New York Yankees: Jesus Montero and the Top 20 Prospects in the Farm System

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2012

New York Yankees: Jesus Montero and the Top 20 Prospects in the Farm System

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    Jay Buhner. Doug Drabek. Willie McGee. Fred McGriff.

    Those players—and a bunch more—found themselves traded away from the Yankees at one point in the past 30-or-so years during the madness that spelled the first act of George Steinbrenner's reign as Yankees owner.

    Act 2, as we know, involves a more subdued and hands-off Boss, one that allowed his baseball people to handle the baseball decisions. As a result, even after his passing, Brian Cashman has been able to focus on building up the Yankees farm system, which last year was ranked fifth overall by Baseball America.

    We can expect that the farm system will continue to be ranked fairly high, most likely a top-five finish again for 2012 as the Yankees have only added to it, not subtracted from it

    Let's take a look at the 20 best prospects who are leading the Yankees' farm resurgence and who could comprise a large part of the team in the years to come.

Making Sense of the Yankees' Minor League Structure

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    When you talk about the minor leagues of baseball, typically people think of three levels—Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A, with Single-A akin to an "introductory" class in college and Triple-A more like an advanced class you need to pass in order to graduate.

    Of course, it is not that simple.

    The New York Yankees have eight minor league affiliates at different levels based all around the country and in the Dominican Republic.

    They are as follows, in order of highest level to lowest:

    Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees: Triple-A

    Trenton Thunder: Double-A

    Tampa Yankees: High-A

    Charleston RiverDogs: Low-A

    Staten Island Yankees: Short-Season Low-A

    Gulf Coast League Yankees: Rookie

    Dominican Summer League Yankees 1: Rookie

    Dominican Summer League Yankees 2: Rookie

    There is virtually no difference between DSL1 and DSL2, other than that the Yankees are one of three teams, along with the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs, who have two teams in the Dominican Summer League.

    Before we get to the Top 20, there is one more piece of business to attend to...

Who Just Missed the Cut

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    Had this been about the top 25 prospects in the Yankees system, these five players, in no particular order, would have made the cut as well:

    Angelo Gumbs, 2B: Spent 2011 with Short-Season Staten Island.

    Zoilo Almonte, OF: Finished 2011 with Double-A Trenton.

    Daniel Lopez, OF: Finished 2011 with Low-A Charleston.

    D.J. Mitchell, RHP: Spent 2011 with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

    Graham Stoneburner, RHP: Finished 2011 with Double-A Trenton.

20. David Adams, 2B

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    2011 Stats (Rookie): .429 BA, .469 OBP, .643 SLG, 1 HR, 11 RBI

    2011 Stats (High-A): .308 BA, .368 OBP, .365 SLG, 0 HR, 4 RBI

    Drafted by the Yankees in 2008, David Adams found himself the starting 2B for the Double-A Trenton Thunder in 2010. Through his first 39 games for Trenton, Adams posted a batting line of .309 BA/.393 OBP/.507 SLG—and found himself involved in the trade talks between the Yankees and the Seattle Mariners for Cliff Lee.

    That would be where the good news ends for Adams—a broken ankle would prematurely end his 2010 season, and that same ankle would limit him to 29 games in 2011—an ominous sign for a 24-year-old.

    But the Yankees love his bat, so much so that they added him to their 40-man-roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this offseason, despite the fact that he's only played in 68 games over the past two seasons

    On talent alone, Adams likely belongs higher on this list but needs to show that he is healthy—and that his ankle is not going to become an annual issue—before that happens.

    He will likely start the season in the lower levels of the system and as his ankle strengthens, potentially move back up the ladder.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2014

19. Brandon Laird, 3B/1B

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    2011 Stats (Yankees): .190 BA, .292 OBP, .190 SLG, 0 HR, 1 RBI

    2011 Stats (Triple-A): .260 BA, .288 OBP, .422 SLG, 16 HR, 69 RBI

    A top-10 prospect for the Yankees entering 2011, 24-year-old Brandon Laird hasn't so much regressed as he may have reached his ceiling.

    Laird has power—he has hit at least 13 home runs in each of his past four minor league seasons—but his on-base percentage has continued to drop from his career high of .367 as a 19-year-old making his professional debut in 2007.

