In recent years, the Yankees have been hit by the Rule 5 Draft as hard as any team in the game. Barring the unexpected returns of Garrett Whitlock or Trevor Stephan, the Yankees will have lost three pitchers to the Rule 5 in the last few seasons.
As the Yankees look at their roster, they need to both add to the major league club while managing the 40-man heading into the offseason. No franchise in baseball has seen their minor league affiliates win more games this season than the Yankees. The superb minor league record has been fueled by strong individual performances, and while Brian Cashman would love to hold onto all of these breakout minor league players, that is virtually impossible — especially when there are serious holes to fill if this team is going to make a playoff run.
All season long, the Somerset Patriots’ starting pitchers have been head and shoulders above their Double-A Northeast peers. Bolstered by breakout arms Janson Junk and Glenn Otto, the team has maintained the best ERA in their league by a wide margin.
Janson Junk struggled with his slider throughout the 2019 season. He constantly tinkered with the pitch and could not find the consistency that he was looking for. As he tinkered, the hitters seemed to find his pitches much more frequently than he would have liked.
With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the 2020 minor league season, Junk went to work in his native Washington state, revamping his arsenal of pitches while getting ready for the 2021 season. The results on the field have been amazing, as Junk has tossed 61.2 innings with just a 1.46 ERA and 0.91 WHIP. Now, the 22nd-round pick from the Yankees’ 2017 draft class will almost certainly have to be protected in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft.
Glenn Otto has excelled right alongside Junk for much of the season. Otto was a fifth-round pick in 2017, but has been slowed by injuries for much of his time with the Yankees. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing nearly 240 pounds, Otto has the prototype starter’s frame and the Yankees have sought to develop him at the position after he was a reliever in college. This year, he has broken out in a big way. In five of Otto’s first eleven outings, he pitched at least five innings without allowing a run.
He's on - !— Somerset Patriots (@SOMPatriots) June 16, 2021
Here are all of Glenn Otto's 1⃣4⃣ strikeouts from last night. He's the only player in Double-A to strike out 14 batters in a game this year, and he's done it now TWICE!#SquadUp pic.twitter.com/6KxkYpkGOM
Otto has also paced the league in strikeouts, remaining among the leaders in all of the minor leagues with 107 strikeouts in 69.2 innings pitched. The 69.2 innings also constitutes a career-high for a season. (He’s since been deservedly promoted to Triple-A Scranton.)
Behind the plate for Otto throughout most of 2021 has been catcher Donny Sands. Drafted as a third baseman, Sands struggled on both sides of the ball as the team sought to convert him to a catcher. During the second half of 2019, he impressed those around him, namely Yankees minor league hitting coach Joe Migliaccio, who told Pinstripe Alley that “First half to second half, [Sands] went through a mechanical change and was able to hit the ball on a line in the air, hit the ball harder, and just produced way better.”
This season, Sands came out of the gate fast and has now reached the Triple-A level while slashing .265/.324/.495 — all while setting a career-high already with 12 home runs. The 2015 draft pick was Rule-5 eligible last season, but without the stats to draw much interest. With solid numbers at the upper levels of the minors he is sure to be noticed by other teams moving forward.
Another catcher on teams’ radars is Josh Breaux. The Yankees’ second-round pick in 2018 will be Rule-5 eligible following this season. After a slow start to his year, Breaux has caught fire for High-A Hudson Valley and is hitting .375/.437/.760 with 11 home runs in his past 27 games. There is plenty of speculation that he is on the verge of a promotion to Double-A Somerset.
Hitting directly in front of Breaux most nights in Hudson Valley is second baseman Ezequiel Duran. Baseball America’s No. 11 prospect in the system is putting together a particularly good season with 11 home runs and a 137 wRC+. He has also shown the ability to slide over to shortstop at times and play the position well. With tremendous physical tools and a track record of making very hard contact, Duran could finish the season at Double-A.
If Duran moves up to Double-A, it will likely mean that Diego Castillo has earned a promotion to Scranton. A member of the Yankees 2014 international free agent class, Castillo has risen through the system with steady-but-unspectacular performances along the way. That has changed this season, as the versatile infielder has slugged .531, over 200 points higher than any season since his 2015 debut in Rookie ball. He has also developed his power without sacrificing his high contact rate as he has struck out just 14.3 percent of the time this year.
The strong performance of the Yankees’ minor league system has been fueled by numerous players who are going to be Rule-5 eligible at season’s end. In addition to the players listed above, young pitchers like JP Sears and Randy Vasquez are having outstanding seasons to this point as well. No team wants to develop their prospects and then see them leave the organization through the Rule 5 Draft à la Whitlock. Now, we will see if the Yankees can maximize the value of their emerging young prospects while balancing the needs of their future roster as the deadline approaches.