Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

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Poll: Tyler Austin or Rob Refsnyder on the bench

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

When Spring Training opens in a little under the a month, the Yankees are going to have to sort out a few positions, and for once, it’s not because there’s a veteran guy in camp trying to make the team. The Yankees have several young players vying for two rotation spots, a bunch of bullpen spots, right field, and also first base. Brian Cashman insists right field and first base are wide open.

Of course, if you give Cashman a truth serum, he’d tell you he wants Greg Bird to take the first base job and run with it. Bird completed his shoulder surgery rehab and got some at-bats in the Arizona Fall League last year, but the Yankees know he might be all the way back to his 2015 form come Opening Day. A stint in Triple-A is entirely possible. Hopefully not, but if it’s necessary, what can you do?

Bird’s primary competition at first base is Tyler Austin, who reemerged as a prospect last season and made his big league debut in August. He did some cool things, like sock some clutch opposite field home runs at Yankee Stadium, though he had his difficulties as well. Austin’s strikeout (40.0%) and contact (62.0%) rates weren’t much better than Aaron Judge‘s (44.2% and 59.7%), whom many seem to think will strike out his way to the prospect graveyard.

Also in the mix at first base will presumably be the recently signed Ji-Man Choi as well as Rob Refsnyder, who saw time at first last year. And the thing is, it’s entirely possible — if not likely — two of these players will make the Opening Day roster. Would a Bird-Austin platoon at first base surprise you? Not me. Same goes with Bird-Refsnyder. A Choi-Austin or Choi-Refsnyder platoon could happen too. (Austin-Refsnyder would be weird.)

Barring Spring Training injuries or surprises, the four-man bench going into the season figures to include a backup catcher (Austin Romine), a backup infielder (Ronald Torreyes), and a backup infielder (Aaron Hicks). That assumes Hicks isn’t needed to play right field because Judge gets sent down to Triple-A. I feel like that would be the ideal bench, with the fourth spot still to be determined.

Bird winning the first base job would make carrying Choi on the bench sorta silly. I mean, yeah, Choi can play a little outfield, but not really. Carrying two left-handed hitting first baseman doesn’t make much sense. Austin or Refsnyder would be the best candidates for that fourth bench spot, especially with the Yankees trying to go young. What’s the advantage of carrying, say, Ruben Tejada over those guys? I don’t see one. Let’s make cases for Austin and Refsnyder on the bench, shall we?

The Case for Austin

In his limited big league time last year, Austin annihilated left-handers, hitting .348/.444/.652 (195 wRC+) against them even though three of his five homers came against righties. (Austin had a 62 wRC+ against righties). His split was far less pronounced in Triple-A: .365/.459/.698 against lefties and .304/.394/.609 against righties. Austin was a man among boys in Scranton. I’m not sure how useful his Triple-A splits are.

One thing we know for sure is Austin has more power than Refsnyder. A lot more. Refsnyder hit two home runs in 405 plate appearances last year. Two. Both in Triple-A. Austin hit five homers with the Yankees on top of the 17 he hit in the minors. He hit nearly as many homers in 2016 (22) as Refsnyder hit from 2014-16 (27). Austin’s right field pop is a fun fit for Yankee Stadium. He’ll unquestionably give New York more thump.

Defensively, Austin is limited to first base and the two corner outfield spots. He has minor league experience at third base (35 total games), but he’s not good there, so I wouldn’t consider him anything more than an emergency option at the hot corner. Furthermore, Austin is not a good defensive outfielder. We saw him take some weird routes and pull up short of the wall a few times last year. At first base he was fine enough. Not great, not terrible.

Austin has long been a bat-first player, which is why his prospect stock took a big hit when he didn’t do much at the plate from 2014-15. Put him on the bench, and Joe Girardi can use him as a platoon option at first as well as occasionally in the outfield and at DH. He gives them some legitimate power to use against all those AL East southpaws (Chris Sale, David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Blake Snell, Wade Miley).

The Case for Refsnyder

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

For long stretches of time last season Girardi used Refsnyder as a platoon bat against righties, often batting him second in the lineup. Refsnyder responded with a .274/.370/.355 (94 wRC+) batting line against southpaws, which, while short on power, is nice from an on-base point of view. Not making outs is cool. Austin has the advantage in power while Refsnyder boasts the better plate discipline numbers:

  • Austin in 2016: 40.0 K% and 7.8 BB% in MLB (25.2 K% and 13.7 BB% in Triple-A)
  • Refsnyder in 2016: 17.1 K% and 10.3 BB% in MLB (13.0 K% and 7.4 BB% in Triple-A)

One thing we saw out of Refsnyder last year — and even the year before, really — was consistently quality at-bats. He didn’t jump out of his shoes flailing at pitches out of the zone and he wasn’t afraid to hit with two strikes. The results weren’t always there, but have quality at-bats and the results will come eventually. Hopefully. Anyway, Austin has more swing and miss in his game.

