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.

Yanks dominate Baseball America’s and Baseball Prospectus’ top prospects lists

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

The final preseason top 100 prospects lists have arrived. Baseball America released their annual top 100 prospects list last Friday, which is free to read. You do need a subscription to check out the scouting reports, however. Red Sox OF Andrew Benintendi claims the top spot, with White Sox 2B Yoan Moncada and Braves SS Dansby Swanson rounding out the top three.

Seven Yankees farmhands made Baseball America’s top 100 list. Here are the seven:

5. SS Gleyber Torres
39. OF Clint Frazier
45. OF Blake Rutherford
85. SS Jorge Mateo
87. RHP James Kaprielian
90. OF Aaron Judge
91. LHP Justus Sheffield

Torres went from No. 41 last year to No. 5 this year. Kaprielian did not make the top 100 last year, missed most of the 2016 season with a flexor strain, and now ranks as the 87th best prospect in baseball. He must have been awfully impressive in his 45 innings.

Baseball America’s top 100 list came out last week. Then, earlier today, Baseball Prospectus published their annual top 101 prospects list. That one is free to read as well. Cardinals RHP Alex Reyes, not Benintendi sits in the top spot. Benintendi was No. 1 on every other top 100 list this year. Swanson and Benintendi are Nos. 2 and 3.

The Yankees had a whopping nine players make Baseball Prospectus’ top 101 list. The nine:

15. Torres
16. Frazier
43. Mateo
49. Rutherford
52. Sheffield
58. Kaprielian
63. Judge
82. RHP Albert Abreu
101. SS Tyler Wade

Neither Abreu nor Wade made any of the other top 100 lists this year. I didn’t expect Wade to come close to one of these lists, really. I thought I was the high man on him. Apparently not. Also, RHP Chance Adams did not make any of the top 100 lists this spring. I thought he’d sneak on to the back end of one. Alas.

Anyway, I said all I have to say about top 100 lists when Keith Law and MLB.com released theirs, so I don’t have anything to add now. Just pleasantly surprised to see Wade grab the last spot on the Baseball Prospectus list. Now that the four major publications have posted their lists, we can average out the rankings:

BA BP Law MLB Average Rank
Torres 5 15 4 3 6.8
Frazier 39 16 27 24 26.5
Rutherford 45 49 22 37 38.3
Kaprielian 87 58 28 58 57.8
Judge 90 63 44 45 60.5
Sheffield 91 52 88 79 77.5
Mateo 85 43 NR 47 81.3
Abreu NR 82 NR NR 133.0
Wade NR 101 NR NR 137.8

The guys who did not rank on a particular list (NR) went in to my quick little spreadsheet as a 150 for calculation purposes. So Mateo’s composite ranking of 81.3 is the result of averaging 85, 43, 47, and 150. Got it? Good. This applied to Mateo because he didn’t make Law’s list, and Abreu and Wade because they only made Baseball Prospectus’ list.

The top six guys in the table made all four top 100 lists. Based on the rankings, the Yankees have one bonafide top ten prospect in Torres — Baseball Prospectus is the low man on him and they’re dragging his composite ranking down — plus two other top 40 prospects (Frazier, Rutherford) and two other top 60-ish prospects (Kaprielian, Judge). That’s pretty great.

Among those top six guys, Judge is the only safe bet to graduate to the big leagues this year. Forty-six more at-bats and he’ll no longer be prospect eligible. Others like Frazier and Kaprielian could reach the big leagues this summer, though it seems unlikely either will spend enough time in New York to lose prospect eligibility. Moreso in Kaprielian’s case given last year’s injury.

Point is, most Yankees prospects who appeared in the various top 100 lists this year figure to remain prospect eligible next year, and again appear in the top 100 lists. That’s the hope, anyway. Hopefully no one’s stock drops. Add in a possible breakout from someone like, say, 3B Miguel Andujar or 3B Dermis Garcia, plus the team’s 2017 first round pick (16th overall), and the Yankees could have another eight or nine top 100 prospects next year, and by then most will be MLB ready. Fun fun fun.

Embracing the reality (and beauty) of a prospect-laden Yankees

Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

The recent Yankees’ Winter Warmup was a nice touch to the offseason. Deep within the monotony of the winter when you’re mostly refreshing Didi GregoriusInstagram, the Yankees gave fans a chance to interact with their players. Yet, at the same time, fans also got a glimpse of a completely different version of the Bronx Bombers.

