Monday, March 7, 2011, 11:01 AM
TAMPA, Fla. – The little lefty picked up the baseball and started throwing it in the same smooth way that he had always done. It was supposed to be a simple game of catch, a prelude to Manny Banuelos’s audition for the Yankees. But Banuelos’ motion was so effortless and so seamless that the tryout began from the moment he methodically flipped a baseball to a friend.
As Lee Sigman studied Banuelos on a schoolyard field in El Vergel Durango, Mexico three-and-a-half years ago, he was entranced with how comfortable the 16-year old looked. Sigman took a four-hour bus ride through a black night to get to an 8 a.m. workout with Banuelos. Any of Sigman’s grogginess dissipated when the Yankees’ scout saw Banuelos throw. Sigman’s eyes were wide open.
“I didn’t even have to see him in the bullpen to know that he was something special,” Sigman said. “As soon as he started playing catch, I thought to myself that this could be something special.”
What Sigman spotted was what he called Banuelos’ “very, very easy arm action.” Banuelos’ arm was loose and lively, a pitcher who looked the way a pitcher should look. Sigman remembered how Banuelos’s fastball reached 86 miles per hour that day, but that didn’t matter. What mattered to Sigman was how the little lefty unleashed the ball with such ease and how it rocketed out of his hand.
“That arm action, you don’t find that all the time,” said Sigman, who eventually signed Banuelos for the Yankees. “I think there’s something natural about it.”
In a Spring Training camp filled with perennial All-Stars like Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, Banuelos, who hasn’t even won a game above the Class-A level, has been one of the most discussed players here. How much interest has there been in the pitcher who will turn 20 next week? Several Yankees have asked reporters questions about Banuelos and have gushed about him, too.
When I told catcher Russell Martin that Banuelos felt that he could pitch in the Major Leagues this season, Martin said, “If I had his stuff, I’d feel that way, too.”
Banuelos has a fastball that hits 96, a curveball that he improved in the Arizona Fall League and a developing changeup. In addition to those stellar pitches, Banuelos has confidence. It isn’t arrogance. It is confidence, wrapped in a shrug and a smile.
When Banuelos opposed the Tigers in his spring debut, he smiled and said that he believed he belonged “in the same neighborhood as the other guys.” Actually, Banuelos owned the neighborhood as he struck out Brandon Inge and Jhonny Peralta with curves in one scoreless inning. In Banuelos’ second stint of the spring against the Red Sox last Friday, he whiffed Jason Varitek and Darnell McDonald in two more scoreless frames. Banuelos’ next appearance is scheduled for Wednesday against the Pirates.
“For me, it’s not difficult to play with these guys,” Banuelos said. “I know these guys are Major League hitters. I want to show I can get them out.”
After Sigman scouted Banuelos’ session, he sat in Banuelos’ two-room home and spoke with his mother, Josefina Majera, and grandmother, Maria Cruz Meza, about the pitcher’s future. Everything was orderly in the home, Sigman recalled, from the spotless cement floors to the neatly made beds. To Sigman, that setting, which featured a tight-knit family and a lot of discipline, dictated who Baneulos was.
“He knew what he wanted when he was 16 years old,” Sigman said. “He was very serious and very polite. He’s the kind of kid that you root for when you sign him.”
Sigman was impressed enough with Banuelos’ audition to funnel him to Sultanes de Monterrey in the Mexican League. Several months later, the Yankees signed Banuelos, Alfredo Aceves and three other players out of the league. Aceves (10-1) helped the Yankees win a World Series title in 2009 before injuries caused the team to sour on him. Now Baneulos, who Baseball America ranked as the 41st best prospect in the Majors, is poised to be a factor. Banuelos is 13-10 with a 2.59 earned run average and has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his Minor League career.
Three years ago, Martin was with the Dodgers when Clayton Kershaw debuted as a 20-year old. Martin said that Banuelos is more “polished” as a soon-to-be 20-year old than Kershaw was at the same age. That is a heavy compliment for Banuelos since Kershaw is one of the best lefties in the Majors.
“When he’s out there, he looks like he belongs,” Martin said. “He’s got the mental side of it down. He believes he should be out there. You can see it.”
The Yankees will undoubtedly be careful with Banuelos, who has only pitched 15 innings at the Class-AA level and has never pitched more than 109 in a season. While Banuelos is the Yankees’ finest pitching prospect, his inexperience has caused the team to slot him behind other pitchers in regards to who is the closest to reaching the Majors. Will that pitching pecking order change? That depends how Banuelos and the other prospects perform.
Banuelos is expected to open the season at Double-AA Trenton, but, because of his repertory and his polished approach, there is a possibility he could advance through the system quickly. In Banuelos’ confident way, he said that he “would like to get” to the Majors this year. The Yankees will be watching and waiting, waiting to see when the little lefty is ready to help them in the Bronx.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES