Thoughts on MLB.com’s farm system rankings and top 30 Yankees prospects

Tate. (Presswire)
Tate. (Presswire)

Last week the crew at MLB.com rolled out their annual team top 30 prospects lists. They also unveiled their farm system rankings, and again the Yankees came in at No. 2, behind the Braves. All four major scouting publications (MLB.com. Keith Law, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus) had the Braves and Yankees ranked first and second in their farm system rankings, respectively.

Anyway, I’m not going to list MLB.com’s entire top 30 Yankees prospect list here. Go click the link. As always, the whole thing is free. Scouting reports, videos, the whole nine. Here are the guys the Yankees had on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list instead:

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

Those seven are the top seven prospects in the top 30 list, in that order, because duh. I always think it’s kinda funny when the prospects are in a different order on the individual team list than the overall top 100 list. Anyway, here is my top 30 prospects list, and here are some thoughts on MLB.com’s top 30 list.

1. The Yankees will have the No. 1 system very soon. On day two of the regular season, basically. SS Dansby Swanson, Atlanta’s top prospect, is literally one at-bat short of exhausting his rookie status. So as soon as he plays on Opening Day, he’ll lose his prospect status, and the farm system rankings will be adjusted accordingly. I assume graduating Swanson, one of the two or three best prospects in the world, will be enough to knock the Braves under the Yankees on the farm system rankings. I mean, who cares, the rankings don’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but it’s always cool to the see the Yankees at the top. That’ll happen very soon.

2. The Yankees let Tate be himself. Two years ago RHP Dillon Tate was the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft. He then struggled so much in the first half of the 2016 season that the Rangers were willing to trade him (and two others!) for rental Carlos Beltran at the deadline. As it turns out, Texas tried to tweak Tate’s mechanics last year. “(Tate) had trouble incorporating some delivery changes the Rangers wanted him to make, with his fastball dropping into the upper 80s and his slider flattening out. After the trade, the Yankees told him to use whatever mechanics made him feel comfortable,” said the write-up. I’m not sure whether this is still the case under relatively new farm system head Gary Denbo, but once upon a time the Yankees had a policy where they’d give their top prospects a year in pro ball before making any major changes to their delivery, swing, whatever. They never would have changed Tate’s mechanics so soon after making him the fourth overall pick. The Rangers did and his stock dropped, and now the Yankees may benefit.

3. Refsnyder 2.0 is in the farm system. I had one 2016 draft pick in my top 30 list: first rounder OF Blake Rutherford. MLB.com has four in their top 30, including 2B Nick Solak. Last year’s second rounder hit .321/.412/.421 (155 wRC+) with nearly as many walks (10.8%) as strikeouts (14.0%) in 64 games with Short Season Staten Island following a productive three-year career at Louisville. MLB.com’s scouting report makes Solak sound like a Rob Refsnyder clone:

Solak has a long track record of hitting and getting on base. His right-handed swing is geared for stroking line drives from gap to gap, an approach that results in consistent contact but doesn’t provide much power … After DHing as a freshman and playing mostly the outfield corners as a sophomore, Solak shifted to second base last spring. He has the quickness and reliable hands for the position, though he doesn’t have the smoothest actions and some scouts believe he’s destined for center field.

Refsnyder played the outfield in college and moved to second base in pro ball. Solak made the transition to second during his junior year in college. Otherwise the two are pretty damn similar, and that’s not a bad thing, even with Refsnyder on the trade block. As a bat control guy with three years of experience at a major college program, Solak should rake in Single-A ball. He’s a good prospect, but I get the feeling he’s going to put up huge numbers this year and get overrated because of it, which is basically what happened with Refsnyder.

4. Widener is moving into the rotation. One of the four 2016 draftees to make the top 30 is RHP Taylor Widener, which surprised me. He was the club’s 12th round pick out of South Carolina, and his pro debut numbers were silly: 0.42 ERA (1.41 FIP) with 43.9% strikeouts and 4.7% walks in 42.2 innings. Widener was mostly a reliever in college, and the MLB.com’s scouting report says the Yankees are going to stick him in the rotation full-time. “Widener picked up velocity in his introduction to pro ball, as his fastball soared from 90-93 mph to 93-97. His mid-80s slider can be a wipeout pitch at times but lacks consistency. To prepare him for starting, the Yankees had him focus on refining his work-in-progress changeup during instructional league,” they wrote. (Widener is yet another pitching prospect who gained velocity in New York’s system.) The Yankees have a history of trying college relievers in the rotation, most notably Chance Adams, and it seems Widener is next. Turning Widener, a 12th round pick, into a legitimate starting pitcher prospect would be a hell of a thing.

5. McKinney didn’t make the top 30. OF Billy McKinney, who has impressed this spring, did not make MLB.com’s top 30 list. That’s a pretty good reminder how much his prospect stock dropped last year. McKinney’s .545/.643/1.371 batting line looks great, and gosh his swing sure is pretty, but eleven at-bats in Spring Training does erase his underwhelming .256/.349/.363 (107 wRC+) line in 130 Double-A games last year. Hopefully McKinney will regain some prospect stock this year. That would be cool. I ranked him as the No. 22 prospect in the system, but I don’t think it’s completely crazy to leave him out of the top 30. He needs to rebuild his value and this spring is a strong start, if nothing else.

