As hot stove season casts its shadows over baseball fans everywhere, it is really easy to lose sight of what and who is right in front of us. Many Yankee fans hope that the Yankees will exit hot stove season with a shiny new toy in the starting rotation. I am not here to disabuse any of you who agree with that premise of that notion. Rather, I want to take a really careful look at what is left in the minor league system in the high minors. The most common narrative in Yankee analysis on the internet today is that the Yankees gutted their pitching depth in the upper minors. I have advanced that narrative myself in my own posts since the 2022 trade deadline. That doesn't mean that the cupboard is barren.
While the Yankees did empty out a fair amount of solid upper level pitching talent, there are still prospects who remain in the mix in the upper minors who could make an impact in 2023. Let's take a look at a few:
Matt Krook, LHP
Krook was selected in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 prior to the 2021 season from the Rays, and has performed decently while building up innings as a starter. Krook's high-80s fastball plays up due to deception, and commands his secondary offerings well enough to make him a viable arm that performs better than his raw stuff.
Scouting the stat line is always dangerous, and doing so with Krook's performance in 2021 and 2022 at Scranton is indicative of that fact. A quick glance at his ERA, WHIP, H/9, and HR/9 indicates that he was worse in repeating AAA in 2022. That's really not a complete picture, though. Krook built up his innings count to 138, higher than most starters in the Yankees' minor league system. He also exhibited a strong groundball rate at 55.7%, while maintaining a relatively strong strikeout rate. He did that all while dropping his walk rate from 14+% to 12+%.
It's even important to find a silver lining in the negative statistics. Krook's home run rate was incredibly uncharacteristic, nearly tripling from his baseline in previous seasons in part due to a 19.4% HR/FB rate that is almost as unsustainable as his .290 BABIP from this past season. Basic statistical regression indicates that Krook's true talent level in these departments is significantly better than what he showed in 2022.
There's also the velocity fairy that should be mentioned. Velocity can take multiple seasons to build, even for a development staff like the Yankees' that has shown an ability to help young pitchers gain a full grade or more of fastball velocity. Nestor Cortes Jr. is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Matt Krook is a viable up and down starter as soon as this year with his current stuff. If he finds a way to live in the low-90s more consistently, he might be a backend starter. That's more valuable than most of us acknowledge.
Jhony Brito, RHP
Jhony Brito was hardly on anyone's radar prior to 2022 outside of the most intense prospect watchers. Protected from the Rule 5 Draft this year, Brito put together a really nice season between AA and AAA in 2022. Brito relied on soft contact in 2022, as his strikeout numbers do not jump off the page. Like Krook, Brito did a good job of keeping the ball on the ground, working with a groundball rate above 54%, though he was far better than Krook at limiting homers and walks.
Stop me if you've heard this before: Brito's fastball ticked up by a fair amount in 2022, as he went from working in the 91-94 range to working consistently in the 94-96 range while touching 98 MPH. Brito pairs that fastball with an above-average change-up that shows good fade. Brito added a short slider this year (you will see some outlets refer to it as a cutter; he uses it more like a breaking ball, hence my insistence on calling it a slider) that seemed to help keep hitters off of his change-up. Brito has improved every year in the Yankee system, and is credited by multiple scouting outlets with excellent work ethic.
Having thrown 112.2 innings in 2022 with good results at AAA and improving stuff, Brito has put himself firmly in the conversation for some innings at the big league level in 2023. With each year, the projection systems like Brito more, and I am warming up to the idea that Brito can be either a backend starter or useful multi-inning reliever at the big league level. He might just reach that potential in 2023.
Randy Vasquez, RHP
As many of you likely know by now, I like Randy Vasquez quite a bit more than many minor league observers, so I'm going to start with the negatives. Vasquez is very slight, to the point where I don't think that his listed height/weight of 6'0", 165 lbs is incorrect (minor league height/weight listings are notoriously inaccurate). I don't expect that based on his build and violent delivery that he'll be an innings eater in the Majors. Mechanically, Vasquez has very long arm action, with a short stride and sharp recoil with the arm at the end of his delivery, which gives me pause about his long-term health. Normally, this is where I tell you that I think his path to usefulness at the big league level is as a reliever so that the Yankees (or someone else) can extract some value from him before he either gets hurt or his mechanics become unstable enough to render him ineffective even in short outings.
But I don't feel that way about Vasquez. Watching him pitch on the right night gives you the sense that there's a pitbull on the mound that isn't going to quit. While the stuff isn't quite to the same level, the profile mechanically and in demeanor reminds me a lot of Luis Severino as a prospect. I hate comparing prospects to current Major Leaguers, but I can't shake the comparison at the same point in their respective developments.
Vasquez improved incrementally at AA in 2022, improving his ERA from 4.22 in 21.1 innings in 2021 to 3.90 in 115.1 innings in 2022. Vasquez showed that his strikeout stuff plays against upper level batters, striking out 24.3% of batters faced while keeping his walk rate in check.
Vasquez's stuff is exciting. Vasquez throws a 4-seam fastball that jumps well beyond its low-mid 90s velocity with movement that rides sometimes and cuts a bit at others. Vasquez has a change-up that is inconsistent still, but flashes average or better, but his real calling card is a wiffle ball curve (I'd call it a slurve, but this is the rare case that I don't mean that in a negative way) that has reportedly been measured at 3100+ RPM. For reference, that's a Trevor Bauer breaking ball with spider tack measurement. See for yourself; check out the pitch among Vasquez's punchouts from his 8 hitless innings pitched in Somerset's championship finale:
I think Vasquez has earned a promotion to AAA, and he could be viable in the 2nd half of the 2023 season.
Clayton Beeter, RHP
Beeter was acquired as the primary return for Joey Gallo from the Dodgers. While Beeter fell under the radar as a Dodger prospect given the proliferation of high-end arms at the top of their system, Beeter is emerging as an interesting prospect in his own right.
2022 was a tale of two seasons for Beeter. He struggled mightily at AA Tulsa in the Dodgers' system, working in 16 3-4 inning starts while producing an unsightly 5.75 ERA. To be fair, Tulsa is a very tough pitching environment, though his FIP and xFIP don't look much better. Upon joining the Yankees, Beeter was a different guy from a performance perspective. While continuing to throw short, 2-4 inning starts, Beeter improved to a 2.13 ERA with AA Somerset, improving his strikeout rate from an already absurd 36.1% to a video game quality 39.4%. Beeter also improved his walk rate from 14.3% with Tulsa to a more palatable 10.6% with Somerset, which you can live with when you strike out as many batters as Beeter.
Beeter's stuff and build is what makes scouts salivate. Beeter is a large, well-built body, measuring at least 6'2" and likely a bit bigger than his listed 220 lbs. Beeter has 3 legitimate plus pitches on the mound, with a mid-90s fastball that peaks at 99 MPH with significant carry, and plus breaking balls, both measuring as high as 2800 RPM. Beeter's control and command are the primary concerns. Beeter's control will likely be good enough for an eventual bullpen role, but if he can get to even below-average command with his pitches, he could be a very fast riser. As it stands, he will likely crack the AAA rotation to begin the 2023 season, making him a hop, skip, and a jump from the Majors.
None of the aforementioned prospects should keep the Yankees from going out and acquiring another arm for the rotation. The Yankees' rotation is solid or better as it stands right now, and one good arm could put the rotation over the top. However, the prevailing narrative that the Yankees are bereft of depth and talent in the upper minors just isn't true. I think it is very likely that one of the four guys above can crack the rotation for some period of time in 2023.