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The unexpected improvements that helped the Yankees make a crucial trade

Two players who entered the year with uncertain futures displayed dramatic improvement that helped the Yankees make trades down the stretch.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The Yankees, like many teams, entered the 2021 season with unknowns across their minor league system. After the lost 2020 season, the club had been just one of two in baseball to forgo the opportunity to host a traditional instructional league period in the fall of 2020. This lack of in-person training at the team’s facility led Baseball America to say that “the Yankees minor leaguers had it worse than most,“ when discussing the 2020 minor league shutdown in their yearly prospect handbook.

It was thus even more unexpected than usual to see the number of Yankees prospects take significant steps forward once play resumed on the field. Among the breakout stars, such as Anthony Volpe and Everson Pereira, were other players who improved their play enough to become valuable trade chips that were cashed in to immediately help the major league roster before the 2021 season was out.

Middle infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Park were both members of the Yankees’ vaunted 2014 international signing class. That year, the team handed out seven-figure signing bonuses to seven international free agents, including Park. Castillo was often overshadowed by higher profile signings that year, but commanded a significant bonus himself and was a notable prospect for that IFA class. Through his first five years in the Yankees system, he was a contact hitter who maintained a low strikeout rate but never slugged higher than .329 after his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League. He was Rule-5 eligible and passed over by every team in baseball leading up to 2021, as there was little indication that he was about to add anything significant to his game.

Beginning the 2021 season with the Double-A Somerset Patriots, Castillo quickly put some new wrinkles on display. After entering the season with only eight career home runs, Castillo needed just 36 games to hit his ninth of the season for the Patriots. His significant increase in power did not come with a sacrifice of contact. During his time with Somerset he struck out just 13.7 percent of the time while slugging .504 and playing three infield positions. He went from being a nice role player in the organization to one that other teams wanted to bring in by the time the trade deadline was approaching in July.

Since his signing in 2014, Park displayed many of the same traits as Castillo prior to 2021. He did not strikeout much, could take a walk, play several infield positions but lacked any indication that he would ever hit for power. After being ranked on several organizational prospect lists early in his career, Park had dropped off the rankings for top Yankees prospects in recent years.

After a slow 10-game start to the season with Double-A Somerset, Park was promoted to Triple-A and thrived on the cusp of the major leagues. Park slashed .327/.475/.567 with 10 home runs in 48 Triple-A games. He earned his first major league appearance and at-bat for the Yankees in July, as they continued to look for answers to cover their depleted and underperforming roster. His improved performance made Park an asset that would either need a long-term 40-man roster spot, or be traded as the Yankees tried to improve down the stretch.

The Yankees were able to turn both Park and Castillo into hard throwing reliever Clay Holmes, who then proved to be one of the Yankees’ most electric arms down the stretch. Without the significant advancement of both Park and Castillo the Yankees would have had to dip farther into their prospect pool to pull off any deal. The 2021 season proved to be a major victory for the players and the Yankees player development staff.

The advancement of Hoy Park and Diego Castillo was largely overshadowed during the season by higher profile prospects playing on the middle infield such as Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza. Park and Castillo’s advancement was extremely important to the team, however, as it allowed them to trade a pair of players that did not have much trade value prior to the season for what became a key piece of the bullpen. It is easy to overlook player development victories like these, but they are essential to creating a deep farm system that can provide players to the major league level either through promotion or trade.