The top four names on MLB.com's newly released Top 20 Yankee prospects list are right in line with Keith Law's ranking of them in his Top 100 earlier today. It's no surprise that Gary Sanchez, Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, and Slade Heathcott are topping everyone's lists. The trio of outfielders plus one catcher are the cream of the crop in the Yankees' system, and represent the next wave of hopeful major leaguers from down on the farm.
In addition to Sanchez, Williams, Austin, and Heathcott, LHP Manny Banuelos rounds out the top five on MLB.com's list. Banuelos would easily rank as the closest to the majors were it not for the fact that he will spend the entire 2013 season recovering from Tommy John surgery that he underwent at the end of last year. Sanchez began the year repeating the Low-A level, but was promoted to High-A Tampa after making large strides in his defense over the previous season. At one point in the recent past, whispers of questions began to pop up about whether or not he'd be able to stick behind the plate for his career, and now those questions are even quieter. The bat is as impressive as ever, and if Sanchez continues to develop as he has, we may very well be looking at our catcher of the future.
Mason Williams will be joining Sanchez and Tyler Austin at High-A Tampa to begin the season, but Williams will be the only prospect in the top five (aside from Banuelos) to miss out on big league Spring Training later this month. Baseball America showered Williams with praise in their rankings of the Yankee farm system, labeling him as the fastest baserunner, best athlete, and best defensive outfielder. After dislocating his shoulder on a diving play in the outfield that required surgery and ended his season, Williams is likely at less than 100% in his recovery and will need the Spring to work back toward season-ready shape. Tyler Austin has commanded attention with his bat, and may have found a permanent defensive home in the outfield after being shuffled from catcher to third base prior to that. Defense is certainly more of Mason Williams' calling, ranking 70 on a 20-80 scale according to Keith Law, but Austin has hit and hit well in every level of the minors he has seen so far. If the Trenton outfield weren't so crowded, there may have been a chance for him to start the season there after making it all the way up to Double-A after starting the season at Low-A last year, but if he hits as he has, there's no way they keep him in Tampa for long.
After an injury kept him out of the first half of the season, Slade Heathcott has risen to the near-top of almost every prospect list because of all the potential he possesses. If he puts it all together, the sky seems to be the limit, but injuries have kept him off the field in every season he has had as a professional so far. Heathcott has a checkered past, to say the least, and it's not difficult to believe that he will play a huge role in whatever level of success he is able to achieve. Hopefully, he can stay out of his own way, because the raw talent is there, he just needs to be able to put it together on the field without all the distractions.
The next five on the list includes the Yankees' 2012 first-round draft pick, Ty Hensley (#6), and a prospect that could actually reach the majors this year in Mark Montgomery (#8), in addition to Angelo Gumbs (#7), Dante Bichette, Jr. (#9), and last year's Spring Training standout, Zoilo Almonte (#10). Hensley became an interesting case when an asymptomatic shoulder abnormality was found by doctors during his physical. He has an impressive fastball that touches 94 mph, and his curveball isn't that far behind. Gumbs turned heads in his time with Charleston last season after improving upon his defense at second base. He has fantastic speed and certainly shows potential at the plate, and if he can put together a good full season in 2013, his stock will rise even higher.
DBJ's season in Low-A in 2012 can't be classified as much more than a disappointment. He's got the name recognition, but failed to follow up on his impressive season with Staten Island the year before. He represents the real hope at third base within the system, so all eyes will be on him to see if he can turn things back around as he likely repeats Charleston this season. In Spring Training last season, Zoilo Almonte impressed Joe Girardi and most of the people watching at home. His repeat Double-A season showed that Almonte may just be the real thing, and with the Yankee outfield situation shaky at best, it's not unreasonable to think he could make an appearance in the majors if a spot opened up. He's been labeled as more of a fourth outfielder than future starter by some, but that will largely depend on whether or not Zoilo is able to adapt to better pitching at the next level. If he can, there is little reason he couldn't be a starter on some team, if not the Yankees.
Also getting a shot in big league camp this Spring will be relief pitcher Mark Montgomery. After flying through the system in his first full season, there is a decent chance that we could see Montgomery make it all the way to the big league bullpen in 2013. He had the most saves of anyone in the organization last year, and managed an absurd 13.8 K/9 on his way to finishing the season with Double-A Trenton. Montgomery's best pitch is his slider, which is the best among Yankee prospects according to Baseball America, that has made hitters at every level he's been to look silly to this point. The Yankees have not been shy about promoting him as necessary, and it has been necessary frequently because no level has managed to slow him down yet. If he impresses against big leaguers in Spring Training, he may find himself in the Bronx sooner than later, with a real chance to be the setup man going forward.
