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 Never-Ending Search for Quality Utility Players [2016 Season Review]

Ackley. (Presswire)
Ackley. (Presswire)

Building a quality bench is more difficult than it seems. Bench players are like relievers. Their performance can fluctuate wildly from year to year because they inherently work in small sample sizes, and weird stuff happens in small samples. A bench guy will hit .330 with a ton of clutch hits one year, then struggle to get off the interstate the next. Happens all the time. That’s baseball.

The Yankees have spent the last few years building their bench through trades and from within. Signing free agent bench players is tough. Bench guys usually look for the most playing time when they hit free agency, and the Yankees rarely offer that. They tend to have a defined roster with set players at each position. This year, the Yankees cycled through a pair of bench players — one acquired via trade, the other developed from within — capable of playing first base, second base, and right field. Neither worked out too well.

The Good Fit Who Didn’t Hit

Last year at the trade deadline the Yankees made just one small trade, acquiring Dustin Ackley from the Mariners for spare parts Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez. Ackley, a former top prospect and No. 2 pick in the draft, seemed like a decent enough upside play. He’s versatile, and the Mariners haven’t had much success developing hitters over the years, so a change of scenery could have helped.

Ackley, now 28, had a nice little run with the Yankees after the trade, hitting .288/.333/.654 (162 wRC+) with four homers in 57 games. His spot on the 2016 bench was secure. Ackley had a very strong Spring Training, putting up a .298/.313/.404 batting line, and I remember wondering how the Yankees would get him in the lineup. They’d have to sit Mark Teixeira now and then, same with Starlin Castro and Carlos Beltran. And Alex Rodriguez.

Once the season started, Ackley rarely played, and when he did get a chance to play, he didn’t perform. That seems to be how these things work. A guy appears to fit the roster well based on his positional versatility and bat, but he doesn’t play. Call it the Curse of Garrett Jones™. Ackley appeared in nine of the Yankees’ first 29 games and started only four of them. During that time he went 2-for-17 (.118) at the plate. Yeah.

Injuries to A-Rod, Teixeira, and Jacoby Ellsbury opened up some playing time in May, so at one point Ackley started 13 of 24 team games and appeared in six others. In those 24 team games, he went 7-for-44 (.159). On May 29th, Ackley’s season came to an abrupt end when he managed to tear the labrum in his right shoulder diving back into first base on a pickoff throw.

Pretty much exactly what happened to Mason Williams last year. Dove back into first and tore up his shoulder. Sucks. Ackley actually remained in that game initially. He ran the bases and played another inning in the field before being removed. Tests after the game revealed the labrum tear. Ackley had his season-ending surgery five days later.

In 28 games and 70 plate appearances this season, Ackley hit .148/.243/.148 (11 wRC+) with six runs scored, four runs driven in, eight walks, and nine strikes. He did not have an extra-base hit or a multi-hit game. Ackley saw his most action at first base (85 innings), and he also saw time in right (54.1 innings) and at second base (one inning). Not to be forgotten is this great play at Camden Yards:

That’s pretty much the only notable thing Ackley did this past season. MLBTR projects him to receive a $3.2M salary through arbitration next year, and while that represents no raise at all, it’s too much for a fringe player coming off major shoulder surgery. Ackley was a non-tender candidate before the injury. The surgery made him a lock. The Yankees could bring him back on a minor league contract, but, as is often the case with these players, Ackley will look for the greatest opportunity, which figures to take him elsewhere.

The Utility Man in Training

Over the past two seasons the Yankees have made it pretty clear they believe Rob Refsnyder is most valuable in a utility role. They didn’t give him a chance at second base last year whenever Stephen Drew slipped into one of his long stretches of nothingness, and when Refsnyder showed up to Spring Training this year, the Yankees pointed him towards third base and said get to work.

