Though the major-league season is already in full swing, minor-league action is just getting under way today. Not every level is in action (the short-season leagues will start in June), but as we continue to celebrate the return of baseball, let’s raise a glass to those kids who may wend their way into big leagues by season’s end, or at least shoot up prospect charts. It’s time to examine the top prospects in a pitching-heavy Yankees farm.
What do I look for in a prospect? First, I look for projectability—how well are a prospect’s skills expected to translate to the major-league level? Some minor leaguers are no more than Quadruple-A material, players who can thrive in the minors but can’t put it together against the highest competition. I also have to weigh upside against risk. Some players have higher ceilings than others, but they can also have a higher risk level. Those who are in the lower levels of the minors are higher risks than those who are in Double- and Triple-A because there are many more unknowns about their game, and they haven’t faced polished competition. Some players have huge ceilings but can’t stay healthy, don’t have a track record, or have major holes in their games (or a combination of these factors). Risk is a major aspect of player development, but sometimes the ceiling outweighs the risk.
With the formalities behind us, let’s venture through my selections for the Yankees’ top 10 prospects.
1. Jesus Montero, C, Triple-A Scranton
This selection should come as a surprise to exactly no one. Montero is arguably one of the top three prospects in the game, behind the Nationals’ Bryce Harper and the Angels’ Mike Trout, and has a bat that should certainly play in the majors. The only real question surrounding the über prospect is his defense. As has been noted here many times during spring training, while the Yankees insist that Montero is capable of catching at the big-league level, common sense says he probably can’t do it long-term.
First, Montero is about as agile as a steel wall. He can make some picks, occasionally block balls, put his mitt on the correct hand, and even throw the ball back to the pitcher without suffering a case of Mackey Sasser Disease, but he’s a hulking figure at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, and he will likely get bigger as he ages. Catchers usually have more compact figures, and that kind of weight on crouching knees doesn’t do a body much good down the road.
Though there have been reports that Montero’s defense had been improving steadily circulating around the web, and Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi said throughout spring training that Montero looked more comfortable behind the plate, most experts tend to disagree. Despite Montero's strong work ethic, there are some things even a million reps won’t improve much. There’s no denying his poor caught-stealing rate; in just 105 games behind the plate last year, runners attempted thievery 129 times, and just 23 percent were caught. That frequency of attempted steals is enough to tell you what the scouting reports say about Montero’s defense. While Montero does have a solid arm, it isn’t good enough to make up for his handcuffing the ball and slow transfers. He’s also a bit stabby with his glove, so pitches graze off his mitt, resulting in 15 passed balls in 2010. In short, when Montero is behind the plate, baserunners can have a field day.
Now that I feel thoroughly guilty about ragging on Montero’s fielding, let’s concentrate on what we know he can do well: mash. Though he got off to a horrid start at Triple-A (he had a .214 average on June 6), Montero turned in a blistering summer performance and wound up with a .289/.353/.517 final line. There is no doubt he can put on a colossal power display; Kevin Goldstein remarks that Montero is, "the rare prospect with both plus-plus power and hitting ability." A combination of bat speed, quick wrists, and major pop allow Montero to smack pitches with authority and make consistent contact, even without a picture-perfect swing. Though he’s a righty, the short porch in right field will surely welcome Montero’s immense opposite-field power.
PECOTA projects Montero for a .286/.330/.469 line in the major leagues this year, which seems like a conservative bet. His lumber is ready for the majors now, and keeping him down on the farm for defense that will likely never come is pointless. The Bombers may consider trading Russell Martin at the deadline to free up some at-bats for Montero (Martin will be a free agent at season’s end anyway, so the team might as well try to snag some swag), but if Montero bashes like he is expected to, the Yankees will find a place to play him sooner than that.
2. Manny Bañuelos, LHP, Double-A Trenton
No Yankees prospect sent his stock soaring this spring quite like Bañuelos, who spent more than a month in major league camp. During that time, he blew away big-league hitters with ease (he had a 2.13 ERA in 12.2 innings, whiffed 14 batters, and kept the ball on the ground), and the great Mariano Rivera claimed Bañuelos was the "greatest pitching prospect [I’ve] ever seen." Oh, and one other thing? He only turned 20 three weeks ago.
