Yankees grooming Kaprielian as leader

Right-hander taking Captain's Camp lessons into first full season

James Kaprielian struck out 14 over 11 1/3 innings in the Minors last season. (Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | March 7, 2016 5:00 PM

TAMPA, Fla. -- The offseason after Derek Jeter's retirement, the Yankees knew what they'd lost and went to work to try to replace it -- starting in the Minor Leagues.

The Yankees started the aptly named Captain's Camp in 2015 by gathering together 15 prospects they hoped could some day take up the leadership role long held by the 14-time All-Star shortstop.

"We put together what we believe to be potential leaders in this organization," said Yankees vice president of player development Gary Denbo. "Guys that we hope, in the future, are going to be part of our championship teams in New York. The idea was once Derek Jeter retired that we would try to develop some of the characteristics that the captains of the team in the past -- guys like Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, Willie Randolph, Derek Jeter -- some of the qualities those great Yankees have had and really develop those."

In 2016, they expanded the program to include 20 prospects, each of whom arrived early at the Yankees' Spring Training camp in Tampa, Florida in late January. There they began working out together and got tips from pinstriped heroes like Reggie Jackson, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Alfonso Soriano and, yes, No. 2 himself. Among the Captain's Camp newbies was James Kaprielian, a right-handed pitcher out of UCLA that New York took with the 16th overall pick last June -- its highest Draft pick since 1993. And it was in his first version of a Yankees camp that the 22-year-old stuck out.

"He was a leader in the meetings we had," Denbo said. "Not only leading by example through his work ethic and work habits, but also pushing others to work harder. It's unusual to have a guy who's only been in professional baseball for half a season to be in that role. But he was able to do that."

Of course, this wasn't a huge surprise to the Yankees either. Kaprielian went 10-4 with a 2.03 ERA, 114 strikeouts and 33 walks over 106 2/3 innings in his junior season with the Bruins and had previously stood out during summer stints with the USA Collegiate National Team in 2014 and in the Cape Cod Baseball League in 2013. But it was his off-the-field demeanor that led the Yanks to feel that he was the right choice at No. 16, thus making him the highest-picked college pitcher in franchise history.

"We thought very highly of him in the Draft," Denbo said. "James is very mature for his age. I think our scouting department did a great job of finding a player that has high character, is mature, has some leadership qualities that he's shown and proven here. Other players gravitate toward him. Sure, we have high expectations for James. He's come out of the gate so far and done really well for us."

On the field, Kaprielian has backed up those expectations with a solid four-pitch mix with all four offerings (fastball, curveball, changeup, slider) grading out as average to above-average.

The 6-foot-4 right-hander got a small taste of pro ball last season, tossing 11 1/3 frames between the Gulf Coast League and Class A Short Season Staten Island, and was given a non-roster invite to his first Spring Training, thus making the move straight from Captain's Camp to big league camp last month. But it wasn't until he tossed two perfect innings last Friday against the Tigers that the New York media started to latch onto him. The New York Post headline about his outing that day read "Why the name James Kaprielian represents the new Yankee way."

Some might worry about the pressure coming from the Big Apple, but that's where Kaprielian's character (and perhaps Captain's Camp training) kick in.

"I don't think there's pressure," Kaprielian said. "Obviously, it's an honor. I want to do what I can to help the team win. At the end of the day, that's what it's about. It's about winning. I've got to perform and do what I can to make the guys around me better. I wouldn't say there's pressure. I'm glad it's the Yankees. It's good to put on pinstripes every day, and I'm excited about the future."

Kaprielian spent his first offseason as a pro ballplayer working out in Orange County, California with fellow Scott Boras clients Gerrit Cole, Kyle Lohse and even a cameo appearance from Matt Harvey. During those sessions, he picked the brains of his fellow hurlers while going off his own workout routine, all the while keeping the Yankees in the loop. ("I appreciate them trusting me to get after it this offseason because I did," he joked.)

The Yankees are weeks away from having to assign the first-rounder to his first full-season stop, but before anyone gets ahead of themselves, it won't be the Majors. After showing manager Joe Girardi and the rest of the Major League staff what he has, Kaprielian is more likely headed to Class A Advanced Tampa or Double-A Trenton to kick off the 2016 season, and the pitcher himself said 170-200 innings is the goal for the 2016 campaign. 

As an advanced college pitcher though, he could be on the fast track if all goes well. The parent club is certainly hoping for big things.

"I'm optimistic down the road -- and I'm not going to say when -- that he'll be a big part of rotation in the Major Leagues," said Denbo.

Kaprielian, for his part, is hoping the "when" is as early as this fall, which could make him a likely candidate as Captain's Camp instructor next winter rather than a participant.

"I think anyone would be crazy to say anything other than that they want to be in the big leagues," Kaprielian said. "But before that can happen, I want to make sure I'm ready, I'm prepared and that I can get to there and stay there."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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