Yankees' Best Prospect at Every Position at the Start of 2014

Peter RichmanCorrespondent IJanuary 16, 2014

Yankees' Best Prospect at Every Position at the Start of 2014

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    The New York Yankees approach the 2014 season with Derek Jeter the only remaining member of the Core Four, the last wave of homegrown talent who matured simultaneously and famously from prospects to everyday players to Bomber legends.

    The depth of talent in the farm system is the last thing, of course, that a Yankees fan would boast of.

    It isn't just some of the organization's inauspicious draft selections or impotence with developing once-promising signees. They also maintain that little (spending) tendency to throw up veteran roadblocks to youngsters' big league arrival dates.

    But beneath the free-agent signings and apparent lack of trust in the farm system, there are several exciting Yankees prospects heading into 2014—from Staten Island to Scranton—who could provide renewed faith in the young talent pool. 

    Recently, we checked in on Baseball America's offseason rankings of the Yankees' top-10 overall prospects, even projecting their MLB arrival dates. But it wasn't a position-specific list; there were multiple catchers, similar outfielders and redundant pitchers comprising the best of the system.

    The best way to clear the murkiness of the lower rungs of the organization, and a great way to keep tabs as we near spring training, is to now take a look at the best prospect at each and every position.

    This isn't a depth chart of players most likely to be next in line should a hole open up in 2014, or most likely to win a spot low on the 40-man roster out of the spring. We are talking the top organizational prospects with the most upside and promise for future success.

    Read on to leave no stone unturned and to find out who is No. 1 at every position at the start of 2014. 

     

    Common statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and advanced metrics from FanGraphs; prospect- and skill-specific rankings via Baseball America's organizational Top 10 lists, and scouting notes and quotes via Baseball America's Top 10 Yankees list with accompanying reports (subscription required), unless otherwise noted.

    Got a question, comment or concern? Want to make a case for a different player? Not done venting about A-Rod? Feel free to leave a comment below.  

Catcher: Gary Sanchez

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    Gary Sanchez, who recently turned 21, was the Yankees' 2009 international free-agent signing. Before he played a single game in the organization, Baseball America had ranked him as the Yanks' seventh-best prospect. Since just prior to the 2013 season, he has widely been considered the top organizational prospect and one of the best in MLB.

    At only age 17, the big righty split his first season (47 games) between the Gulf Coast League and Low-A Staten Island, where he batted exceptionally well (.329/.393/.543, 8 HR, 188 and 113 wRC+) but struck out a ton (44 SO, 20.6 and 27.1 K%), committed eight errors behind the dish and threw out just 26 percent of baserunners.

    His best tools are twofold: First, his raw power, which he has continued to show off while progressing from High-A Tampa to Double-A Trenton in 2013 (combined .253/.324/.412, .636 OPS, 15 HR, 27 2B, 71 RBI). Second, his cannon of an arm, which has translated into his gaudy caught-stealing numbers (44 percent) last season.

    He has three shortcomings: He shows Jorge Posada-type speed, so don't get your hopes up on infield choppers. He still needs to prove he can consistently hit for average (.256 in 2011, .290 in 2012, .253 in 2013) and quell anxiety over his strikeouts—even if they did improve in 2013 (93 in '11, 106 in '12, 87 in '13)—and he must improve his defense and footwork behind the plate, with passed balls an issue (26 in '11, 18 in '12, 13 in '13).  

    But you have to love that, should the Yankees hold on to Sanchez, he could easily take over upon Brian McCann's exit.

    He's already accumulated a ton of experience for such a young age, and though a veteran is on a five-year contract, Sanchez's own development is the only barrier to taking the reins in two to three years. The pressure should be low, and the room to blossom should be high. 

    But this prospect goes beyond the catching position. Sanchez still comfortably sits as the No. 1 overall Yanks prospect in 2014. 

1st Base: Greg Bird

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    Another 21-year-old, Greg Bird was drafted by the Yanks in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, but didn't play a full minor league season until 2013.

    The good news? The Yanks' top first-base prospect shined. 

