Farm System Offers Some Help Now, More Help Later [2015 Season Preview]

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

Two years ago, the Yankees had a miserable season down in the farm system, with several top prospects either getting hurt, underperforming, or simply failing to move forward in their development. When big leaguer after big leaguer went down with an injury, the farm system had little to no help to offer. It was bad enough that Hal Steinbrenner and his staff essentially audited the player development system after the season, though they only made procedural changes.

Things were not nearly as bad last year, though they weren’t as good as they could have been either. Having three first round picks in the 2013 draft helped infuse high-end talent, and several other young lower level players took quicker than expected steps forward in their development. That didn’t stop the team from replacing longtime VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman and farm director Pat Roessler, both of whom were let go last October. (Newman retired, but his contract was up and all indications are he wasn’t going to be brought back anyway.)

Gary Denbo, who has worn many hats with the Yankees over the years, was tabbed as Newman’s replacement and he now oversees the player development system. (His official title is vice president of player development.) Eric Schmitt dropped the “assistant” from his old assistant director of minor league operations title and was promoted this offseason. Several other coaching and development staff changes were made as well, including the return of Greg Colbrunn (Low-A hitting coach) and Eric Duncan (Short Season defensive coach).

The Yankees are hoping those changes lead to a more productive farm system and soon. Joe Girardi, Brian Cashman, and Steinbrenner all said his past offseason that young players were going to play a big role in the franchise going forward, which makes sense given Hal’s plan to get under the luxury tax threshold in two years or so. The system isn’t quite ready to graduate impact talent to the big league level, but there are several of those types of prospects on the horizon for 2016. Time to look ahead to the coming year in the minors.

The Top Prospects: Bird, Clarkin, Judge, Sanchez, Severino

You can rank them in whatever order, but I think most will agree 1B Greg Bird, LHP Ian Clarkin, OF Aaron Judge, C Gary Sanchez, and RHP Luis Severino are the five best prospects in the system. Judge and Severino are a notch above the other three thanks to their sky high upside, though Cashman recently called Bird “by far the best hitter” in the organization and Clarkin might have the highest probability of the bunch. Sanchez has been around seemingly forever and I think people are getting sick of him, yet he just put up a 108 wRC+ at age 21 as an everyday catcher at Double-A. That’s pretty impressive.

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

Severino is the sexy flame-throwing starter, but I consider Judge the more exciting and more polished prospect. He’s shown much better contact skills and a better approach than even the Yankees realized he had when they draft him 32nd overall in 2013, plus he also has huge raw power and is an asset defensively in right field. Judge needs to learn when to turn it loose so he can best tap into that power, but otherwise he’s a very complete prospect. Severino has big upside but still needs to improve his breaking ball and delivery.

With it looking more and more likely Sanchez will return to Double-A Trenton for yet another season, four of the Yankees’ top five prospects will be with the Thunder to start the 2015 season. Only Clarkin won’t be there — he’s slated to open the season with High-A Tampa, and while he could be promoted to Trenton later in the summer, the other four guys could be bumped up to Triple-A Scranton by then. Between Bird, Judge, Sanchez, Severino, and others like 3B Eric Jagielo and OF Jake Cave, Double-A is going to be a very fun affiliate to watch this summer.

Ready To Help Now: Flores, Lindgren, Pirela, Refsnyder

Inevitably, the Yankees will need help from within this year. Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to underperform, and the team will have to dip into the farm system for help. UTIL Jose Pirela suffered a concussion running into the outfield wall a week ago, but before that he was first in line to be called up whenever infield or outfield help is needed. His defense isn’t good anywhere; Pirela’s simply hit his way into the MLB picture.

With Pirela hurt, OF Ramon Flores figures to be first in line should outfield reinforcements be needed. I get the feeling Flores is going to spend about ten years in the league as a left-handed platoon outfielder, a Seth Smith type. He’s not a flashy prospect but he can hit, especially righties, and won’t kill his team in the field. 2B Rob Refsnyder isn’t ready for the big leagues defensively, but the Yankees could stick him at second base on an everyday basis this year and no one would think they’re crazy. He’s done nothing but hit since turning pro. Refsnyder just needs more reps on the infield after playing the outfield in college.