Refsnyder’s lack of defense makes him a bat-first player as well, though based on what I saw last year, which admittedly isn’t much, Refsnyder is much more refined in the outfield than Austin. He won’t win Gold Gloves or anything, but he takes good routes and seems to be in control out there. Austin was a bit more … chaotic. Also, we know Refsnyder can play second if necessary, and last year the Yankees had him learn first and third base. As with Austin though, third seems like an emergency only option.

With Refsnyder on the bench, Girardi could continue using him as a platoon bat who will make a pitcher work, though he doesn’t figure to hit for much power. Right field is probably his best defensive position, but he can also play first and second bases if necessary, so there’s another layer of versatility there. Neither guy will set land speed records, so baserunning isn’t a tiebreaker.

* * *

Ultimately, this comes down to Austin’s power against Refsnyder’s contact skills and ability to play second base. Being able to play second is not nothing. With Torreyes and Austin on the bench, the Yankees can only rest one regular non-first base infielder at a time. With Torreyes and Refsnyder, Girardi will be able to rest two at the same time. At the end of a blowout or whatever.

In all likelihood both Austin and Refsnyder are going to spend time in the fourth bench spot next season. They both have minor league options remaining, and depending on the team’s needs at the time, they might find themselves going up and down. And you know what else? When injury strikes — and it inevitably will — chances are both will be on the roster at the same time. Baseball has a way of making these situations go away. Anyway, this question is ripe for a poll, so let’s get to it.

Who should get the final bench spot?
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Thoughts on the ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees

2017 WAR projections.
2017 WAR projections.

Earlier this week, Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs released ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees. There are a ton of projection systems out there these days, possibly too many at this point, and ZiPS is my personal favorite. It’s been pretty accurate relative to the other systems, historically. ZiPS is my preference. You’re welcome to feel differently.

As a reminder, projections are not predictions. They’re not trying to tell you the future. Projections like ZiPS are an estimate of the player’s current talent level. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .271 in 2008, and .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change? Nah. That’s just baseball being baseball. It would be boring if it were predictable. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the ZiPS projections. They made for good talking points.

1. Sanchez is very unique. Last year Gary Sanchez came up in August and smashed 20 home runs in his final 52 games of the season. No one had ever done that before, especially not as a full-time catcher. Because of that, Sanchez is super unique as a player and projecting him is damn near impossible. That’s why ZiPS spit out Chris Hoiles (Chris Hoiles!) as Sanchez’s top statistical comp at age 24. Hoiles played six games in his age 24 season. He played 23 games in his age 25 season. It wasn’t until his age 26 season that he broke into the show full-time. And yet, ZiPS determined Hoiles was the best statistical comp for Sanchez at this age because Hoiles could really hit. The guy retired as a career .262/.366/.467 (122 wRC+) hitter who averaged 24 homers per 140 games played. Point is, Sanchez’s career path is incredibly unique. Few catchers show this much power this early. ZiPS spit out Hoiles because he had power too even though he didn’t stick for good until age 26.

2. How about that youthful power? The Yankees’ top six projected 2017 home run hitters according to ZiPS are Aaron Judge (30 dingers), Sanchez (27), Clint Frazier (22), Tyler Austin (18), Greg Bird (18), and Starlin Castro (18). Castro is the grizzled veteran of the group and he’s still only 26. Again, ZiPS is not a prediction. The system is estimating the talent level of each player at that homer total. I’ll take the under on Judge and the over on Bird, assuming his shoulder holds up, but the point is the Yankees have multiple young power bats on the roster for the first time in a long time. Last year they had three players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers (Sanchez, Castro, Didi Gregorius). They had three total from 2002-15 (Alfonso Soriano, Cano twice). Prior to last season, the last time the Yankees had multiple players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers was 1991, when Roberto Kelly and Kevin Maas did it. Sanchez, Judge, and Bird are all serious threats to do it in 2017. Maybe Austin too if he gets enough playing time. (Castro turns 27 in Spring Training.) That is pretty awesome and exciting. Hooray for not counting on the veterans to hit the ball out of the park.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3. The Bird projection is a good reality check. I love Greg Bird. I love his plate discipline, I love his calm at the plate, and I love his ability to hit the ball in the air with authority. We also have to remember the kid is coming back from major surgery though, and there are other flaws in his game as well. He’s not a good defender and lefties have given him trouble in the past. The ZiPS projection reflects those realities. It pegs Bird as a true talent .234/.307/.449 (108 OPS+) hitter right now, which is good in a vacuum but not great in the world of first basemen. (First basemen hit .259/.338/.453 in 2016. That’s a 114 OPS+.) Add in the lack of defense — ZiPS has Bird saving zero runs in the field, which might be generous — and you get a +0.8 WAR player. That’s disappointing to see for 2017. But you know what? ZiPS drops Mo Vaughn on Bird as the top statistical comp at age 24, and Vaughn was a monster from ages 25-30. Remember, this coming season will be Bird’s first full season in the show. There will inevitably be bumps along the way, especially following surgery. Hopefully 2017 is a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the future.

