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Sanchez, Turley top Yankees All-Stars
First-rounder Jagielo makes instant impression at hot corner
11/25/2013 6:00 AM ET
Gary Sanchez has climbed to 26th among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects.
Gary Sanchez has climbed to 26th among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects. (Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)

The Yankees dealt with numerous injuries and missed the playoffs, the great Mariano Rivera decided it was time to retire and -- gulp -- the hated Red Sox won the World Series.

Needless to say, it wasn't exactly a joyful year in the Bronx.

That carried over slightly into the Minor League system, where Yankees affiliates posted a 428-467 record, a .478 winning percentage that ranked 23rd among the 30 organizations.

It wasn't all doom and gloom, however. Trenton won all six of its playoff games to become the first Eastern League champion to sweep the playoffs since 1991. Fans later named the Thunder their Team of the Year in voting for the MiLBY awards.

Beyond the team success at the Double-A level, there were plenty of individual performances to get pinstriped fans excited. Some came from top prospects, others from surprise contributors and one from a former big name in a new role.

Yankees Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Gary Sanchez, Tampa (94 games), Trenton (23 games): As a rule, we start these rundowns behind the plate, and it's even more appropriate to do so here. Sanchez is undeniably the Yankees' top prospect, and he took another step toward proving that designation this season. The native of the Dominican Republic slashed .253/.324/.412 with 15 homers, 27 doubles and 71 RBIs during a season in which he moved up to Double-A at the age of 20. He also threw out 46 percent of would-be basestealers at Tampa and 39 percent with Trenton.

With that type of all-around showing, Yankee fans are looking forward to a seamless transition from newcomer Brian McCann.

"He's just all sorts of talented, both offensively and defensively," said Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman. "He started in the U.S. when he was just 17, so he's got [1,522] plate appearances under his belt now. He's been around some, and it's showing. It's just not the kind of package you see too often in catchers."



First base -- Greg Bird, Charleston (130 games): Sanchez may be the biggest name on this list, but it's Bird who put up the best numbers in his first full season in pro ball. The left-handed slugger reached base at a .428 clip -- a number that ranked fourth in the Minor Leagues and was aided by his 107 walks. When he made contact, the 2011 fifth-round pick showed some impressive power, finishing with 20 homers, 36 doubles and a .511 slugging percentage. The 21-year-old's .938 OPS ranked second in the South Atlantic League and helped earn a spot on the Topps Class A All-Star team.

"He's got great discipline and power and is able to hit the ball well to both sides of the field, which you don't see that often, especially from first baseman," Newman said. "He was actually a catcher, too, before making the move. Our scouts thought the move was something that could happen, but it wasn't a guarantee. He's certainly done well with it so far."

Second base -- Robert Refsnyder, Charleston (13 games), Tampa (117 games): Refsnyder ripped through the Sally League (.370/.452/.481) in his brief return to Class A before getting the bump to the Florida State League, where he was solid for Tampa (.283/.408/.404). The University of Arizona product's .293 average and 23 steals between the two spots were tops among full-season position players in the system and, like Bird, his .413 OBP (second-highest in the system) and 70-78 strikeout-to-walk ratio were noteworthy.

Third base -- Eric Jagielo, Gulf Coast League (four games), Staten Island (51 games): It's obviously early, but the Yankees like what they saw in their own backyard from the 26th overall pick in the 2013 Draft. The 21-year-old ranked among the New York-Penn League leaders in OBP (.376, seventh), slugging (.451, seventh) and OPS (.827, third). While Newman dismissed the necessity of starting on the right foot -- "look at how Derek Jeter or Robinson Cano started" -- he admitted it was nice to see in the case of Jagielo.

"He's certainly got some power," Newman said. "What he did was reflective of what our guys saw in him before the Draft. … He's got a lot of at-bats under him and is off to a solid start after building off the great year at Notre Dame."

Shortstop -- Abiatal Avelino, Gulf Coast League (34 games), Staten Island (17 games): Making his U.S. debut at the age of 18, Avelino hit the ground running -- literally. He shared the GCL lead with 26 stolen bases, despite a jump to the NYPL in late August, and led the system with 28 even though he played only 51 games. He showed a good eye and solid bat, too, finishing with a .303 average, .381 OBP and 17 strikeouts against 20 walks.

Outfielders

Thomas Neal, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (72 games), New York (four games), Chicago Cubs (two games): Neal's time with the Yankees was short-lived -- he was designated for assignment in August to make room for Alfonso Soriano -- but that doesn't detract from what he did in his introduction to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The 26-year-old owned a .325 average and .802 OPS in 72 games with the RailRiders while batting everywhere in the lineup from leadoff to eighth. His average was third-highest in the International League at the time he was DFA'd.

Ben Gamel, Tampa (96 games), Trenton (16 games): Like Avelino and Refsnyder, Gamel proved his worth on the basepaths, swiping 22 bags to rank third in the organization. The 21-year-old was at his best in Tampa, where he slashed .272/.352/.396 with three homers, four triples and 28 doubles. His regular-season numbers dipped in Trenton (.239/.282/.343), but he was particularly effective in the playoffs, going 8-for-15 with three walks in five games.