LHP Jacob Lindgren is New York’s best bullpen prospect and the most MLB ready, so much so that I think he should be on the Opening Day roster. Yeah, he could probably use a little more minor league time — Lindgren has yet to play at Triple-A, for what’s it worth — to work on his command, which is why he was sent to minor league camp yesterday, but Lindgren can get big leaguers out right now if the Yankees need him to. Pirela made his MLB debut last September and I expect Flores, Refsnyder, and Lindgren to make their debuts this year, sooner rather than later.

Ready To Help Soon: Austin, Bird, Judge, Rumbelow, Severino

As I mentioned earlier, much of the Yankees’ potential impact talent is likely to arrive in 2016, not 2015, including Bird, Judge, and Severino. I wouldn’t be surprised if Severino debuts this summer though. The Yankees have moved him very aggressively. RHP Nick Rumbelow is also likely to debut in 2015 as a strikeout heavy reliever, though he wasn’t as much of an Opening Day roster candidate as Lindgren. OF Tyler Austin figures to be a September call-up after spending the summer roaming the outfield with Triple-A Scranton.

Getting a cup of coffee and being ready to contribute are different things, however. Guys like Lindgren, Refsnyder, and Pirela are able to help the Yankees at the MLB level right away, at least in some aspects of the game. Others like Bird, Judge, Austin, and Severino aren’t big league ready and the Yankees shouldn’t plan on calling them up for help this year. They all need more seasoning in the minors. Next year we’ll be talking about them as players ready to help at the MLB level. They’re not ready at this very moment though.

Rumblin' Rumbelow. (Presswire)
Rumblin’ Rumbelow. (Presswire)

Breakout Candidates: DeCarr, Hensley, Mateo

You could make the case SS Jorge Mateo broke out last year, albeit in only 15 rookie ball games, but I think he has top 100 prospect in the game potential. Mateo, 19, is insanely fast with surprising power and a good approach at the plate to go with strong defensive chops at short. He received a ton of love last year and a full, healthy season in 2015 could have him atop New York’s prospect list and ranked among the best shortstop prospects in baseball.

RHP Ty Hensley‘s career has been slowed considerably by injuries, most notably two hip surgeries and a hernia that caused him to miss the entire 2013 season and the start of 2014 as well. He is healthy now and I get the sense the Yankees are ready to turn him loose with Low-A Charleston. Get him out there and let him pitch as much as possible early in the year just to make sure he gets those innings in, know what I mean? If they have to shut Hensley down in August to control his workload, so be it. He needs to make up for all the lost development time.

RHP Austin DeCarr was the Yankees’ third round pick last summer and is surprisingly refined for a kid just a year out of high school, throwing three good pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup) for strikes. It’s unclear where the club will send DeCarr to start the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he opened the year alongside Hensley in Charleston’s rotation. Other potential breakout candidates include OF Mark Payton, RHP Gabe Encinas, OF Leonardo Molina, OF Alex Palma, and SS Angel Aguilar.

Sleepers: Acevedo, De La Rosa, Haynes

Over the last few weeks RHP Domingo Acevedo has generated some buzz for his imposing frame (listed at 6-foor-7 and 190 lbs.) and a fastball that has touched triple digits. Perhaps he’s more of a breakout candidate than a sleeper? Is there a difference? Who knows. Anyway, Acevedo’s size and stuff make him super interesting, though his full season debut is likely a year away. He’s a deep sleeper.

RHP Kyle Haynes is a more traditional sleeper. The 24-year-old reliever came over from the Pirates in the Chris Stewart trade and has good stuff, specifically a mid-90s fastball and an average-ish slider. Command holds him back, which along with his age and role is the reason you haven’t heard much about him. The Yankees have had some success getting these big stuff, bad command guys to throw strikes in recent years (Shane Greene most notably), and Haynes could be next.

The most intriguing sleeper — even moreso than Acevedo — in my opinion is RHP Simon De La Rosa. The 21-year-old is a late bloomer who didn’t sign until age 19 in 2013 — he received a measly $50,000 bonus at that — but he packs mid-90s heat into his 6-foot-3, 185 lb. frame and also throws a curveball and a changeup. Despite his age, I don’t think the Yankees will aggressively move De La Rosa up the ladder because he’s so raw. The tools are there for a quality pitching prospect though.

