By: James Scott
The 2016 Yankees team might have something that few other Yankees teams for the last 20 years have had. Many Yankees teams in the 2000’s have been centered around veterans with incredible offense but no defense, no bench, no pitching, no bullpen [other than Mo], and no speed. They had no depth or youth. They won an average of over 90 games a year just on offense, a fact that still amazes me. And yet, only 1 world series. Given the payroll and the teams history, this is unusual. However things are about to change in the way the Yankees have put their teams together. The 2016 Yankees will have prospects who if not for gaps in how the “experts” rank them, would be considered top 100 or borderline top 100 prospects. Young players already on the team join these prospects just now coming into their own. In one case, they will even be able to add to this youth in typical Yankee style should they choose to take that route. In this article I will discuss how this new Yankee team is deeper and younger than in past years and ready for the future.
Lets start with catchers. John Ryan Murphy [age 24] has been Brian McCann’s backup for the last couple of seasons and coaches have issued glowing scouting reports on his intelligence and game calling ability, comparing him to Jason Varitek and Jason Kendall. The statistics back his defense up saying he has been a plus pitch framer and above average defensive catcher over the last few years. As good as his overall defensive game has been, the righty’s offense has lagged behind as he has been only played part time. I do think however if he did accrue more playing time, his offense would improve, something that could happen soon due to trades and more time at designated hitter for McCann. Murphy did have a monster second half in 2015 showing the potential to be an above average offensive catcher as well. He hit to the tune of a .308/.368/.487 line which was 34% above league average in that second half. However if Murphy does not develop offensively as expected the Yankees do have something a little more than a “backup” plan for Murphy. A few years ago Gary Sanchez was a top catching prospect in MLB ranking in the top 25 overall prospects in the game. He was very young for his leagues but after repeating AA the rankings stopped taking him seriously. Recently I learned that the Yankees AA and AAA stadiums are some of the hardest ballparks to hit in the entire minors. Anyone who is considered a prospect who hits in them should therefore be considered a better hitting prospect then the numbers show. This is something to remember throughout the article when looking at how the team’s prospects do offensively. In considering this, Sanchez was still decent both times through AA but this year he really took off. Sanchez has been well above league average in both AA and AAA with a wRC+ of 127 in AA and 145 in AAA. In other words, he was 27% above league average in AA and 45% in AAA. This added to a reportedly improved work ethic, new found maturity, and overall improving defense has lead me to believe the Yankees may have found a future superstar at catcher. Sanchez just won the Arizona Fall League All Star Game MVP and many think [like the next prospect I am going to talk about did in 2014] he will win the league MVP when all is said and done. He is leading the league in homers, runs batted in and slugging percentage, and while Sanchez is clearly a bat first prospect, he still has time for the rest of his defensive game to catch up as he is only 22 years old.
Moving to first base where Mark Teixeira is entering his final year under contract, the Yankees have top prospect Greg Bird ready to fill in immediately. GM Brian Cashman before the season was quoted as saying that Bird was the best hitter in the whole system which is saying something with as deep a system as the Yankees now have. Bird is ranked as the third best first base prospect in baseball although that ranking may be a little light. He profiles as a skinny left handed hitting first basemen with an amazing eye and a clear plan at the plate. He debuted late last season when Teixeira went to the disabled line with a broken leg to fantastic results. Of all hitters in baseball with as many major league at bats as Bird, he had the lowest ground ball rate and the second highest line drive rate to Giancarlo Stanton. Fangraphs, a baseball statistics website, recently did a study on the hitters in the minors most likely to turn into the next Paul Goldschmidt and Bird was one of the top names that came up. In addition from a scouting perspective its clear that Bird will fill out his frame with muscle as he gets older which is something scouts haven’t really talked about when mentioning his plus power. Bird’s role next year depends a lot on trades as he is definitely ready for the show, and its clear that the one fans call Birdman will spread his wings in the Bronx in short order.
