Denbo confirms Jorge Mateo will begin playing center field this season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Jorge Mateo, the No. 7 prospect in the farm system, will begin playing center field a few days a week this coming season, farm system head Gary Denbo told Brendan Kuty. He’ll also see time at shortstop, his natural position, as well as second base, another position he’s played in the past. Center field is brand new though.

Denbo also confirmed Mateo will begin the regular season back at High-A Tampa, which doesn’t surprise me. He hit .254/.306/.379 (99 wRC+) there last season, including .210/.255/.283 (56 wRC+) from June 1st through the end of the season. Yuck. The Yankees have held guys back for less. Here’s more from Denbo, via Kuty:

“We feel like he still has adjustments to make offensively that we would like for him to start in the Florida State League this year and get off to a good start and see what happens, whether he’s able to make it to the next level or higher,” Denbo said. “But from all indications that we’ve got this spring, he’s already in the process of making those adjustments.”

“We don’t take a lot of stock in Spring Training statistics. But what we do put stock in is when we see a player come back in better shape, bigger, stronger, his mindset is better, he’s working harder and he’s making adjustments offensively. The statistics don’t always bear out how successful you are in Spring Training,” Denbo said.

The center field move has been in the works for a while now. The Yankees had Mateo work out in center during Instructional League last fall as well as in Spring Training, though he’s yet to play an actual game out there. Right now he’s limited to taking fly balls and whatever else they do. Mateo is a good defensive shortstop, but with his speed, he might be a top of the line defensive center fielder.

I’m more interested in the offensive adjustments Denbo is talking about than the center field stuff. Mateo’s position isn’t going to matter much unless he starts bringing more to the table offensively. His biggest issue is a lack of plate discipline, which leads to a lot of chasing out of the zone and soft contact. Mateo’s fast, but he’s not going to make a career out of swinging at bad pitches and beating out infield singles.

The good news is the offensive ability is in there. Mateo is a freak athlete who showed more power last season than ever before — he went from two homers in 2015, one of which was an inside-the-parker, to eight homers in 2016 — plus his .278/.345/.392 (114 wRC+) line as a 20-year-old in Low-A and High-A in 2015 is pretty impressive. Mateo is not lacking physical ability. Not at all. He just needs to refine his game a bit.

This is a what have you done for me lately world, and when you have a poor season and get suspended like Mateo did last year, folks are going to be down on you. That’s the way it goes. It’s important to remember this is a 21-year-old kid though. A 21-year-old kid with an 80 tool (speed) and the athleticism to be a two-way threat regardless of whether he’s at shortstop or center field. With any luck, Mateo will learn from last season and break out this year.

Saturday Links: Wade, Best Tools, Farm System Rankings

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Welp, it appears this afternoon’s game will not be televised. It was on the original YES Network broadcast schedule and it’s still listed on today’s MLB.tv schedule as of this writing, but it’s been removed from the updated YES schedule and they’re advertising a 2pm ET NYCFC game on Twitter. Womp womp. If the game is on YES or MLB.tv or whatever, use this as a game thread (here’s the lineup). Otherwise here are some links to check out.

Yankees making Wade a super utility player

As suspected, the Yankees are indeed trying to turn Tyler Wade into a super utility player. Their Ben Zobrist, basically. Farm system head Gary Denbo told Brendan Kuty they approached Wade with the idea last August, and he was all for it. “Does it get me to the big leagues? … Then sign me up,” Wade told Denbo at the time. Here’s what Joe Girardi had to say:

“(Wade) gives you a ton of options. He loves it. And that’s why I think he’s done so well with it. He loves the idea. You think about it, you have your everyday players, but realistically does it hurt to give him a day off a week? No. So if you’ve got a guy who can play six positions, he could actually play five or six days a week.”

Wade told Kuty being a super utility guy is “a good thing for me, a good thing for the team.” He got his first taste of the outfield in the Arizona Fall League, and this spring he’s already played second, short, third, left, and center. (He played right in the AzFL.) I had a feeling the Yankees were going to try to turn one of their shortstop prospects into a 400-500 plate appearance supersub, and Wade is a good candidate given his athleticism.

