Sunday, January 29, 2017

2017 Top 20 Yankees Prospects

This long slog of an off-season is slowly coming to a close, and with that prospect rankings from the various outlets across the web are out in droves. Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law, MLB, and several others have shared their opinions on the stacked Yankee farm system and I will do the same. By no means am I a professional or a scout; I just pretend to be one, so take all of this with a large grain of salt.

Given how deep the Yanks' farm is, it was very tough to come up with a top 20 list, as there were several others who are not on this list but received consideration for making the cut. I could have easily expanded the list beyond 20 to 30, 40, 50, maybe even 60, but I decided to keep it at 20 instead. It makes for a good challenge to figure out who really deserves it. Without any further explanation, here are my top 20 Yankee prospects for the 2017 season:

20. Estevan Florial

Perhaps no one will have Florial this high on a prospect ranking, but it's hard to deny the loud tools and high upside. Despite putting up just okay numbers in the Appalachian League last summer, Florial has 70 speed, arm, and raw power. He has the potential to be a plus defender in center field as well. There is obvious swing and miss to be corrected, but he is still very young at 19 years of age. Still a long ways to go, but Florial has some of the highest upside of anyone in the farm system.

19. Ian Clarkin

With a system that is chocked full of high-upside talent, Clarkin may now be a bit under the radar. The lefty from San Diego features a four-pitch mix of fastball, curve, change, and slider; the heater sits around 91-93 mph and the change-up, as of now, may be his best off-speed delivery. While it was his curve that was his best secondary pitch, the pitch regressed a bit this past season, so it will be a key for him to rediscover its previous form. Clarkin re-worked his delivery last season, which now most notably includes a much shorter leg kick from his previous days. Clarkin is a hard worker and is willing to make adjustments; should things go right he can become a dependable middle-of-the-rotation starter.

18. Zack Littell

Of all the trades the Yankees made, the Littell-for-James Pazos deal could end up being quite the steal for the Yankees. Littell doesn't have huge upside, but he has the chance to pitch in the middle/back of the rotation. His fastball sits in the low-90's, but with a good amount of sink that generates plenty of grounders. Littell's curveball is a true downer and his best off-speed pitch; the change is his third pitch and how it develops may determine how effective he'll be as a starter going forward.

17. Tyler Austin

Austin's reemergence on the prospect map was one of the more brighter stories of the past season. He had gone from DFA'd, to unclaimed off waivers, back to Double-A Trenton for a fourth time, up to Triple-A Scranton, raked, and up to the big leagues where he hit a number of big home runs down the stretch. Austin is a solid bet to be at the very least a productive bench bat that can fill in at first and corner outfield. His power is very real, even so his opposite field power, where he hit all five of his home runs last season.

16. Jonathan Holder

One of the big breakout performers of 2016, Holder went back to his original role of reliever, after starting in 2015, and shot through the upper levels of the minors and to the Bronx. He posted unbelievable numbers in the minors, including striking out 101 batters in 65.1 innings across three levels to just seven walks allowed. Holder's fastball isn't completely overpowering, sitting in the low-mid '90s, but he has a hard, breaking cutter and an absolute hammer of a curveball. His cutter-curve combo conjures up visions of David Robertson, and Holder has that type of potential.

15. Domingo Acevedo

Acevedo powered his way with his high-90's fastball through the South Atlantic League and almost through the Florida State League last season before a shoulder injury cut his season short in August, thus halting a late-season promotion to Trenton. To go with his high-octane fastball with sink, Acevedo features a plus change-up; although his slider still needs work. Acevedo is a pretty big guy at 6' 7", 248 lbs* and his mechanics can get a little out of whack, giving him command issues at times. I think it's more likely he ends up in relief, mainly because of the inconsistent slider and high-effort delivery, but I can see him ending up as a setup man or closer.

*According to Acevedo's good buddy @PeterDjSazon on twitter, Acevedo is 248 lbs instead of the listed 190 lbs on MiLB's site. That sounds much more realistic.

