Yankees Minor League Report: A Preview of the 2019 Season

I had a lot of different paths I could have gone with this post.  I could have done what I did last year – write-up my opinion on who the Top 30 prospects are in the Yankees' system, which was a load of fun but also felt a bit "redundant".   That may sound as if I am being harsh on myself, but not really.  I am not a scout – I think I am pretty good, through reading and research and knowing how the Yankees operate, at figuring out who the real prospects are and who may be getting hyped up for a potential trade (no, it is not a coincidence that prized southpaw Justus Sheffield was held down in the minors for most of 2018.  His command was spotty AND the Yankees probably thought he was reaching his maximum value point – that point where you decide whether to hold on to him as an asset for your big club or package him for someone the organization loves.  They chose the latter, and it is obvious why – Sheffield will have to overcome a lot to become a James Paxton).  Regardless, there are so many Top 20 and Top 30 lists out there, that I figured my version of the same thing wasn't going to add much value – maybe it would have, but this is what writers always go through – what can I type that is different?  Is being the 2,452nd blogger to proclaim that Estevan Florial is the top prospect in the system worth it?   Of course, I do contradict myself given that I type up a rather lengthy college basketball top 25 report on my blog every Sunday night.

Anyway, since I have determined that another Top 30 prospect list wasn't in the cards, I had to figure out exactly what I was going to do as sort of minor league season preview instead.

The Yankees are a pitching-heavy organization that needs to develop some position players to balance things out.  The Trenton Thunder is going to have a fun rotation to follow this season, but their offense is not likely to light up many Eastern League scoreboards.   Deeper in the system, there is more balance between pitching and positional players, but the advanced prospects still lean towards the mound.    On the MLB.com list, 20 of the Yankees top 30 prospects are pitchers, and all of them are right-handed pitchers.

1.  The Yankees are no longer barren in minor league catchers

Last year, I had a lot of fun covering Jason Lopez, who had a remarkably good season for a prospect who is never talked about.  The soon-to-be 21-year old spent the entire season playing in a full-season league, hitting .272/.313/.430 in 302 AB between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa.   As you might suspect, his numbers peaked while he was in Charleston (he put together a .783 OPS there) but his brief time in Tampa (9-for-46) weighted down his numbers somewhat.  That all isn't important, however.  The important thing is that Lopez conquered a full-season league level at the age of 20 and should be given every opportunity to conquer Tampa in 2019.    For a kid who doesn't get much prospect love, he is essentially one good year from being a 22-year old catcher looking to conquer Double-A.   We won't get too far ahead of ourselves, but Lopez has to be considered a sleeper at this point, even if there are still questions about long-term sustainability behind the plate.

Lopez isn't the guy people are talking about this year, however:  That distinction goes to 2018 draftee Anthony Seigler, the switch-hitting (he can also switch-pitch!) catcher who is already being praised for his athleticism behind the plate.   The 19-year old (20 on June 20th) made his professional debut in the GCL last year, though he did work his way up to Pulaski.   In his very small sample size, he went 21-for-79 with three doubles, a home run, and more walks (14) than strikeouts (12).   He essentially destroyed everything he saw down in the GCL but had a bit of a struggle in Pulaski.    This makes sense – many players run into a brick wall in their first taste of professional ball.  Add in the fact that Seigler is a catcher, and I would bet that fatigue set in (along with competition that is tougher in the Appalachian League).   Given his advanced approach at the plate and his reputation behind the plate, would it be crazy for the Yankees to start him right away in Charleston this year?   I wouldn't say "crazy", but it would be unusual for them to do that with a teenage catcher.   I envision more of a scenario where they hold him back in Extended Spring Training, moving him to Charleston at some point to get his feet wet, before potentially moving him down to Staten Island once their season begins.   Seigler is going to be a fun prospect to watch, but as a catcher, patience is going to be key.