Yankees prospects among best tools lists

Over at Baseball America (subs. req’d), J.J. Cooper polled scouts and executives about the best individual tools in the minor leagues. The best tools among legitimate prospects, that is. They didn’t worry about the light hitting journeyman outfielder with an 80 arm. Several Yankees prospects appeared on the lists. A quick recap:

  • Best Athlete: SS Jorge Mateo (fourth)
  • Best Power Hitter: OF Aaron Judge (fourth)
  • Fastest Baserunner: SS Jorge Mateo (fourth)
  • Best Fastball: RHP Domingo Acevedo (eighth)
  • Best Defensive Infielder: SS Kyle Holder (seventh)

Again, these rankings cover the entire minor leagues, so they’re saying Mateo is the fourth best athlete and baserunner among the hundreds of prospects in the minors. Baseball America puts together league specific best tools lists each year as well, and the Yankees will be heavily featured when those are released.

MiLB.com ranks Yankees system second in baseball

These last few weeks every major scouting publication said the Yankees have the second best farm system in baseball, behind the Braves. Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law, and MLB.com all agree. The crew at MiLB.com takes their farm system lists a step further and ranks teams based on different criteria. Here’s where the Yankees rank:

The Yankees are heavy on position player prospects at the moment — the top four and seven of the top ten prospects on my top 30 list are position players — but there’s no shame in ranking 13th among pitchers. Not when you have guys like RHP James Kaprielian and LHP Justus Sheffield in the system.

Besides, I am totally cool with a position player heavy farm system. Pitchers are very risky. You need them, but they get hurt often and it’s hard to build around young arms long-term. Give me a lineup loaded with high-end young position players and I’ll figure out the pitching as we go. Offense is becoming harder find these days because of all the velocity and shifts and whatnot. Focusing on a great offense is the way to go in my books.

Wednesday Notes: Astros, Nats, Quintana, Prospects, A-Rod

Musgrove. (Presswire)
Musgrove. (Presswire)

The Yankees return to television tonight with a home game against the Phillies, thankfully. We haven’t seen them play since Saturday. Tonight’s game will start at 6:35pm ET and we’ll have a regular game thread at that time. Here are some bits of news to check out in the meantime.

Yankees scouted Astros, Nationals

According to Brendan Kuty, the Yankees had scout (Matt Daley!) in Port St. Lucie over the weekend when the Astros and Nationals visited the Mets. Righty Joe Musgrove started for Houston on Friday while righty Erick Fedde was on the mound for Washington on Saturday. Both pitchers allowed one hit and one walk in three scoreless innings in their outings. Musgrove struck out four. Fedde fanned one.

The Yankees have been connected to both Musgrove and Fedde over the last year or so, but only through speculation. Not hard “they want this guy” rumors. Musgrove was mentioned as a possible target during Brian McCann trade talks (I even wrote a Scouting The Market post) while Fedde’s name came up as a potential piece in an Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman trade at least year’s deadline. Obviously neither deal came to fruition.

We could connect some serious dots here. The Astros are said to want another high-end starting pitcher, and with Masahiro Tanaka‘s opt-out looming, could the Yankees move him? The Nationals don’t have a closer right now and gosh, Dellin Betances sure makes sense for them, no? That said, teams scout either other all the time, and this could be nothing. Still, with the Yankees perpetually seeking young controllable pitching, this report sure is interesting.

Nothing happening with Quintana

According to Jack Curry (video link), the Yankees have “nothing simmering, nothing very hot going on right now” with regards to trade talks with the White Sox about Jose Quintana. Quintana is very much available and last week we heard the White Sox have been scouting the Yankees this spring. See? Teams scout each other all the time. Anyway, point is there’s nothing imminent here, which isn’t surprising.