6. The talent extends beyond the top 30. MLB.com prospect guru Jim Callis has maintained the Yankees have baseball’s deepest farm system since the trade deadline last year, and on Twitter he said he “easily could have written up 45 prospects” for the top 30. He also said 3B Dermis Garcia was in the 31-35 range and IF Thairo Estrada was among the final cuts too. “Type of guy to steal in trade,” said Callis about Estrada. Thairo is a personal fave — he smacked homers in back-to-back games earlier this spring when he was up from minor league camp — but it’s hard to see where he fits going forward because the Yankees are so loaded at shortstop. Estrada will be Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season, so decision time is coming. Trade? Add him to the 40-man roster? Roll the dice in the Rule 5 Draft? The Yankees are going to have to do something with Thairo (and several others) this year.

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 Updates: Rutherford, Martinez, Widener

1B Tim Lynch, who signed with the Yankees last week as their ninth round pick, used to be a huge autograph hound, writes Ken Rosenthal. He once brought Lorenzo Cain donuts to get him to sign a card, which completed Lynch’s signed Bowman set. Pretty cool story. Check it out.

Here is the latest round of 2016 draft pick signing news. You can see all of the Yankees’ picks at Baseball America. Here’s our first set of signing updates and our reviews of Day One, Day Two, and Day Three of the draft, in case you missed them.

  • Scouting director Damon Oppenheimer told George King there “is progress going on” in talks with California HS OF Blake Rutherford (1st round). “I don’t have a timetable, but we are making progress,” he said. Oppenheimer also said the Yankees are making progress with California HS RHP Nolan Martinez (3rd). Rutherford and Martinez are the team’s only unsigned picks in the top ten rounds, which are the rounds tied to the bonus pool.
  • South Carolina RHP Taylor Widener has signed, according to Baseball America. No word on his bonus, though I assume it is $100,000 or less. That’s the maximum teams can give players drafted after the tenth round without it counting towards the bonus pool.
  • Florida HS RHP Jordan Scott (14th) has signed, also according to Baseball America. Scott actually tweeted out that he had signed, but it has since been deleted. Guess he jumped the gun. There’s no word on his bonus.
  • New York JuCo LHP Tony Hernandez (15th) has signed for $100,000, reports Josh Norris. That’s the max allowed without anything counting towards the bonus pool.
  • Eastern Kentucky 3B Mandy Alvarez (17th) round has signing and is already playing for Short Season Staten Island. No word on his bonus, but I assume it is $100,000 or less.
  • Fordham RHP Greg Weissert (18th) told Jesse Foster he is planning to sign. He’s supposed to head down to Tampa soon to take his physical and sign his contract.
  • Texas HS OF Evan Alexander (19th) seems to have signed, according to his Twitter account. He traveled to Florida yesterday, indicating he’s in Tampa for his physical and contract signing.
  • Fullerton RHP Miles Chambers (20th), USC OF Timmy Robinson (21st), and Maryland JuCo OF Joe Burton (24th) have all signed, according to Baseball America. No word on their bonuses.
  • Florida HS OF Ed Luaces (25th) has signed, he told Robert Pimpsner. He is currently in Tampa working out and will be assigned to one of the minor league affiliates soon.
  • Lander RHP Will Jones (28th) has signed according to his Twitter feed. No word on his bonus, but as with pretty much everyone else in this post, I assume it’s $100,000 or less.
  • California HS C D.C. Clawson (34th) told Steve Breazeale he plans to follow through on his commitment to BYU unless the Yankees make a last minute over-slot offer. Clawson is one of the players the Yankees took as a backup plan in case Rutherford doesn’t sign and leaves them with a bunch of unspent bonus pool space.
  • Virginia HS RHP Zach Hess (35th) indicated he will not sign on Twitter. Like Clawson, Hess is one of the players selected as a backup plan in case Rutherford doesn’t sign.
  • Stony Brook RHP Tim Honahan (36th) has indeed signed. Stony Brook broadcaster Jeff Bernstein posted a photo of Honahan signing his contract on Twitter. No word on his bonus. Last week we heard Honahan was planning to sign.
  • Wisconsin-Milwaukee RHP Brian Keller (39th) has signed, he told Steven Tietz. He’s in Tampa working out now. “There will be workouts, and then I’ll be assigned (to one of the minor league affiliates),” said Keller to Tietz.
  • Wisconsin HS RHP Nate Brown (40th) told JR Radcliffe he will not sign, but appreciates being drafted. “Now I have a love for the Yankees I didn’t have before. Three years from now, if they come in and (draft me) and don’t offer me as much as I’ve been (hoping for), there’s still that deep feeling in my heart that three years ago, they saw something that the other guys didn’t,” he said.

By my unofficial count, the Yankees have now signed 24 of their 40 draft picks. Teams usually sign 25-30 draftees each year. The Yankees still need to get Rutherford and Martinez locked up, though it seems like only a matter of time until that happens. Rutherford probably won’t sign until the July 15th deadline though. Here’s our Draft Pool Tracker.