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.

Open Thread: February 17th Camp Notes

In case you missed it earlier, the Yankees have suffered their first injury of Spring Training. Tyler Austin will miss at least six weeks with a fracture in his left foot. He fouled a pitch into the foot during batting practice. Blah. At least it happened early in camp. Austin could be ready to go sometime in April. Here are the rest of today’s notes from Tampa:

This is the open thread for the evening. There is basically nothing going on tonight. None of the local hockey teams are in action, the NBA is starting their All-Star break, and there are no college basketball games on the schedule. Good night to get out of the house. Talk about whatever here, as long as it’s not religion or politics.

Sorting out the projected 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster

Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)
Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)

Over the last few seasons the Yankees and every other team in baseball have begun to use their Triple-A affiliate as an extension of their big league roster. They not only send relievers up and down whenever a fresh arm is needed, they’ll also shuttle platoon players in and out based on upcoming pitching matchups. Clubs look for every advantage possible, and these days that means having MLB and Triple-A roster flexibility.

The Yankees have built an exceptional farm system with many high-caliber prospects ticketed for Triple-A. They also have several big league roster openings with young players slated to compete in Spring Training. The refreshing emphasis on youth means projecting the 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster is damn near impossible, but that won’t stop me from trying. I do this every winter and I ain’t stoppin’ now.

Now that the non-roster invitees have been announced, let’s try to figure out what the RailRiders’ roster will look like on Opening Day. After all, these players are depth players for the Yankees, and inevitably we’re going to see many of them in MLB at some point. The top prospects get all the attention, understandably, but don’t sleep on the Chris Parmelees and Anthony Swarzaks of the world either. Those guys have a way of finding themselves in the Bronx.

Let’s begin by looking at position player candidates for the Triple-A Scranton roster. An asterisk (*) denotes the player is on the 40-man roster, which, in this situation, is kind of a big deal.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Utility
Kyle Higashioka* Greg Bird* Aaron Judge* Tyler Austin*
Wilkin Castillo Ronald Torreyes* Mason Williams* Rob Refsnyder*
Francisco Diaz Ji-Man Choi Jake Cave Tyler Wade
Kellin Deglan Cito Culver Dustin Fowler
Mike Ford Clint Frazier
Pete Kozma
Donovan Solano
Ruben Tejada

I have 20 position players in the table and these days Triple-A rosters run 25 players deep. As recent as 2011, Triple-A and Double-A teams fielded only 24-man rosters. For real. It is not at all uncommon for Triple-A clubs to carry eight-man bullpens, especially early in the season when pitchers are still getting in the swing of things and also having their workloads monitored. We need to pare that list of 20 players down to 13 or even 12.

Catchers: Barring injury, the Yankees are set with Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine behind the plate at the big league level. Romine did an okay job as the full-time backup last year, and while I wouldn’t completely rule out Higashioka winning the job in camp, it would surprise me. Remember, Romine is out of minor league options, which means if he’s not the backup catcher, he’s out of the organization. (Even if he clears waivers, he’d likely elect free agency and look for a big league opportunity elsewhere.)

The odds are strongly in favor of Romine backing up Sanchez with Higashioka biding his time as the third string catcher in Triple-A. The real question is who will back up Higashioka? Castillo seems like the safe bet considering he’s a 32-year-old journeyman with (a little) big league experience and a ton of Triple-A experience. Diaz has two games of Triple-A experience and that’s it. Deglan has barely played above Single-A. Those two figure to be the Double-A Trenton catching tandem with Higashioka and Castillo in Scranton. That’s two of our 12 position player roster spots.

Infielders: Austin, Bird, and Refsnyder are essentially competing for two big league roster spots: the first base job and a bench job. Everyone wants Bird to win the first base job, including the Yankees themselves. But, if he needs more time to shake off the rust following shoulder surgery, a return trip to Scranton could very well be in the cards. Either way, one of these three players figures to start the season with the RailRiders while the other two are with the Yankees. My guess is Refsnyder winds up in Triple-A, but who knows. Three of our 12 Triple-A roster spots are now taken.

Back to Triple-A for Mr. Refsnyder? (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

Solano, Tejada, and Torreyes will all compete for the big league reserve infielder’s job in Spring Training, or at least appear to compete for the job. Maybe even Kozma too. Torreyes not only filled the role admirably last season, he’s also on the 40-man roster and the other three are not. That’s one heck of a tiebreaker. Torreyes can be sent to Triple-A, he has options remaining, it’s just hard to think he could lose the bench job in Spring Training. Lil’ Ronnie in the show with the other three in Scranton seems to be the most likely outcome here. That’s six Triple-A roster spots accounted for now.

Choi has big league time and while I suppose it’s not completely impossible he wins the big league first base job should Bird need more time in Triple-A, I’d bet against it. The big league service time all but ensures Choi will start the season in Scranton, not Double-A Trenton. That figures to spell bad news for Ford, who has played only 42 career games at the Double-A level. Hard to think the Yankees would send two pure first basemen to Scranton. Choi is position player number seven.

Before we found out the Yankees re-signed Kozma, the final Triple-A infield spot came down to Culver or Ford. Now neither of them figures to get a Triple-A roster spot. They’ll likely have to go back to Double-A to begin the season. Either that, or the RailRiders will carry a six-man bullpen, and there’s no chance of that happening.

Outfield: In a roundabout way, Judge and Williams are competing for one big league roster spot. Judge will be given every opportunity to win the starting right field job, but if the Yankees determine he’s not ready for it, he could wind up back in Triple-A. In that case, Aaron Hicks would presumably take over in right field and Williams would get the fourth outfielder’s job. I suppose it could go to Refsnyder or Austin, but I think the Yankees would want an actual outfielder on the bench. There’s the eighth position player. (Hicks, by the way, is out of options and can’t be sent to Triple-A.)

Frazier is a Triple-A lock because he reached the level last season and is a priority guy as a top prospect. The Yankees aren’t going to send him to Double-A to clear a roster spot because Culver has tenure in the organization or anything like that. Fowler is another high-end prospect who had a successful season at Double-A in 2016, so an assignment to Triple-A is the natural order of things. Cave is a Triple-A veteran and the logical candidate for the fourth outfield spot. Frazier, Fowler, and Cave are position players nine, ten, and eleven.

Utility: I listed Austin and Refsnyder as utility players only because they can play the infield and outfield. They were already covered in the infield section. Wade, who is primarily an infielder but started working out in the outfield in the Arizona Fall League, had a solid Double-A season a year ago, so, like Fowler, an assignment to Triple-A makes sense. Wade is out 12th and final Triple-A position player.

Let’s quickly recap everything we just went through:

  • Catchers (2): Higashioka and Castillo
  • Infielders (4): Choi, Kozma, Solano, and Tejada
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and either Judge or Williams
  • Utility (2): Wade, and one of Bird, Austin, or Refsnyder

That’s a dozen position players right there, and I suppose if the RailRiders open the season with a normal seven-man bullpen, either Culver or Ford would make the team as the 13th position player. Probably Culver. I still expect an eight-man bullpen, at least initially.

The perfect world scenario for the Yankees is Bird and Judge winning the first base and right field jobs, respectively, and Austin beating out Refsnyder for a bench spot. So, assuming that happens, here are the projected Triple-A position players, with a batting order written out because why not?

1. SS Tyler Wade
2. CF Dustin Fowler
3. LF Clint Frazier
4. DH Rob Refsnyder
5. C Kyle Higashioka
6. 3B Donovan Solano
7. 1B Ji-Man Choi
8. 2B Ruben Tejada
9. RF Mason Williams

Bench: C Wilkin Castillo, IF Pete Kozma, OF Jake Cave

The batting order is just for fun. Don’t take it to heart. Remember, players are going move around. Refsnyder won’t always DH. Wade will undoubtedly see some time in the outfield. Frazier and Williams will probably see time in all three outfield spots. Heck, Solano and Tejada will probably roam around the infield too. These things are very fluid. That, however, is the projected Triple-A Scranton group of position players based on everything we know at the moment. Now let’s get to the pitchers.

