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The Minor League Ramble: Yankees System Disappointments

Which of these failed prospects will be traded for Steve Trout? (AP)

It was a terrific season for the Yankee farm system. Ranked near the back of the pack coming into the year, a plethora of prospects had breakout campaigns, boosting their trade stock and grabbing some attention from prospect gurus. However, there were also some ginormous disappointments. Two of greatest letdowns, Mark Melancon (now with Houston) and Zach McAllister (now with Cleveland), were dealt, but unfortunately, there are still some others who have heard the mournful tune of the sad trombone.

Jeremy Bleich, LHP, Double-A Trenton: When the Yankees failed to sign 2008 first-rounder Garrett Cole (who will probably be a top-three pick next year), Bleich became the top pick to sign. Drafted out of Stanford as a sandwich pick, the southpaw was signed well below slot because of elbow problems that had some wondering if there’d be a visit to Dr. James Andrews in his future.

Bleich has four pitches—a two-seam fastball he needs to learn to command, a four-seamer, and a nice breaking ball and changeup. The worm-beater pitched well at High-A in 2009 and got bumped to Double-A, where he struggled mightily with his command. Having entered 2010 ranked as the ninth-best prospect in the system by Baseball America, just about everything that could go wrong for the lefty went wrong. His strikeouts per nine innings took a nosedive and his command abandoned him.

The catastrophe was completed in mid-May when Bleich’s labrum tore, sending him under the knife and ending his season. This was a worrisome development, as shoulder injuries are no sure thing; recovery from elbow surgery is easier to project. Bleich will miss at least two months of 2011 as he rehabs. Labrum surgery is not a death sentence, but given that Bleich’s fastball only sat at 90 to 92, if he loses velocity on his fastball or loses his control it would be detrimental to his prospect status. Of course, we won’t know how he is coping until he gets back on the mound, but if he recovers fully and doesn’t lose any of his stuff, Bleich’s ceiling is that of a mid-rotation starter.

Chance He Regains Prospect Status: Call it 50-50, because because there are so many unknowns when it comes to shoulders.

Reegie Corona, 2B, Triple-A Scranton: Once thought of as a potential utility player in the Ramiro Pena mold, Corona was added to the 40-man roster last year to protect him from the Rule 5 draft for a second time. He’d previously been selected by the Seattle Mariners and offered back. This year was completely disasterful, though, as his bat, already anemic, was already on life support at a .238/.306/.354 slash before a broken arm in July blue-lined his season.

Combining his rates at Triple-A over the last year and a half (he spent 44 games there in 2009), Corona Extra’s triple slash looks even less filling, at .219/.274/.327 in 149 games (605 plate appearances), essentially a season’s worth of data. He’s a decent baserunner, with 14 steals and only one caught stealing, and can play around the diamond, though his natural position is the keystone.

With no power, little patience, a contact-oriented approach, and a decent glove, Corona is expendable. The Bombers will designate him for assignment the second they need roster space for the Rule 5 draft or to add a free agent, so he may have played his last game with the Yanks. A team may gobble him up and stick him on the bench, but Corona is never going to be a starter, and he doesn’t have nearly enough positives to stick as a backup on the Yankees.

Chance He Regains Prospect Status: It's not clear that he ever had it. Corona is what he is, perhaps a bench guy on a second-division team looking for some weak padding.

Wilkin De La Rosa, LHP, Double-A Trenton: Also given a 40-man roster spot prior to the season, De La Rosa was jettisoned when the Yankees picked up Steve Garrison off waivers from the Padres (Kevin Towers’ final stand in pinstripes). After going unclaimed on the waiver wire, De La Rosa was outrighted to Double-A.

It just hasn’t been De La Rosa’s year. The converted outfielder started 2010 off with a sour April followed up by spoiled May, and though he has been ever-so-slightly better since then, it’s nowhere near enough to recover prospect status. An investigation into his use of Vitamin B-12 put the rotten cherry on top of the melted ice cream season.

