New York Yankees' 4 Sleeper Prospects to Watch in Spring Training

Peter Richman@ peter_f_richmanCorrespondent IFebruary 6, 2014

New York Yankees' 4 Sleeper Prospects to Watch in Spring Training

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    Associated Press

    The sunny west coast of Florida beckons. In little more than a week, the romanticized time when pitchers and catchers report happens to fall on the most "romantic" day of the year. Feb. 14 begins the arduous journey of whittling down 66 total spring training attendees to the 25-man New York Yankees roster.

    Although 40 players had already secured roster spots and a flight to Tampa, the Bombers recently announced the signing of nine additional players to minor league contracts, who, along with 17 others, round out the 26 total non-roster invitees coming to camp.

    There are, of course, several prospects among the invitees, many of whom we'll be interested to follow and track over the coming weeks. Some will enter Steinbrenner Field having garnered significant hype for years; no doubt eyes will be affixed to their every movement, as they compete for Opening Day backup roles and look to prove their big league readiness.

    Others slide in with lower profiles—either due to low ceilings and expectations, or because they simply fly under the radar—and as I profiled last week, some of them are even dark-horse candidates to sneak onto the roster come April.

    But there are still a few Yankees minor leaguers among the 66 names heading to camp who are being slept on. 

    For the past few months, this Yankees prospects series has delved into a good amount of predicting, projecting and ranking for the young talent: We began with future MLB arrival dates for the top dogs and moved to rating the best ones at each position, before turning our attention to a ranking of the most underrated farmhands and coming to last week's dark horses. 

    This week, though, in lieu of further forecasting and ranking, will be more about giving the remaining sleeper prospects their fair shake. They are not to be found at the tops of prospects rankings, they haven't been highlighted in any articles from this series and they are far from locks to break camp in 2014. 

    But each of them has compiled enough recent statistics to demonstrate realistic upside, and each possesses enough tools or talent to rationalize expectations that they could help the big league ballclub—even if not in 2014. 

    You may not think they deserve your unbridled optimism about a future in the Bronx. But the following four sleepers warrant a peripheral watch in spring training and justify, at the least, some more of the blissful ignorance of the farm to be eliminated before Grapefruit League action commences. 

    Who do you think is the biggest sleeper prospect in the Yankees organization? Let me know by making your case below.

    Unless otherwise noted, all common statistics and information are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and advanced metrics via FanGraphs.

Peter O'Brien, C/3B

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Status: Non-roster invitee

    Opening Day Age: 23

    Height, Weight: 6'3", 215

    Bats-Throws: R-R

    From: Miami Gardens, Fla.

    College: Bethune-Cookman College; University of Miami

    Drafted: 2012, second round by the Yankees

    Highest Level: High-A

    For all the quietness surrounding the Yankees' 2012 second-rounder, O'Brien has one of the loudest bats in the system. After a relatively poor first year catching in Low-A Staten Island (48 G, .202/.349/.394, 10 HR, 8 2B, 32 RBI, 88 wRC+), O'Brien broke out in 2013, when he hit 22 combined homers.

    He caught all 53 of his games in Single-A Charleston while batting .325/.394/.619, with 11 homers, 22 doubles and 41 RBI, and stacking up a .397 BABIP, .446 wOBA and a ridiculous 181 wRC+. 

    After another promotion to High-A Tampa, O'Brien proved he was a big bopper in 66 games. He caught 12 of them, slid over to third base for 38 and designated hit in 17. His line dipped against better pitching (.265/.314/.486), but he still matched his 11 round-trippers from Charleston, collected 17 two-baggers and drove in 55, while compiling 122 wRC+. 

    In June of last season, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer noted that O'Brien's bat was invaluable, via Baseball America's George King (subscription required): "He has huge power and can hit. He has too big of a pass up on." Vice president Mark Newman raved, per King's report, "He has legitimate raw power. The type of power that can produce 25-30 big league homers."

    O'Brien best projects as a big league DH—and I mean that—since his defense is a big "if." He is blocked from catcher by Brian McCann in the Bronx, by Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine and J.R. Murphy all between the bigs and Scranton, and by Gary Sanchez as the most heralded prospect—which is probably why he shifted to third base last year. 

    In case you've literally been sleeping, by the way, the Yankees don't currently have a confident, everyday option at the hot corner, so the door is wide open. Not that O'Brien sees a much better shot to break camp this spring as a corner infielder—he needs to prove he can at least hit Double-A pitching—but he should get a look for that short and powerful compact swing (check out the video of the bomb below).