    In limited time with the Yankees after being added to the roster in September, Laird showed the ability to field third base fairly well, though he looked over-matched at the plate.

    The Yankees will give Laird a chance to make the club as a reserve infielder during spring training, though if they re-sign Eric Chavez, Laird will have no real option other than to start the year in Triple-A.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2012

18. Corban Joseph, 2B

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    2011 Stats (Double-A): .277 BA, .353 OBP, .415 SLG, 5 HR, 58 RBI, 4 SB

    Drafted by the Yankees in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, 24-year-old Corban Joseph is coming off of his first full season in Double-A. We looked at Joseph back in June.

    Joseph has an excellent swing from the left side of the plate, and while he likely will never be a "power hitter," he has gap power and enough speed to take extra bases—of his 138 hits last year, 51 went for extra bases: 38 doubles, eight triples and five home runs.

    In the field, he has good range but needs to continue to work on his footwork and throwing accuracy, though to advance to the majors he may eventually need to switch positions—he has played both SS and 3B previously—as 2B is locked up in the Bronx for the foreseeable future.

    The Yankees like Joseph enough that they added him to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft that just passed. Whether he starts 2012 back in Double-A or in Triple-A remains to be seen.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2014

17. Mark Montgomery, RHP

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    2011 Stats (Short-Season Low-A): 0-0, 2.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 1 SV, 2 BB, 10 K, 4.0 IP

    2011 Stats (Low-A): 0-0, 1.85 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 14 SV, 11 BB, 41 K, 24.1 IP

    Drafted in the 11th round of the 2011 draft, 20-year-old Mark Montgomery just finished his first season as a professional ballplayer.

    Montgomery has overpowered his competition to date, posting an obscene 16.2 K/9 rate in his 28 innings of work. He primarily uses two pitches—a fastball that sits in the mid 90's and a slider that frustrates hitters from both sides of the plate.

    His slider, not his fastball, is his best pitch—a scary proposition for opposing batters, considering that he is still gaining arm strength and his fastball velocity could still tick upwards.

    He likely will start the season back in Charleston, but if he continues to dominate hitters as he did in 2011, a quick promotion would not be a surprise.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2015

16. Ramon Flores, LF/1B

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    2011 Stats (Low-A): .265 BA, .353 OBP, .400 SLG, 11 HR, 59 RBI, 13 SB

    Only 19 years old, Ramon Flores is coming off his third season in the Yankees' minor league system, one that saw him mature physically and begin to show the promise the Bombers saw in him when they signed him out of Venezuela for just under $800,000.

    Flores has developing power and speed and needs to continue to mature physically—though Flores could potentially lose some speed as he adds weight to his 5'10" frame.

    The best-case scenario, if his development continues on an upward trajectory and he suffers no major setbacks, is that Flores turns into a Roy White type of player.

    Flores could find himself in Double-A this season, though a return to Single-A Charleston is likely in the cards for him to start the season.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2017

15. Tyler Austin, 1B/3B

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    2011 Stats (Rookie Ball): .390 BA, .428 OBP, .622 SLG, 3 HR, 22 RBI, 11 SB

    2011 Stats (Short-Season Low-A): .323 BA, .402 OBP, .542 SLG, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 7 SB

    Drafted as a catcher by the Yankees in the 13th round of the 2010 draft, 20-year-old Tyler Austin quickly switched positions and has played both first base and third base in his short professional career.

    A right-handed hitter with big-time power potential, he has exhibited the strength and ability to drive the ball to all fields.

    Austin is also exceptionally fast, having stolen 18 consecutive bases without being caught thus far—speed that could translate to a position change into a corner outfield spot.

    He will spend 2012 with Low-A Charleston to get a full season of work under his belt after spending the past two playing for short-season teams.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2016

14. Cito Culver, SS

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    2011 Stats (Short-Season Low-A): .250 BA, .323 OBP, .337 SLG, 2 HR, 33 RBI, 10 SB

    The Yankees' first-round pick of the 2010 draft, 19-year-old Cito Culver is a work in progress.

    At this point in his development, his defense is far and away the strongest part of his game. Culver has outstanding range, hands and instincts to go along with a cannon of a throwing arm—one that was throwing fastballs in the low-90's in high school.

    Culver is an excellent athlete and has both the bat speed and plate discipline to become a productive hitter. That is not to say that he is devoid of power—as he continues to fill out his six-foot frame, the power will come.