During Grapefruit League play Refsnyder saw most of his work at the hot corner, playing 54.1 innings at third compared to only 27 at second. He didn’t see any time in the outfield. For the most part Refsnyder handled himself well. He made the routine plays and that was about it. He didn’t look comfortable there, but he handled it well. At least until taking ground balls to the face on consecutive days at the end of March. Ouch.

The Yankees went with Ronald Torreyes for their backup infielder spot — fun fact: Torreyes is 17 months younger than Refsnyder — mostly because he can play shortstop and is a better all-around defender than Refsnyder. The Yankees sent Refsnyder to Triple-A Scranton and had him continue working out at third base. He also got reacquainted with right field. The team tried to make him as versatile as possible.

Refsnyder was called up for the first time in mid-May, after A-Rod landed on the DL with a hamstring injury. That stint in the show lasted one game. He started in right field on May 28th, when 1-for-3 with a double against the Athletics in Oakland, then was sent down five days later. Four days after that, he was called back up. Refsnyder returned after Ackley blew out his shoulder diving into first base.

Refsnyder. (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

The second stint with the Yankees was much longer than the first. Refsnyder remained with the big league team until mid-August, and during this stint the club gave him a crash course at first base to help cover during Teixeira’s knee injury. Refsnyder had literally one afternoon session with infield coach Joe Espada before getting a start at first base. The Yankees threw him to the wolves.

As with third base in Spring Training, Refsnyder’s early work at first base was fine. He made the plays he was supposed to make, though occasionally his inexperience showed. He’d wander too far off the base for a ball he should have let the second baseman take, that sort of thing. All things considered, Refsnyder handled the new position well on such short notice. He spent three weeks as the everyday first baseman while Teixeira was hurt too.

Once Teixeira returned, Refsnyder became a platoon player who was regularly in the lineup against righties, often hitting second. Usually he played right field, but he also saw action at first base, second base, and even some left field. Following a quick demotion to Triple-A in August — the Yankees were running thin on arms at the time and needed bullpen reinforcements — Refsnyder returned once rosters expanded in September and resumed his role as a platoon player.

Through three different call-ups, the 25-year-old Refsnyder hit .250/.328/.309 (72 wRC+) with good strikeout (17.1%) and walk (10.3%) rates in 175 plate appearances with the big league team. He also hit .274/.370/.355 (94 wRC+) against lefties. His at-bats were good, Refsnyder is a grinder at the plate, but he also hit for no power. Literally zero home runs despite calling Yankee Stadium home and watching balls fly out of the park all around the league all summer.

Refsnyder socked eight doubles in his first 83 at-bats with the Yankees, which is really good, especially considering he played sparingly. He then had one extra-base hit, a double, in his final 92 plate appearances of the season. Yikes. Here, look at Refsnyder’s spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Rob Refsnyder spray chart

I count four balls hit to the warning track on the fly. In 175 plate appearances. Goodness. Refsnyder’s average batted ball distance was a mere 197 feet. That’s slap hitter territory. Chris Stewart (197 feet), Denard Span (196 feet), and Ichiro Suzuki (195 feet) reside there. Refsnyder, whose calling card is his bat, put the ball on the ground way too often (52.8%) and didn’t generate enough hard contact (26.4% vs. 31.4% MLB average).

Give Refsnyder credit. He worked really hard to learn third base and then first base on the fly in an effort to make himself more valuable to the Yankees. And perhaps all the work he did on the defensive side of the ball took away from his offense. Refsnyder wouldn’t be the first guy to go through that. Either way, he’s a bat first player whose bat wasn’t good enough in 2016. Quality at-bats are nice! But more production is needed going forward.

I really have no idea what the future holds for Refsnyder at this point. I could see him being an up-and-down bench guy next year. I could see him spending the entire season as a platoon bat. I could see him getting traded. There’s a whole world of possibilities. Refsnyder has one more minor league option left for next year, so the Yankees have some time. He’s a nice depth player to have. At some point though, Refsnyder’s going to have to take an opportunity and run with with it.