Zoilo Almonte, Scranton Wilkes-Barre (68 games), New York (34 games): Yankee fans got to know the organization's No. 6 prospect fairly well following his promotion to the big club in June. Before that, he was making a name for himself with the RailRiders. The switch-hitter owned a .297/.369/.421 line with six homers and 36 RBIs in 68 games in his first year at the Triple-A level. Those stats got a boost in June, when he batted .354 with a .798 OPS in 16 games before his promotion.

Almonte, an Organization All-Star for the third year in a row, struggled some in the Majors (.236/.274/.302) and battled an ankle injury that sidelined him for almost two months into September. Still, the front office believes those are growing pains.

"He was hitting well at the time in Triple-A and had done well at Double-A [21 homers in 2012] before that, so it was kind of a natural progression to call him up," Newman explained. "He did OK, got hurt, but overall did fine; he certainly wasn't overmatched. I think we all know he has some work to do at the Major League level.

"Most players, when they get to the big leagues there's a period where they have to learn about Major League pitching and make those sorts of adjustments. It's natural. We expect that development is going to continue for about three years after a callup."

Utility -- Peter O'Brien, Charleston (53 games), Tampa (66 games): An argument could be made to actually put O'Brien above Sanchez at the catcher spot, but given that he spent more of his time in Tampa at third base, this seems like the right spot. O'Brien had a powerful first full season in which he led all Yankees Minor Leaguers with 22 homers and 96 RBIs. He was a Sally League midseason All-Star and finished with a .325/.394/.619 slash line with the RiverDogs before regressing slightly in Tampa (.265/.314/.486).

O'Brien showed off more power in the Arizona Fall League, slugging four homers in 16 games despite batting just .190 (12-for-63), and continued to get time at both catcher and third base. With Sanchez looming above, the Yankees are unsure exactly where the former University of Miami star will stick defensively, but for now, they're happy to have his bat in the organization.

"It's not driven primarily by Gary -- we've got some pretty substantial catching talent all around with J.R. Murphy too," said Newman, adding that O'Brien might also be a fit in right field. "Looks, Pete's a great athlete. He does a good job behind the plate. We just want to see if he plays other positions well enough, and that might provide him with a better route to the big leagues. It's all about positional flexibility to get as many of these guys in the lineup as we can."

Right-handed starter -- Shane Greene, Tampa (13 games), Trenton (14 games): Greene was perhaps the biggest surprise in the Yankees system this season. After posting ERAs above 4.00 in each of his first four seasons, including a 5.22 mark in 2012 at Tampa, the just-turned 25-year-old went 12-10 with a 3.38 ERA and 137 strikeouts over 154 1/3 innings. A big part of that success was due to his ability to cut down his walk rate from 5.1 per nine innings last year to 1.7 -- a 66 percent drop.

"It was the biggest single leap I've seen in some time," Newman said of Greene, who was added to the 40-man roster earlier this month. "Some of that has to do with our pitching coaches helping him with his delivery and pitch selection. But another part is him deciding to be more aggressive in attacking instead of throwing the ball at the fringes of the zone. Once that happened and he started to get results, some of it is confidence that he can do it and can continually do it."

Left-handed starter -- Nik Turley, Trenton (27 games), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (one game): The 6-foot-4 southpaw has been methodically climbing the ranks in the system since he was taken in the 50th round of the 2008 Draft. And, after this season, he could be on the verge of reaching the big club. Turley was 11-8 with a 3.79 ERA, 141 strikeouts and 76 walks over 139 innings, which included a six-inning, one-run emergency outing in Triple-A back in May. His strikeout total was a career high, as were his innings. If he can work on his command, a trip to the big leagues in late 2014 shouldn't be out of the question.

"He has some interesting characteristics," Newman said. "His curveball is really good and has a pretty high rate of swings and misses. But he's not a one-trick pony. His fastball is solid and his changeup is above-average. He's got three different ways to attack you."

Relief pitcher-- Dellin Betances, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (38 games), New York (six games): Betances just might have a future with the Yankees after all. The 6-foot-8 hurler was a Top 25 overall prospect before encountering control issues last season (6.44 ERA, 6.8 BB/9). He struggled out of the gate as a starter again in 2013 with a 6.00 ERA in six outings before the organization decided to transition him to a relief role. He thrived out of the bullpen, posting a 1.35 ERA and 83 strikeouts against 26 walks over 60 innings with the RailRiders. The results didn't follow him to the Majors, where he surrendered six runs on nine hits in five innings, but things certainly look brighter for the native New Yorker than they did a year ago.

"It's hard to say what the difference was," Newman said. "It's still 60 feet, 6 inches. It's the same mound, just a different role. Obviously, in shorter stints, he pitched more aggressively out of the bullpen and just seemed less concerned about locating pitches as compared to controlling them. … Right now, he's going to pitch out of the bullpen for the foreseeable future. I hate to make terminal statements like that, but it's where he's had the most success, so that's where he'll be."

Sam Dykstra is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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