Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Better Know a Prospect Countdown: 20 - 11

Before delving into my constantly evolving (and therefore somewhat arbitrary) rankings, I felt it would be prudent to provide a few token honorable mentions:
Zoilo Almonte has all the makings of a league-average corner outfielder. He's a switch hitter with five average or so tools (and increasing productivity against southpaws), and he could probably fake center field in a pinch without embarrassing himself terribly. The shockingly still only 22-year-old Jairo Heredia is perpetually a healthy year away from rocketing up the list, featuring above-average command and control on three potentially average offerings and fairly sound mechanics. Graham Stoneburner was featured prominently on this list last year, but injuries and slipping effectiveness revealed some nicks in the bedrock in what most would consider a low-risk, low-reward type prospect. David Adams, despite his injuries, continues to impress me with a fine approach at the plate, plus bat speed, and surprisingly strong defense at the keystone. At nearly 25, however, it is difficult to be ambitious with a player that has lost nearly a year of development ... with all of 173 PA above High-A. I really wanted to put Isaias Tejeda on the list, but he is simply too much of an unknown commodity for me to feel comfortable doing so. He is incredibly raw in all facets of the game, but he has above-average contact skills and athleticism, and that in and of itself is a sound foundation to build upon. And finally, Brandon Laird has made himself into a fine defender at third (and a passable defender in the other corners), which sounds appealing when taken in conjunction with his above-average power. His contact issues and lack of discipline, however, may limit him to a platoon role going forward.

Without further ado, I present the first installment of my top-20 prospects.

- 20 -
Greg Bird, C, 19
Acquired: 2011 Draft, 5th Round

This selection is entirely predicated upon scouting reports and amateur competition, as Bird's professional debut was limited to thirteen plate appearances in rookie ball. While that should be an important consideration, I cannot help but feel that I may not have been ambitious enough with the powerful left-handed hitter. Bird, the recipient of a $1.1 MM bonus this past summer, has smooth swing mechanics, raw power to all fields, and demonstrably solid in-game power to right-field. He generates above-average bat speed and a fair bit of backspin on the ball, and Yankee Stadium is always the ideal environment for such a hitter. The non-obvious caveat here is that Bird, like Jesus Montero and Gary Sanchez before him, does not appear likely to stick behind the dish. However, I would argue that his issue is not a lack of athleticism, but rather size (in general) and rawness. That being said, I do believe that he is athletic enough to handle a corner outfield spot, where the demands on his bat (which I do not anticipate to be an issue) would be slightly less than those at first base.

- 19 -
Matthew Duran, 3B, 18
Acquired: 2011 Draft, 4th Round

Duran's case is somewhat similar to that of Bird, in that there is a great deal of projection involved. Both have the makings of pure power hitters, neither seems destined to remain at their drafted position, and the terms 'hard worker' and 'gym rat' have been applied to both. The key difference, assuming that the gap between numbers nineteen and twenty is really a difference, is that Duran is a bit more polished at the plate, with a bit more contact and power ability. Duran has shown in-game power to all fields, as well. He raked in 96 rookie ball plate appearance, slashing .301/.365/.506 with 6 2B and 3 HR - a small sample size, to be sure, but impressive nonetheless. Unlike Cave, Duran does not appear to have much of a chance to contribute on defense, with few having faith that he is not a certain first baseman. His work ethic, however, should give him a fighting chance to be a non-butcher at the hot corner ... at least for a few years.

- 18 -
Nik Turley, LHP, 22
Acquired: 2008 Draft, 50th Round

Turley may have the least impressive stuff of any of the pitchers on this list, but a far argument could be made that he may well have the lowest beta of the bunch. The physically imposing southpaw is listed at 6'6" and 230 lb, yet he deals mainly in deception and command, working off of a two-seamer topping out around 91 or 92 on his best days. A high-70s, low-80s change and a big, loopy curveball (his best offering) round out his arsenal, which he wields with remarkable command and control. Unlike most other veritable giants lumbering about the mound, Turley has the ability to maintain his mechanics and stay on top of the ball, allowing him to repeat his delivery and garner plenty of groundballs. His ceiling is likely limited to that of a third starter, but he seems a safe bet to be a contributor in a big league rotation (although safe is a relative term in prospecting).

- 17 -
Ramon Flores, OF, 20
Acquired: 2008 International Free Agent

Any analysis of Flores requires a fair bit of consternation on his ability to rise above the tweener label. While the formerly diminutive corner outfielder has grown quite a bit over the past few seasons (from roughly 5'10" and 150 pounds to 6'1" and closer to 200), his tools have remained relatively stable - above-average contact skills, strikezone judgment, and plate discipline, average-ish power, speed, and defense. He may well be the least exciting prospect on this list, yet it is not difficult to foresee him having the longest career of any Yankees farmhand. I believe comps can be misleading (and lazy) ... but I think a glance at the career of David DeJesus is a reasonable comparison for the type of player Flores can become.

