Gary Sanchez fatigue and the prospect of a make or break year

(MiLB.com)
(MiLB.com)

With Spring Training right around the corner, prospect season is in full swing around baseball, as new team top ten and global top 100 lists are posted just about everyday. (My annual top 30 Yankees prospects list will be going live next Friday, by the way.) The lists ultimately don’t mean anything, they’re just someone’s opinion, but they are fun to discuss and debate. Prospects can be very polarizing.

Prior to both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, I ranked C Gary Sanchez as the Yankees’ top prospect. So did Keith Law. Baseball America had Sanchez third prior to 2013 and first prior to 2014. Sanchez was also a staple on top 100 lists those two years, ranking as the 57th and 35th best prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2013 and 2014, respectively. Law him 18th and 68th those two years. Baseball Prospectus had him 47th and 85th, and MLB.com had him 36th and 47th. On and on it goes.

This year though, Sanchez has slid down the rankings. Both Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the third best prospect in the system a few weeks ago while Baseball America had him fifth. That is partly due to other players in the organization (specifically OF Aaron Judge and RHP Luis Severino) breaking out, but people have also soured on Sanchez. He had not appeared on any top 100 lists this year. Not Law’s, not Prospectus’, not MLB.com’s, and almost certainly not Baseball America’s when it is released next week.

I’m not going to call Sanchez’s absence on the various top 100 lists crazy — they’re all excellent and well-informed lists, every one of ’em — but I guess I do find it surprising. Well, I do and I don’t. It isn’t surprising because people are clearly down on him. It is surprising because Sanchez is still a pretty damn good prospect. I mean, look at this snippet from Baseball America’s recent scouting report:

If everything clicks, he’s a frontline catcher with the potential for a .280 average and 20-25 home runs annually. His throwing arm remains an impressive tool as well, one that ranks between 70-80 on the scouting scale, and he threw out 39 percent of basestealers.

That’s pretty awesome. Sanchez isn’t that guy yet, obviously, if he was he’d be in the big leagues, but that’s the kind of talent he has. “Sanchez will show you flashes of the ability that once made him a top-25 prospect in all of baseball,” wrote Law in his top ten post before getting to the caveat, “but he’ll also take whole pitches or innings off mentally, and catching isn’t a position you can play half-fast.”

That last part is Sanchez’s biggest issue. He’s had some work ethic related mishaps — Sanchez infamously refused to catch a bullpen session with Low-A Charleston a few years ago and was sent back to Extended Spring Training for disciplinary reasons — and his defense hasn’t improved as hoped, and that’s the scouting reason why he’s tumbling down the prospect rankings.

I also think there’s another factor: prospect fatigue. It happens all the time. Sanchez signed with the Yankees as a 16-year-old in 2009, so he’s been in the system for five full seasons now. That’s a lot. People are getting sick of his seeing his name on prospect lists. Following prospects is not about instant gratification but people always love their new toys more than their old ones. Sanchez has been around a long time and people are getting tired of him.

And yet, Sanchez just turned 22 last month. He’s only four months older than LHP Jacob Lindgren, who the Yankees just drafted last summer. Sanchez hit .270/.338/.406 (108 wRC+) with 13 homers as a full-time catcher in Double-A last year at age 21, making him 3.7 years younger than the average Eastern League player according to Baseball Reference. Heck, he’s been three years younger than the competition every season of his career.

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

If the Yankees signed some college catcher out of the draft, sent him right to Double-A, and he did what Sanchez did age 21 last year, we’d all think it was pretty awesome. But instead everyone has been pretty underwhelming by Sanchez. Everyone’s waiting for the big breakout year — a Jesus Montero year, if you will — that still hasn’t come even though Sanchez hasn’t ever actually been bad.

This brings us to another point I want to discuss: 2015 being a make or break year for Sanchez. I mean, no. The idea that a 22-year-old kid is facing a make or break year that will determine if he’s a prospect going forward or someone to forget about is silly. No one with half a brain would write off a 22-year-old with Sanchez’s ability. That said, I do think it is a make or break year for Sanchez with the Yankees’ organization.

The Yankees clearly prioritize catcher defense and have for years — the only bad defensive catcher they’ve had since 2007 is Jorge Posada. They called Montero a future big league catcher as long as possible until finally trading him away because no, they really didn’t think he was a catcher. Peter O’Brien was traded for the very same reason last summer. Sanchez has better defensive tools and a much better chance of sticking behind the plate than either Montero or O’Brien, but he’s still rough at the position and the improvement hasn’t come as quickly as hoped.

