Yankees Minor League Report: The Year in Review

Before I begin:   A special shoutout to NYYPlayerDev, MLB Pipeline, Fangraphs, 2080 Prospects, Prospects 1500, Pinstripe Alley (I linked to their draft log for much of the season), the now-defunct River Avenue Blues (who gave us a special shoutout as they were closing shop), Matt Kardos (Trenton reporter), Conor Foley (Scranton), Donnie Collins (Scranton)Josh Norris (Baseball America), Virginia Yankee (who is excellent with college kids and following the draft), all the affiliate Twitter accounts, and many others who I may be forgetting who provided the news, scouting reports, etc. that helped me shape my nightly reporting.   Thanks to my readers as without you, these reports would just be sitting in a cyberspace graveyard.   Beyond that, thanks to my followers who have promoted me to help my readership grow.   I love doing this stuff, but knowing that it is read and appreciated and leads to some discussion is just awesome to me.

Now, on to the meat and potatoes of this post:

2019 was an interesting season down on the farm.   While team performance is not as important as individual performance (that sounds rather selfish, but you know what I mean!), three affiliates made it to the playoffs (Scranton, Trenton, Pulaski), with Trenton winning a title.   A fourth affiliate (Charleston) played two solid halves (missed the playoffs by a half-game in the first half) but just couldn't pull off being the best team in either half.    Staten Island was in it until the end, but they played in a tough division and came up just short.   Tampa's W-L wasn't impressive, but many of the prospects listed below (especially the pitchers) stopped by the affiliate for at least a little while.  That is what is important.

My preseason preview discussed what I thought were the strengths and weaknesses heading into the season, and it mostly played out as expected.  That isn't me touting myself, as anyone who follows the system knew going in that pitching was the strength while upper-level positional prospects were a weakness.

Pitching, Pitching, Pitching

This is not to say that everything went 100% according to plan, because nothing goes 100% according to plan, especially when you are talking about pitchers.  However, it is hard to argue against saying that the Yankees' system has been saved by the performances of their pitching prospects.

A few missteps (Albert Abreu still not pitching at the high level expected, Matt Sauer and Garrett Whitlock needing Tommy John surgery, Jio Orozco's leg injury, Mike King's late start to the season) wasn't enough to offset what happened around them.  To be exact, emerging prospects such as Miguel Yajure and Alexander Vizcaino made up for those problems.  Luis Medina seemingly turning around his prospect fortunes overnight also helped.   Through games of July 3rd, Medina was 1-7 with an 8.38 ERA in 14 starts with 64 hits allowed, eight home runs allowed, and a 64/55 K/BB ratio over 58 IP.  He was a mess.   In his eight starts after that (two of which were made in Tampa), he posted a 1.77 ERA (2.02 FIP) in 45.2 IP with 29 hits allowed, one home run, 15 walks, and 63 strikeouts.  The turnaround was so exceptional that he went from someone you wouldn't have cared about if the Yankees exposed him in the Rule 5 draft to someone who likely must be protected in the Rule 5 draft.  There is nothing to prevent a team like the Orioles from grabbing him and burying him in the bullpen for a year.

While Yajure has a strong case for the system's Pitcher of the Year Award, most would probably still hand it to the fast-rising Deivi Garcia, even with his struggles in Triple-A after a late-season promotion.  Was it the ball?  Was it a little fatigue?  Was it Triple-A hitters giving him a workout?  You can probably find elements of all three factors.   There will always be questions following Garcia due to his short stature.  Smaller pitchers are not typically safe bets, but that doesn't mean you should toss Garcia to the side.  The talent is there – but he just isn't ready to be a big-league contributor yet.

Former first-round pick Clarke Schmidt is trying to break the Yankees' first-round pitching curse by becoming a factor for the big league club. The last signed first-round pick to make it to the big leagues for the Yankees was Andrew Brackmanwho was drafted back in 2007 and only had a cup of coffee with the big club.  Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain were drafted a year before that.  Since Brackman, the Yankees have drafted Gerrit Cole (ugh), Jeremy Bleich, Ty Hensley, Ian Clarkin, James Kaprielian (ugh), and Schmidt in the first round.   Despite his injuries, Kaprielian was still considered high-end enough for the A's to accept him as a big piece in the Sonny Gray trade.   However, the Yankees have mostly been struggling lately with their early picks.   The Yankees have been better at extracting value from picks later in the draft than they have from the first round, but it is hard to sustain yourself that way.  It is certainly fun when a Dietrich Enns develops into something tradable but you want the top picks to develop into something more than that.  Hopefully, Schmidt can be that guy.

