The Yankees push a lot of talented young pitchers through their Latin American development program. Every year, 2-3 guys pop up with real potential to become top-flight prospects. Some flame out quickly, while some climb the ladder. I remember pimping the likes of Angel Reyes, Francisco Castillo and Ferdin Tejada. Seriously, I thought that Ferdin Tejada was the next big thing. A lot of those guys have come and gone from the Yankee development program, but only two have retained their prospect status in to the high minor leagues – Ivan Nova and Wilkins De La Rosa. They’re keeping the Yankee Latin American pitching team from the shutout.
The two best hopes for the Latin American team to follow up Nova and De La Rosa are Jose Ramirez and Manuel Banuelos. While being roughly the same age, they could not be more different pitching prospects. They offer two interesting case studies to help evaluate pitching prospects in the very low minors.
Jose Ramirez is a hard (94-95 mph) throwing right-handed pitcher. He’s 6’1″, very lean, and just turned 20. Ramirez had a sterling rookie league debut last year, pitching 61 innings in 11 game s (which is very high for his age and level), with 7.8 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. He’s got a changeup, but not much of a breaking pitch, which explains the relatively low strikeout rate for a talented flamethrower in the GCL. His average Yankee prospect list rating was #20. I declined to rate Ramirez, as I pretty commonly do with unknown Latin American players (I waited a year on Montero, De Leon, Sanchez, etc), but he will probably make the midseason list in the top-15.
Manny Banuelos has a little more experience. He pitched a full season of 109 innings at low-A ball last year, and is a year younger than Ramirez. His rate stats are better too – 8.7 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. Banuelos is a lefty with solid enough stuff – a fastball topping out at about 90 and average secondary pitches. He’s undersized at 5’10″. Banuelos draws huge praise for poise, character, and command on the mound. His average Yankee prospect list rating was #4. I rated him #9.
Both have their set of pros and cons. Ramirez has unquestionable stuff and a strong enough pitchers body, but no breaking pitch yet (though he’s striking out more players this year – I’m willing to bet that’s the curveball coming along), and he hasn’t pitched a full season yet. Banuelos has pitched a full season, has been given praise for the mental stuff. On the other hand, you’d like to see a guy have a better than average stuff on either the fastball or secondary side of things, and his size is a huge concern. There aren’t a lot of 5’10″ MLB starters out there.
I think that we overrate guys like Banuelos a little bit. He’s definitely talented, and I meant it when I ranked it #9 in the Yankee farm system. But certain prospect lists had him as high as #2, ahead of more established guys like Austine Romine and Zach McAllister. This is insane – Banuelos has some serious flaws that he has yet to fully prove he can overcome. He’s had a lot of success for a young player, but he’s still at a low level. There is nothing in his resume right now to suggest that he has the poise to become a “plus craftiness” type player, even as a lefty. If he were 21 and not 19, I doubt that Banuelos would be on our radar screens. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad prospect, but he doesn’t have the kind of ceiling to justify an A-ball top-5 prospect ranking.
If Jose Ramirez has the exact same stat line in his full-season debut as Banuelos, I think that he may legitimately deserve a top-5 prospect rating. Unlike Banuelos, there aren’t any real questions about Ramirez’s talent. We know he can throw a great fastball and a good enough changeup. He’s got time for the breaking pitch. He’s got a fairly typical starting pitcher’s body, and doesn’t have any glaring injury or mental red flags. The knock against him is that he hasn’t had that Banuelos-like full season debut yet. Performance is his question mark, and a pretty big one. Most guys don’t make it through a full season. But unlike Banuelos, Ramirez has some serious ceiling. Anyone who throws that hard does.
So, I think my point is: the lower a player is in the minors, the less we should have patience for his flaws. There is a lot to like about Manuel Banuelos, but there is also a lot not to like. We should demand more perfection out of our young phenoms, because there is so much that can go wrong as they climb the ladder.