A year ago Manny Banuelos barely registered on the Yankees' radar, but now, not even 20 yet, he has this camp buzzing like spring training of 2007 when veterans were wowed enough by a young Phil Hughes to promptly label him the next Roger Clemens.The wealth of pitching and catching in the Yankees system right now is enviable, and I feel that Banuelos may have the most value of any prospect in the organization - including Jesus Montero. That is not a knock on Montero ... rather, it is a testament to the diminutive lefty, as well as the Yankees tremendous work in the international scouting arena. Banuelos' ceiling is that of an ace, and he combines that with a fairly high floor, as well. Lefthanded pitchers with Banuelos' stuff, poise, mechanics, and command are very rare, and his progress is simply astonishing.
Hughes hasn't quite lived up to that hype, although he is surely beginning to deliver on his promise, which is more than you can say for a lot of spring training phenoms.
Who knows how it will go for Banuelos, but to see him up close Wednesday, you had to be impressed. The lefthander is only 5-foot-10, yet the ball explodes out of his hand, the mid-90s velocity further enhanced by a smooth, polished delivery that looks effortless.
Beyond that, GM Brian Cashman noted a poise that he likened to that of Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez.
"Banuelos has a presence, a confidence on the mound that's a lot like when El Duque showed up," Cashman said Wednesday. "Guys hadn't even seen El Duque throw yet, and I remember (Joe) Torre and (Mel) Stottlemyre seeing him and saying, 'There's something about this guy.'"
That's high praise, obviously, considering how important El Duque became to the Yankees' championship run in the '90s.
Or perhaps all you really need to know is that Yankee scouting and development people have fallen harder for the teenage lefty than they did for Hughes at a similar stage - when he was ranked as one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball.
"You can't believe how excited our minor-league people are about Banuelos," one Yankee person said Wednesday. "I never even heard them talk about Hughes the way they talk about this kid."
That's all the more remarkable considering that, while Hughes was a first-round draft choice, Banuelos was part of a group signing out of the Mexican League in 2008, when the Yankees picked up four players, including former Bomber reliever Alfredo Aceves, for a total of $450,000.
At the time Banuelos was 17, weighed maybe 150 pounds, and topped out at 90-91 mph.
"When we signed him we thought he could be an interesting lefty out of the bullpen," Cashman said Wednesday. "But last year his velocity jumped from the low 90s to 95-96, and it's clear now he has a chance to be a starter toward the front end of our rotation."
Banuelos missed the first two months of last season due to an appendectomy, so his blossoming caught everyone by surprise. Besides the jump in velocity, scouts say his changeup has developed into a major league-ready weapon as well.
After dominating in Class A Tampa, Banuelos made only three late-season starts in Double-A, so Cashman has made it clear that the lefty has no chance of beginning the season with the Yankees, despite their need for starters.
After Banuelos threw Wednesday, however, Cashman jokingly said he might have to send him down to minor-league camp earlier than planned just because the kid has the major-league staff salivating.
"My minor league guys are saying, 'You better get him out of here right now or you'll never be able to,'" Cashman said with a laugh. "But no, there's no way he can start the season. He's only 19. We've got to keep the diapers on for a while."
Cashman didn't rule out seeing Banuelos in pinstripes by the second half of the season, however. The lefty turns 20 next month and is one of a handful of young Yankee pitchers who are being touted as legitimate prospects.
When asked about Banuelos Wednesday, in fact, superscout Gene Michael laughed and said, "He's a keeper, but there's a whole group of 'em here who are really good."
While this report may be a bit of fluff, it is nothing but good news - especially when taken in conjunction with the praise Banuelos received following his stint in the Arizona Fall League. I'm excited to see how he performs with Trenton, and I expect to see him in Scranton by the summer ... and I wouldn't be shocked to see him toeing the rubber in Yankee Stadium in 2011, either.