Thoughts on Baseball America’s top ten Yankees prospects

Guzman. (MLB.com)
Guzman. (MLB.com)

Now that we’re a month into the offseason, Baseball America has started their annual look at the top ten prospects in each farm system. They hit on the Yankees yesterday. The list and system overview is free for all. The scouting reports and the chat are not, however. They’re behind the paywall.

There are no big surprises in the top ten. The top few spots are as expected — at least the names are as expected, we can quibble about the order until we’re blue in the face — before dipping into the plethora of power arms in the system. Here’s the top ten:

  1. SS Gleyber Torres
  2. OF Estevan Florial
  3. LHP Justus Sheffield
  4. RHP Chance Adams
  5. 3B Miguel Andujar
  6. RHP Albert Abreu
  7. RHP Jorge Guzman
  8. RHP Luis Medina
  9. SS Thairo Estrada
  10. RHP Domingo Acevedo

Quick reminder: OF Clint Frazier is no longer prospect eligible. That’s why he’s not in the top ten. He exceeded the rookie limit by four at-bats this year. Anyway, nice to see my main man Thairo get some top ten love. It’s been fun to watch him climb from sleeper to 40-man roster player. I have some thoughts on the top ten, so let’s get to them.

1. This is a pitching system now. I mentioned this as part of the Baseball Prospectus top ten write-up and it is worth repeating. The Yankees are loaded with pitching now. A year ago at this time they were a position player heavy farm system and hey, that’s great. I’d rather build around bats long-term than arms. Now though, the farm system is full of power pitchers. Six of the top ten prospects are pitchers, and among the pitchers who didn’t make the top ten are RHP Domingo German, RHP Jonathan Loaisiga, RHP Freicer Perez, RHP Matt Sauer, RHP Clarke Schmidt, RHP Dillon Tate, and RHP Taylor Widener. When those dudes are not among the six best pitching prospects in your farm system, you are packed to the gills with pitching. Inevitably many of these guys will get hurt or flame out, but when you have as many quality arms as the Yankees, your chances of landing some long-term keepers is quite high.

2. Guzman’s velocity is super elite. It’ll be a year or two before the Yankees get some impact from the Brian McCann trade, but so far things are looking good. Both Abreu and Guzman are among their top ten prospects, and, according to the Baseball America scouting report, Guzman “averaged 99 mph with his four-seamer in 2017 and just a tick less with his two-seamer.” That is pretty insane. Among qualified pitchers, Luis Severino led MLB with a 97.8 mph average fastball velocity this year. Guzman averaged 99 mph, prompting J.J. Cooper to say he “has a strong argument that he’s the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in baseball.” There is more to pitching than fastball velocity, of course, but the various scouting reports say Guzman made big strides with his secondary stuff and his command this year, so he’s starting to figure some things out. He’s not going to average 99 mph forever because no one does, but he’s starting from such a high baseline that even after losing some velocity in the coming years, he’ll sit mid-90s no problem.

3. Spin rate is a thing in the minors now too. I wrote a little bit about spin rate last week, and while it is still a relatively new concept to fans and analysts, it’s been a thing within baseball for a while now. The Baseball America scouting report mentions Medina has a “high-spin curveball,” and in the chat, Josh Norris notes RHP Deivi Garcia has a “hook that measures at 3,000 RPMs.” Only three big leaguers topped 3,000 rpm with their curveballs this season, for reference (min. 100 curveballs). RHP Drew Finley (curveball) and RHP Nolan Martinez (fastball) both earned notoriety for their spin rates as draft prospects. As I’ve said, spin rate is like velocity in that it’s only one tool in the shed, it’s not everything, but clearly it is something teams — the Yankees, specifically — target nowadays. The general belief is that spin is not really teachable. It’s either in your wrist or it’s not. The Yankees aren’t just hoarding pitching prospects. They’re hoarding high-spin prospects, the guys who are now very in demand at the big league level.