At second base the Yankees have a few options for the future. Dustin Ackley, a former top 10 prospect and lefty hitter was acquired from the Mariners mid season for Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez. Ackley was such a great prospect that at 27 years old he still might turn into the player people were expecting he would become. One writer said if Ackley does pan out, he may look something like Matt Carpenter statistically. Ackley has showed signs of blossoming with an insane last month of the season. He hit .306/.352/.694 which was 77%(!) above league average. While it is highly unlikely that this is who he is moving forward, it is a very encouraging sign from a player with his prospect background after changing scenes. Seattle has been terrible at developing prospects and I hope that they brought Ackley in before it was to late. After all the Yankees have been trying to acquire Dustin for a few years now, just like they had been with Gregorius. Ackley is a little rusty at second base but should be able to move back to the position he originally played when he first broke into the league. Another option is Rob Refsnyder, a righty hitter who shot through the system in short order since being drafted. Like Ackley he has still been getting used to second base as well after moving there from the outfield. The idea here seems to be to platoon them at second with Refsnyder getting extra at bats when Ackley either has a day off or is playing the outfield. Refsnyder is a very promising offensive player with the best hit tool of any Yankees prospect and of players in AAA under the age of 25, Refsnyder had the second best offensive numbers, being 23% above league average [the first place hitter in that study was Ben Gamel, another Yankee prospect]. The International League [AAA] is not very kind as a whole for hitters, another fact to take into consideration. After Refsnyder was called up late last year, he hit .302/.348/.512 in the major leagues, 30% above league average. While the concern with the Yankees was at the start of the season that Refsnyder needed to work on defense, the consensus is now that he is capable of playing at least league average defense with one study saying he had the best range of any second basemen in AAA. The last option for the future of second base is a shortstop named Jorge Mateo who could possibly take the job from both of them in 2017. Mateo is a top 25 prospect in MLB and expected to be a superstar in the Bronx while getting comparisons to a young Jose Reyes skill wise. Mateo has been playing above average defense in the minors at shortstop but some see him as a future gold glove winner at second base. He has above average plate discipline, above average bat to ball skills, a little bit of power, and on the 20-80 scouting scale he has 80 speed. Mateo even lead the entire minor leagues in stolen bases last year.
Now at shortstop it is becoming more and more clear that Didi Gregorius is the future. He’s a lefty shortstop who is growing into his power and hit tool at the same time with gold glove defense on the left side of the diamond. More important, are his statistics after taking some time to settle into an everyday role in the Bronx. In the second half Gregorius changed his swing and hit a combined a 109 wRC+. For shortstops with his level of defense, this is rare. After making so many mental errors in the field and on the base paths early in the year, Gregorius still graded out as elite defensively and near elite on the bases. He ended the season with a 3.5 BSR (the best base running statistic around) and with defensive numbers in line with every shortstop in the league other than Andrelton Simmons. A full season of his second half production equals one of the elite shortstops all around in MLB. In fact, recent defensive studies show that not only is Gregorius a top 5 defensive shortstop but of all of the shortstops ahead of him, he is the second best hitter and [once you add in his base running] the best offensive player. This means, Gregorius could be the best all around shortstop in the game after next year. He’ll have steep competition from Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa however but third fiddle isn’t too bad either. Side note: For those who don’t understand BSR, it takes into account tagging up, going first to third, and your percentage of success when stealing bases [and a few other things] when coming to that final number. The higher the BSR the better, anything above 1.0 is good, 3.0 very good, 5.0 elite.
Coming up to third base things get a little more complicated. The Yankees have Eric Jagielo [or Jags as the fans call him] who demolished AA before getting hurt and may see some big league time in the second half of next year. His bat is impressive and I get a Matt Carpenter [yes him again] feel from him when I see him hit [although I think he will hit for more power and less average than Carpenter]. The issue is that he is injury prone [at least so far in his short professional career]. So the Yankees may be forced to platoon him when he is ready, in an effort to keep him healthy and still have defense from the third base position where Jags is lacking. There is no way Headley in 2016 has a defensive year in line with last seasons career lows [just my opinion], but the Yankees may need to look into a young right handed hitting third basemen to eventually pair with Jags down the line [think a Brett Lawrie type] but if healthy Jags has a great bat for a third basemen. His glove is pretty bad although we said the same a few years ago about Sanchez and the same about Refsnyder a year ago so who knows. Jagielo is working with Scott Rolen on his defense however so that might help. Moving on…