The other big draftee from last year's class is second-round pick Josh Breaux (yes, it is pronounced the way you think it is pronounced, which is what made it appropriate when Nick Swisher announced the pick last year).  Breaux is made from a different type of cloth than Seigler in that he is not nearly as refined behind the plate and is seen as more of a masher type at the plate.   This doesn't mean Breaux is not a long-term catcher.  He just needs to work out more kinks than Seigler does (both have strong arms, but Seigler is very accurate while Breaux supposedly needs to work on being more accurate.)  Hey, this is why he was a second-round pick while Seigler was a first round pick!   Breaux made a brief cameo in the GCL last year (1-for-8) before the Yankees moved him up to Staten Island.  He is a year older than Seigler, so it makes sense for them to be more aggressive.   In 114 plate appearances for Staten Island, he hit .280/.295/.370 with nine doubles, four walks, and 21 strikeouts.   He is going into 2019 needing to break his home run virginity, but that is likely to be the least of his worries in his minor league career.  The power is there for him to tap into, and he is already regarded as one of the better power prospects in the entire system.  The tools are also in place for him to stick behind the plate, and (like Seigler), he likely is athletic enough to move somewhere else if catching doesn't work out.  His big issue as he moves up the chain will be plate discipline – he is a bit of a "grip it and rip it" type of hitter, but that can change with experience.  I fully expect the Yankees to place him in Charleston right away this season unless they see something they want to work on with him for a few weeks in Extended Spring Training.

With Seigler and Breaux attempting to crash through a full-season league this year, Lopez trying to continue his momentum in Tampa this year, and Donny Sands hopefully ready to put in a full season's worth of work (he hurt his arm in spring training last year and ended up playing in only 25 games for Tampa), the Yankees may have a pipeline of catchers forming.  They also signed Antonio Gomez during last year's international signing period – he was the top-rated catcher in that class.   The Yankees have always tried to make it a point to emphasize catching in the organization, and they may be well on their way to once again being well-above average at this position (and no, signing and drafting catchers is not an indictment on Gary Sanchez behind the plate.  Catchers aren't only good for your team – they are also considered GOLD for other franchises.  Develop a few good catching prospects and you can deal one of them for just about anything you may need.)

2.  The Yankees lack positional prospects at the upper levels

It is true – the Yankees may begin 2019 with the loser of the Greg Bird/Luke Voit battle in Triple-A.  They may have Clint Frazier and Tyler Wade as well.  That is pretty good prospect depth, especially when you consider that Thairo Estrada and Kyle Holder will be joining them.  The Yankees will essentially have three strong gloves who can play shortstop well in the upper minors (if Wade doesn't make the Opening Day roster), and with injury-prone Troy Tulowitzki manning the position for the big club, something tells me they are grateful to have this level of depth (along with the potential of moving Gleyber Torres over to his natural position).  While Wade has yet to establish the bat at the big league level (and had a disappointing year in Triple-A last year), I still think he can be a useful piece for this franchise, given that he has speed and a glove that can play anywhere (you don't want Wade in RF or 3B because his arm isn't great, but does he have the defensive chops to handle those positions in a pinch?  Probably).   The question is whether or not the bat can even reach reasonable MLB levels.  Estrada is a great story, given that it was possible he would never play baseball (heck with baseball -it was possible he may never breathe again!) after he was shot last winter.   He was able to play in the Arizona Fall League and should be ready to go to handle a full workload in Scranton this season.   Estrada's potential is a better version of Ronald Torreyes.  He has more power potential (though he will never be seen as a power hitter), better speed, and a better glove.  He also has the bat-to-ball skills that made Torreyes useful in spurts.   I can't see Estrada as an everyday player for the Yankees – but other teams could see him as a potential starting player.  Regardless, the Yankees would be wise to keep him around.   If you have read my stuff long enough, you know all about Holder – the kid is a wizard with the glove who has started to show some form of life at the plate.   His glove reputation is so strong that developing into merely a below-average MLB hitter will be enough for him to be a positive contributor.  The one area of concern I have beyond that is injuries.  Holder only appeared in 48 games last season, and as a 24-year old player (25 in May) who just passed through his first Rule 5 draft without being claimed, his clock is officially ticking quickly.  He needs to play to develop that bat.

With all that said, Estrada is actually the only infielder who claimed a spot on the mlb.com Top 30 prospects list, so you can see where the system is currently at its weakest.   Some of this can be attributed to that ill-fated 2014 international class.  The Yankees signed several bonus baby infielders in that class (Wilkerman Garcia, Dermis Garcia, Nelson Gomez, Hoy Jun Park), but none of them have developed into the types of prospects the Yankees were hoping for.   Park was the most experienced player from that group, and he also is the first one that will at least get to try his craft out in Trenton.  He hit .258/.387/.349 in 421 plate appearances for Tampa last year, nearly walking as much as he struck out (68 walks, 69 strikeouts).   A similar season for the Thunder would at least get him back on the map.   Dermis has shown off some of that immense power potential (15 home runs in 80 games down in the Sally League last year at the age of 20 – that is not something you simply write off), but he likely won't be able to play third base and the rest of his offensive game is not keeping up with the power he has shown off.  The Yankees have even toyed with the idea of trying him on the mound.   Gomez left the organization, only to come back again.  We can almost write him off.   Wilkerman Garcia has been mostly spinning his wheels,   He now has 1,194 minor league plate appearances and a .224/.285/.305 triple slash to show for it.  That is the nature of the international prospect beast.  It just is too bad that the class hasn't been able to bear fruit for the Yankees in any way imaginable, including being good enough to include in trades.   I have some hope that Diego Castillo (who "only" signed for $750,000) can become something, given that he has good contact skills and likely did enough for Tampa to earn a shot at Trenton this year.

As for the outfield, their depth is much stronger in the lower minors than their infield depth is.    It doesn't hurt when your top prospect happens to be a center fielder who is likely on the cusp of playing in Trenton (most seem to believe that he will start the season in Tampa, though).   There just isn't any depth in the upper minors – to the point where one has to wonder if the Yankees are offering minor league deals to anyone who has A) shown a big league pulse and B) is willing to wander around the minor leagues, waiting to see if the Yankees ever have an opening on the big club.   The reality is that you hope this doesn't become a problem:  Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge are pretty darn good, with Brett Gardner likely good enough to handle a reduced role.   Frazier will be waiting in the wings to lay claim to an opening if one were to come up as well.   This is all to say that the Yankees are far from desperate for outfielders – but having a player better than Shane Robinson hanging around in Triple-A may not be a bad thing, either.

Deeper down in the system, the Yankees have some interesting "on their way up" outfielders, including Everson Pereira (he could be a prospect you start hearing a lot about), Antonio Cabello (signed for $1.35 million after the Yankees missed out on Shohei Ohtani), Anthony Garcia (a huge 6'5" 18-year old switch-hitter with raw power to burn), recently-acquired Josh Stowers (Sonny Gray deal), 21-year old Pablo Olivares (made his Tampa debut (14 games) in 2018, but hurt his hand in July and missed the rest of the season), Ryder Green (2018 draftee with big power, good speed, and a strong arm – but needs to refine his hitting approach), Canaan Smith (very rough 2018 campaign, but still has upside as a classic "three outcomes" type of bat – 20 in April), etc.  They are also the favorites (to the point where it is a foregone conclusion) for star 16-year old prospect Jasson Dominguez.     In other words, the Yankees may not have much outfield depth to brag about in Scranton or Trenton, but there are reasons to be excited for what MIGHT be coming up from down below (with the usual caveat to not completely trust prospects who haven't yet made it to Trenton!)

3.  What about those pitchers?

The Yankees have become a pitching-rich organization.   I am not sure if this happened by design or if it simply a case of "they graduated all those position players, so of course the pitching is their strong suit now!"   This doesn't mean these pitchers are bad prospects who just happen to be dotting Top 30 lists because the Yankees have nothing else.   There is plenty of talent up and down the system – to the point where the Yankees will likely have to trade a lot of it away at some point.  That point is not now.