Starters Righty Relievers Lefty Relievers
Luis Cessa* Johnny Barbato* Richard Bleier*
Dietrich Enns* Gio Gallegos* Chasen Shreve*
Chad Green* Ben Heller* Joe Mantiply
Ronald Herrera* Jonathan Holder* Jason Gurka
Bryan Mitchell* J.P. Feyereisen Evan Rutckyj
Luis Severino* Mark Montgomery
Chance Adams Matt Wotherspoon
Daniel Camarena
Kyle Haynes
Brady Lail
Jordan Montgomery

Lots of pitchers. Lots and lots of pitchers. There are 23 of ’em in the table, and if that sounds like a lot, consider the RailRiders used 37 different pitchers last season, including 22 different starters. They used 45 pitchers and 24 different starters in 2015. So yeah, 23 pitches in the table seems like a lot, but it’s maybe half as many as Scranton will need to get through the season. Before you know it they’ll be signing Phil Coke out of an independent league again. That’s baseball, yo.

Rotation: At the moment, the Yankees have to two open big league rotation spots, which Brian Cashman & Co. insist will go to two young pitchers. Cashman has specifically singled out Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Severino as the candidates for those jobs. (Adam Warren too, but I don’t think he’ll actually open the season in the rotation unless all hell breaks loose in camp.) My money is on Severino and Cessa getting the rotation spots. We’ll see.

In theory, the Yankees would send the two losers of the rotation competition to Triple-A, where they would bide their time until they need another starter in the Bronx. Sounds simple enough. That’s not necessarily how it will work though. In 2014 the Yankees held a three-way competition for the long reliever job — not even a rotation spot, the long reliever spot — between Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno. The Yankees ended up carrying all three on the Opening Day roster because they were the best men for the job.

Who’s to say that, if Cessa and Severino were to win the two rotation spots, that Green and Mitchell wouldn’t be in the bullpen? That really complicates things and is why I included guys like Haynes and Lail in this exercise. More than a few of those 40-man roster Triple-A rotation candidates could wind up in the big league bullpen, creating a need for starters in Scranton. Geez, that’s a mouthful.

Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)
Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)

Anyway, this is what I think will happen: two of the Cessa/Green/Mitchell/Severino quartet get big league rotation spots and a third winds up in the bullpen as the long man. The fourth goes to Scranton as the de facto sixth starter. That means, based our table, we’re left with seven candidates for the four remaining Triple-A rotation spots: Adams, Camarena, Enns, Haynes, Herrera, Lail, and Montgomery.

Two of the four spots are easy. They’ll go to Adams and Montgomery, two of the better pitching prospects in the organization, both of whom are ready for Triple-A. (Montgomery thrived there in his brief stint last year.) Enns and Herrera are on the 40-man roster, which could give them a leg up for the final two Triple-A rotation spots. I do wonder whether the Yankees will move Enns to the bullpen since that’s likely his ultimate destination.

For now, I’m guessing Enns remains a starter, meaning Scranton’s five-man rotation to start the season will be, in whatever order, Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green Mitchell, or Severino. That leaves Camarena, Haynes, and Lail out in the cold. The projected Double-A rotation is pretty stacked (Ian Clarkin, Josh Rogers, Justus Sheffield, etc.) so it’s not as simple as bumping them down a level. Hmmm.

Bullpen: Right now, the Yankees have five big league bullpen spots accounted for: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, and Warren. Layne is out of options, so if he doesn’t make the big league bullpen, he’s probably out of the organization. No Triple-A for him. I assumed in the previous section one of the four young starters winds up in the bullpen, which means six of seven big league bullpen spots are accounted for in this little exercise.

I have 12 relievers in the table plus Camarena, Haynes, and Lail to consider, so that’s 15 pitchers total. One of those 15 is going to get the final big league bullpen spot, so it’s really 14 pitchers for eight Triple-A bullpen spots. In all likelihood one of the 40-man roster guys will get that last bullpen job with the Yankees. It doesn’t really matter which one, specifically. My money is on Bleier because the Yankees really seem to like him, but ultimately the name doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter? Because there are six 40-man relievers in that table, and whichever ones don’t get that final MLB bullpen spot will wind up in Triple-A, no questions asked. None of ’em are going to Double-A. That’s five Triple-A bullpen spots accounted for already, which leaves us nine pitchers for the final two or three bullpen spots (depending whether they carry a seven or eight-man bullpen): Camarena, Feyereisen, Gurka, Haynes, Lail, Mantiply, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon.

The Yankees signed Gurka as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason and he has some big league bullpen time with the Rockies, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot. Cashman talked up Mantiply at the town hall two weeks ago and he has a tiny little bit of big league time too, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot as well. If the RailRiders employ an eight-man bullpen — and to be clear, the Yankees make that decision, not the RailRiders — I think it would be Feyereisen. Just a hunch. Camarena, Haynes, Lail, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon end up in Double-A for the time being. (One or two might even get released.)

Alright, so after all of that, my projected 13-man Triple-A Scranton pitching staff shakes out like this:

  • Rotation (5): Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green, Mitchell, or Severino.
  • Bullpen (8): Feyereisen, Gurka, Mantiply, and five of Barbato, Bleier, Gallegos, Heller, Holder, or Shreve.

After going through all of that, I must point out the odds are strongly in favor of this post being a complete waste of time. Guys are going to get hurt in Spring Training, released before the end of camp, whatever. These things change and they change a lot. Trying to project the Triple-A Opening Day roster in late January is a fool’s errand, so I guess that makes me a fool.

I still think it can be instructive to go through this exercise each year, even though it’s prone to blowing up in my face. It’s good to get an idea of how the Triple-A roster will shake out, see where the Yankees have depth, and who the call-up candidates are at any given moment. I have a tendency to forget about Herrera, personally. Laying this all out is a good reminder that hey, he’s probably going to be in the Scranton rotation. So even though this is all very subject to change, I think we get a good grasp of what the Triple-A roster may look like come April.

The Suddenly Stellar Farm System [2016 Season Review]

Oh hell yes. (Presswire)
Oh hell yes. (Presswire)

What a difference ten months can make. Coming into the 2016 season the Yankees had a solid farm system that ranked in the middle of the pack among the 30 clubs. Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked the system 13th in baseball during the spring. Baseball Prospectus had them 16th and Baseball America had them 17th. Hard to get more middle of the pack than that.

Now, after Spring Training and the regular season and postseason, the Yankees boast one of baseball’s very best farm systems. Jim Callis calls it the “deepest” system in the game. Along with the Brewers and Braves, two teams making little effort to be competitive so they can build a stockpile of young players, the Yankees have one of the three best farm systems in the game. Maybe the best.

That sudden and drastic improvement in the farm system is the result of many things, most notably the trade deadline. The Yankees traded proven veterans for prospects for the first time in decades. They added a dozen new prospects at the deadline. That’s nuts. Also, the Yankees imported new talent in the annual amateur draft, plus some guys already in the organization broke out.

I’m not going to lie, I was not looking forward to writing the farm system season review. Well, I was and I wasn’t. I was excited because there are so many good players to write about, and I was also dreading it because there are so many good players to write about. This assignment was … daunting. Anyway, let’s review the year that was in the farm system. ‘Twas a great year.

The Graduates

It seems appropriate to start with the guys who are no longer prospects. The Yankees graduated several prospects to the big leagues this summer — by graduate I mean exceed the rookie limits of 50 innings or 130 at-bats — including three of my top seven prospects coming into 2016. The most notable was, of course, C Gary Sanchez (season review), who hit 20 homers in 53 games as a full-time catcher (lol) and finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting to someone everyone will say “oh yeah, he was Rookie of the Year once” about in a few years.

UTIL Rob Refsnyder (season review), UTIL Ronald Torreyes (season review) RHP Bryan Mitchell (season review) all exceeded the rookie innings limit this summer, as did RHP Luis Cessa (season review). Sanchez is the catcher of the future present and is locked into a 2017 roster spot. The Brian McCann trade confirmed it. Torreyes is the odds-on favorite to hold the backup infielder’s job again. Refsnyder, Mitchell, and Cessa will all have to compete for a roster spot in Spring Training, and that’s fine. Competition is a good thing. Cessa and Mitchell had their moments as starters late in the season while Refsnyder did some solid platoon work.

