The Yankees appear destined to miss the playoffs for the second straight year, but one area of the team which has been much different than last year is the minor league system. In 2013, it seemed like anything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Yankees' minor leaguers, with the exception of a handful of players. This year though was a better year for the system, and over the next week, Tanya and I are going to do write-ups of each team in the organization discussing the Baby Bombers' biggest stories throughout 2014. It begins with the rawest talent in the system: the Gulf Coast League Yankees of Rookie Ball.
The Yankees actually fielded two GCL teams, as they've had so many international additions and young draft picks sign with them that to get them all playing time, it has made sense to have an extra team. Both played at the Yankees' spring training home at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, and it was common to see players switching to the other team at various points during the year. This led to some amusement at the end of the season, when both GCL teams won their respective divisions and they met in the GCL playoffs for the ultimate rivalry: GCL Yankees 1 (38-22) vs. GCL Yankees 2 (35-25). The first GCL team prevailed, though they went on to lose to the GCL Red Sox in the three-game Finals. Alas.
One player stood out as the most promising prospect of the bunch: 19-year-old Dominican shortstop Jorge Mateo. An international signing from 2012, this was Mateo's first time playing outside of the Dominican Summer League, where he had mashed to a .281/.379/.438 triple slash over the past couple seasons. Aside from missing the power that led to seven homers in 64 games last year compared to none this year, Mateo didn't appear to miss a beat on the field. Although his season was limited to 15 games due to injury, he hit .276/.354/.397 with a 119 wRC+, impressing scouts enough that MLB.com ranked him 18th on their midseason Yankees Top 20 Prospects list, a difficult feat for someone in Rookie Ball who had so little stateside action. They also did a video on him that provides a good sampler regarding his skills:
The report on the team's site says his speed is his biggest calling card, which makes sense since he swiped 11 bags in just 15 games, and that he covers a lot of ground at shortstop with an arm that's just getting better. That line in the video at the end about a club official saying Mateo has the highest ceiling of any Yankees middle infielder since Derek Jeter is pretty heady stuff, though they've been searching for Jeter's successor for years now. Mateo is still a long, long way off and he needs more than just 15 GCL games to his record for me to get that excited about him, but he'll be someone to keep a close eye on, whether he's back in Rookie Ball or above.
The other GCL prospect to crack the Yankees' midseason top 20 was their third-round draft pick from this year and with apologies to Jacob Lindgren and his approximately billion strikeouts in relief, probably the most exciting member of the team's 2014 draft class: 19-year-old righthander Austin DeCarr. Surprisingly undrafted out of high school last year, DeCarr spent the past school year with the prep school Salisbury in Connecticut and won so many fans with his improved strength, max-96 mph fastball, and hard curveball that the Yankees had to offer him above-slot money to convince him to sign with them rather than go to Clemson, where had had a commitment.
A cool $1 million bonus won them DeCarr, and in 11 games (eight starts), he pitched to a 4.63 ERA and 3.68 FIP in 23 1/3 innings while fanning 9.3 batters per nine and surrendering just one homer. His walk rate was good at 2.7 BB/9, though he did drill six batters while throwing three wild pitches. He still has plenty to work on, though MLB.com's short video feature on him did offer some nice words about what might come in his future, be it in Staten Island or wherever:
Due to the inexperience and extremely young ages of the guys in the GCL, it can be tricky properly evaluating them at this level, as great statistical seasons often seem to create a mirage about a player's ability (see 2011 Dante Bichette Jr. and 2013 Gosuke Katoh, both of whom had to make serious adjustments upon reaching Low-A Charleston the next year). Working on tools is often more important than pure statistics in the minors, especially at the Rookie Ball level, where Derek Jeter hit a mere .202/.296/.312 as an 18-year-old. Take that with a grain of salt when considering GCL stats.
For instance, outfielder Leonardo Molina (no relation to the catching Molina brothers) was outlandishly young, as he was only 16 until July 31st of this year, and while he struggled with the bat at .193/.267/.260 with just one homer in 53 games, he was about three to four years younger than the average GCL player. The aforementioned talented Mateo was still playing in the Dominican Summer League at that age. Molina was one of the top international free agent signings of 2013, and it would shock no one to see him make a Mateo-like leap in prominence next year.