If this type of event had been held six years ago, the headliners would have been obvious. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, CC Sabathia, etc. The veteran stalwarts you know and love. The guys you’ve watched win titles and know exactly what to expect when they hit the field come that spring.

But those weren’t the guys put front and center (yes, CC took part on the Thursday of the event). How about a lineup of Chance Adams, Clint Frazier, James Kaprielian, Justus Sheffield, Gleyber Torres? Readers of River Avenue Blues are no doubt familiar with the next wave of the ‘Baby Bombers’ but they are far from household names for the average Yankees fan at the moment.

But they are the ones that the Yankees put front and center. That’s startling. For 20 years, it’s been essentially one core, a high-priced roster of aging stars with a rotating cast around them. The farm system has had its ups and downs, mostly downs, and filled in a few roster spots, producing a star (Robinson Cano), trade chips and some regulars since the turn of the century.

Cano or Brett Gardner were able to ease into the lineup to an extent, finding their footing while the veterans were the ones relied upon to produce wins. Sure, a Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain came with extraordinary expectations, but that was primarily once they put up big numbers. Jesus Montero would have been hyped to no end in 2012 after one month of beautiful home runs and general hitting promise, but he was instead one of the aforementioned trade chips.

Now it’s the prospects that are in the spotlight. Not just Gary Sanchez or Aaron Judge, guys who at least have received their first cups of coffee. Frazier, Sheffield and Torres have been in the organization for six months. Adams has been a starter for one year. Kaprielian threw 18 innings before the Arizona Fall League last year. Those five players, all among MLB.com’s top-100 prospects besides Adams, have played 30 combined games above Double-A, all by Frazier. Besides Judge, the Yankees’ other members of the top-100 are Jorge Mateo, who is still in Tampa, and Blake Rutherford, perhaps the prospect with the most upside but one who was drafted less than a year ago.

I know I’m not alone in feeling weird. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited beyond belief to see the development that will come in 2017, whether it’s from highlight packages or Down on the Farm posts. But where there’s excitement is also the dread. Because there will be growing pains … a lot of them. There are going to be times when we will shake our heads. At the big league level, Sanchez likely won’t be on a 60-homer pace in 2017. Judge is going to keep striking out as he has done at every level early on before he fully adjusts if he even can make that next step with his biggest challenge yet. Greg Bird is not going to be Mark Teixeira defensively and that shoulder surgery is a concern for him offensively.

In the minors, there will be even more growing pains. Torres faces the challenge of a pitcher-friendly Eastern League and Waterfront Park. Frazier continues to try and overcome his strikeout woes as he plays his first full season in Triple-A. Adams, Kaprielian and Sheffield (as well as Jordan Montgomery, Ian Clarkin and others) will need to prove themselves at new levels.

It’s important to keep in mind with all of these guys that development for a prospect is almost never a straight path. Sanchez is a great example with his early promise, his setbacks with questions of maturity and then having everything come together all at once last year. Judge seemingly struggles at the start of each new level before finding his footing and learning how to excel.

But we also can’t get too high when one of the guys in the minors has a hot week or two. The second Didi Gregorius makes an error or goes into a prolonged slump that coincides with a losing stretch, there will be a clamor from some to call up Torres all the way from Trenton. There needs to be plenty of patience, even if someone hits the way people hope Torres will hit.

There are also going to be the guys who take steps back – or at least sideways – like Mateo did last year, but with so many top prospects, some guys are also bound to take that next step, realize their potential and get us more excited than we are now. This season will be about embracing those big steps and even the little ones. To borrow a phrase from another franchise on the ride, it’s time to “trust the process.”

And that brings me back to the Winter Warmup. Sure, Adams and Kaprielian aren’t guys who the average fan might know right now. Many might only know Frazier or Torres by the head shots put on TV broadcasts explaining what the Yankees got back for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. But this season will be about embracing those fresh faces, warts and all, the Yankees put front and center at the Winter Warmup, with the hope that they’ll be front and center for the next championship runs.

Thoughts on Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

Last Friday, Keith Law released his annual top 100 prospects list, which included six Yankees. This week ESPN is publishing Law’s individual team reports, and those include not only the top ten prospects in each organization, but guys beyond that as well. It’s a crazy deep dive for each club.