    In 130 games at Single-A Charleston, the 6'3", 215-pound left-handed hitter slashed .288/.428/.511 with 20 homers, 84 RBI and .938 OPS, while putting up an eye-popping 170 wRC+. He led the South Atlantic League in on-base percentage and led the minor leagues with 107 walks.

    Baseball America referred to Bird as "Easily the Yankees' breakout player of the year," noting his "mature offensive approach" and how he "remembers pitch sequences and started to learn which pitches he could drive."

    The maturity, and really patience, was evident in his improved second half of 2013, in which he hit more than half of his home runs and batted .295 in the final 68 games.

    Scouts wonder if he'll ever develop the power of a typical first baseman, per Baseball America, because of the lack of uppercut in his swing. And you're not going to get Mark Teixeira's range or glove on defense because of previous back problems and below-average speed.

    But Bird, the Yankees No. 8 overall prospect, pure and simply projects to be a trustworthy hitter for average.

    You would expect him to improve his plate discipline, pitch recognition, self-awareness—and that average—as he rises through the system. And you cross your fingers that the home run totals remain, but you'd be happy taking his ability to get on base and make a pitcher work.

    Greg Bird may not get you bouncing your foot looking for game video, but he's not a bad backup option when Teixeira's contract is up.

2nd Base: Rob Refsnyder

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    The former Arizona Wildcat outfielder has made the transition to the infield since being selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. Similar to Sanchez (minus his arm) and Bird, there is nothing to be particularly excited about with Rob Refsnyder's defense (25 errors at second in 108 games in 2013). 

    But the 22-year-old, who was the Wildcats' cleanup hitter, appears major league ready on the offensive side of the ball, and the transition to second was a pragmatic one. Baseball America explained the move when he was drafted:

    The problem scouts have is that Refsnyder just doesn't profile as a corner outfielder in pro ball because he has a flat swing that's geared more for doubles than home runs. He's an average runner with an average arm, so scouts who like the bat are interested in getting Refsnyder to move back to second base, a position he played in high school.

    Refsnyder batted .341 in three years of college ball, and it's not as if he's been unable to adapt to professional pitching.

    In his first full year, with 130 games between Charleston (13 games) and his promotion to High-A Tampa (117 games), the 6'1", 205-pounder slashed .293/.413/.413 with 32 doubles, three triples, 57 RBI and 23 stolen bags in 29 attempts.

    In his stint in Tampa, moreover, he had an outstanding .384 wOBA, excellent strikeout (13.8 percent) and walk (15.4 percent) rates and an exceptional 140 wRC+. 

    If you're wondering (yelling about?) Angelo Gumbs, who many would have projected as the No. 1 second baseman prior to 2013, he took a step back last year when he went in the opposite direction of Refsnyder. The 2010 second-rounder was demoted from Tampa to Charleston, slashed just .213/.263/.330 on the year and made 10 errors in 75 games.

    And 2013 pick Gosuke Katoh is only 19 years old and has appeared in only 50 games in the Gulf Coast League. 

    That's not to say he won't overtake Gumbs and Refsnyder while the Yankees bumble around at second in the Bronx, but the sample size—even having batted .310—is too small at the start of 2014. He also struck out 44 times in those 50 games. 

3rd Base: Eric Jagielo

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    The Yankees actually have a few potential third basemen in the minors in Eric Jagielo, Peter O'Brien, Dante Bichette Jr. and Miguel Andujar. But Jagielo is the most polished of the bunch on both sides of the ball at the start of 2014. 

    The accolades stand out, of course: Baseball America ranked him No. 5 among organizational prospects, and the Bombers made the former Notre Dame power-hitter their first of three first-round picks in 2013. The big lefty (6'2", 195 lbs) hit 13 homers in his sophomore season, 13 in the Cape Cod League that summer and led the country in OBP his last year (.500) while hitting .388.

    The 21-year-old Jagielo can hit for power and average, can catch up to heaters while possessing the vision and patience to stay back on off-speed pitches and, simply put, as Baseball America notes, "With his sweet lefty stroke, Jagielo is made for Yankee Stadium." 

    The drawbacks are his below-average running ability and the remaining doubts over his defense, but scouts "believe he has the hands, action and arm strength for third base." 

    He should start 2014 in Charleston, but don't be surprised to see him promoted to High-A Tampa at some point this year. 

    The problem for O'Brien, who had a standout year between Charleston and Tampa in 2013 (.291/.350/.544, 22 HR, 96 RBI), is that he was originally drafted as a catcher and only made the switch to third last year for 38 games, in which he made a painful 18 errors.

    The Yankees can't just switch him back to catcher, either, with Sanchez and Murphy providing enough short-term prospect depth. 

    Bichette took a step back in 2013 while in Charleston, hitting just .214, striking out 119 times and hitting only 11 homers—and he committed 18 errors at third. So you may like Jagielo's upside right now over any optimism that Bichette regains form in 2014. 

    As for Andujar, he will turn 19 in 2014, and we need to see a larger sample size. In 50 games in 2012 he hit .232, and then in 34 games last year he jumped to .323 in rookie ball, but he made 11 errors. 

Shortstop: Abiatal Avelino

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    There is a great deal of uncertainty as to the successor to the throne in the Bronx—that is, the next everyday Yankees shortstop.

    If that player comes from within the organization in the next few years, the job is currently down to two prospects—Cito Culver and Abiatal Avelino. And really, it's a virtual tossup at the start of 2014, as both young infielders look promising.

    Culver is a 21-year-old first-round pick from 2010, he is 6'0", 190 pounds and he's from the last place you'd expect a hot baseball prospect (Rochester, N.Y.). Avelino is a 2011 international free-agent signee, he is 5'11", 186 pounds and from the most likely place you'd find a talented baseball prospect (San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic). 

    But gun to the temple, let's go with Avelino: He's a little younger, albeit with a few less answered questions than Culver and much less minor league time. But the guy just doesn't strike out and he is blazing fast.

    In 56 games of rookie ball in 2012, the then-17-year-old stole 25 bags while hitting .302/.398/.374, with 11 doubles and 25 RBI. In 51 games in 2013, with the final 17 after a promotion to Staten Island, he only struck out 17 times and stole 28 of 32 bags while batting .303/.381/.399.

    He doesn't figure to have much power, but his ability to get on base and avoid—no, literally avoid—striking out figures phenomenally.

    On the other side of the ball, he certainly has logged a fair number of errors (15 in '12, 15 in '13), but here's the upside, as Baseball America's Ben Badler pointed out in February 2013: "Avelino has wide shoulders on his athletic frame and could be an above-average defender at shortstop. His actions are clean, his hands and feet work well and he has good body control. He's an instinctive fielder who turns double plays well, has a good internal clock and a plus arm with solid-average speed." 

    As for his older competition? "The game comes easily to Culver, whose actions, instincts and range are all plus at times," notes a Baseball America draft report. The same publication, in its 2014 team rankings, even listed him as the best defensive infielder and as showcasing the best infield arm among all Yankees prospects.

    In his age-20 season in 2013, he was promoted from Charleston (104 games) to Tampa (16 games), and he played all but one game at short, tallying 21 total errors and a 96.1 fielding percentage, and while in Charleston he hit .232/.312/.344 with 13 stolen bases. 

    Bottom line: Nothing stands out about Culver's offense, though you'd be excited by his defense. We have yet to see something stand out from Avelino's defense, though his hitting and speed carry too much upside to ignore, even if we won't notice him in the upper echelons of the system for some time.

    You're not heading straight to the bank on Avelino, but you'd damn sure better wait it out for at least another season.

Corner Outfield: Tyler Austin

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    The Yanks have three feasible top prospects for a corner outfield spot, though each has more or less left the door open for the other two.

    Based upon what little we have seen from Zoilo Almonte in the bigs, from Ramon Flores in the minors and given that the previous hype around Tyler Austin has yet to be proven totally irrational, we're left with no definitive answer.

    But to make an educated guess at the start of 2014, the future still appears brightest for Austin.

    He is the largest of the three at 6'1", 220 pounds, has shown the most offensive potential—he could be a tremendous everyday hitter for average—and has sufficient speed, range and arm strength to plug into a corner outfield spot. He was drafted as a catcher out of high school in the 13th round in 2010, before moving to third base and ultimately to right while in the system. 