    Cito will likely spend the 2012 season at Low-A Charleston, continuing to work on all aspects of his game.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2016

13. Nik Turley, LHP

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    2011 Stats (Low-A): 4-6, 2.51 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 21 BB, 82 K, 82.1 IP

    2011 Stats (High-A): 0-0, 6.14 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 1 BB, 5 K, 7.1 IP

    Back in June, I called 22-year-old Nik Turley a prospect that Yankee fans could start to get excited about.

    Turley suffered a broken finger in his second start for High-A Tampa and saw his season end prematurely.

    Regardless, Turley has excellent command—Baseball America lists him as having the best command of all the Yankees prospects—and he possesses multiple quality pitches in his arsenal, including a low-to-mid 90's fastball and a low-70's slurve.

    Turley will start the season with High-A Tampa and, assuming he continues to be successful, could find himself promoted to Double-A Trenton before too long.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2015

12. David Phelps, RHP

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    2011 Stats (Rookie): 1-1, 0.00 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 1 BB, 5 K, 7.0 IP

    2011 Stats (Triple-A): 6-6, 3.19 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 26 BB, 90 K, 107.1 IP

    Since joining the Yankees in 2008, 24-year-old right-handed pitcher David Phelps has steadily climbed the minor league ladder.

    Injuries have cost him time in the past, but when healthy Phelps has been outstanding, posting career numbers of 38-15 with a 2.61 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and a 7.4 K/9 ratio.

    Phelps has five pitches in his repertoire: a fastball that sits in the mid 90's, a two-seam fastball that sits in the low 90's, a slider, changeup and curveball.

    Given the state of the Yankees' starting rotation, Phelps will likely be given a shot to make the team out of spring training. The likely scenario, however, is that Phelps starts the season at Triple-A and, when a starter is needed, is the first one to be promoted.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2012

11. J.R. Murphy, C

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    2011 Stats (Low-A): .297 BA, .343 OBP, .457 SLG, 6 HR, 32 RBI, 2 SB

    2011 Stats (High-A): .259 BA, .270 OBP, .365 SLG, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 10 SB

    The Yankees paid Murphy $1.25 million to sign as a second-round draft pick in 2009 and not attend the University of Miami, so they have high hopes for the 20-year-old.

    Murphy outplayed his more highly-touted counterpart, Gary Sanchez while both were with the Charleston RiverDogs in 2011 which led to his promotion to High-A Tampa.

    An adequate defensive catcher, Murphy has a flat swing that generates line-drive, gap-to-gap power. Behind the plate, Murphy improved enough to continue to be thought of as a catcher, but a move to 3B or one of the corner spots in the outfield is not out of the question.

    Murphy will spend 2012 with High-A Tampa where he will continue to catch while also seeing some time at the hot corner as the Yankees continue to evaluate which position suits him best.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2016

10. Slade Heathcott, CF

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    2011 Stats (Low-A): .271 BA, .342 OBP, .419 SLG, 4 HR, 16 RBI, 6 SB

    2011 Stats (High-A): .600 BA, .600 OBP, 1.200 SLG, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB

    Paid $2.2 million by the Yankees as their first-round pick in the 2009 draft, 21-year-old Slade Heathcott is facing a big year in 2012.

    An outstanding athlete who brings high energy and goes all-out on every play, the left-handed Heathcott has injured his throwing shoulder in each of the past three seasons, with surgery required to repair the damage in both 2010 and this past October—surgery he says will keep him out until at least February.

    Slade has played in a total of 132 games since joining the Yankees in 2009. To say that he will be behind other players in the system by the time he returns from this latest injury is an understatement.

    When healthy, Heathcott has excellent speed and plays outstanding defense in CF. Baseball America has compared him to* Brett Gardner but with more power.

    Whether he begins back in Rookie Ball or not remains to be seen, but Slade is "sladed" to spend the majority of 2012 with High-A Tampa. The 2012 season will be about continuing to improve his overall game, but more importantly to stay healthy.

    One more surgery on his throwing arm would raise a big red flag and could derail a promising career.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2016

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9. Adam Warren, RHP

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    2011 Stats (Triple-A): 6-8, 3.60 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 53 BB, 111 K, 152.1 IP

    Entering his fourth professional season, 24-year-old Adam Warren is arguably the pitcher most prepared to face major league hitters in the Yankees' minor league system.

