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.

Yanks send Vicente Campos to D’Backs for Tyler Clippard

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

It’s not all about selling this trade deadline. Sunday morning the Yankees announced they have traded Double-A righty Vicente Campos to the Diamondbacks for ex-Yankee Tyler Clippard. It’s a straight one-for-one swap. Campos was on the 40-man roster, so the Yankees won’t have to make another move to clear room for Clippard.

The Yankees traded both Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller in the last week, so the Clippard pickup gives the team a veteran arm for the late innings. Joe Girardi confirmed Dellin Betances will take over as closer. Joel Sherman says the club plans to use Clippard in the seventh and others in the eighth. I assume Adam Warren will factor in there somehow.

Clippard, 31, has a 4.30 ERA (4.30 FIP!) in 37.2 innings for Arizona this season. His last three appearances have been ugly (2.1 IP, 4 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 2 HR), but he was pitching well before that (2.80 ERA and 3.59 FIP). Clearly though, this is not the Clippard of old. The guy who dominated with the Nationals is gone. Clippard’s on the decline and outs don’t come as easily as they once did.

As you know, the Yankees originally drafted and developed Clippard back in the day. He was their ninth round pick in 2003 and one of their better prospects before making his MLB debut in 2007. Clippard had a 6.33 ERA (6.68 FIP) in six starts and 27 innings for the Yankees that summer. He was traded to the Nats for Jonathan Albaladejo that offseason. Not Brian Cashman‘s finest moment.

The Yankees reportedly had some interest in Clippard over the winter but obviously did not sign him. He inked a two-year deal worth $12.25M with the D’Backs instead. The Yankees owe him the remainder of his $6.1M salary this season plus another $6.15M next season. He’s not a rental but his salary is hardly prohibitive. A little veteran middle relief depth is never a bad thing.

Campos, 24, was the other guy in the Jesus Montero/Michael Pineda trade. He has a 3.20 ERA (3.07 FIP) with a 21.3% strikeout rate and a 7.7% walk rate in 121 total innings this season. Campos was limited to only 166 total innings from 2012-15 due to ongoing elbow problems, including Tommy John surgery. He’s stayed healthy this year and the Yankees took advantage by flipping him for an MLB arm.

In a nutshell, the Yankees reshuffled some assets and turned an injury prone prospect into a declining reliever. Not exactly a ton of value changing hands here. The Yankees are selling, the Chapman and Miller trades are evidence of that, but they still need players to throw innings, and Clippard’s a capable of seventh inning guy. Unexciting? Yes. They ain’t all blockbusters.

2016 Midseason Review: The Farm System

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers, infielders, outfielders, bench, rotation, bullpen, and role players. Now let’s go down into the farm system.

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

The Yankees are a team in transition. They’re trying to get younger wherever possible while waiting out the last few years of all those big money contracts. Most of them will be off the books by the end of next season. There’s no denying the Yankees have had their problems developing players over the last few years, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of the farm system. If anything, it makes the farm system more important going forward. Let’s review the first half of 2016 in the minor league system.

The Top Prospects

The order may vary, but pretty much everyone was in agreement OF Aaron Judge, C Gary Sanchez, and SS Jorge Mateo were the Yankees’ three best prospects coming into the season. I ranked them in that order in my Preseason Top 30 Prospects List. Others had Mateo first and Judge third. The order doesn’t really matter. Those were the three guys.

Judge and Sanchez both opened the year in Triple-A and they’ve had very different seasons. Judge has been up and down. He started well, slumped hard in May, then caught fire in June. At one point he hit nine home runs in 15 games. Overall, Judge is hitting .261/.357/.469 (139 wRC+) with 16 homers and a strong 11.4% walk rate in 83 games. His strikeout rate, which was the No. 1 concern coming into 2016, sits at 23.2%, down from 28.5% in Triple-A last year. Judge unfortunately hurt his knee last week and will be out a month.

Sanchez, meanwhile, has mashed pretty much all season. He hasn’t had the big peaks and valleys like Judge. Sanchez, who is still only 23, is hitting .286/.328/.489 (133 wRC+) with nine homers in 56 games around a fractured thumb caused by a foul tip. My favorite thing about Sanchez is the progression of his strikeout rate:

Low-A: 25.0%
High-A: 19.2%
Double-A: 18.7%
Triple-A: 16.3%

Sanchez is making more contact as he climbs the ladder, and his defense is improving too. That’s pretty awesome. He and Judge factor prominently into the team’s long-term plans. The Yankees envision these two as not only as their catcher and right fielder of the future, but their middle of the lineup of the future too. They’re both having success in Triple-A right now, which is exactly what the Yankees wanted to see this summer.

As for Mateo, he’s down in High-A and gosh, he had an incredible start to the season. He was hitting .299/.364/.485 (149 wRC+) with five homers on June 1st — last year Mateo hit two homers, one of which was an inside-the-parker — and he looked very much like an electric power-speed threat at shortstop. Since then though, Mateo has hit only .211/.250/.246 (46 wRC+) in 122 plate appearances, and last week the Yankees suspended him for violating team policy. He reportedly complained to team officials about not being promoted. Not great, Jorge.

Both Sanchez and Judge are performing as hoped in Triple-A, which puts them in position to assume fairly prominent roles with the 2017 Yankees. It’s not out of the question we see them with the Yankees in the second half. Mateo has had a fine statistical season — he’s hitting .266/.323/.396 (112 wRC+) overall even with the recent slump — but this suspension is a bummer, regardless of why it happened.