4. ZiPS hasn’t given up on Severino as a starter. More than a few folks would like to see the Yankees keep Luis Severino in the bullpen, where he was so dominant last year, and I get it. I do. Brian Cashman indicated they’re going to stick with him as a starter for now, even if it means sending him to Triple-A in 2017, and that’s the right move in my opinion. Severino is still only 22 and I’d hate to give up on him as a starter at that age, especially with the Yankees in need of long-term rotation help. Development isn’t always linear. There are obstacles to overcome along the way. Anyway, ZiPS is still on the “Severino should start” bandwagon, projected him for a 4.20 ERA (3.94 FIP) in 152 innings this coming season. That’s in 26 starts too. (And yeah, seven relief appearances.) His top statistical comp is Mike Witt, who also hot hammered as a starter and pitched well as a reliever at age 22. Witt went on to have a lot of success as a starter from age 23-28. Severino ain’t alone. He’s not the only guy who’s gone through this.

5. The other young starters don’t look so hot. Along with Severino, the Yankees figure to use some combination of Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell at the back of the rotation in 2017. Chances are we’ll see all three of those guys at some point this summer, plus others. ZiPS likes Green the most among those three guys, and the system only projects him as a +0.8 WAR player in 2017.

IP ERA FIP WAR
Cessa 126.2 5.33 5.08 -0.2
Green 128.2 4.67 4.47 +0.8
Mitchell 80 5.74 5.36 -0.6

Eek. I like Cessa more than most, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were replacement level with a 5.00+ ERA next season. Not if he doesn’t do a better job keeping the ball in the park and/or start missing more bats. Other young arms like Jordan Montgomery (+0.5 WAR) and Chance Adams (-0.2 WAR) don’t project a whole lot better in 2017. These guys might be pretty good down the line! But, for this coming season, they carry an awful lot of risk, and ZiPS reflects that.

6. The Yankees need to figure out the rest of the bullpen. The Yankees are set in the eighth and ninth innings with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom have been excellent in recent years and project to be excellent again next season. The rest of the bullpen is a little dicey. Veteran stalwarts Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren project to be average by reliever standards, which I don’t think is unreasonable at this point of their careers. The best of the young relievers, per ZiPS, are Jonathan Holder and Gio Gallegos, who have basically zero combined time in the big leagues. (Holder threw 8.1 sporadic innings in September.) The minor leagues are littered with relievers who have great strikeout and walk rates, they’re everywhere, and not too many of those relievers are able to carry their success over to the big leagues. ZiPS projects Holder and Gallegos for a combined +0.9 WAR in nearly 140 innings in 2017. Eh. No other young reliever projects to be even replacement level. There’s some figuring out to be done in the bullpen.

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 Baby Bombers [2016 Series Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the 2016 trade deadline one of the most important periods in recent Yankees’ history. You probably have to go all the way back to the 2008-09 offseason for the last time the club made moves that so greatly impacted the future of the organization. The Yankees sold productive veterans at the deadline and not only added quality prospects, but they also opened big league playing time for young players.

Aside from Gary Sanchez, who had more impact than any other AL rookie position player in 2016, the two youngsters who most benefited from that suddenly available playing time were Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. The Yankees traded Carlos Beltran, released Alex Rodriguez, and reduced Mark Teixeira‘s playing time, which created a path for Austin and Judge to play nearly everyday.

History on Day One

Austin and Judge both made their MLB debuts on the same day. August 13th, the day after A-Rod was released. They batted back-to-back in the starting lineup too. Austin hit seventh as the first baseman and Judge hit eighth as the right fielder. Sanchez was batting sixth as the DH. It was a hell of an afternoon.

In their first big league at-bats, Austin and Judge made history by becoming the first set of teammates to hit their first career home runs in their big league debuts in the same game. And they did it back-to-back. And in their first at-bats. Like I said, it was a hell of an afternoon.