Saturday Links: Fan Appreciation, Caps, Girardi, Refsnyder

This year's rookie hazing theme: Baby Bombers! (@Yankees)
This year’s rookie hazing theme: Baby Bombers! (@Yankees)

The Yankees and Blue Jays will continue their four-game series with the second game this afternoon. Until then, I recommend checking out Jeff Passan’s 25 things you didn’t know about baseball, plus these bits of news and notes.

Yankees holding Fan Appreciation Day

The Yankees announced they will hold a Fan Appreciation Day on Sunday, October 2nd, at Yankee Stadium. That’s the final day of the regular season, and the day of Mark Teixeira‘s farewell ceremony. Here’s the press release with all the details. In a nutshell, there are ticket discounts and seat upgrades and random prizes. All sorts of cool stuff. Best of all, everyone in attendance gets a voucher for two free tickets to a game next season. Nice work, Yankees. This is pretty great.

New Era logo coming to MLB caps

According to Chris Creamer, all MLB caps will feature the New Era logo on the left side starting this postseason. MLB’s contract with New Era was amended to include the logo recently, and this extends into the 2017 season. I’m not sure about beyond that. So yes, the iconic Yankees hat will have a New Era logo on the side next year, similar to this:

Yankees New Era hat

Hats were the last piece of the uniform that did not bear the manufacturer’s logo. In fact, Creamer says the Yankees are the only team in baseball exempt from having a Majestic logo on their jersey sleeves. I didn’t know that. The New Era logo is far more noticeable though, and frankly, it looks kinda amateurish. I’m sure I’ll get used to it, but right now I’m not a fan. Maybe put a smaller New Era logo on the back of the hat near the MLB logo?

Girardi among best bullpen managers

Earlier this week Rob Arthur and Rian Watt put together a study that attempts to measure bullpen management, essentially by comparing reliever quality and leverage index. Which managers have their best relievers on the mound in the most important situations, basically. According to their metric, the best bullpen manager since 2000 is Joe Torre, believe it or not. He was 13% better than average. Joe Girardi and Ozzie Guillen are tied for second at 11%.

Two things I found interesting about Arthur’s and Watt’s work: One, there’s not much correlation in bullpen management from year-to-year. A manager can have a good year one year and a bad one the next. I imagine reliever quality, which is very volatile, has a lot to do with that. And two, the difference between the best and worst bullpen managers is only about a win across a full 162-game season. That seems low, but remember, ultimately it’s up to the pitcher to perform. The manager doesn’t pitch. Even great pitchers have bad outings.

Refsnyder a Marvin Miller award finalist

Through fan voting, Rob Refsnyder has been selected as the AL East finalist for the Marvin Miller Man of the Year award, writes Bryan Hoch. The award is given annually to the player “whose on-field performance and contributions to his community inspire others to higher levels of achievement.” The winner is picked through a players-only vote, and the MLBPA will donate $50,000 on behalf of the winner to the charity of his choice.

Refsnyder has been working to raise money for A Kid’s Place, which helps Tampa area children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. He designed and is selling a t-shirt through Athletes Brand, with all proceeds this month going to the charity. The other division finalists for the Man of the Year award include two ex-Yankees: Curtis Granderson, David Robertson, Anthony Rizzo, Lance McCullers Jr., and Justin Turner.

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.

Rob Refsnyder isn’t hitting for any power and he wants to change that next season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Since the trade deadline the Yankees have started a legitimate youth movement by calling up top prospects Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, as well as others like Tyler Austin and Ben Heller. Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell are in the rotation as well, though that’s largely due to necessity.

The one young player who predates all those guys is Rob Refsnyder, who was up briefly last season and has spent much of this year on the big league roster. He’s appeared in 54 games with the Yankees this season and figures to be a lineup regular the rest of the way thanks to the Starlin Castro and Jacoby Ellsbury injuries.

The 25-year-old Refsnyder has not had much of an impact at the plate this year, hitting .248/.334/.309 (70 wRC+) with zero home runs and only nine doubles in 171 plate appearances. He will work a walk (9.9%) and make contact (16.4% strikeouts), but not much more than that. For a bat-first (bat-only?) player, that’s not enough to stick around.

