On November 20, 2017, the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners agreed to a minor trade that probably didn’t even register on the radar of your average fan. The Mariners acquired a former 2013 seventh round pick in Nick Rumbelow for a couple of minor league pitchers, right-hander Juan Then, and left-hander JP Sears. The Yankees flipped Then in exchange for Edwin Encarnacion a couple seasons later, but they’ve held onto the unheralded Sears.
Sears was a starter for his entire collegiate career at the University of Citadel. His first two seasons were solid yet unimpressive, but during his third campaign, Spears really broke out, to the tune of a 2.64 ERA and 13.4 K/9 rate across 14 starts and 95 innings.
Sears didn’t boast incredible stuff or particularly intimidating velocity, but he’s made a living out of a deceptive delivery, one that allows his fastball to play up in the zone and miss bats. His changeup and slider, the first of which he’s able to locate in the zone consistently, are deemed average, but both also benefit from a plus delivery that fools batters.
The 5-foot-11 native of South Carolina put himself on the radar with that final collegiate season, and after selecting him in the 11th round of the 2017 draft, the Mariners used him out of the pen in his first season of pro ball, in a move was likely mostly about preserving his arm. The plan was to develop him as a starter from the following campaign onwards.
Sears still managed 27.2 frames out of the pen in Low-A ball that year despite having already logged a full college season, speaking to his durability. He yielded a microscopic 0.64 ERA with 51 strikeouts in that first dose of professional play.
The Yankees scouting system saw something there and that’s when the team made the move for him. Cashman continued with the original Mariners plan and moved Sears back into a starter role for 2018. Over the following two seasons, Sears progressed nicely through High-A. His strikeout totals obviously took a hit with the change in role and an increase in opponent difficulty, but he lowered his walk rate, maintaining a K/BB ratio of about four.
At the beginning of the current season, the left-hander started off in Double-A Somerset in a long relief role, providing bulk innings before settling into the rotation. He ran a 4.09 ERA in 50 Double-A innings, but did so with a K/9 rate of 12.6, earning a promotion to Triple-A Scranton after 15 total appearances.
Sears managed to significantly improve his pitching performance at Scranton, so much so that he may have forced his way onto the prospect radar, and possibly even the major league radar at some point in the next year or two. Across 10 starts and 53.1 innings in Triple-A, Sears put together a 2.87 ERA, a 11.0 K/9 rate against a 1.9 BB/9 rate, and a 0.97 WHIP. He also ended up with a meaningless, but still fun, undefeated 7-0 record at the level.
The lefty hasn’t populated Yankees’ top prospects lists over the past few seasons, and at 25-years-old, the time is now for him to make an impact. He may have put himself in position to do so with an excellent and unexpected 2021. If he can continue his success at the highest level of the minors in 2022, look for him to nudge his way into big league consideration.