Frank started a nice little discussion about Yankees pitching prospect Dellin Betances last month, and after reviewing some of the recent scouting reports on him, I wanted to dig a little deeper to get to the potential root of his control issues.
There are three things that worry me about Dellin Betances' future as a starting pitcher, and we'll analyze each after the jump.
I started doing a little digging around for more detailed opinions and video of Betances from this past season. Control has always been his bugaboo, but what causes his bouts of wildness?
Because he’s collapsing his back leg and throwing straight over the top, Betances is not only costing himself some height leverage, but he’s also dramatically compromising his ability to get downward plane. Between the back-leg collapse and high arm slot, after all, his release is basically uphill, which is the exact opposite of where you want a tall pitcher to be throwing. The results of this problem were quite dramatic in his debut:
Think about that for a moment. If you're trying to get on top of the ball and get it to finish low in the strike zone, you need to drive with your back leg and finish with a downward motion to the plate. By collapsing his back leg, Betances is giving up that back leg drive and finish, thus keeping his pitches up in the zone. This pitch location chart drives the point home:
Basically, it’s physically quite difficult for Betances to throw the ball down in the strike zone. Part of the problem we see in this small sample is just him overthrowing some due to the high emotions of a big league debut (and subsequent first start), but part of it is very real and speaks to a significant problem with the righthander going forward.
To get a better idea of this, let's take a look at some video of Betances, and new Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda, to compare their finishes:
CLLICK LINK FOR VIDEO BREAKDOWNS AND REST OF ARTICLE:
Is Gary Sanchez from the Yankee system a Jesus Montero situation all over again in terms of can Sanchez play another position if he can't make it as catcher? John Manuel: I think the safest thing to say is yes, he's similar to Montero, though he's more of a pure hitter in terms of his swing. The makeup or maturity of Sanchez is more in question than it was for Montero at a similar stage. But he's not as big as Montero; I wouldn't give up on him as a catcher just yet. He can grow up; Montero couldn't stop being 6-foot-4, 225.
As a life-long Toronto Blue Jays fan it’s not easy to like the Yankees. As a prospect analyst, though, I can’t help but love the organization’s minor league system. Even when New York has “hiccups” with its draft philosophy, the system manages to churn out and develop all-star caliber players, which also says a lot about the organization’s scouts and minor league development staff. The talent well is not going to run dry any time soon in New York.
1. Manny Banuelos, LHP BORN: March 13, 1991 EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons ACQUIRED: 2008 international free agent 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 3rd
With the trade of Jesus Montero to Seattle, Banuelos moves up the organizational ladder and into the No. 1 prospect hole. The southpaw is probably about a year away from joining the Yankees’ starting rotation, once he finds a little more consistency with both his fastball command and his overall control. He opened the year with 95.1 innings of work in double-A, where he posted a 4.01 FIP (3.59 ERA) and a walk rate of 4.91 BB/9. Moved up to triple-A for 34.1 more innings Banuelos managed a 3.90 FIP (4.19 ERA) and a walk rate of 4.98 BB/9. Another 100-120 innings in triple-A would definitely be of benefit to the lefty, who features an 89-94 mph fastball, a curveball and a changeup. All three pitches flash the potential to be above-average or plus, giving him a shot at developing into a No. 1 starter in the most dangerous league in Major League Baseball.
2. Jose Campos, RHP BORN: July 27, 1992 EXPERIENCE: 3 seasons ACQUIRED: 2009 non-drafted free agent (Seattle) 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off (Mariners)
A shocking ranking for Campos, no doubt, but I love his arm and believe the Mariners will eventually rue the day they included him in the Michael Pineda/Jesus Montero trade. The right-hander fires his fastball up into the 97-98 mph range but sits 91-95 mph. He displays above-average command of his fastball given his young age. His secondary pitches both need significant work (curveball, changeup) but the foundation is there for a No. 1 or 2 starter if he develops properly. Campos struck out 85 batters in 81.2 innings in short-season ball in ’11. He walked just 11 and induced an above-average number of ground-ball outs. With a 6’4” 200 lbs frame, the Venezuela native has the potential to develop into a workhorse. Just 19, Campos has three years of pro experience under his belt (including two seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League) and he should receive his first taste of full-season ball in 2012.