Here is Law’s organizational report for the Yankees. This is all behind the Insider paywall, so I can’t give away too much. These are the top ten prospects, which are the six top 100 prospects plus four new names (duh):

  1. SS Gleyber Torres (No. 4 on top 100)
  2. OF Blake Rutherford (No. 22)
  3. OF Clint Frazier (No. 27)
  4. RHP James Kaprielian (No. 28)
  5. OF Aaron Judge (No. 44)
  6. LHP Justus Sheffield (No. 88)
  7. SS Jorge Mateo
  8. SS Tyler Wade
  9. RHP Chance Adams
  10. 3B Miguel Andujar

In all, Law goes through and lists his top 24 Yankees prospects. I won’t list all 24, but Brendan Kuty has you covered. I have some thoughts on the non-top 100 guys.

1. The gap between Mateo and Wade is small. It’s no secret Mateo had a disappointing 2016 season. He didn’t just perform poorly, he also got himself suspended for two weeks for violating an unknown team policy. It was a tough year for Jorge. No doubt. In the write-up, Law calls Wade a superior shortstop and hitter, though there is still “enough industry faith in Mateo’s speed and body” that he gets the higher ranking. We know Law’s rankings do not reflect the consensus — Baseball Prospectus ranked Mateo third and Wade ninth in the system while Baseball America had Mateo fourth and Wade outside the top ten, so those sites had a much larger gap between the two — and the story here should be the positive report on Wade, not Mateo’s tumble down Law’s rankings. The Yankees had Wade play the outfield in the Arizona Fall League because they’re clearing a path for him to get to the big leagues. He may not offer the upside of Mateo (or Torres), but Wade is a damn good prospect himself.

2. Law has the good Clarkin scouting report. Scouting reports on LHP Ian Clarkin were all over the place last season. On his best days, he’d sit in the low-90s with a hammer curveball and a quality changeup. On his worst days, he was in the upper-80s with a loopy breaking ball. Law gives the positive scouting report on Clarkin, saying he spent last season “pitching in the low 90s with a good curveball.” Now that he’s a full year removed from the elbow injury that sidelined him for all of 2016, I’m hopeful we’ll see more of the good version of Clarkin this year. He’s going to be Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season, remember. This is a big year for him. “Double-A will be a good test of his ability to use his two above-average pitches to get guys on both sides of the plate, as hitters there will lay off the curveball if he can’t locate it,” added Law’s write-up.

3. McKinney’s stock is tumbling. Last season was a tough one for OF Billy McKinney, who came over from the Cubs in the Aroldis Chapman trade. He was a first round pick back in 2013, though the combination of a knee injury and poor performance have him slipping down the rankings. Law says McKinney, who he dubbed the system’s falling prospect, has a sound swing and a plan at the plate, but the “projections from high school that had him getting to average power aren’t coming to fruition.” The Yankees got McKinney as the third piece in the Chapman trade — Torres was the headliner (duh) and Adam Warren was the second piece, right? that how I’ve always seen it — and it was only a year ago that Law ranked him 69th on his top 100 list, so the kid has talent. As Brian Cashman likes to say, McKinney is an asset in distress. The Yankees have to build him back up.

4. The 2016 draft gets some love. The Yankees had a very good 2016 draft thanks to Rutherford all by himself. He was one of the best prospects in the draft class. Unfortunately, the current draft pool system doesn’t allow teams to spend freely, so the Yankees had to skimp elsewhere to pay Rutherford. Eight of their top ten picks received below-slot bonuses. The team’s draft haul was top heavy, but two other 2016 draftees still made Law’s top 24 Yankees prospects. RHP Nolan Martinez placed 21st because he “throws 88-93 mph with a huge spin rate on his fastball and good depth on his curve,” though he’s still working to develop his changeup. RHP Nick Nelson, who Law seems to love based on what he’s written dating back to the draft, ranked 22nd after “pumping 96-97 mph in instructional league with a big curveball.” Hmmm. Anyway, point is, the Yankees landed some other nice prospects in last summer’s draft. It wasn’t only Rutherford.

5. A few lesser known prospects make the top 24. Lesser known probably isn’t the correct term. Less thought about? Maybe that’s better. Anyway, among the players to pop up on Law’s farm system deep dive are SS Kyle Holder (“at least a 70 defender”), RHP Freicer Perez (“6-foot-8 and throws up to 98 mph already with good angle”), SS Oswaldo Cabrera (“an average defender with a promising hit tool”), and RHP Jorge Guzman (“has hit 103 mph and will sit at 99-100”). Guzman is the other guy the Yankees got from the Astros in the Brian McCann trade. We all focus on the top prospects and understandably so. They’re the headliners, and there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to see several of them in the big leagues this summer. Further down in the minors, it’s guys like Cabrera and Guzman that separate New York’s farm system from the rest of the pack. Talented players like those two don’t even crack the top 20 prospects in the farm system — Cabrera ranks 23rd and Guzman ranked 24th in the system, per Law — yet they’d be top ten in more than a few other organizations.