Though Bañuelos is a little lefty at 5-foot-11 (that listed height is generous, and he is heavier than his listed 155 pounds), he has big-time stuff that will allow him to become a frontline starter. His best pitch is a fastball, which topped out around 93 mph entering 2010. Surgery to remove his appendix delayed the beginning of Bañuelos’ 2010 campaign until June, but once he was on the mound, he debuted a heater that now consistently sits at 93 to 94 mph and can reach 97. A southpaw with that much juice is a rare breed, especially for a starter with a small body. Bañuelos has an excellent changeup to complement his fastball, and it has superb fade as it reaches the plate. His curveball is his third pitch, and it still needs some work. He has some trouble throwing it consistently for strikes, so he will be working on that as he begins his second stint at Double-A.
It is uncommon to see a young lefty with high heat, and it is also uncommon to see a young lefty with superb command and control. Bañuelos pounds the strike zone, and his uptick in velocity has not affected his command or control. The Mexico native has great poise on the rubber and a clean, consistent delivery that helps him stay within the zone.
Like Montero, there are few knocks on Bañuelos. He has yet to toss more than 109 official innings in a season, so there is no real evidence that his body will be able to handle the 200-inning workload of a frontline starter, and it will take another couple of years to prepare him for such a workload. Bañuelos will probably be shut down around 150 innings this year, so this will be the first real test of his durability. The Yankees will give him every chance to be a starter, just as they’ll give Montero every opportunity to prove that he can catch, but at the very least, New York has a live arm that will work well out of the bullpen (and could probably pick up another tick or two in velocity in short stints).
3. Gary Sanchez, C, Low-A Charleston
While shopping at the international market in 2009, the Yankees picked up a filet mignon by handing Sanchez a $3 million check. When he made his stateside debut, he exceeded even the expectations created by so large a bonus. He wasted little time in putting on firework displays around Florida, bashing three taters in his first seven professional games, including a grand slam in his second career at-bat. In fact, tenderizing pitchers was about all Sanchez did in his short stint in Florida; when the carnage settled, he had a .353/.419/.597 line and a promotion to short-season Staten Island for the final week of the season. In total, he had eight jacks and 13 two-sackers in just 173 at-bats.
That savory lumber is what attracted the Yankees to Sanchez, and it’s the tool that will keep him at the top of prospect charts. He has oodles of raw power and makes a bunch of contact, but like many teenagers, he is also keen to take a whiff at anything sniffing the plate. Sanchez should gain a more discerning eye as he ages and sees more polished competition, so that’s not something to fret at the dawn of his career. He’ll be able to hit for average, and according to Goldstein, he has even drawn comparisons to a young Montero.
What separates Sanchez from Montero is that this four-tool baby Bomber has a better chance to continue donning the tools of ignorance. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, Sanchez has more of a catcher’s build, but he still has loads of work to do to stay at the position. He has a good arm, and it sure got a workout in his 30 games, as 45 runners took off against him. He he nabbed 16 of them (26 percent). The 18-year-old needs better footwork and needs to learn to call a game, but he is mobile behind the plate and has the raw tools needed to become a solid defender.
4. Dellin Betances, RHP, Double-A Trenton
Health is a skill just as much as the ability to throw a 97 mile-per-hour heater, and Betances has only mastered one of those skills so far. Betances’ medical file is about as long as his 6-foot-8 body; arm injuries have spelled his personal brand of doom, from soreness and tightness to surgeries. Though it was widely reported that Betances underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2009, he actually had ligament reinforcement surgery, similar to a procedure Rivera had in 1992. It’s a less invasive procedure with a quicker recovery time.
Betances missed the beginning of the 2010 campaign recovering from the ligament surgery, but once he was back on the rubber, he was dominant. The northpaw destroyed High-A hitters and racked up 88 strikeouts in 71 innings before getting pushed to Double-A for the stretch run. Control issues had plagued Betances throughout his career, but his arm’s GPS finally honed in on the strike zone in 2010, as he halved his walk rate to 2.4 per nine innings.
The best pitch in Betances’ arsenal is his fastball, which lights up guns by sitting between 93 and 96 mph and touching 97. He has always had a spectacular whiff rate, usually reaching at least 10 strikeouts per nine, but his sharp curveball has made him deadly. Baseball America rates both his heater and hook as plus-plus pitches, though his changeup gets mixed reviews. Betances uses his long levers to throw downhill, and hitters have to wait a bit longer for his release, giving him an extra advantage.
