Pitching-heavy Yanks system anything but dry

Turnaround in the Minors could translate in return to glory

(Todd Franklin)

By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com | March 7, 2007 4:55 AM

The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, MLB.com takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.

If the script is still the same, the Yankees should return to World Series title winning in short order.

Back in the 1990s, the whole dynasty was built upon a strong farm system that created the core of players who brought four championships to the Bronx in five years. Most of that group did stay intact (minus Andy Pettitte, who's now back) while the Yankees won nine straight American League East titles. But that homegrown nucleus is aging and needs help.

Up until this point, the help hasn't gotten them any more rings. That's about to change, especially on the pitching front. Sitting in Triple-A will be one of the deepest stockpiling of arms in all of baseball, with any number of arms ready, willing and able to contribute. Phil Hughes, obviously, heads that list and he should join Chien-Ming Wang to form a 1-2 homegrown punch atop the Yankees rotation very soon. Much of the other upper-level pitching talent came by way of trade as the Yankees -- gasp -- dealt veterans away for young arms. Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield netted the Yankees five quality pitching prospects, starters and relievers both.

In addition to those arms, there's another wave coming at the bottom of the system. The Yankees were very aggressive during the draft -- as well they should be considering their financial situation -- and were able to draft and sign several players other organizations may not have been able to afford to take a risk on.

They're not as rich in the position player bunch, though outfielder Jose Tabata is one of the most exciting young prospects in all of baseball. There are some high risk, high reward bats in the system that the Yankees can afford to wait on. Besides, with the amount of pitching now in the system, they can always use some of that depth to deal for big-league bats better than some of the recent Major League additions have been. The Yankees have continued to be the one team most expect to win every year, but without a title since 2000, some of the swagger has been misplaced. Now, with the farm system back and firing on all cylinders, the other 29 teams in baseball once again should have something to fear.

Climbing the Ladder

Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre

Eric Duncan, 1B
With everything Duncan has been through, it's hard to imagine he'll play the 2007 season at the ripe old age of 22. The Yankees' first-round pick back in 2003 was perhaps rushed a bit through the system, but he's still ahead of the curve in terms of his level and age. If someone had said he'd be in Triple-A at 22 back when he was drafted, everyone would've been thrilled. But because he stalled a little in Double-A and took a step backward last year when his first taste of Triple-A didn't pan out, people think of him as a disappointment. Most of his struggles, however, have been injury-induced, including dealing with a bad back for much of 2006. He'll need to work hard to keep that from being a chronic problem so he can reach his considerable power potential. Defensively, he's made a fairly smooth transition to first base and should be at least average there in the future. The Yankees are still confident he'll hit, but also understand that this is an important season for Duncan to show he's more than just potential.
Video: Duncan cranks a clutch single

Phil Hughes, RHP
The Hughes clock, at least among Yankee fans, has already begun in earnest as everyone wants to know when the right-hander -- arguably the best pitching prospect in the game -- will get his chance. He'll get a nice long look in big-league camp this spring before heading to Triple-A at least to start the year. There are a few reasons why he may not be there long. First is his package of stuff and command. Just 20, Hughes has ridiculous pitchability while offering up two plus fastballs and a nasty curve. He's got a slider which can be an above-average pitch, but he rarely throws it anymore. His changeup is still a work in progress, but no one doubts it will come. Second, when people look at the Yankee rotation, they see age and question marks behind Chien-Ming Wang. No one knows what the Yankees will get from Carl Pavano or Kei Igawa, while Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte aren't spring chickens. The time will come -- and it could very well come by midseason -- where Hughes will join Wang as a very dangerous and effective 1-2 homegrown punch.

2006 Organizational Record
LEVEL
AAA
AA
A (Adv)
A
SS
R
LEAGUE
INT
EL
FSL
SAL
NYP
GCL
TEAM
Columbus
Trenton
Tampa
Charleston
Staten Island*
Yankees

TOTAL:

W
69
80
75
78
45
31

378

L
73
62
62
62
29
20

308

PCT
.486
.563
.547
.557
.608
.608

.551

* Won New York-Penn League Championship

Others to watch: Scranton/Wilkes-Barre could very well have the deepest pitching staff in all of the Minors. Behind Hughes, there's Humberto Sanchez, Ross Ohlendorf and Tyler Clippard, just to get started. Steven Jackson, Steven White and Matt DeSalvo all want to be there as well. ... OF Brett Gardner reached Double-A in his first full season and stole 58 bases across two levels. He's a hustler who is simply fun to watch. ... Bronson Sardinha, who's been slowly making his way up the Yankee ladder since 2001, will join Gardner in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre outfield. He set a career high with his 16 homers and played well in his first taste of Triple-A last year.
Video: Sanchez is on the Rookie Career Development path

