The Year Ahead in the Farm System [2017 Season Preview]

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

This is still a weird and awesome and completely true statement: the Yankees are loaded with exciting up-and-coming young talent. Last year’s trade deadline activity combined with breakouts from incumbent prospects give New York the game’s consensus No. 2 farm system behind the Braves. The 2016 draft helped too. That was cool.

The Yankees are, in their words, a team in transition. They’re trying to get younger while remaining competitive, which is both an excellent goal and difficult to do. Young players tend to come with growing pains. Even the most talented ones. Not everyone hits the ground running like Gary Sanchez. Usually they hit some bumps in the road, like Aaron Judge and Luis Severino.

The “remaining competitive” stuff is a topic for another time. This entry into our season preview series is dedicated to all the ladies out there the great farm system the Yankees have built. Let’s preview the upcoming season in the minors. Here is my top 30 prospects list, if you’ve somehow missed it.

Top Prospects Who Could Help In 2017

Depending on the scouting publication, the Yankees have anywhere between six (Keith Law) and nine (Baseball Prospectus) top 100 caliber prospects in the farm system. One of those players is Judge, who we previewed two weeks ago. As always, top 100 prospects are not all created equal. Some are much closer to the big leagues than others. The Yankees have a little of everything with their top 100 guys.

The best prospect in the farm system and one of the very best in all of baseball is, as you know, SS Gleyber Torres. He came over in last summer’s Aroldis Chapman trade and blew everyone away in Spring Training. Torres hit .448/.469/.931 with six doubles and two homers in 32 Grapefruit League plate appearances, which was enough for folks to want him to replace the injured Didi Gregorius. That won’t happen. The Yankees have already sent Gleyber to minor league camp and he’ll open the season in Double-A.

That said, I definitely believe the 20-year-old Torres has a chance to help the Yankees later this year, likely in the second half. Similar prospects have made their MLB debuts at age 20 after starting the season in Double-A. Some things will have to happen first — Torres has to hit, the Yankees have to need him, etc. — but there’s a chance Gleyber will force the issue at some point and make the team think about calling him up. Special talents have accelerated timetables.

OF Clint Frazier, who would be the No. 1 prospect for many other teams, is the No. 2 prospect in the farm system. He came over in the Andrew Miller trade. Frazier, 22, reached Triple-A last season and will return there to start this season. (He hit .308/.300/.487 in camp. I do love silly AVG > OBP lines.) Given his proximity to MLB, Frazier is much more likely to reach the show this season than Torres. The Yankees will have to make room for him somehow, but they’ll figure it out. Frazier is a potential impact bat and lineup cornerstone, and we’ll see him in the Bronx at some point this summer. I’m sure of it.

Among New York’s other top 100 prospects, the only other one I could see reaching the big leagues this season is RHP James Kaprielian, and that’s a long shot. Kaprielian is healthy after missing nearly the entire 2016 regular season with a flexor strain, though the Yankees are going to take it slow with him early in the season. He threw nothing but simulated games the first few weeks of Spring Training before finally getting into a Grapefruit League two weeks ago. Kaprielian threw two innings and was sent to minor league camp the same day.

What needs to happen for Kaprielian to reach MLB in 2017? He has to stay healthy, for starters. Secondly, he’s going to have to pitch well enough to climb from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A to MLB. Climbing three levels in one year isn’t easy, but it has been done before. Both Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain did it in 2007. And third, the Yankees have to believe Kaprielian is one of their best rotation options. They won’t call him up for the hell of it. There are 40-man and service time considerations in play.

My guess right now is no, Kaprielian will not make his MLB debut this season. Sorry to be a buzzkill. As long as he stays healthy, I expect Kaprielian to pitch very well — he should carve up High-A hitters — and reach Triple-A late in the season. We’ll then complain the Yankees aren’t calling him because he is clearly better than one of the starters the Yankees are running out there every five days, right? That’s usually how it goes.

Top Prospects Who Probably Won’t Help In 2017

Sheffield. (Presswire)
Sheffield. (Presswire)

The Yankees have three consensus top 100 prospects who are unlikely to play in the big leagues this year, at least not in a meaningful way. LHP Justus Sheffield, another part of the Miller trade, is a three-pitch southpaw with good velocity. He is still only 20 and is ticketed for Double-A. I expect him to spend just about the entire season there. He might make a late-season Triple-A cameo, but that’s about it. Besides being so young, Sheffield needs to improve his command before being an MLB option.

SS Jorge Mateo might soon be CF Jorge Mateo. The Yankees have been moving their shortstop prospects around — Torres has played second base and has worked out at third, for example — in an effort to increase their versatility. Mateo is a good defender at short, though center field would better allow him to use his elite speed on the defensive side of the ball. Either way, shortstop or center field, Mateo has to do more with the bat. He didn’t hit much last season and hitting coach Alan Cockrell is working with him to widen his stance this spring.

Now, that all said, I do think Mateo has a chance to make his MLB debut in 2017. He was added to the 40-man roster over the winter to avoid Rule 5 Draft exposure, which means the Yankees could turn to him as their annual September designated pinch-runner. They very much believe in that role — they picked up Eric Young Jr. and Rico Noel at midseason to fill that role the last two years — and Mateo is an 80 runner, so it’s hard to think they’ll drum up a better option at some point.

There are two things to keep in mind though. One, Mateo wasn’t a great basestealer last season — he went 36-for-51 (71%) in steal attempts in 2016 — and the Yankees are said to be working with him to improve his reads and things like that. And two, being in the big leagues is a privilege and something a player has to earn. If Mateo has another disappointing season, the Yankees could very well turn to another pinch-runner option rather than reward Mateo will a month in MLB. I think it’s possible we’ll see him as the September pinch-runner, but it’s far from certain.

The best top 100 caliber prospect in farm system we 100% will not see in the big leagues this coming season is OF Blake Rutherford, last year’s first round pick. Rutherford was a consensus top ten talent in the draft class — Keith Law (6th), MLB.com (8th), and Baseball America (9th) all ranked him highly among draft prospects — who slipped to the Yankees with the 18th pick for kinda dopey reasons. One, he turned 19 in May and was a few months older than most high school draftees. And two, he wanted a large bonus. Those seem like not great reasons to pass on him, but whatever.

Rutherford projects as a classic No. 3 hitter who can hit for average and power, and also draw a healthy amount of walks. His placement in the various top 100 lists tells you how highly he’s regarded. He didn’t just sneak onto the back of those lists. He was in the top half. At the same time, Rutherford will spent most of the season at age 20 and he’s going to start at Low-A. Not a big league option. A very talented prospect? Hell yes. But not a big league option in 2017. Not close.

Two consensus non-top 100 prospects who I consider among New York’s better prospects are RHP Albert Abreu and 3B Miguel Andujar. Abreu came over in the Brian McCann deal and he might have the highest upside of any pitcher in the farm system. He’s got mid-90s gas and both his slider and changeup look like out pitches on their best days. At the same time, Abreu is a 21-year-old with only 11.2 High-A innings under his belt. He’s going to spend the majority of this season at that level. An MLB call-up ain’t happening. Not this year.

