Previewing the Yankees’ potential Spring Training invitees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Four weeks from yesterday, pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa and the Yankees will open Spring Training. It’s the best non-news day of the year. Nothing really happens that day, but hey, it’s the start of Spring Training, and that’s exciting. The offseason is boring. This one especially so.

At some point in these next three weeks and six days the Yankees will announce their Spring Training non-roster invitees. There are usually 20-something of them. The number varies year to year. The 20-something non-roster players plus the 40-man roster means 60-something players in big league camp. This is a World Baseball Classic year though, so the Yankees might bring a few extra bodies to camp to cover for the guys who leave to play for their country.

Non-roster players take on all shapes and sizes. Some are veteran journeymen trying to hang on. Others are top prospects. Heck, some are middling prospects. Very few of them actually have a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Most non-roster players are hoping to open eyes in camp and earn an early-season call-up whenever reinforcements are inevitably needed. That’s what Preston Claiborne did a few years back. He pitched well in camp and made himself a name to remember.

This spring should be extra exciting because the Yankees have such a robust farm system, and so many of their top prospects are close to the big leagues. Spring Training is a great time of year for prospect watchers. The Yankees will surely bring a bunch of their top youngsters to camp, even if only for a few weeks, just to expose them to big league life. So, with all of that in mind, let’s preview this year’s crop of potential non-roster players. Let’s call this … educated speculation.

Catchers

The Yankees, like every other team, invite a ton of non-roster catchers to Spring Training. Why? Well, who else is supposed to catch all those bullpen sessions? That’s really all it is. Teams need lots of catchers in camp because there are lots of pitchers in camp, and someone has to behind the plate for those guys. Last year the Yankees brought six non-roster catchers to camp. The year before it was five.

New York is pretty devoid of catching prospects at the moment, now that Luis Torrens is (temporarily?) a member of the Padres. Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, and Kyle Higashioka are all on the 40-man roster, so they’ll be in camp. Donny Sands and Miguel Flames, the team’s two best catching prospects, are rookie ball kids still transitioning behind the plate, so they won’t be in big league Spring Training. Too soon. Their time will come. That means an unexciting crop of minor league signees and journeyman roster fillers behind the plate.

Mike’s Prediction: Wilkin Castillo, Kellin Deglan, Francisco Diaz, Jorge Saez, plus one or two others yet to be signed. Diaz was in camp as a non-roster player last year and re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason. Castillo and Deglan signed as minor league free agents over the winter. Saez, 26, was a minor league Rule 5 Draft pick from the Blue Jays. The Yankees brought Santiago Nessy to camp last spring after picking him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. I’m guessing Saez gets the same treatment.

Infielders

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

Alright, now we’re talking. Gleyber Torres, the best prospect in the system and one of the best prospects in all of baseball, is a lock to be invited to big league camp, I believe. The Yankees have historically brought their tippy top prospects to camp — Jorge Mateo was there last year, remember — and Gleyber is the best they have to offer. Torres could hang around until mid-to-late March too, depending on how much playing time is available.

Among the other prospects, Tyler Wade is the other non-roster lock in my opinion. He’s not a Torres-caliber prospect, but he’s pretty darn good himself, and he’s slated to open the 2017 season in Triple-A. The Yankees had Wade play some outfield in the Arizona Fall League last year, so they’re starting to groom him for a big league utility job. Getting him in camp so he can work with the big league instructors is the next logical step.

The Yankees have a small army of infield prospects in the low minors, guys who are better served going to minor league camp. Wilkerman Garcia, Hoy Jun Park, Kyle Holder, and Thairo Estrada fit into this group. I thought maybe the Yankees would bring Mike Ford to camp as an extra first baseman, but the recent Ji-Man Choi signing takes care of that. Choi will “compete” with Greg Bird and Tyler Austin (and Rob Refsnyder?) for the first base job.

Mike’s Prediction: Choi, Torres, Wade, Cito Culver, Donovan Solano, and Ruben Tejada. Solano and Tejada are big league veterans on minor league deals, so yeah, they’ll be in camp. Culver gets the call because both Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro could end up playing in the WBC, meaning the Yankees will need infielders. Cito re-signed with New York as a minor league free agent a few weeks ago, and it wouldn’t surprise me if an invite to Spring Training was part of the deal. Keep in mind Mateo and Miguel Andujar are on the 40-man roster and will be in Spring Training automatically.

Outfielders

Remember last spring, when the Yankees had both Mateo and Aaron Judge in camp as non-roster players? That was so fun. They even hit home runs in the same game (against the Red Sox!). To the very necessary action footage:

Ah yes, that’s the good stuff. Anyway, I bring this up because Torres and Clint Frazier and going to be this year’s Mateo and Judge. The top prospect infielder-outfielder tandem we all tune in to see every Spring Training broadcast. Frazier is one of the Yankees’ best prospects and he’s already played in Triple-A, making a non-roster invitation to Spring Training is a no-brainer.