The New Batch: DeLeon, Emery, Garcia, Gomez

Last summer the Yankees went on an unprecedented spring spree and signed many of the top available international prospects. I haven’t seen a final number anywhere, but estimates have the club shelling out more than $30M between bonuses and penalties. The two best prospects the Yankees signed are OF Juan DeLeon and 3B Dermis Garcia, though 3B Nelson Gomez, OF Bryan Emery, OF Jonathan Amundary, and C Miguel Flames are among the other notables. These guys will all make their pro debuts this season. That’s a big talent infusion in such a short amount of time.

Slade. (Presswire)
Slade. (Presswire)

Last Chance?: Campos, Heathcott, Williams

As is the case every year, the Yankees have several former top prospects facing make or break seasons in 2015. RHP Vicente Campos is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and is only throwing bullpen sessions now, so he’s unlikely to return to the mound until midseason. He’s thrown just 111.2 innings over the last three years. OF Slade Heathcott played only nine games in 2014 due to a pair of knee surgeries. He’s looked healthy in camp and needs to finally have a full season in 2015. Both Campos and Heathcott were non-tendered this offseason and re-signed to minor league contracts.

Some have called this a make or break season for Sanchez but I don’t agree with that at all. His defense needs to progress, absolutely, but he’s consistently been an above-average hitter throughout his career despite being three-ish years young for the level each step of the way. OF Mason Williams is definitely facing a make or break year, on the other hand. He hasn’t hit and has had to be benched for lack of effort on multiple occasions. Williams certainly doesn’t lack tools, he just hasn’t displayed the makeup and work ethic needed to be a big leaguer. More of the same will end his time as a prospect. Talent is important, but it will only buy you so many chances if you don’t put he work in.

The Defense First, Power Second Bench [2015 Season Preview]

Murphy and the skipper. (Presswire)
Murphy and the skipper. (Presswire)

From 2009-12, the Yankees did a good job of having a functional bench, giving Joe Girardi options to pinch-hit or rest players without the lineup taking a huge hit. That hasn’t been the case the last two years due mostly to injuries — many projected bench guys were pushed into everyday roles. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

The importance of the bench in today’s game is obvious, especially for the Yankees, who have an older roster and plenty of players who need regular time off. Three of the four bench spots were filled with new players this winter, and every member of last season’s Opening Day bench has since been jettisoned. It’s an entirely new crop of players. Let’s look at the reserves and where these guys fit in the big picture.

Catcher: John Ryan Murphy

Alternative: Austin Romine

Long-time backup Francisco Cervelli was traded away this winter for two (maybe three) reasons. One, the Yankees wanted to clear a spot for Murphy, who was impressive filling in during Cervelli’s hamstring injury last year. Two, they wanted to bolster their bullpen with Justin Wilson. (Three, they wanted to save a little cash.) The job is not Murphy’s just yet — he is competing with Romine in camp — but all signs point to him being the guy.

Murphy, 23, put up a .284/.318/.370 (93 wRC+) batting line in 32 big league games last year but his defense is his calling card. Anything he can do with the bat — he’s a year removed from a 117 wRC+ between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013, for what it’s worth — is a bonus. Murphy has ranked as a top shelf pitch-framer in his brief big league career and he’s considered a strong receiver who handles pitches in the dirt well.

The Yankees value catcher defense greatly. They wouldn’t clear the spot for Murphy if they didn’t believe he could excel defensively. Brian McCann is the clear cut number one catcher and will be asked to carry the majority of the workload behind the plate this year, so Murphy’s job is to get the pitching staff through the game whenever McCann needs a day off. That’s it. If he hits, wonderful. But that is secondary as far as the Yankees are concerned.

Infielder: Brendan Ryan

Alternative: Jose Pirela

Pirela. (Presswire)
Pirela. (Presswire)

Once again, the 32-year-old Ryan is dealing with a back injury in Spring Training. He started light workouts earlier this week but there’s no firm timetable for him to return to game action. That is opening the door for Pirela, just like last year’s back injury opened the door for Dean Anna. If Ryan has another setback — he’s already had one this spring — it’s hard to see how he’ll ready for Opening Day.

If healthy though, the backup infielder’s job is Ryan’s. The team owes him $2M this year and he’s still an above-average fielder at the hard to fill shortstop position. He can’t hit a lick — .167/.211/.202 (12 wRC+) in 124 plate appearances last year and that’s pretty much what you should expect going forward — but the Yankees are now a run prevention team and he fits the mold. Ryan is a guy who plays when someone else gets hurt or needs a day off, that’s it. He’s not a pinch-hitting option or even a pinch-running option.