The Yankees allowed De La Rosa to flounder for five years as an outfield prospect before moving him to the mound, where his 93-94 mph heater engendered Pavlovian responses in scouts. His lack of a feel for pitching was always a risk, and after a breakout year in 2009, the lefty’s peripherals died, with a K/9 nearly 1.5 lower than last year a BB/9 nearly 0.50 higher.

As a minor-league free agent, De La Rosa will be free to sign wherever he wants over the winter, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Yankees see if they can salvage their pet project.

Chance He Regains Prospect Status: It seems unlikely. As a converted player he might still have some learning to do (optimistic), the poor peripherals are a huge negative (realistic).

Kelvin De Leon, OF, Short-season Staten Island: There were great expectations for one of the Yankees’ top international free agents in recent years. Ranked as the eighth-best prospect in the organization in the preseason by our Baseball Prospectus colleague, Kevin Goldstein, and the 19th-best prospect in the organization by Baseball America, De Leon made a brilliant stateside debut in 2009, just the opposite of what you would say his 2010 was.

The righty has shortened up his swing and has power to all fields, though you could scarcely spot that this season as he only collected 19 extra-base hits. De Leon didn’t spend much time on base, period, as his final line of .236/.288/.359 can attest. Part of this is attributed to his hacktacular ways—with a 30.9 percent of his ABs ending in a K, De Leon didn’t meet many pitches he didn’t like (though they didn’t really like him, as they giggled past his bat).

De Leon has great arm strength and can be an asset as a right fielder—he doesn’t have the speed to play center—and he has a stocked toolbox, though his skills are incredibly raw. Nevertheless, the 19-year-old will likely spend next year repeating the level, as he hasn’t shown enough to merit a promotion to Low-A Charleston.

Chance He Regains Prospect Status: I’ve got faith in De Leon’s ability to figure it out. His rawness is attributable to his age, and as he gets more acclimated to the States, the better he should be.

Jairo Heredia, RHP, Low-A Charleston: I’m being a bit harsh here, but sometimes you just gotta give tough love. Heredia broke out at Low-A in 2008 with a 3.25 ERA, 8.36 K/9, and nearly two grounders per fly ball. He seemed poised to make the leap to High-A Tampa, but when he showed up to spring training out of shape, his entire season got out of whack, as he was felled by a shoulder injury that kept him from pitching until July. When Heredia did make his way back to the mound, his numbers weren’t as shiny as the Yankees would have liked, and he only pitched 38 1/3 innings total.

Heredia started off the year in High-A, but after getting shelled in six starts (including an obscene 1.95 WHIP), he was sent back to Charleston. The Yankees had kept him as a starter for most of his career, but by July, he was ticketed for the bullpen. His August and September numbers (17 1/3 innings, 16 hits, three runs, 20 Ks, five BBs) look decent, but it’s just not what was expected.

The Dominican Republic native has a fastball that runs in the low 90s with some sink-and-run that is complemented by a sinking change and decent curveball. He can throw strikes, but the quality of the strikes can be questionable.

Conditioning has been a problem with Heredia, and the Yankees are surely hoping that because he finished the season on a high note, he will be able to finally handle an assignment to Tampa. Luckily, the Yankees have another year to evaluate Heredia’s performance, as he won’t be eligible for the Rule 5 draft until after next season.

Chance He Regains Prospect Status: Heredia has undeniable talent. If he takes his conditioning seriously—and that is a big if—he could be a breakout player. Perhaps dangling a Rule 5 spot in front of him will be a motivator.

Kyle Higashioka, C, Low-A Charleston: One of Heredia’s battery mates in Low-A was Higashioka, a seventh-round pick in the 2008 draft. The Yankees lured the backstop away from a commitment to Berkeley with a $500,000 check and sent him to the Gulf Coast League, where he performed well.

After posting a .253/.333/.332 slash at Staten Island, there was hope that Higashioka would have a solid year at Charleston. Instead, he seemed to be the invisible man for the season’s first three months, with .199/.286/.320 rates that likely left the team wondering where their catcher’s lumber was hidden. Perhaps a wanted ad was answered in July, though, as the Southern California kid finally came to life and put up a .303/.380/.399 line the rest of the way. That’s a promising line, and it may have been enough to get him to Tampa to start 2011.