Thoughts on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects

Frazier. (Presswire)
Frazier. (Presswire)

Last week, Keith Law released his annual top 100 prospects list, which included six Yankees. Then, on Saturday, the crew at MLB.com released their top 100 list as well. Law and MLB.com agree on one thing: Red Sox OF Andrew Benintendi is the best prospect in baseball. The lists diverge after that.

A total of seven Yankees made MLB.com’s top 100 list, which is pretty awesome. As always, MLB.com’s list and scouting reports are completely free. It’s a fantastic resource. Here are the seven Yankees on the list:

3. SS Gleyber Torres
24. OF Clint Frazier
37. OF Blake Rutherford
45. OF Aaron Judge
47. SS Jorge Mateo
58. RHP James Kaprielian
79. LHP Justus Sheffield

Five top 50 prospects and six top 60 prospects is pretty great. No other team can make that claim. The White Sox and Pirates are the only other teams with as many as four top 50 prospects, and Pittsburgh is the only other team with five top 60 prospects. The Yankees and Braves lead the way with seven top 100 prospects apiece. Some quick thoughts:

1. Torres could be the No. 1 prospect very soon. The only reason Benintendi is still prospect-eligible is a minor knee injury that sidelined him three weeks in August and September. He finished the season with 105 at-bats, only 25 away from the rookie limit of 130. Once Benintendi clears 130 at-bats, he’ll drop off the list, and it’s not crazy to think Torres could surpass Moncada in prospect status in the first half of this season. Also, Braves SS Dansby Swanson, MLB.com’s No. 4 prospect, is literally one at-bat away from losing prospect status, so one of Gleyber’s primary competitors for the top spot will drop off the list on Opening Day. The Yankees have never had the No. 1 prospect according to MLB.com, though, to be fair, MLB.com hasn’t been producing top 100 lists all that long. According to Baseball America, the last time the Yankees had the No. 1 prospect in baseball was way back in 1992, when LHP Brien Taylor sat in the top spot.

2. Mateo is still highly regarded. Despite a poor statistical season and a two-week suspension for violating team rules, MLB.com still considers Mateo one of the best prospects in the game. (Law dropped Mateo out of the top 100 entirely.) He did slip in the rankings — last year Mateo was No. 30 on MLB.com’s original top 100 list — which is understandable, but the MLB.com folks still believe in the tools. And that’s most important. Not the numbers. Mateo won’t turn 22 until the end of June and he still has the incredible quick twitch athleticism that landed him on top 100 lists last year. Remember, Baseball Prospectus ranked Mateo as the third best prospect in the system behind Torres and Frazier. Law may have cut bait, but others still clearly believe in the kid.

3. Yet again, Kaprielian climbed big time. I’m still amazed at where Kaprielian is landing on these top 100 lists given his relatively serious arm injury last season. (Miss as much time as he did and it qualifies as a serious injury in my book.) He jumped 59 spots on Law’s top 100. Kaprielian didn’t even make MLB.com’s top 100 list last year and now he’s 58th. How impressive must he have been before and especially after the injury to earn so much support on the various prospects lists? Also, how much higher would he have ranked had he stayed completely healthy last season? Are we talking about a potential top five pitching prospect? As it stands, Kaprielian is already the 21st ranked pitcher on the top 100. A full season of healthy Kaprielian in 2017 could mean a) reaching the big leagues in September, and b) being ranked as a tippy top prospect next spring. Exciting!

4. Adams was really close to the top 100 too. On Twitter, Jim Callis said RHP Chance Adams very nearly made the top 100 as well. He fell in the 101-115 range. So, for all intents and purposes, the Yankees currently have five top 50 and eight top 115 prospects in all of baseball according to MLB.com. That’s pretty great. I don’t think Adams is a top 100 caliber prospect myself, but I understand why some think and hope he’ll slip into the back half. Just the fact he’s even in the conversation is great. I’m guessing others like RHP Albert Abreu and 3B Miguel Andujar were in the top 100 conversation too. Know what I’d really love to see? A top 500 prospect list. That’s the best way to measure the depth and strength of the farm system. We all focus on the top five or ten prospects and I get it. But compare each team’s 30th best prospect. That’s a better indicator of farm system depth.