    Austin quickly became the talk of the town when he put up ridiculous numbers in rookie ball and Staten Island in 2011 (.354/.418/.579, 18 2B, 36 RBI, 18/18 SB in 47 games) and between primarily Charleston and Tampa in 2012 (.322/.400/.559, 17 HR, 35 2B, 6 3B, 80 RBI, 23/25 SB). 

    But there were a lot of whispers last season when he took the proverbial step back amid a wrist injury that held the then-21-year-old to only 83 games in Double-A Trenton (.257/.344/.373, 6 HR, 17 2B, 40 RBI, 4 SB). After being so dominant in the lower-class levels, it was unfortunate to see the dip in numbers after being promoted ultimately compounded by—if not due in large part to—his wrist.

    There is no reason he can't return to hitting prominence and dominance in 2014. If can revert to his high batting average while bolstering his power numbers, he could make a real climb to Scranton and get a bus ride to the Bronx.

    There's a reason Baseball America ranked him the best hitter for average, best batting prospect and No. 4 overall Yankees prospect after the 2012 season.

    Corner outfielder Almonte, who had only a .236/.274/.302 line in 34 MLB games to show for his call-up, left the door open for still-unproven prospects like Austin, and the 24-year-old will see increased pressure to show flashes of his .297 average from Triple-A.

    And Austin's down year, likewise, failed to convincingly separate himself from 21-year-old Flores, who, despite a .260 average in 2013 in Trenton, batted .302 in Tampa the previous year (fourth in the Florida State League).

Center Field: Slade Heathcott

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    You don't hear Slade Heathcott's name often mentioned without Mason Williams. Baseball America ranked Heathcott the No. 2 Yankees prospect and Williams as the No. 3 for 2014.

    But there are several red flags about Williams' game, primarily his diminishing bat, lack of effort at times and weight gain in 2013. Heathcott, on the other hand, is most noted for his max-effort style and his solid bat to add. 

    Prior to 2013, Williams was the organizational No. 1 prospect, but he declined offensively from his 2012 numbers (.298/.346/.474) and ended his season with a torn labrum.

    Baseball America mentioned his inability to catch up to heaters, playing most of the season in High-A (.261/.327/.350, 95 wRC+) and ending in Double-A for 17 games (.153/.164/.264, .189 BABIP). Though he still showcases great speed and range—and still projects to be an absolutely incredible defensive center fielder—scouts were turned off by his new slap-style approach at the plate (think, less-productive Ichiro).

    Heathcott, meanwhile, has been compared to Bryce Harper by Baseball America because of that all-out effort and playing style. He shows off an above-average arm from center with unbelievable range and speed. In Trenton in 2013, he hit .261/.327/.411 with 22 doubles, 49 RBI, 15 stolen bases and 104 wRC+.

    Baseball America, in its 2014 rankings, listed him as having the best outfield arm in the system and as the No. 2 player 25 and younger in the Yankees organization. 

    Williams was rated the fastest baserunner and best defensive outfielder, but the notes on his effort, which could relate to attitude, and transformed swing, which translated to decreased offensive output, scare you a bit.

    If Gary Sanchez is the most anticipated prospect, Heathcott may be the most enticing and exciting. 

Starting Pitcher: Rafael De Paula

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    Rafael De Paula emerges as a strong—if uncertain—choice for the top starting pitching prospect at the start of 2014.

    It's no easy task to decide on the prospect with the most upside among the number of organizational options: There's the slate of Double-A arms, such as Nik Turley, who don't necessarily project to be superstars—or even starting pitchers in the future. There are higher-upside pitchers such as Jose Ramirez, who haven't impressed while as high as Triple-A (4.88 ERA, 5.05 FIP in 8 starts in Scranton). 

    Then there's a name like Manuel Banuelos, the best competition to De Paula if we're talking upside as an above-average starter. But his Tommy John surgery inevitably carries doubts into 2014, and he missed all of 2013 after a mediocre 2012 (4.50 ERA, 3.83 FIP in 6 starts in Scranton).

    That brings us to De Paula, the pitcher formerly known as his 2008 iteration Rafael DePaula Figueroa, when MLB suspended him for a year because of fake documents.

