Right now, everyone's focused on what the New York Yankees farm system doesn't have: Cuban super-prospect Yoan Moncada.
The Yankees were favored to land Moncada but were surprisingly outbid by the rival Boston Red Sox. That understandably has Yankees fans feeling frustrated, as missing out on Moncada feels all too typical for an organization that's had a tough time producing homegrown stars in recent years.
But all is not lost. ESPN Insider Keith Law believes the Yankees farm system is "trending up again." Literally and figuratively, there's a big reason for that:
Odds are you first heard of Judge, a 6'7", 230-pound behemoth with the musculature of an action hero, when the Yankees drafted him No. 32 overall out of Fresno State in 2013. If you haven't been keeping tabs on him since then, you missed a dandy of a pro debut in 2014.
In the end, it looked like this:
|Aaron Judge's 2014 Pro Debut|
After a debut like that, the 22-year-old right fielder is beginning to loom large on prospect radars.
B/R's Mike Rosenbaum, for example, rates Judge as the Yankees' top prospect heading into 2015. He's also on the big top-100 lists. Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com put him in the 50-70 range. Law, however, thinks highly enough of Judge to put him at No. 23 overall.
Granted, such high praise is no guarantee of future stardom, especially for a guy like Judge, who still has Double-A and Triple-A standing between him and The Show.
But it's not for nothing that the experts are excited about him. He's already surpassed expectations and has put himself on track to become the homegrown star Yankees fans are pining for.
Let's go back to when Judge was wrapping up his tenure at Fresno State in the summer of 2013. He was on plenty of big boards for the MLB draft at the time but not particularly high up. For as much as everyone loved Judge the physical specimen, there were real questions about Judge the ballplayer.
There's the reality that hitters as tall as Judge are at a natural disadvantage. A taller body means a bigger strike zone, and a hitter with longer limbs is more likely to have holes in his swing, hence why such tall hitters are so rare. It takes a special kind of talent to make extreme height work.
Whether Judge had that special kind of talent was very much in question. As FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel put it, scouts looked at him and saw a hitter who "mostly struggled against top arms, excelled against weaker arms and didn't hit for enough power in games."
Between his size and his underwhelming collegiate track record, a pick spent on Judge was going to be a roll of the dice. Before worrying about whether his in-game power would develop, his new club was going to have to worry about him being overwhelmed against tougher pitching right out of the gate.
That's where the good vibes begin, as that obviously didn't happen in 2014.
It's not by accident that Judge hit over .300 with an OBP over .400 in 2014. The MLB.com scouting report praised him for being a "more advanced hitter than expected," and any scouting report you read will mention how he looked the part with an outstanding eye for the strike zone to go with a short, quick stroke and an ability to barrel the ball up.
Judge has worked hard to cultivate his approach. And going forward, he's committed to improving it even further.
"Just really your approach," said Judge when YES Network's Meredith Marakovits (h/t Brendan Kuty of NJ.com) asked what he wanted to work on. "That's the biggest thing for me. My approach in the box, my approach hitting. Just stick to my plan. A lot of times, a lot of people get off their approach and don't really stick with their plan. But that's what I need to work on—just sticking with it, really."
In short, Judge's in-box demeanor is not that of the meat-headed slugger you'd expect based on his size.
Jeff Moore of Baseball Prospectus put it this way: "Because of this, he doesn't have the typical issues that tend to plague bigger hitters—holes in the swing, trouble with premium velocity, etc. This should benefit him in the long run, as he doesn't need to sell out and should still hit for plus power, but will do so without the extreme swing-and-miss."
Mind you, there likely will always be some swing-and-miss element to Judge's game. He did strike out in about 22.9 percent of his plate appearances in 2014, after all.
But if Judge continues to insist on making pitchers work for outs, he should be able to keep his whiff tendency from getting worse. If he keeps his strikeout rate in the low 20s, he'll be doing just fine for a guy his size, much less a guy his size in today's high-strikeout environment.
The bigger question is how far Judge can develop his in-game power if he continues to insist on being a hitter first and a slugger second. As you'd expect for a hitter with his approach, Rosenbaum says Judge's swing lacks the lift element shared by traditional power hitters.
This, however, is perhaps where it's easiest to be optimistic.
Judge certainly isn't lacking in raw strength, and he's never had any problem making it show up in batting practice. To boot, it goes to all fields.
And to a degree, Judge has already answered the question of whether his in-game power would improve in the pros. His 21 dingers don't sound like a lot for a guy his size, but McDaniel wrote that nobody expected him to hit that many this year.
The next step involves Judge pushing closer to 30-homer territory, which is possible. He definitely has the raw power for the task, and Rosenbaum says Judge unlocking his power potential may be as simple as learning "to get on top of pitches at the top of the zone."
Because Judge's leap from good power to great power may not be a big one, the Yankees may soon be able to start dreaming of one day having a middle-of-the-order hitter with average on-base skills to go with 30-homer power. Those, of course, are in very short supply.
Judge is not a one-trick pony, however.
Though the inevitable Giancarlo Stanton comparison should be resisted—seriously, don't do it—one thing Judge has in common with the Miami Marlins slugger is that he moves better than you'd expect. Factor in his easily above-average arm strength, and the tools are there for quality defense in right field.
"You see that body and you probably think, 'He is a below-average defender,' but that is definitely not the case," Yankees assistant general manager Billy Eppler told Andrew Marchand of ESPNNewYork.com. "He can run and he can throw. He can really throw. He has tremendous feel in the outfield. ... I think he'll play a solid average to maybe above-average corner outfield."
In all, about the only thing Judge doesn't project to do is steal bases. But between his advanced approach, his power upside and his defensive skill set, he has everything he needs to one day take his place as one of baseball's top two-way right fielders.
And it may not be long before Yankees fans get their first glimpse of Judge at Yankee Stadium.
With his age-23 season due up and a highly successful debut season in his wake, Judge could tackle both Double-A and Triple-A in 2015 and be knocking on the door by September call-up season. If not then, he should be on the big club's radar in 2016.
The Yankees farm system hasn't had much luck with its top prospects in recent years. Guys such as Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain never really made good on their hype. And outside of Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner, the list of quality position players produced in the last decade is basically empty.
As frustrating as this has been, that sounds like a farm system that's due for a success story. And rather than focusing on how Moncada might have been that guy, Yankees fans should be thinking about how Judge will be that guy.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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