Baseball America's League Top 20 lists are generated from consultations with scouts and league managers. To qualify for consideration, a player must have spent at least one-third of the season in a league. Position players must have one plate appearance for every league game. Pitchers must pitch 1/3 inning for every league game, and relievers have to have made at least 20 appearances in full-season leagues and 10 in short-season ones.
In years past, this was a veritable non-event for Yankees fans, with very few exceptions. The team's prospects were either dealt, failed to pan out, or flat-out never existed due to free agent compensation and a dwindling investment in the international scouting arena. In short, it seemed as if every Phil Hughes was hand-cuffed to ten Eric Duncans.
Over the past few seasons, however, the front office seems to have re-evaluated its mindset. More funds have been allocated to scouting, more risks have been taken, fewer prospects have been used as trading chips, and patience has begun to reign supreme. Where the previous decade saw the Yankees farm system among the ten worst in baseball with fair regularity, the new decade may very well see the Yankees with one of the ten best - in no small part due to the following players, ranked by Baseball America within their respective leagues:
Gulf Coast League (Rookie):
01. Gary Sanchez, C
10. Cito Culver, SS
13. Ramon Flores, LF
Sanchez led the league in SLG and OPS, ranked second in the league in batting average and RBI, and third in OBP - his defense remains a work in progress, but his arm strength and agility have drawn decent reviews. Many scouts rate his bat as behind only Montero's in the system and, while bats may not be the organizational strength, that remains a fair bit of praise.
Flores led the league in OBP and BB/K and finished third in batting average and OPS, but remains something of an unknown quantity on the whole. Culver had an up and down professional debut, but he appears to have solid plate discipline and all the tools to be a sound defensive shortstop at any level.
South Atlantic League (Low-A):
18. Slade Heathcott, CF
Heathcott, in addition to having the second coolest name in the system (behind Graham Stoneburner), showcased his tremendous athleticism in his first full season of professional baseball. While he remains rough around the edges (most notably striking out in 33.9% of his plate appearances and a 60% stolen base success rate), there were far more positives than negatives. A solid 12% walk rate, well above-average speed on the basepaths, an Ichiro-like arm, and fantastic range in center field form a fine resume for such a young player.
Florida State League (High-A):
04. Dellin Betances, RHP
13. Adam Warren, RHP
19. Melky Mesa, CF
20. Andrew Brackman, RHP
All four of these players have been discussed extensively here at SIH. Betances here and here. Warren here. Mesa here. And Brackman here.
In short, Betances and Brackman have front of the rotation potential (with injury issues), Warren could be a solid back of the rotation starter, and Mesa is oozing with toolsy potential (yet questionable contact skills). It's also worth noting that Manny Banuelos would have certainly been listed had he met the minimum criteria.
Eastern League (Double-A):
05. Andrew Brackman, RHP
11. Brandon Laird, 3B
16. Hector Noesi, RHP
20. Austin Romine, C
Brackman's tremendous success at two levels is extraordinary - particularly when considering the jump from High-A to Double-A is the largest competitive leap within the minors. While many would point to his age in comparison to his peers, his lack of experience due to injuries and participation in NCAA Basketball should trump that.
Laird and Noesi are, in my mind, question marks. Both posted fine numbers, to be sure, but I'm not sure how their success will translate to the Major League level. Laird does not appear to have the power required of a corner infielder, and his glovework leaves something to be desired - and I don't see Rodriguez or Teixeira going anywhere (it bears mentioning that Laird will play the outfield in the Arizona Fall League). Noesi's stuff has been questioned routinely, and pitchability is something that isn't easily projected. I do think Noesi has a higher ceiling and floor than Laird, for what it's worth.
Romine's numbers left a bit to be desired this year - both at the plate and behind it. Much of that can be explained by the fact that he caught about 25% more innings in 2010, acting as the everyday catcher for the first time in his professional career. In examining his numbers, one cannot help but notice that his performance declined steadily as his mileage increased. On a positive note, he set career bests in both errors and passed balls along the way, leading to a career best Total Zone rating. He looks the part of Major League catcher.
International League (Triple-A):
04. Jesus Montero, C
09. Ivan Nova, RHP
13. Eduardo Nunez, SS
Carlos Santana, Jeremy Hellickson, and Aroldis Chapman were the only players ranked ahead of Montero. All three made their Major League debuts in 2010, and all three are at least a year and a half older than Montero. Baseball America goes so far as to claim that Montero may have the highest offensive ceiling of any player in the minors. While his defense remains a work in progress, there's little doubt in my mind that he'll be able to hit Major League pitching - it's only a question of how soon.
Nova's late season call-up left a bit to be desired, though he certainly had flashes of promise. His middling strikeout and walk totals at most levels leave me questioning Baseball America's ranking a bit, though his stuff is certainly top-notch.
I covered Nunez here, and nothing has really changed. He certainly demonstrated his speed on the basepaths, and he made some dazzling plays in the field ... but he also showcased a tendency to swing away and botch routine plays in the field. I'm assuming he'll battle Pena for the utility role in 2011, but I'm not sure where he'll go from there.
In the end, there really is a great deal to be excited about here. The organizational depth in solid arms is impressive, and few teams can boast the wealth of catching prospects that the Yankees enjoy. I'm excited to see several of these players make a splash over the next few years.