Refsnyder wants to change that. He wants to add some power to his game this offseason and he’s got a plan to make that happen. Here’s what Refsnyder told David Laurila over the weekend:

“I’m going to try to hit home runs next year,” Refsnyder told me on Friday. “I’ve had a lot of good conversations with people and I’m going to try to completely change my game. I think it will help my career.”

“I’m going to go back to the drawing board and watch a lot of video,” said Refsnyder. “I’ll probably watch a lot of (Brian) Dozier video. Dozier doesn’t have too long of a swing — he’s pretty short and compact — and his pull rate is really high. I’ll look at Daniel Murphy, too. He changed his game from being more of a contact guy — trying to put the barrel on the ball — to pulling the ball in the air.

“I’m never going to be one of those guys who hits for opposite-field power. That’s OK. Mookie Betts pulls the ball with the best of them. He goes the other way, but not for opposite-field home runs. Mookie and Dozier are the type of guys I need to look at.”

It’s an interesting thought, a non-power hitter trying to become a power hitter, and it’s not unprecedented. Refsnyder has identified the right guys to study — Dozier and Betts have both hit for far more power in the show than they were expected to in the minors — though as a right-handed hitter, he won’t benefit from the short porch by adopting their pull heavy approach. That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth trying though. I have some thoughts.

1. He needs to do more offensively to stick around. Simply put, Refsnyder will never be much of an asset in the field. He’s worked hard to pick up first and third base this season and that’s good. We haven’t seen him at third yet, but at least now Refsnyder’s an emergency option here. He’s spent plenty of time at first and second bases with the Yankees, and in the corner outfield.

The versatility is nice, but Refsnyder’s overall defense isn’t very good. It’s not even average, really. For him to have value and staying power in the big leagues, he’s going to have to hit and hit big. A bad defensive utility man with a .600-something OPS is not the most valuable player in the world, you know? No one expects Refsnyder to become a 40-homer guy like Dozier (seriously, wtf?), but getting to 15-20 homers would be huge.

2. He can cover the plate and drive inside pitches. There’s more to being a pull hitter than looking for a pitch inside and yanking it down the line. Pitchers aren’t stupid, they know when hitters are trying to pull the ball, which is why they’re going to stay on the outer half of the plate. For all their warts, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann have been really good at punishing outside pitches the last few years.

As you might expect given his strikeout and contact (83.8%) rates, Refsnyder does a really nice job covering the plate. He can reach outside pitches and put them in the play. At the same time, he does his most damage on inside pitches, when he can whip the bat around and pull the ball to left. Here are some strike zone heat maps. Contact rate is on the left and ISO is on the right. You can click the image for a larger view and I recommend doing that so you can actually read it.

Rob Refsnyder contact and ISOThe brighter the red the better, the brighter the blue the … worser? Anyway, the contact heat map (left) shows Refsnyder can get the bat on the ball no matter where it is in the strike zone, inside or outside, up or down. Down-and-in is his one glaring hole and that’s not uncommon at all. The ISO heat map (left) shows that while Refsnyder can make contact all around the strike zone, the inside pitch is the only one he’s been able to drive in his MLB career.

Plate coverage is good! That’s a nice skill to have. Refsnyder’s ability to become a power hitter and hit more home runs is going to depend largely on whether he’ll be able to make consistent hard contact on pitches on the outer half. He had handle the inside pitch. The up-and-in pitch, to be more specific. Anything down and on the outer half of the plate is a different matter.

3. He needs to get the ball in the air more often. You’re not going to hit for power if you don’t hit the ball in the air, and so far this season Refsnyder has a 52.4% ground ball rate in the big leagues. It was 66.7% (!) last year. Here are his recent Triple-A ground ball rates:

2016: 53.9% in 230 plate appearances
2015: 59.2% in 522 plate appearances
2014: 53.2% in 333 plate appearances

Geez, that’s a lot of ground balls, huh? It’s no wonder Refsnyder hit only 35 home runs in just over 2,000 minor league plate appearances. He’s no Greg Bird when it comes to hitting the ball in the air. That’s for sure.