Names to Watch
A couple players who provided fine years in the GCL were shortstop Angel Aguilar and outfielder Alex Palma. Both turning 19 in 2014, the Venezuelan-born players were in Molina's international free agent class of 2013 and spent last year in the Dominican Summer League. They moved stateside in 2014 and Palma hit .305/.318/.451 with a 118 wRC+ and 20 extra-base hits in 52 games for one GCL team while Aguilar countered on the other team with a .311/.373/.536 and a 159 wRC+ in 39 games. Aguilar not only played the more demanding position in the field, but he also performed better at the plate, demonstrating far more plate discipline while also belting seven homers to show more power. Nonetheless, both deserve some attention next year.
Another guy who could really catch people's eyes next year is 2012 first rounder Ty Hensley, who was finally healthy again after being limited to 12 innings during his first two professional seasons due to various injuries, including a preexisting hip impingement. Hensley struck out 23 batters in 19 innings over seven games (six starts) with a 2.37 ERA and earned a bump up to Staten Island for the final month. There's a reason he was a first-round draft pick and having just turned 21 on July 30th, he has plenty of time to bounce back.
Note: Video is from when Hensley was ranked on MLB.com's preseason top 20 Yankees prospects in 2013.
The most consistent GCL player all year turned out to be 20-year-old Dominican shortstop Bryan Cuevas, a 2012 international signing who hit .356/.405/.564 who had a 174 wRC+ and 19 extra-base hits over 40 games. It was a clear step up from the .273/.328/.393 he finished with last year in Rookie Ball, and one that should earn him another step up somewhere in the system, though it wouldn't be surprising to see the higher-ceiling Mateo get preference.
The most famous son of a big leaguer selected in the 2014 MLB Draft was Mariano Rivera, son of some other guy you may know. However, the younger Mo did not sign with the Yankees, opting to return to college. Instead, the Yankees received attention-worthy production from another son of a former Yankee: Dominic Jose. A 24th round pick in this year's draft, Jose is the son of 1991 NL All-Star Felix Jose, who played 11 years in the majors and 20 games with the 2000 Yankees toward the end of his career. A fellow outfielder and graduate of the Stanford baseball program, Dominic quickly made it evident that he most likely would not have to repeat Rookie Ball next year, as he hit .300/.359/.462 with 16 extra-base hits and a 136 wRC+ in 42 games. Not too shabby.
Southpaw 16th round draft pick Derek Callahan also made strides after being selected in June. A Gonzaga product, the Washington native pitched in 33 2/3 innings of Rookie Ball, making seven starts and three relief outings while notching a 2.94 ERA and a 3.90 FIP. The peripheral numbers weren't as good, though a walk rate of 3.5 BB/9 is fine for a first professional season. He even made a spot start for the High-A Tampa Yankees on August 1st, though he's most likely to move up to Staten Island next year.
On the mound, the GCL Yankees' best pitcher was probably Venezuelan righty Luis Cedeno, who pitched to a 1.12 ERA and 2.36 FIP in 16 games (six starts) and 40 innings. A two-year Dominican Summer League player, Cedeno became a 20-year-old on July 14th and put up some solid numbers, including a 0.725 WHIP, though his somewhat-small 5'11" frame might make it a challenge for him to maintain this performance as he goes through the minors. A trio of 21-year olds, Simon De la Rosa, Reynaldo Polanco, and Christopher Cabrera also showed signs of intrigue throughout the season, all notching very nice strikeout rates (11.2 K/9 in 42 2/3 innings for the mostly-starter De la Rosa, 8.2 K/9 for the reliever Polanco, and 10.0 K/9 for the reliever Cabrera). However, De la Rosa and Cabrera also walked more than their fair share of hitters, and they're all a tad old for still being in Rookie Ball. Maybe they'll turn into something, but more likely than not, they're just organizational guys.
The GCL kids are the youngest of the bunch and thus the most difficult to project forward since they are so many years away from the majors. With intriguing guys like Mateo and DeCarr there this year though, the GCL Yankees certainly made an impression on scouts in 2014. Just wait until next year, when some of the huge crop of highly-regarded international free agents the Yankees signed this summer reaches Rookie Ball.