14. Dillon Tate

Tate's stock has dropped quite a bit since the start of last season, thanks to a hamstring injury that forced him to miss a few weeks in April while still in the Rangers' organization; as a result, his fastball velocity and overall results took a hit. While the Yankees used him exclusively in relief after the trade last August, he will be used as a starter now and hopefully moving forward. When right, Tate has three potential above-average/plus pitches in his fastball, slider, and change-up; he has a good, clean, athletic delivery. There was a reason he went no. 4 overall in the draft just a couple years ago, and the Yankees will look to unlock his high upside in his first full season in the org. Lots of risk, but lots of reward if it breaks right.

13. Tyler Wade

There are plenty of shortstops in this system with higher upsides and flashier tools than Wade, but few are "safer" bets to contribute at the MLB level. Wade has improved with the glove at short and second, and he even saw some time in the outfield during the Arizona Fall League. There won't be much power from Wade, if any, except for gap power and legging out singles into doubles and doubles into triples, but that's okay. Overall I see Wade doing a little bit of everything as a utility man on a playoff team or a starting SS or 2B on a lesser team.

12. Jordan Montgomery

In the span of a couple seasons Montgomery has gone from prototypical high-floor, low-ceiling college starter to an upper level arm with a pretty decent amount of upside. His upside has gone up thanks in no small part to an increase in fastball velocity, now sitting in the low-mid '90s, up from his previous 88-90 mph fastball he had coming out of South Carolina. The 6' 6" left-hander has added a cutter/slider hybrid to his four-pitch mix, which also features a plus change-up and solid curve.

11. Miguel Andujar

Andujar broke out in 2016, at least in Tampa, before getting an extended taste of Double-A in the second half of the season. The power output he displayed in Tampa (10 HR's, .191 ISO) didn't translate in his stay with Trenton (2 HR's, .092 ISO), but Andujar has a history of starting off slow at a level before adjusting and taking off. Defensively, he still has room to improve, but he has the skills to be above-average at the hot corner with a rocket arm.

10. Albert Abreu

A flame-throwing right-hander acquired in the Brian McCann deal over the off-season, Abreu has potential top-half of the rotation potential. Abreu can consistently hit the mid-high 90's with his fastball, and his curve is a hammer as well. Abreu's change-up and slider are coming along and are more than just "show-me" pitches, but he will need to do a better job of throwing strikes if he wants to live up to his potential. Still only 21 years of age, Abreu still has plenty of time on his side to improve his strike-throwing ability.

9. Chance Adams

Adams burst onto the scene in a big way this past season by not dominating in relief, a role he filled in college, but in the rotation between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton. Because he was able to hold his stuff and velocity during a late-season, five-inning appearance during his junior year at Dallas Baptist, the Yankees decided to try Adams in the rotation and it has paid off greatly thus far. Adams' fastball sits in the mid-high 90's; he also boasts a sharp slider that grades at plus or better, and a change-up which is more than a "show me" pitch; a curve is his fourth offering. There are concerns given his 6' 0" size and if he will get enough plane on his fastball going forward, but he wouldn't be the first 6-foot starter to have success in the big leagues should it all work out. If starting doesn't work out, he should be a lights-out reliever in the back end.

8. Dustin Fowler

He may be a bit higher ranked than most, but Fowler has the skill-set to be an impact hitter atop a Major League lineup and a plus defender in center. He is able to slash the ball from line to line and gap to gap, and he even showed off some pop in the second half with Double-A Trenton last season. Fowler's speed should allow him to steal 20+ bases annually and save plenty of runs in the outfield. His biggest bugaboo is his possibly over-aggressive approach at the plate, where he is prone to whiffing at off-speed low and away, though he wouldn't be the first prospect to have that issue. How much he improves his patience at the plate will determine where he'll hit in a major league order, whether that be at the top or the bottom of the lineup.

7. Justus Sheffield

Although he doesn't have the ideal pitcher's height of 5' 10", Sheffield has a well-built lower half which he uses to power his mid-90's fastball. Sheffield complements his heater with a sharp slider and developing change. The southpaw saw his walks climb in 2016, so that will be something to watch for as he gets his first extended taste of upper level ball. While there is a possibility he ends up in the bullpen, he should still be given every opportunity to start; lefties with his type of stuff just don't grow on trees. If things break right, I can see Sheffield turn into a Scott Kazmir type of starter, with lots of strikeouts and solid run-prevention, even if he's a bit inefficient.

