The Yankees' Top 10 Prospects

One of four catchers on this list, Austin Romine is the one most likely to succeed Jorge Posada behind the plate (Mike Ashmore)

It’s not the preseason, but who said we couldn’t run out a list of the top ten Yankee prospects? The regular season is nearly over, and draft picks have signed, so now seems like the perfect time to see what the Bombers have cooking on the farm. The top prospect in the system will probably be a surprise to you . . .

1. Jesus Montero, C, Triple-A Scranton

OK, I had to try to keep some sort of suspense, right? Coming into the season, Montero ranked as the top Yankees prospect and one of the best youngsters in the minors, to boot. The Yankees’ $1.65 million investment in the Venezuelan looked like a gold mine, as he had destroyed High-A pitching, forcing an aggressive promotion to Double-A Trenton as a 19-year-old. When he showed no signs of trouble in Trenton, there was no doubt he’d start the 2010 campaign at Scranton.

The big bopper (no, not that one) has long had colossal expectations thrust upon him, so when he didn’t simply show up at Triple-A and mash, some fans started to wonder if his bat had died or was at least regressing a bit. On June 6, the 20-year-old’s average sat at a lowly .214, while he was OPSing a mere 627. Since then, he has taken off and pulverized pitchers with a .345/.422/.628 slash in July and August, making it clear why Baseball America rated him as the best hitter for average and power hitter in the Yankee system. With his superb ability to recognize pitches and immense strength and bat speed, Montero has an uncanny ability to square up on any pitch and drive it, and his power rates near 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

Of course, you can’t talk about Montero without his defensive capabilities coming into question. This season is the first Montero has been his team's primary catcher, and his reputation as a poor defender has led to teams running on him 121 times with success 77 percent of the time. Montero has also allowed 15 passed balls, and while pitchers may be wilder in the minors, that does not bode well for when he has to catch breaking pitches and balls apt to dive in the dirt at the major-league level. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Montero is already big for a catcher, and as he ages, he’s not going to get any smaller. As Baseball Prospectus 2010 said, "Only a fool is gifted with a hitter with this kind of talent and focuses on the things he can’t do." Montero will certainly be suited for pinstripes in 2011, though where he'll play on the diamond remains to be seen.

2. Austin Romine, C, Double-A Trenton

It’s fitting that Romine is on track for a date with the majors; his father, Kevin, was an outfielder with the Red Sox for seven years, while his brother, Andrew, is a shortstop in the Angels’ system. The Southern California native was born and bred to be a ballplayer with big-league bloodlines and talent.

Romine is supposed to be the catcher of the future, as it is nearly a consensus that Montero does not project to stay behind the dish in the long term. However, though Romine is certainly a better catcher than his former tandem-catching partner and should be able to don the tools of ignorance at the big-league level, that doesn’t mean that he’s without flaws. For one, he doesn’t have major-league shine on his defense. Romine has six passed balls on the year, and though he does have a good arm, he has only thrown out 20 percent of potential base robbers. Of course, caught stealing isn’t solely a catcher’s stat (regardless of what the scorebook says), as pitchers who are slow to the plate or poor at holding runners will not leave a catcher much time to throw out runners.

The 2009 MVP of the High-A Florida State League is no slouch when it’s his turn to hit, though if you take a gander at his stats over the last few months, you might think otherwise. Romine was as hot as could be through the first two months of the season, putting up a .330/.389/.499 line, but wanted posters have been appearing around New Jersey, as his bat has gone missing in recent months reducing him to a thumpless .222/.279/.314 hitter since June 1. Waterfront Park, a notorious pitcher’s park, can earn some blame in this; Romine, who has power, is "batting" an atrocious .217/.278/.314 (which look freakishly like his rates since June 1, don’t they?), but on the road, visiting clubhouses must have found his good wood, as he’s hitting .312/.368/.460. Some of his woes at the plate could also be attributed to his wearing out over the course of his first full year of catching, but that doesn’t really explain why his tailspin began in June.

Also worrisome are Romine’s struggles against righties this season, which doesn’t bode well given that most pitchers are right-handed. Again, part of this could be attributed to his home/road splits, but it is nevertheless a bit troubling, because any way you dice it, .247/.304/.356 won’t cut it in the majors. On the flip side, he’s hitting .310/.378/.480 against southpaws, some snazzy slash rates.