If that defensive improvement doesn’t come this year, a year in which Sanchez is slated to head to Triple-A Scranton, then his days with the organization are probably over. The Yankees will cut bait like they did with Montero and O’Brien and cash Sanchez in as a trade chip even though he has a chance to be an impact bat. So it’s not a make or break year for Sanchez’s career overall, but I do think it’s a make or break year for him with the Yankees. That makes sense, right?

Because Sanchez was a huge money international signing ($3M!) and has been one of the top rated prospects in the system for years, people have been watching and waiting for that mammoth season that validates all the time we’ve put into following him. It hasn’t happened and people are getting tired of waiting — I think the same thing happened with Dellin Betances two or three years ago too — but that doesn’t make him any less of a prospect. Sanchez is still really good and has loads of ability. But, unless he improves his defense this year, chances are he’s going to find himself in another organization.

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Aaron Judge tops Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects

Judge in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)
Judge in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)

One day after releasing his top 100 prospects list, Keith Law published his top ten prospects for each team on Friday. Here is the index and here is the Yankees list. The individual team lists are Insider only. Here is New York’s top ten:

  1. OF Aaron Judge (No. 23 on the top 100)
  2. 1B Greg Bird (No. 80 on the top 100)
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. RHP Luis Severino
  5. OF Tyler Austin
  6. SS Jorge Mateo
  7. RHP Domingo German
  8. LHP Ian Clarkin
  9. C Luis Torrens
  10. 3B Eric Jagielo

Also, based on the write-up, we know 2B Rob Refsnyder, 3B Miguel Andujar, LHP Jacob Lindgren, SS Tyler Wade, RHP Brady Lail, and RHP Ty Hensley are prospects 11-16. Law is lower on Severino and higher on Austin than most, but otherwise the top ten (top 16, really) seems pretty straight forward. No major surprises. You could argue someone should be a spot higher or whatever, but it’s not worth it.

With Stephen Drew in Refsnyder’s way at second base, Law lists Lindgren as the mostly likely prospect to have an impact in 2015. OF Mason Williams is the “fallen” prospect, the guy who was once one of the best in the game but is now an afterthought. Law’s sleeper for the Yankees is Mateo, who he says is “so well-regarded in the industry that other teams have already targeted him in trade talks.” He adds that Mateo has “tremendous tools, is an 80 runner and plus fielder who shows above-average raw power in BP.”

The Yankees have a very position player heavy farm system right now — seven of Law’s top ten and nine of his top 12 are position players — and that’s a good thing because quality position players are hard to find these days. Even better, several of those position players will be at Double-A or higher this coming season, including Judge, Bird, Sanchez, Austin, Jagielo, and Refsnyder. There’s a clear path for some of those guys to get MLB at-bats in the next year or two, and the team’s apparent commitment to getting younger means they’re going to get a chance. That’s exciting.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 17-19

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’re inevitably going to disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

Mitchell.. (Presswire)
Mitchell.. (Presswire)

As we jump into the top half of our 40-man roster rankings, we are now looking at players who are projected to have significant roles with the 2015 Yankees as well as the 2016 and beyond Yankees. At least most of the time. There is still one exception to the “significant role with the 2015 Yankees” thing and we’ll cover him today.

Today we’re going to cover spots 17 through 19, which include two starters who are not expected to start the year in rotation, but seem likely to wind up there come the second half. The other spot belongs to the team’s best prospect on the 40-man roster. All three are important pieces to the future of the franchise. To the next batch of rankings …

No. 19: Bryan Mitchell

2015 Role: I don’t want to say sixth starter, but it’s something close to that. Mitchell made his MLB debut last season, including a spot start against the Orioles during a doubleheader, and he handled himself well. That doesn’t guarantee success this coming season, of course, but it’s better than getting lit up and leaving everyone with a bad taste in their mouth.

Mitchell will presumably get regular work in Spring Training and could win the final bullpen spot as a long man, I suppose, but an assignment to Triple-A Scranton seems more likely. That way he could remain stretched out and available for whenever the Yankees inevitably need another starter. Given the state of the rotation, there’s a good chance Mitchell will make double-digit starts in the big leagues in 2015.