The Erstwhile Top Prospects

Mateo. (Presswire)
Mateo. (Presswire)

Depending who you asked, New York’s top prospect coming into this season was either OF Aaron Judge (season review) or SS Jorge Mateo. Most folks jumped ship and went with Mateo. I stuck with Judge. To each his own. Judge made some adjustments and had a strong Triple-A stint before reaching the big leagues in the second half. He showed off some big power and some big swing-and-miss ability. Right now he’s the favorite to start in right field in 2017, though that’s not a lock. Judge will have to win the job in Spring Training.

Mateo’s season was disappointing by almost any measure. He stole the show during Grapefruit League play with his elite speed and high-end athleticism, and after a strong start to the High-A Tampa season, the 21-year-old basically stopped hitting in June. Mateo put up a .210/.255/.283 (56 wRC+) batting line in his final 72 games and 300 plate appearances of the season. He finished with a .254/.306/.379 (99 wRC+) line overall, and come playoff time, he was demoted to the bottom of the Tampa lineup. Yeesh.

The good news: Mateo set a new career high with eight homers, so he’s growing into some power. Last year he hit two homers, and one was an inside-the-parker. The bad news: Mateo went 36-for-51 (71%) in stolen base attempts one year after going 82-for-99 (83%). The other bad news: the Yankees suspended Mateo two weeks for an undisclosed violation of team rules in July. He did homer in his first game back, but alas, there is no redemption story here. Mateo didn’t play well the rest of the way.

The suspension and the disappointing season do no kill Mateo’s prospect value. Does it take a hit? Absolutely. But giving up on a 21-year-old kid with this kind of ability is foolish. Sanchez had his fair share of maturity issues in the minors too, remember. (He was once suspended for refusing to catch a bullpen session.) With any luck, the down season and suspension will be a learning experience for Mateo, who will come out of this year more focused and driven. That’d be cool.

The New Top Prospects

Judge and Mateo have been replaced as the top two position player prospects in the farm system. At the deadline the Yankees swung a pair of blockbuster trades that netted them new top prospects. Aroldis Chapman went to the Cubs for a package headlined by SS Gleyber Torres, and Andrew Miller went to the Indians for a package headlined by OF Clint Frazier. Torres and Frazier are the Yankees’ new top prospects, in whatever order.

Torres, who doesn’t turn 20 for two weeks, spent the entire 2016 season at the High-A level, where he was nearly four years younger than the average player. Despite the age disadvantage, Torres hit .268/.349/.413 (116 wRC+) overall with 31 doubles, eleven home runs, and 22 steals. After the season Gleyber went to the Arizona Fall League, hit .403/.513/.645 (218 wRC+) with nearly twice as many walks (14) as strikeouts (8), and became the youngest MVP and batting champion in league history.

There’s talk Torres may be one of the top ten prospects in all of baseball right now. It’s good to be a tooled up right-handed hitting shortstop with power potential, hitting know-how, and strong defense. Gleyber is not lacking ability, that’s for sure. The hype is starting to get a little out of control — the inevitable Derek Jeter comparisons have arrived — but there’s no doubt Torres is a special, special player. Heck of a return for a half-season of Chapman.

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

As for Frazier, who turned 22 in September, he split the season between Double-A and Triple-A, and played exclusively in Triple-A after the trade. He hit .276/.356/.469 (129 wRC+) with 13 homers and 13 steals in 89 Double-A games, then .229/.285/.359 (83 wRC+) with three homers and no steals in 38 Triple-A games. His strikeout rate jumped from 22.0% to 27.9% when he switched levels. That first exposure to Triple-A caliber pitching is not always pretty.

Frazier was nearly six years younger than the average International League player this summer, which is important context. The kid reached Triple-A at 21. Had he gone to college, he would have been draft eligible as a junior this year. Frazier is a righty hitter with big power potential and good hitting ability, plus he’s a good outfield defender who plays all out, all the time. He’ll be a fan favorite with his style of play. Frazier is likely to start 2017 in Triple-A and it would not be a surprise if he forces his way on to the big league roster in the first half. He has that type of ability.

Not to be overlooked here is LHP Justus Sheffield, who came over from the Indians with Frazier in the Miller trade. He’s a top 100 caliber prospect himself — Baseball America ranked Sheffield the 69th best prospect in baseball at midseason — who is arguably New York’s top pitching prospect right now. Sheffield spent almost the entire 2016 season as a 20-year-old in High-A — he did make one Double-A spot start — where he had a 3.19 ERA (3.48 FIP) with 23.7% strikeouts and 9.9% walks in 121.1 innings. Not bad for a kid three years younger than the competition.

Sheffield, who is not related to Gary, is a three-pitch southpaw with above-average velocity, which is the kinda guy the Yankees could use in the rotation long-term. Consistency with the curveball and changeup as well as general command will be the focal points going forward. Sheffield, like Torres, is ticketed for Double-A Trenton to start 2017. Because he’s still so young — Sheffield won’t turn 21 until May — I would bet on Sheffield spending almost the entire season in Trenton.

In Torres, Frazier, and Sheffield, the Yankees acquired three prospects at the deadline who would be a bonafide No. 1 prospect in an organization. Like, if Frazier was your favorite team’s top prospect, you’d be cool with it. Same with Torres and Sheffield. The Yankees made some difficult decisions at the deadline — no one actually wanted to see Miller go, right? — but they were necessary, and those decisions brought the team premium prospects. Turning two relievers into three top 100 prospects (and more!) at the deadline is a hell of a thing.

The Breakout Prospects

The farm system improved this summer and not only because of the trade deadline additions. Several incumbents took steps forward, and there was no bigger breakout prospect in the system this year than RHP Chance Adams, who went from promising bullpen prospect in 2015 to bonafide starting pitching prospect in 2016. The conversion couldn’t have gone any better. Adams, 22, had a 2.33 ERA (2.96 FIP) with 29.1% strikeouts and 7.9% walks in 127.1 innings split between High-A and Double-A. That’s best case scenario stuff right there.

Adams. (YouTube screen grab)
Adams. (YouTube screen grab)

Adams is still a fastball/slider pitcher at heart, though he made great strides with both his curveball and changeup this year, so much so that some scouting reports are calling him a true four-pitch pitcher. Also, Adams showed he can hold his mid-90s velocity deep into games, which is cool. That’s always a big question with reliever-to-starter conversions. At one point this year Adams allowed no more than one run 13 times in a 14-start span. Total domination. He’ll begin 2017 in Triple-A and could be a factor for the Yankees in the second half.

On the position player side, 3B Miguel Andujar finally put together the full consistent season we’ve been waiting to see. He has a history of starting slow and finishing strong. Andujar, who is still only 21, hit .270/.327/.407 (108 wRC+) with a career high 12 home runs in 137 games split between High-A and Double-A during the regular season before holding his own in the AzFL (109 wRC+). He did tire a bit late in the season, but by then he’d made his point.

Andujar is the closest thing the Yankees have to a third baseman of the future. His arm is true rocket — it’s a Gary Sanchez arm over at third base — and he has power potential, plus Andujar doesn’t get enough credit for his innate bat-to-ball ability. The kid struck out in only 12.7% of the time this season against the best pitching he’s ever faced. Andujar, who was added to the 40-man roster last month to avoid Rule 5 Draft exposure, will start the season back at Double-A and could earn a promotion to Triple-A at midseason.

RHP Domingo Acevedo, the massive 6-foot-7 hurler, started to answer questions about his long-term viability as a starter this season by improving his breaking ball. The 22-year-old throws extremely hard — Acevedo was clocked at 103 mph in 2015 — and has a good changeup, but without a reliable breaking ball, it was unclear whether he’d be able to turn over a lineup multiple times. The improvement he showed with his slider this summer was encouraging. Acevedo had a 2.61 ERA (2.49 FIP) with 27.4% strikeouts and 5.9% walks in 93 innings at Low-A and High-A in 2016. I’m guessing a return to High-A is in the cards to begin 2017.