Pirela is pretty much the exact opposite of Ryan. He can hit — or at least we think he can hit — but his glovework is very shaky. The 25-year-old hit .305/.351/.441 (117 wRC+) with Triple-A Scranton last season and is off to an 8-for-15 (.533) start to Grapefruit League play, and that’s his calling card. Pirela’s a hitter. He’s not much of a defender but he can play just about every position other than pitcher or catcher. If Ryan can’t start the season on time, Pirela is the odds on favorite to start the year as the backup infielder.

Outfielder: Chris Young

Alternative: Pirela? Ramon Flores?

New York’s very first move of the offseason was re-signing Young to a one-year deal worth $2.5M. They grabbed him off the scrap heap last summer and he had a nice month of September in pinstripes (146 wRC+ with three homers), which earned him a new contract. Overall, the 31-year-old young hit .222/.299/.385 (95 wRC+) with the Mets and Yankees in 2014.

Young’s days as an everyday player are pretty much over. He’s a right-handed platoon bat because of his power, not his ability to hit for average, that’s what the Yankees need with two left-handed starting outfielders and a third who is a switch-hitter whose weak side is the right side. Young’s defense remains above-average — he can play all three outfield spots in a pinch — and he can even steal a base off the bench. He figures to be used most often as Carlos Beltran‘s defensive replacement in right field, though I’m sure he’ll get plenty of starts against southpaws as well.

The Yankees don’t have an obvious alternative to Young. Pirela is probably the best option and Flores is the most MLB ready of their upper level outfield prospects. Pirela is right-handed and Flores is left-handed, and that’s not insignificant given the makeup of the roster. Others like Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin need more minor league time before realistically being considered MLB options. If Young gets hurt, Pirela’s probably the guy. Assuming he isn’t filling in for Ryan, of course.

G.I. Jones. (Presswire)
G.I. Jones. (Presswire)

Utility: Garrett Jones

Alternative: Pirela? Austin?

The Yankees have been after Jones for years — they first tried to acquire him from the Pirates in the A.J. Burnett trade — and they finally landed him in the Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi trade this offseason. He gives them a backup plan at three positions where they have players who have battled injuries in recent years: first base (Mark Teixeira), right field (Beltran), and DH (Alex Rodriguez).

Jones, 33, hit .246/.309/.411 (99 wRC+) with 15 homers last year, though Miami used him as their everyday first baseman, and he’s not an everyday player. He’s a left-handed platoon hitter, one who’s hit .260/.314/.475 (116 wRC+) against right-handed pitchers over the last three years with this spray chart:

Source: FanGraphs
Yeah, Jones is going to enjoy hitting in Yankee Stadium. And that’s going to be his job. Come off the bench and try to yank something over the wall. Jones has made a nice little career of doing just that and that’s all the Yankees want him to do in 2015. Play some right field, play some first base, see a few starts at DH, mash some taters. Very straight forward.

As with Young, there is no obvious alternative to Jones, so I guess Pirela is the guy by default. Austin can also play first base, right field, and DH, but he has yet to play above Double-A, so he needs to spend some time in Triple-A before helping the big league Yankees. Jones will likely see the most playing time of the projected four bench players and that makes him the most difficult to replace.

Aaron Judge tops Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects

Judge in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)
Judge in the Arizona Fall League. (Presswire)

One day after releasing his top 100 prospects list, Keith Law published his top ten prospects for each team on Friday. Here is the index and here is the Yankees list. The individual team lists are Insider only. Here is New York’s top ten:

  1. OF Aaron Judge (No. 23 on the top 100)
  2. 1B Greg Bird (No. 80 on the top 100)
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. RHP Luis Severino
  5. OF Tyler Austin
  6. SS Jorge Mateo
  7. RHP Domingo German
  8. LHP Ian Clarkin
  9. C Luis Torrens
  10. 3B Eric Jagielo

Also, based on the write-up, we know 2B Rob Refsnyder, 3B Miguel Andujar, LHP Jacob Lindgren, SS Tyler Wade, RHP Brady Lail, and RHP Ty Hensley are prospects 11-16. Law is lower on Severino and higher on Austin than most, but otherwise the top ten (top 16, really) seems pretty straight forward. No major surprises. You could argue someone should be a spot higher or whatever, but it’s not worth it.