4. Mechanical changes contributed to Gilliam’s breakout. OF Isiah Gilliam, the team’s 20th round pick in 2015 and the recipient of a well-above-slot $550,000 bonus, was one of the easiest to overlook breakout stars in the farm system this summer. The switch-hitter spent most of the season at age 20, and he hit .275/.356/.468 (137 wRC+) with 15 homers and 10.8% walks in 125 Low-A games. That’s a damn fine season. Norris notes in the chat that Gilliam “saw significant benefits to the changes he made with his stance and swing mechanics,” and that’s pretty interesting. Amateur and minor league video can be tough to come by, so here’s what I dug up on Gilliam’s right-handed swing:

isiah-gilliam

That’s Gilliam in high school in 2014 on the left (video) and Gilliam with Low-A Charleston in 2017 on the right (video). I did my best to grab each image at the moment Gilliam begins to lift his front foot as part of his leg kick. Two things stand out. One, Gilliam has a wider base underneath him now. His legs are further apart. I suppose that could just be a camera angle issue, however. And two, his hands are much lower now. There’s no funny camerawork there. His hands used to be way up near to head and now they’re down by his chest, so yes, he has made some adjustments, at least to his right-handed swing. (There isn’t much old video of his left-handed swing, weirdly.) Anyway, Gilliam had a real nice season, and is one of those quality under-the-radar prospects that makes the system so deep.

5. So apparently Wade’s stock has dropped. Although he did not eclipse the 130 at-bat rookie limit this year, SS Tyler Wade is no longer rookie eligible because he accrued too much service time this season. Baseball America does not, however, consider service time when ranking prospects, so Wade is still prospect eligible. And yet, he’s not in the top ten. In the chat, Norris said Wade “did not come close to (making) this list” even though “he still has a big league future … probably as a utility infielder.” I like Wade. Have for a long time. I like the athleticism, the speed, the defense, and the strike zone knowledge. He just hit .310/.382/.460 (136 wRC+) with seven homers and 26 steals (in 31 attempts) in 85 Triple-A games as a 22-year-old. That’s really good! I know Wade stunk in the big leagues, but he had 63 plate appearances in 81 days of service time. The kid never played. Last year Aaron Judge got called up, struggled in his brief MLB debut, then tumbled down the prospect rankings. Baseball America ranked Judge as the sixth best prospect in the system coming into this season, behind SS Jorge Mateo (who didn’t hit) and RHP James Kaprielian (who was hurt all last year). Now Wade rips up Triple-A, struggles in an insignificant amount of big league playing time, and now he “did not come close” to ranking in the top ten prospects. Eh. I know I’m the high man on Wade, but if he’s not close to the top ten prospects, the system is even deeper than I realized.

Saturday Links: Otani, League Top 20 Prospects, Cessa

The most fun player on Earth. (Getty)
The most fun player on Earth. (Getty)

The offseason is off to a pretty good start. Last night we learned Masahiro Tanaka will not opt-out of his contract, and instead give the Yankees his age 29-31 seasons for $67M. Not bad. Not bad at all. Now the Yankees can now move on to other things, like finding a new manager. Here are some notes and links to check out.

Otani’s move on hold while MLB, MLBPA, NPB haggle

According to Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman, Shohei Otani’s move to the big leagues is on hold while MLB, MLBPA, and NPB haggle over the posting agreement. The posting agreement expired last month, though MLB and NPB agreed Otani would be grandfathered in under the old agreement, meaning the Nippon Ham Fighters would still get the $20M release fee. The players’ union doesn’t like that arrangement. From Sherman:

But MLB cannot enter into any transfer agreement with any country — Japan, Korea, Cuba, Mexico, etc. — without approval from the MLB Players Association, as stated in the CBA. And the union, to date, has refused to make an exception for Otani, concerned about the precedent and fairness of the player receiving, say, $300,000 and his former team $20 million.

Under the international hard cap Otani can only receive a small bonus — the Yankees and Rangers reportedly have the most bonus money to offer at $2.5M or so — and sign a minor league contract, which is nothing. He’s getting screwed beyond belief, financially. I get why MLBPA doesn’t want to set this precedent, but maybe do something about it during Collective Bargaining Agreement talks? It’s a little too late now. You agreed to the hard cap, you dolts.

Anyway, my guess is Otani will indeed end up coming over at some point this winter. It seems like he really wants to despite the hard cap. So far this Otani stuff is following a similar path as the Tanaka stuff a few years ago. He wants to come over, oh no his team might not post him, now MLB and the NPB are at an impasse during posting system talks … blah blah blah. Same story, different year.