I have only scratched the surface with the pitchers I have mentioned.  Luis Gil was shut down due to "precautionary reasons" late in the season but had one of the most encouraging seasons in the entire system up to that point.  Roansy Contreras started to flourish in the second half of the season for Charleston.  At a time when some teenage pitchers may start to wear down, Contreras was at his strongest.  Yoendrys Gomez was so impressive that he jumped to #7 on MLB Pipeline, after being #27 on the preseason list.   He would have been a strong preseason candidate for the 2020 Breakout Award if he didn't already make that kind of jump this year.   He did struggle late after his promotion to Charleston and only logged 56.1 innings overall.  Nick Nelson was able to pitch his way up to Scranton, and is one of the purest power pitchers in the system – he needs to continue to work on harnessing it.  Like Nelson, Trevor Stephan is a power arm that needs some refinement if he wants to stick in the rotation long-term.  He tossed a no-hitter this season.   I am also still high on Frank German, who dealt with an injury this season but was able to come back to give them some innings down the stretch.

2019 draftee T.J. Sikkema has the potential to be a fast-riser, while teenager Osiel Rodriguez was able to get his feet wet by throwing 9.2 professional innings this season.

It is encouraging that many of the pitchers above were able to at least get a taste of the upper minors (Deivi Garcia, Schmidt, Yajure, Nelson, Stephan, and under-the-radar Rony Garcia).  If you want to build a "pipeline", you need a mix of prospects who are nearly ready to help in the next year and those who are a few years or more away.  The Yankees have built that type of pipeline with their pitchers.

The Yankees have their usual selection of tall power arms who they hope can at least develop into power relievers – in this category, I include Tanner Myatt (hyped heading into the season but had trouble getting it going – injuries played a role), Daniel Bies, Derek Craft, and Tim Hardy.  

There are so many pitchers I can list, but you get the idea – there is a lot of talent here for the Yankees to either develop for themselves or trade to get something the big club needs.

Would it be wrong to say that the Yankees' minor league pitchers deserve an A this year?  How often do we see so many "hyped" pitchers actually live up to that hype?  Beyond that, pitchers who weren't as hyped heading into the season emerged.

Catchers

When a team is trying to win a World Series, you often don't look ahead to the next season.   However, there will be one thing the Yankees have to figure out before 2020:  Exactly who their backup catcher will be and who they are going to bring in for depth.

Austin Romine is a free agent and Kyle Higashioka will be out of options next spring.  If they re-sign Romine (may not be easy), they could bring Higashioka to spring training as an insurance policy, but they would likely have to deal him if all goes well during the spring in this scenario.  The Yankees could conceivably go with three catchers (given the roster expansion to 26), but nobody wants to see that.

So, what about the minor leagues?  The Yankees have some exciting catching prospects…but none of them will be ready to serve as the organization's #3 in 2020.  Josh Breaux will likely be their most advanced big catching prospect (and one of their best power prospects – if not the best), and he will be down in Tampa.  Donny Sands and Jason Lopezwho were a tandem for Tampa in 2019, will need to move up to Trenton (well, at least one of them will need to), but neither had encouraging seasons.   Anthony Seigler is the hot-shot prospect of the bunch, but he didn't get enough playing time in due to injury (and he didn't hit much when he wasn't injured).  The Yankees will likely keep the youngster in Charleston.

You will hear names like Saul Torres, Gustavo Campero, Antonio Gomezetc.  Those are legitimate names to follow – but none of them are helping in the near future.   The steal of Luis Torrens by the San Diego Padres will continue to hurt, as he would have been a perfect depth piece for 2020.   In 97 Double-A games this year, he hit a tidy .300/.373/.500 over 350 AB with 15 home runs and only 67 strikeouts.  Darn.

In summary, the Yankees have a handful of catching prospects moving up the system.   The Yankees will need a #3 catcher for 2020.  None of these guys mentioned will be able to fill that role.   They may just have to convince a 40-year old Erik Kratz to stick around.  If not, they will have to dumpster dive and pray that nothing goes awry next season.  While the Yankees have been strong at finding under-the-radar positional players to trade for, it would take a miracle for them to find a young catcher that other teams are undervaluing.

Beyond the Catchers

Is it telling that the most significant in-season promotion this season was Isiah Gilliam from Tampa to Trenton?  Gilliam had played a long time down in Tampa, so the promotion had to happen sooner rather than later.  Beyond that, the Yankees mostly kept their minor league offenses intact.  They didn't have Chris Gittens (who was a hitting machine in a tough Eastern League environment) move up to Scranton at any point.  They didn't move Canaan Smith (in my opinion, the organization's offensive prospect of the season) up to Tampa.  Heck, after demoralizing NYPL pitching for a few weeks upon his arrival, it could have been argued that Josh Smith should have spent his last few weeks in Charleston.  Kyle Holder, who is Rule 5 eligible, certainly could have found his way on the Triple-A roster at some point.  Nope.