Hilariously, Austin’s home run was one of New York’s shortest of the season while Judge’s was one of the longest. The Yankees went young in the second half this season and were rewarded immediately. Sanchez was a force for two months, and Austin and Judge did something historic in their debuts. That sure was fun, wasn’t it? The back-to-back jacks were one of the best moments of the season.

Clutch Homers & Sporadic Playing Time

This was an incredibly important season for Austin. Last year the 25-year-old hit .246/.320/.361 (96 wRC+) with nine home runs in the minors and was so bad he had to be demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Double-A Trenton at midseason. When September rolled around, the Yankees dropped Austin from the 40-man roster to create space for someone else. He went unclaimed on waivers, then went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft. Ouch.

“You never want to go backward in this game but I think it was a great learning experience for me,” said Austin back in June. “This game humbled me very fast and I found out the hard way. I’m going to try and not let anything like that happen again and continue to work hard and go from there.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Greg Bird went down with shoulder surgery in February, and during Spring Training, Brian Cashman said Austin wasn’t even on the team’s radar as a potential first base solution. He was that far down the depth chart. Austin didn’t get an invite to big league Spring Training either. If he was going to get back on the 40-man roster and to the big leagues, he was going to have to earn it. The Yankees didn’t give him much of a look in camp.

When the regular season started, Austin returned to Double-A Trenton — this was the fifth straight year he’d spent time with the Thunder — and you know what? He didn’t exactly destroy the competition. Austin hit .260/.367/.395 (117 wRC+) with four homers in 50 games at Double-A. The Yankees only bumped him up to Triple-A because they called Chris Parmelee to the Bronx, and the RailRiders needed a first baseman.

Austin made the most of the opportunity. His game took off once he arrived in Triple-A in early-June. Austin hit .323/.415/.637 (201 wRC+) with 13 homers in 57 games with Scranton before called up to the Yankees in early-August. He hadn’t had that much success in the minors, even in a short stint, since his breakout 2012 season way back when. Austin forced the issue, exactly has the Yankees hoped. He made them take notice.

Things quickly went downhill for Austin following his debut home run. He fell into an ugly 5-for-36 (.139) slump with 13 strikeouts after that, which landed him on the bench for long stretches of time. The Yankees managed to climb back into the race in August and Teixeira simply gave the team a better chance to win at the time, so he played. Austin looked overmatched.

Joe Girardi gave Austin another look in early-September, and he wound up hitting two of the most important home runs of the season. On September 6th, Austin cracked a go-ahead two-run home run against noted ground ball machine Aaron Sanchez. It was his birthday too. Quite a way to turn 25, eh?

Two days later, Austin hit his third big league home run, this one a walk-off blast against the Rays. So, to recap, his first homer was part of the first set of back-to-back homers by rookies in their MLB debut, his second was a birthday blast, and his third was a walk-off. That’s a hell of a thing.

Austin hit two more home runs later in the month and finished his first big league stint with a respectable .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) batting line and five home runs in 90 plate appearances. Four of his five home runs gave the Yankees the lead. The other tied the game. All five were hit to right field in Yankee Stadium too. Austin showed off some serious opposite field power. Check out his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Tyler Austin spray chart

That’s a pretty interesting exit velocity spray chart. (Yes, I broke out an exit velocity spray chart.) Austin hit all of his home runs the other way, but he also pulled the ball with authority as well. He wasn’t a dead pull hitter and he wasn’t a pure opposite field guy either. Austin sprayed the ball all around. I don’t think that tells us much of anything in a 90-plate appearance sample, but it’s cool to see.

After being drafted as a catcher and dabbling at third base in the low minors, Austin is a pure first baseman at this point of his career. A first baseman who can play right field in an emergency situation. The Yankees ran him out there in right a few times late in the season and it was not pretty. I don’t recommend doing it often. Austin isn’t Teixeira at first base but he’s solid defensively. Makes all the plays he should make. He’s in the lineup for his bat though, not his glove.

With Teixeira retired, the Yankees now have a great big opening at first base, and Austin figures to come to Spring Training with a chance to win the job. It’ll be him and Bird, and you know what? The job could very easily go to both of them next season. I see them platooning and splitting time at first base and DH. A year ago Austin was so far off the radar that no team claimed him off waivers. The strong 2016 season and impressive display of opposite field pop put him in position to have a role with the Yankees doing forward.

The Adjustment Period

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the season started, Judge was in a very different yet similar place as Austin. Austin had played his way out of the picture while Judge was the Yankees’ top prospect, someone who was going to get every opportunity to succeed. That was the big difference between the two. Austin and Judge were also similar in that they were going to have to prove themselves before getting a big league opportunity. Neither would be handed anything.

