Thoughts on Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top Heavy 2016 Draft Haul [2016 Season Review]

Rutherford. (@MiLB)
Rutherford. (@MiLB)

Thanks largely to the trade deadline, the Yankees improved the depth and quality of their farm system substantially over the last six months or so. They added a dozen prospects at the deadline and two more in the recent Brian McCann deal. It sure feels like another trade is inevitable (Brett Gardner?), so chances are more prospects are on the way.

The Yankees also added to their farm system this summer with the annual amateur draft. This year they held a top 20 pick for the second straight year after having only two top 20 picks total from 1994-2014. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement severely limits draft spending, and while it wouldn’t be fair to say the Yankees put all their eggs in one basket, their 2016 draft haul has a clear centerpiece who will essentially make or break this draft class.

The Top Pick

Following the end of the 2015 season, the Yankees held the 22nd overall pick in the 2016 draft. They moved up to 18th when the Diamondbacks (Zack Greinke), Orioles (Yovani Gallardo), Nationals (Daniel Murphy), and Giants (Jeff Samardzija) forfeited their first round picks to sign qualified free agents. That was pretty awesome. Moving up one or two spots happens each year. But four? That rarely happens.

Prior to the draft the Yankees were connected to high school pitchers and college bats, so, naturally, they used that 18th overall selection to take a high school position player. Go figure. That player: outfielder Blake Rutherford from Chaminade College Preparatory School in the Los Angeles suburbs. Rutherford was a consensus top ten draft pick who slipped to the Yankees for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. Here’s a sampling of his pre-draft rankings and write-ups:

  • Baseball Prospectus (4th best draft prospect): “Every tool but the arm is above-average.”
  • Keith Law (6th): “Rutherford has a unique combination of hit and power and has shown an ability to spray well-hit balls to all fields … he projects to be an average or above everyday player in a corner outfield who hits near the middle of a big league lineup.”
  • MLB.com (8th): “Rutherford has the chance to be an above-average hitter with above-average raw power … Some evaluators wish they had seen more from him (before the draft).”
  • Baseball America (9th): “Rutherford has size, strength, athleticism and power potential for scouts to dream on … Some scouts see him as a potential power-hitting center fielder in the Jim Edmonds mold.”

By all accounts, Rutherford was one of the ten best players available in the 2016 draft. The Yankees were able to get him with the 18th pick for two reasons:

1. He was already 19. Rutherford was old for a high school prospect. He turned 19 on May 2nd, a month before the draft, whereas most prep prospects are drafted at 18 or even 17 with their 18th birthday coming in the summer. Rutherford has always been slightly older than his competition, both in high school and in showcase events, which made it difficult to evaluate him. Was it really an above-average hit tool, or just an older kid beating up on younger competition? Based on the draft rankings above, everyone seems to believe it’s the former.

2. He wanted a lot of money. Aside from injury, nothing causes a draft pick to slip more than bonus demands. Rutherford was strongly committed to UCLA and he was expecting top ten money because, well, he was a top ten talent. The Yankees had a $5,831,200 bonus pool this year, so if they were going to pay Rutherford top ten money, they’d have to skim elsewhere. That’s exactly what they did. The Yankees signed Rutherford to a $3,282,000 bonus on June 29th, well above his $2,441,600 slot value. They essentially gave him 11th overall pick money ($3,286,700). When it was all said and done, New York was left with $177 in draft pool space. Not $177,000. $177. The Yankees were like two Xbox games away from forfeiting their 2017 first round pick. They maxed out their spending limit to sign Rutherford.

The Yankees rarely have access to top of the draft caliber talent and they were able to acquire three such players this year by selecting Rutherford and trading for Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier. Acquiring Torres and Frazier took some hard work. There was a lot of luck involved in getting Rutherford. The Yankees had zero control over the 17 selections made before their first round pick. It just so happened those 17 teams passed on Rutherford, giving the Yankees a premium draft talent at a non-premium pick.

Rutherford’s pro debut did nothing to dispel the notion he was a top ten draft talent. The kid hit .351/.415/.570 (171 wRC+) with eight doubles, four triples, and three home runs in 33 rookie ball games before a minor hamstring injury sidelined him for the final week of the regular season. He was healthy enough to participate in Instructional League a few weeks later. Here, via MLB Farm, is Rutherford’s spray chart:

blake-rutherford-spray-chart

Base hits to all fields and over-the-fence power to the pull side as a left-handed hitter. It’s a beautiful thing for a 19-year-old kid in his first few weeks in pro ball. Baseball America recently ranked Rutherford as third best prospect in the farm system behind Torres and Frazier, so all aboard the hype train.

When we look back at the 2016 season in a few years, it’ll be remembered as the year the Yankees traded veterans for prospects at the deadline and rightfully so. They’ve built up one heck of a farm system through those trades. The opportunity (and willingness) to draft Rutherford shouldn’t be overlooked though. The Yankees haven’t selected a draft talent this highly regarded since Gerrit Cole in 2008.

The Other Over-Slot Signee

Because the Yankees needed to rob Peter (other draftees) to pay Paul (Rutherford), they didn’t have much extra draft pool money to throw around. Their only other 2016 draftee to receive an over-slot bonus was third rounder Nolan Martinez, a right-hander from a Southern California high school. Martinez received a $1,150,000 bonus, nearly double his $608,200 slot value.

The Yankees selected Martinez with the 98th pick in the draft, which is essentially where the various scouting publications had him ranked. Baseball America was high on him (67th) while Keith Law (94th), MLB.com (99th), and Baseball America (108th) had Martinez right where New York selected him. He’s the second best prospect the Yankees drafted this year (in my opinion) as a three-pitch righty with some semblance of command. Underwhelmed? Well, that’s the system. The Yankees went with players they knew they could afford after rolling the dice with Rutherford.

The Numbers Prospect

Solak. (Robert M. Pimpsner/RMP Sports Media, Inc.)
Solak. (Robert M. Pimpsner/RMP Sports Media, Inc.)

There is more stat line scouting these days than I can ever remember. That isn’t to say stats aren’t important, because they are, but they only tell you so much of the story. And the further away from MLB you get, the less the stats mean. Nick Solak, a second baseman out of Louisville, figures to be one of those prospects who gets an inordinate amount of attention due to his stats, a la Rob Refsnyder.

Solak, who was selected in the second round by the Yankees, hit .321/.412/.421 (155 wRC+) with three homers, eight steals, and nearly as many walks (10.8%) as strikeouts (14.0%) in his 64-game pro debut with short season Staten Island after signing for a below-slow $950,000 bonus. Solak has contact skills and knows the strike zone, but he doesn’t have much power and his ability to stay at second is questionable at best.

After three excellent years at a major college program, we’re not going to be able to glean much from Solak’s performance until he gets to Double-A, and it’s entirely possible that will happen at some point in 2016. A guy like him should have no trouble with Single-A pitchers. Solak is a good prospect whose long-term outlook will improve drastically if he shows he can handle second full-time. His stats may cause him to get overrated though.

The Best of the Rest

Outside of the top three picks, the two best prospects the Yankees drafted this summer were fourth rounder (duh) Nick Nelson, a JuCo righty from Florida, and 12th rounder Taylor Widener, a righty out of Alabama. Keith Law‘s (subs. req’d) scouting report on Nelson sounds too good to be true — “(Nelson) works with a plus fastball up to 95 and a plus curveball, with good command for his age, and his arm action and delivery point to future plus command as well,” wrote Law — and while I’m not quite that optimistic, he has good velocity and can spin a breaking ball. That works for me.