- 16 -
Cito Culver, SS, 19
Acquired: 2010 Draft, 1st Round

Culver strikes me as the prototypical under-the-radar prospect that is ultimately far more impressive than most anyone realizes. As the second-youngest regular in New York-Penn League, Culver improved his walk and strikeout rates, showcased smoother actions and a surer arm in the field, and showed a smarter, more aggressive approach on the bases in comparison to his short-season debut. He is unlikely to offer much in the way of power, nor will he threaten for a batting title or steal more than fifteen to twenty bases - a decidedly unsexy offensive package, in short. However, he seems all but a lock to stick at shortstop, where he projects to provide above-average defense with slightly above-average offense for the position.

- 15 -
Ravel Santana, CF, 19
Acquired: 2008 International Free Agent

For all the puffery regarding placement on this list that will be found elsewhere, it is Ravel Santana that tossed the largest monkey wrench into my machinations. Santana is a true five-tool prospect, with above-average speed, range, and arm strength, potentially above-average power, and average contact skills. He has showcased fine plate discipline and strikezone judgment since his professional debut in 2009, and he has obliterated the competition in both the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League over the past two years. The caveat here is that Santana suffered a gruesome injury late last summer, breaking his ankle in two places and tearing multiple ligaments. Such an injury could have any number of long-term ramifications, both at the plate and in the field, and it is difficult to know if Santana will ever truly return to one-hundred percent. For all of this, he makes the cut ... and has the largest beta of any prospect mentioned herein.

- 14 -
Adam Warren, SP, 24
Acquired: 2009 Draft, 4th Round

I am far less bullish on Warren than I was at this time last season, on the heels of his regressing across the board while spending the entirety of 2011 in Triple-A. Warren lost nearly 2 K/9 (22.3% to 17.1% K), his groundball rate plummeted from an above-average 54% to a below-average 39%., and he added nearly a walk per inning. All told, his numbers were far from poor, but they remained wholly uninspiring. The silver lining with Warren is that his slider improved dramatically, with many scouts believing it to be a true swing-and-miss offering. The aforementioned strikeout rates do not match such a narrative, but Warren is relatively new to the world of the slider, and he is not terribly far removed from some fantastic numbers. His command and control remain positives, and I still view him as a potential three or four in a strong rotation.

- 13 -
Slade Heathcott, CF, 21
Acquired: 2009 Draft, 1st Round

It may be a bit misleading to say that Heathcott has played below his tools thus far, but his lack of consistency and results is at best bewildering. Heathcott and Ravel Santana are essentially two peas in a pod tools-wise (though Santana has more present power), with both facing disconcerting paths through the minors. The 2009 first-rounder lost yet another large chunk of development to left-shoulder surgery, which may well affect his ability to tap into his power potential in addition to the obvious issues with arm strength and accuracy. Moreover, the attitude issues that were discussed ad nauseum at the time Heathcott was drafted came to the surface a bit in 2011, when the Yankees prospect sparked a bench-clearing brawl. This ranking may appear a bit bearish, considering his jaw-dropping tools, but I consider it rather bullish when taken hand-in-hand with his injuries and merely solid production in a second tour through Charleston. I remain a believer, and I feel that this may be the most important year in Heathcott's development.

- 12 -
Austin Romine, C, 23
Acquired: 2007 Draft, 2nd Round

I cannot think of a prospect with respect to whom I have been more fickle than Romine. I have alternatively praised and doubted his bat and glove, and my view on him has ranged from back-up to solid regular to borderline All-Star. Much of the blame for this lay at the feet of the scouting reports raving about his physical tools, particularly behind the plate, but I would be remiss to suggest that my own lying eyes haven't played a role. Romine simply does not have the look (at face value) of a first division regular at this juncture, failing to put his admittedly strong tools on display with any semblance of consistency. Prospecting is an incredibly subjective balancing test, and I am finding it more and more difficult to rectify Romine's tools with his middling production. Romine did improve his walk and strikeout rates in his second go-round in Double-A, and he was probably hindered by being stuck in Double-A for almost the entirety of 2011 due to the team's stubbornness in promoting Montero to the show ... but I want and need to say more to view him as more than a potentially average-ish backstop.

- 11 -
David Phelps, SP, 25
Acquired: 2008 Draft, 14th Round

Shoulder tendinitis likely robbed Phelps of the opportunity to make it to the Bronx this past season, and may have sealed his fate as future trade fodder for the Yankees. Pessimism aside, Phelps had a fine 2011 season, showcasing above-average command and control of four roughly average offerings, including a fastball that sits around 92 MPH - e.g. the fringe third/solid fourth starter starter kit. The shoulder ailment is somewhat disconcerting, particularly when discussing a prospect that will be 26 when the postseason kicks off, but Phelps returned to Scranton without really missing a beat, then turned in a strong month in the Arizona Fall League. Should calamity strike the rotation, Phelps will be the first reinforcement from the farm - and I think he could perform quite well as soon as April. And if you squint really hard, you can still see seventy-five percent of Mike Mussina.

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