One top outfield prospect I don’t expect to see in big league camp is Blake Rutherford. The Yankees bought James Kaprielian to camp last year and that was a rarity — Kaprielian was the first first round pick the Yankees brought to Spring Training as a non-roster player one year after the draft in at least a decade. Not even Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain got non-roster invites in 2007. Rutherford is fresh out of high school. Big league camp isn’t the appropriate place for him. Lame, but it is what it is.

Mike’s Prediction: Frazier, Dustin Fowler, Mark Payton, and Jake Cave. I’m going to go against the grain and say Payton over the more heralded Billy McKinney. Payton is not a top prospect by any stretch, but he can do a little of everything and is a performer. He’s going to carve out a career as a fourth outfielder, and I think the Yankees will want to get him in camp at least once before he becomes Rule 5 Draft eligible next winter. Cave is a Triple-A vet, hence the non-roster invite. Fowler is one of the team’s top prospects and he’ll be in Triple-A this year, so I expect to see him too. Mason Williams (and Judge) is already on the 40-man.

Right-handers

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

We’re going to see some nice prospects arms in camp this year, me thinks. Kaprielian, Chance Adams, and Dillon Tate are the three big names. Kaprielian was in Spring Training last season, and since he was healthy enough to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, I don’t think the Yankees will hesitate to bring him to camp this year. Adams broke out last year and is going to start the season in Triple-A. Prime non-roster fodder.

Tate is the interesting one and I don’t think a non-roster invite is a lock, but I do think it’s likely. He regained velocity after the trade last year and threw well in the AzFL. Tate is going back to starting this season and I think the Yankees will look to move him quickly. And you know what? I think the Yankees want to show him off too. Tate was the fourth overall pick in the draft two years ago and one of the big name prospects they acquired at the deadline last summer. They’ll strut him out there and let him air it out for a few Grapefruit League innings because hey, why not?

Other big name prospects, like Domingo Acevedo and Albert Abreu, seem unlikely to get an invite to big league Spring Training this year. There are only so many innings to go around, and the Yankees will need them to a) decide the fourth and fifth starter race, and b) sort through a bunch of candidates for the remaining bullpen spots. This might be a year ahead of schedule for Acevedo and Abreu. I’m open to being wrong. We’ll see.

Mike’s Prediction: Adams, Kaprielian, Tate, J.P. Feyereisen, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, plus two or three others yet to be signed. At some point soon the Yankees will sign some pitchers to minor league deals for depth and Triple-A roster filler. The Anthony Swarzaks of the world we all love to hate. Feyereisen is a reliever with a chance to pitch in the show next year, hence the invite. Pinder and Rumbelow are still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, so they won’t actually pitch this spring, but they have big league service time and the non-roster invite is basically a courtesy. They’ll get big league meal money and lodging. It’s better than rehabbing in minor league camp.

Left-handers

As with the righties, I think we’ll see some good left-handed pitching prospects in Spring Training, most notably Jordan Montgomery and Justus Sheffield. Montgomery pitched very well at Double-A and Triple-A last summer, and the odds are strongly in favor of him making his MLB debut at some point in 2017. Spring Training is a chance for Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild to get their eyes on him. Giving Montgomery a non-roster invite makes all the sense in the world.

Montgomery. (Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)
Montgomery. (Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)

As for Sheffield, I do think he’ll get the invite to big league camp even though the odds of him pitching in the show this year are extremely small. Sheffield is a top prospect who reached Double-A last year, and he’s going to spend much of 2017 there as well, which could be enough to make him a non-roster candidate. And like Tate, I think the Yankees are going to want to show him off a bit. Sheffield could be one of those guys who makes one Grapefruit League appearance before being sent to minor league camp.

Mike’s Prediction: Montgomery, Sheffield, Jason Gurka, Joe Mantiply, plus one yet to be signed. Gurka signed a minor league deal a few weeks ago and has big league time with the Rockies, so he’ll get the non-roster invite. Mantiply is in a similar situation. Other southpaw prospects like Ian Clarkin, Nestor Cortes, Stephen Tarpley, and Josh Rogers will have to settle for minor league camp and a possible one-day call-up for a split squad game or something.

* * *

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the chances of me being wrong (very wrong) here are quite high. This is all nothing more than guesswork based on the farm system and New York’s recent non-roster tendencies. Okay, so after all of that, I came up with 30 possible non-roster invitees:

  • Catchers (6): Castillo, Deglan, Diaz, Saez, plus up to two others yet to be signed.
  • Infielders (6): Choi, Culver, Solano, Tejada, Torres, and Wade.
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and Payton.
  • Pitchers (14): Adams, Feyereisen, Gurka, Kaprielian, Mantiply, Montgomery, Pinder, Rumbelow, Sheffield, Tate, plus as many as four yet to be signed.

Last year the Yankees brought 25 non-roster players to camp. The year before it was 26 and the year before that it was also 26, so my total of 30 is in ballpark when you consider each team will probably bring a few more players to camp to help cover for the WBC. If anything, 30 might be a little light since Pinder and Rumbelow won’t actually pitch. (The Yankees brought 44 players to camp in 2013, the last WBC year, which was insane.)