Quintana started against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last week and was masterful, taking a no-hitter into the sixth before allowing a two-out single and hitting his pitch count. (The bullpen then blew it.) That said, Quintana’s stock didn’t go up or anything. Teams know he’s good. The only way one game can change a veteran pitcher’s trade stock is if he gets hurt. My guess is the White Sox will ramp up their efforts to trade Quintana pretty soon, before he goes all Tyson Ross on them or something.

FanGraphs releases top Yankees prospects, top 100 prospects lists

Over at FanGraphs, Eric Longenhagen recently released his top 33 Yankees prospects list as well as his top 100 prospects list for all of baseball. White Sox IF Yoan Moncada claims the top spot on the top 100. Here are the eight Yankees in the top 100:

7. SS Gleyber Torres
34. OF Clint Frazier
40. OF Blake Rutherford
53. RHP James Kaprielian
61. OF Aaron Judge
87. OF Dustin Fowler
91. SS Jorge Mateo
97. LHP Justus Sheffield

This is the only top 100 list Fowler has made this year. Interesting. As for the top 33 Yankees prospects list, gosh, it’s massive. I still haven’t finished reading the entire thing. I’m doing it bit by bit. The write-up covers 68 players total. 68!

“Fawning over the system’s obvious talent ignores its most fascinating aspect: the bizarre collection of pop-up arms. New York appears to be in possession of a player-development machine that has conjured several interesting pitching prospects seemingly out of thin air,” says the write-up, referring to guys like Jordan Montgomery, Chance Adams, and Chad Green, all of whom came to the Yankees as okay prospects and have since seen their stock rise considerably. Now hopefully some of these guys will turn into productive big leaguers.

Man of the people. (Chicago Tribune)
Man of the people. (Chicago Tribune)

A-Rod joins FOX full-time

Alex Rodriguez is officially a full-time broadcaster. Last week FOX announced A-Rod has joined the network and will “serve as a game analyst for select FOX MLB SATURDAY telecasts as well as feature reporter for FOX’s MLB pregame coverage and FS1 studio show MLB WHIPAROUND,” according to the press release. It doesn’t sound like he will be in the broadcast booth, does it? Sounds like a studio gig.

FOX owns a big chunk of the YES Network following the News Corp. deal a few years back, though it doesn’t sound like there will be any crossover work here. A-Rod will be on FOX and FOX Sports 1. Not YES. Lame. I assume Alex will continue his special advisor duties with the Yankees in the meantime. His agreement with the club called for him to remain in that role through the end of this year. Either way, A-Rod was really good on television the last two postseasons, and it was only a matter of time until some network scooped him up.

MLB approves wearable biometric device

For the first time MLB has approved a wearable on-field biometric device for players, reports Darren Rovell. The device, which is made by a company called WHOOP, is meant to be worn all day and night, and will record data on sleep, heart rate, recovery, strain, etc. It is not a mandated piece of equipment and teams can’t force their players to wear the WHOOP device. It is the player’s decision given the private data involved.

Clubs have been studying pitcher deliveries using biometrics for years now, though the WHOOP device extends beyond that. Teams are focusing more and more on rest and recovery, because nowadays having the most talent isn’t enough. You need the most talented players performing at their best as often as possible. Rest and recovery are part of that. The Yankees start their Spring Training workouts later in the morning to give players time to sleep in, plus they’ve looked for ways to improve travel in recent years too. I wonder how many players will wear the WHOOP device. It seems like the data could be really useful.

Hicks, Romine and the rest of the part-timers [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While the Yankees have plenty of new starters littered around its lineup, they appear to have a very similar bench to the one they fielded in 2016. They have the same fourth outfielder, the same backup catcher and, chances are, the same utility infielder. If it wasn’t the signing of Chris Carter and Tyler Austin‘s preseason injury, it would be essentially identical to the bench with which the team ended last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the individuals who will make up the Yankees’ Opening Day bench as well as a few players that could fill roles later in the season. (Disclaimer: I didn’t go into Gleyber Torres here. That’s worth another post entirely.)