Andujar is a personal fave and I feel like he gets lost in the depth of the farm system. His best tools are his raw power and throwing arm, and last year he started to make some real strides with his approach at the plate. Andujar wasn’t a big time hacker or anything, but he makes easy contact and had a tendency to swing at anything in the zone. He did a better job recognizing which pitches he could hammer and which he should let go last year. I’m expecting big things in 2017. A September call-up isn’t out of the question because Andujar is on the 40-man roster, though I would be surprised if helped the Yankees in a more substantial way this summer.

The Secondary Prospects Likely To Help In 2017

Montgomery. (Presswire)
Montgomery. (Presswire)

The depth of the farm system is on display when you look at the second and third tier prospects who figure to help the Yankees in 2017. LHP Jordan Montgomery has already put himself in the mix for an Opening Day roster spot with a strong spring. SS Tyler Wade added the outfield to his skill set in the Arizona Fall League and he’s now being considered as Gregorius’ replacement at short. I’m not sure that’ll happen, but the fact he’s being considered shows the Yankees think he’s at least close to MLB.

OF Dustin Fowler and RHP Chance Adams are both slated to open the season in Triple-A — Wade and Montgomery will be there as well if they don’t make the Opening Day roster — and are coming off very strong 2016 seasons. Breakout seasons, really. (Definitely in Adams’ case.) The odds of the Yankees needing a pitcher are much greater than the odds of them needing an outfielder for obvious reasons — besides, Frazier and OF Mason Williams figure to be ahead of Fowler on the call-up depth chart — but the fact these two are starting in Triple-A makes them big league possibilities. Once you get to that level, everyone is a call-up candidate.

Other prospects we could see in the Bronx this year include Williams, C Kyle Higashioka, RHP Ben Heller, RHP Jonathan Holder, LHP Dietrich Enns, RHP Ronald Herrera, RHP Gio Gallegos, and RHP J.P. Feyereisen. All except Feyereisen are on the 40-man roster. Heller is the best bullpen prospect in the farm system in my opinion, though Holder, Enns, and Gallegos all have great minor league numbers. Those dudes will all be part of the bullpen shuttle this summer. No doubt about it. Higashioka will, at worst, be a September call-up. He’s the third catcher.

Breakout Candidates

Abreu has already been mentioned and he’s the biggest breakout candidate in the farm system, I think, at least among pitchers. He’s already got four pitches — well, the makings of four pitches, I should say — and is in need of more refinement than anything. Better command, get more consistently with the delivery, things like that. Abreu doesn’t have to learn a changeup or anything like that. The pieces are there for him to become no-doubt top 100 prospect next spring.

On the position player side, 3B Dermis Garcia is a dude I’m very excited to follow this summer. He has 80 raw power on the 20-80 scouting scale — 80 raw power and 80 game power are different things! — and is a better pure hitter than his .206/.326/.454 (114 wRC+) batting line and 34.3% strikeout rate with rookie Pulaski last year would lead you believe. Garcia turned only 19 in January and it’s looking like he’ll spend the season at Low-A. Some progress with his approach, meaning not swinging out of his shoes each time he deems a pitch hittable, could turn Dermis into a top 100 guy. That’s a lot to ask, but the talent is there.

Other recent international signees like SS Hoy Jun Park, RHP Domingo Acevedo, SS Wilkerman Garcia, SS Diego Castillo, OF Leonardo Molina, and especially OF Estevan Florial are potential breakout candidates this year. Acevedo needs to continue to improve his breaking ball if he wants to remain in the rotation long-term. Florial has outrageous tools. His power, speed, and throwing arm all rate near the top of he scale. He just needs to tone down his ultra aggressive approach. Florial can swing-and-miss with the best of ’em.

It’s odd to consider a former fourth overall pick a breakout candidate, but RHP Dillon Tate qualifies. He came over from the Rangers in the Carlos Beltran trade after Texas soured on him. Tate, who was drafted in 2015, hurt his hamstring early last season and had difficulty adjusting to some mechanical changes the Rangers asked him to incorporate. The Yankees told him to forget about that and go back to his old mechanics, and by time the AzFL rolled around, his fastball was averaging 98.0 mph and topping out at 99.6 mph, per PitchFX. Yeah.

Of course, that 98.0 mph average heater came in a short burst and no one expects him to sit there as a starter. The Yankees will return Tate to the rotation this year — he worked multi-inning stints out of the bullpen after the trade last year so they could work on his mechanics — though it should be noted that even at his best, there was some thought Tate would wind up in the bullpen long-term because his fastball is straight and his changeup is still a work in progress. Point is, the Yankees bought low on Tate and are working to get him back to his fourth overall pick form, and he looked better in the AzFL than he did at any point with the Rangers before the trade.

If you’re looking for an Adams caliber breakout candidate, that reliever-turned-starter prospect, don’t. Seriously. What Adams did last year was best case scenario stuff. Hard to expect that again, though I’d happily welcome it. The best reliever-turned-starter prospect candidate in the system is Tate, though that’s not a true reliever-to-starter conversion. In that case, RHP Taylor Widener is the best bet. He was the team’s 12th round pick in last year’s draft.

Widener is the latest in a string of Yankees prospects to gain velocity in pro ball — Kaprielian, Montgomery, and Adams all did that — and he has a good slider, albeit an inconsistent one. His changeup has been a point of emphasis since the draft. I’m not sure Widener can make the transition to the rotation as seamlessly as Adams, though then again I never thought Adams would take to the role as easily as he did. Widener is more of a sleeper than a true breakout prospect.

Bounceback Candidates

McKinney. (Presswire)
McKinney. (Presswire)

Last year was a great year for the farm system, though it wasn’t perfect. A few players had disappointing seasons, most notably Mateo. The Yankees are hoping he bounces back in a big way this summer. Kaprielian too following the elbow injury. Tate is another bounceback candidate. Can a player be a bounceback candidate and a breakout candidate in the same season? I guess so. Garcia (Wilkerman, not Dermis) is a bounceback candidate despite being 18. He was great in 2015 and looked like a potential top 100 guy. He then battled through a shoulder issue and had a poor statistical season in 2016.

Aside from Mateo, I think the biggest bounceback candidate in the farm system on the position player side is OF Billy McKinney, who put together an impressive Grapefruit League showing (.417/.517/.917 with four walks and one strikeout in 29 plate appearances) before being reassigned to minor league camp. McKinney came over in the Chapman trade and was better with the Yankees than the Cubs, though his overall 2016 season was underwhelming. The former first rounder hit .256/.349/.363 (107 wRC+) at Double-A. Meh.

The spring performance was nice, though that’s not the reason McKinney is a bounceback candidate. He hit .300/.371/.454 (135 wRC+) between High-A and Double-A two years ago, and was ranked as a top 100 prospect prior to both 2015 (Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus) and 2016 (MLB.com, Keith Law, BP). McKinney’s 2015 season ended early because he fouled a pitch into his knee and suffered a hairline fracture, and there’s some belief it took him longer to get over the injury than expected, hence last year’s performance. With his sweet lefty swing and innate hitting ability, a healthy McKinney could regain significant prospect stock in 2017.