The Breakout Prospect

Andujar. (MLB.com video screen grab)
Andujar. (MLB.com video screen grab)

There has been no bigger breakout prospect in the system this year than 3B Miguel Andujar, who always had the tools to be a high-end prospect, but had not yet turned those tools into baseball skills. He’s doing that this year, hitting .291/.343/.446 (128 wRC+) with ten homers and a measly 11.4% strikeout rate in 83 games split between High-A and Double-A. We’ve been waiting a while for Andujar to put it all together, and it’s happening this year.

The other notable breakout prospect this year is a reliever turned starter. The Yankees took last year’s fifth rounder, RHP Chance Adams, and moved him into the rotation this season because of his stuff and pitchability. The results have been better than anyone expected. Adams has a 2.63 ERA (2.97 FIP) with a 29.4% strikeout rate and a 7.5% walk rate in 85.2 innings between High-A and Double-A. He still has work to do with his changeup, but Adams is able to hold his stuff deep into games, which is always a big question with these reliever-to-starter conversation guys.

Perhaps the most interesting breakout prospect is an older guy: 26-year-old C Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was the Yankees’ seventh round pick back in 2008, and this year he’s hitting .321/.379/.589 (168 wRC+) with 14 homers in 62 games between Double-A and Triple-A. He’s dealt with a bunch of injuries over the years, including Tommy John surgery, but he’s finally healthy now. Higashioka has always had power and he’s the best defensive backstop in the system. Catchers tend to be late-bloomers moreso than any other position. Higashioka may be 26, but they don’t check IDs on the field. A good defensive catcher with power is a legitimate big league prospect.

Other prospects who have raised their stock in the first half this season include RHP Vicente Campos, OF Jake Cave, and SS Tyler Wade. All three have been on the prospect map for a while. Campos is healthy for the first time in years and is having success as a starter, really for the first time since coming over in the Jesus MonteroMichael Pineda trade. Cave has developed some power after being returned as a Rule 5 Draft pick this spring. Wade is doing the bat control/strike discipline/good defense thing in Double-A.

The Inevitable Injuries

Kaprielian. (MLB.com video screen grab)
Kaprielian. (MLB.com video screen grab)

Injuries come with the territory and they’re unavoidable. The biggest injury in the system this year is RHP James Kaprielian‘s elbow injury, which was only recently diagnosed as a flexor tendon strain. Kaprielian, who was the Yankees’ first rounder last year, was limited to three High-A starts this year. That’s a bummer. He was expected to shoot up the ladder rather quickly. There’s no timetable for Kaprielian’s return, as far as we know.

Elsewhere in the system, LHP Jacob Lindgren came down with an elbow injury after completely losing the strike zone in High-A. He threw seven innings and hasn’t been heard from since. RHP Ty Hensley had to undergo a second Tommy John surgery, unfortunately. The team’s first rounder in 2012 has thrown 42.1 innings in parts of five seasons. Ouch. RHP Nick Rumbelow and RHP Branden Pinder had their elbows rebuilt early in the season too.

One of the biggest names — and longest tenured players — in the system saw his time with the organization come to an end following an injury. OF Slade Heathcott, who the Yankees selected in the first round way back in 2009, hit .230/.271/.310 (58 wRC+) with a 32.0% strikeout rate in 23 Triple-A games before coming down with another knee problem. He’s had a bunch of those over the years. The Yankees released Slade in May and he hooked on with the White Sox a few weeks later.

The Prospects Returning From Injury

Clarkin. (MLB.com video screen grab)
Clarkin. (MLB.com video screen grab)

Last year the Yankees seemed to have an inordinate number of full season injuries in the farm system. Several big name prospects missed the entire season, including C Luis Torrens (shoulder), LHP Ian Clarkin (elbow), RHP Domingo German (elbow), and RHP Austin DeCarr (elbow). Clarkin avoided the knife. The other three guys all had surgery. All things considered, their 2016 seasons have gone well to date.

Clarkin was one of New York’s three first round picks in 2013, and so far this season he has a 3.12 ERA (3.16 FIP) in 95.1 innings with High-A Tampa. He’s not only avoided another injury, he’s gotten stronger as the season has gone on. When it comes to the first 100 innings back following a lost season, Clarkin’s season has gone about as well as hoped this year. He’s healthy and he’s getting outs.

Torrens, German, and DeCarr all returned within the last few weeks and haven’t played much. German and DeCarr went through the usual 14-16 month Tommy John surgery rehab — it used to be 12 months, but nowadays teams are stretching it out a bit more — while Torrens was said to be ready to go in Spring Training. He had to be shut down with shoulder discomfort though. Torrens is the healthy now and he’s picked up right where he left off before the injury.

Other Notables

RHP Domingo Acevedo is having an excellent statistical season but still has to work on his secondary pitches … OF Dustin Fowler has climbed the ladder rather quickly after being a two-sport guy in high school and an 18th round pick in 2013. He’s have a good but not great season in Double-A … LHP Jordan Montgomery is inching closer to being a big league option after a strong half-season in Double-A … SS Hoy Jun Park, who was part of that big 2014-15 international class, is having a solid two-way season in Low-A … SS Kyle Holder is still playing the heck out of shortstop, but he’s not hitting much in Low-A … LHP Jeff Degano spent most of the first half in Extended Spring Training, apparently because he’s no longer able to throw strikes.

* * *

Kaprielian’s injury and Mateo’s recent suspension have put a bit of a damper on the top prospects in the system, but Judge and Sanchez are having strong seasons in Triple-A, Andujar and Adams are breaking out, and both Clarkin and Torrens have returned well after missing last season with injury. The Yankees haven’t been able to dip into their farm system for help like they did last year, when RHP Luis Severino and 1B Greg Bird had an impact in the second half, but the tippy top prospects are performing well and the key injured prospects have come back strong. That qualifies as a good season in the minors to me.

