massive frame and chewed him up with soft stuff away. Judge made some mechanical adjustments over the winter in an attempt to correct that flaw — he has a bigger leg kick and moved his hands slightly — and any time mechanical adjustments are made, there’s a chance for a slow start as the player gets used to his new setup. As talented as he is, Judge comes with quite a bit of risk.

RHP James Kaprielian

The Case For: The Yankees selected Kaprielian, 22, out of UCLA with their first round pick last summer. He’s an advanced college pitcher with four pitches (fastball, slider, curveball, changeup) and good control, and last summer he experienced a velocity uptick that has stuck this spring. Kaprielian went from sitting 88-91 mph for most of his career with the Bruins to 94-96 mph in pro ball last year. Scouts have reportedly had him up to 97 mph this spring. Kaprielian is probably the “safe” pick here. Guys with three years of experience at a major college program and good control of four pitches tend to carve hitters up in the low minors. Grandmaster Kap will start the season at High-A and there’s a chance he’ll reach Triple-A by the end of the season, if not MLB.

The Case Against: It’s tough to come up with a case against Kaprielian. There’s the standard “he’s a pitcher and pitchers tend to get hurt” disclaimer, which is always a bummer. Also, he’s a starting pitcher, which means the Prospect Watch will be updated only once every five days. And chances are the Yankees will have Kaprielian on some sort of workload limit too, so he might be limited to five innings per start or something like that. They might even shut him down at some point. There aren’t any real performance concerns with Kaprielian. It’s all stuff out of his control.

Mateo. (Presswire)
Mateo. (Presswire)

SS Jorge Mateo

The Case For: Mateo is the most exciting prospect in the farm system. He has electric tools, headlined by his top of the line speed, which allowed him to a steal a professional baseball leading 82 bases in 2015. Mateo, 20, hit .278/.345/.392 (114 wRC+) with 23 doubles, eleven triples, and two homers in exactly 500 plate appearances last year, mostly at Low-A but also some at High-A. He’s going to steal an obscene number of bases, and based on our quick look in Spring Training, Mateo might be ready to turn his batting practice power into in-game power. Either way, he’ll do everything.

The Case Against: Mateo is a prospect you have to see with your own eyes to fully appreciate. The gaudy stolen base total will be fun, but otherwise this is a prospect likely to hit around .280 with a sub-.400 slugging percentage, and that’s not eye-popping Prospect Watch material. Mateo is a better real life prospect than a stats prospect. Does that make sense?

C Gary Sanchez

The Case For: The third time at Double-A was a charm for the 23-year-old Sanchez, who had a 127 wRC+ with 12 homers in 58 games with Trenton before a promotion to Triple-A, where he had a 145 wRC+ with six homers in 35 games. Throw in his outrageous AzFL showing and Sanchez hit .276/.336/.503 (137 wRC+) with 29 doubles and 25 home runs in 515 total plate appearances in 2015. He’s got big power and it seems Sanchez is just starting to put it all together. Good things are in his future.

The Case Against: Sanchez could very easily end up spending the majority of the upcoming season in the Bronx, meaning the Prospect Watch would really be a Backup Catcher Watch that gets updated once or twice a week. Where’s the fun in that? The performance isn’t much of a question here. Sanchez figures to mash this summer because he’s mashed pretty much everywhere he’s played. Will he play enough to justify a spot in the sidebar as the Prospect Watch prospect?

* * *

I also considered adding SS Wilkerman Garcia to the poll, but he’s almost certainly going to start the year in Extended Spring Training before shuttling off to one of the short season affiliates, meaning the Prospect Watch would be dormant until late June. That’s no fun. LHP Ian Clarkin also received consideration. There’s just way too much downside risk there after Clarkin missed the entire 2015 regular season with an elbow injury. Hopefully Clarkin and Garcia will be candidates for the 2017 Prospect Watch.

Anyway, it’s time for the poll. I’ll leave the poll open until 12pm ET this Friday, so you’ve got a little more than 48 hours to mull the options and vote. Should be plenty of time. I’ll reveal the winner Friday afternoon. Thanks in advance for voting.

Who should be the 2016 Prospect Watch?

Yankees hoping Aaron Judge takes to his new leg kick as quickly as Ben Gamel took to his

Gamel. (Photo via @SWBRailRiders)
Gamel. (Photo via @SWBRailRiders)

After spending four seasons as an interesting but under-tooled prospect, outfielder Ben Gamel broke out in a big way last year, hitting .300/.358/.472 (138 wRC+) in 129 Triple-A games. It was his first try at the Triple-A level. Gamel led the farm system in hits (150), triples (14), and extra-base hits (52). That earned him a spot on the 40-man roster after the season.