3. Dellin Betances, RHP BORN: March 23, 1988 EXPERIENCE: 6 seasons ACQUIRED: 2006 8th round, New York high school 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 4th
Betances comes in at the No. 3 spot, knocked down by a less advanced power pitcher, because he currently projects as a reliever at the big league level. The right-hander has an above-average fastball sitting between 90-95 mph and it features lots of movement, which causes it to miss the strike zone a little too much. His changeup may have passed his breaking ball as his second-best pitch but the curve still shows potential. Like a lot of tall pitchers (6’8” 260 lbs), Betances fights his delivery and that leads to the inconsistent command and control. He spent the majority of 2011 in double-A where he posted a 3.70 FIP (3.42 ERA) in 105.1 innings of work. He also pitched 21 innings in triple-A and 2.2 innings during his debut in The Show. His walk rate increased with each promotion, helping to underscore the need for more seasoning. The soon-to-be 24-year-old pitcher will likely return to triple-A and await an opening in either the starting rotation or, more likely, the bullpen.
4. Mason Williams, OF BORN: Aug. 21, 1991 EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons ACQUIRED: 2010 4th round, Florida high school 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off
It’s not easy to find an underrated Yankees prospect, but Williams might be just that. An athletic outfielder, he was stolen in the fourth round of the 2010 draft out of a Florida high school. The Yankees’ scouts did an excellent job of identifying a talent that most had written off as too raw for pro ball and expected him to follow through on his commitment to the University of South Carolina. On offense, Williams’ swing is currently having an identity crisis as he’s stuck in between hitting for power and hitting like a speedy singles hitter. He should develop into a solid hitter capable of hitting for both average and slightly-above-average gap power that could produce 35-40 doubles and 15-20 home runs in a full season. Williams is fleet-of-foot on the base paths and in the field but he needs more polish to reach his potential of 30-40 steals. In the field he has excellent range in center field but is still learning the intricacies of the position. Williams should move up to low-A in 2012 and I have a feeling that you’re going to hear a lot about him this season.
5. Gary Sanchez, C BORN: Dec. 2, 1992 EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons ACQUIRED: 2009 international free agent 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 2nd
When you play for the New York Yankees the honor comes with increased scrutiny – even for those in the low minors. Such is the case with Sanchez who has been compared, perhaps unfairly, to fellow big-bodied catching prospect Jesus Montero. While Montero will undoubtedly move from behind the dish to first base or DH, Sanchez shows much better natural feel for his craft, although he remains raw. He has solid arm strength but needs considerable work on his receiving skills. There have also been concerns raised over his maturity level but the front office people I talk to tend to be less concerned with maturity issues from very young players than the average fan or media type. Sanchez did not turn 19 until this past December and he managed to perform at an above-average level (wRC+ of 121) in low-A ball in 2011. He hit just .256 but showed patience (10.5 BB%) and power (.229 ISO). The biggest need for him on offense right now is to improve his pitch recognition, which will help him chip away at his high strikeout totals (27.1 K%).
6. Dante Bichette Jr., 3B BORN: Sept. 26, 1992 EXPERIENCE: 1 season ACQUIRED: 2012 2nd round, Florida high school 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA
As the 2011 draft approached I had Bichette ranked on my personal Top 20 list of players I would have selected in the first round of the draft if I were a scouting director. Despite strong pedigree and impressive showings in the video I watched, I was surprised by the number of negative scouting reports I read about the youngster, knocking both his defense and his offense. Bichette possessed unique swing mechanics as an amateur but the Yankees minor league staff helped him make some changes and it seemed to work wonders. He hit .342 with 17 doubles (.163 ISO) in 52 games in Rookie ball, earning himself a late promotion to the New York Penn League. In the field, he performed well enough at the hot corner to quiet the talk of relocating him to the outfield, at least for now. With such a strong showing in his debut, Bichette is likely headed to low-A ball in 2012 and he could move fairly quickly for a prep draftee.
