Yanks' Severino, Refsnyder stole show in '14

Roller, Judge and Jagielo also in mix of New York's top performers

Luis Severino and Rob Refsnyder are the Yankees' No. 1 and No. 6 prospects, respectively. (Rudy C. Jones and Gordon Donovan)

By Mark Emery / MiLB.com | December 17, 2014 10:00 AM

This offseason, MiLB.com is honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Today, continuing with the New York Yankees, we're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball.

For the second year in a row, the Yankees said goodbye to one of their all-time greats in 2014. And like Mariano Rivera before him, Derek Jeter did not enjoy the opportunity to make one last postseason memory in his final season, as the club's 84-78 record left it 12 games out of first place in the American League East division and four games back of the AL's second Wild Card spot.

Not including the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, the last time the Yankees went back-to-back years without a playoff appearance was 1992-93, the 11th and 12th in a line of likely unbearable seasons for the team's fans. Finally, postseason baseball returned to the Bronx in '95, when Jeter and Rivera debuted alongside Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, and a year later the group that would become known as the Core Four helped deliver the first of four championships in five seasons.

As those budding heroes did then, every last one of New York's Minor Leaguers today would cherish the chance to help stop the current playoff drought. What follows are the system's top performers from 2014. Not all of them will reach Yankee Stadium, but you can bet that a few from this list will one day get that call. Whether any eventually becomes part of Yankee lore, none can say. 

Yankees Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Peter O'Brien, Tampa (30 games), Trenton (72 games): When the Yankees sent O'Brien and a player to be named later to the D-backs for big league third baseman Martin Prado on July 31, they parted with a prospect who at that time ranked third in all of Minor League Baseball with 33 home runs, a figure that ended up easily ranking first among all Baby Bombers' in 2014.

With 34 total long balls, the 2014 Futures Game participant and two-time Organization All-Star finished the season in fifth place on the Minors' homer list. The Miami product and 2012 second-round pick's combined numbers also included a .271 batting average, a .316 on-base percentage, a.594 slugging percentage and 74 runs batted in.

"Peter's a class act, professional, goes about his business the right way," said James Rowson, the Yankees' Minor League hitting coordinator. "We were excited about the year that he had. But a guy that puts in the kind of work that he puts in every day, and he started to focus a lot more, pay a lot more attention to the details, and the results are just what happens when a guy with that ability starts to do those things."

First baseman -- Kyle Roller, Trenton (21 games), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (104 games): Another two-time Organization All-Star, Roller finished second to O'Brien among Yankees prospects with 26 home runs, and he finished behind only Aaron Judge -- the club's fifth-ranked prospect -- with 74 RBIs. The 2010 eighth-round pick from East Carolina also batted a scorching .300/.391/.550 while spending the bulk of the season at the Minors' highest level.

"He showed great plate disciple, a great approach at the plate," Rowson said. "Kyle has an idea of what he's trying to do up there, and he's able to wait pitchers out until he gets a pitch that he can drive. He's a classic example of what you want your guys to do offensively, which is use their strength.

"He knows his strength is driving the baseball, so he doesn't settle early in the count. This year I thought he maximized that, and obviously the numbers show, when he can do that and have that kind of approach consistently, what he's capable of."

Second baseman -- Rob Refsnyder, Trenton (60 games), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (77 games): The 2012 fifth-round pick out of Arizona built on a so-so intro to pro ball two years ago to earn Organization All-Star honors last season, and he continued that upward trend in 2014. Between the Double-A Eastern League and the Triple-A International League, Refsnyder had a .318/.387/.497 slash line with 14 homers and 63 RBIs. His batting average led all full-season Yankees prospects.

"Relentless work ethic," Rowson said. "He's one of those guys that pay attention to every detail, and their work ethic, they don't settle for just being OK. They want to make sure they master whatever it is that they're working on. I think we're at the tip of the iceberg a little bit with Rob. There's some room to grow with him.