Gamel, 24 in May, did all of that after hitting .261/.308/.340 (80 wRC+) in 131 Double-A games in 2014. The Yankees selected him in the tenth round of the 2010 draft and his innate hitting ability kept him on the prospect radar — Keith Law called Gamel a sleeper prospect way back in 2012 — but at some point the production had to come, and it finally did last year.

That production came after Gamel and hitting coach Marcus Thames did some tinkering, reports Chad Jennings. Thames was Gamel’s hitting coach with Double-A Trenton in 2014 and Triple-A Scranton in 2015, and they changed some things during the 2014-15 offseason. From Jennings:

What changed last year? Gamel said it’s pretty easy to pinpoint. He and hitting coach Marcus Thames decided to add a leg kick, which made it easier to get his hands in the right spot.

“Last offseason, Marcus and I decided we were going to try this,” Gamel said. “That’s what I worked on all last offseason, and I came into spring training last year and was like, it feels good. He liked where I was at and just rolled with it, more than anything. Getting my timing, getting my game reps with it, things like that. It worked out.”

Leg kicks are obviously very common, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some players have big leg kicks (Matt Holliday jumps to mind), some have small leg kicks (Albert Pujols), and some are in between. Every player is different and every leg kick is different, but at the end of the day, all leg kicks are timing mechanisms.

Minor league video below the Triple-A level can be tough to find, so here’s the best clip I can find of Gamel at Double-A in 2014, before the leg kick (video link):

Ben Gamel 2014 leg kick

Not great, but the clip does the job. Gamel has no leg kick there at all. It’s almost more of a toe tap than a leg kick. His stride is basically non-existent. Some hitters can hit like that. (Pujols did in his prime.) Gamel managed to get to Double-A with no leg kick, but that level gave him trouble, and no MLB club felt he was worth a Rule 5 Draft pick selection in December 2014.

According to Gamel, he and Thames added the leg kick during the 2014-15 offseason, so he was using it in Spring Training last season. The video confirms that. Here he is in Spring Training a year ago (video link):

Ben Gamel 2015 leg kick

That’s an ugly swing and a miss against a left-handed breaking ball (hey, it happens), but the point is the leg kick is there. Gamel went from no leg kick in 2014 to a pretty generic looking leg kick in 2015. He still has that leg kick too. I’m not making another GIF, but here’s video of Gamel and his leg kick this spring. After the season he had in 2015, why wouldn’t Gamel stick with it? He had a ton of success and the leg kick provides a tangible reason for his breakout.

Gamel is about to enter year two with his leg kick. Aaron Judge, the Yankees’ top prospect, is about to enter year one with his. We noticed he added a leg kick in the very first Grapefruit League game this spring, and Judge says it’s designed to “help with my timing.” Hitting coach Alan Cockrell and minor league hitting coordinator James Rowson were behind that adjustment, not Thames. Judge and Thames only spent a half-season together in Triple-A last year. Gamel and Thames were together for two straight years.

In Judge’s case, he’s working to improve one very specific flaw in his game, and that’s combating soft stuff away. Triple-A pitchers picked him apart by getting him to reach last year. Gamel has had success in the past — he hit .306/.342/.394 (104 wRC+) as a 20-year-old in Low-A in 2012 — but he had a hard time finding his way from 2013-14. He needed more of an overhaul. What he was doing wasn’t working at all. Judge has had success everywhere but Triple-A and only needs to fine tune.

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

Gamel took to the new leg kick instantly last year — he went 18-for-43 (.409) with six walks and five strikeouts in his first 12 games in 2015 — and that’s pretty much the best case scenario. He added the leg kick and it instantly clicked. Not all adjustments happen that way. It’s not uncommon for players to struggle initially as they implement new mechanics, either at the plate, in the field, or on the mound. The Yankees hope Judge can avoid those initial issues.

Judge and Gamel are both Triple-A outfielders, though they have different long-term outlooks. Judge is the top prospect, the guy the Yankees hope will anchor their lineup for years to come. Gamel is more of a role player. It would be awesome if he became more than that, the Yankees would happily take it, but they’d also be pretty thrilled if he became a the left-handed half of a platoon. That’s a great outcome for a tenth round pick.

Baseball is a game of never-ending adjustments. Last year Gamel had to make some sort of adjustment to avoid becoming an afterthought and having his career stall out. This year Judge is looking to correct a flaw in his game so he can be the best player he can be at the next level. Both players wound up incorporating leg kicks, and with any luck, Judge will have the same instant success with his new leg kick as Gamel did a year ago.