7. Austin Romine, C BORN: EXPERIENCE: ACQUIRED: 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 6th
Romine’s prospect status has taken a bit of a hit over the last year. Offensive projections have settled down, leading some to project him as more of a backup catcher now. His defense remains above-average – including strong leadership, game calling, receiving and arm strength – but more questions are being asked about his offensive ceiling. Romine repeated double-A in 2011 but made only minor improvements to his offensive game (wRC+ improved from 99 in ’10 to 103 in ’11). He didn’t hit for as much power but he added about 20 points to his batting average and trimmed his strikeout rate. Injuries could also be partially to blame for his numbers failing to improve dramatically (concussion, back). Still just 23, Romine should spend 2012 serving as the starting catcher in triple-A, one injury away from another promotion to the big league club. He should be ready to permanently join the 25-man roster in 2013. I still believe in him as a potential big league starter, but perhaps on a second-division club.
8. Slade Heathcott, OF BORN: Sept. 28, 1990 EXPERIENCE: 3 seasons ACQUIRED: 2009 1st round, Texas high school 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off
Heathcott got off to a quick start to the 2011 season but, as seems to be the case with this prospect, injuries and questionable decision making prevented him from playing a full season. Two surgeries on his throwing shoulder have raised some concerns regarding his long-term ability to stay healthy and he has yet to provide more than 300 at-bats in a full season. Heathcott displays above-average defense in center field thanks to outstanding range due to his above-average speed. His arm strength is no longer a plus due to the surgeries. At the plate he remains raw but he flashes above-average gap power; he’s too aggressive and needs better pitch selection and identification, which should come with time.
9. Ravel Santana, OF BORN: May 1, 1992 EXPERIENCE: 3 seasons ACQUIRED: 2008 international free agent 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off
Santana is an intriguing raw athlete but there have been unconfirmed rumors that injury recovery could cost him significant playing time in 2012. Most reports, though, have him almost fully recovered from a broken ankle and ligament damage that he suffered in August 2011. Just 19, he had an outstanding offensive season in Rookie ball and posted a wRC+ of 160 (meaning he created 60% more runs than the average player at that level). Santana struck out a bit too much but he showed impressive power (.272 ISO) and hit for average (.296). He even showcased some patience with a walk rate of 9.2 BB%. Prior to his injury, Santana was a plus base runner and had outstanding range in center field so it will be interesting to see how well he rebounds. He also has a plus arm. He should open 2012 in extended spring training before moving up to the New York Penn League.
10. J.R. Murphy, C BORN: May 13, 1991 EXPERIENCE: 3 seasons ACQUIRED: 2009 2nd round, Florida HS 2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off
I considered a few names for the No. 10 spot but Murphy won out thanks to a solid 2011 season that saw him reassert himself as a viable catching prospect after almost moving to third base on a permanent basis. Murphy split time behind the plate with Gary Sanchez in 2011 but actually looked better the younger, more highly-touted prospect on defense despite his previous struggles. Murphy has made improvements with his throwing, receiving and game calling – although they all still have a ways to go. At the plate he hit .297 and showed some pop with an isolated power rate of .160 in low-A. He kept his strikeout rate low at an impressive 13.7 K%. Murphy received 85 at-bats in high-A ball before a broken foot knocked him out for the remainder of the season. He should return there to begin 2012. An interesting side note, Murphy attended the same high school in Florida as Atlanta Braves’ shortstop prospect Tyler Pastornicky, who could be the club’s opening day shortstop in 2012.
The Next Five
11. Tyler Austin, 3B/1B: The 2010 draft began inauspiciously for the New York Yankees with some eyebrow raising selections at the top of the draft. However, picks like Mason Williams, Austin, as well as Ben Gamel, are starting to pay dividends. Austin was drafted as a high school catcher but he’s seen time at both first and third base as a pro. If he can handle the hot corner, then his value will jump significantly, since his strong arm would be wasted at first. At the plate he shows good raw power and hit .354 in 40 short-season games in ’11.