With Stephen Drew in Refsnyder’s way at second base, Law lists Lindgren as the mostly likely prospect to have an impact in 2015. OF Mason Williams is the “fallen” prospect, the guy who was once one of the best in the game but is now an afterthought. Law’s sleeper for the Yankees is Mateo, who he says is “so well-regarded in the industry that other teams have already targeted him in trade talks.” He adds that Mateo has “tremendous tools, is an 80 runner and plus fielder who shows above-average raw power in BP.”

The Yankees have a very position player heavy farm system right now — seven of Law’s top ten and nine of his top 12 are position players — and that’s a good thing because quality position players are hard to find these days. Even better, several of those position players will be at Double-A or higher this coming season, including Judge, Bird, Sanchez, Austin, Jagielo, and Refsnyder. There’s a clear path for some of those guys to get MLB at-bats in the next year or two, and the team’s apparent commitment to getting younger means they’re going to get a chance. That’s exciting.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 20-25

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’re inevitably going to disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 26-31 and 32-40.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
Capuano. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

After spending the last two days looking at the 40-man roster players who might help the Yankees in some sort of limited capacity this coming season, we’re now getting to players expected to have regular roles during the 2015 season. We aren’t at the core of the roster yet, but some of these folks are more than fringe players.

Our 40-man roster ranking series continues today with Nos. 20-25, six spots split eventually between big league pitchers and prospects. There’s not much of a common theme in this group, that’s just the way the rankings fell. Boring, I know, but that’s the way it goes. Alright, let’s continue marching on …

No. 25: Chris Capuano

2015 Role: Fifth starter, maybe a swingman if a better rotation option comes along at some point. The Yankees re-signed Capuano to a little one-year contract worth $5M to add pitching depth and add some stability to the back of the rotation. Capuano did an alright job in pinstripes last year (4.25 ERA and 3.85 FIP in 12 starts) and the team will ask him to do more of the same in 2015.

Long-Term Role: Doesn’t really have one. I mean, yeah, the Yankees could always bring Capuano back in 2016, but he is very much a year to year guy at age 36. Maybe it’s more appropriate to call him a month to month guy instead. Capuano is nothing more than a stopgap rotation option. The Yankees just want him to soak up innings every fifth day and be a mentor to some of the younger pitchers on the staff. Capuano is important in 2015 because the rotation is full of injury concerns, though there’s no long-term plan here.

No. 24: Chasen Shreve

2015 Role: At worst, an up-and-down bullpen arm. At best, a bullpen fixture who serves as a reliable matchup lefty for Joe Girardi in the middle innings. The Yankees acquired the 24-year-old Shreve from the Braves in the Manny Banuelos trade a few weeks ago and while he isn’t guaranteed a roster spot come Opening Day, I think he is the leading candidate for the final bullpen spot. Either way, he’ll get a long look in Spring Training.

Long-Term Role: A bullpen regular. Shreve reinvented himself last season by simply airing it out — he stopped holding back velocity in an attempt to improve location, and the result was across the board improvement. Even to his walk rate. I don’t know if he has the pure stuff to be a late-inning reliever who can face both lefties and righties, but if the results stemming from the new approach are legit, Shreve is a guy who can hang around and contribute out of the bullpen for the next several years. I’m very intrigued by the pickup and am looking forward to seeing him this summer.

German. (Presswire)
German. (Presswire)

No. 23: Domingo German

2015 Role: Nothing at the MLB level. German came over from the Marlins in the five-player Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi trade after spending all of last season in Low Class-A. He’s on the 40-man roster because the Marlins opted to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft earlier this offseason. German will head to High-A Tampa this coming year and maybe, just maybe, he’ll earn a call-up to Double-A Trenton at midseason. I wouldn’t expect anything more than that.

Long-Term Role: German is one of the best pitching prospects in the organization — you could easily argue he’s the team’s second best pitching prospect behind non-40-man-roster guy Luis Severino — and that alone makes him an important part of the team’s future even if he won’t realistically make his MLB debut until 2016, if not later.

