New York Yankees: 5 Dark-Horse Prospects Who Could Sneak onto the Roster

Peter RichmanCorrespondent IJanuary 30, 2014

New York Yankees: 5 Dark-Horse Prospects Who Could Sneak onto the Roster

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Our analysis of the New York Yankees farm system rolls on this week, as we find ourselves nearing the fringes of the first workouts of 2014 spring training. We've thus far projected Major League Baseball arrival dates for the top 10 prospects, charted the best young talent at each position and, just last week, ranked the most underrated minor leaguers heading into the upcoming season.

    We'll now continue the theme of plucking diamonds from the rough: This piece profiles five "dark-horse" prospects who are candidates to sneak onto the Opening Day 25-man roster, and it unravels some of the competition storylines heading into the spring.

    As we head into February, it's no secret that the Yankees' offseason spending sprees have become a broken record in the Bronx. Having missed the postseason in 2013, the current winter is unavoidably reminiscent of the 2008 offseason, when big-name free-agents became the principal building blocks for the following season's culmination in a 27th championship.

    And it's hardly imprudent to laud or applaud Yanks brass for the on-field product we will likely see in 2014. But how these spending streaks tie into clogging the progress of the Yankees' farm system is another story.The Yankees have done a terrific job piecing together a starting lineup that invariably, and immediately, gives themselves a more plausible opportunity to compete for the division crown. But, in turn, they have prolonged the arrivals of several prospects, widening the gap between those vying for a major league dental plan and the surefire favorites to win one of 25 jobs. 

    If you're in the short-term mentality, of course, it's all good and well—the best prospects are largely below the Triple-A level of the organization, anyway; and the most exciting young players need more experience and therefore aren't realistically projected to start 2014 in the Bronx.

    Thus, save for the wide-open bullpen competition, it'll be extremely difficult for any prospects—even the well-known ones—to crack the 25-man out of camp in 2014.

    So where does that leave those other prospects heading to Tampa, Fla. shortly? You could certainly say down; but they aren't necessarily out, and it'd be unwise to automatically dismiss them. 

    The following are five of the dark-horse contenders who could sneak onto the Opening Day roster for April. These are the players, somewhat in the shadows at the start of 2014, who not only must compete in spring training just to attain bench spots, but who also must beat out at least one favorite in the process. 

    They are the candidates whom, at this very moment in the throes of the New York winter, you just don't expect to make the cut by the end of the spring. But never fully count out a dark horse.

     

    Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and advanced metrics from FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

    Want to make a case for a prospect left off this list? Feel free to leave me a comment below.

Infield: Dean Anna

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    Dark-Horse Prospect Profile

    Name: Dean Anna

    Age in 2014: 27

    Height, Weight: 5'11", 180 pounds

    Bats-Throws: L-R

    History: Drafted by the San Diego Padres out of Ball State University; 2008 draft, 26th round; traded to Yankees in November, 2013.

    Highest Level: Triple-A

    On 40-Man Roster: Yes

     

    Infield Starters

    • Mark Teixeira, 1B
    • Derek Jeter, SS
    • Brendan Ryan, SS/Utility
    • Brian Roberts, 2B
    • Kelly Johnson, 3B/Utility

     

    Biggest Competition

    • Eduardo Nunez, Utility

     

    How Anna Could Sneak onto Roster

    Dean Anna, a Triple-A star last year in the Padres organization, could sneak onto the 25-man roster if he beats out 2013 utility infielder and Yankee farm product Eduardo Nunez. He could bolster his case to sneak into the Bronx by using his personality and utility skills to stand out in Tampa. 

    If you watched the accompanying video for Anna's profile last week, you would have noticed his electric energy and overflowing positivity. That's not to imply Nunez doesn't exhibit those tendencies at times, but you get a stronger sense that Anna just really wants to be there to help a big league team, and that he is stubborn in the right ways about getting his MLB chance despite six years in the minors.

    In the clip above, his Tucson Padres skipper, Pat Murphy, praises him by saying, "He just comes to play every day, I mean, he's a blue-collar, Chicago kid that brings it every single day...he just keeps coming at you. He's relentless."

    And it's more than just the attitude; Anna never got a call-up because of the surplus of infield prospects in San Diego—it wasn't for a lack of production.