Widener had an insane pro debut, pitching to a 0.42 ERA (1.41 FIP) with 65 strikeouts and seven walks in 42.2 innings. That’s a 43.9% strikeout rate and a 4.7% walk rate. Widener does it with a low-90s fastball and a wipeout slider out of the bullpen, and while the Yankees could be tempted to move him quickly as a bullpen arm, his changeup and control are good enough that giving him a try in the rotation might be worthwhile. The Yankees have a history of trying college relievers as starters in pro ball, most notably Chance Adams and Jonathan Holder, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Widener is next in line in 2017.

Other notables include 11th rounder Connor Jones, 17th rounder Mandy Alvarez, and 21st rounder Timmy Robinson. Jones is a hard-throwing southpaw likely destined for relief long-term because he lacks quality secondary pitches and command. Alvarez had a solid pro debut and can get the bat on the ball, but he’s short on power and might not remain at third base long-term. Robinson is a tool shed; the former USC standout has legitimate power and good athleticism, which serves him well in the outfield. The holes in his swing will likely limit him to reserve outfielder status.

* * *

Needless to say, Rutherford is the centerpiece of the Yankees’ draft haul this summer. Solak and Martinez can do some things, and I’m interested to see what happens with Nelson and especially Widener from here on out, but Rutherford is the guy. He was a top draft prospect who fell into the team’s lap and prompted them to max out their bonus pool. The Yankees tend to do well in the late rounds of the draft, unearthing players who are used in trades or get a cup of coffee in the show, and hopefully that will happen again this year. Right now, this draft class is all Rutherford. He deserves all the attention.

Draft Signing Notes: Rutherford, Nelson, Kriske, More

Our annual Draft Pool Tracker page is now live. You can find it any time via the Resources pull-down menu at the top of the site. As it turns out, Baseball America made a mistake when they reported the Yankees’ bonus pool at $5,768,400. It’s actually $5,831,200. MLB.com confirms it and that’s what you get when you add up the slot values reported by Baseball America. No biggie. Mistakes happen. Point is, the Yankees have an extra $62,800 in bonus pool space than originally reported.

All of the Yankees’ picks can be found at Baseball America. Here is the first wave of signing updates.

  • Scouting director Damon Oppenheimer told Chad Jennings he expects California HS OF Blake Rutherford (1st round) to sign. “I’ve done this long enough to know until they’ve taken the physical, gone through the whole process and signed, the whole thing is never done. I would think that we’re going to get it done. We took him with the idea that we’re going to get it done. But until it’s finished, you never know,” he said. Rutherford is slotted for $2,441,600.
  • Louisville 2B Nick Solak (2nd) is now free to sign because the Cardinals were eliminated in the Super Regionals this past weekend. They were eliminated in rather heartbreaking fashion too. They were up 3-0 in the ninth when their closer gave up a season-ending walk-off grand slam. Ouch. Solak is slotted for $1,040,800.
  • Florida JuCo RHP Nick Nelson (4th) traveled to Tampa Sunday to finalize his contract, according to Greg Brzozowski. Baseball America says he received $350,000. Slot for his pick is $455,400. Nelson told Brzozowski his contract includes a two-year scholarship as well.
  • South Carolina OF Dom Thompson-Williams (5th) has signed for $250,000, according to Baseball America. He was slotted for $341,000. South Carolina was eliminated in the Super Regionals this past weekend, allowing Thompson-Williams to sign.
  • USC RHP Brooks Kriske (6th) signed for $100,000, reports Jonathan Mayo. Slot money for his pick was $255,300. Kriske posted a photo of the contract signing on Instagram. He was expected to sign a below-slot deal as a college senior, but the fact he got as much as he did suggests the Yankees consider him an actual prospect.
  • North Florida C Keith Skinner (7th) signed for a mere $10,000, reports Mayo. Skinner was slotted for $191,500. As a college senior, he had basically zero leverage. Some seniors sign for $1,000.
  • Fullerton 1B Dalton Blaser (8th) also received a $10,000 bonus, according to Mayo. His pick has a $176,200 slot. BTI Sports posted a photo of Blaser signing his contract on Twitter.
  • Southern Mississippi 1B Tim Lynch (9th) has signed as well, according to Frankie Piliere. Lynch seemed to confirm it on Twitter. He’s another $10,000 pick per Baseball America. Lynch was slotted for $164,600.
  • Illinois-Chicago LHP Trevor Lane (10th) also signed for a $10,000, reports Jim Callis. He was slotted for $156,600. On Twitter, Lane said he is throwing a bullpen in Tampa today, then flying to New York to join Short Season Staten Island.
  • Louisiana Tech RHP Braden Bristo (23rd) signed for $55,000, according to Sean Isabella. Slot money for every pick after the tenth round is $100,000. Any bonus below that does not result in pool savings, however. Isabella says Bristo is heading to Tampa today and will soon join Staten Island.
  • Louisiana Tech LHP Tim Diehl (27th) signed for a $50,000 bonus plus another $20,000 in tuition money, he told Isabella. I guess you could say he got … *shades* … a nice Diehl. He’ll be in Tampa today and will be shifted to the bullpen in pro ball, per Isabella.
  • Wagner OF Ben Ruta (30th) is en route to Tampa, based on his Twitter feed. That’s usually a very good indication a deal is either done, or very close to being done.
  • Stony Brook LHP Tim Honahan (36th) told Tim Oakes he will sign. He’s due to report to Tampa for his physical and contract signing soon. “I grew up a Yankee fan. My idol was Andy Pettitte,” said Honahan to Oakes.