The Farm System [2016 Season Preview]

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

The Yankees ignored their farm system for a number of years in the early and mid-2000s. They forfeited first round picks left and right to sign free agents, and they traded the few prospects they had for big leaguers every chance they got. I don’t think that’s automatically a bad thing! There’s a time and a place to go for it, and when you’re winning 90+ games every year, you go for it.

Things changed not too long ago. The Yankees decided to scale back the “go for it” mentality and instead focus on getting younger and building from within. Draft picks are precious, especially now that it’s harder to get extra ones, and top prospects are off limits in trades. Or at least the team says they are. Last summer the Yankees dipped into their farm system to fill a number of holes, most notably by sticking Luis Severino in the second half rotation.

The Yankees doubled down on their farm system this offseason. They signed zero Major League free agents for the first time in franchise history (as far as I can tell), and they didn’t go bonkers with trades either. They added a new second baseman, a new fourth outfielder, and a new closer. That’s about it. Any additional help is going to come from within in 2016. Let’s preview the farm system.

The Top Prospects

The Yankees have four prospects who are clearly a notch above everyone else in the system: OF Aaron Judge, C Gary Sanchez, SS Jorge Mateo, and RHP James Kaprielian. Put them in any order you want. I won’t argue (much). Those are the four guys though. They’re the cream of the farm system crop. And cool part is all four could play in MLB in 2016. I wouldn’t call it likely, but it’s not completely impossible.

Judge is a behemoth — he’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 275 lbs. — with the kind of raw power you’d expect from that frame, though he doesn’t fit the one-dimensional slugger stereotype because he has a good hit tool and can play quality right field defense. Triple-A pitchers beat him with soft stuff away last year, so he’ll focus on the outer half this year. He’s already made some adjustments. Judge is not on the 40-man roster and the Yankees do have a lot of Triple-A outfield depth, but he will be Rule 5 Draft eligible next offseason, so the team could add him to the 40-man ahead of time and bring him up in September. Perhaps even sooner.

As soon as John Ryan Murphy was traded, Sanchez became the favorite for the backup catcher’s job. Over time it became clear sending him down was the right move, and not only because he went 1-for-21 (.048) in Spring Training. Five weeks in the minors equals an extra year of team control down the line and that is too good to pass up. Sanchez will continue to work on his defense in Triple-A for the time being. It’s only a matter of time until he takes over as Brian McCann‘s backup.

Mateo and Kaprielian are both going to start the season in High-A and they could conceivably reach MLB late in the season. Kaprielian, a polished college arm, could follow the Ian Kennedy path and zoom up the ladder, capping off his season with a few big league starts. Mateo, a speedster who can do a little of everything, could be the team’s designated pinch-runner in September. He’ll be Rule 5 Draft eligible after the season, so the Yankees could add him to the 40-man roster a few weeks early and put those legs to good use.

Judge, Sanchez, Mateo, and Kaprielian are the club’s tippy top prospects, and even if they don’t help at the MLB level this season, they’re all big parts of the future. Judge is the obvious long-term replacement for Carlos Beltran. Sanchez is McCann’s long-term replacement. The Yankees have one big league starter under team control beyond 2017 (Severino), so Kaprielian’s place is obvious. Mateo? They’ll figure that out when the time comes. For now, these four will continue to hone their skills and inch closer to an MLB job.

Ready To Help

In addition to the four top prospects, the Yankees have a few minor leaguers on the cusp of helping at the MLB level right now. First and foremost, they have about a dozen arms for the bullpen shuttle, and frankly I’m kinda sick of talking about them. We know the names, right? LHP Jacob Lindgren, RHP Nick Rumbelow, RHP Nick Goody, RHP Branden Pinder, LHP James Pazos, on and on the list goes. We’re going to see them all at some point in 2016. I’m sure of it.

Gamel. (Presswire)
Gamel. (Presswire)

Beyond the bullpen shuttle, the Yankees have a small army of Triple-A outfielders who can help at a moment’s notice. Need a bat? OF Ben Gamel is there. Need defense? OF Mason Williams is the best bet once he fully recovers from shoulder surgery. Need a little of both? There’s OF Slade Heathcott. 2B Rob Refsnyder provides infield depth, or at least he will once he spends more time at third base. IF Ronald Torreyes, who will open the season in the show, is another infield candidate.

RHP Bryan Mitchell is also going to open to season in MLB, though he’s still a piece of rotation depth. If he’s the best man for the job, the Yankees will pull him out of the bullpen and stick him in the rotation whenever a starter is needed. RHP Luis Cessa, who came over in the Justin Wilson trade, looked very good this spring and is probably next in line for a call-up. RHP Brady Lail and RHP Chad Green are behind him. Cessa is on the 40-man. Lail and Green are not.

Unlike last season, the Yankees don’t have a Severino waiting in the wings. They don’t have that prospect who can come up and provide immediate impact. Well, I should rephrase that. They don’t have a prospect you would reasonably project to come up and have an impact right away. Cessa could come up and throw 60 innings with a sub-2.00 ERA, but no one expects that. Either way, the Yankees have depth pieces in Triple-A. Expect them to dip into their farm system for short-term help again this year, regardless of what they need at the MLB level.

The Next Top Prospects

A year ago at this time Mateo looked like a prospect who was ready to explode onto the scene and become a top tier prospect. Two years ago it was Severino. This summer, the best candidate for such a breakout is SS Wilkerman Garcia, who was part of that massive international spending spree two years ago. He’s a switch-hitter with good defense and I swear, every scouting report I read about him is better than the last. I’m excited to see what Wilkerman does this year.

