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Five Yankees prospects who are raising their profiles

Three pitchers and two middle infielders have made the push for more attention in the early part of the minor league season.

MiLB: JUL 08 Florida Complex League - Yankees v Tigers
Alexander Vargas
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Anthony Volpe graduating from prospect status, Oswald Peraza threatening to do so, and several upper-level pitching prospects sent away in trades at last year’s deadline, the next group of players considered to be the cream of crop of the Yankees organization is emerging. It is still early in the minor league season, but already there are players who have clearly improved their status.

There are a few pitchers at the front of that group, with Chase Hampton perhaps leading the way. When the Yankees drafted Hampton out of Texas Tech in the sixth round last year, they saw the potential for a four-pitch starter. He didn’t pitch after signing, and instead stayed behind the scenes with the pitching development team and went to work. The Yankees skipped Hampton over Low-A and sent him to Hudson Valley to begin the 2023 season. What they’ve gotten from him so far might be exceeding even their most ambitious hopes.

Hampton has been outstanding, and his stuff has matched the excellence of his performance. The right-hander is throwing his fastball in the mid-90’s, spinning two above-average breaking balls, and throwing a changeup to keep lefties honest. Hampton sports a spectacular 41.6 percent strikeout rate to go with a stellar 8.9 percent walk rate, and those numbers seem sustainable for his level of competition. At 21 years of age and in only his first full season, there is no reason to rush Hampton up the ladder, but there should be excitement about this 6-foot-2, 225-pound starter now being mentioned among the top pitching prospects in the organization.

Zach Messinger was drafted in the 13th round out of Virginia in 2021, but fans needed to wait until 2022 to see him pitch. “Seeing” him was difficult, because he was a member of the Tampa Tarpons, and even those who subscribed to the minor league broadcast package would have very limited opportunities to view a Messinger outing. Traditionalists following the box scores would look at a pitcher who went 1-8 with a 4.30 ERA in 31 games and not see anything to get excited about, but digging just a bit deeper, it was more noteworthy that he struck out 112 in 83.2 innings. Those fortunate enough to get a glimpse at Messinger’s stuff saw the potential in his fastball, as well as a breaking ball that could pop once he had time to work on his 6-foot-6, 225 pound frame.

Messinger has shown up in 2023 pitching as one would have hoped, fronting a strong rotation in Hudson Valley and turning in quality start after quality start. It is difficult to find an unsightly number on his statistical record, and, if you are into this sort of thing, his 2.03 ERA leads the starting staff. He’s been tough to hit (.189 average against), he’s controlled the strike zone (3.2 BB/9), and he’s missed bats (11.0 K/9). With a no-doubt workhorse starter’s body, Messinger may still have some projection left, but he at least profiles as a mid-rotation pitcher right now if everything works out, and depending on the way things go this summer he could find himself pitching at Double-A Somerset to close out the season. Any discussion of the best starters in the Yankees’ system should not go through many names before Messinger’s comes up.

Justin Lange was in danger of being the pitching version of Alexander Vargas, a physically talented player who struggled with the more refined skills required to excel. Lange was drafted 34th overall by the Padres in 2020 because of his frame, athleticism, electric arm talent, and sky-high ceiling, but before 2023 he didn’t have the performance to live up to his potential. An unsightly 6.44 ERA and 17.4 rate walk rate in the complex league created real doubt about Lange’s future, despite his young age and relative lack of experience. A pitcher can throw as hard as he wants, but if he doesn’t throw strikes, or quality strikes, often enough, he’s not getting to the big leagues.

At 21-years-old and in his first year of full-season baseball, Lange is drawing eyeballs with some of the best stuff of any pitcher in the minors. He ranks at the top of all minor league qualifiers with 16.7 strikeouts per nine innings, and he’s getting an incredible amount of swinging strikes while running his sinker up to 98 with run and spinning a wicked slider to put hitters away. It’s all about Lange’s ability to stay in the strike zone, and while his walk percentage is still higher than you’d like to see (15 percent), he’s also punching guys out at a crazy 45 percent clip. While there is enough variance in Lange to make his climb through the minors very unpredictable, a high ceiling is now more clearly visible, as is his path to reaching it.

Alexander Vargas was on the verge of being written off as a prospect after a poor showing in Tampa in 2022. He has been a twitchy, wiry athlete with speed and little doubt about his ability to remain at shortstop since the Yankees signed him in 2018, but adding strength has always been a sticking point in his development. Observers of last year’s version of Vargas would note the rough swing mechanics, the poor strike zone judgment, and the lack of quality contact. He still showed the athleticism and defensive chops that made him so promising in the first place, but expecting the bat to come around, from both sides of the plate no less, while adding impact seemed like a lot to ask.

Now 21 and playing a level higher than last year, everything is looking up for Vargas. His numbers are improved across the board, and his strikeout and walk rates are about the same as they were in 2022. He’s not dominating, but there is enough thump in his bat (six homers so far after eight all last season) to make him a legitimate guy to watch again, and he’s finding the barrel often enough to make you think the swing is starting to work. In the offseason, Vargas added some of the strength prospect followers hoped he would, and that shifts his trajectory upward. The production on the field at least brings him back into the discussion among the Yankees’ shortstop prospects.

There was anticipation that Luis Serna would cement himself as one of the better pitching prospects in the system this year, but since he’s been out with an injury, it’s his older cousin Jared Serna who has entered the conversation. Coming off a season where he blistered the complex league with a 167 wRC+ but struggled in a 12-game cup of coffee with Low-A Tampa, Serna is now playing his first year of full-season baseball with the Tarpons at age 20. Easy to dismiss because of his 5-foot-6 stature, what’s becoming difficult to deny is how often he hits the ball hard.

After a 4-for-5 night on Tuesday, Serna is now hitting .349 on the season with an OPS of .983, and his five home runs are one shy of his total from last season. He’s also putting the ball in play at a high rate, striking out only 11 percent of the time. Serna’s size does not take away from his athleticism, and he plays the game with energy and bounce. Pure second base prospects are rare, but the Yankees may have one here who could continue to hit his way through the minors. At the least, we should be hearing Serna’s name mentioned more often when the Yankees’ best middle infield prospects are discussed.