Fourth Outfielder

It appears like it’ll be Aaron Hicks as the extra outfielder again this year. I’m someone who really believes in his potential. It’s been over a year since the Yankees dealt John Ryan Murphy, a player I enjoyed watching an irrational amount, for Hicks in a deal that seemed to make sense for both teams. The Yankees needed a fourth outfielder and had a catcher of the future (Hi Gary Sanchez) while the Twins needed a catcher and had a center fielder of the future (Byron Buxton). A potential win-win.

Well, it didn’t work out that well for either team. Murphy simply didn’t hit in Year 1 in Minnesota while Hicks hasn’t quite panned out yet in New York. To be fair, both players are still relatively young, but time is running out for them to prove themselves. Let’s focus on what Hicks brings to the table as he gets another chance to prove himself.

Hicks, 27, has always been close to an 80 in one tool: his arm. It’s a cannon. He’s also pretty fast. Combine that and he makes for a solid fielder, although his routes to balls have been rough at times. He can still man each spot in the field well, but he’s been relegated mostly to the corners to start this spring.

And then there’s his bat. He took a clear step back from 2015 to 2016, going from .256/.323/.398 (96 wRC+) to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+). That’s doesn’t cut it. A switch-hitter, Hicks came in with a reputation as a better right-handed bat than a lefty. He actually improved from the left side (79 wRC+ to 86 wRC+) but went from a .307/.375/.495 (138 wRC+) line to a paltry .161/.213/271 (25 wRC+) from the right. That’s pretty dumbfounding. His exit velocity actually increased from 90.1 to 90.8 mph from the left side and his strikeout rate fell (his walk rate did too), but his BABIP plummeted from .368 to .176.

That could indicate a potential improvement for Hicks, who seemed to struggle with the lack of regularity concerning his role last year (he improved in the second half when Carlos Beltran was traded). However, he may not get consistent starts again this year with Aaron Judge presumably manning right field. Therefore, the Aaron Hicks project may reach a crossroads this season when he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Beyond Hicks, Mason Williams is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. Williams has 51 MLB plate appearances over the last two years. When healthy, he is plenty fast to man center field and seems like he can hit for average. Health will be key for the 25-year-old as he tries to make the roster for good at some point.

Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler will be in Triple A to start the year. They’re both 22 and will need more at-bats in Scranton before they can earn a role in the majors. Frazier, being the better prospect, may be more likely to force his way to the majors this summer.

Backup catcher

Austin Romine returns as the backup catcher with a different starter ahead of him. Gary Sanchez, as Mike eloquently covered, is the face of the franchise now and it stands to reason that Romine could see fewer starts this season than last. Romine played 50 games at catcher, started 40, while starting two games at first base and four at designated hitter. Chances are, the latter six starts go away with younger and healthier options at 1B and DH, but who knows? I wouldn’t have bet on multiple Romine starts away from catcher last year.

Romine was fine as the bench backstop in 2016 and was much better than his first stint in 2013, when he was backing up Chris Stewart. He batted .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) and was better against southpaws. That allowed him to get more starts early in the season when Brian McCann was struggling against lefties. Now, with Sanchez as the starter, Romine will still get once or twice-a-week starts yet it’s hard to see him getting to take advantage of platoon advantages quite as often. That may lead to a worse batting line despite no decline in talent or performance.

The other catcher on the 40-man is Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was finally healthy in 2016 and rode that to a 20-homer season. He has legitimate power, which has been conveyed plenty of times this spring. The Yankees likely won’t take Higashioka with them on Opening Day — they’d have to DFA Romine — but he’ll only be a bus trip away in Scranton.

Utility infielder

The backup infielder job looks like it is Ronald Torreyes‘ job to lose again this year. Torreyes was a bit of a surprise to claim the spot last year out of the spring, but he held onto it all year. He’s the perfect bench player: He makes plenty of contact, can play every infield position (and the outfield corners in a pinch) and seems to be a good presence around the club. He doesn’t hit for power — do you remember his home run last year? I barely do — but the Yankees would gladly sign up for another .258/.305/.374 line from the part-timer.