2006 Organizational Leaders
Average
Home Runs
RBIs
Stolen Bases
ERA
Wins
Strikeouts
Saves
.326
26
106
68
1.40
13
175
23
Wilmer Pino
Randy Ruiz
Cody Ehlers
Justin Christian
Angel Reyes
Jason Jones
Tyler Clippard
Justin Pope
Complete MiLB statistics

Double-A Trenton

Cody Ehlers, 1B
As an 11th-round draft choice in 2004, Ehlers would have been a perfect choice as a sleeper or Cinderella story. Then he went and won the Florida State League MVP and kind of blew the door off of that secret. Yes, an argument can be made that he was a touch old for the level -- he'll play this season in Trenton at age 25 -- but the FSL is notoriously pitching-friendly and Ehlers led the league in total bases, RBIs, extra-base hits and doubles while finishing in the top 10 in a host of other offensive categories. The lefty-swinging/throwing first baseman will be the type who has to prove himself at each level, but any time a guy drives in over 100 runs in a season, it's worth watching what the follow-up year looks like.
Video: Ehlers smacks a triple

Kevin Whelan, RHP
While Humberto Sanchez was the top young arm acquired in the Gary Sheffield trade, Whelan wasn't exactly a throw-in. Since the Tigers took him out of Texas A&M in the fourth round of the 2005 draft, he's saved 42 games, posted a 2.30 ERA and struck out 110 (against just 37 walks) in 78 1/3 innings. Last year, he spent all season in the FSL and had 27 saves to go along with a .178 batting average against. This is all coming from a guy who was a catcher and closer for most of college and didn't commit to pitching only until that 2005 season. He's got an above-average fastball that hits 94 mph and a killer splitter which is his true out pitch. He'll spend much of this year simply learning the nuances of pitching while developing his slider to go along with his other offerings. It could click for him soon and, as much as it hurts Yankee fans to hear this, Mariano Rivera will not be New York's closer forever. Whelan could be the heir apparent.

Others to watch: There likely will be some trickledown from the Triple-A pitchers listed above. They may not be happy about it, but any of the aforementioned arms who end up in Trenton could dominate the competition. ... RHP Jeff Marquez doesn't have to worry about Triple-A yet. Despite a shoulder strain that cost him to miss a month, he finished the season strong, then pitched in Hawaii. His stuff is still raw, but could start coming together this season. ... Yet another intriguing arm is RHP Alan Horne. A Tommy John surgery recipient while in college, he finished last season in Tampa very strongly and hopes to build off of that in Trenton.

Class A Advanced Tampa

Jose Tabata, OF
You almost get the sense the Yankees are trying hard not to giggle when they talk about Tabata, who'll move up to the Florida State League and won't turn 19 until August. The Yankees have had some success developing some Latino hitters with Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera the current examples on the big-league roster. Tabata is one to two years ahead of that duo in terms of development and has been a better hitter than either was in the Minors. Simply put, Tabata is the best hitting prospect among the young Latino players they've had coming through the system. And he's not just a bat, though that is special. He can run and has flashed a plus-throwing arm from the outfield. There really is no ceiling for a player like this and the Yankees have been stressing things like discipline, work ethic and pre-game routines with Tabata to help ensure he can maximize his considerable talents. If he stays healthy this year -- he got dinged up a bit in 2006 -- he could really start taking off, allowing Yankee fans to start the "Tabata clock" by 2008.

Joba Chamberlain, RHP
At some points during last year's draft season, Chamberlain looked like a possible Top 10 pick. But some injury concerns allowed him to drop to the Yankees in the supplemental first round. He signed too late to make his debut last summer, probably a good thing because of the workload he shouldered at Nebraska. He did sign in time to go pitch in the Hawaiian Winter League and was named the league's top prospect. He touched 97 mph there and his fastball sat in the 93-95 range. He complements that plus-fastball with a slider, curve and changeup, all of which are usable pitches. Part of what scared some teams off were his conditioning and past knee surgery and Chamberlain will have to continue to focus on conditioning to stay healthy and maintain his power-command combination. Already making some adjustments to the pro game in terms of his delivery and his pitch selection, he could move up extremely quickly and join the upper-level pitching logjam in the near future.