LHP Ian Clarkin was not bad by any means last season — he threw 98 innings with a 3.31 ERA (3.26 FIP) in High-A — though he finished the season hurt (knee) after missing the entire 2015 regular season (elbow). Reports on his stuff were mixed last season, so the Yankees haven’t really seen the supplemental first round pick version of Clarkin since 2014. This isn’t a make or break year for Clarkin (he just turned 22!) though the Yankees very much want him to stay healthy and regain his former top prospect status in 2017.

Prospects I Am Irrationally Excited About

I was originally planning to call this section sleepers or something, but I figured I might as well be straightforward about it. I’ve been waxing poetic about IF Thairo Estrada for two years now, and the just turned 21-year-old could reach Double-A in the second half of the season. RHP Zack Littell is kind of the anti-Yankees pitching prospect. He’s not physically huge with a big fastball. He’s a pitchability guy with three pitches who puts in an insane amount of work studying opposing hitters.

The Yankees are short on catching prospects at the moment — I still expect C Luis Torrens to be returned from the Padres as a Rule 5 Draft pick at some point soon — and their best backstop prospect is C Donny Sands, a converted third baseman. He’s a great bat-to-ball hitter with some power potential. Sands is still new to catching and is rough around the edges, but he’s attacked the transition and has already made some big strides defensively. He should be a top 30 organizational prospect at this time next year. (Some say he is right now.)

IF Oswaldo Cabrera had a ridiculous statistical season last summer — he hit .345/.396/.523 (163 wRC+) in 52 rookie ball games as a 17-year-old — and comes with interesting offensive upside. It seems likely he’s destined for second base rather than shortstop though. That’s okay. OF Rashad Crawford was the fourth piece in the Chapman trade and he’s loaded with tools and athletic ability, and is just now starting to figure out how to translate those tools into baseball skills. OF Isiah Gilliam is a switch-hitter with pop from both sides of the plate. He quietly finished fourth in the rookie Appalachian League with ten homers as a 19-year-old in 2016.

On the mound, I’m really looking forward to a full, healthy season of RHP Domingo German. He’s kind of a forgotten prospect given the Tommy John surgery. German is basically an older, shorter version of Acevedo in that he’s a righty with a big fastball and a very good changeup. Unlike Acevedo, German is on the 40-man roster. The Yankees will have him work as a starter this season, though I think we might see him pitch out of the big league bullpen at some point, likely as a September call-up. German can still bring it.

LHP Daniel Camarena has long been a personal favorite, and he bounced back well from elbow surgery last season. Because he’s left-handed and breathing, and also likely to open the season in Triple-A, he has to be considered a potential call-up candidate. RHP Jorge Guzman came over in the McCann trade and will live in the 98-100 mph range as a starter. He’ll be a Big Deal in a few months. RHP Drew Finley and RHP Nolan Martinez are lower level pitchability guys I am excited about. Also, RHP Nick Nelson. The post-draft scouting reports last year were almost too good to be true. Plus fastball, plus curveball, potentially plus command? Sign me up.

Will They Trade Any Of These Guys?

Yeah, probably. The question is who and for what? The Yankees have a lot of quality prospects coming up on Rule 5 Draft eligibility after the season. A lot. They can either try to keep everyone by adding the guys they really like to the 40-man roster and hoping everyone else gets passed over in the Rule 5 Draft, or trade a few of them to ensure some kind of return. You don’t want to lose someone like, say, Estrada or Littell for nothing more than the $100,000 Rule 5 Draft fee.

Aside from the Rule 5 Draft concerns, I have to imagine the Yankees are at least tempted to dip into their prospect base to land a pitcher with long-term control. They could really use one of those. Jose Quintana is the big name right now, though who knows who will be available at the trade deadline? Maybe the Phillies will put Jerad Eickoff or Vince Velasquez on the market, or the Diamondbacks will float Robbie Ray and Archie Bradley in trade talks. I get the Yankees want to build from within, but they’d be foolish to not consider available trades.

Either way, the Yankees figure to do some farm system shuffling this year. Not necessarily blockbuster trades, but asset management. Last year the Yankees traded Ben Gamel and James Pazos, two fringe big league players, for lower level prospects to make the 40-man situation a little better. I think we’ll see some deals like that this year, perhaps involving Rule 5 Draft eligible prospects not yet on the 40-man. Trades are coming. They’re inevitable. And given the depth of the farm system, I don’t think we can rule out a blockbuster, however unlikely it may seem right now.

Where Does The System Go From Here?

I believe the likelihood of the following two statements being true in eight months is quite high:

  1. The Yankees will have a worse farm system than they do right now.
  2. The Yankees will still have one of the game’s best farm systems.

As it stands, the Yankees are likely to graduate two of my top 30 prospects to the big leagues (Judge, Chad Green) and potentially a handful of others as well (Frazier, Wade, Montgomery,  Williams, Tyler Austin). Inevitably a few pitchers will get hurt and other players will stall out. That’s baseball and that’s why you want as many prospects as possible. It’s hard to see how, after this season, the farm system can be even better than it right now.

That said, the chances New York will still have one of the game’s better farm systems are pretty darn good. They’ll still have Torres and Rutherford (and Sheffield and Mateo), hopefully a healthy Kaprielian, plus whoever the 2017 draft brings in. Others like Andujar, Adams, and Acevedo all have the potential to be top 100 caliber prospects. Unless the Yankees gut the system to make some trades or they experience a catastrophically bad season in the minors, the club will still be loaded with prospects year from now.

The farm system right now is the focal point of the organization. We’re used to looking at a star-laden big league roster around these parts, and while the Yankees figure to be an entertaining team this season (if nothing else), everyone is talking about the farm system. Even the Yankees themselves. Their Winter Warm-Up event was built around prospects and the commercials feature kids, not veterans. This is a new era for the Yankees and that’s pretty exciting.

Shortstop depth gives the Yankees a chance to develop the super utility player they’ve been seeking

Jorge & Gleyber. (Presswire)
Jorge & Gleyber. (Presswire)

Everything in baseball is trending toward using pitchers less and less. Starters don’t throw nearly as many innings as they once did — only 15 pitchers reached 200 innings in 2016, ten years ago 38 guys did it — and relievers are becoming increasingly specialized. Every team has a one-inning setup man, a left-on-left matchup guy, players like that. Individual workloads are declining even though the season is still 162 games long.

It feels like only a matter of time until six-man rotations or eight-man bullpens (or both?) become the norm, so much so that MLB and the MLBPA reportedly considered expanding rosters to 26 players during the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. I’d bet on it happening during the next round of CBA talks. Point is, teams are using more pitchers than ever before, and there’s no reason to think that trend will reverse anytime soon.

As a result, benches are getting shorter and super utility players, guys who can play three or four positions rather than one or two, are increasingly more valuable. Ben Zobrist is the poster boy for the super utility movement. Others like Brock Holt and Sean Rodriguez fit the mold as well. The Yankees, like everyone else, have been looking for such a player. That’s one reason Rob Refsnyder has moved around so much, and why Ronald Torreyes has seen time in the outfield this spring.

I thought the Yankees would try to turn Dustin Ackley into a super utility player when they acquired him two years ago, but alas. It didn’t work out. Why? Because he couldn’t hit. That’s what makes this super utility business so tough. You’re asking a player to be competent defensively at several positions and hit well enough to deserve a lineup spot. That’s hard! Playing one position is difficult. So it hitting.