The Yankees want German to do one of two things: either become a long-term fixture in their rotation or continue improving his prospect stock so they can use him as the centerpiece in a trade. He’s much closer to the latter than he is the former right now. At 22, German is the youngest pitcher on the 40-man roster by 16 months and the second youngest player on the 40-man roster overall (behind Gary Sanchez), and that alone makes him an important part of the organization. He’s a key piece moving forward.

No. 22: David Carpenter

2015 Role: Setup man, replacing Shawn Kelley. Carpenter has been setting up Craig Kimbrel these last two years — he came over with Shreve in the Banuelos trade — and he’ll continue to work important innings in New York. It remains to be seen how the ninth inning will shake out, but if Dellin Betances gets the closer’s job, Carpenter is the leading candidate to be Joe Girardi’s right-handed complement to Andrew Miller.

Long-Term Role: Still setup man. Carpenter is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through the 2017 season, so he’s not going anywhere unless he’s just so terrible the team dumps him. The Yankees basically reacquired Kelley. He and Carpenter are very similar pitchers — fastball, slider, lots of strikeouts, lots of fly balls — and they’ll wind up filling the same role in pinstripes.

No. 21: Justin Wilson

2015 Role: Middle reliever but not just as a left-handed specialist. Wilson, who came over from the Pirates in the Frankie Cervelli swap, has a big fastball and a history of striking batters out and neutralizing both lefties and righties. The shaky control means he might never be a regular high-leverage option, but Wilson is a solid reliever who won’t have to be hidden from righties.

Long-Term Role: Wilson won’t qualify for free agency until after the 2018 season, so he’s expected to be a staple in the bullpen for the next several years. If the Carpenter is the next Kelley, Wilson is the next Boone Logan, a lefty with power stuff but questionable strike-throwing ability. Even with Miller on board, Wilson has a chance to grow into a traditional setup role if his control improves a la Logan because he isn’t held back by platoon splits.

Austin. (Star-Ledger)
Austin. (Star-Ledger)

No. 20: Tyler Austin

2015 Role: These last two seasons have been physically tough for Austin, who suffered a bone bruise in his wrist in April 2013 and had it linger all the way into the middle of the 2014 season. (It didn’t help that he played through it for most of 2013). He also missed several weeks with a hamstring strain last year.

Austin mashed before and after the wrist issues — he put up a .302/.355/.487 (133 wRC+) line in the final two months of the 2014 regular season and did more of the same in the Arizona Fall League (135 wRC+) — and he was added to the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. He’s headed to Triple-A Scranton to start the year and could bypass Ramon Flores as the first outfielder to get called up when help is needed. So I guess that means his immediate role is up-and-down outfielder.

Long-Term Role: He’s not expected to be a star, but Austin has legitimate upside as an everyday MLB player, most likely in right field. He has also seen time at first and third bases in his career, but the hot corner ain’t happening. The Yankees have a full outfield at the moment, though Carlos Beltran will be an injury risk from now through the end of his contract. Among players on the 40-man, Austin has by far the best chance to come up, replace an injured outfielder, and make the team keep him in the lineup with his play.

The Yankees have a small wave of promising position player prospects at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, and Austin is in position to be among the first to get an opportunity in an everyday role. He could replace Garrett Jones as the part-time right fielder, part-time first baseman, part-time DH as soon as 2016 — Austin is a righty while Jones is a lefty, but that’s not a huge deal — before settling into a full-time role. Offense is at a premium and Austin has never not hit when healthy. If he contributes at the plate at the MLB level, he’ll stick around.

Coming Thursday: Nos. 17-19. Two pitchers at different points of their careers and a potential impact position player prospect.

Yankees add Austin, Burawa, Pinder, Williams to 40-man roster; sell Zelous Wheeler’s right to team in Japan

Bye Zelous. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Bye Zelous. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The Yankees have added outfielder Tyler Austin, right-hander Danny Burawa, right-hander Branden Pinder, and outfielder Mason Williams to the 40-man roster, the team announced. Today was the deadline to set the 40-man for the Rule 5 Draft and all four players would have been eligible. The Yankees have also sold utility man Zelous Wheeler’s rights to the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. There are currently 38 players on the 40-man roster, meaning New York can select up to two players in the Rule 5 Draft.

