Yankees Push Banuelos To Finish Strong At Triple-A

MOOSIC, Pa.—Yankees lefthander Manny Banuelos is like most any other 20-year-old starting a new job. He listens to advice, wants to make a good impression and calls his mom every day.

The one major difference is Banuelos is working as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. The Mexico native earned a promotion to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in early August, and he could be in the big league rotation next season.

But that's a possibility the soft-spoken and humble Banuelos isn't focusing on.

"Of course I'm excited," Banuelos said, "but I just want to keep getting better. I try to control everything. My mother always told me, 'Don't try to do too much. Just relax—you know how to pitch, son.' "

"She always tells me how proud she is of me."

Through his first three starts for Scranton, Banuelos went 0-1, 3.24 while striking out 16 and walking seven in 16 2⁄3 innings. Factor in the 23 starts he made for Double-A Trenton and he's gone 4-6, 3.54 this season with 110 strikeouts, 59 walks and 114 hits allowed in 112 innings.

Banuelos pitches at 92-93 mph, supporting his fastball with a high-70s curveball and a changeup that has good sink.

The Yankees feel so strongly about Banuelos' development and potential that they did not engineer a deal at the trade deadline for the first time since 1999. Ever since Andy Pettitte debuted in 1995, the Yankees have been searching for their next homegrown lefthander. Eric Milton, Brandon Claussen, Sean Henn, Randy Keisler and Alex Graman, among others, held promise, but contributed little to the Yankees.

"The Andy Pettittes of the world don't come along every three or four years. They come along once every 10 or 15 years, if that," Yankees senior vice president for baseball operations Mark Newman said. "But at the same time, prospects like Manny don't come along that often.

"I've seen him touch 95, 96 (mph), and he can spin a (breaking) ball and throw a changeup with arm action and bottom. On top of all that, he has a quality delivery and big-time mound demeanor and poise for a guy his age. He certainly has more hype than any lefthanded pitcher we've had since I've been here."

Early Promise

Lee Sigman, the Yankees' scout in Mexico, signed Banuelos in March 2008 for $450,000. Pitching for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League club that summer, Banuelos displayed strong control for a 17-year-old, posting a 2.57 ERA with 37 strikeouts and 13 walks in 42 innings.

The trend continued in 2009 with low Class A Charleston, where Banuelos fanned 104, walked 28 and allowed just 88 hits in 108 innings. An appendectomy pushed back the start of his 2010 season to late June. When he awoke from surgery, Banuelos, an only child, called his mother and told her he was worried that he would miss the entire season.

"It was my biggest fear," he said.

Instead, the 5-foot-11, 155-pound lefty returned to form, thanks to added strength in his shoulder and legs that added velocity to his already strong fastball. He made 15 starts in 2010, including his final three at Double-A, and went 0-4, 2.51, notching 85 strikeouts and 25 walks in 65 innings. He closed out the year with seven starts in the Arizona Fall League.  

An invitation to big league spring training this season presented a chance to reconnect with 21-year-old catcher Jesus Montero, whom Banuelos could be pitching to in the future. Montero caught his first three games for Scranton.

"He hits a lot of spots with the fastball, the changeup and the curveball," Montero said. "When he is on the mound he has a lot of confidence. He's a young kid, like I am, but when you see him pitch, it's amazing. The first time I caught him in spring training three years ago I said, 'Wow this kid is going to be really good.' "

Ahead Of Schedule

In his short time with Scranton, Banuelos had impressed Yankees pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras, who observed the lefty's first two starts.

"He's a hard worker, and he's hungry to get better and get to the big leagues," Contreras said. "He has a quality curveball, and like a lot of young guys he just has to get comfortable with the release point. He has a nice changeup that fades and bottoms. With that velocity (he became) a little more power-minded than pitching-minded, but he's corralling that also.

"He's ahead of schedule. He has the pitches. He just needs the consistency with the quality and location of the pitch. What he has shown, at least up to this point, is that not much bothers him on the mound. He takes what happens in stride and continues to pitch his game. He's a very humble young man. He was seen and liked at major league camp but it hasn't affected him in any way."

The Yankees intend to keep Banuelos at Triple-A for the remainder of the minor league season. He doesn't have to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2012 season.

"We thought collectively he would benefit from the challenge of pitching at Triple-A, one step closer to the big leagues," Newman said. "That doesn't mean he's going to be there in the next month or so. Each step up that development ladder requires further refinement.

"I saw his second start against Louisville. He learns things. In our post-game debriefing he talked about what he learned. He understands what he needs to learn. He's a bright kid."

Banuelos is content just to be a part of an organization that he and his family rooted for in Mexico.

"When I was a little kid, you always heard about the Yankees," Banuelos said. "The best team in the world. My family, we are Yankees fans, too. When I was younger I loved to get a Yankees hat or T-shirt. This is my team."

Everett Merrill is a freelance writer based in North Plainfield, N.J.