Behind the plate, Higashioka is a solid receiver with an accurate, tick above-average arm. He nailed 33 percent of potential thieves and made six errors on the season with only four passed balls, so it seems he is has some of the nuances of the position down. At the dish, when he’s visible, Higashioka has some pop, and he relies on contact. He can work the count as well, though the Yankees certainly wouldn’t say no to a few more walks to beef up his on-base percentage.

Chance He Regains Prospect Status: "Potential" is the key word here. Higashioka is loaded with potential, and as he heated up down the stretch, it looked more like he was figuring the league out. Look for a rebound.

Dishonorable Mentions:

Garrison Lassiter, 3B, Short-season Staten Island: I’m being a bit hard again, but don’t be fooled by the .285/.389/.325 line Lassiter put up in Staten Island. The infielder, who was given $675,000 in 2008 to ditch his commitment to UNC, played at an impossibly poor level at Charleston (.102/.223/.114) and was sent to extended spring training to await the start of the short-season league. It was definitely a surprise to see Lassiter’s performance in Low-A, as he had played there in 2009 and put up a reasonable .260/.330/.336 line. It’s hard to determine what wrong, how he looked utterly lost at the same level six months later.

Lassiter was a tantalizing talent in the ’08 draft, a middle infielder with power potential and a lefty swing. He didn’t show a lick of power this year, with only four extra-base hits between both levels (all doubles in a combined 211 at-bats), but he did show a willingness to take a walk, which helped to pump his OBP. The North Carolina native is only 20 and still has time to figure it out, and he’ll likely be assigned to Charleston again to see how he adapts to the tougher pitching once more. Chance He Regains Prospect Status: His lack of pop is of great impediment to his future.

Neil Medchill, OF, Low-A Charleston: The 11th-rounder mashed in his pro debut in Staten Island in 2009, leading the Penn-State League with 14 homers and delivering .278/.350/.551 averages. Aggressively promoted to Tampa, Medchill struggled mightily, posting a .178/.260/.267 line before getting shuttled down to Charleston. There, the lefty swinger had a hard time staying above the Mendoza Line, and he finished his campaign with a .215/.295/.380 line.

Despite his struggles, Medchill’s power was still in evidence as he bopped 12 homers between both levels, though in nearly double the ABs it took him to reach 14 in short-season. What’s especially alarming about his season, though, is his strikeout rate. The Oklahoma State product whiffed in an astounding 37.2 percent of his plate appearances. He was always the breezy type, as evidenced by his 30.6 percent rate in Staten Island. Power hitters get a bit of a mulligan if they can pound the ball out of the park regularly, but getting a swing-and-a-miss result that often is around Mark Reynolds circa 2009 territory.

The outfielder will likely be on the bubble between Charleston and Tampa to begin next season, though if he has a strong spring training, the better guess is Florida. Chance He Regains Prospect Status: His strikeout rate is off the charts. He's going to have to make huge strides in pitch recognition and strike-zone awareness to get back on the prospect path.

Kevin Whelan, RHP, Triple-A Scranton: The lone survivor from the Gary Sheffield deal, Whelan was left off the 40-man roster for last year’s Rule 5 draft, and given his horrendous campaign this season, the Yankees will likely leave him off once more. The righty was bounced from Scranton to Trenton after imploding in 12 1/3 innings (9.97 ERA). Though he didn’t fare a whole lot better in New Jersey, Whelan was promoted back to Scranton in late August as the team revved up for the playoffs.

Whelan has always been dogged by control problems, and that was no different this season. He had a 6.44 BB/9 in Trenton and a 4.50 BB/9 in Scranton. Unfortunately, his career rate is about six walks per nine, and at 26, it’s unlikely that he will ever be able to find the zone. When Whelan is working his good stuff, though, he can blow batters out of the water, as his combined totals for the year put him at a little over 11 K/9. He has super stuff, but he just can’t seem to harness it to have any semblance of sustained success. Chance He Regains Prospect Status: Very unlikely. Whelan has always had a phobia for the K-zone, and he’s not getting younger. His time to be a prospect is about to tick by, and there has been no improvement.