Another massive pitcher, 6-foot-6 LHP Jordan Montgomery, had a statistically excellent season, throwing 152 innings of 2.19 ERA (2.91 FIP) ball at Double-A and Triple-A. He struck out 22.7% of batters faced and walked 7.7%, and at one point he allowed seven earned runs total in the span of eleven starts. Montgomery, 23, has a low-90s heater and three secondary pitches (curveball, cutter, changeup), and he throws from an extreme over-the-top arm slot:

(YouTube screen grab)
Montgomery’s arm slot. (YouTube screen grab)

Montgomery is 6-foot-6, the mound is ten inches high, and he’s releasing the ball from way overhead. How high off the ground is the ball when he releases it, you think? Ten feet, maybe? Whatever the number, Montgomery throws with extreme downhill plane on his pitches. I do wonder if that arm slot will help righties get a better look at the ball, though to date his minor league splits aren’t extreme. Montgomery is heading back to Triple-A this season and looks very much like a potential back of the rotation option, and soon.

Behind the plate, C Kyle Higashioka broke out after battling injuries for years. The 26-year-old hit .272/.339/.496 (131 wRC+) with a farm system leading 21 home runs in 110 games between Double-A and Triple-A. That power potential along with reputedly excellent defense landed Higashioka on the 40-man roster after the season because the Yankees didn’t want to risk losing him to minor league free agency; they re-signed Higashioka last winter as a minor league free agent. A catcher who pops 21 homers at the upper levels is a no-doubt keeper.

The most interesting backstory among breakout prospects this year belongs to RHP Yefrey Ramirez, a former infielder the Yankees selected from the Diamondbacks in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft last winter. Yefrey, 23, had a 2.82 ERA (3.13 FIP) with 26.8% strikeouts and 6.5% walks in 124.1 innings between Low-A and High-A this summer, which prompted the Yankees to add him to the 40-man roster after the season. They didn’t want someone to take him in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft this year. Ramirez is a low-90s fastball/slider/changeup pitcher and might fit best in relief long-term, but there’s no sense is moving him to the bullpen just yet.

LHP Dietrich Enns, RHP Gio Gallegos, RHP Jonathan Holder (season review), and RHP Chad Green (season review) all improved their stock this season. Enns, 25, continued the ridiculous run he’s been on since returning from Tommy John surgery last year, pitching to a 1.69 ERA (3.25 FIP) in 138.1 innings at Double-A and Triple-A. The 25-year-old Gallegos had a 1.17 ERA (1.97 FIP) in 84.2 relief innings between Double-A and Triple-A. He struck out 36.5% of batters faced and walked 5.7%. Both Enns and Gallegos landed on the 40-man roster earlier this month, and the odds are strongly in favor of them making their MLB debuts at some point in 2017.

If not for the trade deadline, Adams’ breakout would be the story of the season from the farm system. Andujar, Acevedo, and Montgomery emerging gives the Yankees that solid base of second tier prospects while guys like Enns, Gallegos, Holder, Green, Higashioka, and Ramirez give the team even more depth. That’s what stands out most about the system. The high-end prospects are great, but holy cow, the Yankees have a ton of prospects who project to be average big leaguers. Those are insanely valuable, both on the roster and in trades because it’s cheap production.

The Double-A Duo

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

I don’t know about you, but when I think about SS Tyler Wade, I can’t help but think about OF Dustin Fowler as well, and vice versa. The two spent the entire 2016 season hitting first and second for Double-A Trenton in whatever order, and I guess because of that it’s hard to think of them apart. It is for me, anyway. They should star in a buddy cop YouTube series or something.

Anyway, the 21-year-old Fowler had a strong season with the Thunder, hitting .281/.311/.458 (109 wRC+) with 30 doubles, 15 triples, 12 homers, and 25 steals in 132 games. Those 15 triples were second most in all of minor league baseball. Only Padres OF Franchy Cordero had more. He had 16. Fowler rarely walks (3.8%) but he doesn’t strike out a ton either (15.0%), plus he has a sweet lefty swing with gap power to go with great speed and athleticism. Not too bad for a kid picked in the 18th round pick.

Wade, 22, authored a .259/.352/.349 (101 wRC+) batting line with 16 doubles, seven triples, five homers, and 27 steals in 133 Double-A games. He hit four home runs total in the first three years and 306 games of his pro career. Wade’s skill set is not conducive to sexy stat lines. He’s a bat control guy who draws walks (11.3%), runs the bases well, and plays very good defense. It’s a really old school leadoff hitter profile. No power, good contact and OBP, and good baserunning.

Both Wade and Fowler figure to begin the 2017 season at Triple-A, which puts them on the doorstep of the big leagues. The Yankees had Wade get acquainted with the outfield in the AzFL, so they’re preparing him for a utility role. They’re creating a path to MLB for him. Wade and Fowler are still really young — neither guy is even Rule 5 Draft eligible yet — so they probably need a full season in Triple-A before helping the big league team, but they are bonafide prospects at Triple-A. That’s pretty cool.

The Rebound Players

Austin. (Presswire)
Austin. (Presswire)

Not everything is going to go well in the farm system each season. Players are going to hurt and players are going to disappoint. It happens. This season the Yankees had a few players bounce back from tough 2015 seasons to reestablish themselves as prospects in 2016.

1B/OF Tyler Austin (season review) is the best example. He was so bad last season that the Yankees dropped him from the 40-man roster and he went unclaimed him on waivers. This season Austin hit big at Triple-A and reached the show in August. OF Mason Williams (season review) rebounded well from his shoulder surgery and returned to MLB in September. He could get a pretty long look for a big league roster in Spring Training, especially if Brett Gardner gets traded.

LHP Ian Clarkin, who was one of the team’s three first round picks in 2013 along with Judge and the since traded 3B Eric Jagielo, missed the entire 2015 regular season with an elbow injury. The 21-year-old was able to accumulate some innings in the AzFL after the season, and this season he was able to throw 98 innings at High-A before catching a spike and tearing the meniscus in his knee. Blah. Clarkin needed season-ending surgery in July. At least it wasn’t his arm.

Before the injury Clarkin pitched to a 3.31 ERA (3.26 FIP) with 17.4% strikeouts and 7.3% walks in those 98 innings. I’ve seen mixed reports about his stuff. Some say it’s all the way back following the elbow injury, others say it’s down a tick. Both can be true — Clarkin was probably razor sharp some days and less than stellar on others. The fact he made it through the season with a healthy elbow is a big plus. Hopefully next season, which he should spend at Double-A, will give us some clarity about the quality of his stuff as he gets further away from the injury.

Further down in the minors is C Luis Torrens, 20, who missed the entire 2015 season following shoulder surgery. That was a brutal injury. He missed a year of development at a crucial age and shoulder injuries for catchers are significant because so much of their defensive value is tied up their arm. Torrens suffered a relatively minor setback in Spring Training, which was enough for the Yankees to really slow things down and take their time with him.

Torres made his season debut with Short Season Staten Island in mid-June, and he finished the year at Low-A. He hit .236/.336/.318 (97 wRC+) with two homers, 15.0% strikeouts, and 11.9% walks in 52 total games. There was some rust, for sure. Torrens has always stood out most for defense. He’s a converted infielder and he took to catching extremely quickly, so much so that he already projects to be above-average at the position. Offensively, contact and walks are his game, not power. I’m looking forward to seeing what Torrens does as he gets further away from shoulder surgery in 2017. He has the talent to be a top ten organizational prospect, even in a farm system this deep.

Both RHP Domingo German and RHP Austin DeCarr returned at midseason after missing 2015 with Tommy John surgery. German, 24, had a 3.29 ERA (3.82 FIP) with 19.6% strikeouts and 5.9% walks in 54.2 innings split between Low-A and High-A. Baseball America says he hit 100 mph with his fastball, so the Yankees added him to their 40-man roster after the season to prevent him from becoming a minor league free agent. DeCarr, 21, had a 4.12 ERA (4.14 FIP) with 17.4% strikeouts and 9.6% walks in 39.1 innings with Short Season Staten Island. He struggled with location, which isn’t unusual after elbow reconstruction.

