They won’t show up on a list of an organization’s top ten, twenty, or maybe even fifty prospects, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. They might be players who will develop later or seemingly come out of nowhere to make a Major League roster. Sometimes they are players who consistently produce in the minors to the point where they need to be taken seriously. These are the sleeper prospects, and here is a sleeper for each position in the New York Yankees’ system with some reasons why they are and are not future Yankees.
Catcher: Kyle Higashioka
Why: Higashioka can play defense at a high level, and since he does not have the ceiling of an everyday catcher, defense is likely the top priority of his profile. His intelligence, game-calling, and ability to handle a pitching staff are all assets. While he doesn’t have standout hitting numbers, he has shown enough competence with the bat to make you think he could contribute offensively when he plays. He is more of a gap hitter from the right side, but he is not without punch. The Yankees sent him to the Arizona Fall League this year, where he is 7 for 16 in his first four games, and he should get another invitation to big-league camp in the spring.
Why not: Higashioka is 24 and has dealt with major injuries that have cut into his development time. A shoulder injury and Tommy John surgery have limited him to 68 games in the last three seasons. He will play next year at 25 and has only played 14 games above Single A. Though he has shown ability with the bat, there isn’t a lot of production on his resume. Higashioka’s performance in 2015 is extremely important for his prospect status.
First base: Connor Spencer
Why: He hasn’t stopped hitting. He hit in college and then put .364/.389/.444 on the board at Staten Island after he was drafted in the 8th round in June. Spencer puts the ball in play, with a left-handed swing that sees him going to the opposite field often. While his approach has him using the whole field, Spencer has enough natural power and size (6’2″, 215 lbs.) to hit home runs when he starts getting the barrel out a little earlier to turn on the ball. Nothing on his track record says he won’t continue to be a hitter as he climbs the ladder, and he will likely play next season at Charleston at age 22.
Why not: He hasn’t started hitting for power. He didn’t hit for power in college and he hasn’t done it professionally. That matters because he’s been at first base, and he will have to hit for some power to stay there and become a serious prospect. There is a chance the organization could move him to left field, and then his athleticism will need to be up to the task.
Second Base: Bryan Cuevas
Why: Cuevas played more games at short than he did anywhere else for the Gulf Coast Yankees this summer, but his future is probably as a second baseman or utility player. That he can play short is a great asset, but it won’t be Cuevas’ defense that gets him to the big leagues. He will have to hit his way there, and if he can continue hitting the way he has to start his career people will have to take notice. In three full professional seasons Cuevas has a .313/.357/.468 line, which is pretty good for a middle infielder. He hit .356/.405/.564 this summer alone, finishing second in the league in batting and leading it in OPS at age 20.
Why not: Cuevas is not a toolsy player, and lots of guys have good Rookie league seasons under their belts. Cuevas was not too old for the Gulf Coast League, but he was repeating it. That may have more to do with the other shortstops and second basemen in the system, but therein lies the problem. The amount of middle-infield competition in the organization will force Cuevas to continue a high level of production just to stay on the field. He may need to have a Jose Pirela-type rise through the minors.
Shortstop: Ali Castillo
Why: Go watch Castillo play a game and you’ll likely come away having seen him make at least one defensive play that impresses you. He may be able to play shortstop in the Major Leagues right now. Castillo is the kind of player you like more and more each time you watch him play, because he seems to be able to help a club win in a variety of ways. He has the defensive versatility to play second and third, runs the bases well, puts the ball in play, and shows signs of improving as a hitter. Over the last 70 games of the season at Trenton this year he hit .300 with a .370 on base percentage. Castillo is also currently tearing up the Venezuelan Winter League at .348/.380/.465, which is great timing as the organization searches for shortstop depth at the upper levels. There are roles for guys like Castillo in the Majors.
Why not: Castillo is a young man, but not a young prospect. He will turn 26 next season, when he likely will reach AAA for the first time. While there are signs of hope with the bat, Castillo will likely never hit for any power, and it remains to be seen if he will even be an extra-base threat. The Yankees will be looking for runs, so, while he could sensibly fill a role similar to Brendan Ryan, Castillo will have to hit enough to reach the big leagues.
Third base: Drew Bridges
Why: At 6’4″ and 230 pounds, Bridges is built for power, and that power has already started to show up. He hit five home runs for the Gulf Coast Yankees, and making hard contact doesn’t seem to be a problem. The 100-point difference between his batting average and on-base percentage indicates that his strike-zone judgment is advanced, and if he learns when to be aggressive earlier in counts he should lower his strikeout numbers and find more pitches to drive. He will play next season at 20 years old.
Why not: Though he reportedly moves well for his size, Bridges is a likely candidate to move off of third and over to first base. That’s not a big deal if he hits and hits for power, but there are other guys who may need to make that move (Eric Jagielo comes to mind) and guys like Greg Bird and Kyle Roller are well in front of him. Bridges’ aforementioned strikeout number was high this year, and it will need to come down as he develops.