It seems highly unlikely that Torreyes won’t break camp with the team. Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada have each been fine yet unimpressive in their brief spring stints and it may be tough to top the incumbent. Donovan Solano is another non-roster invitee and has been away from the club playing for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He did have a solid cup of coffee with the Yankees last fall.

Tyler Austin

austin low five
(Getty)

As we covered in the Greg Bird preview post, Carter will receive a lot of the righty at-bats at first base this season, likely platooning with Bird. Before Carter’s signing, many thought that role would be filled by Tyler Austin. That idea went fully down the tubes with his preseason injury (fractured left foot) which will prevent him from playing most of the spring.

Austin provided real power in his 90 plate appearances in the majors last year, particularly the other way. He did strike out 36 times. For now, the 25-year-old first baseman likely starts the season in extended spring training or goes straight to Scranton, waiting for a call-up. You can almost surely count on Austin playing with the Yankees at some point.

Rest of the 40-man

Remember when Rob Refsnyder was the talk of the town in 2015? Part of that was just a clamoring for anyone but Stephen Drew, but Refsnyder also provided promise that he could hit at the big league level. However, he didn’t come quite as advertised and his 2016 was a disappointment. Given 175 plate appearances last season, he showed nearly no power and had a disappointing .250/.328/.309 line. Without a serious showing with his bat, Refsnyder doesn’t have a role in the majors, hence the Yankees’ willingness to trade him. Can he prove to be more than just a Quad-A player? It’s tough to see right now.

Miguel Andujar hasn’t played above Double A before, so he will need some experience in Scranton before he can be considered for a long-term role. His fielding has been a bit rough at times this spring, so that’s something for him to work on in Triple A. Still, he’s a top 10 third base prospect according to MLB.com and a potential future piece, albeit not likely before September this year.

The man furthest from the majors on the 40-man roster is Jorge Mateo, a top five Yankees prospect depending on the source. Mateo probably doesn’t factor into the Yankees’ plans in 2017, but he would make the ideal pinch runner in September. That’s about the extent to his role in the majors as far as I can tell.

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.

The Long-Term Future in Center Field

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

This is an exciting time to be a Yankees fan. The big league team might not be any good this season, and frankly they haven’t been all that good over the last four years anyway, but at least now the farm system is loaded and there are a ton of quality young players in the organization. Soon young guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will join Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird in the Bronx.

At some point in the near future, perhaps sooner than anyone realizes, the Yankees will have to figure out their center field situation. The two best center fielders on the roster, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, will both turn 34 later this year. Over the last ten years there has been one full-time center fielder age 34 or older: Mike Cameron, who continued to play center full-time from ages 34-36 in 2007-09. No one else has done it.

Center field is a young man’s position because it involves lots and lots of running, day after day after day. The Yankees had Johnny Damon begin the process of moving to left field at age 33 because Melky Cabrera was the superior defensive option, remember. By center fielder standards, Gardner and Ellsbury are pretty darn old, and it stands to reason they won’t be viable options at the position much longer. Speed usually doesn’t age all that well.

This creates two questions for the Yankees. One, who plays center field long-term? And two, what do the Yankees do with Gardner and/or Ellsbury? I’ll answer the second one first: they’re probably going to trade Gardner at some point. Would they prefer to trade Ellsbury? Yeah, I’m sure of it. But that’s not happening, so Gardner it is. They’ve been listening on him for over a year, and it feels like only a matter of time until a trade goes down.

I get the feeling the eventual outcome here is Gardner gets traded away, then Ellsbury slides over to left field for the tail end of his contract, similar to Damon back in the day. (Or worse, to designated hitter full-time.) That creates an opening in center field, and as good as the farm system is these days, the Yankees don’t have an elite center field prospect. Torres is a shortstop, Frazier and Aaron Judge are corner outfielders, and so on.

That doesn’t mean the Yankees lack potential center field options, however. Not at all. They actually have quite a few, both short-term and long-term. That’s good. Multiple options are good. As much as we all love the prospects, the reality is they won’t all work out, and you’d hate to pin your hopes on that one guy to take over a position long-term. Here, in no particular order, are the club’s various long-term center field options.