12. David Phelps, RHP: Phelps gets the nod over Adam Warren because the former is more likely to stick in the starting rotation than the latter even if his fastball is not quite as powerful. Phelps has a four-pitch mix that includes a low-90s fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. He’ll probably never be more than a fill-in starter or long reliever for the Yankees so he really needs a trade, as he’s already 25 years old and will be returning to triple-A in 2012 for the third time. He suffered some shoulder problems in ’11 but he pitched in the Arizona Fall League and made eight starts.
13. Greg Bird, C/1B: A 2011 draft pick who signed for an above-slot $1.1 million as a fifth rounder, Bird was heavily scouted by clubs as a first baseman. He has much more value, though, as a left-handed hitting catcher and New York was happy to hand him the tools of ignorance, at least for now. He should have plenty of bat for the position – less so as a first baseman – but his defensive game remains very raw behind the plate.
14. Adam Warren, RHP: Warren has a solid fastball that rangers between 89-94 mph but he lacks consistency with his secondary pitchers, which include a curveball and cutter. An extreme ground-ball pitcher in the low minors, Warren completely flipped around to a fly-ball pitcher in 2011 at triple-A. He’ll likely top out as a middle reliever in the Majors where he’ll be able to focus on two pitches. Warren pitched 152 innings as a starter this past season so he has proven to be durable; it’s possible he could carve out a career in the starting rotation as a No. 4 or 5 starter on a second division club.
15. Ben Gamel, OF: The left-handed hitting Gamel had a solid season in the New York Penn League in 2011, posting a wRC+ of 134. He provides a patient approach but needs work on pitch recognition. He has some power but has yet to tap into it in game situations, and it might be a little too short for an everyday left fielder, causing him to fall into the ‘tweener’ category. He should move up to low-A in 2012 and is a sleeper who bears watching. Gamel’s brother Mat Gamel plays for the Brewers.
SLEEPER ALERT:Isaias Tejeda, C: As if the organization doesn’t have enough catching depth already. Tejeda is yet another offensive-oriented backstop in the system who is very raw behind the plate. The 20-year-old posted a wRC+ of 172 in Rookie ball, along with an ISO rate of .236 and a strikeout rate of just 12%. He deserves a challenge assignment to low-A ball for 2012 to see if he’s a prospect – or a suspect. Tejeda might end up having value as a third string catcher who can come off the bench and also play the corner infield positions.
In scouting, the term “tweener” used to be more of a dirty word than it seems to be today. With advanced statistics, value is now viewed through a different lens which has allowed for a player like the Yankees Brett Gardner to post 5-win seasons at a position historically reserved for plodding power hitters. This development gives a prospect like Ramon Flores hope that his skill set may find a place in the Majors despite not fitting into the typical mold.
At 19, Flores had a productive season in Charleston of the South Atlantic League at an age when many prospects find themselves in short season leagues. And while a .265/.353/.400 line will excite few, his wRC+ of 113 at such a young age makes the numbers even more impressive. However, contrary to opinion, his 11.4% walk rate in 2011 is both blessing and curse. On one hand, it’s great to see a young player with advanced plate discipline for his age and Flores certainly has it. On the other hand, that walk rate also forces me to wonder where the room for growth is?
If Flores is already able to identify pitches to drive and work counts to his favor, then his projection becomes much more dependent on physical development. Unfortunately for Flores, he’s listed at 5-foot-10, 150 pounds. With borderline average athleticism, he can probably carry an additional 20-25 pounds, but more than that would be difficult for me to envision. As he advances, pitchers will challenge Flores more with fastballs and force him to hit his way through the upper levels as opposed to drawing walks due to his simply not being viewed as a hitter who will do damage. With a good base of hitting skills to work from, Flores is off to a fine start, but walk rates in Flores’ case may not be quite as valuable an indicator of success as many will assume.
When discussing Flores’ swing, one has to mention a swing path which allows his bat head to remain in the strike zone longer than most leading to a strong feel for contact. And while he has more of a classically smooth, lefty swing, his barrel has plenty of snap allowing Flores to let the ball travel deep into the strike zone. A little wiggle late in his timing mechanism may be an area for improvement and a more “point A” to “point B” load should lead to more consistency. As with his batting eye, Flores’ spray approach and gap power is advanced for a hitter his age, but it makes projecting him out even more difficult.