The Inevitable Injuries

Grandmaster Kap. (Presswire)
Grandmaster Kap. (Presswire)

Like I said, injuries happen. To every farm system every year. They’re unavoidable. Teams just hope to limit them. The biggest injury in the farm system this year was, by far, RHP James Kaprielian‘s flexor strain. He made only three starts with High-A Tampa before his elbow started barking. Kaprielian did not need surgery and he healed up in time to pitch in the AzFL, where he made seven starts. All told, the 22-year-old had a 3.20 ERA (3.61 FIP) with 27.3% strikeouts and 6.3% walks in 45 total innings.

The good news is every report from the AzFL said Kaprielian’s stuff had returned following the flexor injury. His fastball was still living in the mid-90s and all three secondary pitches (slider, curveball, changeup) were there too. That’s great news. Losing all that time stunk — there’s a pretty good chance we’d be talking about Kaprielian as a 2017 Opening Day rotation candidate had he stayed healthy in 2016 — but at least Kaprielian finished the season strong and will go into next season with a healthy arm and feeling good about things.

Other pitchers weren’t so lucky. The Yankees lost three relievers, all of whom pitched in MLB in 2015, to Tommy John surgery this year: RHP Nick Rumbelow, LHP Jacob Lindgren, and RHP Branden Pinder (season review). Rumbelow, 25, started the season in Triple-A and the Yankees were actually planning to try him as a starter this season, but during warms-up for the second inning of his first appearance of the Triple-A season, he felt the pop in his elbow. Blah.

The warning signs with Lindgren were there in Spring Training. He walked seven and hit two batters in 9.2 Grapefruit League innings, then went to High-A and walked nine in seven innings before the elbow started to bark. (He also hit a batter and uncorked six wild pitches.) Location issues are a common symptom of elbow trouble. Lindgren landed on the DL in April but didn’t have his Tommy John surgery until August. He had been throwing bullpens as part of his rehab in Tampa when the elbow gave out. Lindgren will miss the entire 2017 season.

OF Carlos Vidal, 21, was a potential breakout prospect coming into the season, but a variety of injuries limited him to only 19 games, and in those 19 games he hit .194/.280/.239 (62 wRC+). LHP Chaz Hebert missed the entire season following Tommy John surgery. The 24-year-old broke out with a 2.73 ERA (3.19 FIP) with 20.0% strikeouts and 6.7% walks in 148.1 innings at four levels a year ago. He’ll try to build on that with a new elbow in 2017.

Among the other prospects to lose significant time to injury this past season were RHP Brody Koerner (elbow), RHP James Pazos (unknown), RHP Drew Finley (elbow), and OF Trey Amburgey (hamstring). Koerner got hurt early in the season but returned in the AzFL. Pazos and Amburgey missed a chunk of the time early in the year but returned at midseason. Finley got hurt late in the year and has since returned to the mound during offseason workouts. I like Finley an awful lot, but in this farm system, I’m not sure he cracks the top 30 prospects after a relatively minor injury.

The Fond Farewells

Gamel. (Presswire)
Gamel. (Presswire)

Inevitably, the Yankees said goodbye to several prospects this season. Former first round pick OF Slade Heathcott had a tough 23-game stint (58 wRC+) with Triple-A Scranton before hurting his knee again. The Yankees released him after that. Slade, now 26, hooked on with the White Sox and hit .258/.407/.366 (131 wRC+) in 34 Triple-A games. He became a minor league free agent after the season and remains unsigned.

RHP Vicente Campos, the second piece in the Jesus MonteroMichael Pineda trade back in the day, stayed healthy and pitched very well (3.20 ERA and 3.08 FIP) at Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton before being traded for Tyler Clippard at the deadline. The Diamondbacks called the 24-year-old Campos up in September and he allowed three runs (two earned) in 5.2 innings. The poor kid broke his damn elbow throwing a pitch and will be out until midseason 2017. Arizona dropped Campos from the 40-man roster earlier this offseason and the Angels claimed him on waivers.

Both LHP James Pazos (season review) and RHP Conor Mullee (season review) spent the entire season in the Yankees organization. Mullee was lost on waivers to the Cubs last month — they claimed him a few hours before Game Seven of the World Series — and Pazos was traded to the Mariners in a minor deal to clear a 40-man roster spot for Rule 5 Draft eligible players a few weeks ago.

OF Ben Gamel (season review) spent most of the season with the Yankees and did make his Major League debut in May. He went up and down a few times before being traded to the Mariners for two pitching prospects on August 31st, the last day teams could acquire a player and have him be postseason eligible. Gamel had such a good season in Triple-A (126 wRC+) that he was named International League MVP. His few weeks in Seattle didn’t go as well (72 wRC+).

It’s worth noting the Yankees recently released Rumbelow, so he belongs in this group too, I suppose. He was designated for assignment to clear 40-man spot for Rule 5 Draft eligible guys last month. The Yankees will probably look to bring Rumbelow back on a minor league contract. Either that or his elbow rehab is not going well and they don’t think he’s worth bringing back. we’ll see.

The Other New Additions

All told, the Yankees acquired 12 new prospects at the trade deadline, including Torres, Frazier, and Sheffield. They then brought in five additional prospects with the Gamel, McCann, and Pazos trades. Here are the 14 non-Torres/Frazier/Sheffield prospects: RHP Albert AbreuOF Rashad Crawford, RHP Juan DePaula, RHP J.P. Feyereisen, RHP Nick Green, RHP Jorge Guzman, RHP Zack Littell, RHP Billy McKinney, RHP Jio Orozco, OF Tito Polo, LHP Stephen Tarpley, RHP Dillon Tate, RHP Erik Swanson, and RHP Ben Heller (season review). Got all that?

The best of those 14 prospects is Abreu, who came over in the McCann trade. He might pop up on some top 100 lists next spring, though it’ll probably be a year too soon. The 21-year-old had a 3.71 ERA (4.07 FIP) with 26.3% strikeouts and 12.9% walks in 104.1 innings at mostly Low-A. Abreu throws really hard and flashes a dominant slider, plus his changeup is coming along. He needs to iron out his command more than anything. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say he has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the farm system right now. Abreu figures to open 2017 in High-A.

Tate. (Presswire)
Tate. (Presswire)

Tate (prospect profile), who was part of the Carlos Beltran trade, is probably the biggest “name” prospect among those 14. He was the fourth overall pick in the draft last year. Not three years ago. Last year. 2015. Tate, 22, had a hamstring injury this year and his stuff really backed up while with the Rangers. The Yankees put him in relief so he could work on his mechanics, his stuff reportedly ticked back up, and they’re going to put him back in the rotation in 2017. Probably in High-A, where he’ll presumably join Abreu, Kaprielian, and Acevedo in the rotation (/drools).

I have two personal favorites among these 14 trade pickups: McKinney (Chapman trade) and Littell (Pazos trade). McKinney was the 24th overall pick in the 2013 draft and the Athletics later traded him to the Cubs in the Addison Russell/Jeff Samardzija deal. This season the 22-year-old hit .256/.349/.363 (107 wRC+) with five homers in 130 total Double-A games. That’s down from his .300/.371/.454 (135 wRC+) line at High-A and Double-A last year.

McKinney’s 2015 season ended in August because he fouled a pitch off his knee and suffered a hairline fracture Mark Teixeira style, and he was coming back from the injury this season. McKinney’s pure hit tool is excellent and the reason he was drafted so high. Whether he can hit for enough power and play enough defense to avoid becoming a ‘tweener is another matter. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next year, as he gets further away from knee surgery. The Yankees might start McKinney back at Double-A for the time being.