Left Field: Ben Gamel
Why: Other than hit for power, Gamel does everything well. He hits, he can steal bases, and he’s an above-average defender who can play all three outfield positions. He’s the kind of guy managers will want to keep in the lineup every day because of all the ways he can contribute to wins. He’s a solid, productive baseball player who competes, and he could be easily considered a future big-league backup who is one step away at Scranton.
Why not: While the rest of Gamel’s career offensive numbers are solid, he’s hit only 10 home runs in over 1,800 plate appearances. That lack of power puts a future starting role very much in doubt, and at 5’11” and 185 pounds, while not tiny, he doesn’t have a lot of physical projection even at age 22. Gamel doesn’t have enough speed to project as a center fielder or enough power for the corners. As a “tweener” it could be hard to find a spot to break in.
Center field: Mark Payton
Why: Out of the University of Texas, Payton came into professional baseball this year at age 22 seemingly well-prepared. He started out hot and carried it through the end of the summer, putting up a line of .320/418/.497 at Charleston and Tampa. His aggressive assignment reflects the type of development Payton already has. He’s a solid all-around player who commands the strike zone on offense and handles a premium position on defense. He safely projects as a reserve outfielder at the Major League level.
Why not: Payton does not have a standout tool. It is likely that he will not have average power and, though he runs fine, he’s not a burner. At 5’7″ tall, Payton doesn’t have physical projection, so he will have to continue to put up high hit totals and on-base numbers to force his way to the big leagues.
Right field: Kendall Coleman
Why: Coleman is a good-looking athlete with the tools to play right field. A left-handed hitter drafted out of high school in 2013, Coleman added nearly 30 pounds of muscle to his 6’4″ frame in the off-season and had a great spring training. His name came up for how hard he was hitting the ball and how well he had shortened his swing heading into his first full season. An injury ended that season only eight games in, but it hasn’t lessened the potential Coleman has.
Why not: Coleman has played a grand total of 18 games in two seasons, so there is no track record of performance for him. It is not yet known if he can produce in games. After tearing a quad muscle in 2013 and then suffering a stress reaction in his shin in 2014, Coleman needs to stay healthy to become a true prospect.
Right-handed starting pitcher: Rookie Davis
Why: Davis has the potential to be one of the top pitching prospects in the organization. At 6’3″ and 235 pounds he has great size for a pitcher and throws hard, usually in the 92-95 miles per hour range on his fastball. He threw 126 innings this year at Charleston at age 21, and he has the makeup and competitiveness to become a workhorse.
Why not: For all of Davis’ potential, there has yet to be production. His secondary pitches did not progress this year, and that perhaps was a big reason he gave up more hits than innings pitched and finished with an ERA of 4.93. His fastball and intangibles won’t get him to the big leagues, but if he can develop his curve and change, he could have a bounce-back season next year at Tampa.
Left-handed starting pitcher: Daniel Camarena
Why: After being drafted in 2011, Camarena finished this year by making ten starts for the Trenton Thunder at age 21. Known to have advanced control and the ability to pitch coming out of high school, Camarena has matured quickly enough to be one good season away from Major League consideration. He has shown the ability to make adjustments and deploy a four-pitch mix with an above-average changeup. Perhaps Vidal Nuno is a good comparison for Camarena at this point.
Why not: At 6’0″ and 200 pounds, there is not room for physical projection for Camarena. He already doesn’t throw hard, which means he needs to command his pitches or he’ll get knocked around. That has happened to him more than a few times, especially as he’s adjusted to a new league. Getting beaten up in your first few starts at the Major League level means you are not likely to be given more starts. Camarena will need to refine his stuff before being a legitimate rotation candidate in the Majors.
Right-handed relief pitcher: Cesar Vargas
Why: Just as it seemed Vargas was about to languish as an organizational starter, he was moved to the bullpen in 2014 and saw an uptick in his stuff. His fastball hit 96, he kept his breaking ball and changeup, and his strikeout numbers jumped to 9.8 per nine innings. The Yankees invited Vargas to Instructs, showing they must have been pleased with what they saw. After finishing the year in the Tampa bullpen at age 22, he should pitch next season in Trenton and be a 40-man roster candidate.
Why not: Lots of pitchers see their stuff improve with a move to the bullpen, but there is still a hill to climb in getting to the big leagues. There are many right-handed relievers ahead of Vargas competing for precious spots on the 40-man roster, so he will need to have a big year next year to jump ahead of them.
Left-handed relief pitcher: Rony Bautista
Why: It is difficult to be a sleeper when you are 6’7″ and left-handed, but Bautista has managed to stay under the radar. That probably won’t last long, as he went on the Dellin Betances plan this year and shifted to the bullpen full time. His stuff was great as a starter, and he still dials it up to 96 routinely as a reliever. He struck out 13 batters per nine innings this year at Charleston and Staten Island.
Why not: Bautista is already 23, so the bullpen move was more of a necessity to speed up his development. Guys who are 6’7″ have an easier time throwing hard but a more difficult time throwing strikes, and Bautista is a perfect example. He walked almost 6 batters per nine innings, and that’s not going to get it done. Improved control is Bautista’s ticket to the big leagues.