The Yankees announced their non-roster invitees on February 5th each of the last two years. Three years ago it was January 29th. They tend to do it very late in the offseason, so we still have a few weeks to go before things are made official. Either way, this promises to be a very prospect filled Spring Training. Guys like Torres, Frazier, Kaprielian, Montgomery, Fowler, and Wade will all be in camp, plus all the 40-man guys like Mateo, Andujar, Judge, and Bird. Should be fun.

Year Two of the 2014-15 International Free Agency Class [2016 Season Review]

Wilkerman. (@MLBPipeline)
Wilkerman. (@MLBPipeline)

Two and a half years ago the Yankees did something that sent shockwaves throughout baseball. On July 2nd, 2014, the first day of the 2014-15 international signing period, the Yankees committed more than $17M in bonuses to amateur players and completely blew their $2.2M bonus pool out of the water. Between bonuses and penalties, the team spend upwards of $30M on international free agents that signing period.

The Yankees were not the first team to exceed their international bonus pool but they were the first to do it in such an extreme way. Since then other clubs, including the Dodgers and Braves and Padres, have followed suit and spent huge on international free agents. The tax and other penalties, including a $300,000 limit on bonuses during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods, were a price worth paying for a one-year talent windfall.

As the owners continue to push for an international draft as part of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations — Ken Rosenthal says they’ve backed off that demand, for what it’s worth — the Yankees are in the process of developing and cultivating that 2014-15 international class. International free agency is not the thing for you if you’re looking for instant gratification. Turning 16-year-olds into big leaguers is a long and not always smooth process.

The 2016 season was the second full year in pro ball for players signed during the 2014-15 period — players sign contracts that begin the following season, so the kids who signed on July 2nd, 2014, signed 2015 contracts — and the Yankees are starting to see some exciting things happen in the lower minors. Here’s a progress report on that 2014-15 international signing class.

The Top Prospect

You know, it’s actually very up for debate who currently is the best prospect the Yankees signed as part of the spending spree. But, since this is my blog, I’m making an executive decision. SS Wilkerman Garcia ($1.35M bonus) burst onto the scene with a huge debut in 2015, hitting .299/.414/.362 (140 wRC+) with more walks (15.8%) than strikeouts (12.0%) in 39 rookie ball games. He’s the best prospect from the 2014-15 class. Unfortunately his 2016 follow-up didn’t go too well.

Garcia, who won’t turn 19 until April, suffered a shoulder injury in Spring Training this year, and while he didn’t need surgery or anything like that, he spent much of the first half rehabbing in Extended Spring Training. When he was ready to play, he went to rookie level Pulaski and put up a disappointing .198/.255/.284 (52 wRC+) batting line with 18.4% strikeouts and 6.3% walks in 54 games. Wilkerman was two and a half years younger than the average Appalachian League player.

The stat line is not pretty, but the most important thing is Garcia’s shoulder is now healthy and he didn’t lose any of the high-end athleticism that landed him such a large bonus. Wilkerman is a switch-hitter with bat control and strike zone knowledge, plus he runs very well and has a strong arm, which suit him well at shortstop. Hopefully 2016 was just a bump in the road. Garcia projects as an impact AVG/OBP/speed/defense leadoff type.

The New Hot Prospect

Florial. (@jarahwright)
Florial. (@jarahwright)

One of the best prospects the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period did not sign on July 2nd. He signed in March 2015. OF Estevan Florial ($200,000) was a highly regarded prospect heading into the signing period before being suspended by MLB for paperwork issues. Joel Sherman has a great story on Florial’s background. Apparently his mother used fraudulent paperwork to get him into school.

Florial, who turned 19 last week, annihilated the Dominican Summer League last season, hitting .313/.394/.527 (154 wRC+) with seven home runs and 15 steals in 57 games. His stateside debut in 2016 didn’t go quite as well. Florial put up a .228/.310/.370 (92 wRC+) line with eight homers and ten steals in 70 games at mostly Pulaski. (He also made brief cameos with Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa.) Florial struck out in 28.9% of his plate appearances.

The stat line is not what gets folks so excited about Florial. It’s the scouting report. During a recent Baseball America podcast, Josh Norris said scouts are giving Florial a 70 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) for three tools: power, running, throwing. That’s bonkers. Florial, a lefty hitter, has huge power and is a tremendous athlete. The only red flag in his game — and it’s a significant one — is his tendency to swing and miss.

More than a few tooled up players have been sabotaged by insufficient hitting ability, but that doesn’t mean you stop targeting those players. Every once in a while they turn into Kris Bryant. Florial is so well-regarded that teams are already asking for him in trades, according to Sherman. Given his natural ability, the Yankees scored a major win signing Florial for a mere $200,000 that late in the signing period.