Now though, the Yankees have a chance to develop a super utility player like Zobrist (or, to a lesser extent, Holt or Rodriguez) because of their shortstop depth. Seven of my top 30 prospects are shortstops …

1. Gleyber Torres
7. Jorge Mateo
10. Tyler Wade
17. Hoy Jun Park
18. Wilkerman Garcia
26. Kyle Holder
27. Thairo Estrada

… and that doesn’t include other shortstop prospects like Abi Avelino, Oswaldo Cabrera, and Diego Castillo, all of whom would have made my top 30 list in a “normal” year. Shortstops are typically the best athletes and thus the best candidates to move to other positions. Zobrist was a natural shortstop. So were Holt and Rodriguez. And Torreyes. And other internal utility candidates like Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada.

Sure enough, the Yankees are already making sure their shortstop prospects spend time at other positions to increase their versatility. Torres has seen time at second. Mateo has played second in addition to short, plus he’s working out at third base and in center field. Wade was introduced to the outfield in the Arizona Fall League and he’s played short, third, left, and center already this spring. Park, Garcia, Holder, and Estrada have seen time all around the infield in the minors.

The other component here, as I mentioned earlier, is the offense. A super utility player is only super if he can hit. Otherwise he’s just a bench guy you’re looking to replace. Torres projects as an impact middle of the order hitter. Mateo has the tools to be a dynamic offensive player at well, thanks largely to his speed. Wade has no power, but he makes the contact and will draw walks, which is essentially the Holt skill set. There are varying levels of offensive upside here.

We’re used to seeing the Yankees give their veteran players extra rest whenever possible, creating a need for a strong bench and a super utility type. Now, even with the youth movement in full swing, having a super utility guy to give the regulars rest is still useful. The more you can help your players stay fresh and avoid fatigue, the more productive they’ll be. If that means 550 plate appearances across the 162-game season rather than 650, so be it. That means your players will be that much closer to midseason form in the postseason.

Of course, one reason the Yankees have the luxury of moving their young shortstop prospects around is Didi Gregorius. He’s established himself as a starting caliber big league shortstop these last two seasons. If that weren’t the case and the Yankees were still looking for Derek Jeter‘s long-term replacement, they might not be soon keen on moving their young shortstops around. Gregorius helps makes this super utility talk possible.

Given the way pitching staffs are used these days, super utility players are becoming a necessity, not a luxury. The Yankees have been hoarding shortstop prospects because they’re the best athletes and often have the broadest skill sets. So, in addition to being good shortstop prospects, they’re also candidates for a super utility role. There’s no stigma to being a utility guy now. They’re highly sought after and quite valuable.

Year Two of the 2014-15 International Free Agency Class [2016 Season Review]

Wilkerman. (@MLBPipeline)
Wilkerman. (@MLBPipeline)

Two and a half years ago the Yankees did something that sent shockwaves throughout baseball. On July 2nd, 2014, the first day of the 2014-15 international signing period, the Yankees committed more than $17M in bonuses to amateur players and completely blew their $2.2M bonus pool out of the water. Between bonuses and penalties, the team spend upwards of $30M on international free agents that signing period.

The Yankees were not the first team to exceed their international bonus pool but they were the first to do it in such an extreme way. Since then other clubs, including the Dodgers and Braves and Padres, have followed suit and spent huge on international free agents. The tax and other penalties, including a $300,000 limit on bonuses during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods, were a price worth paying for a one-year talent windfall.

As the owners continue to push for an international draft as part of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations — Ken Rosenthal says they’ve backed off that demand, for what it’s worth — the Yankees are in the process of developing and cultivating that 2014-15 international class. International free agency is not the thing for you if you’re looking for instant gratification. Turning 16-year-olds into big leaguers is a long and not always smooth process.

The 2016 season was the second full year in pro ball for players signed during the 2014-15 period — players sign contracts that begin the following season, so the kids who signed on July 2nd, 2014, signed 2015 contracts — and the Yankees are starting to see some exciting things happen in the lower minors. Here’s a progress report on that 2014-15 international signing class.

The Top Prospect

You know, it’s actually very up for debate who currently is the best prospect the Yankees signed as part of the spending spree. But, since this is my blog, I’m making an executive decision. SS Wilkerman Garcia ($1.35M bonus) burst onto the scene with a huge debut in 2015, hitting .299/.414/.362 (140 wRC+) with more walks (15.8%) than strikeouts (12.0%) in 39 rookie ball games. He’s the best prospect from the 2014-15 class. Unfortunately his 2016 follow-up didn’t go too well.

Garcia, who won’t turn 19 until April, suffered a shoulder injury in Spring Training this year, and while he didn’t need surgery or anything like that, he spent much of the first half rehabbing in Extended Spring Training. When he was ready to play, he went to rookie level Pulaski and put up a disappointing .198/.255/.284 (52 wRC+) batting line with 18.4% strikeouts and 6.3% walks in 54 games. Wilkerman was two and a half years younger than the average Appalachian League player.

The stat line is not pretty, but the most important thing is Garcia’s shoulder is now healthy and he didn’t lose any of the high-end athleticism that landed him such a large bonus. Wilkerman is a switch-hitter with bat control and strike zone knowledge, plus he runs very well and has a strong arm, which suit him well at shortstop. Hopefully 2016 was just a bump in the road. Garcia projects as an impact AVG/OBP/speed/defense leadoff type.

The New Hot Prospect

Florial. (@jarahwright)
Florial. (@jarahwright)

One of the best prospects the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period did not sign on July 2nd. He signed in March 2015. OF Estevan Florial ($200,000) was a highly regarded prospect heading into the signing period before being suspended by MLB for paperwork issues. Joel Sherman has a great story on Florial’s background. Apparently his mother used fraudulent paperwork to get him into school.

Florial, who turned 19 last week, annihilated the Dominican Summer League last season, hitting .313/.394/.527 (154 wRC+) with seven home runs and 15 steals in 57 games. His stateside debut in 2016 didn’t go quite as well. Florial put up a .228/.310/.370 (92 wRC+) line with eight homers and ten steals in 70 games at mostly Pulaski. (He also made brief cameos with Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa.) Florial struck out in 28.9% of his plate appearances.

The stat line is not what gets folks so excited about Florial. It’s the scouting report. During a recent Baseball America podcast, Josh Norris said scouts are giving Florial a 70 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) for three tools: power, running, throwing. That’s bonkers. Florial, a lefty hitter, has huge power and is a tremendous athlete. The only red flag in his game — and it’s a significant one — is his tendency to swing and miss.

More than a few tooled up players have been sabotaged by insufficient hitting ability, but that doesn’t mean you stop targeting those players. Every once in a while they turn into Kris Bryant. Florial is so well-regarded that teams are already asking for him in trades, according to Sherman. Given his natural ability, the Yankees scored a major win signing Florial for a mere $200,000 that late in the signing period.

The Power Threats

The two largest bonuses the Yankees handed out during the 2014-15 signing period went to 3B Dermis Garcia ($3.2M) and 3B Nelson Gomez ($2.25M). (Garcia signed as a shortstop and has since moved to third.) For both players, their calling card is their power. MLB.com ranked them as the top two international prospects in 2014 and they gave Dermis a 65 for his power. Gomez received a 60. Those are huge numbers for kids who were only 16 at the time.