Though he showed significant improvement in plotting the strike zone last year, the Brooklyn native will still need to work on his control. Betances is not a great fielder and doesn’t hold runners on well, so having a strong catcher behind the plate when he’s toeing the rubber would be beneficial. The most important things with Betances are getting innings and proving that the strides in his game are legit. If he can show both early on in the year, he’ll find himself busting into the Triple-A rotation in short order. Now that he’s on the 40-man roster, Betances should at least get a cup of coffee with the big club in September.
5. Andrew Brackman, RHP, Triple-A Scranton
Fully recovered from two sabbaticals to visit the scalpel (Tommy John surgery and appendix removal), Brackman used 2010 to showcase some of the promise he showed as a first-round pick in 2007. The most noticeable difference was a plunging walk rate—from 6.4 per nine in 2009 to 2.5 between two levels last year. There are a couple of explanations for Brackman’s previous wildness. First, one of the hardest things to regain after Tommy John surgery is command, and Brackman was still recovering from the procedure. Second, when you are 6-foot-11, finding a strike zone about five feet lower than your shoulders can be difficult.
Still, it’s the height that gives Brackman a significant advantage. He lives up to the power pitcher billing, sitting around 93 to 95 mph with his fastball, but like Betances, Brackman’s lengthy limbs allow him to release the ball a little later than smaller pitchers. Why is this important? It adds deception, but more importantly, there is a higher perceived velocity on the pitches because the extra inches take milliseconds off a batter’s time to identify a pitch and decide whether he would like to take a hack.
Brackman complements his heater with a great curveball that Baseball America says can vary in “size, shape, and velocity (72 to 81 mph).” He’s tinkering with a slider and needs to improve his changeup; he doesn’t trust either pitch as much as his curve and fastball, but he’ll need more than two pitches to get through a major-league lineup several times.
Consistency will be key to Brackman becoming successful in the bigs. Sometimes his velocity will abandon him, rendering him hittable, and sometimes his command will abandon him, leaving him chucking, and the batters ducking. Brackman has developed a more consistent delivery, which has aided him in improving his command.
The supersized righty is on the 40-man roster, and if there are any openings in the big club’s starting rotation, Brackman could make a few cameo starts. There is probably one pitcher ahead of him on the list for a callup (we’ll get to him shortly), but it’s safe to assume that the Yankees will see their literally giant investment make his Bronx debut this year. They almost have to; Brackman is in his final option year and will have to stick on the major-league roster for good in 2012 or face the waiver wire.
6. Austin Romine, C, Double-A Trenton
Romine was a star in the last two games he played in spring training, with a homer in each game, including a game-winner. That’s a flash of the power potential the Southern Californian has; he could be projected to bop as many as 20 per year. Romine doesn’t have nearly the offensive ceiling of either Montero or Sanchez, but he should be a solid-hitting catcher.
However, to achieve even average hitting ability, Romine will have to continue to gain strength and work on making consistent contact. Between June 1 and August 25 last year, Romine looked sedated in the batter’s box, with a .222/.279/.314 line that could make Gustavo Molina shriek. Though his home stadium was Trenton's Waterfront Park, an extreme pitcher’s park, that doesn’t explain his bat’s struggle to stay on life support for nearly three months. A sharper eye at the plate could reap major benefits for the backstop, as he’d be less likely to chase bad pitches and more likely to make harder contact with what he could handle.
Romine is considered the Yankees' catcher of the future, but he’s still a bit rough. He has a strong but sometimes inaccurate arm; he cut down only 23 percent of potential thieves last year (85 stolen, 25 caught). He really struggled with passed balls during the Arizona Fall League, though part of that could be him wearing down after a long season and working with pitchers he had never played with before. He will need to get stronger, as it became apparent during the regular season that he was tuckering out early.
For now, Romine is back in Double-A, and that’s not necessarily a step back. He’ll have a chance to be a regular receiver and build his strength and skills behind the plate. He'll also be able to familiarize himself with some of the Yankees' premium pitching prospects, including Bañuelos and Betances. Once Montero gets a call to the majors, Romine will be shuttling up for regular catching duties at Triple-A.
7. Ivan Nova, RHP, MLB
Nova will be the Yankees' fourth starter this season, and he's not a bad choice. Though he struggled once the lineup had turned over three times in his brief Bronx stay last year, Nova had already logged 145 innings at Triple-A before getting the call, and he proceeded to spin 42 more in the majors. The 30-plus innings increase probably caused a lag, particularly in combination with learning major-league hitters. Now, Nova has some experience, is set to go at least 200 innings, and should provide some stability at the back end of the rotation.