The Power Threats

The two largest bonuses the Yankees handed out during the 2014-15 signing period went to 3B Dermis Garcia ($3.2M) and 3B Nelson Gomez ($2.25M). (Garcia signed as a shortstop and has since moved to third.) For both players, their calling card is their power. MLB.com ranked them as the top two international prospects in 2014 and they gave Dermis a 65 for his power. Gomez received a 60. Those are huge numbers for kids who were only 16 at the time.

Garcia, 19 in January, showed off that power during his 57-game stint with Pulaski this summer. He hit .206/.326/.454 (114 wRC+) overall and finished second in the league with 13 homers. The home run leader, Bradley Jones of the Blue Jays, hit 16. He’s three years older than Garcia. Dermis also struck out 34.3% of the time because he takes a big aggressive hack, which leads to a lot of whiffs. When he connects though, this happens:

At one point this summer Garcia went deep in four straight games — only 15 teenagers hit at least four home runs all season in the Appy League — and eight times in the span of 15 games. Eighteen-year-old kids in rookie ball just don’t do that. His power is truly special.

Garcia is not a mindless hacker. He knows the strike zone (13.9 BB%) and which pitches he can punish. His swing is just so aggressive — it’s basically a Javier Baez swing, that kind of aggressive — that he comes up empty a good amount of the time. Once Dermis realizes his power is so great that he can still hit the ball out of the park while taking a more controlled swing, he’s going to be a monster.

As for Gomez, the just turned 19-year-old made his stateside debut in 2016 and authored a .194/.249/.403 (92 wRC+) batting line in 54 games with one of the Yankees’ two rookie Gulf Coast League affiliates. The good news: Gomez was second in the league with nine homers. (The leader, Ignacio Valdez of the Tigers, had eleven and is two years older.) The bad news: Gomez struck out 25.8% of the time and walked 3.8% of the time.

Unlike Garcia, Gomez is a true hacker who will swing at pretty much everything and chase out of the zone. His plate discipline and approach are a very long way away from being competitive. Neither player offers a ton defensively, so their value is tied up heavily in their bats. Garcia is much more than a mistake hitter. He can hit. He just needs to tone things down a notch. Gomez has to figure out how to read spin and discern a ball from a strike.

The Sleeper

Unlike the players above, SS Diego Castillo ($750,000) does not come with loud tools. He’s not going to wow you with speed and his arm like Wilkerman, or hit the snot out of the ball like Dermis or Gomez, or grab your attention like Florial. Castillo, who turned 19 last month, is a bat-to-ball machine with a sweet swing and an opposite field approach. He can also play the hell out of shortstop thanks to good mobility and a strong arm.

This summer Castillo came to the U.S. and hit .267/.332/.327 (102 wRC+) with one home run and five steals in 44 GCL games. His strikeout rate (11.4%) is a result of his contact-focused approach, plus he drew a good amount of walks too (7.6%). Castillo is a boringly good prospect. He’s not flashy, but he’s very fundamentally sound and instinctive on the baseball field. Castillo has the ability to be a rock solid shortstop who helps on both sides of the ball at the next level.

The Advanced Prospect

Advanced is a relative term. We are talking about (mostly) teenagers here, after all. The oldest bonafide prospect the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period is SS Hoy Jun Park ($1.2M), who signed at 18 after graduating high school in South Korea. He spent this past season sharing second base and shortstop with Kyle Holder at Low-A Charleston, where he hit .225/.336/.329 (97 wRC+) with two homers, 32 steals, 23.2% strikeouts, and 13.0% walks in 116 games.

At this point Park’s offensive game lags behind his defense because he didn’t face the greatest competition growing up. He’s a left-handed hitter with a good swing and a plan at the plate, and once he adds some meat to his frame (6-foot-1 and 175 lbs.), the power should come. Park is a no-doubt shortstop with a quick first step and a strong arm. He’s prone to being a little too flashy and making mistakes, but that’s nothing a little experience can’t fix.

Park is older than most of his 2014-15 signing period brethren and he’s already spent a full season in Low-A, so he’s higher up the ladder as well. His offensive game has started to come around nicely since signing. Park’s easy to overlook in a farm system loaded with shortstops, but he has some really exciting skills. He has the potential to be a standout shortstop on both sides of the ball.

The Pop-Up Prospect

Freicer. (Robert Pimpsner)
Freicer. (Robert Pimpsner)

“Pop-up” prospects happen a lot with international free agents. Jorge Mateo and Luis Severino were pop-up prospects. Both were lower profile prospects signed to relatively small bonuses, their physical development was favorable — a lot kids go through growth spurts and lose the athleticism that get them signed in the first place — then bam, they were top prospects. Scouting kids who are 15 or 16 years old and projecting what they’ll be at 21 and 22 is awfully tough. The error bars are huge.