Beyond Wilkerman, OF Dustin Fowler and C Luis Torrens have a chance to become top prospects this year. Fowler is a do-it-all outfielder and Torrens is a defense-first catcher with a promising bat. He’s coming back from shoulder surgery though, so maybe expecting a breakout after missing the entire 2015 season is too much to ask. 3B Miguel Andujar has high-end tools. We’re just waiting for the performance to match. SS Hoy Jun Park is another toolsy shortstop like Garcia.

The Yankees have a very position player heavy farm system, though they do have some pitching prospects poised to break out this summer. RHP Drew Finley is the No. 1 guy. He’s got three pitches and he locates. I feel like he’s going to sneak up on people this year. RHP Domingo Acevedo is the quintessential huge fastball guy. He just has to figure everything else out. LHP Jeff Degano needs to develop a changeup but already has the fastball and breaking ball.

Then, of course, there’s whoever the Yankees take with their first round pick (18th overall) in this June’s amateur draft. That player — the smart money is on a college player based on the team’s recent draft tendencies — figures to be one of their better prospects a year from now. Wilkerman, Fowler, and Finley are my picks. Those are the guys I see having big 2016 seasons developmentally and becoming true top prospects year from now.

Returning From Injury

Torrens missed all of last season with his injury, but man, he’s not the only one. LHP Ian Clarkin missed the regular season with elbow inflammation, which stinks. The good news is he did not need surgery and was able to throw some innings in the Arizona Fall League. RHP Ty Hensley, RHP Austin DeCarr, and RHP Domingo German all had Tommy John surgery last spring and are still working their way back. Lindgren (elbow), Heathcott (quad), and Williams (shoulder) all missed big chunks of the season too. That’s a lot of talent coming back. Hopefully all of them come back at full strength, or at least something close to it.

Sladerunner. (Presswire)
Sladerunner. (Presswire)

Last Chance?

Prospects are fun and everyone loves them, but they will break your heart. Over and over again. Some players are entering make or break years, and I don’t mean 2015 Gary Sanchez make or break years. I mean real make or break years. 1B/OF Tyler Austin is the most obvious last chance guy. He’s battled injuries and ineffectiveness the last few years, and he lost his 40-man roster spot in September. The 2016 season is his last chance to show the Yankees he’s worth keeping around.

Heathcott’s another make or break player for me. The Yankees gave him a second chance last year and he rewarded them with his big September home run against the Rays. That said, he again missed a bunch of time due to injury, and when healthy he didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball in Triple-A. Another year like that might spell the end of Slade’s time in the organization, especially since he will be out of options following the season.

I’m also inclined to include RHP Vicente Campos in the make or break category. He’s had a lot of injuries over the years, most notably missing the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery, which has really cut into his development time. This is his final minor league option year, and if he doesn’t show the Yankees he can help as soon next year, it may be time to move on. Baseball is cruel, man.

The Deep Sleepers

Remember that “The Next Top Prospects” section? Consider this the Next Next Top Prospects section. These are the deepest sleepers in the farm system. They’re way off the beaten path. The new hotness right now is OF Estevan Florial, an ulta-tooled up 18-year-old the Yankees got on the cheap because identity issues — he used a relative’s identity to enroll in school in the Dominican Republic — put him in purgatory before signing. He’s going to make his stateside debut this year and jump onto the prospect map in a big way.

SS Diego Castillo and OF Brayan Emery were part of the 2014-15 international spending spree, and both possess tools that far exceed their six-figure bonuses. Castillo in particular already looks like a steal at $750,000. He should come to the U.S. this year and is in line to follow Mateo and Wilkerman as the next great Yankees shortstop prospect. RHP Luis Medina, who signed last July, is already running his fastball up to 98-100 mph. And then there’s OF Leonardo Molina, who is still only 18. It feels like he’s been around forever. Florial is the big name to know here, but Castillo’s not far behind. Expect to hear a lot about those two in 2016 and beyond.

The Best of the Rest

There is nothing sexy about being a mid-range prospect, but you know what? Mid-range prospects are often the difference between good teams and great teams. They provide depth and they’re valuable trade chips. Guys like Adam Warren and Brett Gardner don’t grow on trees, you know. You’d rather draft and develop them yourself than have to go out and buy them from someone else.

SS Tyler Wade, SS Kyle Holder, LHP Jordan Montgomery, IF Thairo Estrada, IF Abi Avelino, OF Carlos Vidal, 1B Chris Gittens, RHP Cale Coshow, RHP Chance Adams, OF Trey Amburgey, and OF Jhalan Jackson all fit into this group. They’re good prospects, not great prospects, and they all project to be big leaguers of varying usefulness. I’m not sure if we’ll see any of these players in the show this year, but I bet several pop-up in trade rumors, and one or two could be moved for help at the MLB level. That’s what the farm system is for, after all. Call-ups and trades.

Minor League Links: Campos, Heathcott, Impact Prospects

Campos. (Presswire)
Campos. (Presswire)

The Yankees continue the Grapefruit League season later today and there will be a television (and online) broadcast, so hooray for that. We’ll have a regular game thread when the time comes. Here are some miscellaneous minor league notes to hold you over until first pitch.

Campos to work as a starter in 2016

Earlier this week Brian Cashman told Chad Jennings that RHP Vicente Campos will indeed continue to work as a starting pitcher this season. Campos, who came over from the Mariners in the Jesus MonteroMichael Pineda trade, missed the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery. The 23-year-old had a 6.29 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 54.1 innings across 13 starts with mostly High-A Tampa after returning last year. The Yankees re-added him to the 40-man roster over the winter to prevent him from becoming a minor league free agent.