    Warren has multiple pitches which make him effective against batters from both sides of the plate, including three variations of his fastball—a four-seam fastball, a cut fastball that gets inside against lefties and a two-seam fastball that does the same against righties. He throws all three pitches in the low-to-mid 90's.

    He projects as a middle-of-the-rotation innings eater, one who has the best pickoff move the Yankees have seen since Andy Pettitte was in his prime.

    Warren will get a chance to win a spot in the Yankees rotation in spring training, but should he start the year in Triple-A, it will only be temporary.  Without question he will be one of the first to be called upon when the need for another starting pitcher arises in the Bronx.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2012

8. Ravel Santana, CF

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    2011 Stats (Rookie): .296 BA, .361 OBP, .568 SLG, 9 HR, 29 RBI, 10 SB

    Ravel Santana's 2011 season ended badly, with the 19-year-old breaking his ankle in two places and tearing multiple ligaments to top it off.

    Reportedly his rehab is going well, though there is apparently no timetable yet for when he will return, and whether or not he is ready for spring training remains to be seen.

    When healthy, Santana is a "five-tool player". He plays excellent defense in CF and has the ability to hit to all fields—and do so with power from the right side of the plate. He also has great speed and a cannon for a throwing arm.

    He struggled against breaking balls but was showing the ability to make adjustments where needed prior to his injury.

    Chances are that upon his return to action, Santana will spend 2012 with the Staten Island Yankees.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2016

7. Austin Romine, C

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    2011 Stats (Yankees): .158 BA, .200 OBP, .158 SLG, 0 HR, 0 RBI (19 AB)

    2011 Stats (Triple-A): .133 BA, .133 OBP, .133 SLG, 0 HR, 1 RBI (15 AB)

    2011 Stats (Double-A): .286 BA, .351 OBP, .378 SLG, 6 HR, 47 RBI

    The best defensive catcher in the Yankees' farm system, 23-year-old Austin Romine may have seen his growth stunted a bit by spending the majority of 2011 in Double-A for the second year in a row.

    Romine is solid behind the plate and has a strong throwing arm, but his accuracy is still a work in progress as he has only thrown out 23 percent of base stealers two years in a row.

    Offensively, Romine has all the tools to be a consistent .280 hitter with power, though his swing and mechanics at the plate could use some work. Some time with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long could go a long way in his development.

    He will be in the mix to be the Yankees' backup catcher in 2012—at the very least he will be the starting catcher in Triple-A.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2012

6. Dante Bichette Jr., 3B

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    2011 Stats (Low-A): .143 BA, .250 OBP, .571 SLG, 1 HR, 1 RBI (7 AB)

    2011 Stats (Rookie): .342 BA, .446 OBP, .505 SLG, 3 HR, 47 RBI

    Dante Bichette Jr. had an exceptional rookie season as a professional ballplayer in 2011, being named the Top Prospect and MVP of the Gulf Coast League while winning the championship.

    Bichette has above-average bat speed and natural strength which leads to a powerful swing. He has shown the ability to hit to all fields and is comfortable at the plate when facing two strikes.

    In the field, Bichette has a strong, accurate throwing arm and is a good enough athlete that there is no need to move him off the hot corner.

    With no real 3B prospects ahead of him in the system, Bichette could quickly climb the Yankees' minor league ladder.

    He will spend 2012 in Low-A with the Charleston RiverDogs.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2017

5. Mason Williams, CF

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    2011 Stats (Low-A): .349 BA, .395 OBP, .468 SLG, 3 HR, 31 RBI, 28 SB

    Back in June we looked at Mason Williams as somebody to get excited about, and that came only 10 games into his 2011 season. By season's end, his .349 average was good enough for second and his 28 stolen bases led the NY Penn League as he led the Staten Island Yankees to another championship.

    An excellent defensive outfielder with an average arm, his speed allows him to cover a lot of ground. At the plate, his speed becomes an asset—anything hit into outfield gaps or down the line is a candidate to go for extra bases.

    A patient hitter, Williams has gap power that could develop into more as he matures and learns to harness the power generated from his legs—there is some loft to his swing.