Romine participated in four Arizona Fall League games last year before having to sit out with an injury, but he is tabbed to go again this year, where the hope is that he’ll start smacking the ball again in the friendly confines of a hitter’s league.

3. Slade Heathcott, CF, Low-A Charleston

Makeup and injury concerns may have scared some other teams away from drafting Heathcott, but scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and the Yankees took the plunge on the center fielder, nabbing their 2009 first-round pick with a $2.2 million bonus. A jammed shoulder relegated Heathcott primarily to DH duties in his senior year of high school, and he underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL in 2008. However, despite being injury-prone, Heathcott is a legitimate five-tool prospect that the Yankees believe will be able to stick in center.

Since he signed at the August 15 deadline, the Yankees did not have much opportunity to watch Heathcott play professionally, so he was assigned to extended spring training to begin the year. After playing well under the Tampa sun and proving that he was ready, the Texarkana, Arkansas native was assigned to Low-A Charleston. Despite a bout of bicep tendonitis in mid-July and a slump that lasted a couple of weeks, Heathcott has hit well, with his triple slash standing at .265/.372/.339. Baseball America says that he has premium bat speed and tons of raw power, though the latter hasn’t shown up yet, as he is stuck on one homer and 12 doubles. In his pre-season prospect rankings, Goldstein mentioned that Heathcott would need to work on his pitch recognition, an observation proved correct by his 82 strikeouts in 253 at-bats.

In a system short on up-the-middle talent, Heathcott has the tools that will allow him to roam center for years to come, as Baseball America lists him as a plus-plus runner with a strong arm that could crank the heat up to 94 as a pitcher. Goldstein backs up this scouting report, listing both his speed and arm as 70+ on the 20-80 scouting scale. However, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Heathcott will need to work on reading pitchers better, as he has stolen 13 bases but been caught nine times and is also prone to getting picked off. He’s still young and very raw, so his skills will sharpen as he gains experience. He should see time in Tampa next year.

4. Andrew Brackman, RHP, Double-A Trenton

When the Yankees signed Brackman to a major-league contract after making him their first-round pick in 2007, they knew full well that his price tag included a trip to the cutting table for Tommy John surgery, and they also knew that he would be a project. The former two-sport athlete gave up basketball to concentrate on baseball full-time in preparation for the draft, and despite tearing a ligament in his elbow, the the Scott Boras client was inked to a Yankee draftee-record $3.5 million major league contract worth up to $13 million in incentives.

The North Carolina State product looked like most pitchers do coming off of Tommy John surgery: no command, no control. He gave up 76 walks in 106 2/3 innings last season while striking out 103, but a transformation seemed to occur when the Yankees sent him to the bullpen at the end of the season. Baseball America connects his hot streak as a shutdown reliever last season to when the Yankees had him scrap a knuckle-curve to focus on a conventional grip and his changeup. It seems to have worked out well, because though Brackman had a 5.03 ERA in Tampa, he has improved to a 3.53 ERA in Trenton (with a 3.16 ERA at home and a 3.90 ERA away).

Quite literally one of the biggest prospects in the system (and baseball, for that matter), Brackman has a build to rival the Big Unit, standing at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds. His build makes his status as a power pitcher obvious, as he is armed with a mid-90s fastball and good hook. His ginormous stature likely also gives him a greater perceived velocity, increasing the power of that particular weapon in his arsenal.

Now heading into year two of his recovery from Tommy John surgery, Brackman has made, pardon the pun, giant strides this year, looking completely different from the pitcher he was last season. There is no doubt that Brackman’s control has improved by leaps and bounds and Grand Canyons, which is especially noteworthy because of his size. He has issued 36 walks in 123 2/3 innings this year, a 40-walk improvement in 17 more innings pitched. He still has an ugly WHIP of 1.49, though it is a definite improvement on his horrifying 1.71 WHIP from last season. Brackman can also keep the ball on the ground, as he has 1.44 ground balls per fly ball in Trenton and a home-run rate of just 0.42 per nine. Thanks to his big-league deal, Brackman is already on the 40-man roster, so expect him to head to Triple-A next year and to make his Yankee debut sometime next year as well.