6. James Kaprielian

Described as a "vanilla" pick during the 2015 draft, Kaprielain has been anything but since entering pro ball. His stuff spiked after being drafted, to the point where his fastball velo of originally 88-92 mph at UCLA sits more in the 93-97 mph range. Kaprielian also features a slider, curve, and change as his secondary offerings, all three of which can be plus. Couple the stuff with the size and ability to pound the strike zone, you have the potential for a top-of-the-rotation caliber starter. Unfortunately, Kaprielian made only three regular season starts in High-A and missed the rest of the season due to elbow problems, leading to some scouts wondering if his delivery was the reason for the injury. Fortunately, Kaprielian returned and pitched in the Arizona Fall League, where his stuff appeared the same as it was pre-injury, and, most importantly, came away unscathed. The upcoming 2017 season will be a big one for Kaprielian, as he looks to regain lost time.

5. Jorge Mateo

Mateo got off to a blazing start in 2016, dazzling Yankees' spring camp with his speed and surprising pop. Those tools carried over into the first month of the season, but came to a screeching halt soon after. He got suspended two weeks for violating team policy in the middle of the summer, though what exactly the policy he broke remains unclear to the public. His stock may be down now, but I still see Mateo as a good bet to have a productive big league career; he still has his 80-grade speed, and he has added some defensive versatility by playing second base in the regular season and some center field in instructs. Ultimately, I can see Mateo sticking in center field long-term, even if he gets moved in a trade at some point.

4. Blake Rutherford

The Yankees were able to steal Rutherford, a consensus top-10 talent entering the 2016 draft, with the 18th overall pick, due to age and signability concerns. They should thank the 17 teams ahead of them who decided to pass on Rutherford. Rutherford's sweet left-handed stroke, coupled with good patience, and the ability to show power to all fields, makes him a good bet to hit and hit big in the future. Although he's a center fielder at present, he doesn't quite project to have the necessary speed to man the position in the future. A move to an outfield corner could be in order for Rutherford, though the bat will play anywhere. Even though Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa are glorified hitter's graveyards, it wouldn't shock me if Rutherford cleared both levels and got to Trenton in 2018; his bat is that special.

3. Aaron Judge

While he may have taken a hit in some circles after his strikeout-filled cameo in the big leagues, I still have faith Judge can reach his upside as 30+ homer slugger. Especially in the upper levels, Judge has had to go through an adjustment period; at each stop, he has been able to make the adjustment and advance to the next level. Just this past season in Triple-A Judge has worked with some form of a leg kick and has lowered his hands at the plate; those adjustments helped him burst through the International League after a slow start. Should he make further adjustments at the big league level, I can see Judge ultimately become a .250+ hitter, with 30-35 HR's at his peak, to go along with the solid defense in right field. Judge will always strike out a healthy amount because of his size and long arms, but he has the talent to be a productive middle-of-the-order bat.

2. Clint Frazier

Lauded for his "legendary" bat speed, Frazier slots in as the number 2 prospect in the system. When everything's right, Frazier can be a five-tool type of talent. Frazier had a strong year overall in 2016, but he struggled after being acquired as the headliner in the Andrew Miller trade. Those struggles, however, could be attributed to further adjusting to Triple-A competition and him trying to do too much at the plate, something Frazier admitted to after the season. When he's going well, Frazier will shoot line drives from line to line and gap to gap; he doesn't need to try to do too much because the natural talent is there. Frazier will be one of the youngest players in the International League this season, and should he make the necessary adjustments, we will see him in the Bronx sometime this summer.

1. Gleyber Torres

Acquired as the headliner in the Aroldis Chapman trade with the Cubs, Torres is the top prospect in a stacked Yankee farm. Just 20 years old, Torres is the complete package: advanced approach, can hit to all fields, has developing pop, some speed, and can pick it at short to go with a plus throwing arm. The overall numbers in the 2016 regular season weren't eye-popping by themselves, but when you realize he put up a .775 OPS as a (then) 19-year-old shortstop, while playing in pitchers' parks, it's pretty impressive. As if Torres' stock wasn't already high enough, he had to (not literally) explode in the Arizona Fall League, winning the league's MVP and batting title, thus adding to the hype. This season Torres will get his first real taste of upper-level ball in Trenton. I don't think we should expect Torres to reach the Bronx this season, but we shouldn't completely dismiss it, either. He has a world of talent and has breezed through every stop thus far.