    Scouts agree he needs to improve on defense, too. FanGraphs' Marc Hulet best summarized O'Brien's alluring outlook following the 2013 season, saying that while he "showed consistent power production throughout the season," that "there are still some question marks surrounding his defensive work but the bat is intriguing."

    Video: Here's O'Brien absolutely crushing a hanging slider when he was a senior at Miami.

Zelous Wheeler, INF

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    Rich Pilling/Getty Images

    Status: Non-roster invitee

    Opening Day Age: 27

    Height, Weight: 5'10", 220

    Bats-Throws: R-R

    From: Childersburg, Ala.

    College: Wallace State Community College

    Drafted: 2007, 19th round by the Milwaukee Brewers; claimed on waivers by Baltimore Orioles in 2012; free-agent signing by Yankees in November 2013

    Highest Level: Triple-A (Orioles)

    Expectations usually come tempered and don't runneth over the proverbial cup when a guy bounces around various levels of the minor leagues—for multiple teams, for seven years, after playing college ball and while never once appearing in a major league game.

    But consider that, in the last six years, Zelous has shown consistent production and pop as he has risen through the minors. These are his batting averages from 2008-13, which illustrate his ability to adapt and adjust to higher difficulties of pitching: .258 (A), .268 (A+), .275 (AA), .272 (AA, AAA), .269 (AA, AAA), .275 (AA, AAA). 

    His two most recent, insightful sample sizes come from 97 games with Baltimore's Double-A affiliate in 2012 (.275/.363/.458, 13 HR, 18 2B, 44 RBI, 129 wRC+), and from 90 games last season in Triple-A (.268/.340/.421, 10 HR, 17 2B, 45 RBI, 114 wRC+).

    Plus, Wheeler can play anywhere in the infield. In Triple-A last year, he primarily played third (49 games, not-so-great 7 E) but also slotted in at second (26 games, 3 E) and short (2 games).

    Pass judgement as you may on the husky utility infielder, but the Yankees have a grand total of zero answers to four infield questions. Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts all missed significant portions of last season with injury, the latter two of whom are suffering from "old" and the final one who has little chance of being productive and no chance of staying on the field for six months.

    At third base and backup duty, Brendan Ryan, Kelly Johnson and Eduardo Nunez should induce much more nervous laughter than confidence—and after that, you figure the infielders who will get the most looks this spring will be Dean Anna and Scott Sizemore, followed by Yangervis Solarte and maybe Russ Canzler. 

    Not saying Wheeler makes the roster; but he is a prime example of a sleeper to keep an eye on amidst a sea of mediocrity heading to Tampa in the coming weeks.

    Video: Here's Zelous recently cranking one for the Mexican Pacific League's Naranjeros de Hermosillo.

Danny Burawa, RHP

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Status: Non-roster invitee

    Opening Day Age: 25

    Height, Weight: 6'2", 210

    Throws: R

    From: Riverhead, N.Y.

    College: St. John's University

    Drafted: 2010, 12th round by the Yankees

    Highest Level: Double-A

    Burawa is a largely unheralded, slept-on local Long Island kid—originally from Suffolk County, the big, loose righty went on to attend St. John's. He boasts a mid-to-high-90s fastball with sharp tailing and sinking action and a put-away slider in the mid-80s (see video below).

    In 2010, he tossed seven innings in Staten Island and struck out 10 batters, but he emerged in 2011, when he began the year in Charleston and finished it in Tampa. He completed 84 combined innings of work to a 3.64 ERA, and a 3.66 ERA (2.46 FIP) in his High-A duty. 

    His control certainly improved over those three levels of the minors, as his walk rates decreased: 9.00 (Rookie), 3.02 (A) and 2.06 (A+). But he tore an oblique in 2012 and sat out the entirety of the season.

    He made his return with a promotion to Trenton last season, tossing 66 innings with a 2.59 ERA (3.31 FIP) and 9.00 strikeout rate; although he regressed with his command, as his walk rate climbed to 5.73.

    That Burawa is a lanky, loose slingshot hurler is nothing new. As Baseball America noted (subscription required) prior to his selection by the Yankees, "He pumps fastballs...with good armside run. ... Burawa's limited track record causes scouts to be cautious, but his fresh arm is also an asset—one scout called his arm 'a very loose cannon.'"

    So it's interesting that this summer after Burawa hit his stride in late-June, the New York Post's Jonathan Lehman explained that the right-hander is in fact most successful when he eases back—not when he just chucks 95-98 mph gas.

