1. Jesus Montero, C
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent 2006 (Venezuela)
2010 Level: AAA (International League)
Age on Opening Day: 21.4
Notes: One of the best pure hitter in the minors, there isn’t much Montero can’t do at the plate. He is extremely strong, and has the balance and quick hands to drive the ball to all fields. He got off to a slow start in his first taste of AAA in 2010, but he rebounded to post a more-than-respectable overall line of 289/353/517 and a career high 21 home runs. Unlike many power hitters, Montero is tough to strikeout. He struck out in only 20.1 percent of his at-bats last year, and that was even higher than his 2009 rate of 13 percent. While there are few questions abut Montero’s bat, there are plenty about his defense. He has improved over the past couple of seasons to the point where he is now merely well below-average behind the plate, but he is still not good enough to profile as an every-day catcher. He committed 15 passed balls in 2010, a total surpassed by only four other teams in the fourteen-team International league, and he only threw out 23 percent of would-be base-stealers. Still, Montero’s ability to fill in behind the plate has value. He could serve as a team’s everyday DH, as well as filling in as the back-up catcher, saving a roster spot and probably around a million dollars for his team.
Bill James projects Montero to hit for a .375 wOBA in 442 plate appearances at the major-league level in 2011. While James’ projections are often bullish on prospects, the projection illustrates the point that Montero has the potential to have an impact bat. Assuming the Yankees break camp healthy, Montero should begin the year in AAA, but the bat looks ready if and when he’s needed.
2. Gary Sanchez, C
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent 2009 (Dominican Republic)
2010 Level: RC/NYP
Age on Opening Day: 18.3
Notes: In many respects, Sanchez is a younger version of Montero. Both players have huge offensive ceilings, featuring the ability to hit for both average and big-time power. In 195 plate appearances across the Gulf Coast and the New York-Penn leagues, Sanchez slugged 8 home runs and put up a 329/393/543 line, remarkable numbers for a teenage catcher. It’s worth noting that his overall line was aided by a .388 BABIP, but it’s not all together together uncommon for talented players to post high BABIPs at the lower levels. Sanchez strikes out a bit more than Montero, whiffing in 25.4 percent of his at-bats, but given his youth, it’s not especially concerning. Defensively, Sanchez has a legitimate shot to remain behind the plate long-term. If he remains a catcher, his offensive ceiling is high enough that he could become a perennial all-star. He’ll get his first taste of full-season ball in 2011, and if he gets off to a good start, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him finish the year in Hi A.
3. Manny Banuelos, LHP
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent 2008 (Mexico)
2010 Level: H+/AA
Age on Opening Day: 20.1
Notes: The start of Banuelos’ season was delayed due to appendectomy, but he was lights out after returning midway through the season. In 44 innings in the Florida State league, Banuelos posted a 2.33 ERA despite surrendering a BABIP of .356, and he continued to pitch well in a brief stint in AA. Only listed at 5-foot-10, 155 pounds, durability will always be a concern for Banuelos, but when he’s been healthy, he’s put up impressive numbers. In Hi A, Banuelos had a 12.6 K/9 and a BB/9 of only 2.8 before being promoted. Add in a respectable GB% of 45 percent, and there isn’t much to quibble with from a statistical perspective. Scouting reports are equally as glowing. Despite his stature, Banuelos has the arm strength, command, and secondary stuff to profile at the front of a rotation. After throwing only 64 innings last year, the key for Banuelos in 2011 is to stay healthy. If he turns in a healthy season, he is polished enough that he could press for a big-league call-up in September. Although, 2012 is probably a more realistic ETA. He could profile as high as a number two starter.
4. Dellin Betances, RHP
Acquired: Drafted 8th Round 2006 (New York HS)
2010 Level: H+/AA
Age on Opening Day: 23.0
Notes: Standing 6’8″, 260 pounds and throwing in the mid-90s with a solid breaking ball, Betances is one of the most imposing pitchers in the minor leagues. With such a great combination of size and stuff, Betances has a chance to become a front-of-the-rotation starter, but he’s been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career. After struggling last year in Hi A, he was shut down, eventually undergoing surgery to reinforce a ligament in his arm. Healthy in 2010, he had a breakout season, pitching well in the Florida State league and earning a promotion to AA at the end of the year. For much of his career, Betances struggled with his control, but when he came back in 2010 he was a new man, walking only 2.4 batters per nine in 77 innings in Hi A. His stuff was as good as ever, too, allowing him to rack up a K/9 of 11.2. Those are obviously exceptional numbers, but it’s important to note that he was also the beneficiary of a .251 BABIP and a HR/FB rate of only 1 percent. I’m also not completely sold that he will show the same level of control in 2011. It’s extremely rare for a pitcher with control problems to undergo surgery and come back with better control than before. Still, few prospects can match Betances’ ceiling. But I think some prospect watchers are getting a little overzealous on Betances.
5. Andrew Brackman, RHP
Acquired: Drafted 1st Round 2007 (NC State)
2010 Level: A+/AA
Age on Opening Day: 25.4
Notes: At 6-foot-10, it’s not a surprise that Brackman starred in both baseball and basketball at North Carolina State. The Yankees fell in love with his size and athleticism, taking him 30th overall and signing to him to a major-league contract worth over $4.5 million. The signing was considered an overpay by many in the industry, and after Brackman’s first two professional seasons it appeared as though the naysayers were right. His pro debut was delayed until 2009 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, and when he came back a 6.4 BB/9 and diminished stuff clouded his prospect status. But Brackman rebounded with a solid 2010 season. Despite a 5.10 ERA, he threw the ball extremely well. His K/9 was 8.4 and he walked only 1.4 batters per nine. Those numbers got a little worse upon his promotion to AA- his K/9 fell to 7.8 and his BB/9 increased to 3.4- but he continued to get ground-balls at a 52 percent rate. The chance that Brackman becomes an ace is slim- he has work to do in developing his change-up and his fastball doesn’t have quite the same velocity it once did. Still, depending upon the strides he makes next year he could become a solid mid-rotation option, or a late-inning reliever.