Judge, now 24, reached Triple-A in the second half last season and struggled, hitting .224/.308/.373 (98 wRC+) with eight home runs and a 28.5% strikeout rate in 61 games. Experienced pitchers picked apart the inevitable swing holes that come with being 6-foot-7. Judge spent much of his offseason in Tampa, working the team’s minor league hitting coordinators, and he reworked his hitting mechanics quite a bit. Here’s a GIF I’ve posted a few times now:

Aaron Judge 2015 vs 2016That’s Spring Training 2015 on the left and Spring Training 2016 on the right. Judge added a bigger leg kick over the winter, and he also dropped his hands a bit. In fact, by time he arrived in New York, his hands were even lower. Judge kept dropping them and dropping them until he found a comfortable spot that more easily allowed him to get the bat into the hitting zone.

Judge started the Triple-A season fairly slowly, slow enough that some folks were saying his development had stalled out. He was sitting on a .221/.285/.372 (87 wRC+) batting line with seven home runs and a 26.2% strikeout rate through his first 50 games. That included an ugly 10-for-72 (.139) slump with 24 strikeouts. Judge looked overmatched, at least based on the box score, and there was reason to be worried.

That all changed pretty quickly. Following those tough 50 games, Judge went on an insane tear and hit .328/.463/.630 (216 wRC+) with nine home runs in his next 33 games. He dropped his strikeout rate to 18.8% and drew nearly as many walks (17.4%). That hot streak raised his season batting line to .261/.357/.469 (139 wRC+). Unfortunately, on July 8th, Judge suffered a sprained knee ligament and bone bruise diving for a ball in the outfield. The injury sent him to the DL for a little less than a month.

Judge returned in early-August, went 12-for-34 (.353) with three home runs in ten games with the RailRiders, then was called up to the Yankees. He not only hit a home run in his first big league at-bat, he also went deep the following day too. Judge hit home runs in back-to-back games to start his big league career. He had two hits in his third game as well.

Like Austin, Judge fell into a slump after his big debut, going 4-for-36 (.111) with 20 (!) strikeouts in his next eleven games after the hot start. Girardi gave Judge a few days off here and there, but, generally speaking, he was in the lineup everyday. The Yankees were willing to live with the growing pains even while the team scratched their way closer to a wildcard spot.

Judge’s season came to a premature end on September 13th, when he tweaked his oblique taking a swing. Obliques are tricky. They’re very easy to re-injury if they’re not allowed to heal properly. The Yankees shut Judge down for the season and the good news is he’s already healthy and reportedly again working in Tampa with the team’s hitting instructors.

All told, Judge hit .270/.366/.489 (147 wRC+) with 19 home runs and a 23.9% strikeout rate in 43 Triple-A games — that was his lowest strikeout rate since he was in Low-A two years ago (21.2%) — and .179/.263/.345 (63 wRC+) with three home runs and a 44.2% strikeout rate in 27 big league games. The good news: his hard contact rate was an insane 48.8%. (His soft contact rate was 9.3%!) Only Nelson Cruz had a higher average exit velocity.

Now, the bad news: Judge’s contact rate was only 59.7%. Only one of the 452 players to bat at least 90 times this season had a lower contact rate. It was Madison Bumgarner at 59.2%. So yeah. (Austin had the third lowest contact rate at 62.0%, by the way.) Here are the pitch locations of Judge’s swing and misses, via Baseball Savant:

Aaron Judge whiffs

Many of the empty swings came on pitches that move and were on the outer half or out of the zone entirely. Sliders, curveballs, that sort of thing. Not all of them though. Judge’s contact rate on pitches in the strike zone was only 74.3%, which ranked 447th among those 452 batters with at least 90 plate appearances. Contact was a clear issue during Judge’s relatively brief big league stint. No doubt about it.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected, however. Judge has a history of starting slow each time he’s promoted before making the adjustment and getting on track. He did it at Double-A and he did it at Triple-A. Now he has to do it in MLB. The good news is Judge has made those adjustments in the past. It’s easy to stereotype this guy as a big dumb masher who grips it and rips it, but that’s not the case. His hit tool is solid. “He’s got more feel to hit than one would expect for a man his size,” said Baseball America’s scouting report before the season.

Strikeouts are always going to be part of Judge’s game. You can only shorten your swing so much when you’re 6-foot-7. The hope is Judge will be able to trim his strikeout rate down into the 23.0% range down the road while tapping into his obvious power potential. Judge is also a sneaky good athlete for his size too. He’s not a liability in right field at all. Heck, he robbed a home run without even jumping. His arm is a rocket as well. The guy flicked his wrist and the ball carried from the warning track to second base.