….to the outfield! Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, Ben Gamel, and Aaron Judge. What a group of names. Mason Williams is a former top prospect who after suffering from maturity problems [just like Gary Sanchez] dropped off the radar. He is considered one of the most athletic players in the system and one of the better defensive center fielders in the minors [along with Heathcott] but for a few years he was just lost at the plate. However in 2015 he finally put it all together. He matured, and rededicated himself to the game. His skill set is along the lines of a young Ellsbury. Good hit tool, ton of speed, good eye, and great defense is his game. He even looks like he might add muscle to his frame as he gets older. It would not surprise me if he went all Carlos Gonzalez on everyone after that happens. Mason a few years back was a top 50 prospect with a scouting report that graded him so highly on tools that if they ever did turn into production he could make the top 10. Slade Heathcott had a similar profile. Slade was the outfielder the Yankees ended up picking when they couldn’t draft Mike Trout. When healthy Heathcott is clearly an elite talent, but the issue has always been health. He may end up living up to his comps as a mix of Brett Gardner and Josh Hamilton when Alex Rodriguez contract ends, this would allow him more turns at DH and thus more opportunities to stay healthy. The reason though Heathcott would always get injured isn’t due to him having a brittle body. Heathcott has been known to play the game like his hair is on fire, always playing at 150% effort all the time. I would’ve said 110% but that doesn’t do him justice. Reports are that he’s scaled it back but he’ll always be a high effort and energy player. These types are always fan favorites and really fun to root for. Ben Gamel is the brother of former top prospect Mat Gamel and while he has never had one amazing tool that has stood out about his game, Gamel does to everything well and he is coming off a breakout season in which he hit .300/.358/.472 and was the top player in the International League under the age of 25. He reminds me a lot of A.J. Pollock as someone who was never a top prospect but put up the numbers. He is eligible for the rule 5 draft so the team really needs to find room for him on the 40 man roster or risk losing him to another team mid winter. All three of the above players are left handed hitters, an attribute that plays extremely well in Yankee Stadium. The next player is a righty. Aaron Judge is a 6’7″ monster…umm…I mean… outfielder with loads of athleticism to the point that despite that massive frame he has become an above average defensive right fielder. Its all muscle, he is truly a beast and as you can imagine Judge has huge power but the surprising fact is that he should be able to hit for average too. Judge prefers a line drive approach to all fields which should lead to even bigger power as he reaches his physical peak. Judge like Mateo is a top 25 prospect and at seasons end still figuring out AAA after destroying AA pitching all year. Like Jags he could have a major big league impact in the second half of next year and a neat fact there is that one is a lefty [Jags], the other a righty [Judge].
Heading to the bullpen Jacob Lindgren is the name worth remembering as he is likely the best relief prospect in all the minors. Lindgren is a lefty with knock out stuff and incredible ground ball tendencies. He was hurt last year but it was not an injury that should effect his future performance. In the minors Lindgren has pitched 47 innings with 77 strikeouts and ground ball percentage above 70%. He might take a month to settle in but with regular innings it would not surprise me to see him finish the year as a top 10 reliever in all of MLB along with Betances and Miller. Bryan Mitchell, a starter for the Yankees in AAA also should provide a big boost to the bullpen as his stuff plays up in relief. He only has to use his fastball curveball combo in when coming out of the pen and those two pitches are said to be the best of their kind in the entire Yankees system. As a starter in AAA Mitchell had an ERA of 3.12 and I can only imagine that number would drop in relief. Betances, Miller, Justin Wilson, and Adam Warren should all return to the pen after their seasons there as well. Chasen Shreve might join them as a permanent member of the pen if he is utilized less as his production was outstanding most of the year until a horrid last month. Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia are also possibles out of the pen should the Yankees add a starter.
In the rotation, Nathan Eovaldi in the second half began to show to the team what kind of pitcher he really was. Eovaldi is a former top prospect from the Dodgers who played the last few years for the Marlins. He has perhaps the easiest 100 MPH heater in the bigs but its straight as an arrow. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild worked with him for most of the year developing a splitter/forkball to compensate and keep hitters off balance with outstanding results. His ground ball rate spiked to 56%, his infield fly ball rate went up to 9.5%, his strikeouts went up to 20.7%. All told the most comparable pitcher to those numbers over a full season is Sonny Gray. Masahiro Tanaka continues to adjust to MLB while people continue to forget how young he really is [2015 was his age 26 season, he’s younger than Jacob DeGrom]. Tanaka used to pitch to contact when he was in Japan but ever since coming state side he hasn’t felt as comfortable doing so, which you can see through the usage of his trademark splitter. I would not be at all surprised if in his prime we saw a couple of seasons like he had in Japan. Masahiro did record the 6th highest K-BB% in the American League last year so he’s getting there. Michael Pineda was still building back innings from the shoulder surgery he had a few years ago, and he tired at the end of the season but the potential is still there for him to dominate as he is still very young as well. Pineda had the highest strikeout to walk ratio in the American League last year and the 4th highest K-BB%. Luis Severino who was ranked by Fangraphs recently as the 9th best prospect in the minors is another young player with ace like potential as he showed down the stretch. All of these pitchers are under 28 for next season and all of them have no control problems what so ever, which is uncommon for their age. This means they get hitters out either via the strikeout or balls in play. As they learn you do not need 3 pitches to get an out, they will learn how to pitch to contact, and with their superior stuff they should be able to do this successfully. This will mean they will eventually be able to pitch more innings turning them into work horses. They are set up more so for success by the Yankees prioritizing defense [giving them confidence to pitch this way] and elite framing catchers who allow border line pitches to be called strikes and therefore making opposing hitters more willing to swing at pitches they can’t square up. We are seeing this happen before our eyes especially with Eovaldi this year and with Pineda’s ground ball percentage going up, Tanaka should be next seeing as he has done this before in Japan.
