Yankees Stockpile Young Talent In Charleston

CHARLESTON, S.C.—Bryan Mitchell faced twin daunting tasks in his first start for low Class A Charleston.

Not only did he follow teammate Jose Campos' Opening Night masterpiece, but he also opposed Braves all-star Tim Hudson, rehabbing with Rome following offseason surgery. But Mitchell, a 20-year-old righthander, outdueled Hudson and matched Campos with zero runs and one hit allowed over six innings.

The back-to-back gems were early highlights for a young RiverDogs team loaded with Yankees prospects. In addition to Campos and Mitchell, the roster also features second-year Charleston catcher Gary Sanchez (the No. 3 prospect in the system), center fielder Mason Williams (No. 4), third baseman Dante Bichette Jr. (No. 6), shortstop Cito Culver (No. 12) and second baseman Angelo Gumbs (No. 14).

Put another way, that's New York's $3 million international acquisition from 2009 (Sanchez), its top draft picks from 2010-11 (Culver and Bichette), its 2010 second-rounder (Gumbs) as well as the reigning top prospect in the short-season New York-Penn League (Williams).

It's a dazzling if understandably inconsistent collection of talent that compares with other recent high-profile Charleston teams, including 2007 (Austin Jackson, David Robertson, Ivan Nova, Eduardo Nunez, Hector Noesi) and 2008 (Phil Hughes, Jesus Montero, Dellin Betances, Austin Romine).

"Our scouting department has done a phenomenal job over the last few years," said RiverDogs hitting coach Greg Colbrunn, a former veteran big leaguer. "They've spent some money, but they've also done a great job drafting young high school hitters. Hopefully, they can keep it coming because they're fun to work with."

The pitchers aren't bad, either. The 19-year-old Campos was the undervalued asset in the Montero-for-Michael Pineda trade the Yankees made with the Mariners. No wonder Seattle wanted Noesi, too. A 6-foot-4, 195-pound righthander from La Guaira, Venezuela, Campos ranks as the Yankees' No. 4 prospect after leading the short-season Northwest League in ERA and strikeouts last summer.

"I love the way he works," Charleston pitching coach Danny Borrell said. "He works quick, very fast in between pitches. He pounds the zone with his fastball, and the change and curveball are coming along pretty well. It could be a fun year for him."

Ho-hum. Campos blanked Rome with mature command of three pitches, including a 93-94 mph fastball.

"I was not thinking about one thing. I was really just going pitch to pitch," he said after the game.

Deep On Both Sides Of The Ball

Mitchell signed for $800,000 as the Yankees' 16th-round pick in 2009 out of Hamlet, N.C. Positive signs were evident in a second stint with short-season Staten Island last summer, but Mitchell was admittedly "rocky" in spring training. His fastball tops out at 96 mph but his out-pitch is a spiky 12-to-6 curveball that hits the backpoint consistently. "I feel I can throw it for a strike when I need too," said Mitchell, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 205 pounds.

Even Bichette, with his ex-big league father and Florida showcase upbringing, is impressed daily. "There are a few guys out there who have tools I've never seen before," the 19-year-old third baseman said.

Colbrunn loves Bichette's "unbelievable" work habits. Bichette says there has been no tinkering with his swing.

"It will stay the same pretty much the rest of my career, I think," he said. "It will be all mental from here on out, all shoulders up."

The Yankees reportedly keep saying "no" to trade requests involving Williams (the Athletics dangled Gio Gonzalez). A University of South Carolina signee who got an over-slot $1.45 million deal as New York's fourth-round pick in 2010, Williams made great strides last summer at Staten Island, batting .349/.395/.468 in 269 at-bats. He spreads balls around the outfield from all spots of the strike zone. "A real good sense of timing," Colbrunn said. "Mason has a good feel for the barrel."

The finer points: Williams must stop chasing. But beyond tools there is a bloodline. His father Derwin Williams played wide receiver for the NFL's New England Patriots (1985-87) and his great uncle is Walt "No Neck" Williams, the outfielder who played in the 1960s and '70s (and managed Charleston in the '90s).

Culver, Charleston manager Carlos Mendoza said, will make strides when he calms down. "I don't want him to put too much pressure on himself," Mendoza said.

Though a skilled defensive shortstop, Culver was panned by Yankees fans as a first-round reach and hasn't silenced critics. But he's still a switch-hitter, still just 19 and has his lower body meshing with his quick hands more consistently.

With Culver at shortstop, Gumbs will play second base—but not outfield, Mendoza said.

Sanchez, 19, is back for his second year in Charleston after a star-crossed 2011 that included a two-week attitude adjustment suspension, stretches of improvement worthy of his lofty bonus and a late-season thumb injury. As the top-rated catcher in an organization well-stocked with catchers—even minus Montero—Sanchez probably won't stay in Charleston long.

That's OK. Mendoza says his RiverDogs roster is full of "under the radar" prospects, too.

"There are guys on this team that don't get as much attention," Mendoza said, "but they will be fun to watch."

Gene Sapakoff is a columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier