It has been too long since I have taken stock of the Yankee farm system, so in this post I will go over the top 10 (in my humble opinion) prospects on the farm. Overall it has been a good year for the farm, with many guys taking substantial steps forward in their prospect status. Without further adieu, Eric’s Summer Top 10. Critique away by all means.
1. Jesus Montero (C, AAA, 20): What more can be said about Montero that hasn’t already been said? After a rough start to his AAA career at the tender age of 20 (with sub-.700 OPS’s in April and May), Montero heated along with the weather, OPS’ing .829 in June and 1.073 in July. His 11 homers on the season are indicative of his ability to hit for power, and his 40:69 bb:k ratio, while not elite, does indicate that patience should not be an issue for him at the big league level. Jesus has all the tools to be a legitimate middle of the lineup force in the big leagues, with great hitting ability, excellent power, and solid plate discipline. He also hits lefties and righties equally well. Whether you buy into his ability to catch at the big league level (if he does, he may struggle to be even average there), Montero is a top 5 prospect in all of the minors, and could be the next great homegrown Yankee hitter. Even if he moves to DH or 1st base, his bat is valuable enough to make him a big-time contributor in the lineup.
2. Austin Romine (C, AA, 21): Like Montero, Romine’s 2010 has been a tale of two seasons, but the hot and cold streaks are reversed. Romine raked in Trenton for the first two months, OPS’ing .917 in April (albeit, with an unsustainable .434 BABIP) and .841 in May (with a still high, but more reasonable .362 BABIP). Since then, Romine’s production has dropped off, with a .667 OPS in June and a .633 OPS in July. It is possible that Romine may be wearing down somewhat after a long season of fulltime catching, but even with his recent struggles, there are some positive signs. Romine’s 34 walks represent a career high, so his plate discipline, long a problem, has improved somewhat. Also, it is worthy of note that Romine has significant home/road splits. In Trenton, a notorious pitcher’s park, Romine has posted a pathetic .215/.287/.313 line, while on the road, his line is a lofty .320/.383/.474. While the drastic disparity in performance cannot be attributed all to the park he is playing in, it is possible that Trenton may be suppressing his offensive production somewhat. Despite his struggles, Romine’s bat should be good enough to get him to the majors, especially since he is strong enough defensively to stick at catcher. He may never be a star, but Romine’s likelihood of being even a league-average catcher is pretty high, and that has significant value. He is capable of more than that of course, but his floor looks pretty high.
3. Dellin Betances (RHP, 22, A+): I know ranking the 22 year-old Betances this high after less than 60 innings may be controversial, especially since he’s only in high-A. However (and these words could come back to make me look stupid later), when I see a player with his physical gifts begin to figure things out, the sky is the limit. In Dellin’s case, this is exactly what has happened since returning from elbow surgery in June. Betances has dominated Tampa throughout 58 1/3 innings, posting a 2.17 FIP with 10.49 k/9 and a very impressive 2.31 bb/9. The high strikeout rate and low walk rate are indicative of Betances’s ability to command his fastball (which is now frequently in the mid-90’s, and touching a tick faster). Command has historically been a problem for Betances, but it is possible that a healthy elbow is making all the difference for the towering righty. His curveball, previously erratic, has become a nasty strikeout pitch. To those wondering if Betances is benefiting from a friendly home park, his home/road splits are fairly similar (2.34 FIP at home, 2.04 FIP away). If Betances can sustain these improvements into the upper levels of the minors, he could find himself on the fast track to the majors in 2011. Part of me even wants to put him ahead of Romine, because Betances’s ceiling is so high, but for now, I’ll slot him in at #3. Like Montero and Romine, he should easily make the top 100 prospects list.
4. Manny Banuelos (lhp, 19, A+): Banuelos is another somewhat aggressive ranking, since he has only thrown 23 2/3 innings on the season since returning from an appendectomy. However, Manny has not seemed to suffer from the time off, posting a 2.24 FIP, with 12.17 k/9 and 2.66 bb/9. It is also worthy of note that his BABIP against is high at .375 (albeit in a small sample size), so it is possible that he is even getting a little unlucky (or perhaps has bad defense behind him). While Banuelos does not touch high-90’s like Betances, his 3-pitch repertoire a low-90’s fastball (touching 94), plus change, and above-average curveball should be more than sufficient to handle major league hitters. The fact that he is doing what he is doing at age 19 is quite impressive. Like Betances, Banuelos’s home/road splits do not point to a benefit from pitching in Tampa, as his FIP at home is actually higher (SSS alert!). You can’t really expect much more out of a young pitcher in high-A than what Banuelos has done, and the fact that he is a lefty makes him even more valuable. He should also crack the top 100.
