Entering the 2019 season, MLB.com included six outfielders on the Yankees Top 30 Prospects list. Of those six, four are teenage prospects that have yet to play this season. Estevan Florial, the Yankees’ top prospect, is recovering from a fractured wrist. Josh Stowers, the number 26 prospect, plays Class-A Charleston.
Meanwhile, a handful of lesser known outfield prospects have started to open some eyes with breakout performances across the farm system. The major league outfield is set for the long term, but not every team has the same level of depth. Breakout prospects provide much needed trade value for Brian Cashman to work with come deadline season. They might not be seen on the top prospects lists, but these players have been making noise with their performances so far this season.
Canaan Smith, Class-A Charleston
Smith is probably the least surprising of all the outfield prospects that have thrived early in 2019. The Yankees used their fourth round pick in 2017 on Smith coming out of high school, and he performed well in his first taste of professional baseball that year. He struggled, however, to the tune of a .191 average in 45 games at Staten Island in 2018.
This season for the RiverDogs, though, Smith seems to be putting it all together. He owns a .338/.409/.515 slash line in 35 games and has doubled his line drive percentage from 14.9% last season to 30.0% so far this year. That’s a big reason his BABIP is a shockingly high .414, compared to .268 last season. That number won’t stand all season, but it’s a good sign that Smith is hitting the ball with authority and establishing himself as an up-and-coming bat in the Yankees’ system at just 20 years old. Don’t be surprised to see Smith start cracking the top prospect lists this season. Also don’t be surprised if he’s dealt at the trade deadline while his stock is rising.
Isiah Gilliam, High-A Tampa
Gilliam got his breakout started early with four hits and three walks in 13 spring training plate appearances, including an impressive opposite field blast against the Tigers. Unlike Smith, Gilliam was a sleeper coming into pro ball. The Yankees took Gilliam in the 20th round in 2015 out of Chipola College.
He’s currently slashing .280/.375/.462 with seven stolen bases in 37 games. His .400 BABIP is unsustainable during a full season, but it’s Gilliam’s improved plate discipline that should impress the Yankees the most. He’s raised his walk rate from 6.9% in 2018 to 11.2% this season, a welcome sign for the 22-year-old outfielder as he makes his way up the prospect ladder. Gilliam, a switch hitter, posted 28 home runs over the past two seasons, so he’s on the right track to become a solid three outcome hitter and a potential Aaron Hicks-lite.
Brandon Lockridge, Class-A Charleston
Lockridge, a six-foot-one right-handed hitter was the Yankees fifth round draft pick out of Troy University in 2018. He struggled with injuries and only played 26 games the past two seasons, but he’s having some success through 40 games this year. Lockridge’s slash line of .250/.309/.442 won’t blow anyone away but he leads all Yankees prospects with 21 extra-base hits and 28 runs scored this season. Lockridge also has six steals, showing some of the power/speed combo that makes him an intriguing prospect. The Yankees will want to see him raise his .32 BB/K rate, but he’s trending in the right direction during the first reasonable sample of his minor league career.
With another double last night for @ChasRiverDogs, OF Brandon Lockridge now has 21 XBH on the season (14 doubles, 2 triples, 5 homers), which leads all Yankees Minor Leaguers. His 28 runs scored are tops among Yankees farmhands as well. pic.twitter.com/TSIPm4VZxt— NYYPlayerDev (@NYYPlayerDev) May 21, 2019
Ben Ruta, Double-A Trenton
Ruta, another spring training invitee, didn’t make the same impression as Gilliam, but he’s been nothing short of incredible for Trenton through 37 games this season. Ruta’s .355/.441/.551 line is impressive, and his ability to get on base bodes well for his future. He doubled his BB/K rate from .44 last season to .88 this season and he has 19 extra-base hits, compared to the the nine he posted in 36 Double-A games last season.
The very definition of a longshot prospect, the Yankees selected Ruta in the 30th round (908 overall) in the 2016 MLB Draft out of Wagner College. The 24-year-old might be playing his way into a legitimate shot with another team at some point.
The Yankees’ system isn’t supposed to be rich with outfield talent at the higher levels, with the exception of Florial, but these four prospects are making the Yankees player development department look good early in the 2019 season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see at least one of these outfielders thrown into a deal for pitching help as trade deadline season rolls around in July. For now, the Yankees will hope they can keep showing improvements and producing at a high level across the farm system.