Otani undergoes ankle surgery

Oh, by the way, Otani had ankle surgery last month, according to the Kyodo News. The ankle had been bothering him since late last year, when he rolled it running through first base in October. He then reaggravated it in November. The ankle injury as well as a nagging quad problem limited Otani to only 231 plate appearances (.332/.403/.540) and 25.1 innings (3.20 ERA and 10.3 K/9) in 2017.

The surgery comes with a three-month rehab, meaning Otani is expected to be back on his feet by January. That could throw a wrench into his offseason workout routine. Obviously the surgery is a red flag and something MLB teams must consider when pursuing him, but given the nature of the injury — rolling your ankle while running through first base is kinda fluky — and the fact his arm is sound leads me to believe it won’t hurt his market at all. It could mean Otani is brought along a little more slowly in Spring Training, however.

More Yankees among BA’s league top 20 prospects

Florial. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Florial. (Rob Carr/Getty)

It just dawned on me that I never passed along Baseball America’s remaining league top 20 prospect lists. I did post Triple-A, Double-A, and High-A, but that’s all. There are still four more levels to cover, and many Yankees prospects. Let’s get to them quick:

  • OF Estevan Florial (Low-A No. 2): “He’s a higher-risk, high ceiling prospect who has further refinement to come, but special tools.”
  • RHP Jorge Guzman (NYPL No. 2): “(The) 21-year-old took a big step forward as a pitcher this year … He mixed in his curveball and changeup more regularly, which only made his plus-plus fastball more effective.”
  • RHP Trevor Stephan (NYPL No. 9): “Stephan sat 92-94 mph but touched 95-96 regularly. His slider got plenty of swings and misses thanks to his ability to bury it.”
  • RHP Juan De Paula (NYPL No. 14): “De Paula was one of the more skilled pitchers in the league, showing an ability to control the strike zone and throw in and out, up and down, raising and lowering hitters’ eye levels and never letting them get real comfortable in the batter’s box.”
  • IF Oswaldo Cabrera (NYPL No. 16): “Managers and scouts felt confident about Cabrera’s ability to hit for average and get on base … Scouts are concerned that Cabrera’s tools are more modest than his work ethic and feel for the game.”
  • RHP Luis Medina (Appy No. 6): “Medina’s upside is enormous. He attacks hitters with a true 80-grade fastball on the 20-80 scouting scale and sits anywhere from 96-100 mph … Medina pairs his heater with two potentially above-average secondaries. His curveball works in an 11-to-5 arc and is his preferred knockout pitch, whereas his changeup lags a little behind.”
  • RHP Deivi Garcia (Appy No. 15): “Garcia’s fastball sits in the low 90s and touches as high as 96 mph … His curveball is nearing plus status and boasts high spin rates and firm shape.”
  • SS Oswald Peraza (GCL No. 14): “Peraza is a smart, savvy player and a good athlete. He has a smooth, efficient stroke, good bat-to-ball skills and manages his at-bats well with a good sense for the strike zone.”
  • SS Jose Devers (GCL No. 19): “Devers’ glove is ahead of his bat, but he held his own against older competition in the GCL, showing a sound swing and contact skills, though without much power.”

In the Appalachian League chat, 3B Dermis Garcia was called “a very divisive player” because his pitch recognition isn’t great and he’ll probably end up at first base, but “(on) the flip side, he’s got enormous raw power and a strong throwing arm.” Also, OF Blake Rutherford placed 18th on the Low-A South Atlantic League list. Eek. Hopefully he bounces back next year. Rutherford’s a good dude.

Cessa activated off 60-day DL

A small transaction to note: Luis Cessa was activated off the 60-day DL yesterday, the Yankees announced. The Yankees now have four open spots on the 40-man roster. They’re going to go to Rule 5 Draft eligible prospects later this month. Chances are the Yankees will have to open a few more 40-man spots, in fact. Cessa, 25, had a 4.75 ERA (5.75 FIP) in 36 swingman innings this year before going down with a rib cage injury. I like him more than most. I think Cessa has a chance to be a nice little back-end starter and soon.