Littell, 21, threw an insane 173 innings between Low-A and High-A this year — the last Yankees farmhand to throw 170+ innings in a minor league season was Steven White in 2006 (175.1) — during which he had a 2.60 ERA (3.07 FIP) with 24.0% strikeouts and 5.0% walks. Littell is a low-90s fastball/curveball pitcher with an okay changeup and a very aggressive approach. He’s a bulldog who goes right after hitters. That’s a pretty nice return for a guy like Pazos, who was arguably the 40th man on the 40-man roster.

Swanson (Beltran trade) is the sleeper here. The 23-year-old missed most of the 2015 season with a flexor injury, and when he came back this year, he had a 3.46 ERA (3.07 FIP) with 23.1% strikeouts and 7.5% walks in 96.1 innings, all at Low-A. Swanson’s velocity returned to the low-to-mid-90s this summer and he has three secondary pitches (slider, curveball, changeup) he can locate. With good health, he has a chance to climb the ladder quickly and be a swingman candidate in the David Phelps/Adam Warren mold.

Feyereisen (Miller trade) hit 100 mph with Double-A Trenton and could carve out a bullpen role long-term. Tarpley (Ivan Nova trade) has good stuff from the left side but needs to work on his location. Guzman (McCann trade) hit 103 mph this summer and is really raw. Domingo Acevedo two years ago raw. Crawford (Chapman trade) has crazy tools and is still working to put them together. Polo (Nova trade) has a fourth outfielder’s skill set. Green (Beltran trade) has a big fastball and iffy secondary stuff. Orozco and DePaula (both Gamel trade) are rookie ball kids.

The Step Back Prospects

It’s not all good news, of course. Some players had poor seasons overall and saw their prospect stock take a hit. RHP Brady Lail managed a 4.34 ERA (4.27 FIP) with 14.6% strikeouts and 7.5% walks in 137 innings at mostly Triple-A this season. The Yankees deserve a ton of credit for turning an 18th round pick out of a Utah high school into a legit prospect, but at this point Lail lacks the put-away pitch needed to be successful at the next level. Triple-A hitters have made it abundantly clear.

LHP Jeff Degano, the team’s second round pick last year, developed a case of the yips in 2016. It was a bit odd when he wasn’t assigned to Low-A Charleston to start the season despite being completely healthy, but when he showed up to rookie Pulaski in June and walked 25 batters with ten wild pitches in 5.2 innings, we knew why. Yeah. Degano throws hard and has a good breaking ball, at least when things are going right. The 24-year-old is dealing with extreme control issues right now though.

The Best of the Rest

Webb. (Presswire)
Webb. (Presswire)

But wait! We’re still not done. Callis wasn’t joking when he said the Yankees have the deepest system in the game. In addition to everyone above, the Yankees have several others who deserve at least an acknowledgement of their status as prospects. Top prospects? No. But potential big leaguers in some form. Here’s the best of the rest this season:

  • IF Abi Avelino, 21: Hit .252/.313/.352 (93 wRC+) with 21 steals between High-A and Low-A. Speedy middle infielder with maybe the best baseball instincts in the system. He’ll be someone’s utility infielder at some point. You watch.
  • RHP Will Carter, 23: Last year’s 14th rounder reached Double-A and had a 4.76 ERA (3.63 FIP) in 117.1 total innings. It was worth trying him as a starter, but I’m guessing Carter and his 97 mph sinker (65.4% grounders in 2016) find themselves back in the bullpen soon.
  • OF Jake Cave, 23: Managed a .274/.339/.435 (119 wRC+) batting line in 124 games at Double-A and Triple-A. Lefty swinger with a little pop and good defense. He’s Rule 5 Draft eligible again.
  • LHP Nestor Cortes, 21: A total of 553 pitchers threw 100+ innings in the minors in 2016. None had a lower ERA than Cortes (1.53). The finesse southpaw also had a 2.74 FIP and made it as high as Triple-A.
  • IF Thairo Estrada, 20: Personal fave hit .283/.338/.378 (110 wRC+) with eight homers and 18 steals at Low-A and High-A. Thairo makes consistent hard contact and has already shown he can play any non-first base infield position.
  • OF Isiah Gilliam, 20: Just a dude who hit ten homers in 57 rookie ball games. Gilliam hit .239/.301/.440 (102 wRC+) overall and has power from both sides of the plate. The Yankees moved him from first base to the outfield to get more value out of him.
  • 1B Chris Gittens, 22: Tied Higashioka for the system lead with 21 homers. Hit .253/.359/.478 (140 wRC+) overall, but also struck out 27.9% of the time against Low-A pitchers. Huge power, questionably hit tool.
  • OF Jeff Hendrix, 23: Streakiest player in the system hit .293/.380/.378 (125 wRC+) between Low-A and High-A. At one point he went 53-for-113 (.469) during a 29-game span. Hendrix is a bit of a ‘tweener. Not enough power for a corner and maybe not enough defense for center.
  • RHP Ronald Herrera, 21: Threw 132 innings with a 3.75 ERA (3.27 FIP) in Double-A. Finesse four-pitch pitcher with very good command. The Yankees got him in the Jose Pirela trade with the Padres and added him to the 40-man roster last month.
  • SS Kyle Holder, 22: Defensive whiz hit .290/.323/.347 (93 wRC+) in Low-A. Holder is a better prospect than he gets credit for. Dude can get the bat on the ball and save about 20 runs a year in the field.
  • OF Jhalan Jackson, 23: Muscled his way to a .236/.311/.415 (108 wRC+) line with eleven homers in Low-A. Jackson has power and a strong arm. It’s just a question of whether he can refine his approach and hone his hit tool.
  • OF Leonardo Molina, 19: One of the most tooled up players in the system hit .226/.290/.382 (87 wRC+) between Short Season Staten Island and Low-A Charleston. A 19-year-old kid hitting nine homers in 85 games is no small feat.
  • OF Alex Palma, 21: Quietly hit .265/.292/.420 (102 wRC+) with six homers in 64 Low-A games. Also had ten outfield assists. Palma is a bit of a hacker, but he’s got some tools, most notably his power and defense.
  • OF Mark Payton, 24: The 5-foot-8 outfielder hit .280/.356/.424 (119 wRC+) with 20 doubles and ten homers at three levels in 2016. He’s a scrappy lefty hitter who does enough things to carve out a career as a fourth outfielder.
  • LHP Josh Rogers, 22: Had a 2.50 ERA (2.88 FIP) in 147 innings at Low-A and High-A. Low-90s heater from the left side with an okay slider and a much improved changeup. Definitely someone worth keeping an eye on.
  • C Donny Sands, 20: Hit .286/.328/.375 (102 wRC+) with only 10.7% strikeouts in 30 games with various rookie ball affiliates. The former third baseman converted to catching full-time this year. In most other systems, he’s probably a top 20 prospect.
  • LHP Tyler Webb, 26: Had a 3.59 ERA (2.76 FIP) in 72.2 innings while repeating Triple-A. As a lefty with some velocity and a history of missing bats, he’s as good as gone in the Rule 5 Draft.

Some players who had a strong statistical seasons and could be considered fringe prospects: LHP Daniel Camarena, RHP Simon De La Rosa, RHP Jordan Foley, RHP Mark Montgomery, LHP James Reeves, RHP Adonis Rosa, LHP Caleb Smith, RHP Daris Vargas, and OF Zack Zehner. Smith is probably a goner in the Rule 5 Draft as a hard-throwing southpaw who has had success at Double-A.

Keep in mind that even with all the players mentioned in this post — I unofficially count 83 of them, is that overkill? that seems like overkill — I didn’t mention 2016 draft picks or the 2014-15 international free agent class at all. Those players got their own season review posts and yes, they include more very good prospects, including 2016 first rounder Blake Rutherford, who Keith Law recently said he’d take over every other hitter in the 2016 draft.

The Yankees have build their strongest farm system in a very long time. Since the early-1990s when they had two future Hall of Famers (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera) and two borderline Hall of Famers (Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte) in the system, plus useful other dudes like Sterling Hitchcock, Carl Everett, Russ Springer, and Russ Davis. Does that mean the Yankees are going to pump out a few future Hall of Famers soon? Of course not. That’s an unrealistic expectation. But the Yankees do have an incredible farm system right now, one loaded with high-end talent and an unbelievable amount of depth.