Moreso than driving outside pitches, figuring out how to get the ball in the air is going to be Refsnyder’s top priority as he works to hit for more power. This is a must. Only four players have a .170+ ISO and a 50%+ ground ball rate over the last three years: Ryan Braun, David Peralta, A.J. Pollock, and Hunter Pence. Step one to hitting more homers is getting the ball airborne. Refsnyder knows that, I’m sure.

4. The upside outweighs the downside. The thought of a hitter revamping his hitting style and approach in an effort to hit more home runs can be scary. There’s a lot of muscle memory in Refsnyder’s swing and he’s going to have to alter it. What if the power hitting fails and he screws up his normal swing? It could be a career-ender.

It’s easy for me to say this because it’s not my livelihood on the line, but I think this is worth a shot. The upside is greater than the downside. As it stands, Refsnyder is basically a utility guy who might not be average on either side of the ball, and that’s a tough profile. Hitting for more power can help keep him in the big leagues longer. He doesn’t have to turn into Brian Dozier, he just has to do more than he has been. His current skill set may not be built to last.

Saturday Links: Mateo, Instructs, Gurriel, Refsnyder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees and Red Sox will continue their four-game series with the third game later this afternoon. Here are some bits of news and notes to hold you over.

Mateo among Law’s most disappointing prospects

After blazing start to the season with High-A Tampa, shortstop prospect Jorge Mateo hit a wall in June and never really recovered. He finished the year with a thoroughly disappointing .254/.306/.379 (99 wRC+) batting line despite setting a new career high with eight homers. Mateo went 36-for-51 (71%) in steal attempts one year after going 82-for-99 (83%).

It’s no surprise then that Mateo is one of eight top 100 prospects who took a step back this season, according to Keith Law (subs. req’d). “Getting suspended for two weeks for an unspecified violation of team rules was just the tip of the iceberg … multiple scouts have told me they haven’t seen Mateo make anywhere near enough hard contact,” said his write-up. “(The Yankees) seem to have soured a little on his makeup and have clearly superior shortstop options elsewhere in the system.”

The Yankees were ready to trade Mateo to the Padres for Craig Kimbrel at the trade deadline last year and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them shop him for pitching this offseason. They have a ton of shortstops in the farm system, including the superior Gleyber Torres, and Mateo still has enough top prospect shine to headline a package for a quality young pitcher. Right now I think there’s better than a 50/50 chance Mateo is traded this winter. We’ll see.

Instructional League roster released

Earlier this week Baseball America (no subs. req’d) posted the Yankees’ Instructional League roster. Instructs start later this month and run through mid-November. The roster looks the same as always. Some top prospects but mostly recent draftees and international signees, and players who missed time to injury. Blake Rutherford is apparently healthy enough for Instructs after missing the end of the season with a hamstring injury, so that’s cool.

Yesterday we heard James Kaprielian faced hitters for the first time since being shut down with an elbow injury way back in April. He’s not on the Instructional League roster but could always be added and get some innings there. The Yankees want Kaprielian to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and Instructs would be a natural stepping stone. Also, Greg Bird will face living pitching in Instructional League for the first time since shoulder surgery. He’s not on the roster but that might have to do with the fact he’s technically a rehabbing big leaguer, not a minor leaguer.

Gurriel holds showcase for MLB teams

Cuban infield prospect Lourdes Gurriel Jr. held a workout for teams earlier this week in Panama City, reports Jesse Sanchez. There were 60 scouts in attendance and Gurriel did the usual: fielded ground balls, shagged fly balls, took batting practice, ran sprints, that sort of stuff. “I have been waiting for this moment and now it became a reality. This was my first step to the big leagues, God willing. I’m grateful for everyone who helped me get to this point,” he said.

