Under every possible interpretation of the events of the past season, 2013 was a huge disappointment for the Yankee farm system. The organization ended the 2012 with four bang-out awesome hitting prospects, lots of interesting supporting players, and a few star pitching prospects. Several disappointing-but-not-busted performances, two surgeries, three breakouts, and an influx of new talent add up to a lot of potential inflection points in 2014. Few relative good bets alongside as much raw talent as the Yankee system has ever held broadens the range of possibilities for the Yankee farm system. A fortunate year could vault the Yankees into a top-5 organizational ranking, and start to generate the next cohort of Yankee stars. An unfortunate year could doom the MLB team to years of declining veteran production without reinforcements.
I'm calling these guys the top 15 pivotal Yankee farm hands for next season. In my head, I'm defining these guys as the 12 guys who could end up as top-100 prospects in all of baseball by the end of 2014. The Yankees have maybe one top-100 guy at the present time, but a surprisingly large number of guys who are one reasonably doable (although improbable) season away from that tier.
The moment Jagielo was drafted, he became the standard-bearer of the Yankee system. He isn't a better prospect than Gary Sanchez, and isn't all that much of a clearer choice for best draft pick than Ian Clarkin or Aaron Judge. Jagielo offers something reassuring: he's about as safe as a late 1st round pick comes. He's an established college player with a certain position, a pretty good bat, and no obvious red flags. He didn't hurt his status by hitting a 118 wOBA+ for Staten Island this year either.
But baseball's graveyard is littered with the remains of promising prospects who did well in short-season ball and then flopped a soon as they hit the real leagues. Jagielo's got his work cut out for him. But if he pulls off another 118 wOBA+, or improves, you're looking at a top-100 prospect.
Remember him? He's still around, It wasn't all that long ago that Banuelos was the best Yankee pitcher in the system, and one of the top three or four left-handers in the minors. And then, disaster struck. Banuelos was stuck in rehab purgatory for all of 2012, and eventually had Tommy John surgery.
He'll be 23 years old. A strong comeback season could land him in the MLB rotation pretty quickly. Its not all that difficult to envision a 2014 where Manuel Banuelos cements himself in the long-term Yankee plans, either as a relief pitcher or starter. Its also not hard to imagine Banuelos never recovering, and quickly fading into the sunset.
After the amazing performances of Jesus Montero and Gary Sanchez before their 18th birthdays, it is very easy to underrate a solid performance by a talented teenager out of Latin America. Miguel Andujar was the highest-profile signing by the Yankees during the 2011 IFA season. He debuted in the states last season, and hit just a .285 wOBA.
This season? Still in rookie ball, Andujar hit .323/.368/.496, which should grade out pretty darn well on wOBA once the numbers are on Fangraphs. I can't wait to see what Andujar can do over 140 games. He's the IFA equivalent of a late first round pick.
Aaron Judge, Ian Clarkin
First round picks are exciting, even when they are Cito Culver and Dante Bichette Jr. It is very easy to get lost in their hype. The hype around Culver and Bichette amounted to, "The Yankees are good at talent evaluation. They picked these guys in the 1st round. Therefore, get excited." That didn't work out so well. Judge and Clarkin, on the other hand, were conventional 1st round picks valued by the rest of baseball. They are less safe than Jagielo, but are valuable additions to the Yankee system. We'll see if they are the real deal next year.
Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott
There's not much to say about these three. All are highly talented outfielders that had mediocre, but not catastrophic, seasons. These guys all legitimately earned their status as top-100 prospects in 2012, but it is unlikely that any will earn that ranking this year.
The good news is that they aren't sunk. They didn't have great years, but the terrible hitting environments at Yankee minor league parks make it seem worse than it was. Tyler Austin's .257/.345/.375 batting line looks terrible, but translates into a perfectly average 100 wOBA+. Heathcott pulled off a 102 wOBA+. Williams was below average at 93 wOBA+. They aren't the dynamic trio of awesome that they were a year ago, but its not difficult to imagine one or two of them making their way to the major leagues before the end of 2015. My money is still on Austin.
Before Eric Jagielo, Aaron Judge, and Ian Clarkin, Ty Hensley was the breath of fresh air. After two to four unconventional first round picks and one failed signing, the Yankees had finally made a Baseball America pick. He's a hard thrower not all that different from what Gerrit Cole was in 2008. And then... hip surgery. Its easy to forget about him, because he has barely pitched since the Yankees drafted. But Hensley has A++ stuff -- a mid 90s fastball, a killer curveball, and a functional changeup. Its not inconceivable that by June, we're considering Hensley the best pitching prospect in the system. Or, he could lose all the torque from his hips and come back throwing 89. Let's hope for the former.
Gary Sanchez, JR Murphy, Peter O'Brien
It wasn't that long ago that I was yelling at my computer when the Yankees would draft or sign a big catcher. The Yankees had an embarrassment of riches at the position! And then Jesus Montero was traded away. And Austin Romine stopped progressing. And Francisco Cervelli dropped off the map. And the Yankees decided to let Russell Martin leave for no good reason at all.
I'm going to call it right now: one of these three will be the Yankee starting catcher by the end of 2014, and that player will be the long term Yankee catcher. Gary Sanchez gets all the headlines, but I'm starting to lean toward JR Murphy as the more likely candidate. A careful look at his hitting stats shows a steady, reliably above-average hitter. Couple that with good enough defense at a premium position, and you've got an underrated prospect who deserves more top-100 consideration than he is going to get. Murphy's wOBA+s over the years: 113 at Low-A. 86 then 103 at High-A. 101 then 112 at Double-A. 107 at Triple-A. Unlike a lot of other players on this list, Murphy is fully established and playing the best baseball of his professional career.