If that sounds weird to you, it should.  The Yankees were incredibly patient with their bats while moving pitchers up the ladder regularly.  Is this due to the simple fact that the pitchers are more advanced right now than the hitters?   Is it a new organizational philosophy to be more patient with bats?   I can't answer that question with facts, but there is zero doubt that they had more pitchers who earned their right to be promoted than they had hitters.  Perhaps a fully healthy season out of Seigler or Breaux would have earned them a spot in Tampa late in the season. Dermis Garcia was doing his home run thing until he went down with an injury.  Maybe he would have been promoted if not for that.

Next season, we will see the full-season debut of the emerging Ezequiel Duran, the second-baseman who put on quite a power show for Staten Island.  His reputation entering the season was pretty much "raw tools, poor pitch recognition".  Has the pitch recognition become better, or was he just taking advantage of the inconsistency of young NYPL pitchers?  There is one way to find out:  Promotion.   He has earned it.

One year does not make for a trend – maybe we will see hitters aggressively moved next year.  Who knows?

Getting back to Canaan Smith:  His 2019 season was incredible on its own.  It is even more incredible when you see what he did in 2018.  Smith had some hype coming out of high school, where he was essentially treated like Barry Bonds during his senior year.  He showed off his incredible eye after being drafted in 2017 but fell flat on his face in 2018.  His numbers:  .191/.281/.316 in 171 plate appearances.  He walked 11.1% of the time but struck out 30.4% of the time and ended the season in Staten Island with an 81 wRC+.  This year, they moved the 19-year old to Charleston, and one could have easily expected him to fade away.  Instead, he flourished, hitting .307/.405/.465 (154 wRC+) with a 14.0% walk rate and a 20.5% strikeout rate.   After not even attempting a steal in 2018, he went 16-for-20 in 2019.   Smith will have to start tapping into more power to become a big corner outfield prospect (the 32 doubles are encouraging in this regard), but anything I choose to "criticize" about is nitpicking.

And isn't it sad that I have reached the 1,500+ word point in this post and haven't even mentioned Estevan Florial?  Florial's injuries are certainly a legitimate excuse for the "stall" he is experiencing, but at some point, he needs to start moving up the ladder.   2019 was supposed to be a big season for him.  We are now talking about how 2020 is a big season for him.  At some point, you run out of years that need to be big.  2020 is likely that year for the Yankees – he needs to show something.  He did have a strong stretch after a rough beginning to his season but it ended on a bit of a whimper without a promotion to Trenton for the playoffs.  That is telling.

The 2019 draft featured first-round pick Anthony Volpe, who showed some signs of having an advanced bat for his age.  The Yankees had the high schooler skip the GCL and go right to Pulaski, which is a strong move.   The downer?  Volpe's season ended early due to mono.   Maybe he should compare notes with Sam Darnold.

In addition to Josh Smith and Volpe, the Yankees drafted Jake Sanford, a toolsy outfielder who showed off some of those tools in an inconsistent campaign, and Pat DeMarco, seen as a draft steal though he didn't perform at a strong level in his professional debut.   2018 draftee Ryder Green had one of the best seasons in the Appy League (Pulaski).  He will need to cut down on the strikeouts, but the potential for him to be a power-hitting outfielder with speed is there.  MLB Pipeline thinks his ultimate position is right field, but for now, I think the Yankees will keep him in center field.

The Yankees have some deep-dive kids (in addition to Antonio Gomez, who was listed in the catcher section) who will try to emerge next season, including Alexander Vargas, Everson Pereira (assuming he can rebound from his injury), Antonio Cabello, Kevin Alcantara, and Raimfer Salinas.

Wait, Dude – are you forgetting about someone?

I thought you would never ask.  When fans watch the emergence of teenage and early-20s kids at the big league level, they sometimes wonder if their system has any such kid who can become their version of that.  The Yankees hope they have found him in OF Jasson Dominguez, who is already the third-ranked prospect in the system even though he has never played a minor league game.  The reports on this switch-hitting prodigy are so staggering that you almost don't want to believe them.  Some teams worked him out as a catcher.  Scouts seem to think he can play anywhere on the diamond, though the Yankees will put him in the outfield.  When you read the reports, you wonder why he couldn't just skip right to the big leagues and push Aaron Hicks out of a job and become the Yankees' cleanup hitter as well.

That is all meant to be sarcastic, but for good reason:   We have no idea what this kid will become and we need to be patient.  While we see a few kids fly through systems at extreme rates, we shouldn't expect that out of Dominguez.   Let the kid develop in 2020 and beyond.  Do you know who will determine how quickly he will get to the Bronx?   Minor league pitchers.

