The Baseball America Top 100 prospects came out yesterday, and four Yankees, all position players, made the list. This is quite a switch from the recent past, when the Yankees' top prospects seemed to be all pitchers and catchers. The 2011 Yankees top 10 was three catchers, an outfielder, a third baseman, and five pitchers. The 2010 list was four catchers, an outfielder, and six pitchers. The 2007 list was two outfielders and eight pitchers. This year there is more of a mix, with three outfielders, a catcher, and second baseman, and five pitchers.
Still, the Yankees have a bit of a gap between needs and ready prospects. Were an outfielder to be injured at some point during 2013, chances are that none of the promising trio of Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, or Tyler Austin will be ready to make the leap to the bigs. Nor are there ready replacements for Mark Teixeira or Kevin Youkilis or even Travis Hafner. (You can count Dan Johnson if you like; he's not without possibilities. Still, there's a reason he is where he is.)
It goes without saying that prospects are generally in short supply for every team, but there are select organizations with enough depth at a given position that they will be forced to return ready players to the minor leagues for the opposite of seasoning, stagnation. Fortunately, for teams less blessed, positional logjams are the makings of good trades. The Yankees are too rarely inclined to solve a problem with youth, but if they were, here are three blocked players who could be an asset to the major league roster right now:
Michael Taylor, Oakland OF, 27. Taylor is a rarity, a former top prospect who didn't get a shot even after being part of the package in a major trade. Drafted out of Stanford by the Phillies in 2007's fifth round, Taylor quickly established himself as a top prospect, hitting .346/.412/.557 in his 2008 full-season debut and .333/.408/.569 at Double-A. In December 2009, he was packaged with Travis d'Arnaud and Kyle Drabek and sent to the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay. The Jays immediately flipped him to the A's for Brett Wallace. The A's sent him to Triple-A Sacramento, and but for 17 games/56 plate appearances in the majors, that's where he's stayed.
It's not that the A's didn't have a need, but Taylor took a major step back at Triple-A. He hit .272/.348/.392 in 127 games his first year at Sacramento, dropping from 20 home runs to just six. You could sense the Oakland organization's disappointment from 3000 miles away; Taylor was ready, but that didn't matter anymore. He put together a decent rebound season in 2011, hitting .272 again but with a .360 on-base percentage and .456 slugging, knocking 16 home runs in 93 games, but it didn't matter. In 2012 he was excellent, hitting .287/.405/.441 in 120 games. He hit 12 home runs, swiped 18 bases in 21 tries, and walked 86 times.
Taylor has now played 370 games at Triple-A. Baseball America still rates him as the #15 prospect in the organization, but at 27, this is going to be his last appearance on any coming attractions list and may seamlessly slide into the ranks of what Bill James once called the Ken Phelps All-Stars, "guys who are wearing labels, but who nonetheless can play major-league baseball, and will prove it if they ever get the chance." With Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, and Chris Young ahead of him, he has little chance of earning a significant role, if any, with the major-league team out of spring training.
A right-handed hitter, Taylor can play well in both outfield corners and, according to BA, can spot in center. His relative youth and defensive ability makes him a more interesting platoon/reserve possibility than gimpy veterans Matt Diaz or Juan Rivera. He hit .270/.429/.409 against southpaws last season. He's had some problems hitting at home the last couple of years, Sacramento being a harder hitting environment than is typical for the Pacific Coast League, so there might even be a little more value here than meets the eye.
The Yankees last traded with the A's in December 2003, sending Chris Hammond and cash out west in return for two prospects who proved a dead end, wild pitcher Eduardo Sierra and infielder J.T. Stotts.
James Darnell, San Diego OF-3B, 26. A second-round pick in 2008, Darnell has killed the ball in the minors, hitting .299/.398/.508 in 392 games. He's been held back by injuries and the lack of a defensive home. Drafted as a third baseman, he hasn't shown the consistency with throwing to stick at the position. Moving to an outfield corner has at least gotten Chase Headley out of his way, but even then he has Carlos Quentin, the underrated Will Venable (.276/.344/.455 on the road career and strong defense), and Chris Denorfia ahead of him (and Kyle Blanks still lurking about as well). He's also undergone two surgeries on his left shoulder in the last two years, so it's not clear just how much outfield he can really play; between the majors and minors he got into all of 38 games last year. Still, as BA puts it, "clubs continue to ask about him because he offers right-handed power and enough athleticism to handle third base and the corner outfield." They note the right-handed hitter has averaged .367/.451/.590 with 14 home runs and 36 strikeouts in 359 plate appearances against lefties in the high minors. The combination of power and patience is pretty rare, but Darnell just might not fit with the Padres. Unlike Taylor, Darnell could probably benefit from going to Triple-A for a spell and playing regularly, but as his two major-league call-ups show, he's not far from being able to spike a major-league roster with some lefty mashing.
The Yankees are infrequent trading partners with the Padres. They purchased pitcher Chad Gaudin from them in August 2009; the last trade the two clubs made came in July 2005, when the Yankees dealt away Paul Quantrill for pitchers Darrell May, Tim Redding, and cash.
Matt Adams, St. Louis 1B, 24. The previous two players seem like realistically possible acquisitions. This one is admittedly a stretch, but Adams does qualify as a blocked player. The left-handed hitter, drafted out of high school in 2009's 23rd round, looks like he could be a major-league regular at first base. He's hit .318/.365/.565 in the minors, knocking a home run once every 17.4 at-bats. He made it to Triple-A and hit .329/.362/.624 with 18 home runs in 67 games. When both Allen Craig and Lance Berkman were hurt last year, he was called up to the majors and hit .244/.286/.384 in 24 games. Plate judgment was a problem, as was hitting against left-handed pitching (.150/.190/.250 in a small-sample 21 PAs; he hit .319/.372/.486 against them at Triple-A).
Craig is healthy this spring and the Cardinals have the productive left-handed hitter Matt Carpenter and certifiably human Ty Wigginton to substitute at the infield corners. Barring a significant injury, Adams is going back to Triple-A to wait his turn. Unlike the aging Darnell and Taylor, he's not someone where the Cardinals might feel that if they don't get a move on and make a deal the asset might lose its appeal, and whereas you can't justify asking a major prospect or productive veteran in return for them, you certainly could name a high price for Adams. The Cardinals are also deep enough that they don't need a great deal of outside help. The Yankees have Mark Teixeira signed through the end of eternity, but designated hitter is open -- yes, I know, Travis Hafner, but Hafner has spent so much time on the disabled list that the Yankees are almost certainly going to need additional help at the position. As for the return of Alex Rodriguez and the subsequent logjam at third base and designated hitter, that's a bridge you burn when and if you come to it.
There are two stronger imperatives to obey here: get younger at any cost and get better while doing so. There aren't many cases when a general manager would be in the position to consider moving a promising young slugger, and again, this may not be one of them. Still, unlike the possibilities of Taylor and Darnell, which are unexciting, utilitarian moves, Adams is one to dream on.
The Yankees almost never trade with the Cardinals. In August 2003, the Yankees dealt them Sterling Hitchcock in return for two pitching prospects that didn't pan out, Ben Julianel (I interviewed him while he was with Trenton and he seemed like a heck of a nice guy, but sometimes that's not enough) and Justin Pope. For the previous deal, you have to go all the way back to 1995, when the Cards purchased Rick Honeycutt . Yeah, this one is a long shot.