The Yankees have already saved $1,000,600 in pool money so far. The signing deadline is July 15th this year and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Rutherford waits until the very last second to sign. Tons of first rounders do that each year. James Kaprielian did it last year. My guess is Rutherford gets something in the $3.5M to $4M range.

2016 Draft: Yankees focus on saving bonus pool space for Rutherford on Day Two

Generally speaking, teams have two goals on Day Two of the draft. First of all they want to acquire talent. That’s obvious. At the same time, they also want to make sure their bonus pool situation is in order, so they spend a lot of time on the phone cutting deals. No one likes surprises when it comes to bonus demands, especially now in the age of spending pools.

After making two picks on Day One, the Yankees made eight more yesterday, and most of them were used on players who figure the save the team bonus pool space. California HS OF Blake Rutherford, the team’s first round pick, is not going to come cheap. He was a projected top ten pick and figures to be paid accordingly. The Yankees had to do something to save pool space on Day Two. Let’s review the team’s picks in rounds 3-10.

Adding More Upside

The pool saving did not start right away. The Yankees kicked off Day Two by taking California HS RHP Nolan Martinez with their third round pick, No. 98 overall. That seems like good value; Baseball America ranked Martinez as the 67th best prospect in the draft class while Keith Law (subs. req’d) and MLB.com ranked him 93rd and 99th, respectively. Point is, this wasn’t a pick designed to save money.

Martinez is a 6-foot-2 right-hander who runs his fastball up to 95 mph on occasion, and last fall at the World Wood Bat Association showcase, PitchFX measured his fastball spin rate at 2,685 rpm. That was the highest spin rate at the event and well above the MLB average fastball spin rate of 2,226 rpm. Spin rate is still a new thing we’re learning about, though high spin rates correlate well to swings and misses and low spin rates correlate well to ground balls.

In addition to the high spin fastball, Martinez also throws an upper-70s slurve that is closer to a curveball than a slider. He also has a changeup and a good, athletic delivery. Martinez doesn’t have sky high upside, but he does have three pitches and okay control, which is a darn good starting point for a third round pick. He’s the best prospect the Yankees have drafted aside from Rutherford so far.

Back to the JuCo ranks

I’m not sure how well they compare to other teams, but the Yankees seem to do a really good job scouting junior colleges. Just last season they plucked OF Trey Amburgey out of a junior college. Two years ago they landed 1B Chris Gittens from a junior college. Go back to 2011 and they plucked RHP Jon Gray out of a junior college too. He only developed into a prospect worthy of being the No. 3 pick in the country.

