Minor league contraction was in the works long before a global pandemic washed away the 2020 minor league baseball season. The Yankees, having run the largest farm system in baseball over the last few years, were positioned to see the biggest changes in the structure of their player development program. Entering 2021 with three fewer minor league teams has created a log jam up the middle for the Yankees, and presents them with an opportunity to be very aggressive on the trade market. There is only so much playing time to go around this coming season especially at the A-ball level and below.
The Yankees boast a farm system that is high on upside but still very young. The three teams that the Yankees are losing this coming year are from the lower levels of the minors with Short-Season A, Rookie-Advanced, and a Rookie league team getting cut.
The Yankees have invested heavily up the middle over the last few years, and middle infield is the primary area where they will have a problem with overcrowding. In addition to top international signings and top draft picks, the Yankees have developed several diamonds in the rough who they now need to find the right level and amount of at-bats for.
Shortstops like Oswald Peraza, Anthony Volpe, Josh Smith and Alexander Vargas will all have to find playing time between the Gulf Coast League and High-A Hudson Valley. Peraza is considered one of the Yankees’ top-10 prospects by many, and is eligible for the coming Rule-5 draft, meaning the Yankees have to add him to the 40-man roster or risk losing him for nothing. Volpe and Smith were taken in the first and second round of the 2019 draft respectively, and Vargas is ranked as one of the top-100 prospects in baseball by FanGraphs.
Shortstops are among the most athletic players on the field and can generally be moved around the diamond, especially to second base. The Yankees find themselves with more prospect options at that position already. Ezequiel Duran played second base alongside Smith with Short-Season A Staten Island in 2019, and led the NY-Penn League in home runs with 13. Like Vargas, FanGraphs considers him among the top-100 prospects in the game.
With their third round pick in the 2020 draft, the Yankees selected Arizona State University’s Trevor Hauver. He played some outfield in college, but was announced as a second baseman, and all indications are that the Yankees want to develop him at the position. He is another advanced bat that profiles in the Class-A level alongside the names listed above.
The Yankees have more middle infielders coming up as 2017 international signee Roberto Chrinios finished strong in 2019 and should be at Class-A. Maikol Escotto, with a 167 wRC+, and Carlos Verdecia, 143 wRC+ both hit well in the Dominican Summer League, putting them in line for action in the Gulf Coast League in 2021.
The Yankees do not just have a log jam in the middle of their infield; they will need to find playing time for a host of talented prospects in the center of their outfield as well. Top Yankees prospect Jasson Dominguez will likely play in both the Gulf Coast League and for Class-A Tampa this coming season.
He will find himself on the field at the same time as another one of the Yankees’ top prospects in Kevin Alcantara, who finished 2019 in the Gulf Coast League. Just ahead of Alcantara are three of the Yankees’ top signees from the 2017 international class in Everson Pereira, Antonio Cabello and Raimfer Salinas. All three have played primarily in centerfield and have the athleticism to stay there.
There are only so many outfield spots to go around and the Yankees also have a host of players taken in the top five rounds of recent drafts who have played well and will likely remain at the High-A level and below. Brandon Lockridge is one of the fastest players in the system and had a strong season for Class-A Charleston. He played alongside Canaan Smith, a top-20 prospect in the system, and Josh Stowers, who the Yankees selected to play in the Arizona Fall League that year. The Yankees also have their third round picks from 2018 and 2019 in Ryder Green and Jake Sanford, who project to play at the Class-A level this coming year.
There are only so many catching assignments to go around as well. The Yankees have drafted three catchers in the top two rounds of the draft since 2018. Now they will have to find reps behind the plate for Anthony Seigler, Josh Breaux, Austin Wells, and Antonio Gomez, who has emerged from the 2018 international signing class as possibly the best defensive catcher in the group. All four have battled injuries over the last few years, limiting their reps and development time behind the plate.
Scouts have questioned if Breaux and Wells can play defense well enough to continue catching through the high minors and on to the majors. The question is flipped for Seigler and Gomez, who need to show that they can hit enough to complement their defense.
Minor league contraction leaves the Yankees with a logjam up the middle at the lower levels of their organization. The layers of depth that the Yankees were building to create a functional talent pipeline now opens up the opportunity for the organization to be aggressive on the trade market. It’s an imperfect solution, but with so few places to play so many players, the Yankees may be best served by trying to turn their logjam into present-day major league performers.