The Yankees’ focus is squarely on what lies ahead as they push to overcome injuries and put a miserable run of form and luck behind them heading into the postseason. But, as fans, we have the luxury (or debilitating habit, depending on your inclination) of looking back at players and transactions of yesteryear and pondering, “what if?”
So, let’s check in on at some old Yankee farmhands whose chance for pinstripe glory passed them by, but who nonetheless are making a name for themselves in this pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
San Francisco Giants infielder Donovan Solano, 32, was a member of the Yankees system from 2016 through 2017 and seemed destined to end his career as a minor-league journeyman. Yet he’s experienced a late-career blossoming with the Giants. In 228 plate appearances spread out over 81 games last year, Solano impressed with a .330/.360/.456 slash line, 117 OPS+ and 1.4 bWAR — pretty good value for half a season. He’s been even better so far this year, (.349/.388/.523, 149 OPS+ and 1.6 bWAR in 160 plate appearances).
He toiled for years in St. Louis’ farm system after signing as an amateur free agent in 2005 before moving on to Miami as a free agent in 2011. He played in 361 games over four seasons for the big club, but was unremarkable, posting a 75 OPS+ during that span. He signed with the Yankees ahead of the 2016 season as little more than Triple-A depth, though he did appear in nine major-league games in 2016. He then spent a full season in the Dodgers minor league system in 2018 before resurfacing with the Giants the following year. His performance has been a pleasant surprise, and one Yankees fans can look at enviously, given their team’s injury issues over the last two years. That kind of infield depth would certainly be welcome.
When the Yankees traded Justus Sheffield to the Seattle Mariners in a package for James Paxton, a bit of the southpaw’s prospect luster had worn off. There were concerns about his ability to throw strikes, which could spell doom for his ambitions to become a major-league starter. His 2019 with the Mariners did little to allay those fears: though he pitched well at Double-A, he struggled mightily at Triple-A, to the tune of a 6.87 ERA and an absurd 15.6% walk rate in 55 innings. His limited exposure to the majors was better, but still far from great: a 5.50 ERA (4.71 FIP) with a 10.7% walk rate.
Sheffield, now 24, has made strides this year. In eight starts totaling 44 innings, he’s pitched to a 4.06 ERA (3.11 FIP) with an improved 8.5% walk rate, which was the league average last year. If he can continue to make progress in the control department, he stands a much better chance of making good on his potential and carving out a long career as a starting pitcher.
In 2016, 20-year-old catching prospect Luis Torrens spent most of his season — 40 games — at Single-A Charleston in the Yankees system. He had promising tools, but lacked polish and the Yankees felt he’d need ample development time in the minors. Unfortunately, he was eligible for the Rule 5 draft, meaning that if the Yankees didn’t add him to the 40-man roster, he’d be exposed to other teams, who would then have to keep him on their major-league roster for the entire season, or else send him back to his original club. The Yankees took the risk that no team would take the raw catcher who’d never played a game above A-ball. The Cincinnati Reds did just that, then immediately traded him to the San Diego Padres.
So Torrens was stashed on the Padres roster for the entire 2017 season, accumulating 139 plate appearances during which he mustered a paltry .446 OPS. He spent the entire next season back in the minors, playing for San Diego’s High-A team where he could once again focus on development. His numbers began to improve. Fast forward to this year: the Padres included Torrens, now 24, in a seven-player mega-deal with the Seattle Mariners and he’s found himself in a starting role. It’s an incredibly small sample, but the early returns have been positive: in 31 plate appearances for the Mariners, Torrens is hitting .286/.355/.464, good for a 128 OPS+. He even hit his first career big-league homer!
The fact that he hit .300/.373/.500 in 397 plate appearances last season at Double-A indicate his small-sample performance this year isn’t a fluke. It’s nice, if slightly frustrating, to see him make good on his talent.
The Yankees acquired right-handed hurler Dillon Tate from the Texas Rangers in 2016, in exchange for Carlos Beltran. The former first-round pick (he was selected fourth overall in 2015) had a live arm but was fairly raw and there were questions about his long-term future as a starter. In 2018, he was included in a package to Baltimore in exchange for Zack Britton. Last season, he threw 21 largely unimpressive innings out of the bullpen for the Orioles, but this season, at age 26, he’s shown promise. He’s pitched to a 3.21 ERA (3.92 FIP) with a 0.71 WHIP, 12 strikeouts and five walks in 14 innings, raising hopes that he can carve out a solid big-league career as a reliever.
It’s good to see familiar names doing well, even if it’s not in pinstripes. And if the current crop of Yankees perform up to their potential, it’ll be even easier to look at former prospects with a generous, and not regretful, spirit.