Jason Heyward also is a free agent this offseason after recording a season in which he was the 5th best baserunner, 2nd best defensive player, and 11th best overall player in the major leagues….at age 25. Should the Yankees take this route, they would have to trade and outfielder to make room and new rumors are saying Carlos Beltran could be sent packing. There are even rumors Teixeira could be traded so Bird could play every day. Both Beltran and Teixeira would have to waive their no trade clauses for the Yankees to do so and some rumors say Teixeira already has. All of this young talent with possible additions of Heyward and comeback seasons from Headley, Ellsbury, and Gardner make me very excited about the 2016 Yankees. No Mateo won’t be up…well not at least until September, but in the playoffs he could be elite speed off the bench and a top notch defensive replacement that teams like the Royals have been using annually. The Yankees also are looking for right handed bats so bringing back Chris Young might be a good idea as he crushed lefties last year to the tune of .327/.397/.575 or 62% above average. Ben Zobrist is another idea as he can play everywhere and is a much better right handed hitter than left handed hitter. Zobrist crushes lefties to the tune of .329/.409/.517 or 56% above league average. Some fans are clamoring for Yoenis Cespedes but he was actually below average against lefties despite being a power hitting righty. Justin Upton is a good hitter from the right side of the plate but he cannot play defense, something clearly important to the Yankees. If the Royals proved anything it’s that you can win on elite run prevention. That said they still had Morales and Gordon so you do need power. McCann and ARod should still be around as well to supply that power from the left and right side however for the first time in a great many years the Yankees have developed elite talent from within that perfectly compliments the older talent defensively and offensively. Here are numbers on some of the above players with comparisons for what kind of player they could be in their prime:
Slade Heathcott Arizona Fall League Numbers: .388/.494/.612 [Yes its a hitters league but even his contemporaries weren’t doing this, it’s what he can do when fully healthy [it was also a few years back]]. His numbers with the big league club: .400/.429/.720 [small sample size]. Think a Josh Hamilton with less power and more speed, best case scenario. Next year its more likely he is Kevin Kiermaier lite.
Mason Williams AA, AAA, and MLB numbers this year: AA .317/.407/.375, AAA .321/.382/.432, MLB .286/.318/.571. Carlos Gonzalez best case scenario. Next year think Nori Aoki with more speed and defense.
Aaron Judge AA numbers before he stalled at AAA .284/.350/.516. Giancarlo Stanton with less power, best case scenario. Next year, think Mike Morse with better defense.
Gary Sanchez AA, AAA, AFL numbers .262/.319/.476 in AA, .295/.349/.500 in AAA, AFL [so far] .328/.353/.688, Devin Mesoraco clone. Next year think Stephen Vogt though.
Greg Bird AA, AAA and MLB numbers. AA .258/.358/.445, AAA .301/.353/.500, MLB .261/.343/.529. Joey Votto best case scenerio. Next year think Eric Hosmer.
Robert Refsnyder AAA, and MLB numbers. AAA .271/.359/.402, MLB .302/.348/.512. Between Howie Kendrick and Dustin Pedroia best case scenerio. Think Daniel Murphy next year [not playoff Daniel Murphy].
Jorge Mateo A+ numbers .321/.374/.452. Jose Reyes best case. Next year think Terrance Gore in the playoffs because well, we likely won’t see him until then.
Yankee Fans, this is an exciting time. If you weren’t old enough to see the first few years of the core four, you need to watch the next core come into their own. Don’t tune in too late. The time is now.