On defense, Flores’ value will be limited. In game action, he was not really tested, but Flores’ overall lack of speed and athleticism showed through in other areas. It’s great to see him playing a some centerfield in box scores, but Flores’ development is a catch-22 in that added size and strength will enhance his value offensively, but will likely also leave him unable to man a premium position. However, Flores’ baseball IQ is high and he should be able to maximize the defensive value he does have by learning angles, positioning and how to better read balls off the bat.
In terms of speed, Flores is slower than his double-digit steals would indicate. With physical development, he is likely to slow even more, but Flores should be an intelligent baserunner with the ability to catch a pitcher or defender sleeping on occasion.
When scouting Flores, the name David Segui instantly entered my mind as a smooth left-handed hitter from my youth. However, with Segui having more natural size, Flores is more of a mini version. In terms of comps, this very well may be a terrible one, but it’s rare for me to so clearly envision a former big leaguer when scouting a young prospect. As an anecdotal observation, I considered it worth mentioning.
Ramon Flores is a fine under-the-radar prospect for the New York Yankees and fun guy to scout for people like myself who enjoy pure hitting ability. When so few hitters at the lower levels are able to work counts, fight off tough pitches and earn walks, Flores makes for a refreshing break from the norm. However, the same aspects of his game I truly appreciate are what keeps me from being able to project him as a big league regular in his prime as an overall lack of projection devalues a strong set of present skills.
As I’ve said before, the Yankees have been the best organization at developing relief pitchers over the last decade. With all these top prospect lists heading our way, I rarely see much loving handed out to the relief pitchers, so I figured we could focus on an impressive group of guys that could become the team’s future. Who knows, one of these guys might be the next Mariano Rivera. While guys like Dellin Betances might ultimately become relievers, this list is for players that currently project out of the bullpen. While closeness to the majors was a factor, upside was primary, which pushed LOOGYs and many older AAA relievers off this list. Without further ado, the top ten relief prospects.
Manny Barreda, Courtesy of Tug Haines
10. RHP- Manuel Barreda (23) Drafted in the 12th round of the 2007 draft, Barreda was a small pitcher with velocity to gain and a potential plus changeup. Through his first season and the beginning of 2008, the right hander saw a lot of early success with the GCL Yankees. Unfortunately, Tommy John surgery cut short his 2008 and 2009 season, and fell off many prospect lists. Over the last two years, Berreda has struggled against the lingering effects of the surgery, posting 6.0 BB/9. Though the command is weak, Barreda seems to be regaining a feel for pitching, finishing his 2011 season with a 10.0 K/9 rate in A ball, and throwing his fastball in the mid 90’s. If he can limit his walk rate to pre-Tommy John surgery numbers, and add some velocity with his relatively small frame, Barreda might move up the organization rather quickly.
9. RHP- Dan Burawa (23) Attending the same college as Burawa, I had heard his name well before he was picked in the 12th round of the 2010 draft. His teammates at St. John’s would often tell me about the kid who sat in the 90’s, the only gripe being a lack of movement. Pitching between A and high A last year, Burawa showed the same mid-90’s heat he did in college, combining it with a hard mid-80’s slider. The results were a solid 3.64 ERA through his first full professional season, and a 2.6 BB/9. Burawa has a lot to improve with his slider and a stronger third pitch, but he appears to have created enough sink on fastball to start him in AA next year.
8. LHP- Matthew Tracy (23) A late pick in the 2011 draft, Tracy surprised scouts with an effective season in low A last year. Tracy began the season in the bullpen, where he posted a 0.40 ERA in 22.1 IP. His four pitch repertoire includes a 2 and 4-seam fastball in the low 90’s, a curveball, and an effective changeup. Success in holding right handed hitters to a .221 batting average comes from his changeup, which he considers his best breaking pitch. Tracy finished the year in the rotation, making six starts, and ending with a 3.04 ERA, 9.1 k/9, and a 3.0 BB/9. Nothing official has been announced on whether he’ll start or relieve next year, but he clearly has a strong feel in the bullpen.
