In 2014, Jake Cave was ranked as the number 17 prospect in the Yankees' system by Baseball America. That year, he hit .294/.351/.414 with seven homers in 132 games between High-A and Double-A at the tender age of 21. It marked the highest position he would reach while in the organization.
Cave's progress, however, stagnated somewhat in the following years. In 2015, he hit .269/.330/.345 in 125 games at Double-A. Cave did manage to advance to Triple-A in 2016, but he didn't exactly set the world on fire with his .261/.323/.401 slash line. Consequently, Cave fell off Baseball America's list, and also my personal prospect radar.
Apparently Cave was really angry at either Baseball America or yours truly, because he put together a heck of a season in 2017. In 103 games between Double-A and Triple-A, he produced a sparkling line of .305/.351/.542. His 20 homers marked a personal best by far, exceeding his previous career high of eight set in 2016.
It's not like his overall line was buoyed up by feasting on inferior Double-A pitching, either. Cave spent the bulk of his playing time (72 games) in Triple-A, and it was there that he truly took off, hitting .324/.367/.544 with 15 dingers. He still didn't make Baseball America's list, due to the Yankees' system being absolutely loaded, but it would be difficult to call his 2017 season anything other than a success.
Looking at his numbers this year, it's hard to see why more people aren't making a fuss about Cave. When you look at his skillset, however, you begin to see why he's relatively unheralded. Cave doesn't possess any loud physical tools; he's a fringe center fielder with an average arm, and his speed on the bases is decidedly middle-of-the-road.
His hit tool was the thing that scouts loved most about him, but nobody expected him to hit for power. That’s why this year's power surge was so surprising. Cave was known for being reasonably good at everything without being excellent at anything. Players like that have a tendency to fly under the radar.
Now, for the million dollar question: Is Cave's breakout real? His 2017 exhibits mixed signs. There is evidence that his increased power output is a result of a conscious change in approach, as he ran a career-low groundball rate and a career-high fly ball rate this year in Triple-A. His .414 BABIP and 24.2% home run/fly ball rate at that level, however, suggests that he was the recipient of some substantial batted ball luck.
In addition, his plate discipline declined in Scranton. He posted career-worst walk and strikeout rates. All in all, some of Cave's power gains are real, but he's probably not a true talent .324/.367/.544 hitter. He also needs to improve on his strikeout and walk numbers if he wants to make it to the bigs.
What, then, of Cave's future? The Yankees currently face an outfield logjam, with Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier still under team control, and Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury signed throughout 2018. It's probably safe to say that, as things currently stand, Cave doesn't really have a place on next year's team except as a fifth outfielder.
If the Yankees manage to move Gardner or Ellsbury, though, they could do a lot worse than Jake Cave as their fourth outfielder. Alternatively, they could explore including him in a trade package while his stock is high for some much needed rotation depth. Either way, keep an eye on Jake Cave in 2018. After his 2017, he deserves at least that much.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.