    His fastball, which is his best and primary pitch, touches 99 mph and consistently hits the mid-90s, and he backs it up with a sharp curve and a changeup. 

    Baseball America took special note of his smooth, reliable delivery, his size and his attitude:

    [H]e’s physical with a strong, strapping frame, has a clean arm action and repeats his delivery, allowing him to throw consistent strikes. He has big hands and long arms, and he has shown a feel for manipulating the baseball. Club officials are excited about his work ethic and makeup. DePaula is the biggest X-factor in the system and his ceiling is as high as any Yankees minor league pitcher.

    The trickiest aspect of De Paula is his age (23 in 2014) in light of his inexperience—the 6'2", 212-pound right-hander will play in only his second season in the United States in 2014.

    As FanGraphs' Nathaniel Stoltz wrote in November, "[D]espite being a coveted international free agent, he didn’t sign a contract until he was almost 21 due to maintaining a false identity, being suspended, and taking a long time to acquire a visa in the aftermath of the incident."

    But when he emerged in the Dominican Summer League in 2012, he threw 61.2 innings to the tune of a 1.46 ERA, 85 strikeouts (12.4 K/9) and 18 walks (2.6 BB/9).

    In his first go of it stateside, he tossed 113.1 innings between Charleston and Tampa. While in Single-A, he compiled a respectable 2.94 ERA (2.03 FIP) and whopping 13.4 K/9 with 96 strikeouts in just 64.1 innings of work. But when he moved up to Tampa, his ERA shot to 6.06 (4.63 FIP) and his strikeouts diminished to 50 (9.2 K/9) in 49 innings of work.

    Despite the slippery back half of the season, look for De Paula to rebound and prove his worth as a future starter. 

Reliever: Mark Montgomery

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    Who's the best relief pitching prospect?

    The Yankees haven't even figured out their best relief option in the bigs, either, and when several former prospects make the 40-man roster out of spring, they'll be faced with having to sort through their respective roles in the pen.

    The point being, it's extremely difficult to select the prospect who figures to make the biggest relief impact.

    Projected starters like Jose Ramirez, and even De Paula, could ultimately find themselves working out of the bullpen, and projected relievers could find themselves in extended relief scenarios, eventually solidifying back-end starter roles in the process.

    A former hot topic of discussion, 23-year-old Mark Montgomery is a strong bet to be a top reliever—and could be an important one as soon as late 2014.

    He possesses an excellent 93 mph heater, and Baseball America emphasizes his deceptive arm angle and sneaky speed: "He has deception in his crossfire delivery, giving his 90-93 mph fastball good running life. He has better control than might be expected for a reliever with length in his arm action."

    He also has a good changeup that he uses against left-handed batters, but his crown jewel is his slider—and it might be the best in the organization, not just among Yankees prospects.

    Here's how Baseball America praised his out pitch: "Montgomery had the system’s best slider the day he signed, and some scouts give it plus-plus grades at times. It has uncommon depth to go with low- to mid-80s power, and it gives him the consistent swing-and-miss pitch that closers need."

    He was the Yankees' 11th-round selection in 2011, and in his first two professional seasons, he put up stunning numbers. In 2011, he tossed 28.1 total innings in Staten Island and Charleston, compiling a combined 1.91 ERA. While in Charleston, he secured 14 saves in 24.1 innings of work, with a 1.85 ERA (1.31 FIP) and ridiculous 41 strikeouts (15.2 K/9) while surrendering zero long balls.

    In 2012, he pitched 64.1 innings across Tampa and Double-A Trenton. He made 14 saves in High-A ball with a 1.34 ERA (1.59 FIP) and 61 strikeouts (13.6 K/9). 

    The one red flag came in 2013 while in Scranton, as his numbers declined to a 3.38 ERA (4.00 FIP) in 40 innings, while he gave up four homers, walked 25 and struck out only 49 (11.0 K/9). But the fact that he spent several occasions on the disabled list due to back and shoulder problems probably factored in. 

    Look for Montgomery to keep mowing hitters down with that slide piece in 2014 and to emerge as the premier relief prospect in Triple-A.