Midseason re-evaluation of the Yankees’ prospects

At the start of the season, the Yankees’ farm system was regarded as above-average. While the collection of prospects wasn’t considered to be elite, virtually every ranking out there put them in the 10-14 range out of the 30 teams. The gems of the farm system were thought to be four hitters: Gary Sanchez, Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, and Slade Heathcott, all who had strong 2012 campaigns in A-ball. Prospect analysts had varying opinions on where they were ranked, but the aforementioned quartet appeared on most top 100 lists. The Yankees also had its share of pitching prospects, but many of the top ones had injury concerns that kept them off of prospect lists. Chris St. John compiles a consensus prospect list each year which draws from 12 different rankings. The Yankees had five prospects on the list in 2013: Sanchez (35), Williams (40), Austin (82), Heathcott (85), and the injured Manny Banuelos (127).

On the whole, the Yankees’ prospects have disappointed thus far, with several of them looking overmatched when exposed to tougher competition. Williams, Austin, and Heathcott have all faltered thus far, clouding their major-league futures.  In its midseason top 50 list, Baseball America included two players, Gary Sanchez (34) and Rafael De Paula (45), omitting Mason Williams, who they ranked 33rd in the pre-season.  Prospect experts Keith Law and Jason Parks tabbed Sanchez as the team’s lone representative in their respective midseason top-50 lists.

Gary Sanchez: Before getting into everything that’s gone wrong with the Yankees’ system, lets focus on Gary Sanchez, who has emerged as the organization’s clear-cut top prospect. Sanchez is putting together a superb year in High-A Tampa, hitting .269/.333/.469, good for a 125 wRC+. He’s striking out 5% less than he did last season while maintaining impressive power and also drawing his share of walks. His defense has received some criticism, making it unclear whether or not his future is behind the plate, but he still has some time to hone his catching skills.

Mason Williams: The 2013 season has been a rough one for Mason Williams. In addition to scuffling at the plate, he was also tagged with a DUI back in April. Thus far in class-A Tampa, Williams holds a very unimpressive .256/.334/.355 batting line, only mustering a .099 ISO after displaying a modest .175 mark last season. In fairness, part of his diminished performance might be attributable to the labrum surgery he had last August. Although he’s almost a year removed from the surgery, it’s usually a few months before a player can resume baseball activity, and several months before returning to full strength. This is the same surgery that Michael Pineda had 14 months ago, although the timetable’s a bit longer for a pitcher. Williams’ primary tool may be his top notch defense in center, but he’s going to need to show some improvement at the plate in order to re-establish himself as a prospect.

Tyler Austin: After an enormous breakout in 2012 where he clubbed .322/.400/.559, Austin has fallen back to earth this season. He’s posted a pedestrian .257/.349/.373 batting line following an aggressive promotion to AA Trenton. While his plate discipline has remained intact, his power has evaporated– His .116 ISO is less than half of last year’s mark. Austin’s power had been drawn into question by scouts in the past, Jason Parks predicted that his “over-the-fence production might fall short of [a] prototypical corner.” Austin still has a lot going for him, but will have to recapture some of his power in order to become anything more than a fringy corner outfielder.

Slade Heathcott: Heathcott was also aggressively bumped up to AA and has really scuffled offensively. More alarming than his poor performance is the fact that his strikeout and walk rates are nearly identical to what he’s done in previous seasons. Heathcott’s solid performance coupled with his loud tools might have overshadowed just how lucky he had gotten on balls in play. In his last two seasons in A-ball, he struck out 27.1% of the time, with a .388 BABIP propping up his shiny .292/.363/.453  batting line. With a more believable .338 BABIP, he’s hit .250/.317/.370 in 2013. Slade’s still a high-end athlete with major league potential, but he still has lots of room to improve his game, namely cutting down on his strikeouts. Heathcott is almost 23 years old, but is much younger in terms of games played, having yet to appear in more than 76 games in any season since he was drafted back in 2009. While this raises major concerns about his health, it’s also rather impressive that he’s managed to progress as far as he has given his sporadic playing time.

Beyond these four, most of the Yankees top prospects are pitchers, many of whom have had injury concerns. Neither Manny Banuelos nor Ty Hensley will throw a pitch in 2013; and, Jose Campos, who missed most of 2012 with an elbow fracture, has pitched fairly well in class-A Charleston.

While other pitchers have faltered, Rafael De Paula has dominated. He was ranked 45th overall by Baseball America and has clearly emerged as the organization’s best pitching prospect. After finally getting his visa issues straightened out in the Dominican Republic, DePaula proceeded to strike out 37.5% of batters he faced down in Charleston while posting a sparkling 2.94 ERA over 64.1 innings before being bumped up to Tampa. He’s already 22, so he was old for the league, but scouting reports indicate that he’s the real deal.

Jose Ramirez is another arm out of the Dominican Republic who represents one of the team’s top pitching prospects. After a solid two months in AA, the 23-year-old was promoted to AAA Scranton. While not an elite prospect, he is expected to develop into a mid-rotation starter down the road.

Second-baseman Angelo Gumbs appeared relatively high on some pre-season organizational prospect lists with Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus ranking him 6th and 7th respectively. Gumbs has elite bat speed and runs like a deer, but has had some nagging injuries and has yet to string together any sort of success in the minors. He was recently demoted to Charleston after hitting .208/.259/.296 in Tampa. Some of his struggles might be attributable to a finger injury suffered back in April, but his prospect status has taken a serious dive in 2013.

Over the last three months, J.R. Murphy has managed to reestablish himself as a relevant catching prospect. Before breaking out this year, Murphy had failed to live up to expectations at the plate as well as behind it. This year, he preceeded to hit .268/.352/.421 in AA and has performed even better after being promoted to AAA. Like seemingly all Yankees catching prospects, there are questions surrounding his ability to stay behind the plate, but he’s supposedly made strides in that regard since he started playing there exclusively. Given the ineptitude of Chris Stewart and Austin Romine, Murphy could find himself in the Bronx within the next couple of months if they believe his defense is sound enough.

Now that the Yankees no longer have a seemingly unlimited amount of cash to spend, it’s more crucial than ever that they develop a good amount of their players from within. While guys like Sanchez and De Paula have shown a lot of promise this year, most of the other top prospects in the Yankees organization have either stalled out or fallen flat on their faces, putting the team’s future in jeopardy. Having three draft picks in the top 33 this year certainly helped the farm system, causing Keith Law to praise to the Yankees’ system despite the struggles of incumbent prospects. Still, none of Eric Jagielo, Aaron Judge, or Ian Clarkin will be ready to contribute in the Bronx until at least 2015, leaving the immediate pipeline relatively dry.

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, and is an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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