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.

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Teixeira’s injuries, eventually expiring contract create clear path for Greg Bird

No. 20? That's messed up dude. (Presswire)
No. 20? That’s messed up dude. (Presswire)

Three years ago, the Yankee caught some grief for selecting Florida high school third baseman Dante Bichette Jr. with their top pick in the draft, the 51st overall selection. There were concerns about his swing and ability to hit pro pitching (not to mention his defense), and those concerns still exist today. Bichette is a career .255/.337/.373 (106 wRC+) hitter in nearly 1,800 minor league plate appearances, which is fine but not anything that will turn people in believers.

Bichette did not receive the largest bonus among New York’s draftees in 2011, however. They gave Colorado high school catcher Greg Bird a $1.1M bonus in the fifth round to buy him out of a commitment to Arkansas, and he has since zoomed by Bichette in the prospect rankings. That happened even though he moved out from behind the plate and over to the less glamorous first base, partially due to back problems and partially as a way to get him up the ladder quicker.

“We just agreed (first base) was going to be the best thing going forward. I think it was more about my tools than anything. It was basically, ‘Why spend time catching when we could progress forward faster playing first base?’” said Bird to David Laurila last week. “People ask that a lot – does (not catching) help me as a hitter? – and I think maybe it does, but I’m more of a cerebral hitter anyway. As far as, ‘Is he going to throw this or is he going to throw that,’ I was that way growing up, so I’ve kind of always had that mindset. I don’t really sit on pitches, but if you’re not thinking along with what’s going on, you’re not playing the game.”

Bird, who turned 22 yesterday, is a career .283/.407/.488 (141 wRC+) hitter in a bit more than 1,100 minor league plate appearances, and he’s currently hitting .318/.392/.568 (159 wRC+) in 23 games with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. (Bichette has a 65 wRC+ as his teammate.) That performance, as well as his massive dead center homer in the AzFL Fall Stars Game, has put Bird in the spotlight, especially with the big league Yankees in need of offense.

“I think he is a legit middle-of-the-order bat. He has lift and really drives the ball with big-time power,” said one scout to Joel Sherman. “If you go middle out on him, he will go the other way with power. He still had some problems with off-speed pitches, but you cannot throw a fastball by this guy. I see him in the majors hitting .260-to-.280 with 20-homer-plus power.”

The Yankees could obviously use a hitter like that, even at first base, where Mark Teixeira is signed for another two years. It’s not hard to connect the dots and see Bird’s timetable lines up pretty well with the expiration of Teixeira’s contract. Bird figures to open the 2015 season back at Double-A, and since he’ll be Rule 5 Draft eligible next winter, the Yankees could get a head start on things by adding him to the 40-man roster and calling him up in September.

With Teixeira getting more and more injury prone each year, Bird could be his up-and-down replacement in 2016 while getting regular at-bats in Triple-A. That doesn’t sound all that exciting, but the Yankees got 678 plate appearances from their first baseman this past season, and only 487 of them went to Teixeira (72%). There were 200 or so plate appearances for someone like Bird in 2014. It might be 300-400 in two years, when Teixeira is 36.

Most young players get their first extended big league opportunity thanks to an injury. That’s what happened with Melky Cabrera back in 2006, remember. He helped fill in for Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. Brett Gardner got his first chance when Johnny Damon got hurt in 2008. Heck, Derek Jeter was the shortstop in 1996 because Tony Fernandez got hurt. That’s just how it works in baseball and especially with the Yankees, who are hesitant to hand starting jobs over to young players. Teixeira’s injuries work in Bird’s favor.

The 2015 season is going to be very important for Bird. He’s created some hype with his performance these last two years and especially in Arizona these last few weeks, but next year will be his first extended stint at Double-A, a level that is usually a separator between prospects and suspects. If he continues to hit there, being the long-term replacement for Teixeira will go from nice idea to real possibility. Huge free agent first base contracts are among the worst investments in the game (Teixeira, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, etc.) and it’s something New York may be able to avoid thanks to Bird in two years.

The Yankees have only had four regular first baseman dating back to 1984 and it’s both unrealistic and incredibly unfair to expect Bird to continue that run. For now, let’s just hope his success continues in 2015 and he puts himself in position to be a big league option in 2016. That alone would be a big help to the Yankees, who seem to an employ a “we’ll play anyone at first” approach to backing up Teixeira. Bird is not the team’s best prospect but he is one of their most important prospects because he has a clear path to MLB playing time, both in the short and long-term.

