Ranking the 5 Most Underrated Yankees Prospects Heading into 2014

Peter Richman@ peter_f_richmanCorrespondent IJanuary 23, 2014

Ranking the 5 Most Underrated Yankees Prospects Heading into 2014

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    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    About a month ago, we first checked in on Baseball America's ranking of the top 10 prospects for the New York Yankees while projecting big league arrival dates. Just last week, we looked at the top Yankees prospect at each position. Whether you're a farm-system nut or you simply like to stay up on the minor league talent, we're continuing the trend this week and uncovering some of the hidden gems. 

    We're going to dive into the less-discussed Yankees prospects heading into the 2014 season, and we're going to rank the five who are most underrated.

    You may still be numb from the Wednesday news, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, that the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka, delivering the Japanese ace to the Bronx for the next seven years. And only 22 days from this frigid, snowy mess in New York, pitchers and catchers will report to the team's spring training complex in Tampa, Fla., followed just five days later by the position players. 

    But as excited as we may be for Tanaka, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, let's not forget this is also the ultimate time to check in on the prospect pool and look to the future.

    It's a significant intersection for minor leaguers, as they face high pressure to perform but no real ceilings for their emergence.

    Some players—particularly relief pitchers and position players like J.R. Murphy and Zoilo Almonte—will virtually fight for Opening Day roster spots. But the vast majority of them fly well under the radar. They will strive to stand out in the spring, to leave a mark (and not a stain) at their positions and to enter the discussion of future big league talent for the Yankees.

    But how do we categorize the most "underrated" of these prospects?

    One could argue that, since much of the Yankees' top prospect pool has yet to reach the Triple-A level, they are all underrated in some fashion.

    But that's not entirely true. Not only have we been bombarded by repetitive talk of potentially overrated prospects, but, in the process, we also have inevitably glossed over many diamonds in the rough.

    In fact, the system that continues to praise the well-acknowledged players is the very same that obscures the more underrated ones: the official rankings and the hype-inducing narrative. I'm sure you've grown slightly weary of hearing about Gary Sanchez, Mason Williams or Eric Jagielo; you may even feel they could prove overrated.

    This isn't a ranking of the prospects with the most flat-out upside; rather, it is a ranking of the five most overlooked, underrated players in the system heading into 2014. They don't necessarily warrant your undivided attention, but they certainly deserve some of it.

    It takes more than major league projections into account. We consider players largely absent from the tops of recent rankings and from the "top prospect" narrative, trends like statistical consistency, improvement or upside, and relevant factors such as age and experience.

    Ultimately, we've narrowed those prospects down to the following five players who are the most under-the-radar, underrated talents in the system.

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

    Think there's another prospect whom this ranking just snubbed? Feel free to drop me a comment.

No. 5: Ramon Flores

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Outfielder Ramon Flores, a 2008 international free-agent signee from Barinas, Venezuela, will likely begin the 2014 season in Double-A Trenton, where he finished a solid 2013 campaign.

    A number of factors play into his classification as "underrated," but let's start with why he is only the fifth-most overlooked on this list. For one, MLB.com did include him in its 2013 top 20 Yankees prospects ranking, and for another, there's a better chance than not you've heard his name as a future fourth outfielder in the Bronx.

    But here's why he's still considered underrated: That top-20 list not only ranked four other outfielders ahead of Flores, but he came in at only No. 16 overall.

    And you may have heard his name, but not without repeatedly hearing the likes of Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams and Tyler Austin rattled off first.

    With the flashy speed of Heathcott and Williams and the bat of Austin, it's easy to understand how a 5'10", 150-pound kid has been largely overlooked, even if not completely obscured, by his fellow prospects. He is not overwhelmingly fast, has a low defensive ceiling and, of course, is undersized.

    But he is the classic case of a pure hitter. 

    FanGraphs' Mike Newman compared him to David Segui (career .291/.359/.443) and highlighted his "classically smooth, lefty swing," and how "his barrel has plenty of snap allowing Flores to let the ball travel deep into the strike zone."

    In his first full season in 2011, the then-19-year-old appeared in 125 games for Single-A Charleston, slashing .265/.353/.400 with 11 homers, 26 doubles, two triples, 59 RBI and 13 stolen bases and an above-average 11.4 percent walk rate and excellent 110 wRC+.

    At age 20 in 2012, he played most of the season in High-A Tampa, where his .302 batting average was fourth in the Florida State League. He finished the season with a promotion to Trenton.

    Last season, at 21, he played 136 games in Trenton, hitting an underwhelming .260/.353/.363 with six homers, 25 doubles, six triples and 101 wRC+. Despite the average year, his 12.4 walk rate improved from 9.3 percent in 2012, and his 15.8 strikeout rate, though slightly worse than 14.6 in 2012, was still markedly better than the 17.4 from 2011.