Garcia, 19 in January, showed off that power during his 57-game stint with Pulaski this summer. He hit .206/.326/.454 (114 wRC+) overall and finished second in the league with 13 homers. The home run leader, Bradley Jones of the Blue Jays, hit 16. He’s three years older than Garcia. Dermis also struck out 34.3% of the time because he takes a big aggressive hack, which leads to a lot of whiffs. When he connects though, this happens:

At one point this summer Garcia went deep in four straight games — only 15 teenagers hit at least four home runs all season in the Appy League — and eight times in the span of 15 games. Eighteen-year-old kids in rookie ball just don’t do that. His power is truly special.

Garcia is not a mindless hacker. He knows the strike zone (13.9 BB%) and which pitches he can punish. His swing is just so aggressive — it’s basically a Javier Baez swing, that kind of aggressive — that he comes up empty a good amount of the time. Once Dermis realizes his power is so great that he can still hit the ball out of the park while taking a more controlled swing, he’s going to be a monster.

As for Gomez, the just turned 19-year-old made his stateside debut in 2016 and authored a .194/.249/.403 (92 wRC+) batting line in 54 games with one of the Yankees’ two rookie Gulf Coast League affiliates. The good news: Gomez was second in the league with nine homers. (The leader, Ignacio Valdez of the Tigers, had eleven and is two years older.) The bad news: Gomez struck out 25.8% of the time and walked 3.8% of the time.

Unlike Garcia, Gomez is a true hacker who will swing at pretty much everything and chase out of the zone. His plate discipline and approach are a very long way away from being competitive. Neither player offers a ton defensively, so their value is tied up heavily in their bats. Garcia is much more than a mistake hitter. He can hit. He just needs to tone things down a notch. Gomez has to figure out how to read spin and discern a ball from a strike.

The Sleeper

Unlike the players above, SS Diego Castillo ($750,000) does not come with loud tools. He’s not going to wow you with speed and his arm like Wilkerman, or hit the snot out of the ball like Dermis or Gomez, or grab your attention like Florial. Castillo, who turned 19 last month, is a bat-to-ball machine with a sweet swing and an opposite field approach. He can also play the hell out of shortstop thanks to good mobility and a strong arm.

This summer Castillo came to the U.S. and hit .267/.332/.327 (102 wRC+) with one home run and five steals in 44 GCL games. His strikeout rate (11.4%) is a result of his contact-focused approach, plus he drew a good amount of walks too (7.6%). Castillo is a boringly good prospect. He’s not flashy, but he’s very fundamentally sound and instinctive on the baseball field. Castillo has the ability to be a rock solid shortstop who helps on both sides of the ball at the next level.

The Advanced Prospect

Advanced is a relative term. We are talking about (mostly) teenagers here, after all. The oldest bonafide prospect the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period is SS Hoy Jun Park ($1.2M), who signed at 18 after graduating high school in South Korea. He spent this past season sharing second base and shortstop with Kyle Holder at Low-A Charleston, where he hit .225/.336/.329 (97 wRC+) with two homers, 32 steals, 23.2% strikeouts, and 13.0% walks in 116 games.

At this point Park’s offensive game lags behind his defense because he didn’t face the greatest competition growing up. He’s a left-handed hitter with a good swing and a plan at the plate, and once he adds some meat to his frame (6-foot-1 and 175 lbs.), the power should come. Park is a no-doubt shortstop with a quick first step and a strong arm. He’s prone to being a little too flashy and making mistakes, but that’s nothing a little experience can’t fix.

Park is older than most of his 2014-15 signing period brethren and he’s already spent a full season in Low-A, so he’s higher up the ladder as well. His offensive game has started to come around nicely since signing. Park’s easy to overlook in a farm system loaded with shortstops, but he has some really exciting skills. He has the potential to be a standout shortstop on both sides of the ball.

The Pop-Up Prospect

Freicer. (Robert Pimpsner)
Freicer. (Robert Pimpsner)

“Pop-up” prospects happen a lot with international free agents. Jorge Mateo and Luis Severino were pop-up prospects. Both were lower profile prospects signed to relatively small bonuses, their physical development was favorable — a lot kids go through growth spurts and lose the athleticism that get them signed in the first place — then bam, they were top prospects. Scouting kids who are 15 or 16 years old and projecting what they’ll be at 21 and 22 is awfully tough. The error bars are huge.

RHP Freicer Perez ($10,000) is the pop-up prospect from the 2014-15 signing period. The 20-year-old held his own with Short Season Staten Island in 2016, pitching to a 4.47 ERA (3.81 FIP) with 20.6% strikeouts and 10.5% walks in 13 starts and 52.1 innings. Perez is massive. He’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 190 lbs., which means he still hasn’t filled out and could add to a fastball that already sits 95-97 mph. His breaking ball and changeup need work, as does his overall command, but squint your eyes and you can see a Dellin Betances starter kit. Not too shabby for a $10,000 investment.

The Other Big Money Prospects

The Yankees gave out seven seven-figure bonuses during the 2014-15 international signing period. Stick to the spending pools and most teams would be able to afford two $1M+ bonuses, maybe three. The Yankees made a complete mockery of the system. No wonder the owners are pushing for an international draft now.

Anyway, four of those seven $1M+ bonuses went to Gomez, Park, and the two Garcias. One of the other three went to OF Jonathan Amundaray ($1.5M), an 18-year-old who hit .269/.321/.394 (112 wRC+) with two homers and an 18.8% strikeout rate in 29 games while repeating the Dominican Summer League in 2016. Amundaray has been billed as a good worker and very coachable, and the Yankees are waiting for his athletic ability to translate on the field.

OF Juan DeLeon ($2M) was arguably the most exciting prospect the Yankees signed two years ago thanks to his well-rounded game and true five-tool skill set. He appeared in only a dozen GCL games this summer due to an injury, hitting .212/.308/.364 (103 wRC+) in 39 plate appearances. Meh. I wouldn’t call this a lost year — DeLeon did get to work in Extended Spring Training before the GCL season — but not much happened for him in 2016.

The final seven-figure bonus went to C Miguel Flames ($1.1M), whose development behind the plate has been slow. Last year he caught nine games in the DSL (41 at first base) and this year he caught ten games in the GCL (36 at first). Many of them weren’t even full games. The Yankees had Flames catch five innings every few days for a while, and that was it. Not everyone takes to the position as quickly as Luis Torrens. The Yankees have had to ease Flames into it.

The Best of the Rest

Among the other notable 2014-15 international prospects are OF Brayan Emery ($500,000) and RHP Gilmael Troya ($10,000), both of whom played in the GCL in 2016. Emery, 18, hit .208/.328/.255 (88 wRC+) with one homer in 32 games and has insane tools. He was initially expected to sign for $1M+. Troya, 19, broke out last year after some mechanical tweaks, though he took a step back this summer and put up a 3.78 ERA (4.41 FIP) in 50 innings. He stands out for his fastball/curveball combo and pitching know-how.