RHP Freicer Perez ($10,000) is the pop-up prospect from the 2014-15 signing period. The 20-year-old held his own with Short Season Staten Island in 2016, pitching to a 4.47 ERA (3.81 FIP) with 20.6% strikeouts and 10.5% walks in 13 starts and 52.1 innings. Perez is massive. He’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 190 lbs., which means he still hasn’t filled out and could add to a fastball that already sits 95-97 mph. His breaking ball and changeup need work, as does his overall command, but squint your eyes and you can see a Dellin Betances starter kit. Not too shabby for a $10,000 investment.

The Other Big Money Prospects

The Yankees gave out seven seven-figure bonuses during the 2014-15 international signing period. Stick to the spending pools and most teams would be able to afford two $1M+ bonuses, maybe three. The Yankees made a complete mockery of the system. No wonder the owners are pushing for an international draft now.

Anyway, four of those seven $1M+ bonuses went to Gomez, Park, and the two Garcias. One of the other three went to OF Jonathan Amundaray ($1.5M), an 18-year-old who hit .269/.321/.394 (112 wRC+) with two homers and an 18.8% strikeout rate in 29 games while repeating the Dominican Summer League in 2016. Amundaray has been billed as a good worker and very coachable, and the Yankees are waiting for his athletic ability to translate on the field.

OF Juan DeLeon ($2M) was arguably the most exciting prospect the Yankees signed two years ago thanks to his well-rounded game and true five-tool skill set. He appeared in only a dozen GCL games this summer due to an injury, hitting .212/.308/.364 (103 wRC+) in 39 plate appearances. Meh. I wouldn’t call this a lost year — DeLeon did get to work in Extended Spring Training before the GCL season — but not much happened for him in 2016.

The final seven-figure bonus went to C Miguel Flames ($1.1M), whose development behind the plate has been slow. Last year he caught nine games in the DSL (41 at first base) and this year he caught ten games in the GCL (36 at first). Many of them weren’t even full games. The Yankees had Flames catch five innings every few days for a while, and that was it. Not everyone takes to the position as quickly as Luis Torrens. The Yankees have had to ease Flames into it.

The Best of the Rest

Among the other notable 2014-15 international prospects are OF Brayan Emery ($500,000) and RHP Gilmael Troya ($10,000), both of whom played in the GCL in 2016. Emery, 18, hit .208/.328/.255 (88 wRC+) with one homer in 32 games and has insane tools. He was initially expected to sign for $1M+. Troya, 19, broke out last year after some mechanical tweaks, though he took a step back this summer and put up a 3.78 ERA (4.41 FIP) in 50 innings. He stands out for his fastball/curveball combo and pitching know-how.

Here are the rest of the notable prospects the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period, plus a note on their 2016 performance and current status:

  • OF Antonio Arias ($800,000): 18-year-old hit .239/.350/.266 (95 wRC+) in 51 games while repeating the DSL. He’s a great athlete and incredibly raw. A total lottery ticket.
  • OF Lisandro Blanco ($550,000): 19-year-old was overmatched in the GCL, hitting .111/.265/.185 (52 wRC+) in 26 games. Baseball is hard, even when you have premium bat speed like Blanco.
  • OF Leobaldo Cabrera ($250,000): 18-year-old hit .196/.261/.224 (53 wRC+) in 43 GCL games. He’s a raw athlete who stands out most for his throwing arm.
  • OF Frederick Cuevas ($300,000): 19-year-old playing sparingly in the GCL and hit .267/.302/.350 (96 wRC+) in 30 games. Cuevas is a lefty hitter with some pull power and approach issues.
  • IF Griffin Garabito ($225,000): 19-year-old followed up a solid 2015 debut by hitting .182/.238/.223 (44 wRC+) in 36 GCL games. He profiles best a contact heavy utility infielder.
  • C Jason Lopez ($100,000): 18-year-old hit .192/.267/.346 (85 wRC+) in only eleven GCL games. He’s a recently converted infielder with a rocket arm and some pop.
  • OF Erick Mendez ($250,000): 20-year-old put up a .243/.318/.393 (112 wRC+) line in 40 games between the GCL and Pulaski, then failed a performance-enhancing drug test after the season. He’ll serve a 50-game suspension at the outset of 2017.
  • OF Raymundo Moreno ($600,000): 18-year-old hit a fine .284/.381/.333 (119 wRC+) in 56 games while repeating the DSL. He’s got some loud tools and could make a name for himself in the GCL in 2017.
  • OF Pablo Olivares ($400,000): 18-year-old put up a .285/.378/.392 (135 wRC+) batting line in 47 GCL games. He a right-handed hitter who sprays the ball to all fields and is an excellent center field defender. The Yankees might have something here.
  • IF Danienger Perez ($300,000): 20-year-old hit .213/.248/.283 (60 wRC+) in 35 games between the GCL and Low-A. Perez is a speedy slap hitter who hasn’t hit much in pro ball.

These are not even all the prospects the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period. These are just the most notable. All told, the Yankees brought in about four years worth of international talent two years ago. Most years you may get one or two premium prospects and two of three secondary guys of note. In 2014-15, the Yankees landed four headliners (Park, Florial, the Garcias) and a host of second tier prospects (Gomez, Perez, Castillo, DeLeon, Flames, Amundaray, Emery, Troya, Olivares).