"Rob was able to show us that he could adjust to things fairly quickly. He was able to adapt and make sure that he held onto the adjustments that he made. So he doesn't take too many steps backwards once he figures something out -- he's able to continue moving forward."

Oh, and the Yanks' No. 6 prospect also won the Top Home Run MiLBY for his walk-off on July 4.

Third baseman -- Eric Jagielo, Tampa (85 games), GCL Yankees 1 (seven games): Despite missing almost two months because of a strained left oblique and having to hit in the pitching-dominated Class A Advanced Florida State League, the 26th overall pick of the 2013 Draft and Notre Dame product managed to swat 18 home runs, which tied him for third place with Zoilo Almonte among all Yankees prospects.

The club's No. 3 prospect also hit .256/.351/.461 with 58 RBIs in his first full season. Jagielo was scheduled to head to the Arizona Fall League to make up for time lost to the side injury, but before that could happen he sustained a different one during an instructional league game. A pitch to the face caused a fracture near his left eye that required surgery.

"I think he did a nice job, Rowson said. "As the year went on, he started to get more and more comfortable at the plate. So a big thing for him next year, for us as an organization, is just to see where he picks up in Spring Training, make sure he recovers well from the injury he had prior to going to the Arizona Fall League, but everything seems to be going well so far."

Shortstop -- Tyler Wade, Charleston (129 games): Only three players in the Class A South Atlantic League accumulated more at-bats than Wade's 507, and the 2013 fourth-round pick batted a respectable .272/.350/.349, hit one roundtripper and drove in 51 runs while swiping 22 bases -- third-most in the Yankees system.

"Being able to go to Charleston and play the entire season there, I think it was a big test for him," Rowson said. "He's another guy who [has] great character, great makeup, the definition of what people would call a gamer ... we like where he's at."

Outfielders

Aaron Judge, Charleston (65 games), Tampa (66 games): The 32nd pick of the 2013 Draft turned plenty of heads in his first pro season, with his output as well as his stature. Standing at 6-foot-7 and weighing 230 pounds, Judge hit .308/.419/.486 with 17 home runs and 78 RBIs. In addition to leading all New York prospects in RBIs, the California native ranked second among full-season Yankees prospects in batting.

"Everyone is enamored with his size," Rowson said. "A guy with that size and that type of plate discipline I think is very hard to come by. He doesn't chase many pitches out of the strike zone, he's a patient hitter, and that's going to go a long way."

Adonis Garcia, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (86 games): Despite hitting .441 (15-for-34) over 24 Spring Training games in 2014, the 29-year-old Cuban defector started the year at Triple-A and spent the rest of it just one step away from the Majors. He ended with a .319/.353/.474 slash line, nine home runs, 45 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 14 attempts.

"He was in camp, played OK there and then was able to play fairly well throughout the season last year," Rowson said. "He gave you good at-bats when you needed them. So I think for the position he was in and what he did last year, we were excited with what he did."

Zoilo Almonte, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (105 games), New York (13 games): Before the 25-year-old Dominican Republic native was designated for assignment in September and signed by the Braves in November, he put together a year that included another stop in the Majors and production in the Minors that would result in a fourth-straight Organization All-Stars nod.

Almonte hit .261/.311/.437 with 18 homers and 69 RBIs with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but while in New York he batted just .139 (5-for-36) with one home run and three RBIs.

"Really good athlete overall," Rowson said. "He's strong, he can drive the baseball from gap to gap, so Zoilo has a lot of upside. From the organization's standpoint, we're happy for him and wish him luck moving forward."

Utility player -- Jose Pirela, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (130 games), New York (seven games): While appearing in 60 games at second, 31 games in left, 13 games in right, 12 games at first, eight games at short, seven games at designated hitter and six games in center, the Venezuela native (who turned 25 after the season) hit .305/.351/.441 with 10 homers, 60 RBIs and 15 steals in 22 tries at Triple-A, leading the International League with 163 hits, 87 runs scored and 11 triples.