Long-Term Role: Middle to back of the rotation starter. The 23-year-old Mitchell is well ahead of where Shane Greene was in his development at the same age, and he has similarly nasty stuff in his mid-90s fastball and curveball, though he’s not a finished product. They sort of project to be the same type of pitcher though. Workhorse starters with A+ stuff but maybe not A+ results all the time.

Mitchell was drafted out of high school as a raw hard-thrower and has worked hard to improve his control over the years. He had a 13.6% walk rate in Low Class-A, a 9.3% walk rate in High Class-A, a 9.8% walk rate in Double-A, and an 8.9% walk rate in Triple-A, so he is moving in the right direction. There is more work to be done and it appears much of it will happen at the big league level. The Yankees need Mitchell to help both now and in the future.

No. 18: Gary Sanchez

Sanchez. (Star-Ledger)
Sanchez. (Star-Ledger)

2015 Role: Doesn’t really have one outside of being a September call-up and the emergency extra catcher. A lot would have to go wrong for Sanchez to get a chance behind the plate before rosters expand, I think. His defense, specifically his receiving — he has thrown out 42% of attempted base-stealers the last two seasons and that’s outstanding — is still a work in progress and so is his bat, really. Sanchez will spend the season as the regular catcher with the RailRiders.

Long-Term Role: Impact bat. Hopefully at catcher, but if not, at first base or even DH. Either way, Sanchez is a bat-first prospect and that’s why he is so highly regarded. When Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked him as the team’s fifth best prospect a few weeks ago, they said he has “the potential for a .280 average and 20-25 home runs annually,” and that’s what the Yankees are hoping to see within a year or two.

Sanchez has shown quite a bit of improvement at making contact and controlling the strike zone as a pro — he had a 25.0% strikeout rate in Low Class-A, a 19.2% strikeout rate in High Class-A, and an 18.2% strikeout rate in Double-A. As with Mitchell, he’s trending in the right direction. Sanchez has power and a strong arm, so the physical tools are there. And he just turned 22 last month, making him the youngest player on the 40-man roster.

The Yankees very clearly value defense behind the plate. It all started years ago, really. They acquired Jose Molina from the Angels in the middle of the 2007 season and the only poor defensive catcher they’ve had since was Jorge Posada. Despite that gaudy caught stealing rate, Sanchez could find himself in another organization if the Yankees don’t like his defense enough. He could wind up being used as trade bait a la Jesus Montero.

Nova. (Presswire)
Nova and his braces. (Presswire)

No. 17: Ivan Nova

2015 Role: Rehabber, at least at first. Nova had Tommy John surgery in late-April and isn’t expected back until May or June of this year. He hasn’t had a setback or anything, the Yankees are just playing it a little safe. A lot of pitchers have recently needed a second Tommy John surgery soon after the first one — Kris Medlen, Jarrod Parker, Cory Luebke, Daniel Hudson, and Brandon Beachy just to name a few — and a lot of people (including Dr. James Andrews) say it may be because they are pushing too hard during the rehab of the first procedure. That’s why the Yankees are taking their time with Nova.

Once healthy and rehabbed, Nova will be expected to jump right back in the starting rotation and contribute. Every team needs more than five starters in a given season and these Yankees figure to be no different considering the injury risks present in the current projected rotation. If Nova comes back in May or June and the team doesn’t have an obvious spot for him, that’s a good thing. Let him get healthy first, then worry about where he fits. My guess is it won’t be a problem.

Long-Term Role: Like I said, Nova will jump right back into the starting rotation once healthy and he’s expected to be in the rotation in 2016 as well. That’s the extent of Nova’s ties to the Yankees though. He will become a free agent after the 2016 season and either he could decide to go elsewhere or the team could decide to move on.

That decision is still a long ways away, of course. Nova has to finish rehabbing his rebuilt elbow, get over the initial strike-throwing issues that so commonly plague recent Tommy John patients, then show in 2016 he is back to where he was before surgery. Now that I think about it … what was Nova before his injury? There were times he looked like an ace and other times he was throwing batting practice. We still don’t really know who the real Nova is at the MLB level. Isn’t that weird?

Coming Friday: Nos. 15 and 16. A young player about to get his first extended taste of big league action and a versatile reliever.