The Yankees went back to the junior college ranks to select Florida JuCo RHP Nick Nelson in the fourth round (128th overall). Nelson was a two-way player in school — he led the team in innings (90.1) and was second in plate appearances (247) — who projects best on the mound. It’s a classic reliever profile with a low-90s heater and a good slider, and if there’s one thing the Yankees know how to find in the draft, it’s bullpen arms.

Thompson-Williams. (247Sports)
Thompson-Williams. (247Sports)

A Top Tool in the Fifth Round

Once you get to the fifth round, there’s not much more you can do than zero in on players with an above-average tool and either hope it carries him or the rest of his game catches up. The Yankees picked South Carolina OF Dom Thompson-Williams with their fifth round selection (158th overall) and his standout tool in his defense. He’s a ballhawk in the outfield capable of making highlight reel plays. Can he hit? That’s the question and most think the answer is a no. The Yankees will send Thompson-Williams out there and hope he learns to recognize spin and catch up to pro velocity well enough to keep his glove in the lineup.

Time to Save Money

Inevitably, the Yankees had to draft some college seniors on Day Two to save bonus pool money for Rutherford. It had to happen. College seniors have little leverage and often sign for five-figure bonuses. Some get even less than that. The best senior the Yankees drafted yesterday is USC RHP Brooks Kriske (sixth round), who added velocity this spring and now sits 93-95 mph. He also has a slider and could carve out a career in the bullpen.

Fullerton 1B Dalton Blaser (eighth round) and Southern Miss 1B Tim Lynch (ninth round) will reportedly be in the Bronx later today to try out for the big league team’s first base job. Okay fine, I made that up. It might not be a bad idea though given the team’s first base situation. Anyway, Blaser is the better prospect of the two as a lefty hitter with some pull power. He hit .359/.439/.485 with four homers, 30 walks, and 18 strikeouts this year.

Update: I didn’t realize this, but Blaser’s father Mark was the Yankees’ fourth round pick in the 1981 draft. He played in their farm system from 1981-85, reaching as high as Double-A. Here’s his Baseball Reference page.

Lynch has much better numbers — he put up a .364/.470/.545 batting line with ten homers, 39 walks, and 13 strikeouts this spring — and is another left-hander hitter, but the general belief is there isn’t enough bat speed to handle high caliber pro pitching. Lynch is going to hold down a roster spot in the lower levels and provide some lineup depth around higher profile prospects. Same with Blaser.

Skinner! (North Florida University)
Skinner! (North Florida University)

North Florida C Keith Skinner (seventh round) is another lefty hitter with great numbers — he hit .382/.466/.486 with two homers, 36 walks, and 14 strikeouts this year — and unlike Blaser and Lynch, he has the advantage of playing a premium position. Skinner’s defense is okay at best. He can throw and receive a little bit, but he’s not someone who will shut the running game down with his arm or steal strikes with his framing.

The final college senior the Yankees drafted yesterday is Illinois-Chicago LHP Trevor Lane (tenth round), who fanned 30 and walked eleven in 26.2 innings this spring. He’s a reliever with a classic left-on-left matchup profile. Lane is a little guy at 5-foot-11 and 185 lbs., and he sits in the upper-80s with his fastball. He also has a sweepy breaking ball. Kriske, Skinner, Blaser, Lynch, and Lane are slotted for $944,200 combined. I’ll be surprised if it costs the team even half that to sign them all.

* * *

The Yankees landed one very good prospect in Martinez on Day Two, and I’m interested to see what Kriske does in pro ball, especially if the team sticks him in the bullpen right out of the chute. Most of the day was spent manipulating the bonus pool to make sure they have enough money to sign Rutherford, who is the kind of top of the draft talent the Yankees rarely have access to.