    Over his minor league career, he's hit .286/.386/.428, and in 2013 he not only put up his best numbers upon reaching his highest stage, but he also won the Pacific Coast League batting title in the process: In 498 Triple-A at-bats, he slashed .331/.410/.382, with 165 hits, nine homers, 38 doubles, 73 RBI, .400 wOBA and 140 wRC+, while only striking out 65 times with an exceptional 11.2 rate. 

    Though Anna doesn't yet have a big league sample size, consider Nunez's 2013 line for comparison: In 304 at-bats, he slashed just .260/.307/.372, with 79 hits, three homers, 17 doubles, 28 RBI, .298 wOBA and 83 wRC+, while striking out 51 times at a 15.2 percent clip.

    With the health of Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts both uncertain and unreliable, Anna could quickly go from dark horse to roster-spot favorite if he shows up with his glove, too, and shows it off in the spring.

    In comparison to the adventure better known as "ground balls hit to Eduardo Nunez," Anna made six errors in 72 games at second, five errors in 60 games at short and no errors in seven games at third. And in the video above, you can catch an example of his excellent range and reliable arm from deep in the hole. 

    Nunez is still the favorite heading into camp because of his experience and his right-handed bat—a perfect third base platoon complement to the left-handed Johnson—but there's no obvious reason Anna can't erase the "dark-horse" narrative with a hot start to the spring. You'd love to have a backup infielder with better range than Jeter, fewer errors than Nunez and a far better bat than Brendan Ryan. Period.

Outfield: Ronnier Mustelier

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Prospect Profile

    Name: Ronnier Mustelier

    Age in 2014: 30

    Height, Weight: 5'10", 210 pounds

    Bats-Throws: R-R

    History: International free-agent signing in 2011 from Cuba

    Highest Level: Triple-A

    On 40-Man Roster: No 

     

    Outfield Starters

    • Brett Gardner, LF
    • Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
    • Carlos Beltran, RF/DH
    • Alfonso Soriano, OF/DH
    • Ichiro Suzuki, OF/DH

     

    Biggest Competition

    • Zoilo Almonte, OF

     

    How Mustelier Could Sneak onto Roster

    You're now going to be torn over your favorite dark-horse prospect to break camp on the 25-man roster. Dean Anna is extremely likable; but then you have the greatest-sounding name in the organization—outside of Zoilo, Slade Heathcott and Abiatal Avelino—in Ronnier Mustelier. 

    John Sickels of SB Nation's Minor League Ball easily gives the most telling description of the third base/outfield "prospect," after watching him in person a few years back: "Mustelier is fun to watch. The first time I saw him play was in the Arizona Fall League a couple of years ago. He made an impression. He was this short stocky guy I'd never heard of with a funny name, but he had bat speed and he hit the s*** out of everything."

    Simply put, Ronnier sneaks onto the roster by tearing the cover off the ball this spring and by beating out Zoilo for the final backup-outfield role. 

    And he has certainly proven he can hit: Between rookie ball and High-A Tampa in 2011, he hit .356/.397/.527; in 2012 in Double-A Trenton (25 games) he hit .353/.412/.598, 179 wRC+ and .303/.359/.455, 128 wRC+ in Triple-A Scranton (89 games); and in 84 games in Scranton in 2013, he dipped a bit but still hit at a solid .272/.319/.398 and 101 wRC+. 

    Sickels says of his batting: "He has a nice clean swing with some pop to all fields. He makes contact and does a fair job controlling the strike zone. So far, he hasn't had any problems with professional pitching, and his track record in Cuba was good too."

    Having spent reliable, largely error-free time at third (six errors), in left (one) and in right (one), Mustelier brings a fair amount of defensive flexibility to the spring as well. And in spite of his unflattering physique, he has decent speed, range and throwing ability. 

    Sickels concurs that "the guy is shorter than ideal and he's not exactly svelte in uniform," but adds that "He's sneaky fast and can steal a base if you let him. He throws decently, and he's versatile with the glove." 

    Zoilo is still the obvious favorite, having hit .297/.369/.421 in Scranton last year, and despite his .236/.274/.302 clip in 106 MLB at-bats, the fact that he has decent experience in the Bronx slots him far ahead of Ronnier entering the spring. But if he proves to be a better hitter than Zoilo and the Yanks feel they could use his flexibility in a potential (gaping) hole at third base, why wouldn't they give this particular dark horse a shot?