The ERA was ugly but Campos showed good control following surgery last summer (18.9 K% and 4.2 BB%) and his stuff reportedly returned to its pre-surgery levels, meaning a mid-90s heater and a hard upper-70s curveball. Campos, who used to go by Jose, has thrown only 166 innings over the last three years due to injuries, so he hasn’t had much time to work on his changeup. I think he’s likely to end up in the bullpen long-term because of that, but it makes sense to keep him in the rotation for the time being, if only to build up innings. There are a ton of guys ahead of him on the bullpen depth chart, though I wouldn’t rule out Campos making his MLB debut at some point in 2016.

Heathcott studying the swings of MLB’s best

In an effort to fine tune his swing, OF Slade Heathcott told Ryan Hatch he has been studying video of the game’s best hitters, such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Josh Donaldson. “Just their approach, the load, the path to the ball,” he said. “Hitting the ball on a plane. That’s what works for me. Not trying to hit home runs, but get the ball in the air.”

Heathcott, now 25, had a 38.1% ground ball rate during his limited big league time last season. It was 51.6% in Triple-A last year and 51.5% with Double-A Trenton in 2013. (Injuries limited him to only nine games in 2014.) Heathcott has speed, so he can leg out some infield hits, but he’s going to have to get the ball in the air more often to really have an impact offensively. If watching videos of guys like Trout and Harper helps, great.

No Yankees among Law’s top 25 impact prospects for 2016

Keith Law (subs. req’d) recently put together a list of the top 25 impact prospects for the 2016 season, which is different than a general top 25 prospect list. Not everyone in a general top 25 list is big league ready. Dodgers SS Corey Seager predictably tops the top 25 impact prospects list, which features no Yankees. In his weekly chat, Law said C Gary Sanchez wasn’t really considered for the list because of a lack of playing time. Even if Sanchez makes the Opening Day roster, Brian McCann is going to get the lion’s share of the playing time behind the plate. Understandable.

Sanchez. (Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

Baseball America’s position rankings

The crew at Baseball America finished posting their prospect position rankings this week. They released the catcher, right-handed pitcher, and left-handed pitcher lists two weeks ago. Here’s a quick recap with all of the relevant Yankees:

Keep in mind the No. X prospect at one position is not necessarily of equal caliber to the No. X prospect at another position. Talent isn’t linear across positions. Baseball America’s top ten Yankees’ prospects list had Refsnyder one spot behind Wade, for example. Add in Sanchez, who ranked No. 1 on the catcher list, and the Yankees had a top ten prospect at five of the nine positions. That’s pretty good.

Misc. Links

Here are a bunch of miscellaneous links that are worth checking out and come with RAB’s highest level of recommendation.

  • Sweeny Murti has a must read interview with farm system head Gary Denbo (part one, part two). Denbo confirmed Judge made some adjustments with his lower half over the winter, which we noticed the other day.
  • Joel Sherman profiled OF Estevan Florial, who is the shiny new toy in the farm system. Florial, 18, signed for $200,000 last March after being suspended for a year by MLB for falsified documents, which he used to enroll in school a few years back. Lots of folks are talking about Florial as the next great Yankees prospect.
  • Mark Feinsand wrote about RHP James Kaprielian, who lost his mother to breast cancer two years ago. Kaprielian explained how the experience shaped him as a man and helps him deal with adversity on the field.

As a reminder, the four full season minor league affiliates begin their regular season on Thursday, April 7th this year. That’s three days after the big league Yankees behind their season.

Sanchez, Lindgren, Rumbelow among prospects who could most help the Yankees in 2016

Sanchez. (Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

The days of the Yankees signing free agents to plug their roster holes are over, at least temporarily. The team is focused on getting younger at the moment, and it’s not just talk. Last season they dipped into their farm system whenever a need arose, either short or long-term. It was pretty exciting. It’s been a while since the Yankees have been run this way.

The focus on youth will continue this season. The Yankees did not sign a single Major League free agent this offseason, which is weird as hell, and they have several prospects on the cusp of helping at the big league level. Prospects are suspects until proven otherwise, but the Yankees seem committed to giving these guys a chance. Using my Preseason Top 30 Prospects List as a guide, here’s a look at the prospects who could help at some point in 2016.

OF Aaron Judge (RAB Top 30 Rank: 1)
2016 ZiPS Projection: .226/.287/.464 (105 OPS+), 30 HR, +1.5 WAR
How Does He Fit? Developmentally, the Yankees are in a pretty good place with Judge. He is their top prospect, but he could use some more Triple-A time to adjust to advanced pitching, and the team has the outfield depth to give him that Triple-A time. Judge will be Rule 5 Draft eligible next offseason, so the Yankees could add him to the 40-man roster a few weeks early and give him a September call-up. Otherwise I get the sense the only way he helps the 2016 Yankees involves mashing in Triple-A for a few weeks and injuries to a few guys ahead of him on the outfield depth chart. The primary goal this summer is getting Judge ready to replace Carlos Beltran in 2017.

C Gary Sanchez (2)
2016 ZiPS Projection: .240/.291/.434 (99 OPS+), 20 HR, +1.9 WAR
How Does He Fit? Sanchez has a clear path to big league playing time as Brian McCann‘s backup. The Yankees could — and absolutely should, in my opinion — send him to Triple-A for the requisite five weeks to delay his free agency another year, and once that happens, the MLB backup job is all his. Sanchez took some pretty big steps forward last season. He’s not a finished product — no 23-year-old catcher is — but he is ready to help right now with his bat while continuing to work on his defense.

