What Year Is It, Manny Bañuelos?
By Andy Singer
2/3 of the Killer B’s. Photo Credit: Edward Linsmier, The New York TImes
I want to take you back to a very different time. The Yankees had just won the 2009 World Series with a juggernaut roster that seemingly had a 3-4 year window to add more championships, which would anoint them as the next great sports dynasty. The farm system, which had been barren basically since the Core Four left prospect lists, was rebounding in a big way after Cashman finally wrestled control away from the old Tampa mafia. It is here that our story begins. In previous years, the Yankees utilized prospect capital for one thing only: as fodder to acquire veteran talent. Other than Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, Yankee fans were not used to seeing the Yankees hold and nurture young talent. For once, the Yankees were planning to re-tool on the fly with homegrown talent once the window with the current group of veterans closed.
Coming into the 2011 season, the Yankees had a fascinating group of prospects that the rest of the league seemed to like as well, a first in my lifetime other than the late ‘90s. At the top of everyone’s Yankee prospect lists was Jesus Montero, a sure-bet to hit even if he didn’t stick at catcher, tools that made him a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball. Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, and Slade Heathcott were also big names, but right after Montero, the Yankees were developing a trio of pitchers who all made waves at the same time known as the Killer B’s: Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman, and Manny Bañuelos.
Betances was the local kid with great stuff, but came with some questions about his ability to repeat his delivery and control the baseball consistently; Brackman was a fascinating athlete, who also played Power Forward on the NC State basketball team at 6’10”, with an electric fastball that could touch 100 MPH and a knockout slider (to this day, standing 2 feet behind the catcher at field level on Cape Cod during one of Brackman’s pre-TJS bullpen sessions was one of the most impressive pitching performances I’ve ever seen); and the best pitching prospect of the three, Manny Bañuelos, a lefty with a solid fastball, an excellent change-up, and a good slider with command of all three pitches. Yankee fans were able to dream big on those three.
We know now what happened. Betances reached the end of his minor league career out of options, so the Yankees made a last-ditch effort to make him a reliever, and he became one of the best relief pitchers in Yankee history; Brackman was never right again after undergoing Tommy John Surgery in his draft year, and only had a cup of coffee in the Majors with the Reds; and Bañuelos never returned to form after his own Tommy John Surgery, and a slew of injuries and underperformance followed him. The moral of the story, as far as I’m concerned: Tommy John Surgery is no sure thing. Yankee fans all know this to be the story…but is that the end?
My interest was piqued when I saw a report on January 10th that the Yankees had signed Manny Bañuelos to a minor league deal. Surely, this was a favor to a former top prospect that still has connections to personnel in the Yankee player development system that would also score some nostalgia points with fans. On second thought though, the Yankees haven’t been big on the nostalgia game in recent seasons, so I wanted to look beneath the surface a little further.
To this point, Bañuelos’ MLB career has been disappointing, to say the least. Bañuelos owns a 6.31 ERA over 77 innings, with 63 strikeouts and a 1.75 WHIP. He last pitched in the Majors in 2019, and his Statcast peripherals don’t tell a better story: below-average fastball velocity (92 MPH average), a little-used 82.6 MPH change-up that was hammered (despite its former glory, and widely considered Bañuelos’ best pitch as a prospect), and an oft-used slider that was better than his other pitches (85.3 MPH), but also got hammered relative to the rest of the league. For the last two years, Bañuelos has been out of affiliated ball entirely, pitching in Mexico and Taiwan.
This is where the story takes a turn. Over the last two seasons, Bañuelos has been excellent in leagues that are roughly equivalent to AA/AAA, possibly better on some days. Bañuelos has been healthy for the first time in years, and he has managed to both start on a consistent schedule and pitch well each time out. Most interestingly, the strikeouts for which he was famous early in his minor league career have returned. as Bañuelos has struck out 10-12 batters per 9 innings at each stop. In short, his arm is built up to a full starter’s load, and hitters are having trouble seeing the ball again.
Don’t just take the word of stats; check out the below video, courtesy of Sung Min Kim:
Here's a video his 13 strikeouts vs. Wei Chuan Dragons from 2021. Fastball clocked in 93~95 range here:https://t.co/M93mBRVt8a — Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) January 11, 2022
The video above gives us some good evidence of who Bañuelos is today. In the video above, Bañuelos is consistently sitting at 95 MPH with his fastball (if we trust the radar gun readings). While the pitch doesn’t appear to have a lot of ride, Bañuelos hides the ball beautifully with his repeatable short arm motion out of the stretch. His change-up and slider velocities also appear intact from his last MLB appearance, but more importantly, the change-up flashes plus when the release and location are timed up correctly: watch the video at 1:53 above for evidence. Something tells me that the current Yankee pitching coach rotation down in the minors can help him hone that fastball/change-up combination.
Do I necessarily expect Bañuelos to become a key cog in the Yankee rotation or bullpen in 2022? Certainly not. Bañuelos will be 31 years old in 2022, and while his stuff plays against leagues of guys who are not used to seeing mid-90s velocity on a consistent basis, it will be another test against guys in AAA or the Majors. Then again, Bañuelos’ stuff looks much better than I’ve seen it in a decade. Maybe, just maybe, Bañuelos can re-write the ending to his MLB story. I know I’ll be rooting for him to do it with the Yankees.