Adding Austin to the 40-man was the only no-brainer of the bunch. He had a huge second half with Double-A Trenton this summer and continued to rake in the Arizona Fall League. He played through a bone bruise in his wrist almost all of last year and again earlier this year, but it appears he’s over it and had gotten back to where he was when he was one of the team’s top prospects a year or two ago. Austin figures to open the 2015 season with Triple-A Scranton and could get called up at some point. If nothing else, he should be a September call-up.

Burawa is a pure reliever and has some of the nastiest stuff in the system with a mid-to-high-90s fastball and a vicious slider. He does have control problems (13.2% walk rate the last two years) and had to be demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Trenton this summer, but the Yankees have had some success figuring these guys out, with Shane Greene being a primary example. Pinder is another pure reliever whose stuff isn’t as electric as Burawa’s, but he had an excellent season in 2014. He is primarily a fastball-slider guy. Both Burawa and Pinder are expected to open 2015 with the RailRiders and could make their MLB debuts later in the season.

Williams both is and isn’t a surprising addition to the 40-man roster. Surprising because he’s been flat out terrible for two years running now — he hit .223/.290/.304 (66 wRC+) in 563 plate appearances with the Thunder this past season — and there are reports of major maturity and work ethic issues. Those guys usually aren’t rewarded with 40-man spots. It’s unsurprising because Williams is a top flight defender in center field and has high-end tools. He was arguably the organization’s top prospect two years ago. The Yankees are obviously hoping he grows up a bit and unlocks some of his potential.

Among the players the Yankees opted not to protect from the Rule 5 Draft are first baseman Kyle Roller, left-hander Matt Tracy, and right-handers Mark Montgomery and Zach Nuding. All three pitchers could get selected. Montgomery’s stuff has gone backwards the last two years but his slider still misses bats. Nuding throws hard and Tracy is both breathing and left-handed. As a reminder, any player selected in the Rule 5 Draft must remain on his new team’s active 25-man roster all season, or be placed on waivers and offered back to his old team before going to the minors.

As for Wheeler, the Yankees didn’t sell his rights to Rakuten — Masahiro Tanaka‘s former team — without his knowledge or out of the blue. Almost always in these situations, the player asked the team for permission to pursue a job overseas and has a contract lined up with a new club. Wheeler presumably did that and the Yankees let him go as a courtesy while also pocketing a little extra cash. Win-win for everyone.

Update: The Yankees received $350,000 for Wheeler’s rights, according to Mark Feinsand.

Austin, Bird, Jagielo, Judge among Yankees prospects heading to Arizona Fall League

4:43pm: Norris says the Yankees are also sending a catcher to be named later to the AzFL. Maybe Kyle Higashioka after he missed the first half of the season following Tommy John surgery?

4:17pm: According to Josh Norris, the Yankees are sending OF Tyler Austin, 1B Greg Bird, 3B Eric Jagielo, OF Aaron Judge, RHP Caleb Cotham, RHP Branden Pinder, and RHP Alex Smith to play for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League after the season. I thought they might send LHP Manny Banuelos to continue pitching following Tommy John surgery, but it’s already been a long season for him. The AzFL season begins October 7th.

The Yankees are sending more top prospects to the desert this year than I can ever remember. Usually they only send one or two top prospects. Austin (wrist, groin), Bird (back), Jagielo (oblique), Pinder (groin), and Cotham (unknown) all missed several weeks due to injury this summer and will be making up for lost time. Pinder is Rule 5 Draft eligible this winter and the club probably wants some more time to evaluate him. Judge is the team’s best prospect and Smith has had a nice year out of the bullpen for High-A Tampa (2.40 ERA and 3.29 FIP). Great crop of players going to the AzFL this year.

Tyler Austin, Greg Bird, and the future of first base

Austin. (New York Daily News)
Austin. (New York Daily News)

First base is a weird position. Teams expect huge offensive production from first base and it’s at the bottom of the defensive spectrum despite being involved in more total plays than any position other than pitcher and catcher. You can’t just stick anyone there either. We’ve seen enough of that firsthand this year. You need offense from first but defense isn’t a huge deal, except for all those times the first baseman handles the ball.

You also rarely hear people talk about a team’s “first baseman of the future” too. There’s plenty of “this guy will be our shortstop for the next ten years,” but first base? Nope. The history of first base prospects is pretty awful as well. Baseball America ranked 37 full-time first baseman among their top 100 prospects from 1995-2005 and only five became bonafide stars: Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Todd Helton, Paul Konerko, and David Ortiz, who made his name at DH.