SS Jorge Mateo (3)
2016 ZiPS Projection: none
How Does He Fit? Realistically, there are only two ways Mateo helps the 2016 Yankees: 1) as trade bait, 2) as the designated pinch-runner in September. Mateo has only played 21 games above Low-A ball, so he is at least one and more likely two years away from an MLB job. He will be Rule 5 Draft eligible next winter though, meaning the Yankees could add him to the 40-man roster early and bring him up to run in September. They’ll have a hard time finding a better option given his speed and base-running aggressiveness. Aside from coming up to run once rosters expand, I would be stunned if Mateo saw big league time in 2016.

RHP James Kaprielian (4)
2016 ZiPS Projection: none
How Does He Fit? The Yankees invited last year’s first round pick to big league Spring Training this year and that’s pretty significant. It’s been a long time since they’ve invited a first rounder to camp the year after he was drafted. Not even Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain were invited to camp in 2007. Kaprielian comes billed as a quick moving college starter and he’s capable of following the 2007 Kennedy path this season, meaning some time in High-A, some time in Double-A, some time in Triple-A, then MLB debut. I doubt the Yankees would call Kaprielian up and rely on him a la Luis Severino last year, but he could come up to make some spot starts in September, for sure.

Refsnyder. (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

2B Rob Refsnyder (6)
2016 ZiPS Projection: .248/.318/.395 (98 OPS+), 13 HR, +1.9 WAR
How Does He Fit? At one point this offseason it looked like the Yankees were ready to hand the second base job over to Refsnyder, or at least have him platoon with Dustin Ackley, but now he’s stuck behind Starlin Castro on the depth chart. For now Refsnyder is infield depth the Yankees are going to stash in Triple-A. If Castro gets hurt, Refsnyder will come up to play second base. If Didi Gregorius or Chase Headley get hurt, Castro will slide over to the left side of the infield and Refsnyder will come up to play second. I know it seems like he is buried right now, but my guess is we’ll see more of Refsnyder in 2016 than you may expect. Something like 200-300 plate appearances wouldn’t surprise me. That’s just the way this stuff goes. It looks like a player is buried and before you know it he’s taking regular at-bats and the team is scrambling for help.

RHP Bryan Mitchell (7)
2016 ZiPS Projection: 5.48 ERA (5.15 FIP), -0.6 WAR
How Does He Fit? Mitchell is a starter by trade and the case can be made he is as high as seventh on the rotation depth chart. The Yankees do have three open bullpen spots — it’s more than likely four since Aroldis Chapman‘s suspension is looming — and they’ve shown they will take whoever they think is the best man for the job. I can’t help but think back to 2014, when they took Vidal Nuno north rather than leave him in Triple-A as rotation depth despite already having two long men in David Phelps and Adam Warren. Mitchell did look pretty darn good in short relief last summer before taking that line drive to the face. Either way, starter or reliever, we figure to see plenty of Mitchell this year. The Warren void is waiting to be filled.

LHP Jacob Lindgren (11)
2016 ZiPS Projection: 3.76 ERA (3.73 FIP), +0.3 WAR
How Does He Fit? Again, the Yankees have three if not four open bullpen spots, and Lindgren will get a chance to win a job in Spring Training. And even if he doesn’t land a spot on the Opening Day roster, he’ll be up at some point this season as part of the bullpen shuttle. Lindgren’s season ended in June last year due to surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, but he’s reportedly 100% now, and is already in Tampa preparing for the season. I think Lindgren has by far the highest upside of the team’s bullpen prospects and can envision a scenario in which he establishes himself as Joe Girardi‘s No. 4 reliever by the end of the season.

OF Mason Williams (14), OF Ben Gamel (20) & OF Slade Heathcott (28)
2016 ZiPS Projection, Williams: .230/.283/.320 (68 OPS+), 4 HR, +0.1 WAR
2016 ZiPS Projection, Gamel: .243/.292/.377 (85 OPS+), 10 HR, +0.9 WAR
2016 ZiPS Projection, Heathcott: .231/.274/.350 (73 OPS+), 5 HR, +0.4 WAR
How Do They Fit? It make sense to lump these three together since they’re all Triple-A bound left-handed hitters who can play all three outfield spots. Williams is the best defender of the three, Gamel is the best hitter of the three, and Heathcott is probably the best two-way player of the three. His injury history though … yeesh. The Yankees have three starting outfielders at the MLB level plus a quality fourth outfielder in Aaron Hicks plus a fifth outfield option in Ackley. It’ll probably take two injuries for one these youngsters to see meaningful MLB playing time this year. They’re available as depth though, and if they aren’t traded themselves, they make it easier for the Yankees to part with Brett Gardner at some point.

RHP Brady Lail (22)
2016 ZiPS Projection: 5.52 ERA (5.12 FIP), -0.7 WAR
How Does He Fit? Like Mitchell, the case can be made Lail is as high as seventh on the rotation depth chart. Unlike Mitchell, Lail hasn’t had a whole lot of Triple-A experience or success to this point. He got hammered in his seven starts with the RailRiders last year — 4.62 ERA (5.32 FIP) with more walks (17) than strikeouts (13) in 37 Triple-A innings — and the Yankees probably want to see Lail have some success at that level before calling him up. Add in the fact he is not yet on the 40-man roster and we might not see Lail until late in the season. The fact he is in Triple-A makes him a bullpen shuttle candidate though. That much is clear.