The most advanced (and highest-rated prospect) of their pitchers is a familiar name:  Jonathan Loaisiga, who dazzled in a few of his starts upon being called up last year (eventually, like most young pitchers, he started having some trouble at the MLB level – but everyone saw the obvious talent).    We also should know by now the major thing holding him back:  Durability.  Loaisiga is 24 years old and has never thrown more than 68.2 innings in a season, and that was back in his minor league debut as a member of the Giants organization in 2013.   Injuries kept him out of baseball in both 2014 and 2015, and he pretty much became a member of the Yankees' organization by pure luck (and definitely some hustle!)    As long as he is healthy, he will get his share of MLB time in 2019 in all likelihood.  The Yankees aren't getting through the season with only five or six starters, and Loaisiga has the highest ceiling among their in-house options (including Domingo German, Chance Adamsand Mike King, who is currently injured and wouldn't likely be an early-season candidate anyway).   Adams, who was one of their top pitching prospects entering 2018, never was able to get his season on track after off-season elbow surgery.  It is hard to say that the surgery caused all his issues, though – he may have simply peaked as a prospect.  The Yankees may have to see if he can do something out of the bullpen.   King had about as great of a minor league season as you will ever find, using a sharp cut fastball to put together an 11-5 season with a 1.79 ERA in 161.1 innings.  He rose quickly throughout the season (making stops in Tampa/Trenton/Scranton, with the majority of the time spent in Trenton).  While he carved up minor league lineups with relative ease, there are still concerns about his other offerings beyond his cutter.  That is something he could have used this spring to work on, but he left camp early with an elbow issue.   We just have to hope for the best.

If an upper-level big arm is what makes you tick (it should, since upper-level big arms are pretty much what everyone wants), Albert Abreu may be the pitcher for you.  Acquired in the Brian McCann deal, Abreu has been known to touch triple digits with a fastball that generates strikeouts and weak contact.   He combines the hard fastball with a change and curve.   While both pitches are "plus" offerings, he is still working on consistency.   He made 17 starts last season, compiling a less than thrilling 5.20 ERA.  However, that ERA was spiked during a rehab stint down in the GCL, where he allowed 13 earned runs in only five innings of work.    He is destined to begin 2019 in Trenton, where he made one scoreless start last season.  With his arm and 40-man roster status, do not be surprised if a healthy Abreu makes his big league debut at some point during the season.

If you followed my blog nightly last season, you likely often looked forward to every Deivi Garcia update.   The smallish (5'10") right-hander was one of the quickest risers in the system, making 14 starts between Charleston/Tampa/Trenton, compiling a 2.55 ERA and 105/20 K/BB ratio over 74 innings.   In his lone start for Trenton, he tossed five no-hit innings, striking out seven while walking two.   Oh, did I mention he was only 19 years old while he was doing this, and that he will start 2019 at the same age (he will be 20 in May)?   Garcia is a new-age analytics dream, given that he is known for his advanced spin rate on his fastball/curve combination.   He packs a good punch for a kid with his frame, as he sits in the 92-94 range with the ability to dial it up higher.   The biggest issue with Deivi is his size, which gives you long-term pause for his ability to stay in a rotation.  For now, the Yankees will develop him that way and hope he is an outlier.  If not, his electric stuff can play very well in a bullpen role.

Garcia has a link to Luis Medina in that both pitchers were signed the year after the Yankees made that big international spending splurge.  The Yankees were limited to $300,000 bonuses that year, but that didn't stop them from landing some intriguing prospects.  If you like "stuff" prospects, this is the guy to keep your eye on.  The 19-year old (he will also turn 20 in May) has a fastball that has reached 102 MPH to go along with a power curve and a "change-up" that registers 90-92.  Correct – Medina can throw a change-up that is in the lower-range of Garcia's fastball.  The reason Garcia zoomed through the system and Medina didn't?  Because Medina's advanced stuff does not yet come with advanced control of it.  In 36 innings for Pulaski, he struck out 47 batters…but also walked 46.  Going to his games as a fan must have been fun if you aren't a fan of a hitter actually making contact.  He has enough size to stick in the rotation, has an arm that any team would drool over, and has the most ability of any pitcher in this system to become a star.  He will be a fascinating watch this summer, though I am not sure where they will place him.  He will not be going back to Pulaski, so it is either a trip to Staten Island or a big step up to Charleston.  A lot depends on how he looks this spring.

