If there is one thing we’ve grown to love as Yankee fans, it’s home grown stars. For years, we’ve grown accustomed to Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera as the faces of the franchise. In recent years, Robinson Cano has captivated us, and looks to be next in line to carry the torch (some may argue he already is).
Outsiders like Mark Teixiera, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher, although beloved by fans, just don’t seem to connect with us like those who came up through the ranks of the Yankee organization. This is why losing Jesus Montero hurt so much, and why Michael Pineda will always be looked upon with such scrutiny, no matter what he does in pinstripes.
That said, let’s take a look at what’s on the horizon to see if we can identify the Yankee great, hopefully in the mold of someone like Derek Jeter or any of the 'Core Four'.
Let’s break the farmhands into three groups: elite prospects, strong prospects, and under-the-radar prospects. We'll cite a few examples from John Sickels of Minor League Ball to put this into greater focus.
According to Sickels' Derek Jeter 'Prospect Retro', Jeter was the #2 rated prospect in baseball in '95 (behind Alex Rodriguez), in Eddie Epstein’s scouting notebook. He had a strong prospect pedigree (6th overall pick in '92), and a consistent track record of growth through the minors. He was a prime example of an elite prospect, earning a Grade A in both ’95 and ‘96.
Other home grown stars were not looked upon so favorably by the scouting community...
Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano were all prospects who were strong or flew under the radar according to Sickels, and many others. Looking back at Pettitte's‘Prospect Retro’, Sickels notes that he’d have given him a Grade B in ’94, due in large to his lack of a strong K/9, thus making him a strong, but not elite prospect. In Posada's 'Prospect Retro', he earned a straight Grade C grade in ’96 due to defensive concerns, as well as a high strikeout rate and questionable ability to hit for average. While Cano doesn’t have a ‘Prospect Retro’, Sickels had him as a Grade C in ’02 and ’03, a Grade C+ in ’04, and a Grade B- in ’05, grades he acknowledges were far too low when looking back.
As you can see, Yankee stars have taken different paths to the top, which is what makes this exercise so interesting. Using the most current grades from John Sickels, we'll start by covering ‘elite’ prospects, then move on to the much deeper crop of ‘strong’ and ‘under-the-radar’ prospects. The '12 player grades are listed in parenthesis, as a point of reference. There is a strong likelihood that one or more of players below will turn into the next franchise star.
Gary Sanchez, C (Grade B+): The hope is he develops along the same lines as Jesus Montero, but with a better glove. He showed great power in Charleston this past year (17 HR), but still lags behind with his receiving skills. Pedigree and current results make him the obvious choice to be the next big Yankee star.
Manny Banuelos, P (Grade B): He’s a borderline B+ prospect, so we’ll note him as elite. I covered him last week in my Prospect Roulette piece, and he’s a good bet to turn out to be at least an average major league starter. His upside is far greater than that, and a step forward in the command department could make him the next Yankee ace.
Dellin Betances, P (Grade B): His pure stuff may be the best in the entire system, but inconsistency makes him frustrating, and places doubt on his future as a starter. His secondary offerings are still improving, and if he can harness his stuff, he leaps into Top 25 prospect discussions and the elite category.
Mason Williams, OF (Grade B): The buzziest name in the system right now, and rightfully so. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Williams as his #36 prospect, significantly higher than anyone else in the industry. His upside is Curtis Granderson, while the conservative projection would be Austin Jackson. Either way, he’s a fast rising talent that could be the anchor of many Yankee teams by the end of the decade.
Dante Bichette Jr, 3B (Grade B): You may remember his father, and that guy was a pretty damn good player, so the pedigree is certainly there. He showed solid defensive strides and is a better bet to stick at the hot corner than he was pre-draft. He has good power and an advanced approach for his age, and could be a guy who elevates himself into the next tier of prospects with a strong 2012 campaign.
David Phelps, (Grade B-): Phelps has a deep four pitch arsenal (fastball, curve, slider, change) that he commands well, and although he doesn’t have any plus offerings, he's still a valuable commodity. He’s an older prospect (25 years old), but is probably the first in line for a promotion if the club needs an arm during the season.
Tyler Austin, 3B (Grade B-): He's been impressive so far, and is turning out to be a great find in the 13th round of the 2010 draft. Austin uses the whole field as a hitter, and also showed good plate discipline when he made the leap to Staten Island. He’ll be an interesting name to follow, especially if he’s able to maximize his power and contact potential moving forward. There is some sleeper potential here.
Ravel Santana, OF (Grade B-): I covered him in-depth a few weeks ago here. As far as tools go, Santana is one of the most talented players in the system. A serious ankle injury puts some of his 2012 season in doubt, but the talent is there for him to develop once he does return to action. A nice blend of speed and power makes him unique.
Slade Heathcott, OF (Grade C+): Like Santana, I covered him here. His first two seasons have been disappointing due to injuries, so a year of good health would go a long way in establishing him as an impact prospect within the organization. Heathcott has been compared to Brett Gardner in the past, and could develop into a similar player, especially with his gritty style of play.
Cito Culver, SS (Grade C+): A 2010 1st round pick, a lot was expected of him, and he’s been a bit disappointing to this point. The good news is that his defense is solid at short, and he’ll be able to stay there long term. Culver is still figuring things out with the bat, but shows nice contact ability and modest power. His plate discipline, while in need of refinement, is pretty good for a young hitter. In time, he could still turn out to be the next Yankee shortstop.
Angelo Gumbs, 2B (Grade C+): Gumbs has a good combination of power and speed, but needs to refine his plate discipline, like most young hitters. He is still transitioning to second base, but shows a nice feel for the middle infield. Better strike zone judgement will help him take the next step offensively. Definitely a sleeper prospect worth monitoring.
Austin Romine, C (Grade C+): We’re all familiar with Romine by this point. He probably seems a bit out of place under this heading, but his grade fits, so we'll go with it. Some think he’s the catcher of the future, others are more reserved. He’s still developing, both offensively and defensively, but the tools are there for him to be a solid player. Before selling on Romine, remember that Posada was raw as a prospect. If he becomes even half the player Posada was, he’ll be solid.
Daniel Lopez, OF (Grade C+): An international talent, he posted a strong average for the Gulf Coast Yankees, while also displaying usable power and a keen eye at the plate. Lopez has a solid frame, and should eventually produce more power as he fills out. If the tools translate to skills, this grade could rise dramatically.
It’s easier to make a case for the more established prospects, especially guys like Sanchez, Banuelos, Betances, Williams, and Bichette. These players are on the radar, and have name value to Yankee fans, making them immediately recognizable.
The real fun begins when you look deeper and try to unearth guys who may not be generating mainstream buzz. Personally, I really like Santana, Culver, and Gumbs as players who could turn into something down the road. Prospecting isn’t an exact science, which is why you can never count out guys who don’t always fit the typical scouting mold.
Who do you see as the next great home grown Yankee? Let’s discuss things further in the comments.