RHP Chance Adams (24)
2016 ZiPS Projection: none
How Does He Fit? This is probably a stretch because the Yankees are going to give Adams a chance to start this year, which makes sense. He has two quality pitches (fastball, slider) and an improving third pitch (changeup), plus the team has all that upper level bullpen depth, so now’s the time to let Adams try to hack it in the rotation. Should the Yankees abandon the starter plan at some point, Adams could shoot up the ladder in short order and become part of the bullpen shuttle. I will admit that is unlikely, however. Out of everyone in this post, I’d say Adams has the lowest odds of seeing MLB time in 2016. Even lower than Mateo.

Cessa. (Toledo Blade)
Cessa. (Toledo Blade)

RHP Luis Cessa (26)
2016 ZiPS Projection: 5.41 ERA (4.80 FIP), -0.4 WAR
How Does He Fit? Once again, we have a guy who could be as high as seventh on the rotation depth chart. Cessa came over in the Justin Wilson trade — the Mets traded him to the Tigers for Yoenis Cespedes last year — and like Lail, he got knocked around a bit in Triple-A (6.97 ERA and 3.57 FIP in 62 innings), but the underlying performance was pretty good (20.1 K%, 6.6 BB%, 52.1 GB%), and that’s what matters. Cessa is yet another bullpen shuttle candidate, but I think he has the best chance of making multiple starts for the Yankees in 2016 of anyone in this post, including Mitchell. Not sure why. Call it a hunch.

RHP Nick Rumbelow (27)
2016 ZiPS Projection: 4.39 ERA (3.99 FIP), -0.1 WAR
How Does He Fit? We saw Rumbelow on the shuttle last season and I’m sure we’ll see him on the shuttle again this season, even if he makes the Opening Day roster. He does have quality stuff and a history of missing bats, so I think Rumbelow has a good chance to carve out a full-time role for himself this summer. The Yankees just need to give him an opportunity. There were too many times last season where a young pitcher was sent down simply because he had just worked and wouldn’t be available for a day or two. The team has to give a few of these guys an extended audition in 2016, starting with Lindgren and Rumbelow.

* * *

Among those who did not make my Preseason Top 30 Prospects List, we could see RHP Nick Goody (ZiPS: +0.4 WAR), LHP James Pazos (+0.0 WAR), RHP Johnny Barbato (-0.2 WAR), RHP Branden Pinder (-0.4 WAR), RHP Vicente Campos (-1.1 WAR), RHP Chad Green (none), and LHP Tyler Webb (none) at the MLB level this summer. All seven of those guys are in the same position: they’re relievers who figure to ride the bullpen shuttle. Well, Green is a starter, so I suppose he could make a spot start at some point. Either way, expect to see many more young players come up to help the Yankees this season, even if their big league stint is only temporary.

Position Battles of Note [2016 Spring Training Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The long marathon that is the 2016 season will begin Thursday, when Yankees pitchers and catchers report to Tampa for Spring Training. Position players will follow next Wednesday. The first Grapefruit League game will be played March 2nd, two weeks from Wednesday. Real live baseball is coming soon.

This spring the Yankees will not have many position battles to follow. Their nine starting position player spots are set, the five rotation spots are pretty much set, the back-end of the bullpen is set, and two of four bench spots are set. It might even be three of four. You could argue as many as seven roster spots are up for grabs. In reality it’s probably more like four. Here are the three battles to watch.

The Backup Catcher

The Yankees have had some pretty good backup catchers in recent years, from the defensive-minded Jose Molina to the occasionally great Frankie Cervelli to the solid all-around John Ryan Murphy. Murphy is now a Minnesota Twin, meaning the backup job will go to Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, or non-roster invitee Carlos Corporan. Sebastian Valle, another non-roster player, is the deep sleeper. He’s an outstanding defender and the Yankees value catcher defense highly.

Sanchez had a strong 2015 season in terms of production, development, and maturity, which helped make Murphy expendable. Brian Cashman said he would “like to unleash the Kraken” this year, referring to Sanchez, but there are big picture aspects to consider. Is Sanchez the best backup catcher candidate? The answer is almost certainly yes. Is sending Sanchez to Triple-A for a few weeks a good idea? That answer is almost certainly yes as well.

A total of 35 days in the minors this season will delay Sanchez’s free agency another year. Thirty-five days in 2016 equals control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022. That’s a long time away and who knows whether Sanchez will be worth keeping around in 2022, but 35 days? That’s it? Sending him down for five weeks to gain control of his age 29 season is a no-brainer in my opinion. It’s a little 2016 pain for potentially a lot of 2022 gain.

Sanchez. (Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

Keep in mind five weeks for a backup catcher equals maybe six or seven starts. The Yankees have a ton of April off-days like they do every year — five in first four weeks! — so keeping Brian McCann in the lineup will be rather easy. Those six or seven starts might actually be more like four or five starts. Is sacrificing four or five Sanchez games in 2016 worth it to gain control of his age 29 season? Hell yes. The system makes this an obvious move.

Romine and Corporan, Sanchez’s two chief competitors, are in different situations. Corporan is on a minor league contract and can be easily stashed in Triple-A for depth this season. Romine is on the 40-man roster and out of options, meaning he can’t go to the minors without being exposed to waivers. That was the case last year, when Romine did slip through waivers unclaimed, but since this would be his second outright assignment, he could elect free agency.

If he doesn’t make the team, Romine in all likelihood would elect free agency and look to join a team that offers a greater big league opportunity. With McCann and Sanchez in tow, it’s hard to see how any upper level catcher gets MLB time in the Bronx without an injury. The position is locked down for at least three more seasons (the duration of McCann’s contract). I see four possible outcomes for the spring backup catcher competition:

  • The Best Team: Sanchez in MLB with Corporan in Triple-A and Romine out of the organization.
  • The Most Depth: Romine in MLB with Sanchez and Corporan in Triple-A.
  • The Eh I Get It Plan: Corporan in MLB with Sanchez in Triple-A and Romine out of the org.
  • The WTF Plan: Valle in MLB with Sanchez and Corporan in Triple-A and Romine out of the org.