The Extra Outfielders [2016 Season Review]

Gamel. (Presswire)
Gamel. (Presswire)

As our season review series winds down, it’s time to get into the spare part players. The guys who came up from the minors or were picked up off the scrap heap to plug roster holds for a few days or weeks. Every team needs players like this to get through the 162-game season. These days it takes 40-50 players to win. Maybe more. Not 25.

For all intents and purposes the Yankees had five regular outfielders this past season. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury were the mainstays. Carlos Beltran was the right fielder until being traded away, which is when Aaron Judge took over. Aaron Hicks was the fourth outfielder all season. The Yankees also used three fill-in outfielders too: Ben Gamel, Mason Williams, and Eric Young Jr. All three had big league time in 2016.

The Blocked Outfielder

The 2015 season was a breakout year for Gamel, who went from fringe prospect to big league consideration by hitting .300/.358/.472 (138 wRC+) with 28 doubles, 14 triples, ten homers, and 13 steals in 129 Triple-A games. That earned the 24-year-old a spot on the 40-man roster and a long look during Spring Training this year. He wasn’t going to win an Opening Day roster spot unless someone else got hurt, but the Yankees had their eyes on him.

Gamel started the 2016 season relatively slowly with the RailRiders, hitting .286/.346/.363 (104 wRC+) in his first 23 games. The Yankees called him up for the first time on May 5th. Alex Rodriguez (hamstring) was on the disabled list and Gardner (elbow) was day-to-day after being hit by a pitch, so the bench was shorthanded. Gamel appeared in three games (two starts) and picked up his first career hit in his first career at-bat.

Gamel went 1-for-8 (.125) with a walk and a strikeout in those three games before being sent down once Gardner’s elbow starting feeling better. The Yankees called Gamel up one other team this season: on August 1st, after trading away Beltran. Gamel was on the roster for three days until Gary Sanchez was called up. He laid down a sac bunt in his only plate appearance during those three days.

With Triple-A Scranton, Gamel hit .308/.365/.420 (126 wRC) with 26 doubles, five triples, six homers, and 19 stolen bases in 116 games. That earned him the International League MVP award. A tremendous honor, no doubt, but there was one small problem: the Yankees still didn’t have a spot for Gamel on their big league roster, both short and long-term. Even with Beltran gone. The team is very deep in outfielders and something had to give.

That something was Gamel. On August 31st, a few hours before the deadline to acquire players and have them be postseason eligible, the Yankees sent Gamel to the Mariners for righties Juan DePaula and Jio Orozco, a pair of 19-year-old rookie ball pitching prospects. Orozco is the more highly regarded prospect of the two. At least we got a chance to see Gamel’s long flowing locks before the trade:

Ben Gamel hair

The Yankees traded Gamel because, unlike Tyler Austin a year ago, he wouldn’t have slipped through waivers unclaimed. They needed the 40-man roster space and outfield was a position of depth, so they moved Gamel when his value was at its absolute highest. The guy had just won IL MVP. How much higher could you sell?

Following the trade Gamel was a semi-regular for Seattle in September. He hit .200/.289/.325 (72 wRC+) in 47 plate appearances while striking out 31.9% of the time. I’m not really sure what the Mariners have planned for him going forward — he has two minor league options remaining and there’s a very real chance he’ll spend a third straight season in Triple-A in 2017 — but they offer him a clearer path to big league playing time than the Yankees.

The Injured Outfielder

Williams. (Presswire)
Williams. (Presswire)

Last season was a breakout year for Gamel. It was maybe the most important year of Williams’ career. Following years of poor play and insubordination, the proverbial light bulb went on, and Williams began to take his career more seriously. He tore up Double-A and Triple-A, and earned his first MLB call-up in May. His first taste of the show lasted eight games before a shoulder injury ended his season.

Williams, now 25, tore up his shoulder diving back into first base on a pickoff throw and needed season-ending surgery. His rehab carried over into 2016 and it wasn’t until early July that he played in his first official minor league rehab game. Williams took the usual rookie ball to High-A to Triple-A rehab route, and in 47 total minor league games this summer, he hit .309/.327/.399 (106 wRC+) with ten doubles, two triples, and a homer.

When rosters expanded on September 1st, the Yankees did not call Williams up. Their plan was to leave him with the RailRiders through the Triple-A postseason so he could play everyday and make up for all the time he lost to injury. Plans changed when Judge tweaked his oblique and had to be shut down for the season. The Yankees needed another outfielder, so Williams got the call.

Mason appeared in only 12 games with the Yankees and five of them were as either a late-inning defensive replacement or at the end of a blowout. In his seven starts, Williams went 8-for-25 (.320) with three multi-hit games. His biggest moment came on September 25th, when he tied the game in the ninth inning with a single against Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna.

All told, Williams put up a .296/.321/.333 (77 wRC+) batting line with a 41.4% strikeout rate in a mere 29 plate appearances after being called up. He also played some mean outfield defense. Those numbers don’t really help us in any way. They don’t tell us anything about Williams going forward. The most important thing is that the shoulder is healthy.

Depending how the offseason shakes out, Williams could come to Spring Training next year with a legitimate chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Heck, if the Yankees trade Gardner, Williams might have a chance to win a starting outfield job. He does have a minor league option remaining for next season, which means at worst, he’ll go back to Triple-A Scranton and be the first outfielder called up when the inevitable injury strikes.

The Designated Pinch-Runner

The only photo of Young with the Yankees. (Presswire)
The only photo of Young with the Yankees. (Presswire)

Not long after trading Gamel to the Mariners, the Yankees picked up Young in a cash trade with the Brewers. The veteran speedster was going to be the team’s designated pinch-runner in September, the job Rico Noel held last year and Freddy Guzman held in September 2009. All Young had to do was run. That’s it.

Turns out the Yankees didn’t need Young all that much. The 31-year-old appeared in six games with the Yankees, and two of those appearances came in the late innings of blowouts, when Joe Girardi wanted to get the regulars off their feet. Young pinch-ran four times, and on two of those four occasions the next batter hit a home run, so he didn’t even have to run.

In those six games Young stole one base, scored two runs, and went 0-for-1 at the plate. He also played five innings in the outfield. That’s it. Some years the September pinch-runner has more impact than others. This was not one of those years. The Yankees outrighted Young off the 40-man roster after the season and he elected free agency. So it goes.

After losing a year to shoulder surgery, Mason Williams is making the most of his brief opportunity

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last month, after selling at the trade deadline, the Yankees committed to a youth movement and have been rewarded with a historically great stretch by Gary Sanchez. Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin have had their moments as well, ditto Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell. Sanchez is a rarity. Very few come up and have that much instant success. The other guys have had their ups and downs.

This youth movement really started last season, when Luis Severino and Greg Bird were called up in the second half. That happened after the Yankees cycled through several young outfielders in the wake of Jacoby Ellsbury‘s knee injury in May. Ellsbury got hurt, Slade Heathcott came up and played well, but then he got hurt. Ramon Flores came up, didn’t play all that well, then got sent down.

Mason Williams was the third young outfielder the Yankees used the replace Ellsbury, and like Heathcott, he had some success right away before getting hurt. Williams jammed his shoulder diving back into first base on a pickoff throw, and when rest and rehab didn’t work, he needed season-ending surgery. It sidelined him for a full calendar year. That’s rough. Williams had just come up and was playing well, then bam, down for a year.

The 25-year-old Williams spent most of this season in Triple-A after returning, and it was another outfielder injury that brought him back to the big leagues this month. Two injuries, really. First Aaron Hicks pulled his hamstring, then Judge strained his oblique. At that point the Yankees needed another outfielder, so while they wanted to leave Williams in Triple-A to get more at-bats, they had no choice but to call him up.

In seven games since coming back Williams has gone 7-for-18 (.389) at the plate — he should have had another hit, but Joe Kelly threw out his glove and snagged a would-be single with the bases loaded — while playing his typically strong defense. He’s 13-for-39 (.333) in 15 big league games so far, which is pretty great. Williams came back from shoulder surgery and didn’t miss a beat in Triple-A. Now he’s in the show and again producing.