The next ten prospects on MLB.com's list begin with four pitchers and one outfielder. Jose Campos (#12) only made five starts with Charleston before missing the rest of the season with an elbow injury. His first few starts were extremely impressive, but he got roughed up a bit in the games immediately preceding his injury, which may not be a coincidence. He has above average control to go along with a potential three pitches. When he was traded to New York with Michael Pineda, some thought he may end up being the real prize of the deal. Campos can go a long way toward proving that to be possible with a full, healthy year in 2013. Jose Ramirez may be better known for being a reason the Yankees were willing to give up Arodys Vizcaino for Javier Vazquez than most of what he has done on the field, but 2012 seems to have been a real turning point for him, with Baseball America ranking his fastball as the best in the farm system. His progression has been slow, but he'll get a real test against Double-A hitters when the 2013 season starts.
Drawing comparisons to Andy Pettitte, mainly because of that whole left-handed thing, Nik Turley (#14) had a strong season with High-A Tampa before being promoted to Trenton at the end of the year. MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo believes that Turley has the potential to carry four Major League average or better pitches in his arsenal, including an impressive fastball with good control and a curveball with the potential to freeze hitters when it's right. Turley was added to the 40-man roster this offseason and should begin his year with Double-A Trenton. Bryan Mitchell (#15) had his curveball ranked as the best on the farm by Baseball America following his season with Charleston in 2012. The main draw wasn't necessarily his results at the level, but his powerful arm that has his fastball reaching 96 mph. His command needs harnessing, but if he can put that together, the stuff is impressive enough to make people take notice.
The lone non-pitcher in the 11-15 range is another member of the 40-man roster, Ramon Flores (#11), who constantly draws praise for his advanced approach at the plate. In a world where most prospects are free swingers that need to be refined, Flores already manages an impressive eye that leads to an above average walk rate for someone of his age. He was fourth in the Florida State League in batting average last season before being promoted to Trenton at the end of the year. When all is said and done, he may end up as a fourth outfielder somewhere, but he certainly has the potential to be more than that.
Just like the prior five, the back of the line features four pitchers and one solitary position player to close out the Yankees' top twenty. Austin Romine (#18) has seen his stock as a prospect fall a bit recently, not helped by the fact that he missed nearly all of last season with a back injury. Without that, it's possible that Romine would be slated to be the Yankees' starting catcher on Opening Day, but he'll probably now need to at least spend some amount of time against Triple-A pitching to prove that his bat can hack it at the higher levels. He's certainly a better defender than hitter, but his caught stealing rates are nothing to write home about. Romine will likely get a chance at the Major League level at some point during 2013, but will almost certainly be starting the year with the RailRiders in Scranton.
Brett Marshall (#16) is proficient with the ground balls, which helped his success with Double-A Trenton in 2012. He managed to finish fourth among Yankee prospects in ERA, batting average against, and strikeouts last season with a heavy fastball and good changeup that Baseball America considers to be the best from the Yankee farm. Marshall could begin 2013 with Triple-A, giving him a shot to break into the majors before too long. After a somewhat disastrous Major League debut, Adam Warren (#17) will once again be returning to Triple-A when the 2013 season begins. Unfortunately for him, it will be his third season there, and David Phelps has easily passed him as the next man up when a pitcher is needed. Barring sporadic bullpen work or an emergency spot start, Warren's best chance of getting into the big league rotation is an injury to the five starters, Phelps, and Michael Pineda's arm falling off during his rehab. Sorry, Warren.
In what seems like it almost must be a mistake, Dellin Betances (#19) has made a top prospects list. He's probably just as surprised as you are, but the thing that keeps people holding out hope for him to actually be an effective starting pitcher are his strikeouts. Take those away, and it's hard to imagine that anyone would care after the gigantic cliff that Betances has thrown himself off of. His control is awful and he was demoted to Double-A, a level he'd previously found lots of success in, only to still find himself getting shelled more often than not. I don't know what's up with him, but he's a disaster right now.
After finding success with Tampa and making it up to the Double-A bullpen last season, right-handed reliever Tom Kahnle (#20) rounds out the list of top prospects. Improved control helped him cut down on walks last season, and his 97 mph fastball is certainly enough to have people notice him as a potential piece for the big league bullpen in the near future. His 11.7 K/9 rate was helped along by his aggressive approach, and he'll be looking to continue keeping hitters guessing when he most likely returns to start next season with the Trenton Thunder.
Most names here are not surprising, even if the order is a bit debatable based on whether results or potential is more highly valued. The only real surprise seems to be Betances, but as long as he can strike people out, people will keep dreaming on him. Eleven of the top twenty will take part in big league Spring Training later this month, giving everyone a chance to hopefully see just why they made this list.