No. 5 Starter: Manny Banuelos

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Dark-Horse Prospect Profile

    Name: Manny Banuelos

    Age in 2014: 23

    Height, Weight: 5'10", 155 pounds

    Throws: L

    History: Signed by the Yankees from the Mexican League in 2008

    Highest Level: Triple-A

    On 40-Man Roster: Yes

     

    Starting Pitchers

    • CC Sabathia, LHP
    • Masahiro Tanaka, RHP
    • Hiroki Kuroda, RHP
    • Ivan Nova, RHP

     

    Biggest Competition

    • David Phelps, RHP
    • Michael Pineda, RHP
    • Vidal Nuno, LHP

     

    How Banuelos Could Sneak onto Roster

    Although the Masahiro Tanaka signing brings much more confidence to the Yankees' starting rotation, there is still a No. 5 spot up for grabs. Obviously, David Phelps and Michael Pineda are the favorites to win the back-end role out of camp, and Vidal Nuno would project as the left-handed front-runner. But if we're talking the dark-horse prospect in the competition, Banuelos tops the list.

    In MLB.com's 2013 Yankees prospects rankings, the lefty came in at No. 8, though his stock has plummeted following a season lost to Tommy John surgery. A ton of buzz surrounded the talented pitcher by 2011, when he was promoted to Triple-A at only age 20, after a solid showing in Double-A. From 2008 to 2010, he posted 2.57, 2.64 and 2.51 ERAs as he climbed the system. 

    But his numbers dipped in that 2011 season, tossing 95.1 innings in Trenton to a 3.59 ERA (4.01 FIP) and 34.1 innings in Scranton to a 4.19 (3.90 FIP). Then he only made six starts in 2012 before shutting it down for surgery, which caused him to miss all of 2013. 

    He's the dark horse because of the underrated possibility that he bounces back in 2014 and returns to the impressive form that generated so much chatter a few seasons ago. 

    His hallmark had been his above-average command and his three plus pitches: fastball (low-90s reaching 96 mph), curveball and changeup. He isn't overpowering—as you can tell from his size—but he can still put up impressive strikeout numbers.

    And there are three excellent reasons why you shouldn't overlook him entering spring 2014: First off, the Yankees currently have just one definite left-handed starter named Cartsen Charles; then there's the fact that David Phelps hardly impressed in long relief and starting appearances in 2013 (86.2 IP, 4.98 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 4.03 xFIP, 7.44 K/9); and finally, a reminder that former All-Star Pineda has yet to throw a pitch for the Yankees—or in general since 2011 (!). 

    The No. 5 spot isn't wide open, but it's there for the taking, and though Nuno would be the lefty favorite entering the spring, the diminutive Banuelos is the perfect candidate to literally and figuratively sneak onto the roster. 

Right-Handed Reliever: Chase Whitley

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Dark-Horse Prospect Profile

    Name: Chase Whitley

    Age in 2014: 25

    Height, Weight: 6'3", 215 pounds

    Bats-Throws: R

    History: Drafted by the Yankees out of Troy University in 2010 draft, 15th round

    Highest Level: Triple-A

    On 40-Man Roster: No 

     

    Likely RHP in Bullpen

    • David Robertson
    • Shawn Kelley
    • Preston Claiborne
    • Adam Warren

     

    Biggest RHP Competition

    • Dellin Betances
    • Mark Montgomery

     

    How Whitley Could Sneak onto Roster

    In a gaping-wide race for a roster spot in the bullpen, the Yankees are over-saturated with right-handers. The good news for Whitley is that no one appears to be a lock outside of Robertson, Kelley and (maybe) Claiborne.

    Figure both Warren and (left-handed) Nuno enter the competition for that No. 5 starter role, eventually competing for the bullpen if/when they fall short—that would give the Yanks a possible slate of four right-handed bullpen arms. If they plan to carry at least two lefties, you can really only imagine one more right-handed spot up for grabs. 

    Betances is the likely favorite, having garnered 2011-Banuelos-type hype and shining once being promoted to Triple-A in 2013—even tossing five innings in a late-season call-up to the Bronx.