Pirela made his Major League debut on Sept. 22 and hit .333 (8-for-26) with a double, two triples and three RBIs over seven games for the Yankees.

"Jose plays the game the right way," Rowson said. "He uses his ability to run, he uses his ability to use the entire field as a hitter, and I think he puts pressure on the defense with the way he plays the game. ... He forces you to make plays. He's kind of that sparkplug or that lightning rod, you could say, from the offensive standpoint."

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Luis Severino, Charleston (14 games), Tampa (four games), Trenton (six games): A filthy showing in 2014 sent the Dominican Republic native soaring to the very top of the Yankees' prospect rankings. At just 20 years old, he turned in a 6-5 record and 2.46 ERA across 24 outings, tallying a system-leading 127 strikeouts against 27 walks in 113 1/3 innings. MLB.com's No. 62 overall prospect also had a .220 average against and 1.06 WHIP.

"Coming into this season, he was probably our big secret," said Danny Borrell, the Yankees' Minor League pitching coordinator. "I don't think we'll be keeping a secret in him anymore. Anytime you're 93-99 [mph] and you have a breaking ball that he changes speeds on, he can make it a breaking ball/curve, and then he'll throw 89-90 [mph] as a true slider. Both of those can be plus pitches, and then his changeup just drops off the table, and he can throw it to righties and lefties. I don't think there's anyone in baseball who hasn't heard about him now.

"He has that uncanny ability to slow the game down. ... When runners get on base, he can just eliminate a running game just because of how quick he is to the plate. And he knows what pitches to throw in what counts. He's a lot of fun to watch."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Caleb Smith, Charleston (18 games), Tampa (nine games): The Yankees were pleased with what they saw from the 2013 14th-round pick out of Sam Houston State in his first full season. After dominating in the short-season New York-Penn League in his first taste of pro ball, the southpaw showed that he can be effective against more polished hitting, finishing 2014 with a 10-9 record and 3.67 ERA.

In 117 2/3 innings spread between 27 starts, Smith racked up 116 strikeouts -- tying him with Brady Lail for third among New York prospects -- and issued 46 walks while holding hitters to a .228 batting average.

"Caleb was another good surprise for us in that he didn't have what you'd call top prospect numbers coming out of college, but he comes in and just fills the zone with his three pitches," Borrell said. "He was a little bit lower once he got to Tampa, but 89-94 [mph] in Charleston. ... [His fastball] really plays up just because it stays on plane. He gets a ton of swings and misses on his fastball. Capable changeup on him, and nice little developing slider. Right at the end of Tampa, we started adding a fourth pitch, and his curveball, just to give him a little separation." 

Relief pitcher -- Cesar Vargas, Charleston (17 games), Tampa (27 games): The right-handed Vargas flourished while transitioning to the bullpen, going 4-2 with a 2.58 ERA and 14 saves -- the most in New York's system -- in 16 chances. In 69 2/3 innings, the 22-year-old fanned 76 and walked 14, compiling a .209 opponents' average and 0.96 WHIP. All along, he achieved success with a pitch that a certain legendary Yankee closer made a habit of using, though Borrell understandably stopped short of painting Vargas in the same light as Rivera.

"Vargas really put himself on the map this year," Borrell said. "He's 90-95 [mph], he'll average 91-93 [mph], and he has a true cut to his fastball. The cut he has on his fastball, it just eats up left-handers, righties have a hard time seeing it and he can command it to both sides. And he's got a swing-and-miss slider that he just picked up this season, really."

"Whenever a pitcher changes roles, especially starting to reliever, it's just a completely different mindset. He really took to it. It just seems like he has that mentality where he loves coming in and pitching in tight games, and showed it this year, and I'm sure he'll show it in the years to come."

Mark Emery is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Mark_Emery. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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