Others to watch: RHP Ian Kennedy was another college right-hander the Yankees took in the first round. He barely got his feet wet in Staten Island last summer before joining Chamberlain in Hawaii, where he struck out 45 in 30 1/3 innings. He's not a power pitcher, though. Kennedy has outstanding command, mixes his pitches well and keeps hitters off-balance, helping him maximize his average stuff. ... Reliever Anthony Claggett came over along with Whelan and Sanchez in the Sheffield deal. He's coming off a season in which he finished with a 0.90 ERA and a .175 batting average against. ... Joining Tabata in the lineup should be 3B Marcus Vechionacci, another Venezuelan product. He'll play the season at age 20 and has nearly as high a ceiling as Tabata and is a plus, plus defender to boot. There's a chance that OF Colin Curtis will make the leap to Tampa in his first full season after being a fourth-round draft choice out of Arizona State last June.

Class A Charleston

Austin Jackson, OF
An all-around athlete, the Yankees took Jackson in the eighth round of the 2005 draft and convinced him to give up on playing basketball at Georgia Tech. His first full season was a learning experience as he showed some positive things -- 37 steals, 61 walks and some raw power -- as well as some negative things -- 151 strikeouts and a relatively poor ability to make adjustments. Some of that, of course, is to be expected from a relatively raw high school outfielder and the Yankees are hoping his athletic ability translates into better performance in 2007. There's a good chance he could be pushed to Tampa, in which case Curtis would probably start in center for Charleston.

Dellin Betances, RHP
Betances, a local product out of Brooklyn, was surprising enough in his debut when he posted a 1.17 ERA and 27 K's in 23 1/3 IP in the Gulf Coast League. Then he was touching 98 mph last fall, making the Yankees clearly realize they made the right decision by drafting Betances in the eighth round and throwing enough money at him to get him to give up his commitment to Vanderbilt. If that weren't enough, Betances showed up early to camp looking like a different person. The 6-foot-8 right-hander was around 205 pounds last fall. He showed up this spring at close to 230 pounds. What that can do for his fastball and his stamina is a little mind-boggling. He's also shown an above-average curveball and a changeup that's usable now but will get better. With his height, he has a significant downhill plane with a good delivery. He's a quiet, hard-working kid who the Yankees can't wait to watch develop. Of all the pitching the Yankees have in their system currently, there may be no one with a higher ceiling than Betances.

Others to watch: Catcher Francisco Cervelli had a nice year in the New York-Penn League, hitting .309 for Staten Island. But the Yankees like his catch-and-throw skills even more. ... He'll get a chance to catch lefty Angel Reyes. The Yankees aren't nearly as deep on the left side of the rubber, so they'll be watching the 20-year-old closely. ... RHP George Kontos went from Northwestern to Staten Island as a fifth-rounder last summer and helped the Yankees win the NY-Penn League title by posting a 2.64 ERA during the regular season and winning two playoff starts. OF Josue Calzado got a brief taste of Charleston last year and fared well and should at least get the chance to compete for a job there to start the season this spring.

Under the Radar

Tim Battle, OF
The Yankees have been excited about and patient waiting for Battle's tools to turn into performance ever since they took him in the third round back in 2003. There have been some glimpses, like when he hit 16 homers and stole 40 bases in 2005, his first try at full-season ball. Of course, he also struck out 195 times that year. The move up to Tampa didn't go well for him last year, and he ended spending most of the season back in Charleston. His makeup and resolve are off the charts. Just a month into his pro career, he was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma and underwent six months of chemotherapy. While there are some players who have tremendous tools who never quite put it together, the Yankees are going to continue to be extraordinarily patient with Battle, not just because of his potential, but because of his work ethic and attitude. The Yankees liked what they saw in him during their winter program, where he made some nice strides with his overall game. This could be a big year for him to get back on the map at the ripe old age of 21.