The right field job is Judge’s for the taking. The Yankees want him to take it and run with it in Spring Training, and never look back. They’re also not going to hand him the job either. They have other outfielders. Cashman said Judge will have to earn his roster spot like everyone else and I believe it. A poor, strikeout heavy spring could land him back in Triple-A. Either way, Judge is clearly the right fielder of the future, and hopefully the future starts on Opening Day 2017.

Girardi’s End-of-Season Press Conference Recap: Youth Movement, Severino, Pitching

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Prior to Sunday’s season finale, Yankees manager Joe Girardi held his annual end-of-season press conference, during which he discussed the state of the franchise and where the team is heading in the future. Things like that. The usual, basically.

You can watch the entire 20-minute press conference right here, if you’re so inclined. I compiled what I thought were the most interesting tidbits and grouped them together below. I also added some thoughts, because why not? Here is our annual recap of Girardi’s end-of-season press conference. Brian Cashman‘s is Wednesday. That’s the most important one.

The Youth Movement

  • On expectations Girardi had for the kids going into 2016: “I was pretty convinced in my mind that (Gary) Sanchez would help us at some point this year. When you look at Aaron (Judge), I thought he had a possibility of helping. I was not sure about Tyler (Austin) just because — the year before was pretty good — he had some physical issues. He was making a position change. But I’ve been really pleased with the way he’s adapted to first base. I hope he’s going to continue to get better. He works really hard and he’s done some things that at times I’ve been surprised what he’s done for us.”
  • Do you have to manage kids differently than veterans? “You manage every group somewhat different because they’re different types of players, but yes. I mean, obviously with (veterans) they’ve been through a lot … You have a history of how they handle those experiences and maybe those slumps. You’re not sure how (young players are) going to react and what they are capable of being, the situation, how they’re going to handle it. But again, you manage differently depending on their strengths and weaknesses.”
  • Who is Girardi looking forward to seeing in 2017? “(I’m) most excited to see some guys that I haven’t seen a lot of. I’m not sure who’s going to be in my 40-man roster either … There are some guys I haven’t seen because of the trades we’ve made. And next year could be an interesting Spring Training as a WBC year.”
  • On expectations for Gary Sanchez next year: “My hope is the expectations aren’t so large that no matter what he does, he can’t reach those expectations. But I think you can expect a talented player and a good player to go out there and improve.”

The expectations for Sanchez next season will be interesting. Interesting and scary. The kid hit like Babe Ruth for three weeks, and as good as Gary is, it’s completely unrealistic to expect him to do that again. Expectations for Luis Severino got out of control last season. I don’t think that contributed to his poor season, but a lot of fans set themselves up for disappointment by expecting an instant ace.

Hopefully Sanchez can be a middle of the order bat next season. I’m sure the Yankees will count on him to be exactly that. But asking him to be one of the best hitters on the planet again, especially across a full season, is not fair at this point. The learning curve for catchers can be steep. Sanchez hitting, say, .270/.320/.450 with 25 homers in 2017 would make him one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. I also feel like many folks would consider that a disappointment.

The Offense

  • On situational hitting: “As far as the situational hitting, when I said at times we didn’t hit well, that was a big part. Situational hitting with runners in scoring position, we did not do a good job. There are years that are better years than other years, and the teams that score runs are the teams that do really well in that category, and that’s something that we learned last season.”
  • On the offense wearing down late in the season: “I mean, guys get beat up physically and they get run down in the month of September, and we’re not the only team that goes through that … Your pitching needs to remain constant and sometimes they have to pick each other up. But you know, there’s definite problems. I feel that this club is capable (of having a good offense). I think they’re capable.”

I’m honestly not too worried about the situational hitting. That stuff is so unpredictable from one year to the next. A year ago the Yankees hit .256/.341/.465 (114 wRC+) with runners in scoring position and this year it was .228/.308/.350 (73 wRC+) even though they had the same damn lineup most of the season. As far as moving runners over and that stuff … if the Yankees start obsessing over that, they deserve what they get.

There’s no need to overthink this. Get as many quality above-average hitters as possible, and let the rest take care of itself. Want good hitters with runners in scoring position? Then get good hitters overall. The correlation is pretty damn strong. The Yankees have gone defense over offense at a few too many positions (center, left, short, third) and it’s dragging down the offense overall. The Yankees don’t need better situational hitters. They just need better hitters.

Luis Severino’s Future

  • Is he a starter or reliever? “I think it’s really up to him and the way he pitches. If he’s going to be a starter, commanding the fastball is extremely important. Changeup is coming. Slider is much improved (from earlier this season) … My expectation is he’s still going to be a starter.”
  • Does his final role need to be determined soon? “When you look at the way things went down, he was stuck in the bullpen (because that’s where we needed him). He’s fairly young and aggressive. He’s going to make a case. We’re going to work here with him.”