Sanchez said scouts were impressed by Gurriel’s arm and physicality, though the consensus is he needs more at-bats against live pitching. I mean, duh. He hasn’t played in a competitive game in almost a year now. The expectation has always been that Gurriel will need to spend some time in the minors before helping a big league team, the same way his brother did. Yulieski, by the way, has hit .329/.350/.500 (129 wRC+) with three homers in his first 22 games with the Astros, so that’s going well.

Lourdes is not Yoan Moncada, but he’s pretty darn good. He’s working out for teams now even though he won’t sign until he turns 23 next month. Once he turns 23 he will no longer be subject to the league’s international spending restrictions, so teams can pay him whatever they want. The Yankees haven’t signed a big name Cuban player in a long time, not since Jose Contreras, so I really have no reason to think they’ll sign Gurriel. Maybe they’ll surprise me.

Refsnyder nominated for Marvin Miller award

Rob Refsnyder is the Yankees’ nominee for this year’s Marvin Miller Man of the Year award, the MLBPA announced earlier this week. The award is given annually to the player “whose on-field performance and contributions to his community inspire others to higher levels of achievement.” Fans can vote to select one finalist from each division. Here’s the ballot.

Refsnyder, who was born in South Korea and adopted by a family in California when he was three months old, has been helping raise money for a charity called A Kid’s Place, which helps Tampa area children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. Refsnyder designed and is selling a t-shirt through Athletes Brand, with all the proceeds this month going to the charity. Pretty awesome. Well done, Ref.

Refsnyder and Williams are the Yankees’ best options in the wake of the Judge injury

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Last night the Yankees won the second game of their three-game series with the Dodgers, but they also lost an everyday player to injury. Right fielder Aaron Judge tweaked his right oblique taking a swing, and although he stayed in to finish the at-bat, he was pulled from the game after the inning was over. Judge will go for an MRI today to determine the severity of the injury.

“It’s possible (he’s done for the season),” said Joe Girardi following last night’s game. “It’s his right rib cage. He’ll have an MRI. We won’t see him for a while … I just told him, ‘You’re out.’ I called him over and he didn’t really argue. We’ve got to get this checked out and see where you’re at.”

Judge’s first month or so in the big leagues has been a mixed bag. He’s hitting .179/.263/.345 (61 wRC+) overall with a 44.2% strikeout rate, so for the most part his at-bats have been unproductive. At the same time, every once in a while Judge will do this …

… and remind you exactly why he’s been so highly touted the last few seasons. That’s not even the longest home run Judge has hit in his short time as a big leaguer. He hit one over the windows of the restaurant in center field last month. Between the power and the strikeouts, it’s amazing Judge ever sees a fastball. It really is.

Anyway, the injury means the Yankees are down not only their starting right fielder in Judge, but also their backup right fielder. Aaron Hicks is still out of action with a Grade II hamstring, remember. At the moment the Yankees have only three healthy true outfielders on the active roster: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Eric Young Jr. That’s it. (I won’t blame you if you forgot about EYJ. I did too.)

Even if the MRI today reveals good news, chances are the Yankees will be without Judge for at least a few days. Oblique strains usually don’t heal overnight. Also, they’re very easy to reaggravate, and Judge isn’t a nobody. The Yankees are going to play it very safe with him. The last thing they want is him to suffer a setback that throws his offseason workouts out of whack. Here are the team’s options with Judge sidelined.

Short-Term Fix

Girardi all but confirmed Rob Refsnyder will step in as the every right fielder for the time being. They really have no other choice. “That’s what I’ll go with now and obviously I’ve got to talk to (Brian Cashman) to see if we’re going to make a move here,” said the manager last night. The only other option is Tyler Austin, who is the most-of-the-time first baseman, so Refsnyder it is.