I’m not sure how many of these players will play full season ball in 2017 — Park will for sure, and I could see the Yankees pushing Florial and Perez to Low-A — but the Yankees have more than enough short season league teams to house them all. No one has knocked your socks off statistically yet — hey, they can’t all dominate instantly like Jesus Montero — but Florial, Dermis, Park, and Perez have all made improvements while others are still showing the big tools that got them signed at 16. With kids this age, that’s not always a given two years later.

Aaron Judge tops Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects list

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last week Keith Law published his annual top 100 prospects list, which included four Yankees: OF Aaron Judge (No. 36), SS Jorge Mateo (No. 55), C Gary Sanchez (No. 57), and RHP James Kaprielian (No. 87). Earlier today Law took an in-depth look at New York’s farm system (subs. req’d), examining their top ten prospects and beyond.

“The Yankees’ system is trending back upward, despite some trades and disappointing performances from upper-level prospects, thanks to a couple productive drafts that have helped restock the lower levels,” wrote Law. Here is his top ten:

  1. Judge
  2. Mateo
  3. Sanchez
  4. Kaprielian
  5. LHP Ian Clarkin
  6. OF Dustin Fowler
  7. SS Wilkerman Garcia
  8. RHP Drew Finley
  9. SS Kyle Holder
  10. SS Tyler Wade

Law has long been a Clarkin fan and he’s higher on both Finley and Holder than most. Finley is a “super-polished high-school arm with a plus curveball and outstanding command and feel for pitching” while the divisive Holder is “a plus-plus defender at short with mixed reviews on the bat, though he doesn’t have to hit that much to be a big leaguer, thanks to his defense.” Law also notes there “could be more growth here than with a normal college product,” referring to Holder, who split time between baseball and basketball for most of his life.

Within the write-up, Law dives deeper into the system and looks beyond the top ten. He ranks RHP Brady Lail as the 11th best prospect in the system, and Lail is followed by OF Ben Gamel (12th), LHP Jacob Lindgren (13th), RHP Luis Cessa (14th), C Luis Torrens (15th), OF Mason Williams (16th), RHP Trey Amburgey (17th), 2B Rob Refsnyder (18th), 3B Miguel Andujar (19th), and RHP Chance Adams (20th). 3B Dermis Garcia, RHP Domingo Acevedo, IF Abi Avelino, RHP Ty Hensley, RHP Austin DeCarr, OF Bryan Emery, SS Diego Castillo, C Miguel Flames, 3B Nelson Gomez, C Jason Lopez, and RHP Johnny Barbato all get mentions as well, though they’re unranked.

Law listed Lindgren and Barbato as the prospects most likely to have an impact in 2016, which is sorta cheating because they’re both bat-missing upper level relievers, but I’ll allow it. Fowler and Torrens are his sleepers. “Fowler has top-100-prospect tools and has performed rather well to date, despite aggressive promotions. He and Torrens are the best bets to make the leap in 2016,” he wrote. Torrens is coming off major shoulder surgery, so his road to top 100 prospectdom is a bit rockier than Fowler’s.

Based on the write-up, it’s pretty clear Law is high on the Yankees’ farm system, particularly their lower level guys like Wilkerman, Amburgey, and all the 2014-15 international signees. He ranked the Yankees as having the 13th best farm system in the game and that’s with Luis Severino and Greg Bird having graduated to MLB. That’s is pretty darn cool.

The Early Returns from the 2014-15 International Spending Spree [2015 Season Review]

Wilkerman. (MLB.com)
Wilkerman. (MLB.com)

Four years ago, the MLBPA collectively bargained away the earning potential of amateur players. Spending restrictions were put in place for both the draft and international free agency, and while the spending limits are a soft cap, they do come with harsh penalties. Teams are given a bonus pool for the draft and international free agency, and exceeding the bonus pool comes with a hefty price.

Two summers ago, the Yankees decided to flex their financial muscle and go on a massive international spending spree. Their bonus pool was only $2.2M, but they spent upwards of $16M on bonuses during the 2014-15 signing period. As a result, they were taxed 100% on the overage — that’s another $14M or so in tax, mean the total cost was $30M+ — and are unable to hand out a bonus larger than $300,000 during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods.

The Yankees were willing to pay the penalties to haul in the vast majority of the top talent available. They signed about four years worth of high-end international prospects in one signing period. Other teams like the Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Royals followed suit this past summer and blew their bonus pools out of the water. I’m guessing MLB and the MLBPA will look to change the system when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires next offseason.

Anyway, the 2014-15 signing period was very heavy on position player prospects. There weren’t a ton of high quality arms to go around, so almost all the prospects the Yankees landed are hitters. Yeah, some balance would have been nice, but more pitching prospects weren’t going to pop out of thin air. The Yankees hoarded position player talent and those players made their pro debuts during the 2015 season. Let’s look at the early returns.

