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The Yankees may have two of the most improved prospects in the game

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No one expected much from Jake Cave and Billy McKinney, but the two have played their way into the big league conversation.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the Yankees have an excellent farm system. Graduations, trades, and injuries may have weakened it ever so slightly, but it is still ranks among the game’s best. That is in part because the front office managed to invest in win-now moves without touching elite prospects like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier, and it is also in part because of the system’s tremendous depth.

That depth has only gotten better with the development of lesser known prospects. In fact, a pair of the Yankees’ outfield prospects may rank among the most improved across the minors. Last week at ESPN, Dan Szymborski wrote about which prospects had seen their stock rise the most in the eyes of his ZiPS projection system. You’ll need an insider subscription if you want to read the whole thing, but ZiPS sees Jake Cave and Billy McKinney as two of the most improved prospects in the game.

Entering the season, both Cave and McKinney had next to zero prospect cache. Neither ranked among the Yankees’ top 30 prospects according to MLB Pipeline prior to the season. This wasn’t unreasonable; Cave was thought of highly enough by the Reds for Cincinnati to take him in the Rule 5 draft in 2016, but not highly enough for the Reds to keep him. Cave then posted an uninspiring .261/.323/.401 with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Likewise, McKinney didn’t set the world on fire after coming over as a bit of a throw-in in the deal that sent Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs. A consensus top-100 prospect before 2015, McKinney’s prospect sheen all but wore off after posting a .678 OPS in Double-A last season at age-21.

Yet both have put in performances so superb this season so as to bump up their ZiPS projections as much as any other prospect. Cave, now 24, has a .344/.388/.598 slash line in Triple-A this year. McKinney, still only 22, has a line of .318/.351/.584.

Consequently, Cave’s major league ZiPS projection has skyrocketed from a .610 OPS preseason to a .709 OPS currently. McKinney’s projection has shot from a .649 OPS to .716 OPS.

With the average OPS in the bigs right around .750, it’s clear that Cave and McKinney still don’t profile as stars, after just about one season of great play in the high minors. Yet they have tossed their names into the mix as legitimate prospects once again. They were nearly left for dead, with the Yankees opting not to protect Cave on the 40-man roster and risking losing him, and with McKinney posting multiple poor minor league seasons. Both now are likely to make the majors at some point, which was not a sure thing not long ago.

MLB.com, which now places both Cave and McKinney firmly inside the Yankees’ top 30 list, praises Cave’s lack of weaknesses and notes his ability to handle center field, making him a promising fourth outfield candidate. McKinney’s defense isn’t as well regarded, but he still profiles as defensively average in a corner, and also looks like a potentially very solid outfield backup, if not an average starter.

For most clubs, having prospects like Cave and McKinney pop up would be a boon. They would rank higher on the prospect list of a lesser farm system, and would be almost certain for a September call-up when rosters expand for a team with openings in the outfield.

With the Yankees, however, things are less clear. When Frazier returns from injury, the Yankees will have five outfielders with real cases for at least semi-regular playing time at the big league level in Frazier, Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Jacoby Ellsbury. The Yankees also have other promising outfield prospects lower in the minors, most notably the enticing Estevan Florial.

Neither Cave nor McKinney has one plus-plus tool that would make him a sort of ace pinch-runner or defensive replacement during September, meaning they wouldn’t be in line for playing time behind the already long line of Yankee outfielders. All the outfielders that have taken time at the majors this year are also under contract for the future, some at exorbitant prices (see: Ellsbury). This creates a log-jam that doesn’t appear easy to break.

Given Frazier and Judge’s status as outfielders of the future, Gardner and Ellsbury’s contract status, and Hicks’ sudden ascension (and, perhaps, the thought of signing another outfielder from the fabled free agent class of 2018), Cave and McKinney may have simply played their way out of town. If they continue to perform at this level, a chance in the majors will be necessary, and there just might not be room in the Bronx for more capable outfielders.

For a team that is shifting its resources from the future to the now, that is a great sign. More ammo to make preseason and midseason deals for reinforcements will be a boost as the Yankees continue to wrench open their contention window. It’s unfortunate for Cave and McKinney if their success means nothing more than a brief cup of coffee in the Bronx and then a trip out of town when it becomes clear playing time just isn’t there. Still, their performances mean they look like big leaguers, which is great news both for McKinney and Cave and the club that benefits from their development.