Aaron Judge tops Baseball Prospectus’ top ten Yankees prospects list

Judge putting a hurtin' on a baseball. (MiLB.com)
Judge putting a hurtin’ on a baseball. (MiLB.com)

The crew at Baseball Prospectus is currently in the middle of their annual top ten prospects series breaking down the best young minor leaguers in each organization. They published their top ten Yankees prospects list yesterday, though it is behind the paywall. You can see the list itself for free, but you have to pay for the scouting reports and everything else. Here’s the top ten:

  1. OF Aaron Judge
  2. RHP Luis Severino
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. LHP Ian Clarkin
  5. SS Jorge Mateo
  6. 2B Rob Refsnyder
  7. 1B Greg Bird
  8. CF Leonardo Molina
  9. LHP Jacob Lindgren
  10. C Luis Torrens

Nine of those ten names are fairly straight forward and not surprisingly included in a Yankees top ten in whatever order. The one surprise is the 17-year-old Molina, who hit a weak .193/.267/.260 (58 wRC+) with one homer, six steals, and a 23.5% strikeout rate in 53 games with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees this summer. That was his pro debut after signing for $1.4M in August 2013, making him the team’s top international pickup during the 2013-14 signing period.

Needless to say, the BP gang is very high on Molina. They grade all five of his tools as at least average — in fact, only the hit tool is average, everything else is above-average — and say the “tools are very loud, though far from being polished and playing together collectively as a group.” The write up also says Molina’s emergence as a top prospect “should be more subtle” rather than one huge breakout year. “It’s a boom-or-bust prospect, for sure, with a heavy serving of risk on the plate, but there’s a feel this one is going to start emerging over the next couple of seasons.”

Also in the article, 3B Miguel Andujar, RHP Austin DeCarr, and RHP Ty Hensley are listed as three prospects on the rise. Andujar and DeCarr are just starting their careers while Hensley is returning from hip and hernia surgery. RHP Jose Ramirez, RHP Danny Burawa, and OF Tyler Austin are listed among the non-top ten prospects who could have an MLB impact in 2014. And, finally, BP ranks the organization’s ten best players age 25 and under. It’s basically the top ten prospects list with SS Didi Gregorius sandwiched between Severino and Sanchez. RHP Michael Pineda is no longer eligible because he turns 26 next month.

“This system is thinner in the upper levels with potential impact talent, where the near-term contribution is likely to be more modest, but a wave brewing in the lower levels is starting to breathe some life and offer more promise,” said the write-up, summing up the state of the system. Every club has interesting prospects in the low levels, but I do think the Yankees have more than most, especially following their huge international free agent spending spree this summer. It’ll be a little while before those players begin to make a name for themselves and emerge as top prospects, of course.

Luis Severino tops Baseball America’s top ten Yankees prospects list

Severino at the 2014 Futures Game. (Hannah Foslien/Getty)
Severino at the 2014 Futures Game. (Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Earlier this week, Baseball America started their annual look at each team’s top ten prospects. The series continued today with the Yankees, and, as always, the list is free but the scouting reports are not. The link also includes free video for six of the ten prospects, so make sure you check that out. Here is Baseball America’s entire top ten index and here is New York’s top ten:

  1. RHP Luis Severino
  2. OF Aaron Judge
  3. SS Jorge Mateo
  4. 1B Greg Bird
  5. C Gary Sanchez
  6. LHP Ian Clarkin
  7. 2B Rob Refsnyder
  8. LHP Jacob Lindgren
  9. C Luis Torrens
  10. 3B Miguel Andujar

Severino and Judge are 1A and 1B in my opinion. I consider Judge the team’s top prospect because of the general attrition rate of 20-year-old pitchers plus the fact that offense is the scarce commodity these days, not pitching. That’s just my opinion. They’re both excellent and both are Yankees though, so the order doesn’t really matter.

The Mateo ranking might be a bit aggressive but people have been raving about him all summer. He’s clearly one of the team’s top prospects even though a hand injury limited him to only a handful of games in 2014. Bird over Sanchez seems to be based on performance as much as anything. The scouting report calls Bird an average defensive first baseman who “projects to hit 18-20 homers in the big leagues,” then says Sanchez can be a “frontline catcher with the potential for a .280 average and 20-25 home runs annually.” Plus Sanchez has at least a grade 60 bat flip tool:

Gary Sanchez

Anyway, Refsnyder and Lindgren are basically MLB-ready pieces while Clarkin, Torrens, and Andujar are lower level guys who are still years away. The scouting report notes that, with the help of pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, Clarkin added a cutter to his fastball-curveball-changeup mix this summer. Torrens is going to be the next great Yankees catching prospect very soon — the write-up says his defense draws raves even though he didn’t move behind the plate full-time until the team signed him in July 2012 — and the scouting report says Andujar has a “future of an everyday third baseman whose bat profiles for the position.”