    He will spend 2012 in Low-A Charleston, and another strong campaign could quickly push him past Slade Heathcott on the Yankees' depth charts.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2016

4. Gary Sanchez, C

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    2011 Stats (Low-A): .256 BA, .335 OBP, .485 SLG, 17 HR, 52 RBI

    Gary Sanchez spent 2011 as an 18-year-old with millions of dollars in the bank, hype surrounding him everywhere he went and as an 18-year-old who was not quite ready for prime time.

    Sanchez got off to a slow start in Low-A ball last year, found himself benched in favor of J.R. Murphy and shortly thereafter suspended for two weeks in May when he refused to enter a game as a replacement. Later, he would refuse to catch a pitcher in the bullpen.

    Maturity issues aside, Sanchez may very well be the best hitting prospect that the Yankees have, better than even the heralded Jesus Montero. Some scouts have said that Sanchez has a smoother swing and more patience with the bat than Montero does while having the same raw power.

    Behind the plate, Sanchez has a strong, accurate throwing arm—he threw out 31 percent of would-be base stealers in 2011, but he also allowed 26 passed balls, the most in the Gulf Coast League.

    Sanchez will need to mature and continue to improve all aspects of his game, especially his defense and game-calling to take the next step.

    He will likely start 2012 back in Low-A with a possible promotion to High-A at some point.

    ETA in the Bronx: 2017

3. Dellin Betances, RHP

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    2011 Stats (Yankees): 0-0, 6.75 ERA, 2.63 WHIP, 6 BB, 2 K, 2.2 IP

    2011 Stats (Double-A): 4-6, 3.42 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 55 BB, 115 K, 105.1 IP

    2011 Stats (Triple-A): 0-3, 5.14 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 15 BB, 27 K, 21 IP

    With four pitches in his arsenal, 23-year-old Dellin Betances has all the tools needed to become an excellent starting pitcher in the major leagues.

    His fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90's, hitting as high as 97. His four-seam fastball has a natural cutting motion to it, and a power curve that he throws in the low 80's is maddening to batters but something Betances had trouble controlling in 2011.

    Generally speaking, Betances misses bats more often than not, posting a 10.4 K/9 ratio in his six-year minor league career.

    He needs to regain the control that he struggled to find for the majority of 2011 and will start the season in Triple-A.

    ETA in the Bronx: Late 2012

2. Manny Banuelos, LHP

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    2011 Stats (Double-A): 4-5, 3.59 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 52 BB, 94 K, 95.1 IP

    2011 Stats (Triple-A): 2-2, 4.19 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 19 BB, 31 K, 34.1 IP

    The prized pitching jewel of the Yankees minor league system, the 20-year-old lefty struggled with his command in 2011. Banuelos has three plus pitches—a fastball that sits in the low-to-mid 90's, a curveball and a changeup.

    He struggled with his command in 2011, especially against right-handed hitters who posted a .285 average against him.

    According to BA: "The Yankees believe Banuelos is still learning how to harness his quick arm and improved stuff, and he needs to be pitch-efficient rather than going for strikeouts."*

    A combined WHIP of 1.55 in 2011 is a reason to be concerned; if he is that hittable against minor league hitting, major league hitters would crush him.

    While some, including Baseball America, believe that Banuelos will make his major league debut in 2012, I believe it will only be for the proverbial "cup of coffee" in September.

    The more likely scenario would be for Banuelos to join the team full-time in 2013.

    ETA in the Bronx: Late 2012

    *You need a premium Baseball America account to access their scouting reports*

1. Jesus Montero, C/DH

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    2011 Stats (Yankees): .328 BA, .406 OBP, .590 SLG, 4 HR, 12 RBI

    2011 Stats (Triple-A): .288 BA, .348 OBP, .467 SLG, 18 HR, 67 RBI

    Called up to the Yankees when the rosters expanded in September, Jesus Montero did not fail to impress teammates and fans alike with his offensive prowess, seemingly justifying the lofty expectations that people had put on him before he had even taken his first major league at-bat.

    Whether or not Montero can handle himself behind the plate with major league pitching remains to be seen, so he likely will start the year as the team's designated hitter, with the occasional start in place of incumbent catcher Russell Martin.

    Of course, there is always the outside chance that the Yankees include Montero in a deal for a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, but the likely scenario is that he remains with the team and develops into an offensive force in the middle of their lineup.

    ETA in the Bronx: He has arrived.