5. Gary Sanchez (C, 17, RK): Sanchez exploded onto the scene this season with an impressive stateside debut, posting a .372/.440/.628 line, with 5 homers. He has been probably the top hitting prospect in the Gulf Coast League (along with Minnesota’s Miguel Sano), and the fact that he is posting the numbers he is as a catcher is pretty phenomenal. While Sanchez was not believed to have a bat quite as good as Jesus Montero’s, Sanchez’s stateside debut at the same age has been even more impressive, and the sky is the limit for this kid. Gary’s defense has been somewhat rough so far, allowing too many passed balls and not throwing out many basestealers. However, he’s young enough to figure the defensive side out with proper instruction, and he has all the physical tools to be a solid defensive catcher. The only negative I can see in his performance (aside from defense) is a strikeout rate (23 in 25 games) that could be lowered, but Sanchez has plenty of time to improve. He could very easily be #1 on this list next season if Montero graduates.
6. Andrew Brackman (RHP, 24, AA): It pains me somewhat to rank Brackman this highly, since at age 24, his 3.74 FIP and 4.81 ERA are not too impressive. What is impressive is Brackman’s athleticism, 6’10” frame, and his ability to hit the mid-90’s consistently with his fastball, and spin a hard-breaking curveball. He has made steady improvements, and his peripherals are pretty solid (8.53 k/9, 3.86 bb/9). I’d like to see him raise the strikeout rate a little and drop the walk rate. Brackman has not appeared to benefit from his time in pitcher’s parks, with a 4.14 FIP at home against a 3.33 FIP away. His 1.64 GO/AO ratio is also pretty solid, will help him when he gets better defense behind him. Most pitchers Brackman’s age would be considered maxed out developmentally, but with his relative inexperience at pitching due to playing college basketball and missing a season to Tommy John Surgery, Brackman may still be learning how to keep his mechanics in order. Except for maybe the young Sanchez, the distance between Brackman’s ceiling and floor is probably the greatest of any player on this list.
7. Slade Heathcott (OF, 19, A-): The Yankees challenged their 2009 first-round pick by sending him to full-season ball in Charleston instead of short-season ball in Staten Island. Slade has held his own in the Sally League, putting up a .271/.367/.335 line, with 1 homer and 11 steals. Slade’s lack of power and high strikeout rate are a bit concerning (57 k’s in 47 games), but he is still young and toolsy enough to improve in both areas. While the stats may not wow you, the athletic Heathcott has a very high ceiling, and the fact that he is holding his own after a challenging assignment is worthy of note. It is his ceiling, more than his current performance, that earns him a place on this list. However, the performance could be coming.
8. Jose Ramirez (RHP, 20, A-): After owning GCL competition last season, Ramirez has handled the transition to full-season ball quite well, with a 3.16 FIP for Charleston through 108 2/3 innings. His 7.95 k/9 and 2.98 bb/9 ratios are good but not great, but his repertoire gives him the potential for bigger things. The skinny righty can touch the mid-90’s with his fastball, and throws a very good changeup to complement it as a strikeout pitch. I haven’t heard much about the state of his other offerings, but his first two pitches are good enough for him to have major success. He has only given up 2 homers on the season (both in his last 3 games, ironically enough), which bodes well for a pitcher who uses the changeup as frequently as Ramirez does. His ceiling gives him a lot of potential helium should he have a strong 2011 in high-A.
9. Brandon Laird (3B, 22, AAA): I have never been very high on Laird, who has had a history of questionable plate discipline and mediocre defense at a corner infield position, and seemed to be a likely bet to move to 1st base or DH. Laird has broken out in a big way in 2010, posting a .291/.355/.523 line with 23 homers in pitcher-friendly Trenton, followed by a 8/12 AAA debut in which he slugged 2 homers and 2 doubles. Looking at his home/road splits, Laird’s OPS is .05 points higher on the road, which could indicate that Trenton has suppressed his offense somewhat. Laird’s continued improvement with the bat, and newly respectable defense (he may be able to stick at 3rd base) have definitely put him on the radar, and he could wind up becoming an Aubrey Huff type player if all goes right. Given that 1st base and 3rd base are tied up for the foreseeable future, Laird could wind up as trade bait down the line, unless he moves to a corner outfield position. I may be ranking him too highly on this list, but his season has really impressed me, and I think he could hit enough to be a valuable player in the majors.
10. Graham Stoneburner (RHP, 22, A+): The decision for this last spot was difficult, but the righty Stoneburner earned the nod because of his combination of stuff and performance this season. Between Charleston and Tampa, Stoneburner has posted a 2.89 FIP with a 2.25 bb/0 ratio and a 9.90 k/9 ratio. I’m very impressed with his control so far. I expected a high strikeout rate because of a repertoire that includes a mid-90’s fastball and a good slider, but I expected Graham to struggle with his control as many power pitchers are wont to do. Stoneburner has also done a great job keeping the ball on the ground, with a 1.78 GO/AO ratio. 2011 will be a big season for Stoneburner, as he will likely wind up in AA at some point, with the chance to prove that he could be a starter at the big league level. If he can’t, however, his fastball-slider combo would profile nicely out of the pen, and he could be an excellent late-inning reliever.
Just Missed (in no particular order): David Adams, Hector Noesi, David Phelps, Corban Joseph