If you want something somewhere in between Garcia and Medina, perhaps you should look at Roansy Contreras, another 19-year old who packs a big punch.  Unlike Garcia and Medina, Contreras will pitch the entire 2019 season as a 19-year old.  While Garcia is already in the upper minors and Medina is trying to fight his way into a full-season league, Contreras has already made his debut for Charleston, making seven starts in 2018 with encouraging results (3.38 ERA with a 28/12 K/BB ratio in 34.2 innings.  The Yankees were bringing him along slowly (as they should), as he pitched those 34.2 innings over the course of seven starts.  One of the things that stands out about Contreras is that he already has two plus pitches in his toolbox, a fastball that has already jumped from between 88-90 to 92-94 with 98 MPH readings to go along with a sharp breaking curve.  His third offering (a change) is already showing signs of becoming a plus pitch.   There is a lot of potential for Roansy to move quickly in 2019 (just like Garcia did in 2018), given his advanced feel for pitching and an arsenal that is developing rapidly.

One of my personal favorite prospects is Garrett Whitlock, who comes with a reputation of being an old-school bulldog.   The imposing (6'5") right-hander is not afraid to throw inside with his mid-90s heater that he compliments with a curve and a change-up.  In 23 games (21 starts) between Charleston, Tampa, and Trenton, the 22-year old posted a 1.86 ERA in 120.2 innings with only three home runs allowed and a 122/41 K/BB ratio.    He will likely join Abreu and Garcia in the Trenton rotation this season, along with Trevor Stephan (who struggled in his first taste of Double-A last year, though his FIP (3.47) paints a better picture than his actual ERA (4.54).   His peripherals at this level show that Stephen likely did pitch in some bad luck, though his walk rate did spike to 3.13/9 (it was 1.98 when he was pitching for Tampa).    The final spot in the Trenton rotation will likely go to Nick Nelson, who struggled with his control in his brief Trenton audition last year (nine walks in 8.2 innings).    Nelson throws a hard sinking fastball but needs to refine his off-speed stuff if he wants to stick in the rotation long-term.  Most peg him as a power reliever, but the Yankees are not going down that path yet in all likelihood.    In conclusion, you are correct:  The Thunder should do a solid job at run prevention this summer, for as long as these pitchers stick at that level.   Run creation may be a bit of a bigger challenge.

I have honestly only scratched the surface with this preview of the pitchers.  Missing from the above is Domingo Acevedo, who I can see actually making his MLB debut this year (he was called up briefly last year as an emergency arm, but didn't make an appearance).   Acevedo is huge, throws hard, has better control than what you would expect from such a big pitcher.   Given his size as power, the Dellin Betances comparisons are inevitable, though likely unfair.  Acevedo actually has the talent and pitches to stick as a starter, though his durability and results may indicate his long-term future is that of a reliever.

While any of the above pitchers could eventually move to the bullpen (that is the nature of the beast, after all), most of them will be given a chance to start until they prove they can't anymore.   The Yankees do have a few "relief only" prospects to consider, though they aren't quite as deep in these types of arms as they have been in the past.   Leading the charge here is a face we have already seen:  LHP Stephen Tarpley, who probably faced good odds of making the 2019 bullpen until Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino were signed (not that I am complaining about either one).   Like Britton, Tarpley's main weapon is a sinking fastball that generates a lot of ground balls.  His is not nearly on the level of Britton's (because nobody has a sinker quite like that), but Tarpley's is a strong pitch that will be his money-maker in the big leagues.   I figure the Yankees have one bullpen spot open if they take the out-of-options Luis Cessa north (Chapman – Betances – Britton – Ottavino – Green – Cessa – Kahnle would occupy slots 1-7).  Would they elect for that spot to go to a left-hander?

After Tarpley, you have the hard-throwing Ben Heller (Tommy John Surgery wiped out his entire 2018 campaign) and left-hander Phillip Diehl, who has piled up a ton of strikeouts over the past two campaigns (209 in 160.2 innings, to be exact).  He generates his strikeouts through a deceptive delivery and a wicked change-up.  His fastball isn't bad for a left-handed pitcher (supposedly in the 92-93 range).  That is good enough to keep hitters honest as he tries to bury them with his change.   He will likely make his way to Scranton this season.  He isn't on the 40-man roster (like Tarpley and Heller are), so he faces long odds of getting to the big leagues this year.  The Yankees are already receiving good value for a 27th round pick back in 2016 – if he can help out the big league bullpen in some capacity (or gather enough momentum that a team becomes interested in him through a trade), it will be a nice added bonus.