Expanded thoughts

Wow, is this system deep, or what? Guys like Florial, Clarkin, and Littell, the 20th, 19th, and 18th best prospects would be hovering, or even inside, the top 10 in a lot of other systems across the game, I'd imagine. Florial, although he's still far away, has an All-Star type of ceiling, while Clarkin and Littell can be mid-rotation type of starters. Not too shabby.

Guys like Dietrich Enns, J.P. Feyereisen, Drew Finley, Dermis Garcia, Wilkerman Garcia, Ben Heller, Kyle Holder, Billy McKinney, Hoy Jun Park, Fracier Perez, Yefrey Ramirez, Nick Solak, Steven Tarpley, and Mason Williams were in consideration, among others, for this list. It was pretty tough trying to squeeze 20 names in, but a fun challenge regardless.

Look at how much the trade deadline and off-season trades impacted this list. Six of the top 20, four of the top 10, and three of the top seven were acquired in trades. This may be worth another post for another day, but Brian Cashman's legacy may come down to how well the rebuild goes, and he's off to a flying start with all the potential impact talent he's added the last six months.

It's hard to predict how this all shakes out, but I'm hoping Mateo has a bounce-back season so the Yankees can move him as part of a package for a front-line type of starter (*cough* Jose Quintana). Should Torres take the next step to the big leagues, he figures to play either second or third base with Didi Gregorius manning shortstop. Starlin Castro would presumably be at third or second, Greg Bird at first, and Chase Headley off the team. I mentioned how Mateo's home could eventually be center field, but the Yankees' first hope, I'd imagine, is for Judge and Frazier to fill the outfield corners, and Jacoby Ellsbury isn't going anywhere with that contract. Perhaps someone doesn't work out and Mateo can find a spot on the Yankees down the road, but my money is on him being moved at some point for some pitcher. We'll see.

You can add Andujar and even Tyler Wade as guys who may have to be dealt elsewhere because there aren't enough spots to go around on the big league team, especially so for Andujar. If Andujar isn't the everyday third baseman, what value does he have on the Yankees? Like with Mateo, maybe some guys don't work out and a spot eventually opens, but I'm not sure Andujar has a long-term future with the Yankees. With Wade, it's not crazy to see him unseating Ronald Torreyes as the utility guy, but if a team views him as an everyday SS or 2B and wants him in a deal that makes sense, by all means move him.

The top five prospects in the system are bats, but overall it is solid mix of bats and arms. The arms, as most do, carry more risk, mainly with Kaprielian's injury past; Sheffield and Adams' smaller sizes; Abreu's suspect control; Tate's inconsistencies; Acevedo's reliever risk; not sky-high upsides for Montgomery, Littell, and Clarkin, but they all have their strengths too.

They say one in every three pitching prospect pans out in some way, the second performs poorly, and the third gets hurt. I think a good example of this is the "Killer B's" Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman, and Manny Banuelos. Betances has flourished in relief and has made the All Star game in each of his three big league seasons; Brackman couldn't find the strike zone with a GPS in the minor leagues and, as of 2013, is playing basketball overseas; Banuelos had Tommy John surgery and has had trouble staying on the field in subsequent seasons.

So with that in mind, using these nine starting pitching prospects (Holder is already a reliever, so we'll exclude him), and this "Rule of Three" methodology, the Yankees should get three pitchers out of this group to pan out in at least some way, be that as a starter or reliever. Obviously three starters would be amazing, two would be really nice as well. We'll see how it plays out. If they can get one no. 3 type of starter and two late-inning relievers (let's just say Kaprielian's the no. 3 starter and Sheffield and Acevedo are the relievers, for argument's sake) that would be nice as well. Pitching prospects are very volatile; look at the Atlanta Braves, they have been stockpiling arms in recent years, knowing that most will not work out.

One starter I'm looking forward to watching closely this season is Littell. He had a really nice breakout year in the Mariners' org last season and it may be for real. Littell has always been a strike-thrower, he racks up lots of ground balls, and his strikeout rate spiked as well. His curve is already an out-pitch and his change-up is coming along. At just 20 years old last season Littell threw over 165 (!) innings, which was the 21st most innings among 676 pitchers. Brian Cashman confirmed in an interview with YES that Littell will begin the season in Trenton; it will be fun following his progress.