    "It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but Danny Burawa needs not to try so hard," Lehman wrote, before noting that the 25-year-old "is a hard thrower with a violent delivery, prone to losing command of the strike zone," so that "the key to Burawa’s effectiveness, says Tommy Phelps, his pitching coach with Double-A Trenton, is easing off the throttle."

    Bottom line, if Burawa can adopt some more control this spring and find more consistency with the strike zone in Trenton, he could be on the move fairly swiftly to Scranton, and maybe to a bullpen job.

    We know the relief competition is wide open after David Robertson, Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton, and you have to consider this sleeper given he enters camp as one of only 13 non-roster pitcher invitees—and with the upside to efficiently and consistently miss bats at the major league level. 

    Video: Here's back-to-back strikeouts by Burawa.

Nik Turley, LHP

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Status: 40-man roster

    Opening Day Age: 24

    Height, Weight: 6'4", 195

    Throws: L

    From: La Canada, Calif.

    High School: Harvard-Westlake

    Drafted: 2008, 50th round by the Yankees

    Highest Level: Triple-A (1 G, 6 IP, 2 H, ND)

    It's not that the lefty high school product completely flies under the radar; it's that many people seem to be sleeping on him heading into 2014 spring training. It's largely due to the low expectations that Turley will break camp, since he would stand to benefit more from further reps in Trenton and additional time in Scranton before making the jump. 

    The Yankees have as much a shortage of southpaw pitchers as they do everyday infielders, by the way. But the chatter primarily has revolved around Manny Banuelos, Cesar Cabral and Vidal Nuno for this spring. Last week, I included Fred Lewis in that conversation to win a left-handed bullpen role, and I cited his experience over Turley's upside. 

    But lest anyone forget, the Yankees included the 24-year-old Turley on the 40-man roster this winter. And he projects to be a very reliable starter for the future after 2014—not just another name in the hat to be a spot starter or role-playing reliever. 

    And reaching back a little more, we'll notice that Baseball America rated Turley the No. 14 organizational prospect in 2012;'s "Prospect Watch" ranked him No. 17 out of 20 in 2013; and Baseball American graded him with the best organizational curveball of any Yankees prospect in its 2014 rankings. 

    So what exactly are we sleeping on? 

    Turley is a 6'4" lefty with a heater touching 95 mph, the ability to paint both edges with secondary pitches, a progressing changeup and a knee-buckling curve (need to watch the video below).

    Baseball America (subscription required) stated that "He has a big, physical frame and delivery reminiscent of Andy Pettitte’s."'s "Prospect Watch" praised his "great pitching frame," his execution and, most promising of all from a coach's, teammate's and fan's perspective, his workhorse mentality: "He competes well, gets ahead and finds a way to keep his team in games even without his best stuff."'s Bernie Pleskoff lauded "Turley's effective over-the-top delivery," calling it "a factor that adds to his deception. He hides the ball well within the movement of his long arms and body, making life especially difficult for left-handed hitters." Pleskoff also mentioned the simple but effective, business-like nature of his mechanics, keying in on the fact that it's his ability to pitch downhill from a difficult angle for hitters more than his being aggressive or overpowering. 

    In six seasons covering every rung of the minors, Turley has compiled a 3.28 ERA in 486.1 innings, with 460 strikeouts and 197 walks. In Trenton last year, he started 26 games with an 11-8 record, and in his 139 total innings in Double-A, he compiled a 3.88 ERA (4.18 FIP) and 137 strikeouts (8.87 K/9).

    Then what's the continued reason for sleeping on him at the moment?  

    His walk rates and, as noted by Pleskoff, his struggles against right-handed batters. As for the former, here are his worsening rates from 2011-13, as he's begun to face better hitters: 2.30 (A), 3.54 (A+) and 4.73 (AA). For the latter, here are the batting-average splits from the most telling seasons, 2011 and 2013 (vs. LHB/RHB): .215/.240 and .176/.240.

    But if he maintains his strikeout totals, gains a stronger command of the strike zone and fares better against righties, look for him to jump rapidly from Trenton to Scranton, and expect to see him in the Bronx in one of the next two seasons.

    And if he doesn't figure out righties, the Yankees could always use extra confidence with the vacated LOOGY role since Boone Logan's departure.  

    Video: Here's Turley striking out 10 in Game 1 of the Eastern League Championship in September, flashing a strong heater and that nasty hook. Added bonus: Gary Sanchez is his catcher.