Stellar Debuts in the States

Rather than be held back in the Dominican Summer League, a few of the international signees were brought to the U.S. to begin their pro careers this season. The best of the bunch was Venezuelan SS Wilkerman Garcia ($1.35M bonus), a 17-year-old switch-hitter who hit .299/.414/.362 (140 wRC+) with 25 walks and 19 strikeouts in 39 Rookie Gulf Coast League games. He’s a solid defender and may wind up at second base long-term, but he offers high-end bat-to-ball skills.

Hoy Jun Park
Park. (@myKBO)

Korean SS Hoy Jun Park ($1.16M) also had a strong debut. Park signed out of high school and is already 19, so it’s no surprise the Yankees brought him stateside for his first pro season. He hit .239/.351/.383 (109 wRC+) with five homers, 12 steals, a 19.1% strikeout rate, and a 13.0% walk rate in 56 games for the new Rookie Pulaski affiliate. Park is a legitimate shortstop with strong defensive tools, and the left-handed batter showed this summer he can handle pro pitching, especially big fastballs. His pro debut was rather impressive considering he did not face great competition growing up.

Venezuelan RHP Gilmael Troya ($10,000) is an interesting case because, as his bonus suggests, he was not a high profile prospect at all. The 18-year-old saw his velocity tick up in pro ball, and he now sits in the low-90s consistently. He also has a plan on the mound and the makings of an out-pitch curveball. Troya had a 1.80 ERA (2.97 FIP) with a 27.4% strikeout rate and a 9.0% walk rate in 60 GCL innings this summer. He, Garcia, and Park were the standouts who debuted in the U.S. in 2015.

The Big Money Prospects

When it comes to international free agency, bonuses can tell you quite a bit. The larger the bonus, the more the team likes the player. The bonus doesn’t necessarily reflect the market — you had to offer this much to get him because another team was offering a comparable bonus, for example — because teams zero in on these kids when they’re 14 or 15 years old. They agree to bonuses months or even years in advance, before other teams get a chance to scout them. I’m not joking when I say they hide these kids at their complexes so other scouts don’t see them.

The Yankees gave out seven seven-figure bonuses during the 2014-15 signing period: Dominican SS Dermis Garcia ($3.2M), Dominican 3B Nelson Gomez ($2.25M), Dominican OF Juan DeLeon ($2M), Venezuelan OF Jonathan Amundaray ($1.5M), Venezuelan C Miguel Flames ($1M), Wilkerman, and Park. Like Wilkerman and Park, Dermis Garcia made his pro debut in the U.S. this summer, hitting .159/.256/.188 (46 wRC+) with 25 strikeouts and nine walks in 23 scattered GCL games. (There was a ton of rain in Tampa this year. They went two or three days between games for a few weeks there.)

Garcia, 17, signed as a shortstop but has already moved to third base because he’s a big dude (6-foot-3 and 200 lbs.) and lacks the defensive chops for short. He has huge right-handed raw power and a very strong arm, though he needs refinement at the plate and is very much a long-term project. The unteachable skills are there (power, arm, etc.). Now Garcia just needs to work on his approach and things like that.

The other four seven-figure bonus guys debuted in the Dominican Summer League this year. Gomez, 18, put up a .243/.350/.435 (123 wRC+) line with eleven homers, a 24.3% strikeout rate, and a 12.4% walk rate in 58 DSL games. Similar to Dermis Garcia, Gomez is a big bodied (6-foot-1 and 220 lbs.) masher with righty raw power and a strong arm. He might have more power, actually. His defense is fine and his approach is much more advanced than Garcia’s.

DeLeon, 18, had a statistically underwhelming season, hitting .226/.344/.336 (108 wRC+) with three homers and a 66/25 K/BB in 53 DSL games, but he might be the most tooled up player from the international class. He has high-end bat speed from the right side and strong center field skills, including a very good arm that would be more than fine in right. Don’t read too much into DSL numbers. DeLeon is arguably the best prospect the Yankees signed as part of their spending spree.

The 17-year-old Amundaray was limited to 13 games in the DSL this summer, hitting .111/.346/.167 (72 wRC+) with 12 walks and 12 strikeouts. He’s another guy who is more athletic tools than baseball skills, if you catch my drift. Amundaray has good bat speed and he’s a good runner, but he’s very raw at the plate with less than stellar bat-to-ball ability. He has power from the right side but sells out for it even though he doesn’t need to.

Flames, 18, had the best statistical debut of the big bonus guys, hitting .317/.398/.454 (142 wRC+) with three homers, an 18.5% strikeout rate, and a 9.2% walk rate in 54 DSL games. He did spend most of his time at first base though (only nine games behind the plate) because he’s not a great defender, so he did most of his defensive work behind the scenes. Flames has a pro body (6-foot-2 and 210 lbs.) and his right-handed hit tool/raw power combo is awfully impressive. He was a third baseman who converted to catching shortly before signing.