Caleb Cotham in his highschool days.
7. RHP- Caleb Cotham (24) Cotham may be old for his level, but he’s spent most of his minor league time injured. Following a knee issue that shut him down in 2009, Cotham had labrum surgery in 2010. The righty finally had 23 innings to shine in 2011 and went out to prove that he was worth the 165th overall pick in the 2009 draft. He returned in 2011 with an impressive season, returning his fastball velocity to the low-mid 90’s. Not only did Cotham post a 12.4 K/9 in low A, but he also put up a 52% groundball rate, which led to a 1.71 ERA. With Cotham’s strikeout slider and groundball sinker, he could be very effective, but his labrum and knee injuries cost him a lot of time and make him a risky prospect.
6. RHP- Chase Whitley (22) Following a great 2010 season closing for Staten Island, Whitley moved on to the bullpen in high-A this year. Though his season wasn’t as impressive as his 2010 debut, the righty made progress in 2011. While his K/9 dropped from 12.1 to 7.6 last year, a lot of the time was spent on improving his pitches. Where he sat high 80’s/low 90’s in 2010, Whitley was throwing as high as 96, he improved the late break on his slider, and maintained one of the best minor league changeups. Though his 2.47 ERA is nothing to scoff at, his drop-off in strikeouts could be an indication of a season spent developing pitches rather than racking up numbers. Whitley’s upside is sky high, but he could use another season developing his slider and fastball.
While we all love our Baby Bombers, we try to temper our expectations or rein in our enthusiasm. This morning, we’re going to tell you which Yankee prospects we think are getting a little too much love.
E.J. Fagan: Ravel Santana. I love a true 5-tool guy who hit .298/.361/.568 as a 19 year-old in the Gulf Coast League as much as anyone, but Santana has two major knocks against him. His ankle injury was truly horrible to end last season. Although his prognosis has been relatively optimistic and the ankle isn’t as much of a problem area as the elbow, shoulder, or knee, I would urge a lot of caution. We saw with David Adams that brutal injuries are brutal injuries, and recovery timetables are always uncertain. Couple that Santana’s extreme inexperience and distance from the major leagues and you have yourself a very risky prospect. Publications that rank Santana in the top-10, ahead of someone like Austin Romine, are failing to account for this risk.
Domenic Lanza: Over the past two seasons, I have been somewhat baffled by the praise heaped upon Austin Romine. I feel as if much of this is a product of his being (unfairly) paired with Jesus Montero as some sort of two-headed catching prospect juggernaut, but it has yet to die down despite consistently mediocre results from Romine. Now, it may not quite jibe with our collaborate top-twenty effort, nor even my own placement of Romine as the ninth best prospect in the system, but none of this is to suggest that he is not a fine prospect – he’s just more risky and less proven than most seem to appreciate.
In his second full season with Trenton, Romine produced a reasonable facsimile of his 2010 campaign. His walk rate ticked up and his strike rate declined, but his power slipped and his average and slugging were likely propped-up by a .331 BABIP. Much, if not all of this can be explained by his donning the tools of ignorance on a full-time basis for the first time in his career – he simply wore down. I do not quite buy that line of reasoning, though, as his numbers were fairly consistent from month-to-month. His results still portend a catcher capable of league-average offense – a boon, to be sure – but not much else.
Defensively, for all of Romine’s raw tools he has yet to truly ‘wow’ behind the dish. Romine allowed more passed balls and wild pitches (allowing for quirky calls by the scorekeeper) in 2011 … and in fewer innings. Additionally, his caught-stealing numbers remained steady but unspectacular. As is the case with his bat, Romine has shown he can be a strong defender – but not much else.
Matt Imbrogno: Domenic stole mine, so I’ll tack on to his. Romine’s career high walk rate is encouraging, as has been the consistent drop in strikeouts. However, the dropping power and overall raw OPS decline of the past few years are disconcerting. Like Dom, I’m still waiting for the big breakout from Romine, and just not seeing it. This isn’t to say he won’t be without use for the Yankees, but I’m not convinced he’s the long-term solution at backstop for the Yankees.
