The Yankees focused heavily on pitching during the 2017 MLB Draft, taking a handful of arms that have graced their top prospect list since. From that group emerged Matt Sauer and Garrett Whitlock, that is until they both underwent Tommy John surgery during the 2019 season. Without a normal minor-league season to ease back into, these players could fall off the radar for now, but return better than ever in 2021.
When the Yankees selected Clarke Schmidt 16th overall in 2017, just a month after his Tommy John surgery, it was immediately speculated that they were trying to save bonus-pool money to do something big with their second pick. They opted for Sauer, a high school right-hander, who was ranked as the 28th best draft prospect by Baseball America.
An uptick in velocity—all the way up to 97 mph in the prospect showcase events just prior to the draft—saw Sauer’s stock soar in the spring of 2017. Once pitching in pro ball, Sauer’s velocity fluctuated but was back in the 93-95 range late in the 2018 season.
During his time in the Yankees’ organization, Sauer worked his way up to Low-A Charleston for the 2019 season. There he was part of a starting rotation alongside other well-regarded prospects, like Luis Gil, Luis Medina, Roansy Contreras and Alexander Vizcaino. Just two starts into the season, though, Sauer went down in need of Tommy John surgery.
In the 18th round of the 2017 Draft, the Yankees selected college right-hander Whitlock. The 6-feet 5-inches righty had been plagued with a bout of food poisoning and a back strain that derailed his college season after a strong start. With evaluators assuming that he would return to college in order to raise his draft stock for the next year, the Yankees selected him, and paid him an over-slot bonus to join the organization.
Whitlock excelled in 2018, recording a 1.86 ERA, over 120.2 innings rising from Low-A Charleston to a season ending cameo with Double-A Trenton. Known for his sinking fastball, he routinely kept the ball on the ground over 50% of the time coming through the minors.
Starting 2019 with Double-A Trenton, he was outstanding pitching to a 3.07 ERA in 70.1 innings through early July. Working primarily with his sinker and slider scouts feel that he will have to improve his changeup or add a second breaking ball to carve out a role in the rotation.
In a normal rehab scenario, Sauer would be back in game action probably in Low-A Charleston or possibly with Short-season Staten Island. Whitlock, who resumed throwing in January, would likely be ramping up for a few innings late in the year.
With no games to play, these prospects can take advantage of the Yankees’ revamped pitching development brain trust. The Yankees’ pitching coordinator Sam Briend, and new pitching coach Matt Blake, have extensive experience at two of the best pitching labs in the game. During summer camp both Jordan Montgomery and Michael King have shown off improved velocity after missing most of the 2019 season with injuries.
Neither Sauer or Whitlock were finished products prior to their injury. Sauer needed to refine his changeup and smooth out his mechanics. Pitch development is the bread and butter of the pitching labs where the latest camera technology is used to isolate the best pitches.
Despite throwing a fastball that reached 96 mph prior to his surgery, Whitlock was not much of a strikeout pitcher. With a tall frame and a live fastball, it would not be surprising to see Whitlock emerge in 2021 with more of a strikeout approach that can raise his ceiling from a mid-rotation starter to something more.
Sauer and Whitlock were making steady progress through the Yankees’ system when the injury bug cut their 2019 season short. Both have dropped off the prospect ranking radar, but stand a great chance to rebound in early 2021 with new weapons. Without the grind of a normal minor-league season to return to, the players can refine the tools that they have in a pitching lab setting that already appears to be showing results among Yankees pitchers.