The international market is not the place for instant gratification. These kids sign at 16 and begin playing at 17, so they’re extremely raw and underdeveloped. The tools are far, far, far more important than the performance. Wilkerman and Park are more advanced than the rest, though Dermis, Gomez, and DeLeon have loud tools and star upside. There’s just a lot of work to be done to reach that ceiling.

Low Cost Prospects

The Yankees have excelled at finding low cost Latin American prospects over the years. You can go back to Robinson Cano, who signed for a $150,000 bonus back in 2001. More recently, the Yankees landed Luis Severino ($225,000) and Jorge Mateo ($250,000) on relatively small bonuses. The million dollar guys get the most attention, understandably, but the mid-range market is where organizational depth is built.

The best six-figure bonus prospect is arguably Venezuelan SS Diego Castillo ($750,000), who put up a .331/.373/.444 (130 wRC+) line with five steals, an 11.6% strikeout rate, and a 6.1% walk rate in 56 DSL games. He’s similar to current Yankees farmhand IF Abi Avelino in that he has no standout tool, but is solid across the board with great instincts that allow everything to play up. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Venezuelan OF Antonio Arias ($800,000) hit .235/.316/.316 (87 wRC+) in 39 DSL games. The 17-year-old is a pure projection play: he’s a high-end athlete with bat speed who is still working to turn those natural gifts into baseball skills. Dominican OF Frederick Cuevas ($300,000), 18, put up a .256/.376/.365 (117 wRC+) line in 57 DSL games. The lefty swinger doesn’t have exciting tools but does know his game as a lefty gap hitter.

The international period begins on July 2nd each year, but it wasn’t until November that the Yankees snagged Colombian OF Brayan Emery ($500,000). He was originally expected to land a $1M+ bonus, but that didn’t happen. The 17-year-old Emery hit .192/.330/.308 (92 wRC+) with three homers, a 29.7% strikeout rate, and a 14.7% walk rate in 61 DSL games this summer. He’s a very exciting prospect, with a smooth left-handed swing and power potential to go with right field defensive tools. Emery needs experience more than anything.

Here are some of the other smaller bonus guys the Yankees landed during the 2014-15 international signing period. Again, “smaller bonus” is a relative term.

  • Dominican OF Lisandro Blanco ($550,000), 18: .291/.391/.355 (122 wRC+) in 41 DSL games. Top notch tools, including great bat speed and high-end athleticism.
  • Venezuelan OF Leobaldo Cabrera ($250,000), 17: .298/.367/.382 (116 wRC+) in 59 DSL games. His best tools are top of the line arm strength and an advanced approach at the plate.
  • Dominican IF Griffin Garabito ($225,000), 18: .256/.328/.312 (94 wRC+) in 62 GCL games. Versatile infielder who is known for his bat-to-ball ability. The Yankees liked him enough to bring him stateside in 2015.
  • Venezuelan C Jason Lopez ($100,000), 17: .240/.337/.301 (91 wRC+) in 42 DSL games. Recently converted third baseman with a very strong arm and some power potential.
  • Dominican OF Erick Mendez ($250,000), 19: .281/.381/.465 (140 wRC+) in 51 DSL games. Good all-around ability — bat speed, power potential, arm, speed — but needs to face age appropriate competition to really develop.
  • Venezuelan OF Raymundo Moreno ($600,000), 17: .067/.125/.067 (-33 wRC) in six DSL games. Standout defensive center fielder with bat speed and a knack for trying to muscle up for power at the plate.
  • Venezuelan OF Pablo Olivares ($400,000), 17: .267/.370/.359 (116 wRC+) in 32 DSL games. Another great defender in center with excellent athleticism. His line drive approach doesn’t project to produce much power down the road.
  • Venezuelan IF Danienger Perez ($300,000), 19: .245/.311/.382 (104 wRC+) in 69 games between the DSL, GCL, and Short Season Staten Island. Perez is a slap-hitting defense first prospect.

The Yankees also signed Venezuelan RHP Servando Hernandez ($200,000), Venezuelan IF Wander Hernandez (unknown), and Dominican LHP Luis Pache (unknown) during the 2014-15 international signing period, but I can’t find any information on them. They didn’t play at all in 2015. It’s possible their contract agreements hit a snag, maybe due to age and identity issues. That stuff still happens on occasion even though MLB enlisted Sandy Alderson to crack down a few years back.

* * *

International free agency is a much different animal than the amateur draft. International prospects usually sign at 16 years old, so we’re talking sophomore in high school age. They’re very raw, and while recent pop-up leagues have helped, there’s not much high-caliber competition in Latin America. These kids aren’t on the high school showcase circuit strutting their stuff against other top high school talent from around the country, you know?

All the players the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period are just starting their pro careers. One season — it’s not even a full season, these guys played in short season leagues this year and are lucky to have 60 games under their belt — doesn’t tell us a whole lot. You’ve got to start somewhere though. That no one suffered a catastrophic injury or went through a growth spurt that sapped their athleticism makes year one a success.