As best I can tell Corporan does actually have a minor league option remaining, so the Yankees could carry him as the backup catcher for some period of time, then send him down once Sanchez’s service time is in a good place. They would still presumably lose Romine, but at least they’d keep Corporan.

Now, if Corporan does not have an option left — that’s possible, this stuff can be difficult to pin down — then the Yankees would need to drop him from the 40-man roster when the time comes to promote Sanchez. Going with the Eh I Get It Plan means the team could be faced with the possibility of losing Romine and Corporan once Sanchez is called up.

Maybe that’s no big deal. Romine and Corporan aren’t great by any means, but I do think you need an extra catcher or two in the organization. The Yankees got really lucky with McCann and Murphy last season — those two combined to catch every inning of every game in 2015 — and I wouldn’t count on that kind of health again. It just doesn’t happen at catcher. It’s a brutal position.

Carrying Sanchez as McCann’s backup likely gives the Yankees the best possible team to start the season. The benefit of manipulating his service time — especially since we’re only talking about losing him for a handful of actual starts — means sending him to Triple-A to start the season is the best thing for the organization long-term. Rolling with Romine or Corporan for five weeks is the price to pay for Sanchez’s age 29 season, and that’s not bad at all.

(Presswire)
Lindgren. (Presswire)

At Least Three, Likely Four, Maybe Five Bullpen Spots

At some point soon we’re going to hear something about Aroldis Chapman‘s seemingly inevitable suspension. Rumor has it commissioner Rob Manfred will hand down the suspension before Spring Training, meaning it could be any day now. Chapman will not be charged with a crime stemming from his October domestic dispute incident but that’s irrelevant. The collectively bargained Domestic Violence Policy explicitly says no arrests or charges are necessary for a suspension.

It seems very likely Chapman will be suspended for some length of time. How long? Your guess is as good as mine. (I’ve seen a few reporters suggest a 15-game ban is coming.) Either way, any sort of suspension opens a bullpen spot come Opening Day. Right now the Yankees have Chapman, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Ivan Nova locked into spots, leaving three open three bullpen spots. Chapman’s suspension would make it four open spots and an injury to a starter would make it five since Nova would have to jump into the rotation.

For the purposes of this post, let’s just assume the rotation stays healthy and Nova is indeed the long man come Opening Day. A reach? Eh, maybe. We’ll deal with the injuries as they come. Regardless of the number of open bullpen spots, the Yankees have no shortage of relief options this year. Check out the list of bullpen candidates coming to camp this spring:

Some of those guys are more likely to land a big league job than others — Kaprielian won’t be breaking camp with the Yankees, for example — but they’ll all be in Spring Training and therefore theoretically capable of winning a roster spot.

The Yankees have relievers of all shapes and sizes. Righties, lefties, strikeout guys, ground ball guys, guys with big league experience, guys who has yet to pitch above Single-A … you name it and the Yankees will have it in camp this year. And here’s the thing: aside from Shreve, who was so excellent the first four and a half months last season, I’m not sure anyone has a leg up on a spot.

It’s great the Yankees have so many bullpen options, because they’re inevitably going to need them. This is a position battle that won’t ever end. The Yankees once again figure to employ a bullpen shuttle this year to ensure Joe Girardi always has a fresh arm or two available, meaning whoever wins a spot on the Opening Day roster may only be there short-term. I can’t imagine that’s comfortable for the players, but that’s life. That’s the way the roster is built.

My guess is Shreve will get one of the open bullpen spots barring a catastrophic showing in camp. The other open spots could be decided by Spring Training performance (as silly as that may be) and roster considerations. The Yankees may not want to free up 40-man space just yet, for example. They open the season against the Astros and could opt to carry an extra lefty (for Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, Jason Castro, etc.) before going with an extra righty for the second series of the season against the Tigers (almost their entire lineup is right-handed). We’ll see.

Spring Training will be an audition for all of those pitchers. Even Kaprielian, who wants to make a strong impression as he prepares for his first full pro season. If you don’t win a bullpen job in camp, you still want to put yourself in position for an early call-up. Make the Yankees remember you. That’s what Preston Claiborne did a few years ago. Someone like Campos could do the same this year.

Kozma. (Presswire)
Kozma. (Presswire)

The 25th Man

Cashman is on record saying the Yankees hope to use their 25th roster spot as a revolving door depending on their need at the time. If they need an extra reliever, they’ll use that spot for an extra reliever. If they need a position player, they’ll call up a position player. So on and so forth. Good idea in theory. How will it work in the real world? We’re going to find out soon enough.

The Yankees have three off-days within the first two full weeks of the season, so using that 25th roster spot on an eighth reliever out of Spring Training qualifies as overkill. I understand the starters are still getting stretched all the way out and whatnot, but eight relievers with all those off-days? Nah. Carrying an extra bench player early on makes the most sense, and the Yankees have plenty of infield (Jonathan Diaz, Donovan Solano, Pete Kozma, Ronald Torreyes, Rob Refsnyder) and outfield (Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Ben Gamel) options.

The 25th man decision is going to depend entirely on Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third base, because if he can’t do it, the Yankees will need to carry a backup third baseman. So moreso than the backup catcher and bullpen battles, the 25th man competition is going to be influenced by outside factors. Castro’s the big one, but health with be a factor too, as will 40-man roster considerations. Is it worth designating someone for assignment to carry Kozma for two weeks? Maybe it is. That’s up to the Yankees.