In sporadic playing time this year Refsnyder has a .268/.342/.333 (81 wRC+) batting line in 159 plate appearances. That’s … unique. He’s drawing walks (10.1%) and making contact (13.2% strikeouts), but he’s also hit for zero power. Refsnyder’s yet to hit a home run and he has only nine doubles too. He works a quality at-bat almost every time up and that’s great. Some extra-base pop would be cool though.

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

Hopefully the doubles and homers come now that Refsnyder will get a chance to play everyday. His defense is not great in right field — maybe this will press Young into defensive replacement duty in tight games? — but again, the Yankees are pretty much out of options. Based on the guys they have on the active roster, Refsnyder is the best right field solution.

Returning Soon?

Grade II hamstring strains can be pretty serious and they tend to lead to prolonged absences, but Hicks is already back performing baseball activities. He got hurt on August 31st and he’s already started running in the outfield and taking batting practice. Hicks is going to Tampa later today to ramp up his rehab, and it sounds as though the goal is to activate him off the DL when the Yankees arrive for their series with the Rays next week.

As crappy a year as he’s had, getting Hicks back as soon as next week would be pretty huge. At the very least, he could replace Refsnyder for defense in the late innings. Best case scenario is Hicks picks up where he left off in August — he hit .280/.330/.439 (106 wRC+) in fairly regular playing time last month — and takes over right field everyday. A little friendly competition between Refsnyder and Hicks would be good for both, I think. Either way, there’s a chance Hicks will return as soon as next week. That would be pretty awesome.

The Call-Up Candidate

The Yankees have one outfielder on the 40-man roster who is not in the big leagues right now: Mason Williams. Williams returned from shoulder surgery at midseason and hit .317/.335/.410 (112 wRC+) in 46 regular season minor league games, almost all at Triple-A. Typical Mason Williams, basically. At least when he’s going good. Williams has carried that performance over into the postseason with the RailRiders too.

Girardi acknowledged a Williams call-up was possible last night — “It’s going to be really difficult (with a short bench) … There’s outfielders down there that we’re going to have to talk about because we’re short,” he said — and given where the Yankees are in the postseason race, everything has to be on the table at this point. They surely want Williams to get as many at-bats as possible following shoulder surgery, but playing with a short bench in a postseason race makes no sense.

(Scranton Times-Tribune)
(Scranton Times-Tribune)

Remember, the Yankees originally planned to give Bryan Mitchell one more Triple-A start to iron things out earlier this month, but as soon as Chad Green got hurt, they called Mitchell up because he was the best option. The same applies to Williams. Would they like him to get more at-bats with the RailRiders? Surely. Judge’s injury has forced their hand though, and with a playoff spot within reach, having the best team possible has to be the priority.

Scranton’s season will end no later than Saturday — it can end as soon as tomorrow — and I’m guessing Williams won’t make it that far. He’ll be up before then, perhaps later today. The RailRiders would be pretty screwed during the International League Championship Series, but the big league team is the always the priority. Chances are we’ll see Mason very soon.

The Long Shots

The three other outfielders with Triple-A Scranton are not on the 40-man roster: Clint Frazier, Cesar Puello, and Jake Cave. I can’t see them calling Frazier up a year before he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible. That would be a big time panic move. Puello and Cave are a different story because cutting them loose in the offseason wouldn’t be a big deal. If the Yankees do decide to give Williams more at-bats in Triple-A following surgery, Puello or Cave could get the call instead. This section is called “The Long Shots” for a reason though. I don’t see this happening. Puello, Cave, and Frazier are all options available to the Yankees. They’re not that desperate yet though.

* * *

The Judge injury isn’t devastating — he wasn’t hitting much outside the occasional dinger — but it further thins out the Yankees’ outfield. Refsnyder is a short-term solution and Hicks might be back next week, which would be cool. My guess is we’ll see Williams sooner rather than later too. There’s a clear need and he can be useful, even if he’s only a defensive replacement for the time being. The Yankees may not want to use Refsnyder in right or call up Williams before the end of the Triple-A season, but they’re short on outfielders at the moment, and those two are their best immediate options with Judge and Hicks out.