Williams has always been supremely talented. There were some production and work ethic issues in Double-A a few years ago, but the proverbial light bulb went on last year, and he seemed to begin realizing his potential. Then the injury happened. Williams went from top prospect to suspect to reclamation project, all before his 25th birthday. Right now he’s in the process of reestablishing himself after the shoulder surgery.

It’s nice to see Williams having success again, and not just in his brief September cameo with the Yankees. In the minors too. He put up a .309/.327/.399 (106 wRC+) batting line in 47 minor league games after coming back from surgery this year. This success, along with his track record and raw tools, have me wondering two things.

1. What would have happened if he didn’t get hurt? This is a fun hypothetical. Say Williams never hurts his shoulder diving into first base last year. What happens? Does he continue to play well and force his way into the team’s plans? Williams could have made the Hicks trade unnecessary. It could have been him getting all those at-bats in right field when Alex Rodriguez was benched and Carlos Beltran was at DH earlier this year. There was an opportunity for playing time last year, and Williams lost out on it because of his injury. Sucks.

2. Where does he fit going forward? The Yankees have a lot of outfielders right now. Brett Gardner and Ellsbury are the established veterans at the MLB level. Judge and Hicks are the young guys. Williams is next in line with others like Jake Cave and Clint Frazier right behind him on the depth chart. His only path to playing time right now is injury. Judge is out for the year and Joe Girardi has said he won’t push Hicks hard after his hamstring injury, so Williams will play these last eleven games.

But what about next year? Does Williams go to Triple-A again? I guess that wouldn’t be a bad thing. He’s only played 51 games at the level, plus he has an option for next year, so they might as well use it. Right now Williams is the fifth outfielder, the up-and-down guy. Maybe Gardner will get traded this offseason. Or maybe Hicks goes. Perhaps Judge won’t win the right field job next spring. Something like that is going to have to happen for Williams to continue getting a look at the MLB level. That or injury.

The problem for Williams isn’t that the Yankees have a lot of other outfielders, it’s that they have a lot of other outfielders just like him, specifically Gardner and Ellsbury. The speedy defense-first left-handed hitter. How many of the same player do you need? It would be cool to have an outfielder who can hit the ball out of the park, wouldn’t it? Maybe even two. Williams could be trade bait, Triple-A depth, the fourth outfielder … none of that would surprise me going forward.

For now, the most important thing is that Williams seems to have come back well from his shoulder surgery. His talent and athleticism are pretty obvious. The kid looks the part of an exciting young player. The question is whether the Yankees can make room for Williams in the near future, and if not, how does he get another opportunity? He’s playing well now and that’s great. Williams has shown the shoulder is sound, giving the Yankees yet another outfield candidate going forward.

Cashman says young players have to earn roster spots in 2017 because of course they do

Bird. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Bird. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

To no surprise, Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees will not simply hand their top young players roster spots next season. They’ll have to earn it. “May the best man win,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty recently when asked specifically about first base in the wake of Mark Teixeira‘s retirement.

At this point it’s safe to say that yes, Gary Sanchez has earned his place on the 2017 Yankees. Not exactly going out on a limb here. He’s the only young guy who has forced the issue this season though. First base and right field are another matter, ditto the pitching staff. And the bench too, I suppose. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it all down.

1. Competition is good! There seems to be this sense that when you’re a rebuilding transitioning team, the best thing to do is throw the kids out there and let them sink or swim. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, there comes a point when you have to run a young player out there everyday to help him develop, but handing players jobs? Nah. That should be reserved for the best of the best.

Besides, competition between young players is good and healthy. They push each other to get better and it helps foster that “be the best player you can be” mentality. That’s a good thing. “We want a team full of good players. That’s how we’re going to win games,” said Greg Bird to Kuty. “And that’s us competing or other people competing with each other makes us all better, than that’s what we want.”

2. There’s a wide range of outcomes at first base. A year ago at this time we were all thrilled about the future at first base, the same way we’re thrilled about the future at catcher right now. Bird burst onto the scene and played very well down the stretch last season. He wasn’t Sanchez, but he was pretty awesome. The Yankees really missed Bird this year. He would have helped at first base and DH big time.

Bird’s shoulder injury has created some questions about next season. How healthy will he be? How quickly will he be back at full strength? Will he ever get back to full strength? Bird told Kuty his shoulder feels great — “It’s stronger than what it was and it’s structurally sound now,” he said — and he’ll soon face live pitching in Instructional League and the Arizona Fall League, but until he gets out there everyday, we just can’t know what he’s capable of. This was a major injury.

With any luck, Bird will come back and pick up right where he left off last season, giving the Yankees a no-doubt answer at first base. There’s a chance he may need time at Triple-A to shake off the rust, however, in which case Tyler Austin becomes Plan A at first base. I guess? Austin or Rob Refsnyder. Maybe Brian McCann or Austin Romine? First base could be really good or really bad next season. Bird could rake or the Yankees could end up cycling through players all year in an effort to find a solution.

Judge. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Judge. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

3. Right field seems wide open. Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m guessing they’d tell you they want Aaron Judge to take the right field job in Spring Training and run with it. Of their in-house options, he has the best chance to become a middle of the order bat one day. “He will have to earn his way on to next year’s roster. There are no absolutes. Without question, he’ll be better for the experience,” said Cashman to Andrew Marchand.

Judge struggled to make contact this season and he’s losing reps now due to the oblique injury, which stinks. That’s valuable development time, even if it is only three weeks. His primary competition figures to be Austin, Refsnyder, Aaron Hicks, and Mason Williams. And you know what? The right field job could fall on two players via platoon or some kind of time share. It would be awesome if Judge won the job. I feel like anything could happen in right field though. Hicks everyday, a Williams/Austin platoon, whatever.

4. A veteran backup plan feels like a must. The Yankees have brought in a veteran bench player to cover first base and right field the last two years, and it didn’t work either time. Garrett Jones didn’t hit last year and Dustin Ackley blew out his shoulder this year. Neither played all that much either because the Yankees had pricey veterans in the lineup. It was a smart use of a roster spot that didn’t work out.

Since the Yankees are poised to go young at first base and in right field next year, bringing in a veteran backup plan for depth again makes sense, and this time at-bats should be easier to come by. Veterans like Teixeira and Carlos Beltran get the benefit of the doubt and stay in the lineup no matter what. A struggling kid could see a little more time in the bench just to get a mental break now and then.

We can sort through potential candidates for this role in the offseason — I’ll be beating the Steve Pearce drum this winter, so get ready for it (yes I know he’s having elbow surgery) — though it’s worth noting the Yankees have some options for this role themselves. Perfect world scenario is what, Bird at first and Judge in right with Austin and/or Refsnyder backing up both positions? I guess so, but a little veteran depth to protect against a Bird setback/Judge whiff-fest would be nice.

5. Severino shouldn’t be guaranteed anything. Competition for a rotation spot or a few bullpen spots is nothing new. I can’t remember the last time the Yankees didn’t have some pitching spots up for grabs in camp. I’m sure that’ll be true next year as well. Chad Green, Luis Cessa, and Bryan Mitchell could all wind up competing for the fifth starter’s job, for example. That would be ideal, really.

Luis Severino presents an interesting case. He got hammered as a starter this season in two separate stints, but he’s also dominated out of the bullpen. The Yankees insist they don’t want to give up on him as a starter because he’s still so young and I believe them. But, because he was so bad a starter this season and lost feel for his changeup, Severino shouldn’t come to camp with a rotation spot locked up like he did this year. He should have to earn it like everyone else.

Severino is in the bullpen right now because he gives the Yankees the best chance to win. That’s all there is to it. He hasn’t thrown his changeup much in relief — seven of his 200 pitches this month have been changeups, so yeah — and that’s kind of a problem. His development as a starting pitcher should be the priority in 2017. If that means more time in Triple-A, so be it. Severino shouldn’t be handed a spot just because. That would be a mistake.