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.

Austin, Bird, Jagielo, Judge among Yankees prospects heading to Arizona Fall League

4:43pm: Norris says the Yankees are also sending a catcher to be named later to the AzFL. Maybe Kyle Higashioka after he missed the first half of the season following Tommy John surgery?

4:17pm: According to Josh Norris, the Yankees are sending OF Tyler Austin, 1B Greg Bird, 3B Eric Jagielo, OF Aaron Judge, RHP Caleb Cotham, RHP Branden Pinder, and RHP Alex Smith to play for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League after the season. I thought they might send LHP Manny Banuelos to continue pitching following Tommy John surgery, but it’s already been a long season for him. The AzFL season begins October 7th.

The Yankees are sending more top prospects to the desert this year than I can ever remember. Usually they only send one or two top prospects. Austin (wrist, groin), Bird (back), Jagielo (oblique), Pinder (groin), and Cotham (unknown) all missed several weeks due to injury this summer and will be making up for lost time. Pinder is Rule 5 Draft eligible this winter and the club probably wants some more time to evaluate him. Judge is the team’s best prospect and Smith has had a nice year out of the bullpen for High-A Tampa (2.40 ERA and 3.29 FIP). Great crop of players going to the AzFL this year.

Tyler Austin, Greg Bird, and the future of first base

Austin. (New York Daily News)
Austin. (New York Daily News)

First base is a weird position. Teams expect huge offensive production from first base and it’s at the bottom of the defensive spectrum despite being involved in more total plays than any position other than pitcher and catcher. You can’t just stick anyone there either. We’ve seen enough of that firsthand this year. You need offense from first but defense isn’t a huge deal, except for all those times the first baseman handles the ball.

You also rarely hear people talk about a team’s “first baseman of the future” too. There’s plenty of “this guy will be our shortstop for the next ten years,” but first base? Nope. The history of first base prospects is pretty awful as well. Baseball America ranked 37 full-time first baseman among their top 100 prospects from 1995-2005 and only five became bonafide stars: Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Todd Helton, Paul Konerko, and David Ortiz, who made his name at DH.

More recent elite first base prospects like Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak have been disappointments. Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo are the best of the top first base prospect crop since Fielder while others like Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt were never top prospects. It has historically been a tough position to project and I think that’s because it’s so offense-focused. Hitting is generally considered to be tougher to scout and evaluate than pitching because there is no “textbook” swing. A fastball is a fastball and a slider is a slider. But a swing? Good luck cracking that code.

Anyway, the Yankees are at a point now where the future of first base in the Bronx is up in the air. Mark Teixeira is under contract for another two seasons but he is becoming more and more injury prone with each passing year. His playing time at first base will only go down through injuries and time spent at DH in an effort to keep him healthy. The Yankees have gotten by (barely) with fill-in first basemen during Teixeira’s injuries this season, though I hope that isn’t the plan going forward. To just wing it whenever Teixeira gets hurt.

The Yankees currently have two first base prospect at Double-A Trenton … well, one first base and one kinda sorta first base prospect. The true first base prospect is Greg Bird, who was just promoted and has gone 9-for-30 (.300) with three doubles and three homers during his first week with the Thunder. He had a monster 2013 season (170 wRC+) with Low-A Charleston and offers the kind of left-handed power and patience the Yankees crave. Bird is a recently converted catcher though, so his defense at first can be generously described as a work in progress.

The kinda sorta first base prospect is Tyler Austin, another ex-catcher who has bounced from third to first to right field over the years. He’s spent most of this year playing right in deference to Peter O’Brien and now to Bird. Austin had an outstanding 2012 campaign (~160 wRC+) before a wrist injury marred his 2013 season (103 wRC+). The wrist problem lingered into this season and caused him to miss the start of the year, and after a few slow weeks, he’s hit .319/.362/.518 with six homers since July 1st. It appears 2012 Austin is starting to return as he gets further away from the wrist injury.

