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Yankees prospects: Justus Sheffield could take the next step in 2018

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Sheffield could be poised to be the next left-handed stud in the rotation, if it all breaks right.

Trenton Thunder v Akron Rubber Ducks

What made the acquisitions of Gleyber Torres, Justus Sheffield, Clint Frazier, Al Abreu, and Jorge Guzman so great isn’t just that Brian Cashman flipped extra depth for prospects, it’s that he flipped extra depth for prospects with a rising stock. Frazier was a top 50-type, Torres is now a top 10-type, and Abreu and Guzman round out the back of most of the industry’s top 100 lists after being unranked. Justus Sheffield has now made the jump from 80th-90th overall to a top 50-type himself.

Sheffield was born in Tullahoma, Tennessee on May 13, 1996, and graduated from Tullahoma High School, tossing multiple no-hitters and finishing his senior year with a 0.34 ERA. He was recruited to play at Vanderbilt, a storied program for future major league players, and was drafted by the Indians as the 31st pick in the 2014 draft.

The draft report is remarkably similar to industry consensus right now, which is good and bad in a couple of ways. His fastball sat in the 89-92 mph range, and he featured a slider and change that could be plus. He had the necessary athleticism considering his shorter stature, which would always make him a higher risk selection during a time when the concept of safer college bats was coming into vogue.

Fast forward three and a half years, and clarity is coming into the picture. After being packaged with Clint Frazier, Ben Heller, and J.P. Feyereisen in the Andrew Miller deal in 2016, Sheffield has only seen his stock rise. After being ranked 91st, 79th, and 52nd by Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus, respectively, he has since seen his ranking jump to 41st by Baseball America and 48th by MLB.com. Here’s what MLB.com had to say:

“Sheffield could have three plus pitches when all is said and done. His 92-97 mph fastball features some run and sink and is his most consistent offering, though his mid-80s slider may have more upside. His changeup isn’t as reliable as his first two options, yet he still shows the ability to miss bats with it.

Though Sheffield is a little shorter than desired for a starter at 5-foot-11, he still creates downhill plane with his delivery and doesn’t throw with excessive effort. He’s athletic and has been durable as a pro outside of his oblique injury. He improved his control in 2017 and has the potential to become a No. 3 starter.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all roses, though. Here is what Baseball Prospectus’ Jarrett Seidler said about the lefty back in November:

“The Good: He’s a lefty that can sit in the mid-90s with explosive movement, and projects for a possible plus slider and change... The Bad: The command comes and goes with an inconsistent release. Between his short stature, a spotty health history (2017’s injury du jour was an oblique that cost him a couple months), and an occasionally violent delivery, it’s safe to say there are some really significant durability issues present... The Risks: Unusually high for a top Double-A pitching prospect. The mercurial command profile would make us mention a reliever risk here even if there weren’t frame and health signs pointing there too.”

I can’t say I disagree with that. There’s some evidence to suggest that shorter pitchers are actually underrated, but it also could be a survivor bias feature where only elite pitchers can survive if they’re not above six feet. It also isn’t helped by the fact that Sheffield does actually have an injury history, and the best predictor of future injuries are past injuries.

The delivery is also something that can’t be ignored. Here he is in spring training of last year...

...and here he is in the Arizona Fall League All-Star game:

You can see both the good and the bad wrapped up in two images. You can see the tight spin on his slider, and how his command, when effective, would make it a deadly out pitch when the fastball—also pictured—is as explosive as it does appear.

The issue is the violent and whipping delivery, and that’s something that needs to be hammered out. We actually saw this with Luis Severino as well, where that final arm whip after the delivery has to be minimized such that you can maintain the force in delivery, but still keeping stress off the forearm. While he has learned to drive off his back leg to bump his fastball five mph or so since draft day, the short stride combined with the relative lack of balance could make him a risk.

That being said, there is still a lot to like. While his command is still a question mark to an extent, he has still seen positive results in both Double-A and the Arizona Fall League against some of the best competition in the league. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but there’s an outside chance we see him in pinstripes by the end of 2018. Luckily the Yankees won’t be antsy to promote him because of the depth, so he will have as much time as he needs to refine his skills. If the past two years have been an indicator, this could be the year he finally rises to the top of heap.