Juan Miguel Miranda, 1B
Back in December, the Yankees quietly signed Miranda, a Cuban defector, to a four-year contract worth $2 million. While it didn't garner that much attention, it was a Major League deal that required the Yankees to put the lefty-swinging Miranda on the 40-man roster. Miranda, 23, played on the Cuban national team from 2001 until 2004 when he successfully defected to the Dominican. He had tried twice previously to leave by raft. He left his parents and three brothers behind to chase his big-league dream. Now he's in Major League camp and has picked up a couple of at-bats so far this spring. The Yankees think he could be a guy who'll hit 20-plus homers annually and could push Eric Duncan in the near future in the upper levels of the system.

Francisco Cervelli, C
Signed out of Venezuela just shy of his 17th birthday in 2003, Cervelli initially played first base for the Yankees' Dominican Summer League team. He spent 2004 there as well -- as a catcher -- before making his United States debut in the Gulf Coast League in 2005. Nothing really made him stand out in any of these three seasons outside of his defense. He hit .239 back in 2003, .216 in 2004 and dropped to .190 in 24 games in the GCL in 2005. Then came last year. Catching for the New York-Penn League champion Staten Island Yankees, Cervelli hit .309 and had a .397 OBP in 136 at-bats. He'll give full-season ball a try at age 21 this season and the Yankees just might have a bona fide catching prospect on their hands.

Justin Christian, OF
Simply making it to Double-A as a non-drafted free agent is enough to put Christian on most Cinderella-type lists. He not only made it there, he played extremely well. After two seasons in the independent Frontier League, Christian was signed with the Yankees as a middle infielder. He's moved fairly quickly since with a .304 career average, .375 OBP and 182 steals. Last year with Trenton, he swiped 68 bags while hitting .276. He did all of that while playing outfield for the first time. Don't get too excited yet. Christian didn't even get a non-roster invitation to big-league camp this spring and will play this season at age 27. But wherever he is this season -- perhaps patrolling the outfield in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre -- you can be sure he'll be running all the time and continuing to try to defy expectations.

2006 Draft Recap

OF Colin Curtis (fourth round), hit .311 with a .374 OBP, almost entirely for Staten Island. He hit .333 in the playoffs. ... RHP George Kontos (fifth) turned it around from a subpar final season at Northwestern to help lead the Staten Island Yankees to the NY-Penn League title. He went 7-3 with a 2.64 ERA in 14 regular-season starts, striking out 82 and walking only 19 in 78 1/3 innings. ... INF Mitch Hilligoss (sixth) hit .292 and went 12-for-14 in stolen-base attempts for Staten Island. ... RHP Tim Norton (seventh) had a 2.60 ERA in 15 starts for Staten Island, striking out 83 and walking 14 over 72 2/3 IP. He didn't allow an earned run over his final four regular-season starts, then tossed seven shutout frames in a postseason start. ... RHP Dellin Betances (eighth) really opened some eyes in the GCL, posting a 1.16 ERA and striking out 27 over 23 1/3 innings. ... RHP Daniel McCutchen had a 1.86 ERA over 29 innings for Staten Island and Charleston. He struck out 29, walked six and held hitters to a .175 average. He'll start the season serving a suspension for testing positive for a performance enhancer, something he said was a result of a prescription he was talking. ... C Brian Baisley (24th) was probably too old for his levels, but he did hit .326 over 23 games, mostly in the Florida State League. His brother, Jeff, plays in the A's system.

Predictions

Organizational Player of the Year -- Jose Tabata
Some players have tons of talent and potential and never reach it. Others are legit. Jose Tabata is legit. Look for him to stay healthy all year and start making the most of his tools. He'll begin the year in Tampa and finish in Trenton while doing a lot of everything offensively and defensively.

Organizational Pitcher of the Year -- Dellin Betances
If Hughes spends most of the season in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre -- something that just doesn't seem possible -- he's the obvious choice. Instead of going with an upper-level guy, let's go with a guy who'll definitely spend all year in the Minors. Betances is just scratching the surface and he's already pretty darn good. He's going to make South Atlantic League hitters look silly.

Quotable

"Those are conversations that aren't fun for people in player development (having to tell a pitcher he'll be forced to a level lower than he expected). But there's another side to that coin. When you have the pitching depth we do and you're faced with the problem of making those tough decisions, that other side of the coin is not a bad one. This is the most pitching depth, and quality, we've had since I've been here. We rolled the dice along with some bucks to get some of these guys. Between what Brian Cashman has done with trades and what Damon Oppenheimer and the scouts have done in the draft, we've got pitching at the upper and lower levels, which is fun." -- Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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