Bird. (Newsday)
Bird. (Newsday)

Neither Bird nor Austin is a top first base prospect like Hosmer or Fielder — Austin did rank 77th on Baseball America’s top 100 in 2013 — though they are solid prospects expected to be average or better contributors at the MLB level, assuming things work out. League average is valuable, especially when the players are making close to the league minimum in their pre-arbitration years. Austin in particular fits the roster very well as a right-handed hitter with some power who can play both right and first. Bird, as a pure first baseman, is a less perfect fit.

It’s clear at this point the Yankees will need some kind of viable backup for Teixeira going forward just because he gets hurt all the time. It’s not necessarily the 15-day DL stuff either. He’s shown a knack for those 6-7 day injuries, the ones that are short enough to avoid the DL but long enough to force the team to play a man short. The problem is that “backup first baseman” really isn’t a position anymore. No team carries a player specifically for that. They tend to carry, well, someone like Austin, who can play first in addition to the corner outfield, third base, or even catch. Think Mike Carp or Steve Pearce or Scott Van Slyke.

The assumption has been that Brian McCann will eventually have to move to first base, though continues to rate very well defensively in terms of pitching framing, throwing out runners, and blocking balls in the dirt. His bat has been a huge disappointment this season but there is no reason to move him out from behind the plate yet. Since Austin is further along in his development thank Bird and figures to start next season at Triple-A Scranton, he’ll be in position to help the Yankees as soon as next season, perhaps getting his opportunity when Teixeira gets hurt. Bird is still a year or two away and his lack of flexibility hurts his chances. If Austin hits, the Yankees will have some different ways to get him into the lineup. They can’t really do that with Bird.

Until his contract is off the books, Teixeira will be New York’s primary first baseman and that’s just the way it’s going to be. There is no reason to think they’ll bench him or relegate him to DH duty on a regular basis. It would be a drastic change from the way they’ve done business for the last, I dunno, 15-20 years. Teixeira’s injuries will give Austin and later Bird a chance to get into the big league lineup — assuming they’re worth calling up, of course — though staying there is the hard part. The Yankees have had four primary first baseman over the last 30 years and they usually go for stars at the position. The opportunity will come for both Austin and Bird in the next two years, but being a good but not great prospect with the Yankees is a not ideal. They may only be stopgaps until the next big name comes along.

Poll: The 2014 Prospect Watch

Last year's Prospect Watch. (Presswire)
Last year’s Prospect Watch. (Presswire)

Everyone is focused on Opening Day tomorrow and rightfully so, but let’s not forget the minor league season is right around the corner as well. The four full season affiliates open their seasons this coming Thursday, and obviously this is a huge year for the farm system. The Yankees need some prospects to take steps forward with their development and stay healthy following last summer’s injury and disappointment filled nightmare.

If you’re new to RAB, one of our regular features is the Prospect Watch. Every year we pick a prospect and track his progress throughout the season in the sidebar. Past Prospect Watches include Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Jesus Montero, Andrew Brackman, and Mason Williams, among others. Last season we tracked Tyler Austin, who put up a disappointing .257/.344/.373 (103 wRC+) batting line with six homers in 366 plate appearances for Double-A Trenton while batting a wrist problem. Hopefully 2014 will go better, both for Austin and the Prospect Watch.

As we’ve done the last two years, we’re going to open up the Prospect Watch decision to the readers. I used to just pick a top prospect — it was pretty easy in the cases of Hughes, Joba, and Montero back in the day — but this is better. I don’t think there’s an obvious choice this year. In fact, I think there are too many good candidates. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. Here are my eight hand-picked nominees (listed alphabetically) with their rank in my Preseason Top 30 List in parentheses. Vote at the bottom of the post.

OF Tyler Austin (4)
We’ve had the same player be the Prospect Watch in back-to-back years before (Montero) and I’m certainly not opposed to doing it again. Austin, 22, is only a year removed from his monster .322/.400/.559 (~163 wRC+) campaign, during which he hit 17 homers and stole 23 bases. It’s important to keep in mind that his wrist gave him a problem early in camp, so he will be held back in Extended Spring Training as he prepares for the season. He won’t be ready to go on Thursday.

LHP Manny Banuelos (10)
Banuelos, 23, was our Prospect Watch back in 2011, a year before his elbow starting barking. He eventually had Tommy John surgery and he has not pitched in a regular season game since May 2012. Banuelos is healthy now and will start the season on time. The injury makes it easy to forget how good he was back in the day, like when he had a 2.51 ERA (~2.18 FIP) back in 2010. Banuelos is the only pitcher nominee for the Prospect Watch, not surprising given the state of the system.