Despite spending restrictions, the Yankees have an impressive collection of Latin American pitching prospects

Medina. (@MiLB)
Medina. (@MiLB)

For years the Yankees built their farm system through international free agency. They haven’t had access to top of the draft talent in more than two decades now, but they were able to spend freely internationally, so they made up for the lack of high draft picks that way. That’s how the Yankees landed Chien-Ming Wang, Robinson Cano, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino, among others.

The rules have changed, however. MLB implemented a soft spending cap for international players six years ago and a hard cap this year. The Yankees are no longer free to wield their financial might internationally. This year they were held to a $4.75M hard cap, which is nothing. They gave Sanchez a $3M bonus back in 2009. Three years ago the Yankees blew their soft cap out of the water and spent $30M between taxes and bonuses, and once other teams followed suit, MLB pushed for the hard cap, so here we are.

Anyway, as a result of that $30M spending spree during he 2014-15 signing period, the Yankees could not sign a player for more than $300,000 during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods. That took them out of the running for the top talent. When other teams could offer millions and you’re limited to $300,000, it’s a huge disadvantage. It figured to be tough for the Yankees to attract top players, and it was. C’est la vie.

The Yankees, however, have become very adept at finding under-the-radar international talent, and turning smaller bonus players into top prospects. Severino, for example, signed for $225,000 as an amateur. Jorge Mateo signed for $250,000. Top outfield prospect Estevan Florial signed for $200,000. The big seven-figure bonuses like $3M for Sanchez get all the attention, but it’s those small bonus signings that make a big difference in the long run.

The Yankees have Donny Rowland, who returning to the organization in 2007 and has been their director of international scouting since 2014, and his army of scouts in Latin America to thank for that. Despite being limited to $300,000 bonuses during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods, the Yankees landed several interesting power arms who make up their next wave of pitching prospects. A partial list:

  • RHP Roansy Contreras: Signed for $300,000 in July 2016.
  • RHP Deivi Garcia: Signed for $100,000 in July 2015.
  • RHP Rony Garcia: Signed for an undisclosed bonus in July 2015. (Had to be $300,000 or less.)
  • RHP Luis Medina: Signed for $280,000 in July 2015.

All four of those pitchers have received quite a bit of attention recently. Contreras was considered the top pitching prospect in the Dominican Republic during the 2016-17 signing period. Jim Callis said Medina has the highest ceiling of any pitching prospect in the system. Both Deivi (“One of the Yankees’ brightest low-level arms“) and Rony (“(He) shouldn’t be anonymous for long“) Garcia received glowing reports from Baseball America recently.

Also, the Yankees have traded for several lower level Latin American arms within the last year, most notably RHP Albert Abreu and RHP Jorge Guzman, both of whom came over in the Brian McCann trade. Also, RHP Juan De Paula was part of the Ben Gamel trade. De Paula and especially Guzman have seen their stock rise considerably this year, and I have no doubt Rowland and his staff were consulted during trade talks. The international scouting department had eyes on these guys long before the Yankees traded for them.

This group doesn’t include RHP Domingo Acevedo ($7,500 bonus in October 2012) or RHP Freicer Perez ($10,000 bonus in December 2014), both of whom received small bonuses, but not while the Yankees were held to the $300,000 bonus maximum. Both are among the better pitching prospects in the system — Acevedo figures to make his MLB debut at some point next season — and both signed for relative peanuts. They’re just two more examples of how well the Yankees identify under-the-radar international talent.

It would be unwise and unfair to expect any of these pitchers to turn into another Severino. Severino has been a top ten pitcher in baseball this season and, as long as he stays healthy, he has the ability to remain a top ten pitcher for several years. It’s hard to expect that from any prospect, no matter how good. The hope is several of these Latin American arms will turn into useful big leaguers or trade chips. These days teams take lower level prospects back as the headliners in trades more than ever before. It might not be long before the Yankees cash these guys in.

The Yankees were limited to $300,000 bonuses internationally from July 2015 through July 2017, and they knew they would be following the 2014-15 spending spree. That was part of the plan. They still managed to land several pitching prospects who are already drawing rave reviews, with Medina and the Garcias in particular becoming hard to ignore. Contreras, who signed just last year, is next in line. The Yankees have graduated a lot of prospects and traded a lot of prospects recently. Now the next wave is in place, despite those international spending limits.