At no point this season did Severino look like a capable Major League starter. Not once. Not in April, not in his brief August cameo, and not in September. He looked great in relief though. That said, the kid will be 23 in February, and it’s way too early to think about a move to the bullpen full-time. Let him start next season. All season. If that means he has to go to Triple-A, so be it.

Severino’s issues are mostly command related. He admitted he lost confidence in his changeup this year, but he has a pretty good one. We saw it last year. He just lost a feel for it. Severino needs to get comfortable with his changeup again, and do a better job locating pretty much everything. The Yankees could let him work on that in the big leagues next year. I say let him earn it. If the command and changeup don’t look good in camp, Triple-A it is. I’m not counting on Severino to be a big piece of the puzzle next year.

The Upcoming Offseason

  • On the biggest area of need: “(I will) sit down with Brian and let him handle those questions. You know he is the architect of the team. My job is to get the most out of the players, and I don’t want to speak before we’ve had a chance to talk … The other thing is, you know, we talk about it and the players start to wonder how we think about them, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
  • Do they need rotation help? “Well I think we have good players if we stay healthy, but that doesn’t happen very often so I’m sure we will look into that as well.”

Listening to Girardi the last few days, it seems pretty clear he believes the Yankees need to improve everything. The offense, the defense, the pitching staff … all of it. You can’t look at the 2016 Yankees and point to one problem area of the roster. Yes, the offense was the main culprit, but the back of the rotation and the middle of the bullpen were weak too. So was the defense at times. The baserunning too. So bad. So, so bad.

How do the Yankees overhaul most of the roster? Well, plugging in young players is a good start, plus many of the big contracts will soon be off the books. Others like Brett Gardner and Brian McCann could be traded this offseason. The Yankees underwent a lot of change this past season. I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon. I think this was only the beginning.

Miscellany

  • On Masahiro Tanaka‘s improvement: “What he improved on was the amount of innings and starts, and staying healthy — we’re shutting him down in a sense, if (Saturday’s game) meant something, he would have started — so I think that’s a big improvement. And just keep moving forward in that sense. I thought he played well, and when you can count on 200 innings every year, I think it’s the best thing.”
  • On Mark Teixeira‘s final game: “You know, I saw him earlier today and he was smiling and seemed very happy. And I think this day is going to be filled with every type of emotion. I think there’s going to be happiness, there’s going to be sadness, and there’s going to be appreciation for having the opportunity to play this game and to play here and play in front of the fans.”
  • What move would Girardi like to do over? “I was asked yesterday about, are there any decisions that I want like to have a chance to redo? I said no because I don’t have hindsight. I make decisions based in real time. I make decisions based on information that I have. And then you have to deal with the human element. So you know, in every play, in every case, you could second guess if you want to.”
  • On selling at the trade deadline: “I understood why they they traded veterans away. I mean, we were in a situation where we weren’t getting it done. And I think Brian’s job is (evaluate the team), but he also has to look at the future … As an organization, we thought it was in our best interest to make trades to try and get back to the World Series.”
  • Does the World Series or bust mantra need to change? “No, no. I think you should all set your goals. You know I don’t think you should be satisfied with just making the playoffs.”
  • Girardi’s message to fans: “We will do everything we can to bring a championship here. That’s everyone’s job in this organization.”

Girardi’s comments on the trade deadline were pretty interesting. He seemed excited about all the young players and also disappointed that the Yankees were forced to sell. As he said, the goal is to win the World Series every year, and the Yankees had to sell because they were far from World Series contenders. Selling was a result of the team’s failure to perform, and ultimately that (or at least part of that) falls on Girardi.

Don’t expect the goal to change, either. Girardi was clear about that. The Yankees are going to try to win next season, even while incorporating younger players into the lineup. Those things don’t always work well together, not unless every position player comes up and hits like 2016 Sanchez while every pitcher performs like 2015 Severino. I’m curious to see what gets prioritized next year, the development of young players or winning.

Yankeemetrics: The final series [Sept. 30-Oct. 2]

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Pineda Puzzle
One day after they were officially eliminated from the playoff race, the Yankees flopped in an ugly 8-1 loss on Friday night.

The offense was M.I.A. with just three singles, while going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. It was their 16th game without an extra-base hit, the most in the majors through Friday, and their AL-high 35th game scoring one run or fewer.

It was also their 11th game with three hits or fewer — no team in MLB had done that more this season through Friday — and the first time the Orioles held the Yankees to no more than three hits at Yankee Stadium since August 14, 2007.