The Almost Ready Option

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

When the 2017 regular season begins, Dustin Fowler figures to roam center field for Triple-A Scranton. Fowler is New York’s best pure center field prospect — I ranked him as the 12th best prospect in the system overall — and last year he hit .281/.311/.458 (109 wRC+) with 30 doubles, 15 triples, 12 homers, and 25 steals in Double-A. He really fills up the box score. Fowler is also a very good defender with plenty of range.

There are two glaring weaknesses to Fowler’s game. One, he doesn’t have much of a throwing arm. And two, he’s pretty undisciplined at the plate. Minor league walk rates aren’t everything, though his career 4.4% walk rate in over 1,500 minor league plate appearances is emblematic of his approach. Those are negatives, clearly, but Fowler also offers enough positives to be an everyday player. He makes contact, has some pop, steals bases, and defends well. Similar skill set to peak Ellsbury now that I think about it.

For all intents and purposes, Fowler is a call-up candidate right now. He’s going to start the season in Triple-A and will be added to the 40-man roster no later than next winter (when he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible), and any time those combination of things exist, there’s a chance for the player to wind up in the show. Fowler is, by far, the Yankees’ best close to MLB ready center field prospect. He is easily the favorite to take over the position in the short-term.

The Square Peg, Round Hole Option

Although his tools point to a long-term future in left field, Frazier has enough speed and athleticism to handle center field right now, if necessary. He has plenty of experience at the position — he’s played more minor league games in center (260) than he has in left and right combined (117) — and still possesses enough speed to cover the gaps. Would Frazier be a perfect fit in center? No, but it’s doable. The question is whether mid-30s Ellsbury in left and Frazier in center is a better defensive alignment than mid-30s Ellsbury in center and Frazier in left. It’s not so cut and dried.

The Conversion Candidates

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The Yankees are loaded with shortstop prospects at the moment, so much so that they’ve had Tyler Wade and Jorge Mateo get acquainted with the outfield. Wade played all three outfield spots in the Arizona Fall League last year and he’s been out there this spring as well. Mateo worked out in center field in Instructional League and is doing the same this spring. He’s yet to play an actual game out there, however.

Wade, like Fowler, will open this season in Triple-A, though he’s not an immediate center field option given his inexperience at the position. He’s not someone the Yankees could call up and stick in center for two weeks in May to cover for injuries, you know? That’s a little too soon. Besides, it seems the Yankees are looking to make Wade a super utility player, not a full-time outfielder. He’s too good defensively on the infield to throw that away entirely.

As for Mateo, I am pretty intrigued with the idea of putting him in center field full-time. He’s a good defender at shortstop, that’s not much of a problem, but his truly elite speed may be put to better use in center. Mateo is a good defender at short. He might be a great defender in center. Either way, Mateo is not close to the big leagues like Fowler, Frazier, and Wade. He’s yet to play above High-A and has to answer some questions about his bat before we can start to think about him as a realistic center field option. (And, you know, he has to actually play some games in center too.)

The Reclamation Candidate(s)

Earlier I mentioned Gardner and Ellsbury are the two best center fielders on the roster, which is true when taking all things into account. The best defensive center fielder on the roster is Aaron Hicks (despite a few funky routes last season). He’s got top notch closing speed and a rocket arm. Right now, in the year 2017, Hicks is a better gloveman than either Gardner or Ellsbury in center.

The best defensive outfielder in the entire organization is another reclamation project: Mason Williams. He’s a premium runner who gets great reads, and while his arm isn’t Hicks caliber, it is comfortably above average. Even after shoulder surgery two years ago. It’s unclear whether Williams will ever hit enough to play regularly, but his glove is unquestioned. The Yankees could play him everyday in center and he could handle it defensively.

That “will he ever hit?” question is a big one though, and it applies to Hicks as well. Hicks and Williams are so talented that you can never rule out things coming together, especially at their ages, but for them to have any shot at replacing Ellsbury in center field full-time, they’re going to have to do more at the plate. No doubt. (To be fair to Williams, he’s been hurt more than ineffective the last two seasons.)