I wrote all this up about their pitchers, and I haven't even scratched the surface.  I didn't bring up Clarke Schmidt (first round pick in 2017 who underwent Tommy John surgery and only pitched briefly in 2018), Matt Sauer (second round pick in that same draft), Luis Gil (lottery ticket arm acquired for Jake Cave)Juan Then and LHP JP Sears (both acquired in the Nick Rumbelow trade), Nolan Martinez (trying to get back on the prospect map after some issues following the 2016 draft), 6'8" Freicer Perez (a cheaper signing from that famed 2014 class who put himself on the prospect map in 2017, but was ineffective and injured in 2018), Harold Cortijo (high school draftee with some upside, if he develops a third pitch), Glenn Otto (Yankees trying him as a starter though he may be best served long-term out of the bullpen), and Jio Orozco (another young pitcher acquired from the Mariners – he was a part of the Ben Gamel deal).

Deep down in the system, you will be hearing the name of Cuban RHP Osiel Rodriguez a 16-year old RHP with the "pitchability" buzzword already attached to him.  Already #30 on MLB.com's Yankees' list, Rodriguez is developing a three-pitch mix that begins with a hard fastball in the 95-97 range.   He throws his pitches using different arm slots and throws his pitches at several different angles, which is already leading to comparisons to Orlando Hernandez.  He is too far away to really think too much about.

4.  What is the bottom line here?

I have typed up a lot above to give you a general idea of where the system is at and where it can improve.   There is a lot of buzz surrounding their lower-level prospects, but lower-level prospects come with higher attrition rates.   The system that was once a top five system in the game is now more of a high-risk/high-reward type of system.  The good news is that they have a boatload of prospects who are in the perfect position to bust through.  Not all of them will, but the more of these types of prospects you have, the more likely it is that you will have enough of them break through to make the system robust again.  I think there is a strong possibility that the Yankees will be rising again in the prospect rankings over the next few years (at the moment, thanks mostly to their abundance of high-quality prospects in lower-level leagues, they are falling somewhere in the middle of the pack)

My nightly reports have gone through many transitions through the years – including years where I was scraping the bottom of the barrel just to try to find someone remotely interesting.  Anyone else remember the Abraham Almonte/Melky Mesa/Zoilo Almonte days?  The Yankees had some rough farm systems through the years that were ultimately covered up by what the MLB team was doing.  That dam was about to burst hard only a few years ago, with an aging MLB roster and a farm system that was spinning its wheels.  The baseball gods looked down nicely on the Yankees to hand them some premium MLB-quality prospects.  It was very possible – seemingly probable – that the Yankees were headed into an abyss.  This is not overstating things.  The organization was beginning to look tired and unexciting.

This year, my reports are not going to contain a lot of upper-level guys who you will be begging to see in a big league uniform.  It is just not set up that way – you will likely see a few of the pitchers described above in some capacity – maybe as a fill-in starter, more likely in a "get your feet wet" bullpen role.  But position players?  Maybe you will see Estrada, though the Yankees have good infield depth.  Maybe a kid like Brandon Wagner, who walked 70 times in 124 games between Tampa/Trenton in 2018 to go along with his 21 home runs, can turn himself into an option.  I find Wagner to be a tad underrated in this system, which is not to say I see a budding star breaking through.

This is a year that is more about transition – transitioning from the group that has graduated over the past few years to the next group that will hopefully be knocking on the door within the next two years.  Do the Yankees *need* those players now?  No.   But anything can happen over the course of a few seasons, and there are always going to be established big league players available in trades that you will want to grab.

I am excited about the 2019 season as a whole.  There is a chance that the whole thing will crash and burn, but there is genuine excitement that some of these kids have the potential to be impactful MLB players.  It will be fun to sort out who those players are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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