Here are the rest of the notable prospects the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period, plus a note on their 2016 performance and current status:

  • OF Antonio Arias ($800,000): 18-year-old hit .239/.350/.266 (95 wRC+) in 51 games while repeating the DSL. He’s a great athlete and incredibly raw. A total lottery ticket.
  • OF Lisandro Blanco ($550,000): 19-year-old was overmatched in the GCL, hitting .111/.265/.185 (52 wRC+) in 26 games. Baseball is hard, even when you have premium bat speed like Blanco.
  • OF Leobaldo Cabrera ($250,000): 18-year-old hit .196/.261/.224 (53 wRC+) in 43 GCL games. He’s a raw athlete who stands out most for his throwing arm.
  • OF Frederick Cuevas ($300,000): 19-year-old playing sparingly in the GCL and hit .267/.302/.350 (96 wRC+) in 30 games. Cuevas is a lefty hitter with some pull power and approach issues.
  • IF Griffin Garabito ($225,000): 19-year-old followed up a solid 2015 debut by hitting .182/.238/.223 (44 wRC+) in 36 GCL games. He profiles best a contact heavy utility infielder.
  • C Jason Lopez ($100,000): 18-year-old hit .192/.267/.346 (85 wRC+) in only eleven GCL games. He’s a recently converted infielder with a rocket arm and some pop.
  • OF Erick Mendez ($250,000): 20-year-old put up a .243/.318/.393 (112 wRC+) line in 40 games between the GCL and Pulaski, then failed a performance-enhancing drug test after the season. He’ll serve a 50-game suspension at the outset of 2017.
  • OF Raymundo Moreno ($600,000): 18-year-old hit a fine .284/.381/.333 (119 wRC+) in 56 games while repeating the DSL. He’s got some loud tools and could make a name for himself in the GCL in 2017.
  • OF Pablo Olivares ($400,000): 18-year-old put up a .285/.378/.392 (135 wRC+) batting line in 47 GCL games. He a right-handed hitter who sprays the ball to all fields and is an excellent center field defender. The Yankees might have something here.
  • IF Danienger Perez ($300,000): 20-year-old hit .213/.248/.283 (60 wRC+) in 35 games between the GCL and Low-A. Perez is a speedy slap hitter who hasn’t hit much in pro ball.

These are not even all the prospects the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period. These are just the most notable. All told, the Yankees brought in about four years worth of international talent two years ago. Most years you may get one or two premium prospects and two of three secondary guys of note. In 2014-15, the Yankees landed four headliners (Park, Florial, the Garcias) and a host of second tier prospects (Gomez, Perez, Castillo, DeLeon, Flames, Amundaray, Emery, Troya, Olivares).

I’m not sure how many of these players will play full season ball in 2017 — Park will for sure, and I could see the Yankees pushing Florial and Perez to Low-A — but the Yankees have more than enough short season league teams to house them all. No one has knocked your socks off statistically yet — hey, they can’t all dominate instantly like Jesus Montero — but Florial, Dermis, Park, and Perez have all made improvements while others are still showing the big tools that got them signed at 16. With kids this age, that’s not always a given two years later.

Baseball America ranks three Yankees among best short season league prospects for 2016

Rutherford. (@MiLB)
Rutherford. (@MiLB)

A few days ago the crew at Baseball America started their annual look at the top 20 prospects in each minor league for the 2016 season. So far they’ve made their way through the various short season leagues — at least the ones relevant to the Yankees — which include the Gulf Coast League, Appalachian League, and NY-Penn League. The Yankees have two GCL teams plus one each in the Appy League and NYPL.

Starting with the Appy League (subs. req’d), Blue Jays OF Vladimir Guerrero Jr. claimed the top spot and was followed by two Yankees farmhands: OF Blake Rutherford and OF Estevan Florial are Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. In the chat, Hudson Belinsky singled out 3B Dermis Garcia, SS Wilkerman Garcia, SS Oswaldo Cabrera, OF Leonardo Molina, OF Isiah Gilliam, and C Donny Sands as others who received consideration. RHP Rafael Lara was mentioned as a sleeper.

“Rutherford controls at-bats and has a sound understanding of which pitches he can drive. His swing is geared more for line drives than home runs, and he hits lots of hard doubles from gap to gap, projecting for more over-the-fence power as he matures,” said the write-up. They also note Rutherford has very good outfield instincts but may lack the straight line speed needed to remain in center field long-term.

As for Florial, the write-up says he “wowed evaluators with his raw tools this summer,” particularly his “plus bat speed … giving him plus-plus raw power in batting practice.” Florial also has true center field defensive skills. The biggest red flag is a very aggressive swing that led to a 29.1% strikeout rate. “When he does connect, however, the ball explodes off his bat,” added the scouting report.

The GCL prospects list (subs. req’d) was, predictably, lead by Phillies OF Mickey Moniak, the first overall pick in this summer’s draft. Tigers RHP Matt Manning and Nationals OF Juan Soto round out the top three. SS Diego Castillo is the only Yankees prospect on the list and he ranked 19th. Ben Badler said 3B Nelson Gomez has huge raw power in the chat, but also “the approach he showed this year is worrisome,” which is why he didn’t make the top 20.

“(Castillo) has great feel for the barrel with a short, simple stroke with good bat path. He is a high contact hitter with an inside-out approach, wearing out the opposite field,” said the write-up, which also noted Castillo doesn’t have much power. His defense at short is very good as well, enough that he projects to remain at the position long-term. “He’s a smart, instinctive player who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.”

The Yankees did not have a single player on the NYPL prospects list (subs. req’d), which isn’t surprising. The Staten Island Yankees weren’t a particularly deep prospect team this year. 2B Nick Solak was by far the best healthy prospect on the team, and he’s didn’t make the cut in a league loaded with first round picks and high profile international signees. Athletics LHP A.J. Puk, the sixth pick in this year’s draft, was the league’s top prospect.

You can see the complete top 20 lists without a subscription right here. You just can’t read the scouting reports. I’m not sure what the posting schedule is, but the next list relevant to the Yankees is the Low-A South Atlantic League. SS Hoy Jun Park and RHP Dillon Tate are the Yankees prospects most likely to appear on the list. Others like C Luis Torrens and RHP Domingo Acevedo won’t meet the playing time criteria and aren’t eligible.

Saturday Links: All-Star Game, Ellsbury, Prospects, DL

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

The Yankees and Red Sox continue their weekend series tonight at Fenway Park. Man, I hate Saturday night games. The game isn’t even on FOX but I blame them anyway. Blah. Anywho, here are some links to help you pass the time until first pitch.

2016 All-Star Game voting underway

It’s that time of the year again. Fan voting for the 2016 All-Star Game starters is underway and yes, it is ridiculously early. It is every year. Here’s the ballot. You’re allowed to vote up to 35 times per email address and the voting doesn’t end until June 30th, so you’ve got plenty of time to vote for Chase Headley over and over again.

Teams game-planning for Ellsbury’s catcher interferences

Already three times this season Jacoby Ellsbury has been awarded first base on a catcher’s interference. That’s unusual — there have been only three other catcher’s interference calls in all of baseball this season — but not for Ellsbury. Since 2008, his first full season, his 17 catcher’s interference calls are the most in baseball. No one else has more than 13.

