If you’ve read some of our other previews of the Yankees’ minor league system, you’ve become accustomed to a certain kind of report: that of a young, hard-throwing, right-handed pitcher with control issues. The Yankees are awash in that type of prospect, and we’ve got another such player today in Matt Sauer.
Sauer doesn’t quite have the high upside of a Luis Medina, the proximity to the majors of Luis Gil, the track record of Deivi García. But he still fits the bill of the Yankees’ preferred type of prospect, with a live right arm and projection to dream on.
2019 Stats (Single-A Charleston) 8.2 IP, 2.08 ERA, 1.385 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 6.2 BB/9, 6.2 H/9
Prospect Ranking (Yankees System): 26 (MLB.com), 24 (FanGraphs)
You do have to dream to envision a productive version of Sauer, however, because he has so little realized performance to his name. The Yankees picked him with their second selection of the 2017 draft, and he’s recorded all of 87.1 professional innings in the interim.
That’s in large part due to the Tommy John surgery Sauer underwent in 2019. He hasn’t taken the mound in over two years, having finished out his rehab alongside the cancelled 2020 minor league season. As such, there are massive error bars around Sauer’s expected level of play in 2021. Virtually anything is on the table; Sauer may have taken advantage of the Yankees’ revamped pitching factory in 2020 without the burden of a league schedule and emerged a new player, or, he could return in 2021 with all kinds of rust hampering his performance.
Prior to injury, Sauer showcased a 93-96 mph fastball, and he reportedly flashed that velocity in workouts last year. He also sports a curveball that projects as plus, and a fringy changeup that requires development. Sauer’s command is better than the 6.2 BB/9 rate he showed in two starts in 2019, but it still needs refinement if he’s to stick as a starter.
Essentially, Sauer has the mid-rotation starter kit, but needs to take strides in multiple areas to stay on that track. A righty with mid-90s velo, an above average breaker, and average change, combined with solid command, would fit snugly in the center of a major league staff, but Sauer has only proven that he has the tools befitting that projection. His 2021 will be about putting those tools to actual use.
The Yankees are reportedly optimistic he can make it work. MLB Pipeline wrote of Sauer, “The Yankees believe Sauer’s size, strength and athleticism will lend themselves to the control and durability to make it as a starter”. At 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, that’s not too hard to envision.
Sauer will likely begin his campaign in Single-A or High-A. At age-22, he will no longer be particularly young for his levels. The extent to which he managed to wring progress out of a lost 2020 could determine whether he can quickly move to the high minors and hold off a possible move to relief. In a best-case scenario, Sauer managed to smooth out his delivery and command during 2020, and proceeds to terrorize A-Ball lineups with an effective three-pitch mix.
A shakier route would involve an inexperienced pitcher who hasn’t entered a game since April of 2019, one the Yankees may shift to the bullpen if it looks like the starting experiment isn’t working. As with many of the Yankees’ better pitching prospects, Sauer has a more direct route to the majors as a reliever, but his highest-end outcomes likely involve finding a way to stick in the rotation.
Sauer sits behind a number of prospects in the call-up line, but it wouldn’t be to shocking to see him make his way to the top level by 2022. But in what manner he progresses towards the majors might be determined this season. The tools that led the Yankees to commit to him a good portion of their draft budget four years ago are still there. It’s up to Sauer to put together the first substantial performance of his career in 2021, a tall task after such a long layoff. His strong base of skills means his chances shouldn’t be discounted.