6. Austin Romine, C
Acquired: Drafted 2nd Round 2007 (California HS)
2010 Level: AA
Age on Opening Day: 22.4
Notes: The Yankees have an enviable amount of catching prospects in their system. The problem is that none are sure bets to stay behind the plate. Despite a strong arm, Romine struggles to throw out runners, catching only 23 percent of would-be base-stealers last year. What’s more, reports from the AFL were critical of his receiving ability (although the usually caveats with grading catchers based on AFL looks apply). If Romine can’t catch at the big league level, his prospect status value takes a big hit because while he shows promise at the plate, it’s highly unlikely his bat will profile at first or in the outfield. His walk rate has increased in each of his professional seasons, rising to 7.4 percent last year, but there is still work to be done in that area. He slugged ten home runs to go with a .138 ISO last year, solid numbers for a 21 year-old catcher in AA.
Grading catchers is always tough because the offensive bar is so low. If he can improve his defense, Romine could profile as a regular. He should reach AAA in 2011, but the Yanks may choose to start him in AA with Montero likely entrenched in AAA. With a solid season he could position himself as the catcher of the future in New York.
7. Eduardo Nunez, SS
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent 2004 (Dominican Republic)
2010 Level: AAA/MLB
Age on Opening Day: 23.10
Notes: Signed in 2004, it took Nunez five seasons to reach AA, including three separate trips to the Florida State league. But since reaching AA in 2009, Nunez seems to have turned a corner. Scouts have always been impressed by his strong arm and range at short, but questions lingered about his bat. He began to answer those questions in 2009 by putting up a 322/349/433 line, and he continued to show promise at the plate last year. In 506 AAA plate appearances, Nunez posted a .329 wOBA to go with 23 steals. While he never projects to hit more than 8-10 home runs in a season, Nunez does have enough pop to keep pitchers honest. He was promoted to the big leagues late in the 2010 season, and performed well enough to earn a spot on the postseason roster. For the Yankees, Nunez is never likely to be more than a utility player, because while his defense is solid, he’s not a true above-average defender and, as a hitter who doesn’t walk or hit for much power, his offensive ceiling is limited. That being said, Nunez does enough things well that I think he will start for a number of years as a ‘second-division’ regular.
8. Ivan Nova, RHP
Aquired: Signed as a Free Agent 2004 (Dominican Republic)
2010 Level: AAA/MLB
Age on Opening Day: 24.3
Notes: Nova enters 2011 as the leading candidate to seize the Yanks’ firth starter’s spot. Selected by the Padres in the 2008 Rule 5 draft, Nova doesn’t do anything especially well, but he has few weaknesses. His fastball averaged 93 mph in the big leagues last year, and he also features a solid curveball and a change-up (video). His fastball has good life, allowing him to rack up a GB% of 54 percent in AAA and 52 percent in the big leagues. At 6’4″, 210 pounds, Nova has a great pitcher’s frame and a relatively smooth delivery. Nova doesn’t have much star potential, as his K/9 rate has never been above 7.2 in a full-season league, but he has the stuff to profile in the back of a big-league rotation. Fans, Bill James, and Marcel all seem to agree with that assessment, projecting that Nova’s 2011 FIP will be in the 4.08-4.28 range, although those projections have him splitting time between the pen and the rotation.
9. Hector Noesi, RHP
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent 2004 (Dominican Republic)
2010 Level: Hi A/AA/AAA
Age on Opening Day: 24.2
Notes: Noesi underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007, and it wasn’t until 2009 that he was back fully healthy. He made up for lost time last season, climbing the ladder from the Florida State league all the way to AAA and logging 160 innings along the way. In a lot of ways, Noesi is a classic ‘Twins’ pitcher, as command and control are his calling cards. He walked only 1.6 batters per nine in 2010, and his exceptional command allowed him to carve up FSL hitters to the tune of a 11.1 K/9. His strikeout rate fell to 7.8 against more experienced hitters in AA, and he doesn’t figure to rack up big strikeout totals at higher levels. The other knock on Noesi is that he’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher. In 99 AA innings he only managed a meager 39 percent ground-ball rate. The lack of a true out-pitch and his fly-ball rates will likely prevent Noesi from becoming more than a back-of-the-rotation starter.
10. Adam Warren, RHP
Acquired: Drafted 4th Round 2009 (North Carolina)
2010 Level: Hi A/AA
Age on Opening Day: 23.7
Notes: Only one year removed from the 2009 draft, it looks like the Yankees may have gotten a steal in Warren. The 6’1″ right-hander pounds the zone with a low-90s fastball, as evidenced by his 2.2 BB/9. The pitch has such great life that he is able to rack up strikeouts and ground-balls with it. In 135 innings combined between Hi A and AA, Warren managed an 8.4 K/9 and a ground-ball rate of 54 percent. He doesn’t have the secondary stuff to profile as more than a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter, but his fastball is good enough that he has a relatively high floor. Warren will likely begin the year in a crowded Scranton rotation, and could make his major-league debut at some point during the season.