Two crucial factors in Nova’s rise to the majors were his improved command and uptick in strikeouts. While the righty can still be wild, he is only handing out three free passes every nine innings pitched now, compared to nearly four per nine in previous years. He’s also gained more than one strikeout per nine frames last year, which he’ll need as he faces seasoned hitters. His best pitch is his fastball, which sits in the low-to-mid 90s, and can even hit 97 with his four-seamer. He also has a curveball and changeup, but while the change is his better offering, neither pitch is consistent. Nova has a sturdy build at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, so he should be a durable horse that can provide at least league-average innings. This is also the last time you’ll see him on a prospect list, as he only needs a few more innings to bust his prospect status.
8. Hector Noesi, RHP, Triple-A Scranton
Manny Bañuelos may have superb command, but Noesi's is even better; he only issued 28 walks in 160 1/3 innings last year. The right-hander has pinpoint accuracy and doesn’t give away much of the zone. He attacks hitters with a barrage of fastballs, curves, and changeups. His heater sits in the low 90s, but he’s capable of cranking it to 96. He’s able to conserve his velocity and can reach back for more deep into games. He doesn’t have as great of command of his changeup, but it’s his second-best pitch and does feature some run and tail.
The other pitches in Noesi’s arsenal, a curveball and a slider, don’t scrape average ratings just yet. He has an easy, repeatable delivery that should keep him from developing any major shoulder problems. Despite the lack of overpowering velocity, he can still pull down strikeouts on a regular basis because of his ability to paint the corners. Noesi’s stellar command will carry him to the majors, and if any trouble arises in the Yankees’ rotation, he should be the first to answer the S.O.S. He gets the edge over Brackman because of his more polished offerings and previous exposure at Triple-A.
Though Noesi won’t be a frontline starter, he has the makings of a fourth or fifth guy. He’ll need to develop a true third pitch for him to thrive as a starter, but he probably won’t be embarrassed if he is thrown in the majors for a few starts this year.
9. Eduardo Nuñez, SS/Utility, MLB
Alas, we are relieved of the inept bat of Ramiro Peña! I admit, I have never been as high on Nuñez as others, mostly because of the very reason he replaced Peña: the lumber. Nuñez is a contact-oriented hitter with gap power, but he’s also a free swinger who could do with some better pitch recognition. Though he is a burner, don’t expect to see him at the top of the order; Nunez’s lack of patience and on-base percentage will send him to the end of the lineup.
Derek Jeter is getting on in years and becoming less like the golden son than the golden sun—if he’s going to reach a batted ball, it had best gravitate toward him. Nuñez is a shortstop by trade and will be a sufficient replacement when the Cap’n is taking a breather, showing off a plus-plus cannon and covering significantly more real estate. However, Nuñez can get lazy in the field and rely too much on his arm to make up for bad routes to the ball.
Nuñez will be playing around the diamond and in the outfield corners this year. He is doubtlessly better than Peña is in this capacity and should get fairly regular playing time considering the age of the infield and the fact that, if Joe Girardi was willing to give Pena 167 plate appearances, he should find at least that for a better player.
10. Brett Marshall, RHP, High-A Tampa
Joining the ranks of Brackman and Noesi in the brotherhood of Tommy John success stories, Marshall returned to the mound in 2010 and wowed with the best stuff he has shown since he was drafted in 2008. He works with four-seam and two-seam fastballs; the two-seamer has solid sinking action and is his best pitch, but the organization would not allow him to use it until last year. The four-seam heater can post gun readings of 96 miles per hour and works well as an out pitch.
Marshall used to be more of a thrower, hurling the ball as fast as he could and not being particularly concerned with where it hit the catcher’s glove. Now that he has toned down his approach and is concentrating on locating his pitches, he is developing into a more complete pitcher. For a guy coming off of Tommy John surgery, he is showing impressive command of his arsenal. His other pitches include a two-plane slider and a changeup that needs to be tightened.
With a listed height and weight of 6-0, 195 pounds, Marshall is hardly an intimidating presence and will have to face the same questions that Bañuelos does about his ability to handle a starter’s workload. Marshall has never thrown more than 87 1/3 innings in a season, so he will need several years to develop into someone who could handle a starter’s slate. What’s most important for the righty in 2011 is staying healthy and refining his off-speed pitches. He’ll return to High-A Tampa this year, where he pitched four innings at the end of last year, and if he cruises, he may land in Double-A by late summer.