5. Manny Banuelos, LHP, Double-A Trenton

As I mentioned Monday, it was a slight surprise to see Banuelos get bumped to Double-A Trenton given his late start to this season, but the results he has had since he entered the system as a 17-year-old in rookie ball make it much less surprising. Between the Gulf Coast League, where he appeared twice in limited innings to work himself back from an emergency appendectomy, and Tampa, Banuelos has held opponents to two earned runs or less 10 times this season, only allowing four runs in two outings.

The Mexico native made his Double-A debut on Monday, allowing six runs and an uncharacteristic three walks in a waterlogged outing. After the game, Banuelos said that that he didn’t feel right, his arm felt heavy, and the wet conditions prevented him from commanding his pitches. While he certainly gets a pass on his first start at a higher level, I also mentioned Monday that Double-A would likely be Banuelos’ first test, as players there are more disciplined and generally much better hitters than those he was facing with Tampa. Banuelos is only 19, so he’s easily one of the youngest in the league and has plenty of time to tinker.

The anti-Brackman in terms of stature, Banuelos is only 5-foot-10, 155 pounds, but because of his very advanced feel for pitching, Baseball America wrote coming into the season that he could be a number-three starter in the majors. His repertoire includes a fastball that sat at 91-93 mph on Monday but has been pumped up to 95-97, a superb changeup, and a good curveball. He pounds the strike zone and isn’t afraid to challenge hitters, which will serve him well. The southpaw will stick in Double-A for the rest of the season and start there next year as a 20-year-old.

6. Gary Sanchez, C, Short-season Staten Island

The big fish of the Yankees’ international haul last season, Sanchez was given a $3 million check, the fourth-largest bonus the Bombers have ever doled out. It certainly wasn’t without reason, though. Sanchez is a contact-oriented hitter who uses the whole field and is equipped with raw power that Baseball America ranks as at least 60 on the 20-80 scale.

In his stateside debut, Sanchez was all the Yankees could have wished for and more. Stepping up to the plate in just his second professional at-bat, Sanchez announced his presence with a bang, mashing a grand slam for his first career hit. That was the story for the young Dominican in his time in the GCL, as he positively crushed the league to the tune of a .353/.419/.597 line. Lefty or righty on the mound? It didn’t matter—Sanchez smashed both ‘paws with incredible ease, batting .394/.417/.818 against lefties (yes, that slugging percentage is real) and .337/.420/.512 against righties. On August 18, after wearing out just about everyone he faced, Sanchez was promoted to short-season Staten Island, where he has appeared in four games.

Just another jewel in a system oozing with catching talent, Sanchez is extremely raw and has tons of work to do to stay behind the plate, from working on his game-calling skills to catching higher velocities. He has an excellent arm and a 6-foot-2, 195-pound build, so he could stick at catcher. Sanchez will be 18 next season, and if he hits anything like he did in the Gulf Coast League, he could certainly get a bump to Low-A Charleston.

7. Dellin Betances, RHP, Double-A Trenton

Up until this season, Betances had been a source of disappointment for the Yankees. He was given a $1 million bonus in 2006 to ditch college, but injuries have dogged the Brooklyn native since signing, making him progress much slower in the minors than hoped. In 2009, his elbow was the source discomfort, and after trying to pitch through the pain and getting walloped, he went under the knife for a ligament reinforcement procedure in August.

Finally healthy, the Bombers are getting a good look at their high risk, high reward investment, and they are certainly liking the improvements. Always prone to the walk, Betances has been a revelation this season, as he has cut his walks down to 2.41 per nine innings; in his only full season, 2008, he had a 4.43 BB/9 ratio between two levels. Even better, his strikeout rate has also increased, as he is whiffing 11.4 batters per nine between Tampa and his lone game at Double-A.

Though he is a fly-ball pitcher with a career rate of .90 grounders per fly, he is not taken deep often; the 22-year-old has only given up two homers (including one in his Double-A debut) in 75 2/3 innings this year. His WHIP is also a flashy 0.87, so he has clearly been a dominating force on the rubber this year.

With a 6-foot-8, 245-pound frame Betances packs some heat with a fastball that sits at 93-94 and touches 97, and he also has a nice curveball and decent change. With the development that he has shown this year, the Yankees will probably protect him from the Rule 5 draft this fall and start him off at Double-A in 2011.