In summary:

The Yankees should be thanking the prospect gods for their fortunes on the hill this season.  The pitchers carried the system, especially after some early-season hiccups.   Mike King, Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt, Nick Nelson, Miguel Yajure, Albert Abreu, Trevor Stephan, and Brooks Kriske can all be major league options at some point next season.  That is not overhyping.  I am not saying they can be aces next season or will be late-inning rally killers.   Not all of them will make it, and some may not even be in the system as the Rule 5 and other player movement will undoubtedly occur.    However, the potential is there for any of these pitchers to help, whether as starters or bullpen options.    Behind them is a who's who of big prospect arms that need to prove that 2019 was the beginning of something big and not their career peaks.   It will be up to the Yankees, who do a solid job of figuring out who they should keep and who they should deal, to figure out who exactly amongst this big group is truly not for sale and who amongst the group can help them get pieces they think they need.

Offensively, the Yankees desperately need players to emerge at the upper levels of the system.  Unfortunately for prospect followers like myself, 2020 is not going to be that year either.  Canaan Smith and Josh Breaux will likely be in Tampa, where Smith's outfield companions Brandon Lockridge and Josh Stowers are likely to join him.   Anthony Seigler will likely have to start in Charleston, where they could have a fun, young double-play combination in Ezequiel Duran and Oswald Peraza.   If they are aggressive with Peraza and move him to Tampa, maybe Josh Smith will be at shortstop instead.  This is all encouraging, but none of these kids will be in Trenton to start the season, where the truly big prospects show their faces.

While Pablo Olivares (if he can stick in center, he has prospect value),  Dermis Garcia and Oswaldo Cabrera (a personal under-the-radar favorite of mine) will make their way to Trenton in all likelihood, let us again turn to Estevan Florial.  He has to go to Trenton next season and he has to break out.  The clock is ticking and it slows down for nobody.  I wish I had a brighter offensive outlook for 2020, but I have to be realistic for now:  The upper levels will not be where you go to follow the majority of the most intriguing offensive talent.

The Yankees also have several Rule 5 decisions to make.  It is not unusual for the Yankees to lose multiple players in the draft, and this year will be no different.  Who they should keep and who they should leave exposed (or trade) is a topic for another post.

The Yankees will probably start 2020 somewhere in the middle of MLB prospect rankings.  If the pitching didn't do what it did, they would be lower-middle or perhaps even lower-lower.  Thankfully, that won't be the case now.   The system has the talent to rise up in the rankings but you can't rank them amongst the best until they have more balance in the upper levels.  That is where you earn your stripes and go from hypothetical to realistic.

The All-Star Team.  As a general rule, I stay away from kids below Pulaski UNLESS they completely destroy the GCL or DSL

C – Josh Breaux, Charleston (I would say he is currently the best power prospect in the system)
1B – Chris Gittens, Trenton 
(Gittens is going to hit home runs in the big leagues.  The only question is where)
2B – Ezequiel Duran, Staten Island
(He could give Breaux a run for his money in the power department)
SS – Kyle Holder, Trenton 
(The safe Holder?  The budding Peraza?  The hot-shot draftee (Josh Smith)?  I think Holder deserves this spot)
3B – Oswaldo Cabrera, Tampa
(I am a fan, but choosing him also shows a lack of third base prospects in the system right now)
OF – Canaan Smith, Charleston
(Offensive Player of the Year.  I am still not sure why he wasn't at least given a month in Tampa)
OF – Josh Stowers, Charleston
(Acquired in the Sonny Gray deal, Stowers had a strong second half – the big question is if there is any power to tap into)
OF – Ryder Green, Pulaski
(Green is an impressive kid with tools to tap into – will they try him in Charleston to begin 2020?)

SP – Deivi Garcia, Scranton (Rose fast, stalled in Scranton.  Will he be able to overcome the size hurdle?  Spin rate is supposedly his jam)
SP – Miguel Yajure, Trenton (Pitcher of the Year. 
Yajure was so dominant from the start and it can be argued he actually has a higher upside than Garcia)
SP – Clarke Schmidt, Trenton
(If he doesn't get to New York in 2020, he was either traded or something went awry)
SP – Luis Gil, Tampa
(He wasn't able to finish off his strong campaign, but Trenton is calling for 2020)
SP – Roansy Contreras, Charleston
(Hyped in the preseason, stumbled a little out of the box, finished as strong as anyone)

I really wanted to get Alexander Vizcaino in that rotation, but if I must limit myself to five, those are the five I am going to go with.

RP – Brooks Kriske, Trenton (His type typically does not last in Rule 5 drafts)
RP – Daniel Alvarez, Trenton (Relies more on command than power, which means he will have to make it as a middle-inning guy)
RP – James Reeves, Trenton (Deceptive delivery – value could diminish with the "must face three batters" rule.  He will likely get his chance somewhere, though)
RP – Trevor Lane, Trenton
(Lane was strong against RHB and LHB in 2019)
RP – Justin Wilson, Staten Island
(A bit of a sleeper out of Vanderbilt.  I think he is the best of the current "relief-only" types in the lower minors)

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