I always get a foreboding feeling l at the close of the Minor League season. It’s the first sign of the rapidly approaching baseball offseason and, for me, the most boring part of the year. Sure enough, that familiar feeling crept up once again when the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders dropped the Governors’ Cup to the Durham Bulls.
With the completion of the Yankees’ minor league seasons, one can assess some of the standout performances from the 2018 season. I’m going to ignore guys like Justus Sheffield, who were highly-touted and gave performances to match. Instead, I’ll focus on recognizable names that faltered or guys who seemingly came out of nowhere to have fantastic seasons.
I’m the kind of person that likes to hear bad news before good news, so let’s start with Chance Adams. The 2015 draft pick took a pretty major step back at Triple-A this season after impressing at the level in 2017. Adams had offseason surgery to remove a bone spur in his pitching elbow, and he never found his stride.
Adams saw a drop in fastball velocity, working around 91-93 mph in 2018 after being at 93-95 mph in prior seasons. Additionally, Adams’ walks and earned runs increased, while strikeouts and home runs increased – not exactly a winning combination. In 11 of his 23 minor league starts, Adams failed to last beyond the fourth inning, and that’s simply because of his diminished post-surgery stuff. Everyone responds differently from surgeries, but Adams’ performance this season definitely has me concerned about his future as a starter. A move to the bullpen could be in order.
The right-hander worked out of the bullpen at the end of the Triple-A season and it went rather well. In five relief appearances, the Dallas Baptist product seemed to find the consistency that had eluded him as a starter. The Yankees will still bring Adams into spring training next season as a starting pitcher, and they absolutely should. Still, that doesn’t mean a move to the bullpen isn’t totally out of the question in the future. Kevin Reese, the Yankees’ Senior Director of Player Development, recently told DJ Eberle that Adams in the bullpen might be an “avenue,” the team could take in the future, but they’re comfortable with Chance the starter for now.
Like Adams, Estevan Florial also dealt with an injury that hindered his 2018 campaign, but even a fractured hamate bone didn’t completely derail his season. Florial put up a triple-slash line of .255/.354/.361, which could certainly be seen as a disappointment, but I would disagree.
The .361 slugging percentage certainly sticks out as the glaring weakness in Florial’s line, but that should be mostly excused. Florial dealt with an injury on his right hand that is notorious for sapping a hitter’s power, and his 2018 slugging percentage is well below his career minor league numbers.
Hamate injuries are relatively common amongst baseball players. Giancarlo Stanton, Juan Soto, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. have all dealt with hamate injuries in recent seasons, and they’ve all completely bounced back. It takes a while for a player’s power to return after a hamate fracture, but once it’s back, it’s back. Stanton knocked 59 homers in 2017 after hamate surgery knocked him out of the second half of the 2015 season, for example.
The biggest knock on Florial since he came onto the scene was his aggressive approach and propensity for striking out, and in 2018, the Yankees’ top positional prospect took a step forward in correcting those issues. In 2017, Florial spent a majority of the season with Low-A Charleston and posted a 31.9% strikeout rate and a 10.5% walk rate. This season he struck out at a 25.7% clip and brought his walk rate up to 13%. While there’s certainly still plenty of room for improvement in Florial’s game, his season wasn’t completely tanked by the injury, and his prospect stock is still just as high as it’s ever been.
Another player with prospect stock as high as it’s ever been was Florial’s Tampa teammate, Deivi Garcia. The 19-year-old right-handed starter has been a revelation for Yankees fans this season, and with the season he had, he’s been worth all the praise. Garcia spent time at three levels this season. The bulk of his season was spent at Low-A Charleston, was even better with Tampa, and got one final start with Double-A Trenton at the end of the season.
Despite Garcia’s diminutive stature, his stuff is nasty. His fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90’s, but strong spin rates allow him to overpower hitters. Similarly, Garcia’s curveball possesses an optimal spin rate, which according to MLB Pipeline, “generates plus grades on a regular basis and serves as his best pitch.” If Garcia stays healthy and can continue to improve his changeup, his future is as bright as any in the farm system right now. But even if the third pitch doesn’t develop, Garcia’s plus fastball and curve could help him carve out a role in the bullpen.
A promotion to Double-A for a 19-year-old pitcher is no small feat. A Yankees pitching prospect hasn’t reached that level at that age in a quite a few years. Manny Banuelos spent time with Trenton in 2010, but that’s pretty much it. Luis Severino wasn’t at Double-A at 19, neither was Phil Hughes, Dellin Betances, Joba Chamberlain, or Ian Kennedy. Deivi Garcia could have a very bright future ahead of him, and his 2018 campaign might have been the first real steps towards something really special.
Speaking of real breakout years, starting pitcher Mike King really came out of nowhere to burst onto the scene this season. King came to the Yankees via the Marlins in a trade that netted the Yankees international bonus pool money and sent Garrett Cooper and Caleb Smith to Miami. Admittedly, I completely forgot about this trade until a couple months into the season, but it could be one that pays dividends to the Yankees as early as next season.
King, like Garcia, spent time at three levels this season and absolutely dominated at all of them. He not only led all Yankees minor leaguers in innings but posted a 1.79 ERA while increasing his strikeout rate from 6.4/9 in 2017 to 8.5/9 this season. To increase one’s strikeout rates while simultaneously climbing the organizational ladder is no small feat.
There’s no doubting King had a great year, but does he actually profile as a quality starter moving forward? I think so, but he’s most likely not going to dominate the big leagues like he did the minors in 2018. John Sickels of Minor League Ball says: “King stands out for his fastball control and the movement on his sinker. Reports on his secondary pitches are mixed and it is uncertain if he starts or relieves in the long run, but I can see him as a workhorse in either role.”
So while King certainly has some quality tools, he still needs to refine his secondary offerings if he wants to translate his minor league success into big league success. King finished his season at Triple-A Scranton, so he should definitely get a look at a rotation spot in spring training next year.
That leaves Brandon Wagner. The lefty-swinging, righty-throwing first baseman put together a very strong 2018 season seemingly out of nowhere. The Bombers drafted Wagner as a second baseman in 2015 during the sixth round, but the Yankees quickly made him a first baseman primarily. After being assigned to Tampa to begin the 2018 season, Wagner started making headlines.
In 87 games with the Tarpons, he slugged 20 homers, tying him for second place in the Florida State League for the whole season. Wagner also showed an advanced eye, posting a .376 OBP and a 12% walk rate for High-A. After being named a Florida State League All-Star, Wagner was promoted to Double-A Trenton.
At Trenton, Wagner still showed some of the tools that got him to that level, but his performance evened out as well. Like many hitters before him, he fell victim to the cavernous Arm & Hammer Park and only knocked one homer with Trenton. Although Wagner was still a serviceable player, his offensive effectiveness definitely took a hit with the promotion.
Wagner has a little bit of defensive versatility. He saw most of his action at first base this year, but he spent some time at second, third, and in left too. Wagner’s breakout season was great, but I’m skeptical of his big league future. At six-foot, 210 pounds, he’s not a behemoth over at first, but he likely won’t have the foot speed to really be a serviceable option at third or second moving forward. Without some solid power skills, it’s hard to see how he can crack a big league roster. Time will tell if his 2018 season was just be a mirage.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There were plenty of other guys who put up great numbers or had injury-riddled campaigns that could’ve easily been included in the article too. These were five names from guys in the upper levels of the minor leagues that really stuck out to me this season, and I’ll definitely continue to keep a very close eye on the Yankees’ farm system.