The Far Away Options

Fowler and Frazier (and Wade) are knocking on the door. Mateo is a little further away. Ever further away are Blake Rutherford and Estevan Florial, two high-upside center field prospects. Both figure to start the season at Low-A Charleston. They were teammates with Rookie Pulaski last year, where Rutherford played center field and Florial manned left. (First rounder gets priority.)

It goes without saying there is a lot of risk involved with players this far away from the big leagues. There’s so much that can go wrong these next few years. The obstacles facing Rutherford and Florial are very different too. The expectation is Rutherford will shift to a corner spot at some point as he fills out and adds some bulk. Florial is a graceful defender who happens to be a total hacker at the plate. He might not make enough contact to reach MLB.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they want Rutherford to be their long-term center fielder. Frazier, Rutherford, and Judge from left to right would be the perfect world long-term outfield picture. The odds are against that actually happening though, mostly because prospects have a way of breaking hearts. Rutherford and Florial are definitely long-term center field candidates. They’re just far away and carry a lot of risk relative to the other guys in this post.

The External Options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

These are the Yankees, and even though they’re trying to scale back spending to get under the luxury tax threshold, you can never really rule them out going outside the organization for help. I, personally, am hoping for a Rob Refsnyder for Mike Trout trade. Fingers crossed. If that doesn’t happen, here are some potential free agent center fielders:

  • After 2017: Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen (if option is declined)
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, McCutchen (if option is exercised)

A few of those guys would look pretty good in pinstripes, no? Cain is pretty damn awesome. He’s a fun player and I am pro-fun. Blackmon hit .324/.381/.552 (130 wRC+) with 29 homers and 17 steals last season, you know. Pollock missed a bunch of time with an elbow injury last year, but he’s quietly been one of the best players in baseball the last three or four years.

There’s also Bryce Harper, who will become a free agent following the 2018 season, when he’ll still be only 26 years old. He’s a really good athlete and has played center field for the Nationals at times. Could the Yankees view him as a potential center fielder? That’d be interesting. It’s not like he’d be over the hill or anything. Perhaps Harper in center could work for a few years. Frazier in left, Harper in center, Judge in right? Sign me up.

Anyway, the problem with the non-Harper free agents is the same problem that currently exists with Ellsbury. The Yankees would be paying big money to someone over 30 and in their decline years. Before you know it, we’d be talking about moving Cain or Blackmon or Pollock or whoever to left in favor of a better defensive center fielder. Signing a free agent center fielder is definitely possible. It just seems unlikely given the team’s direction at this point.

The Worst Case Scenario

This is going to sound mean, but the worst case scenario would be keeping Ellsbury in center field through the end of his contract. Maybe he can make it work defensively in his mid-30s like Cameron did once upon a time. He’d be an outlier in that case, but hey, stranger things have happened. I’m sure the Yankees would prefer to keep Ellsbury in center as long as possible too. That’s where he’s most valuable. History suggests his days in center are numbered, however. There simply aren’t many players age 34 and over roaming center nowadays.

* * *

The center field situation is not a pressing matter, fortunately. The Yankees don’t need to figure this out right now. They can let the season play out, see how Ellsbury handles it defensively and how the kids progress in the minors, then figure out what’s next. And maybe nothing is next. Maybe keeping Ellsbury in center through the end of his contract is plausible. The Yankees do have some center field options, both short and long-term, just in case things don’t work out. Sooner or later the team will have to go in a new direction in center field, and odds are it’ll be before the end of Ellsbury’s contract.

Minor League Notes: Jorge Mateo, James Kaprielian, DSL

(@swbrailriders)
(@swbrailriders)

That giant muscle-bound baby with a five o’clock shadow you see above, standing next to Tyler Austin, is the new alternate logo for Triple-A Scranton. It’s a Baby Bomber, basically. The team announced the logo last month. So that’s a thing now. Anyway, here are some other minor league notes to check out.