More recent elite first base prospects like Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak have been disappointments. Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo are the best of the top first base prospect crop since Fielder while others like Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt were never top prospects. It has historically been a tough position to project and I think that’s because it’s so offense-focused. Hitting is generally considered to be tougher to scout and evaluate than pitching because there is no “textbook” swing. A fastball is a fastball and a slider is a slider. But a swing? Good luck cracking that code.

Anyway, the Yankees are at a point now where the future of first base in the Bronx is up in the air. Mark Teixeira is under contract for another two seasons but he is becoming more and more injury prone with each passing year. His playing time at first base will only go down through injuries and time spent at DH in an effort to keep him healthy. The Yankees have gotten by (barely) with fill-in first basemen during Teixeira’s injuries this season, though I hope that isn’t the plan going forward. To just wing it whenever Teixeira gets hurt.

The Yankees currently have two first base prospect at Double-A Trenton … well, one first base and one kinda sorta first base prospect. The true first base prospect is Greg Bird, who was just promoted and has gone 9-for-30 (.300) with three doubles and three homers during his first week with the Thunder. He had a monster 2013 season (170 wRC+) with Low-A Charleston and offers the kind of left-handed power and patience the Yankees crave. Bird is a recently converted catcher though, so his defense at first can be generously described as a work in progress.

The kinda sorta first base prospect is Tyler Austin, another ex-catcher who has bounced from third to first to right field over the years. He’s spent most of this year playing right in deference to Peter O’Brien and now to Bird. Austin had an outstanding 2012 campaign (~160 wRC+) before a wrist injury marred his 2013 season (103 wRC+). The wrist problem lingered into this season and caused him to miss the start of the year, and after a few slow weeks, he’s hit .319/.362/.518 with six homers since July 1st. It appears 2012 Austin is starting to return as he gets further away from the wrist injury.

Bird. (Newsday)
Bird. (Newsday)

Neither Bird nor Austin is a top first base prospect like Hosmer or Fielder — Austin did rank 77th on Baseball America’s top 100 in 2013 — though they are solid prospects expected to be average or better contributors at the MLB level, assuming things work out. League average is valuable, especially when the players are making close to the league minimum in their pre-arbitration years. Austin in particular fits the roster very well as a right-handed hitter with some power who can play both right and first. Bird, as a pure first baseman, is a less perfect fit.

It’s clear at this point the Yankees will need some kind of viable backup for Teixeira going forward just because he gets hurt all the time. It’s not necessarily the 15-day DL stuff either. He’s shown a knack for those 6-7 day injuries, the ones that are short enough to avoid the DL but long enough to force the team to play a man short. The problem is that “backup first baseman” really isn’t a position anymore. No team carries a player specifically for that. They tend to carry, well, someone like Austin, who can play first in addition to the corner outfield, third base, or even catch. Think Mike Carp or Steve Pearce or Scott Van Slyke.

The assumption has been that Brian McCann will eventually have to move to first base, though continues to rate very well defensively in terms of pitching framing, throwing out runners, and blocking balls in the dirt. His bat has been a huge disappointment this season but there is no reason to move him out from behind the plate yet. Since Austin is further along in his development thank Bird and figures to start next season at Triple-A Scranton, he’ll be in position to help the Yankees as soon as next season, perhaps getting his opportunity when Teixeira gets hurt. Bird is still a year or two away and his lack of flexibility hurts his chances. If Austin hits, the Yankees will have some different ways to get him into the lineup. They can’t really do that with Bird.

Until his contract is off the books, Teixeira will be New York’s primary first baseman and that’s just the way it’s going to be. There is no reason to think they’ll bench him or relegate him to DH duty on a regular basis. It would be a drastic change from the way they’ve done business for the last, I dunno, 15-20 years. Teixeira’s injuries will give Austin and later Bird a chance to get into the big league lineup — assuming they’re worth calling up, of course — though staying there is the hard part. The Yankees have had four primary first baseman over the last 30 years and they usually go for stars at the position. The opportunity will come for both Austin and Bird in the next two years, but being a good but not great prospect with the Yankees is a not ideal. They may only be stopgaps until the next big name comes along.