It's that time of year again—bags are packed, we dream of Florida (or Arizona) sunshine, football season's over, and the pundits come out with their preseason top prospect lists...
1. Manny Banuelos, LHP (write-up)
It probably won't come as a surprise that after the departure of Jesus Montero, Banuelos was ranked the top prospect in the Yankees' system. He's left-handed, can hit 95 mph (even though he sits lower), and will be just 21 this season while pitching in Triple-A Scranton. That said, I would not expect him to make his debut in pinstripes until later this season, if at all—keep in mind how long the Yankees kept Montero waiting—and, after all, Banuelos is stil young enough that rushing his development would do more harm than good, especially after last season's control issues.
2. Mason Williams, CF (write-up)
No one's going to deny that Mason Williams is good and had a really, really good season at Staten Island last year. The problemwith ranking Williams so high is that he is so far away from the majors that the stats can't matter much, if at all. There's a whole wide world of failing to make adjustments or injuries that could impact him between now and then (that's not a knock on Williams, but an attempt to be realistic at how far away short-season ball is from the bigs), and it's a statement about the state of the Yankees' system—maybe in a few years the parent team will be able to have high-ceiling, home-grown position player help, but not in 2012.
3. Gary Sanchez, C (write-up)
Sanchez had an incredible stateside debut in 2010, but last season was a bit rockier, including a nearly-nightly inclusion of "passed ball" in his stat line and a demotion to extended spring training for "attitude issues." Such lessons might be bitter pills to swallow when one is 18, but it is a lesson better learned now than when in the higher levels of the farm. Still, Sanchez hit 17 home runs at Charleston, the same number another star catching prospect did, further evidence that his bat is, indeed for real. Like Williams above him and most of the others below, Sanchez is years away from a major-league impact, but high-A ball at an age when most are trying to survive the freshman 15 is no small accomplishment.
4. Dellin Betances, RHP (write-up)
What's amazing about prospects to me is the way expectations can so quickly rise and fall. This time last season, Betances was hailed as one of the "Killer B's", and while he might still bear that moniker the more common sentiment, as Law expresses, is that Betances will probably end up in the bullpen long term. There's nothing wrong with being in the bullpen—Mariano Rivera and David Robertson have made fine careers of it—but it's still somewhat disappointing when this is the projection for someone who can throw a baseball 97 miles an hour. He will be 24 this season, so unlike Banuelos, he is not tremendously young (Phil Hughes had a World Series ring by the time he was that age), and what he does this season will matter that much more.
5. Tyler Austin, 3B/1B
The "newest" name on the list, Austin was one of a couple Yankees who killed it in short season ball last year. As with Williams, he's so far away (and so young) that ranking him this high has more to do with long term possibilities than current probabilities. The Yankees drafted him out of high school, where he was ranked the 24th best prospect in the state, but since his 2010 was cut short by a wrist injury, the first good look at his talent didn't come until last season. Williams and Bichette might have received more press, but Austin's talent is real, and it will be fun to see how he adjusts to full season baseball.
6. Jose Campos, RHP
To help figure out what you should think of Campos, note that the Yankees thought he was worth asking for in the Montero deal. Yes, Michael Pineda is a really good pitcher, but when you consider that the only other names that, at any point, have come up in trade talks for Montero were Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, it's hard to argue that Pineda is their equal. On the other hand, Campos, who only pitched in his first stateside season last year, already slots into the Yankees' top 10 (and, on other lists, in their top five). Pineda might be immediate help for the Yankees, but it's not impossible that a few years down the road that Campos is considered the star pitcher of the trade.
7. Dante Bichette, 3B
Although the Yankees did not have a first round pick in the draft last season, their pick of Bichette at 51 overall was met with a heavy round of "wait, what?", but Bichette's bat had him at or near the top of the GCL. He might not, as Mike Axisa argues, offer much in the way of defense, but the bat appears to be for real, and we know how successful a hitter his father was, Colorado notwithstanding...
8. Austin Romine, C
Romine's like the kid brother that's always overshadowed; he could make Dean's List and the varsity squad, but then you've got his older brother (in this case, Montero), who makes Dean's List, makes the varsity squad, wins Homecoming King AND builds an orphanage, to boot. It's not that Romine had a bad season last year—he didn't—it's just that Montero, younger and father advanced, got that much more attention. Unlike Montero, Romine could actually stick at catcher; on the other hand, 0ne would like to see more from his bat at triple-A in 2012. Should Russell Martin get hurt, Romine is next after Francisco Cervelli and Gustavo Molina on the depth chart (and if Romine can't hit better than either of them, ranking him in the top 10 would seem an overshot at best.)
9. J.R. Murphy, C
To get an idea of the catching depth in the Yankees' system, consider that Murphy is the ninth-best prospect according to Keith Law, but only the third-best catcher. The only other position represented three times is that of pitcher. Murphy was enjoying a breakout season last year until a foot injury prematurely ended it; according to Mark Newman (see link) he's healed and will predominately catch next season. Murphy's still far away from the majors and there's a tendency to ride high on players after a breakout year, but assuming the foot injury was of the freak and not recurring variety, there's no reason to believe he isn't for real.
10. Slade Heathcott, OF
Unfortunately for Heatchott, his 2011 will not be a season to remember, between both injuries and baseball brawls. Heathcott's shoulder has been a problem before, and his make-up issues were known when the Yankees drafted him. Perhaps, then, Heathcott can serve as a reminder that while sabermetrics are great, they can't be everything: no one's yet invented a stat that can objectively measure how one's family or social background or behavioral issues impacts on-field ability (and there would likely be a tremendous outcry if someone even tried it). Heathcott is still only 21 years old, so write-offs would be premature at best, but one would feel much more optimistic if 2012 was an injury and attitude-free season for the outfielder.