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Power up the middle is fueling the Yankees’ minor league success

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Across the Yankees’ system, players are crushing their previous records for home runs less than two months into the season.

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Yankees’ minor league affiliates have exploded out of the gate, with each team holding a share of first place seven weeks into the season. Behind those impressive results has been improved offensive production from the franchise’s talented group of middle infielders. Most notably, after missing the 2020 season many of these players are already passing their career highs for home runs less than two months into the season.

Leading the way this spring for the Low-A Tampa Tarpons has been shortstop Anthony Volpe. Selected 30th overall in the 2019 draft, the second sentence in Volpe’s Baseball America scouting report said that he “has well below-average power from the right side.” An abbreviated debut season with Rookie-Advanced Pulaski that saw him hit two home runs in 34 games did little to answer any questions about his long-term ability to drive the ball.

Entering 2021, Volpe has been igniting the highest scoring team in all of minor league baseball. He is currently leading the Low-A Southeast in home runs with eight through 38 games. One of those home runs traveled 440 feet, showing that there is some serious power in his game now.

Briefly joining Volpe in Tampa was the Yankees’ second round pick from 2019, shortstop Josh Smith. Smith was held back at the start of the season thanks to a thumb injury occurring late in minor league spring training, but he was certainly ready to go when he hit the field. Never known as a power hitter, his career high in college was nine during his junior season at Louisiana State University. During his professional debut with Short-Season A Staten Island he hit three in 33 games.

Smith doubled that total in just 11 games with Low-A Tampa, receiving a promotion to High-A Hudson Valley. Smith has added two more home runs in his first 11 games at the higher level, and is on pace to pass his college record for a season (nine homers) in under half the games it took him to reach that mark.

When Smith bumped up to High-A Hudson Valley, he was replacing one of the Yankees top prospects in Oswald Peraza. Peraza’s tools stood out to scouts during a 2019 season where the Yankees aggressively promoted him to the Low-A level while still just 19-years-old. Despite the promise that scouts saw, he entered the 2021 season with over 600 at-bats as a professional and just five career home runs.

Peraza has quickly eclipsed that total, clubbing five home runs in 28 games with Hudson Valley before earning a promotion to Double-A Somerset — where he has hit two more home runs in his first 12 games with the team. Peraza’s power is no fluke and is growing — he has also set a personal best by hitting a 113 mph double in a game earlier this year.

Peraza’s move to Double-A has caused the incumbent shortstop, Diego Castillo, to move around the diamond after previously manning the shortstop position on a regular basis. Castillo has long been known for his ability to put the bat on the ball — he has never struck out more than 11.4 percent of the time in a season since his professional debut in 2015. Castillo has also never been known for his power either, as he recorded just eight total home runs in his career entering 2021.

Jumping out of the gate, Castillo has displayed a new found ability to impact the ball, hitting six home runs and slugging .565 through his first 29 games. The 23-year-old’s ability to hit for power while not sacrificing contact makes him an interesting prospect to follow this season, he’s been getting the job done with noticeable improvement at the upper levels of the minors.

One of Castillo’s former double-play partners is also making a name for himself with a tremendous power streak for Triple-A Scranton. Hoy Jun Park, like Castillo, has been with the Yankees organization since 2014 and has steadily been climbing the ladder towards the upper levels of the minor leagues. Nothing in his past performance has indicated that he was prepared for a breakout like he is currently displaying with Triple-A Scranton.

After a slow start to the season with Double-A Somerset, Park was promoted to Triple-A and he has done nothing but rake since. Park is currently hitting .360/.509/.663 with six home runs in 25 games at the Triple-A level. His .663 SLG is leading the league and he recently walked eight times in a three game stretch as teams are attempting to pitch around him. Park was coming off two straight seasons with an ISO below .100, and has long been known for his contact ability but had displayed limited power in his game.

After not hitting any opposite field home runs in his first five professional seasons, Park now has two in his first 35 games of 2021 and also hit an opposite field double off a 390 foot sign in left-center field earlier this year. His seven home runs between the two levels of play also ties his career high mark for a season that he set while playing 110 games in 2017. It has been an impressive display of power so far this year for the lefty swinging infielder, one of several to watch out for going into the summer.