Those 17 career catcher’s interference calls are fourth most in history, behind Pete Rose (29), Dale Berra (18), and Julian Javier (18). Ellsbury has proven to be so proficient at getting catcher’s interference calls that teams are now game-planning for it. From Jared Diamond:

It’s happened enough that Ellsbury has earned a reputation around the league. Hector Ortiz, the catching instructor for the Texas Rangers, said he normally teaches his catchers to set up at an arm’s length behind the batter. When the Yankees came to town this week, Ortiz took special care to warn his players about Ellsbury’s strange talent, and to prepare for it.

“If you’ve got a guy that is consistently dropping the head of the bat that way, then we want to be an arm and a half,” said Ortiz. “You talk about it, to get away. They move back and they stay away from that.”

I don’t think anyone is accusing Ellsbury of hitting the catcher’s mitt on purpose. That’s just his swing path and the way he lets the ball travel deep in the zone. Opponents are game-planning for it not only to keep Ellsbury off base, but also keep their catchers healthy. They don’t want anyone to reach out too far and wind up with broken fingers. What a weird skill.

Three Yankees among top 20 DSL/VSL prospects

Earlier this month the great Ben Badler posted his annual look at the top 20 prospects from the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues last season. It’s not a ranking, just an alphabetical list of 20 names. The Yankees have three of the top 20 thanks to the 2014-15 international spending spree. The article is behind the paywall, so I can’t give away too much. Here are the nuts and bolts:

  • SS Diego Castillo: “Castillo was one of the most polished, fundamentally sound players in the 2014 signing class, with excellent instincts in all phases of the game.”
  • OF Estevan Florial: “Florial has outstanding tools, with scouts hanging 70s on his speed and arm strength in center field. He has good bat speed and plus raw power, ranking second in the league in slugging.”
  • 3B Nelson Gomez: “Gomez (is) a physical righthanded hitter with huge raw power, though a lot of scouts were skeptical whether his swing-and-miss tendencies would allow his power to translate against live pitching.”

Castillo, 18, hit .331/.373/.444 (130 wRC+) in 56 DSL games last year. He signed for $750,000 and is a personal favorite as a deep sleeper. I’m a sucker for guys who are polished and instinctual at such a young age. Castillo should come stateside later this summer and play with one of the rookie Gulf Coast League affiliates, so prepare to hear much more about him in the coming weeks and years.

MLBPA pushing for 7-day DL

According to Joel Sherman, the MLBPA plans to push for a 7-day DL as part of the next round of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations with MLB. Right now the league has 15-day and 60-day disabled lists, as well as a special 7-day DL for concussions only. That 7-day DL comes with all sorts of concussion protocol, including approval from MLB’s medical director before the player can be activated.

Sherman says the union has pushed for a 7-day DL in the past, though it never received approval from the owners. Apparently there’s concern teams would manipulate the system, perhaps by putting a starting pitcher on the 7-day DL to gain an extra roster spot when he isn’t scheduled to pitch for a few days. I could totally see the Yankees doing something like that with a sixth starter, couldn’t you?

There is a 7-day DL in the minors, and once upon a time MLB had 10-day and 21-day disabled lists. There’s nothing special about 15 days. It’s just a round number. I’m in favor of a shorter DL to give teams some more flexibility — the Yankees played with a 23-man roster for a few days this week because Alex Rodriguez and Aaron Hicks were banged up — though I understand there are some things to work out. It’s not quite as simple as it seems.

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.

The Early Returns from the 2014-15 International Spending Spree [2015 Season Review]

Wilkerman. (MLB.com)
Wilkerman. (MLB.com)

Four years ago, the MLBPA collectively bargained away the earning potential of amateur players. Spending restrictions were put in place for both the draft and international free agency, and while the spending limits are a soft cap, they do come with harsh penalties. Teams are given a bonus pool for the draft and international free agency, and exceeding the bonus pool comes with a hefty price.

Two summers ago, the Yankees decided to flex their financial muscle and go on a massive international spending spree. Their bonus pool was only $2.2M, but they spent upwards of $16M on bonuses during the 2014-15 signing period. As a result, they were taxed 100% on the overage — that’s another $14M or so in tax, mean the total cost was $30M+ — and are unable to hand out a bonus larger than $300,000 during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods.

The Yankees were willing to pay the penalties to haul in the vast majority of the top talent available. They signed about four years worth of high-end international prospects in one signing period. Other teams like the Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Royals followed suit this past summer and blew their bonus pools out of the water. I’m guessing MLB and the MLBPA will look to change the system when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires next offseason.

Anyway, the 2014-15 signing period was very heavy on position player prospects. There weren’t a ton of high quality arms to go around, so almost all the prospects the Yankees landed are hitters. Yeah, some balance would have been nice, but more pitching prospects weren’t going to pop out of thin air. The Yankees hoarded position player talent and those players made their pro debuts during the 2015 season. Let’s look at the early returns.

Stellar Debuts in the States

Rather than be held back in the Dominican Summer League, a few of the international signees were brought to the U.S. to begin their pro careers this season. The best of the bunch was Venezuelan SS Wilkerman Garcia ($1.35M bonus), a 17-year-old switch-hitter who hit .299/.414/.362 (140 wRC+) with 25 walks and 19 strikeouts in 39 Rookie Gulf Coast League games. He’s a solid defender and may wind up at second base long-term, but he offers high-end bat-to-ball skills.

Hoy Jun Park
Park. (@myKBO)

Korean SS Hoy Jun Park ($1.16M) also had a strong debut. Park signed out of high school and is already 19, so it’s no surprise the Yankees brought him stateside for his first pro season. He hit .239/.351/.383 (109 wRC+) with five homers, 12 steals, a 19.1% strikeout rate, and a 13.0% walk rate in 56 games for the new Rookie Pulaski affiliate. Park is a legitimate shortstop with strong defensive tools, and the left-handed batter showed this summer he can handle pro pitching, especially big fastballs. His pro debut was rather impressive considering he did not face great competition growing up.

Venezuelan RHP Gilmael Troya ($10,000) is an interesting case because, as his bonus suggests, he was not a high profile prospect at all. The 18-year-old saw his velocity tick up in pro ball, and he now sits in the low-90s consistently. He also has a plan on the mound and the makings of an out-pitch curveball. Troya had a 1.80 ERA (2.97 FIP) with a 27.4% strikeout rate and a 9.0% walk rate in 60 GCL innings this summer. He, Garcia, and Park were the standouts who debuted in the U.S. in 2015.

The Big Money Prospects

When it comes to international free agency, bonuses can tell you quite a bit. The larger the bonus, the more the team likes the player. The bonus doesn’t necessarily reflect the market — you had to offer this much to get him because another team was offering a comparable bonus, for example — because teams zero in on these kids when they’re 14 or 15 years old. They agree to bonuses months or even years in advance, before other teams get a chance to scout them. I’m not joking when I say they hide these kids at their complexes so other scouts don’t see them.

The Yankees gave out seven seven-figure bonuses during the 2014-15 signing period: Dominican SS Dermis Garcia ($3.2M), Dominican 3B Nelson Gomez ($2.25M), Dominican OF Juan DeLeon ($2M), Venezuelan OF Jonathan Amundaray ($1.5M), Venezuelan C Miguel Flames ($1M), Wilkerman, and Park. Like Wilkerman and Park, Dermis Garcia made his pro debut in the U.S. this summer, hitting .159/.256/.188 (46 wRC+) with 25 strikeouts and nine walks in 23 scattered GCL games. (There was a ton of rain in Tampa this year. They went two or three days between games for a few weeks there.)