Compared to last year’s top ten, I think this year’s has much more upside and depth. 3B Eric Jagielo didn’t make the cut — I assume he’s prospect No. 11 — despite having a pretty damn good year with High-A Tampa (132 wRC+ with 16 homers in 85 games) around an oblique injury. Last year he would have been in the top five no questions asked following a season like that. The farm system still isn’t in a great shape but it is definitely on the way up, especially after the club’s international spending spree this summer. There’s a ton of upside in the lower levels right now, way more than usual. I think the Yankees have been very good at acquiring talent in recent years. Developing it has been the problem.

Sanchez, Refsnyder among Baseball America’s top Eastern League prospects

Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)
Refsnyder. (MiLB.com)

Baseball America continued their breakdown of the top 20 prospects in each minor league with the Double-A Eastern League today. As usual, the list is free but the scouting reports are subscriber only. Nationals OF Michael Taylor, Red Sox IF/OF Mookie Betts, and Indians SS Francisco Lindor claim the top three spots. C Gary Sanchez (No. 11) and 2B Rob Refsnyder (No. 13) represent the Yankees. RHP Luis Severino didn’t throw enough innings with Double-A Trenton to qualify for the list.

“On the field, Sanchez still draws raves for his bat, which shows the potential for both a high average and lots of power. He can get his hands in and turn on the inside pitch with power, but evaluators did note that he struggled with both breaking pitches and changeups this season,” said the scouting report, which also noted Sanchez has a top notch arm but still has a lot of work to do defensively. They also say his maturity continues to be an issue. Sanchez, 21, hit .270/.338/.406 (108 wRC+) with 13 homers in 110 games for Double-A Trenton this summer.

The 23-year-old Refsnyder hit .342/.385/.548 (159 wRC+) with 19 doubles and six homers in 60 games with the Thunder this year before being promoted to Triple-A Scranton. “Refsnyder drew raves from evaluators for his ability to hit line drives to all sectors and also for possessing premium bat speed. He’s got pop, but it’s more of the gap-to-gap, doubles variety than true home run power,” said the scouting report. It also says Refsnyder is “still crude technically” in the field but he has improved at second base.

The Eastern League list is probably the most impressive list I’ve seen so far. There was a ton of top talent in the league this summer. Severino didn’t qualify for the list and others like OF Tyler Austin, RHP Bryan Mitchell, and LHP Manny Banuelos simply didn’t make the cut. The last list relevant to the Yankees is the Triple-A International League, which is due out tomorrow or the next day. The RailRiders were devoid of prospects for most of the summer. Refsnyder should make the list but others like RHP Shane Greene and C John Ryan Murphy will probably fall short.

Other League Top 20s: High-A Florida State League, Low-A South Atlantic League, Short Season NY-Penn League, Rookie Gulf Coast League.

Severino, Sanchez make MLB.com’s midseason top 100 prospects list

The crew at MLB.com released the midseason update of their top 100 prospects list late last night. Twins OF Byron Buxton remains in the top spot and is followed by Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras and Astros SS Carlos Correa. The Cubs have three of the top seven prospects in baseball thanks to their high draft picks and recent trade with the Athletics.

Two Yankees farmhands cracked the top 100: RHP Luis Severino is 70th and C Gary Sanchez is 76th. “If Severino continues to fill the strike zone with three quality pitches, he’ll continue to accelerate his timetable,” said the write-up, which also said Sanchez’s bat “would make him a valuable Major Leaguer, even if he had to change positions, but he has star potential as a catcher.” As with all MLB.com lists, the write-ups include scouting reports/grades and video, and it’s all free.

MLB.com also released an updated top 20 prospects list for each team. Severino and Sanchez top the Yankees list (duh), and are followed in order by 3B Eric Jagielo, LHP Luis Severino, and OF Aaron Judge. I’m pretty sure you won’t see Judge ranked that low by any other scouting publication, which is fine. I enjoy MLB.com’s occasionally off the beaten path rankings. Again, scouting reports and everything else are free.