Brad Vietrogoski: It’s tough to call a player overrated when he has yet to really break in at the Major League level, but if I had to pick one of the Yankees’ top prospects for this distinction I would have to go with Dellin Betances. His raw talent and potential is undeniable, but his overall performance and development in his time in the farm system leaves more questions than answers as to what he will eventually become. After six years in the system (some of that time taken up by injury), Betances’ calling card is still his stuff, but we have seen little to no improvement in his command or ability to limit walks over the course of his MiL career. 2010 was the exception rather than the rule in regards to command, which raises huge questions about how his stuff will translate at the next level.
For all the talk about how high Betances’ ceiling is because of his stuff, that ceiling becomes harder to define and very easy to lower when the guy’s ability to consistently throw strikes comes into question. To simply say that he can become a dominant reliever if things don’t work out as a starter at the Major League level is also premature if Betances is unable to harness his stuff and hit his spots consistently. Last time I checked, relievers needed to throw strikes too and the ones that can’t usually don’t last any longer in their roles than starters who can’t. Betances has all the tools to be an elite starting pitcher, but his inability to make strides in the refinement of his game as he has advanced from level to level makes him a pretty big wildcard.
Eric Schultz: This is one hurts for me, because I have been a big Slade Heathcott fan since even before he was drafted (the only time in recent memory I’ve accurately predicted the Yankees’ 1st-round pick). On the surface, there is a lot to like: 1st-round pedigree, 5-tool potential, and great athleticism. On talent alone, Slade is easily a top-10 prospect in the system, and at times he has shown flashes of putting it all together.
However, the way I see it, Heathcott has greater flameout potential than virtually any other prospect in the system. There are two reasons for this assessment. First, he has had a number of injuries, including an ACL tear in high school, and 2 shoulder surgeries, which I worry could sap some of his explosiveness and athleticism. Then of course there is the much-discussed makeup issue: an unstable family situation growing up, struggles with alcoholism, and difficulty controlling his anger (as evidenced by the brawl that he was involved in last year).
Individually, these problems would not be too much to overcome, but in conjunction, I worry that they might prevent Heathcott from reaching his high ceiling. I hope I’m wrong, and my grading of him reflects that optimism somewhat. However, if I were to pick anybody on this list who could be out of baseball in a year or two, Heathcott would be far and away my top choice, and that’s a lot of risk to take on with a guy close to the organizational top 10.
In 2010, the backlash from fans on the Yankees first round pick was over the top. When a team drafts the 168th ranked player by Baseball America in the first round, everyone becomes a critic. A year after the infamous Cito Culver pick, the Yankees picked Dante Bichette Jr 51st overall, and fans went mad again. Despite the initial reactions, in the first few months, I was really impressed by Bichette, his patient bat and work ethic aren’t common in such young players. Then something magical happened; he started hitting, and refused to stop. Bichette seemingly went from an immediate flop, to the projected third baseman of the future.
While I’m glad I never wrote him off, his numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt. His 240 at bats in rookie ball have defined his current prospect rank, a small enough sample size where I could a handful of better 2011 seasons. Though slightly older, Tyler Austin, Isaias Tejeda, and Jose Rosario had very similar seasons to Bichette, some arguably better, yet you rarely see any of their names close to Bichette on prospect lists. When it comes down to it, Bichette’s first round status and last name has propelled him up lists. While I like Bichette going forward, I still don’t think he’ll be a top prospect until he develops power. Four homeruns does not impress me yet.
As I’ve said before, the Yankees have been the best organization at developing relief pitchers over the last decade. With all these top prospect lists heading our way, I rarely see much loving handed out to the relief pitchers, so I figured we could focus on an impressive group of guys that could become the team’s future. Who knows, one of these guys might be the next Mariano Rivera. While guys like Dellin Betances might ultimately become relievers, this list is for players that currently project out of the bullpen. While closeness to the majors was a factor, upside was primary, which pushed LOOGYs and many older AAA relievers off this list. Without further ado, the top 5 relief prospects.
