Down south in Charleston, the Yankees' Low-A affiliate has been fortunate enough to see their share of nice prospects pass through over the past couple years. The 2014 campaign was no different as some talented players made a stop in Charleston, most notably a pair of first round picks from the 2013 MLB Draft who made terrific impression on the organization: outfielder Aaron Judge and lefty starter Ian Clarkin.
The dauntingly tall Judge did not play for the Yankees at all last year after the draft due to a quad issue, so there was understandably an air of mystery surrounding him as he began the season. He quickly put those concerns to bed by getting off to an incredible start to his professional career in Charleston, slugging .333/.428/.530 with a 167 wRC+ in 278 plate appearances. Judge wasn't hitting for much power at first, but as the season progressed, he found his stroke and the South Atlantic League pitchers paid the price. On the road away from the spacious Joseph Riley Park ("the Joe"), he was even more incredible: .407/.481/.637 with five homers in 30 games. Judge was named to the SAL All-Star Team, and shortly after playing in the mid-June game, he was promoted to High-A Tampa, certainly a well-deserved honor. He was... the law.
Clarkin spent pretty much the whole year at Charleston, and the 19-year-old dazzled in his first full professional season. (He only made a few GCL appearances last year.) He pitched to a 3.21 ERA, 3.74 FIP, and struck out 9.2 batters per nine innings, a nice complement to his solid 2.8 BB/9. Clarkin demonstrated poise beyond his years on the mound, speaking volumes about his professionalism and maturity. The Yankees even let him make a spot-start for Tampa at the end of the year, foreshadowing where he is likely to advance in 2015. Keep an eye on this southpaw as he makes his way through the minors.
Another pitcher to watch who began the Charleston probably ended up as the Yankees' top prospect for 2014: righty Luis Severino. A year older than Clarkin, Severino did not take long to demonstrate that he was well-suited for a caliber of play beyond the Sally League, where he made 14 starts with a 2.79 ERA and 2.70 FIP, striking out 9.3 batters per nine and yielding only two walks per nine. He wasn't the tallest pitcher out there, but it hardly mattered. His repertoire amazed prospect watchers, and he was named to the SAL All-Star team. Like Judge, he was promoted to Tampa shortly afterward, ending the year in Double-A Trenton. Now that's an impressive ascent. The Yankees' top selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, lefty reliever Jacob Lindgren, also made that rise from Low-A to High-A to Double-A, beginning his professional career in Charleston. It did not take him long to earn a promotion--five innings with no walks, one hit, one run, and 11 strikeouts. "The Strikeout Factory" was not long for Charleston, that's for sure.
Two other pitchers who were not quite as heralded but opened some eyes in 2014 anyway were righty Jaron Long and lefty Caleb Smith. The son of hitting coach Kevin Long, Jaron was an undrafted free agent in 2013, and he was initially assigned to Charleston after six starts across a couple levels last year. He was terrific in the Sally League, pitching to 1.64 ERA and 2.27 FIP in 11 games (four starts), fanning 8.4 batters per nine innings with impeccable control: a 1.5 BB/9. Long did not stay in Charleston for very long, and he moved up to Tampa around the same time as Judge. (Like Severino, Long also jumped up to Trenton late in the year.) Smith also eventually found his way to Tampa after setting a club record for strikeouts in a single game and notching a 3.10 ERA and 3.62 FIP in nine starts with the RiverDogs, as well as a 9.2 K/9 despite a bit of an unsightly 4.0 walks per nine. Nonetheless, he earned his promotion, as did righty Brady Lail, who pitched well in Charleston with a 3.79 ERA and 2.99 FIP in 18 starts. Pitchers frequently tend to do well in Charleston due to the the Joe's pitcher-friendly dimensions, and 2014 was no exception.
Judge was not the only position player to make an impact in Charleston. The top-ranked Yankees position player of the 2014 MLB Draft was eighth round pick Mark Payton. He was a nice prospect, but not too much expected of him in his first professional season. The diminutive outfielder is actually a couple inches shorter than Brett Gardner, though his quality of play made people forget this fact. He tore up the Sally League with a .357/.443/.500 triple slash and a 167 wRC+, making only 97 plate appearances before receiving a well-deserved promotion to Tampa. Another position player to eventually earn a promotion to Tampa was first baseman Mike Ford. Like Long, Ford was an undrafted free agent, and he spent last year in Staten Island. With Charleston in 2014, he took off, batting .283/.381/.443 with a 133 wRC+ and 11 homers. Four of those homers came on one memorable night in May, a stunning four-dinger night. He didn't get his promotion to Tampa until August, but after Greg Bird was bumped up to Trenton, Ford certainly was worthy of the jump.
Michael O'Neill, a third round pick last year and Paul O'Neill's nephew, had a very nice year in Charleston, too. He hit .256/.333/.384 with a 103 wRC+ but made his greatest achievements on the bases, where he stole an organization-high 42 bases in 51 attempts. The 22-year-old was very fleet of foot, and that is sure to be his calling card going forward. Fellow outfielder Dustin Fowler posted a similar season at the plate, hitting .257/.292/.459 with a 104 wRC+ in 272 plate appearances. He did not walk nearly as much as the keen-eyed O'Neill, but he notched 28 extra-base hits, including nine homers in 66 games, no easy feat at the Joe. Shortstop Tyler Wade was also fine during his first full professional season after being drafted last year, and he hit .272/.350/.347 with a wRC+ of exactly 100. He did make 20 errors in 94 games though, so that wasn't great to watch, but oh well.
2013 second-round pick Gosuke Katoh had a surprisingly strong year in the GCL after getting drafted, but after starting this year in Charleston, he produced more of a mixed bag. Katoh was awful in the first couple months and as a result only ended up with a .222/.345/.326 triple slash, a 96 wRC+. Obviously that is some admirable plate discipline (15.3 BB%), but the second baseman also struck out in 30.5% of plate appearances, and he has to hit at least a little better than .222 (BABIP wasn't the answer either, as it was a steady .339). Perhaps it was a bit of an adjustment level for a kid who was finishing high school in California just last year.
It was still a better than the ones incurred by Miguel Andujar and Abiatal Avelino, two infield prospects who were of intrigue entering the year. Andujar was only okay with a .267/.318/.397 batting line and a 99 wRC+, but he was an absolute nightmare in the field at third base, where he made 26 errors in 120 games. Although his hitting was okay, the 19-year-old will definitely need to make improvements at the hot corner if he hopes to stay there. Avelino, another 19-year-old, was more effective at shortstop, but injuries limited him to 53 games, during which he hit a meager .232/.296/.323 with a 76 wRC+. It will be back to the batting cages for Avelino this off-season as like Katoh, he will seek to recapture the form that produced quite well in the Rookie League.
Charleston seems to always have interesting storylines, and 2014 was no exception. They were a very watchable group with several players to keep a close eye on going forward.