As the minor league teams finish up their final month of the regular season, it is becoming clear that the Yankees are going to have tough decisions to make regarding which players to protect from the 2019 Rule 5 draft. In the past, the Yankees have lost players such as Tommy Kahnle and Jose Quintana due to a lack of 40-man roster spots. They have also seen players drafted and returned, such as Nestor Cortes Jr. and Mike Ford, who are now contributing at the big-league level.
Many tough decisions come from balancing the roster with players who are knocking on the door and prospects with high ceilings who may need more time to develop. While a top prospect like Deivi Garcia is an obvious candidate for a roster spot, players like Nick Nelson and Brian Keller are pitching well for Double-A Trenton and making strong cases of their own.
Nelson, 23, was drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 draft out of Gulf Coast Community College in Florida. He played on both sides of the ball in college, leading his team in both innings pitched and in at-bats. Nelson hit 19 home runs in two seasons at the school, and was prepared to attend the University of Florida if he had slid further down in the draft.
Once drafted, he focused on pitching and quickly entered the Yankees’ top prospects list. Armed with a plus fastball that can sit in the mid-90s while touching 98 mph, Nelson also has a strong mix of pitches with a curveball, slider, and changeup that all grade as major-league caliber pitches.
This season in Trenton, Nelson continues to show his power arm with an 11.0 K/9 rate. This follows up on a 2018 season where he finished second in the Yankees’ system with 144 strikeouts. The only thing holding Nelson back from being a truly elite starter and prospect is below average control, as he has a 5.2 BB/9 rate at Double-A this season. Despite the high walk rate, Nelson’s strong fastball and ability to strike batters out make him a prime target for the Rule 5 draft. Teams traditionally gravitate towards acquiring strong armed pitchers, knowing they can try to ease them through the season in the bullpen.
Keller, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee pitcher, came close to not being drafted in 2016. A positive late season evaluation by the Yankees’ area scout led to the Bombers taking Keller in the 39th round of the draft. Shortly after the Yankees drafted him, Keller was able to unlock more velocity in his fastball, bringing it into the low 90s. This increase in velocity made all of Keller’s four pitches more effective, and his professional career got off to a great start. He debuted with 41 innings pitched and a 0.88 ERA across three levels that season.
The 25-year-old has never had issues throwing strikes, accruing a career 2.1 BB/9 rate that has been consistent year after year. After starting the season on the injured list, Keller made himself standout by throwing a seven-inning no-hitter against the Altoona Curve on August 1. Keller has been extremely effective for Trenton this season, pitching to a 2.32 ERA with a 0.93 WHIP. Keller may not have the high ceiling as some Rule 5 targets, but he can pound the strike zone and is putting together an outstanding season.
With all the injuries they have sustained this season, the Yankees would be in trouble if it wasm’t for the impressive depth they created in the upper levels of their minor league system. In an organization with so many high-ceiling youngsters a few years away from contributing, the Yankees could feel the pain if they let one of these near-ready prospects slip out of their grasp.
Finding the right blend of high-ceiling talent and players who may be ready to contribute in the coming season creates difficult decisions for the Yankees’ front office. Nick Nelson and Brian Keller are performing well and making a strong case to be part of the roster moving into 2020.