Mateo spends time at third base

According to Erik Boland, SS Jorge Mateo spent some time at third base during recent workouts in Tampa, a position he’s never played in an official game. He’s played short and second in his career, and the Yankees also had him work out in center field during Instructional League last year. I should note it’s not at all uncommon for players to see time at different positions during informal workouts. This doesn’t necessarily mean Mateo will man the hot corner going forward.

The Yankees have a ton of shortstop prospects at the moment. Seven of my top 30 prospects are shortstops. Seven. There are only so many minor league affiliates to play these guys. I am intrigued by the idea of Mateo in center. He’s a good defender at short, it’s not like he’s inadequate there, but he might be a great defender in center given his high-end speed and athleticism. Many shortstops have moved to the outfield over the years (Billy Hamilton, Odubel Herrera, Adam Jones, the Uptons, etc.) so it’s not unheard of. Moving to center could be the best thing for Mateo and the Yankees going forward.

Kaprielian could pitch in MLB “pretty soon”

During a recent radio interview, Brian Cashman said RHP James Kaprielian could be a big league option “pretty soon,” according to Brendan Kuty. “(He could) probably plug-and-play in the big league level pretty soon,” said the GM. “He’s kind of a wild card because he’s very exciting … You sit behind home plate, he looked like a big leaguer right now, but he hasn’t had a chance to show it and prove it in the big league level yet.”

Had Kaprielian stayed healthy last season, he very well might have made his big league debut in September, when the Yankees were auditioning young arms. That would have made him a rotation candidate in Spring Training. Alas. Kaprielian has to make up for some lost time in the minors this year, and the Yankees have enough upper level pitching depth that they’ll be able to allow him to progress at his own pace. Health is the most important thing this year. Hopefully Kaprielian stays healthy, because of it does, he’s shoot up the minor league ladder.

Yankees release nine minor leaguers

The Yankees have released nine minor leaguers, report Matt Eddy and Robert Pimpsner. The eight: RHP Moises Cedeno, RHP Icezak Flemming, RHP Leonardo Garcia, RHP Deshorn Lake, RHP Rafael Ordaz, RHP Brandon Stenhouse, RHP Artur Strzalka, C Ronaldo Suarez, and LHP Zak Wasserman. None of the eight were prospects, really. Stenhouse signed a six-figure deal out of Australia a few years back. Strzalka is notable because he was the first person born and raised in Poland to sign a pro baseball contract. Flemming was New York’s 26th round pick in 2015. Lake and Wasserman signed as undrafted free agents. That’s about it.

Yankees no longer fielding two DSL teams

According to Josh Norris, the Yankees are no longer fielding two Dominican Summer League teams. They’ve had two DSL teams for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure why they scaled it back to one, though it could be a result of the new international spending restrictions. Teams aren’t able to sign as many actual prospects as they once did, so there’s no need for a second team. The Yankees still have all eight of their domestic minor league affiliates, including both Gulf Coast League teams, so there’s no change there.

Miscellany

And finally, here are three miscellaneous minor league links to check out:

  • Jim Callis polled scouts and put together a minor league All-Defense Team, which includes SS Kyle Holder. “I haven’t had more people rave about a prospect’s defensive prowess to me since the days of Omar Vizquel coming up with Seattle,” said an executive to Callis. “I’ve had scouts say they look forward to watching Holder take pregame ground balls like they would watching a guy with 80 raw power take batting practice.”
  • Michael Leboff posted a Q&A with RHP Dillon Tate. “It’s definitely tough after having success and then you struggle,” he said. “One thing that helped me out was realizing that I had struggled before, so I didn’t let myself get down on myself when I know where I was four years ago and how my development took a few years to really turn the corner.”
  • Benjamin Hill writes ten minor league teams set a new attendance record last year, including two Yankees affiliates: Low-A Charleston and Rookie Pulaski. The Pulaski franchise was a total mess three years ago, before the Yankees got involved and new owners purchased the team. The new owners renovated the ballpark and made things much more fan friendly.

Minor league Spring Training begins March 3rd this year. If you’re interested, Shane Hennigan has the minor league camp schedule.