    And you have to like Newman's scouting report, which also pointed out that "As with his batting eye, Flores’ spray approach and gap power is advanced for a hitter his age," which you see in his doubles output.

    He is easily the most underrated outfielder, an excellent natural hitter who will only be 22 in 2014, and, as recently as after the 2011 season, Baseball America rated him with the best strike zone discipline in the system.

No. 4: Dean Anna

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    It doesn't get much more overlooked, diamond-in-the-rough, under-the-radar than Dean Anna.

    Really, you should just watch the video and call it a day on this workhorse; he's brimming with enthusiasm to help a big league team, and you'd love to have him in the clubhouse (he's sort of toned-down Nick Swisher).

    Dean Anna will be a 27-year-old prospect—yes, prospect—and was traded from the San Diego Padres at the end of November 2013 because they had no room for another utility infielder. The Pads selected him in the 26th round of the 2008 draft from Ball State University, and he has bounced around the rungs of their system for six years, reaching Triple-A Tucson for all of last year, where he truly shined. 

    Other Yankees infield prospects such as Greg Bird (first base), Eric Jagielo (third base) and Gosuke Katoh (second base) were featured in Baseball America's top-10 list, and the likes of Brendan Ryan (re-signed), Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts were all brought in at the major league level, leaving Anna stuck somewhere in the middle entering his late 20s.

    Plus, if you've heard of Anna since he was traded to New York, chances are it was in a vague narrative somewhere along the lines of being told you should "become familiar" with him.

    But here are some concrete reasons why he is underrated and why you should stop sleeping on him: The left-handed hitter slashed .277/.391/.419 in 2011 (High-A and Double-A), .271/.377/.393 in 2012 (Double-A) and, in 2013 in Triple-A, batted .331/.410/.482. He won the Pacific Coast League batting title while racking up 38 doubles, nine homers, an impressive 65 strikeouts to 61 walks and 140 wRC+.

    He can play anywhere in the infield—reliably, too—committing six errors at short, five errors at second and zero at third last year.

    Similar to Flores, Anna's stature (5'11", 180 pounds) probably causes many to overlook him, if not at least doubt him. As Baseball America's John Manuel noted, "Anna lacks physicality and pop," but "fits the utility profile as a lefthanded hitter" and "has earned high marks in his career as a grinder and good teammate."

    Like Flores, he'll head to spring training on the 40-man roster. If he stands out at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and continues his hot hitting, there's no reason the Yanks couldn't give him a shot to compete with, or beat out, Eduardo Nunez for a backup-utility role.

    And maybe then, we'll stop feeling so reluctant to sing his praises for fear he is destined to be a lifelong Quad-A star.

    You could worry about the upside given his "advanced" age, but consider the advantage of his wealth of experience of batting already (college and every level of minor leagues), which he will take with him if and when he is given a shot in the bigs.

No. 3: Shane Greene

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The right-handed power pitcher seems to miss all the top-prospect rankings time and again, and at 25 years old, terms like "upside" and "outlook" are beginning to wane.

    But that is precisely why Shane Greene comes in on this list as the third-most underrated Yankees prospect.

    That, and the fact that he is the prototypical completely-out-of-nowhere talent who finds himself suddenly on the 40-man roster with a great shot to cut short his minor league time once 2014 gets underway.

    He is an imposing figure at 6'3" and 200 pounds. He has a mid-90s heater touching the high 90s and a dominating slider for his out pitch, backing them up with a changeup and sinker. Greene's plus stuff has been emphasized, but so has his minus control in the past.

    Originally, Greene was taken in the 15th round of the 2009 draft out of Daytona Beach Community College. He subsequently hung around Staten Island, Charleston and Tampa between 2010 and 2012.

    His ERA never impressed over that three-year span (4.59, 4.37 and 5.22), and his walk rates were increasingly poor (3.8, 4.4 and 5.1). But both his FIP and strikeout rates told a different story and were consistently above-average.

    And then, 2013 happened for Shane Greene.

    In time between High-A (75.0 IP) and Double-A (79.1 IP), he tossed 154.1 total innings to a 3.38 ERA, split 2.57/3.49 FIP, ridiculous 1.7 walk rate and career-high 137 strikeouts. His numbers only improved as he climbed higher in the system last season.

    There's steady improvement, and then there's whatever you want to call what Greene did in 2013.

    Figure for him to begin in Triple-A Scranton, but don't count him out from factoring into the Yankees bullpen as soon as 2014.

No. 2: Taylor Dugas

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Forget that 6'3" pitcher for a moment; we're back to the diminutive and demonstrative under-the-radar prospects. This one, 24-year-old outfielder Taylor Dugas, is 5'8" and 170 pounds. He was a 2012 eighth-round selection by the Yankees out of the University of Alabama.

    An All-American for the Crimson Tide, he became his school's all-time hits leader and batted .360 over a four-year career. Baseball America compared him to Sam Fuld (5'10", 175 pounds), and noted that the left-hander is "a contact hitter" with "an excellent approach" and "is a slightly above-average runner."