    In 84 innings in Scranton, he posted a 2.68 ERA (2.69 FIP) with 109 strikeouts and an outstanding 11.57 K/9. He's overpowering—backing up a 95 mph fastball with an 80 mph slider. And Montgomery is the next front-runner, having pitched last season to a 3.38 ERA (4.00 FIP) in Scranton with a 11.0 K/9. 

    But not many are talking about the dark-horse bullpen candidate, Whitley, whom Baseball America called "physical," noting his "solid-average velocity." He has proven himself as a dependable reliever in back-to-back seasons in Triple-A, which is something Montgomery can't say (only one full season in Triple-A) and that Betances can't claim either (6.39 ERA in his first Triple-A go-around).

    The big righty has a superb fastball-changeup pairing and has been a model of consistency in the system. From 2010 to 2013, he has worked to ERAs of 1.45, 2.47, 3.09 and 3.06. He put up a ridiculous 14.7 K/9 in Trenton in 2012 and great 8.2 in Scranton in 2013. 

    The bottom line is Whitley has much less upside than the flashier, higher-risk Betances or Montgomery, but he appears the most major league ready—all he has to do is win the competition in the spring.

Left-Handed Reliever: Fred Lewis

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    Dark-Horse Prospect Profile

    Name: Fred Lewis

    Age in 2014: 27

    Height, Weight: 6'2", 210 pounds

    Throws: L

    History: Drafted by the Yankees in 2010, 47th round

    Highest Level: Triple-A

    On 40-Man Roster: No

     

    Likely LHP in Bullpen 

    • Matt Thornton 
    • Vidal Nuno

     

    Biggest Competition

    • Cesar Cabral

     

    How Lewis Could Sneak onto Roster

    Matt Thornton should be the go-to lefty option out of the pen, leaving one or two spots for another southpaw. If Nuno loses out in the No. 5 starter competition, he makes a pretty strong case as a lefty specialist in the bullpen (ERA of 1.95, 2.54, 1.44 from 2011-13). 

    The only other relevant left-handed pitcher would be Cabral, who is a great option given his command and plus circle changeup, with a wide variety of other pitches (fastball, curveball, slider). He excels in the strikeout department, compiling a 9.1, 11.5 and 10.6 K/9 in his past three seasons. Despite missing 2012 due to injury, Cabral has a real opportunity to secure a 25-man spot for Opening Day considering he is already on the 40-man entering camp.

    The downside, however, is that his ERA has ballooned a bit over the years—including recentlyas he has climbed the system. In High-A in 2010 he posted a 5.81, in Double-A in 2011 he posted a 3.52 and across Tampa, Trenton and Scranton in 2013, a 5.40 ERA.

    Because of his lack of experience at Triple-A (1.1 IP), Fred Lewis is a long shot for the bullpen by Opening Day 2014, but he still represents the next-best left-handed relief prospect in the organization—and therefore the dark horse in the competition. You could fathom the likes of Nik Turley eating up some long-relief appearances in 2014, but the Yankees would likely prefer to primarily get him more starting outings since he projects to be a fantastic all-around starter, with the upside of a lesser version of Andy Pettitte (since there isn't room/confidence to start him in the Bronx, he'll likely be left off the 25-man).

    Lewis has sustained a number of injuries since being drafted, but he has good, hard stuff, which he pounds low in the zone (as seen in the video above), and he's put up consistent numbers throughout his tenure: From 2010-13, ERA of 2.30, 3.82, 3.56 and 2.61 and K/9 of 10.3, 8.2, 9.8 and 9.2.

    His little time in Scranton and his age obscure his impressiveness—namely his sneaky, improved velocity, variety of secondary pitches and plus ability to produce ground balls. 

    George King of Baseball America recently noted (subscription required) that Lewis possesses "a mid-90s fastball that produced three times as many ground balls as fly balls." Moreover, Yanks' farm director Mark Newman said, per King, "He has a good arm, throws 95 to 96 (mph) and can spin the ball...He had a stupid (3.57-1) ground ball-fly ball ratio." 

    You may have never heard of Lewis, and you may not see him make the jump in 2014, but never count out such a reliable relief arm in an organization that could use one (or a few).