Tommy Kahnle (J.S. Carras/The Record)
5. RHP- Thomas Kahnle (22) The fifth round pick in the 2010 draft had a spectacular 16 innings in his debut season, sporting a 14.1 K/9, 1.7 H/9, and 2.8 BB/9 in low A. He maintained decent numbers with strikeouts and hits, 12.4 K/9, and a more realistic 7.7 H/9, but struggled with his command, 5.4 BB/9. His command issues in 2011 were largely from trouble developing his slider, but Kahnle’s best pitch is his mid 90’s fastball that can reach 97-98. Though his 4.22 ERA In 2011 may deter many critics, he suffered from high BABIP, a low LOB%, and held a FIP at 2.45. I am not deterred by Kahnle’s gaudy ERA, and a solid season in high A/AA could move him up this list quickly.
4. RHP- Philip Wetherell (22) Perhaps I like him more than most, but I was impressed with his 2011 debut. After being drafted 8th in the 2011 draft, Wetherell spent his season in low A sporting a 4.5 BB/9, and 6.9 H/9. Most impressively, his 12.3 K/9 led him to a 2.40 ERA and 3.03 FIP through 30 IP. His splitter is a potential plus pitch, and his low 90’s fastball has enough downward movement to combine to induce a 52% groundball rate. Any pitcher with a tendency to draw groundballs and strikeouts has huge potential, and at 6’5”, his pitches could develop even more velocity and break. Wetherell’s biggest issue is his command, and after posting a 4.5 BB/9, he needs to focus on a smoother delivery for his size.
3. RHP- Graham Stoneburner (24) He doesn’t have much experience relieving, and after an injury plagued 2011, the righty will continue to see time starting, but his future is in the bullpen. Stoneburner stood out in 2010 when he posted a 0.993 WHIP through A and high A. Along with neck issues, he struggled missing bats in AA, with an 11.1 H/9 over 58.1 IP. Regardless, he has a potential plus sinker and slider, and above average changeup. He was a non-roster invitee this year, and perhaps the closest player to the majors on this list, which certainly helps his placement.
2. RHP- Branden Pinder (23) Pinder was one of the biggest surprises of the 2011 draft. As a starter in college, his fastball sat at 90 mph and he threw a mediocre slider, but when he debuted out of the bullpen, he sat mid 90’s with a plus slider. Not bad for a 16th round pick. He served as the closer for Staten Island, putting up an incredible 11.0 K/9, 1.5 B/9, 1.16 ERA, a 0.667 WHIP, and 1.94 FIP through 31.0 IP. While the majority of college pitchers have good seasons in low ball, Pinder absolutely dominated it with his strikeout rate and unbelievable command, ranking 19th on Baseball America’s New York-Penn League top prospects. 2012 could be a huge season for him if he can carry on similar numbers in high A.
1. RHP- Mark Montgomery (21) He was my sleeper for 2012 yesterday, but this is my list and now I can take away his sleeper status. Montgomery was filthy in his debut season, proving to be one of the best picks of the 2011 draft. The right hander showed off a major league ready slider in low A, striking out the side three times in a row. 4 IP was enough for the organization to promote him for Charleston. In his first game he struck out not three, but five batters in one innings. He finished the season as the closer with 51 strikeouts through 28.1 IP, good for 16.2 K/9 rate and a 6.4 H/9. His biggest problem was a 4.1 BB/9 rate, which is easily forgotten behind a 1.31 FIP at A ball. Though Pinder has stronger command, Montgomery performed at a higher level almost two years younger. Pinder might be more complete with a stronger fastball and command, but Montgomery’s slider is one of the best in the minors which means he has the most upside of any reliever in the system.
Just missing the list was AAA closer Kevin Whelan (28), George Kontos (26), and Tim Norton (28). While all three had successful seasons, their age was a huge deterrent when you consider primarily upside. Comparing one of these older players to the 21 year old Mark Montgomery is like comparing Jorge Vazquez to Gary Sanchez. Many relievers are late bloomers, but plenty of others peak in their upper 20′s. The Yankees take an aggressive stance with their relief prospects, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see later prospects make their way to the top next year.
In case you missed part one of the top 10 this afternoon, you can read it here.