    Right around the time of his draft he was largely overlooked, as the same report projected him as a "better college player than pro prospect," really only granting him praise for his hitting. 

    But Dugas has indeed hit since entering the minor leagues, and though he lacks the impressive tools of a big leaguer, he is downright scrappy and competitive. He shows off tremendous patience and discipline at the dish.

    After the 2012 season, Baseball America rated him with the best strike zone discipline of any Yankees prospect, and one draft profile from Big League Futures highlighted how he shows off a "smooth line drive swing and more pop than you would expect," and that on the other side of the ball, he "gets good jumps and takes good routes."

    Unfortunately, slightly above-average speed and decent ground-covering matched with scrappiness isn't enough to crack the Baseball America top 10 or MLB.com top 20 lists over the likes of outfielders Heathcott, Williams, Austin and Flores. You pretty much never hear his name mentioned.

    But take a look at the trends in his numbers: In his first season in Staten Island (2012), the then-22-year-old played 59 games and hit .306/.465/.373 with nine doubles, 15 RBI, 51 walks (18.5 rate) to 35 strikeouts (12.7 rate), a phenomenal .414 wOBA and insane 162 wRC+.

    He may have dipped at the start of 2013 when he played 58 games in Charleston, hitting just .250 (.341 wOBA, 113 wRC+), but he caught fire when he was promoted to High-A Tampa for the final 55 games of the year, batting .321 (.382 wOBA, 139 wRC+).

    Dugas may not have the most upside, and only time will tell whether he can continue to improve as he is promoted to Trenton and/or Scranton. But this guy is hands-down one of the least talked-about, most underrated prospects in the entire system, and he deserves at least a look in 2014.

No. 1: Miguel Andujar

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    Heading into 2014, soon-to-be-19-year-old third base prospect Miguel Andujar stands as the most underrated talent in the system.

    It's easy to have missed what the right-handed hitter did in 2013—especially considering he was an 18-year-old in 34 games of rookie ball. But Andujar stood out. He hit .323/.368/.496 with four homers, 11 doubles and 25 RBI in 144 plate appearances.

    Here are the rankings from which Andujar is absent: Baseball America's top-10 rankings for 2014; Baseball America's top 15 Yankees prospects 25 years old or younger, which listed four infielders not named Andujar; and MLB.com's top-20 ranking, which listed three infielders, two of whom were also third basemen, but none of whom were Andujar.

    Yet in 2011, Ben Badler of Baseball America first noted Andujar's offensive prowess and potential, saying, "He has a good swing, good bat speed and advanced feel for hitting for his age. He has quick hands and a good swing path, with the potential to hit for average and power." And he didn't stop there, mentioning his trustworthy defense as well: "Andujar is solid in the field as well, with the ability to handle third base and a strong arm."

    In 2011, at only 16 years of age, the international free-agent signee was considered the primary young target for Yankees brass. His first rookie ball campaign came in 2012 at only age 17—after he forwent the common route of first playing in the Dominican Summer League—and he disappointingly hit .232 (80 wRC+) in 50 games (191 plate appearances).

    But it was his first professional baseball experience, and he still showed off his arm and range.

    Following his short season, FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel praised the San Cristobal (Dominican Republic) native's tools, noting his hands, bat speed and advanced hitting ability for his youth:

    Miguel Andujar was one of the more interesting young players I saw in instructs. He’s raw and toolsy as his age suggests, with a toolset that profiles as an everyday third baseman. Andujar has solid hands, an above-average arm and solid-average speed. He’s got the quickness to be above-average defensively...

    Andujar’s above-average bat speed and looseness to his swing set him apart ... Power isn’t a big part of his game presently, but he has natural gap power with some projection remaining in his 6’0, 190 pound frame. Andujar shows advanced bat control for his age...

    McDaniel was impressed by the maturity shown in his live games as well, writing, "In games, Andujar barrels up more than his fair share of pitches even against pitchers many years older. ... Andujar is so young and talented that a lot could still happen."

    He even alluded to the quiet confidence of Yankees decision-makers, concluding, "The Yankees know they have a real prospect here..."

    Andujar did sneak into one ranking after this past season: Baseball America named him the No. 11 overall Gulf Coast League prospect in its top-20 league-wide rankings.

    But if we're talking overlooked, under-the-radar prospects, as far as true positional infielders go, Andujar tops the list—an incredibly important one, too, as we look to the horizon in the years after Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and, yes, Robinson Cano.

    He is still incredibly young, and we definitely need to see much more from him in 2014 and beyond.

    He is rarely mentioned in the top-prospect narrative and will likely never be the flashy third baseman you'd dream of. But with the potential to play every day at the hot corner and provide both power and average outputs while filling out his frame, there's no ceiling for the teenage Andujar.