1B Greg Bird (11)
No one in the farm system had a better statistical season in 2013. The 21-year-old Bird hit .288/.428/.511 (170 wRC+) with 20 homers and 107 walks for Low-A Charleston last season, a year that bests Austin’s 2012 effort. Bird, however, dealt with a back issue in camp and he will not start the season on time. Like Austin, he will open the year in Extended Spring Training making up for all the time he lost this spring.

OF Slade Heathcott (3)
Armed with a brand new 40-man roster spot, Heathcott is coming off a .261/.327/.411 (104 wRC+) season with Double-A Trenton, hitting 22 doubles, seven triples, and eight homers while stealing 15 bases. The 23-year-old has the loudest tools in the organization and could put it all together at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, like Austin and Bird, Heathcott will start the season in Extended Spring Training. He’s working his way back from offseason knee surgery.

3B Eric Jagielo (5)
Jagielo, 21, was the first of last summer’s three first round picks. His pro debut was a smashing success: .264/.376/.451 (152 wRC+) with six homeruns in 229 plate appearances. Jagielo is slated to open the season with High-A Tampa and as a polished college bat, he should have a field day with Single-A pitching.

OF Aaron Judge (7)
The 21-year-old Judge was the second of the team’s three first rounders last year. He did not play at all after signing due to a minor quad injury, but he is healthy now and will open 2014 with Low-A Charleston. Judge is physically huge (listed at 6-foot-7 and 255 lbs.) and he has huge raw power, enough that he could become the organization’s first true prospect to hit 25+ homers since Brandon Laird in 2010.

C Gary Sanchez (1)
The system’s top prospect for two years running has not yet been featured in our Prospect Watch. Sanchez, 21, hit .253/.324/.412 (~109 wRC+) with 27 doubles and 15 homers split between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton last year, and he will return to the Thunder to start 2014. Sanchez has the best combination of power, hitting skills, and overall approach in the organization, hence his status as the top prospect.

OF Mason Williams (6)
Two years ago we following the 22-year-old Williams and he had a marvelous season, hitting .298/.346/.474 (~125 wRC+) with 11 homers and 20 steals in only 397 plate appearances. His follow-up performance wasn’t nearly as good, just a .245/.304/.337 (83 wRC+) batting line with four homeruns and 15 steals in 537 plate appearances. The raw talent is there though, Williams’ tools are right up there with Heathcott. Remember, he’ll be Rule 5 Draft eligible this winter and a 40-man roster spot is a great motivator.

* * *

I opted not to include C John Ryan Murphy, my number two prospect, because there’s a decent chance he’ll wind up in the big leagues as a backup, sitting around for days on end. Don’t want the Prospect Watch to go unused. I was planning to include RHP Ty Hensley in this post, but his recent hernia injury will keep him out for a few weeks. Others like 2B Gosuke Katoh and RHP Luis Severino fell victim to the numbers crunch. They’ll have more chances in the future.

The poll will remain open until 10am-ish ET on Wednesday, so you have plenty of time to vote if you’re unable to make up your mind right now. I know I can’t, so you’re not alone. Here’s the poll:

Update: Poll’s closed! Thanks for voting!

Nine Yankees make Baseball America’s top 100 also-rans list

When Baseball America released their annual top 100 prospects list last month, the Yankees only had two representatives, and one (RHP Masahiro Tanaka) isn’t really a prospect. C Gary Sanchez was the only true prospect to make the list but he was far from the only Yankees’ farmhand to receive consideration. In fact, nine others were within shouting distance of the top 100.

J.J. Cooper published the top 100 also-rans list today, meaning the players who appeared on the personal top 150 prospects lists of the various editors but not the final top 100. The nine Yankees: OF Aaron Judge (one vote, peaked at #150), 3B Eric Jagielo (four, 131), 2B Gosuke Katoh (one, 147), 1B Greg Bird (one, 97), LHP Ian Clarkin (one, 135), C John Ryan Murphy (two, 122), RHP Luis Severino (one, 150), OF Mason Williams (six, 90), and OF Slade Heathcott (six, 89). Seems like Williams and Heathcott were the closest to the top 100, understandably so.