Garcia, 17, signed as a shortstop but has already moved to third base because he’s a big dude (6-foot-3 and 200 lbs.) and lacks the defensive chops for short. He has huge right-handed raw power and a very strong arm, though he needs refinement at the plate and is very much a long-term project. The unteachable skills are there (power, arm, etc.). Now Garcia just needs to work on his approach and things like that.

The other four seven-figure bonus guys debuted in the Dominican Summer League this year. Gomez, 18, put up a .243/.350/.435 (123 wRC+) line with eleven homers, a 24.3% strikeout rate, and a 12.4% walk rate in 58 DSL games. Similar to Dermis Garcia, Gomez is a big bodied (6-foot-1 and 220 lbs.) masher with righty raw power and a strong arm. He might have more power, actually. His defense is fine and his approach is much more advanced than Garcia’s.

DeLeon, 18, had a statistically underwhelming season, hitting .226/.344/.336 (108 wRC+) with three homers and a 66/25 K/BB in 53 DSL games, but he might be the most tooled up player from the international class. He has high-end bat speed from the right side and strong center field skills, including a very good arm that would be more than fine in right. Don’t read too much into DSL numbers. DeLeon is arguably the best prospect the Yankees signed as part of their spending spree.

The 17-year-old Amundaray was limited to 13 games in the DSL this summer, hitting .111/.346/.167 (72 wRC+) with 12 walks and 12 strikeouts. He’s another guy who is more athletic tools than baseball skills, if you catch my drift. Amundaray has good bat speed and he’s a good runner, but he’s very raw at the plate with less than stellar bat-to-ball ability. He has power from the right side but sells out for it even though he doesn’t need to.

Flames, 18, had the best statistical debut of the big bonus guys, hitting .317/.398/.454 (142 wRC+) with three homers, an 18.5% strikeout rate, and a 9.2% walk rate in 54 DSL games. He did spend most of his time at first base though (only nine games behind the plate) because he’s not a great defender, so he did most of his defensive work behind the scenes. Flames has a pro body (6-foot-2 and 210 lbs.) and his right-handed hit tool/raw power combo is awfully impressive. He was a third baseman who converted to catching shortly before signing.

The international market is not the place for instant gratification. These kids sign at 16 and begin playing at 17, so they’re extremely raw and underdeveloped. The tools are far, far, far more important than the performance. Wilkerman and Park are more advanced than the rest, though Dermis, Gomez, and DeLeon have loud tools and star upside. There’s just a lot of work to be done to reach that ceiling.

Low Cost Prospects

The Yankees have excelled at finding low cost Latin American prospects over the years. You can go back to Robinson Cano, who signed for a $150,000 bonus back in 2001. More recently, the Yankees landed Luis Severino ($225,000) and Jorge Mateo ($250,000) on relatively small bonuses. The million dollar guys get the most attention, understandably, but the mid-range market is where organizational depth is built.

The best six-figure bonus prospect is arguably Venezuelan SS Diego Castillo ($750,000), who put up a .331/.373/.444 (130 wRC+) line with five steals, an 11.6% strikeout rate, and a 6.1% walk rate in 56 DSL games. He’s similar to current Yankees farmhand IF Abi Avelino in that he has no standout tool, but is solid across the board with great instincts that allow everything to play up. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Venezuelan OF Antonio Arias ($800,000) hit .235/.316/.316 (87 wRC+) in 39 DSL games. The 17-year-old is a pure projection play: he’s a high-end athlete with bat speed who is still working to turn those natural gifts into baseball skills. Dominican OF Frederick Cuevas ($300,000), 18, put up a .256/.376/.365 (117 wRC+) line in 57 DSL games. The lefty swinger doesn’t have exciting tools but does know his game as a lefty gap hitter.

The international period begins on July 2nd each year, but it wasn’t until November that the Yankees snagged Colombian OF Brayan Emery ($500,000). He was originally expected to land a $1M+ bonus, but that didn’t happen. The 17-year-old Emery hit .192/.330/.308 (92 wRC+) with three homers, a 29.7% strikeout rate, and a 14.7% walk rate in 61 DSL games this summer. He’s a very exciting prospect, with a smooth left-handed swing and power potential to go with right field defensive tools. Emery needs experience more than anything.

Here are some of the other smaller bonus guys the Yankees landed during the 2014-15 international signing period. Again, “smaller bonus” is a relative term.

  • Dominican OF Lisandro Blanco ($550,000), 18: .291/.391/.355 (122 wRC+) in 41 DSL games. Top notch tools, including great bat speed and high-end athleticism.
  • Venezuelan OF Leobaldo Cabrera ($250,000), 17: .298/.367/.382 (116 wRC+) in 59 DSL games. His best tools are top of the line arm strength and an advanced approach at the plate.
  • Dominican IF Griffin Garabito ($225,000), 18: .256/.328/.312 (94 wRC+) in 62 GCL games. Versatile infielder who is known for his bat-to-ball ability. The Yankees liked him enough to bring him stateside in 2015.
  • Venezuelan C Jason Lopez ($100,000), 17: .240/.337/.301 (91 wRC+) in 42 DSL games. Recently converted third baseman with a very strong arm and some power potential.
  • Dominican OF Erick Mendez ($250,000), 19: .281/.381/.465 (140 wRC+) in 51 DSL games. Good all-around ability — bat speed, power potential, arm, speed — but needs to face age appropriate competition to really develop.
  • Venezuelan OF Raymundo Moreno ($600,000), 17: .067/.125/.067 (-33 wRC) in six DSL games. Standout defensive center fielder with bat speed and a knack for trying to muscle up for power at the plate.
  • Venezuelan OF Pablo Olivares ($400,000), 17: .267/.370/.359 (116 wRC+) in 32 DSL games. Another great defender in center with excellent athleticism. His line drive approach doesn’t project to produce much power down the road.
  • Venezuelan IF Danienger Perez ($300,000), 19: .245/.311/.382 (104 wRC+) in 69 games between the DSL, GCL, and Short Season Staten Island. Perez is a slap-hitting defense first prospect.

The Yankees also signed Venezuelan RHP Servando Hernandez ($200,000), Venezuelan IF Wander Hernandez (unknown), and Dominican LHP Luis Pache (unknown) during the 2014-15 international signing period, but I can’t find any information on them. They didn’t play at all in 2015. It’s possible their contract agreements hit a snag, maybe due to age and identity issues. That stuff still happens on occasion even though MLB enlisted Sandy Alderson to crack down a few years back.

* * *

International free agency is a much different animal than the amateur draft. International prospects usually sign at 16 years old, so we’re talking sophomore in high school age. They’re very raw, and while recent pop-up leagues have helped, there’s not much high-caliber competition in Latin America. These kids aren’t on the high school showcase circuit strutting their stuff against other top high school talent from around the country, you know?

All the players the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period are just starting their pro careers. One season — it’s not even a full season, these guys played in short season leagues this year and are lucky to have 60 games under their belt — doesn’t tell us a whole lot. You’ve got to start somewhere though. That no one suffered a catastrophic injury or went through a growth spurt that sapped their athleticism makes year one a success.