At the big league level, the New York Yankees enter the 2013 season in a unique position. They will still be competitive and may possibly be a playoff team because there is plenty of talent still on the roster.
The issue is—and this was quite apparent at times last year—that the Yankees are very old. Their roster is comprised of players on the downside of their careers, like Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez (if he plays again), Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, et al.
Another problem that the franchise faces has to do with financesl. Obviously, the Yankees are never not going to have money, but ownership said last year (h/t New York Times) that it is looking to get the payroll down to $189 million by 2014.
When you have a roster comprised of aging and expensive players, it is going to be hard to do a lot of wheeling and dealing that can help plug holes that come up during the season.
While there is good talent in the minor league system, many of the team's top prospects are still not going to be ready for at least another year. This team has done a good job of adding high-upside athletes in recent years, but a few players whose rise through the ranks exposed holes in their game have left them without a lot of youth to bet on in 2013.
Here is an in-depth look at the state of the Yankees' farm system heading into 2013. This slideshow will take a look at prospects who could be big-league contributors this season as the best players that this system has to offer.
Note: All ages and stats courtesy of MiLB.com unless otherwise noted.
No. 1: Mason Williams, Outfielder
69 G, .304/.359/.489, 84 H, 19 2B, 4 3B, 8 HR, 28 RBI, 21 BB, 33 K, 19 SB (Low A)
22 G, .277/.302/.422, 23 H, 3 2B, 3 HR, 7 RBI, 3 BB, 14 K, 1 SB (High A)
Williams is the best athlete in the system with his solid, yet still raw, five-tool skill set. He continued to translate those raw skills into results last season, showing better plate discipline and pitch recognition. He is not likely to hit for a lot of power, as his body is not very big and his swing is tailored more towards making contact.
That said, if Williams continues to improve his pitch selection then he could turn into a player who hits 15 homers per season.
Defensively, Williams definitely has the speed and range to play center field. Yet he has an average throwing arm, and he does need to improve the routes that he takes to the ball if he wants to stay in center.
Williams also missed the last month of the 2012 season with a torn labrum.
No. 2: Gary Sanchez, Catcher
68 G, .297/.353/.517, 78 H, 19 2B, 13 HR, 56 RBI, 11 SB, 22 BB, 65 K (Low A)
48 G, 279/.330/.436, 48 H, 10 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 29 RBI, 4 SB, 10 BB, 41 K (High A)
Sanchez's biggest question mark is whether or not he can stay behind the plate. This is not a Jesus Montero situation, where Sanchez will be too big for the position, but his defense comes and goes. He had 18 passed balls last season (via Baseball Reference).
Considering his age and throwing arm, which is fantastic, Sanchez will be given the benefit of the doubt.
And when you look at his bat, it is hard not to love what Sanchez could turn into. He is already showing power in games, and he has shown himself to be a good baserunner, despite not having a lot of speed. He stole 15 bases last season.
Sanchez's swing is very good, as he loads quickly and gets the bat through the zone in a hurry. He does swing and miss a little more than you would like, but again, he's just 20 years old and played in High A last season.
No. 3: Slade Heathcott, Outfielder
5 G, .235/.409/.353, 4 H, 2 2B, 2 RBI, 5 BB, 4 K, 2 SB (Rookie)
60 G, .307/.378/.470, 66 H, 16 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 27 RBI, 20 BB, 66 K, 17 SB (High A)
Heathcott's rise through the system has been a slow climb, as he has battled serious personal problems that included alcohol abuse. Those personal demons have kept the world from seeing what he is capable of doing on the field—though that is obviously low on the totem pole in the grand scheme of things.
On the field, Heathcott continues to make strides. He still has to prove that he can play an entire season, as he has never had more than 298 at-bats in a season since being drafted.
An incredible athlete, Heathcott can run, hit for power and is more than capable of playing center field in the future. He does need to work on his swing, as his pitch recognition is not very good and he strikes outs too much (231 times in 755 career at-bats) to project as an average hitter.
No. 4: Tyler Austin, Outfielder
70 G, .320/.405/.598, 85 H, 22 2B, 5 3B, 14 HR, 54 RBI, 37 BB, 68 K, 17 SB (Low A)
2 G, .500/.571/1.000, 3 H, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K (Rookie)
36 G, .321/.385/.478, 43 H, 13 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 23 RBI, 12 BB, 28 K 6, SB (High A)
2 G, .286/.375/.286, 2 H, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K (Double A)
Austin has succeeded at every level that he has played at as a professional. That is both a blessing and a curse, because you want to see what a young player will do when he is forced to make adjustments.
Because he uses a contact approach to hitting, Austin is going to have a very limited power ceiling. Yet he does have a great eye and tremendous bat speed to be a plus hitter.
Austin will continue to develop as a right fielder, which limits his ceiling because there isn't enough power in his bat for this position. But if he can hit .300 with a great on-base percentage and above-average defense, the team will be able to live with some limitations in the bat.
No. 5 Ty Hensley
5 G (4 starts), 1-2, 3.00 ERA, 12 IP, 8 H, 8 R (4 ER), 1 HR, 7 BB, 14 K
After the first four players on the list, it really is a crapshoot regarding who you can put at No. 5. If you believe in the upside of Jose Campos, and that he will stay healthy, he could be at this spot. Manny Bauelos still has upside and is young, but too many questions about his arm make it hard to put him in the top 5.