Michael Pineda made his final start of 2016, and his Jekyll-and-Hyde performance (5 runs, 4⅓ innings, 5 strikeouts) against the Orioles was a fitting end to Pineda’s perplexing and season.

He finished with a career-best 207 strikeouts (that’s good!) and a career-worst 4.82 ERA (that’s bad!) while going 6-12 in 32 starts. His 4.82 ERA is the fifth-highest by any MLB pitcher ever with at least 200 strikeouts in a season, and his .333 win percentage is the second-lowest among that group.

And that’s not the worst of his puzzling, boom-or-bust campaign: Pineda allowed a whopping .784 OPS this year, the highest in major-league history for a guy that also struck out 200-or-more batters in a season.

austin low five
(Getty)

Party at Austin’s
The Yankees bounced back from their lackluster series-opening loss with a resounding 7-3 victory on Saturday, preventing the Orioles from clinching a playoff spot on the penultimate day of the season.

Typical of this up-and-down Yankee season, the game featured a number of encouraging signs for the future while also re-affirming some potential concerns heading into 2017.

The bad news? Luis Severino continued his baffling string of disappointing pitching performances as a starter, giving up three runs on five hits before being pulled in the fourth inning. He ended up with a 8.50 ERA in 11 starts, the highest ERA as a starter by any pitcher in franchise history with at least 10 starts in a season.

If there’s a silver lining in Severino’s poor showing as a member of the rotation it’s this: the highest single-season starters’ ERA in MLB history (min. 10 starts) belongs to Roy Halladay, who posted a 11.13 ERA in 13 starts in 2000; three years later, he won the first of his two Cy Young Awards.

The good news? Two of the more unheralded Baby Bombers continued their unexpected trend of clutch hitting performances, with Tyler Austin and Austin Romine fueling the Yankees’ late-game offensive explosion and comeback bid.

Austin knotted the score at 3-3 in the seventh inning with his fifth homer of the season, and the 406-foot blast was eerily similar to each of the others he’s hit in the majors. All five of them have: been at Yankee Stadium, gone out to right-center or right field, and either tied the game or gave the Yankees a lead.

Four of his five longballs have also come in the seventh frame or later, giving him the most go-ahead and/or game-tying homers on the team this season through Saturday. Even more impressive is this feat: Austin is the only Yankee rookie in at least the last 75 years to hit four go-ahead and/or game-tying homers in the seventh inning or later.

Romine then capped off the Yankees rally with a tie-breaking, two-run single in the eighth inning, his 16th hit in 44 at-bats with runners in scoring position this year. His .364 batting average in that situation not only leads the team, but would be the best by any Yankee with that many at-bats in a decade, since Derek Jeter hit .381 with RISP in 2006.

Game 162
And so the 2016 season comes to an end, fittingly the same way it began, with a loss at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankee bats were shut down by the newest Yankee killer, Kevin Gausman, who dominated the Yankees this season with just five earned runs surrendered across 41 innings. Among pitchers to make at least five starts against the Yankees in a season, Gausman’s 1.09 ERA is the lowest since Brewers lefty Mike Caldwell’s 0.99 mark in 1978, when he three shutouts in five starts versus them.

Brian McCann‘s solo homer in the fourth inning was the Yankees lone source of offense for much of the afternoon, and it was a significant one for the catcher, his 20th of the year. He is the fourth catcher (who played at least 50 percent of their games at the position) in major-league history with double-digit 20-homer seasons, joining Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench, and Yogi Berra. It was also his ninth straight season with at least 20 homers; among catchers, only Yogi and Piazza ever had a streak like that.

 

tex goodbye

McCann joined his backstop teammate, Gary Sanchez, in the 20-homer club, making the Yankees just the third team in major-league history to have two guys, who played catcher in at least half their games, hit 20-plus homers in the same season. The other clubs to do this were the 1961 Yankees (Johnny Blanchard and Elston Howard) and 1965 Milwaukee Braves (Gene Oliver and Joe Torre).

Combined with Starlin Castro‘s 21 homers and Didi Gregorius‘ 20 homers, the Yankees are the first team in baseball history to get at least 20 homers from four different players, who each played more than half their games at either catcher or the middle infield (shortstop and second base) positions.

And finally, Mark Teixeira closed the book on his 14-season big-league career, walking off the field in the seventh inning to a standing ovation while tipping his cap to the hometown fans.

There are many stats and superlatives that define his legacy as a major-leaguer, but perhaps this one best captures his unprecedented combination of power and defense, which makes him such a unique and special player among his peers: Teixeira is the only first baseman to finish his career with at least five Gold Gloves (awarded since 1957) and at least 400 homers.