8. Hector Noesi, RHP, Triple-A Scranton

Added to the 40-man roster prior to the season, Noesi has lived up to the expectations of owning a roster spot. He has had to rebound from Tommy John surgery and a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs (which combined to make him miss portions of 2007 and 2008) to get this far, but his 2010 has been the kind of season the Yankees have dreamed about. The Dominican Republic native began the year at High-A Tampa, where he left off last season, and has progressed to Triple-A Scranton, stopping at a Futures Game along the way.

With a 2.72 ERA through 43 innings at High-A, Noesi proved that he was ready for a promotion, earning one to Double-A Trenton in May. He had several ups and downs during his time with the Trenton, including a stretch of three starts in which he pitched just 11 2/3 innings and allowed 19 runs, but he rebounded from that rough patch to allow one run in his last 18 innings of Double-A ball.

Now at Triple-A Scranton because of the flurry of moves throughout the minor-league system caused by Ivan Nova being called up to the majors and Zach McAllister being traded to Cleveland, Noesi is on the cusp of the majors. He’s a fly-ball pitcher, as he has a 0.74 ground-out/air-out ratio between two levels this season. The 23-year-old has a 6-foot-2, 175-pound build and throws his fastball in the low 90s. Though there is not much deception in his delivery, Noesi is a finesse pitcher with great command and control, and a decent curveball. According to Baseball America, he “has good arm speed on his changeup and the hand speed to spin a breaking ball.”

Even though Noesi has a spot on the 40-man roster, he may not make an appearance in pinstripes this season. For one, he has thrown nearly 30 more innings than last season, and he also hasn’t had any seasoning beyond Double-A. However, if he pitches well at Triple-A, Noesi could definitely be one of the first to get the call should rotation trouble arise next year.

9. JR Murphy, C, Low-A Charleston

The Bombers’ second-round pick a year ago, Murphy was given $1.25 million to stray from his commitment to the University of Miami and join the organization's abundance of riches behind the plate. He saw a little time at rookie ball last year, but after playing well in extended spring training this year, Murphy was sent with Heathcott to play for Low-A Charleston.

Murphy hasn’t gotten on base at a great clip (.320), but with a short swing, he has shown himself capable of covering the plate and whipping the bat through the zone quickly. His bat speed gives him much better pop than is typically expected of a 6-foot, 190-pound teenager, as he has seven homers this season to go with two triples and 15 doubles. In a memorable August 13 contest, Murphy went 3-for-6 with a grand slam, a three-run homer, and had nine RBI. He’s a line-drive hitter, but the bop his bat has shown thus far has been encouraging.

In high school, Murphy started out playing in the outfield, but he switched to receiver and has shown an aptitude for the position. He has a quick arm and a fast transfer, but because he is so new to the position, he needs to learn the nuances of being a catcher, like calling a game.

Clearly, Murphy is a ways away from the majors, but because he has had a nice year at Charleston, he should be making his way to Florida, his home state, to play in Tampa at some point next year.

10. Ivan Nova, RHP, New York Yankees

From the looks of it, Nova could very well stay in New York for the remainder of the season. Roster expansion is almost upon us, and because of the woes of Javier Vazquez, the volatility of A.J. Burnett, an ailing Andy Pettitte, and an impending innings limit for Hughes, it makes sense for the team to keep a kid who can absorb some innings and alleviate the stress on a fractured rotation. Nova looked decent in his start on Monday, needing less than 80 pitches to navigate 5 1/3 innings, though the Blue Jays started to rap the ball harder in the fourth inning, perhaps leading Girardi to lift the 23-year-old.

It may have been the excitement of his first start and the adrenaline from the benches clearing, but as Cliff pointed out, Nova was overthrowing, which is when he can get in trouble. His fastball sits in the 92-94 range, and while he can speed it up to make radar guns happy, he’s sharpest when he sticks within his range. His command has improved significantly this season, and when he mixes in his curve and change, Nova can be very effective.

Next season, Nova probably has the upper hand in answering calls to the majors. However, if the Yankees somehow fail to sign at least one free-agent starter, Pettitte retires, or the team does not offer Vazquez arbitration (or if they do offer and he declines), Nova may get to take his place as the fifth starter.

* * *

Many recent events and performances have helped shape my list of top prospects, though I knew who the first three players would be for quite a while. When it comes to ranking, I love upside, but I also like players who are closer to the majors because they are surer bets. That said, many of the players on this list are ones I might see a couple spots down or a couple of spots up by the end of post-season play. So what do you think? Have I put too much stock in a single player, or not given enough credit to another?

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