Ultimately, Hensley gets the nod, even though he has very limited professional experience after being drafted by the Yankees in the first round of last June's draft. But even he has injury concerns, as he was forced to sign a below-slot deal due to shoulder abnormalities (h/t Jim Callis of Baseball America).
Hensley has a great pitcher's frame, at 6'4", 220 pounds, and an above-average fastball. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com wrote that his offspeed stuff needs a lot of work, and in the case of his changeup, he will need to begin throwing it more in order to be a starter.
The ceiling for Hensley as a No. 3 starter is there. It is just a matter of getting experience and showing what he can do before we have any idea what he will become.
The Yankees saw a number of position players take steps forward in 2012. While there is still considerable risk associated with these players because they have little, if any, experience above High Class A, it is easy to dream big on a lot of them.
John Manuel of Baseball America wrote that the young crop of position players are "candidates to become the first homegrown Yankees to crack the big league lineup on a consistent basis since Brett Gardner in 2008."
That should tell you all you need to know about why the Yankees are where they are right now. Big-name free agents are great, but at some point, you have to inject some youth into the mix so you aren't scrambling when an older player gets hurt.
The system has seen a lot of regression in the pitching department, and it is why the Yankees have to keep turning to Andy Pettitte for an arm to plug into the big league rotation.
Dellin Betances, who was the most-ready pitcher the Yankees had in 2012—though hardly a lock to succeed given the issues he has always had with command—took 10 steps back last season. He posted a 6.44 ERA with 144 hits allowed and 99 walks in 131.1 innings.
Jose Campos, acquired from Seattle in the Jesus Montero deal, looked like he could be one of the breakout pitchers in the minors last season. Yet he only wound up throwing 24.2 innings before being shut down the rest of the season with "elbow trouble."
Manny Banuelos was going to be the next great Yankees' pitcher two years ago, but he just had Tommy John surgery in October and will miss all of this season. When he does return, he will only be 23 years old, but the ceiling should be lowered until we see how the stuff looks.
Basically, the entire system is full of high-risk, high-reward players. You can see the tools and upside, especially with the position players, yet you have to beware that the jump to Double-A for a lot of them will show us what they can do.
As mentioned before, there is not likely to be a lot of impact from the farm system this season because all of the best players are at least another year away.
There are a few names to keep an eye on who could play significant roles out of the bullpen if and when the need arises, though.
The aforementioned Dellin Betances could be one of the first to get the call up to New York this season. It is time to give up on any hope of him ever turning into a starter because the command is never going to be good enough to let him succeed in that role.
As a reliever, however, Betances can get away with having below-average command in the right situations because he only has to get, at most, three hitters out at a time.
ESPN's Keith Law noted (subscription required) that Betances did look much better as a reliever during the Arizona Fall League compared to what he showed as a starter during the minor league season.
Another name that Law mentions who has also been on the radar of Yankees' fans for two years is Mark Montgomery. He moved all the way up to Double-A after being taken in the 11th round of the 2011 draft and posted a 1.54 ERA and 99 strikeouts in just 64.1 innings across two levels in 2012.
Montgomery is not an overpowering reliever who will throw a fastball that touches 100. He actually sits in the low 90s, but hides the ball really well and puts hitters away with a very good slider.
I will fully admit that making Jose Campos the breakout prospect for the Yankees in 2013 has a chance to backfire in grand fashion.
As mentioned before, Campos only pitched 24.2 innings last season due to elbow issues. But he has not had to undergo surgery, nor has there been any kind of setback in his rehab, so hopefully, it was just a lingering issue last year that has been fixed with a lot of rest.
When you see Campos pitch, you can't help but hope that he is able to succeed because he has the chance to be a very good starting pitcher at his peak.
Campos has always had plus command of his stuff—which is notable considering that he is just 20 years old—and he already has three pitches that project to be at least above-average.
The problem with any young pitcher who has had arm issues is trying to figure out how serious the issue is and if the team is just trying to delay the inevitable. Campos could fall into that category, but until he does, we can look at the raw talent and get excited about what could be.
This is a huge year for the Yankees at the big league level and down on the farm. There are at least two teams in the American League East (Toronto and Tampa Bay) that could easily end up passing New York in the division.
There is such a small margin of error for the big league team in 2013 that if one or two significant injuries happen--and they usually do--the Yankees could be in serious trouble.
Down on the farm, the development of those top four prospects is going to be huge because they are starting to look ahead to 2014 with a focus on reducing their payroll.
Even though Williams, Sanchez, Heathcott and Austin are all incredibly young and there is no need to rush them through the system, the Yankees could have a few holes to fill in the outfield heading into 2014.
Still, pitching development is going to be more important than what happens with those four position players. The Yankees continue to bank on the likes of Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda on one-year deals to get them through a season because they don't have anything coming up through the system.
Manny Banuelos' timetable has been significantly delayed, Jose Campos could put his injury problems behind him (or his arm could blow up), Ty Hensley is not close to the big leagues and their impact pitching in the highest levels of the minors are all relievers.
No longer are the Yankees the prohibitive favorites to dominate all of Major League Baseball. A new day is coming.