Yankees Quartet Of High-Upside Arms Presents Rankings Quandary

Image credit: Roansy Contreras (Photo by Tony Farlow/Four Seam Images)

As is apparent from their Top 10 Prospects this year, the Yankees have a great deal of pitching talent up and down their system. Their collection of arms was generally balanced throughout the upper and lower levels, but the group that started the year at low Class A Charleston featured five of the organization’s most high-upside talents. 

The pitchers’ youth, relative lack of track record, mix of upside and respective red flags made them extraordinarily difficult to line up for these rankings. Nearly every evaluator we spoke to for the Top 10 had a different view of the same group, and none had them in the same order.

Part of that, of course, is dependent on when each scout saw each pitcher and how they performed. A disaster outing might hide one pitcher’s upside while a true gem might obscure red flags. Talking to a larger group of evaluators, then, should begin to yield some sense of clarity. 

That simply wasn’t the case with the Charleston arms, who had such a wide variety of variables that it became difficult to form an order with any sort of confidence. 

Do you start with the pitcher with a very slim chance to be a superstar but a very high risk of busting, or do you go with the pitcher without a double-plus pitch but with enough polish to feel comfortable about projecting a high floor?

There are no right answers here, at least at this stage. Years from now, when they’ve waded into the upper levels and maybe tasted the big leagues, a clear order might avail itself. Now, though, the puzzle pieces are so scattered that the finished picture hasn’t begun to take shape. 

The rotation that began the year at Charleston included five righthanders—Luis Medina, Roansy Contreras, Alexander Vizcaino, Luis Gil and Matt Sauer. Contreras and Sauer began the year in the Yankees’ Top 10, Medina was one spot behind at No. 11, Gil opened at No. 25 and Vizcaino hadn’t yet taken the jump forward necessary for inclusion among the Top 30.

We came to the order you see by trying our best to find a balance among each pitcher’s positives and negatives. When that process was done, we believed Gil had the best combination of the group and ranked him as the organization’s No. 4 overall prospect, behind outfielder Jasson Dominguez and righthanders Clarke Schmidt and Deivi Garcia

The Yankees acquired Gil from Minnesota before the 2018 season in a one-for-one trade that sent outfielder Jake Cave to the Twins. When they acquired him, Gil was yet another big-armed lottery ticket to throw into the mix. He was intriguing at Rookie-level Pulaski, with a fastball that touched triple-digits and the makings of two offspeed pitches to back it up. 

To take the next step, Gil had to have one of his offspeed pitches show improvement. In 2019, it was his breaking ball. The pitch, a slurvy offering, was inconsistent in 2018 but still showed scouts hints of above-average potential.

This year, it got even better. More specifically, it became more consistent.

“The breaking ball was just a spinner and it was all over the place, and now we’ve got it into a consistent pitch with strike percentage getting a little higher too,” 2019 Charleston pitching coach Gabe Luckert said. “The breaking ball needed consistency, consistent shape and the ability to throw it over the plate, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”

Gil, 21, finished the year with 112 strikeouts in just 83 innings with Charleston. He allowed just 60 hits—only one home run—in that span and showed the loose arm and projectable frame that are typically the hallmarks of a power-armed starter. He ranked No. 14 among the South Atlantic League’s Top 20 prospects and was one of the first players rival scouts brought up after watching a series with the RiverDogs.

“I liked him a lot. I think he can stay as a starter. It’s mid- to high-90s velo and an above-average slider and a decent changeup. His walk totals are never going to be great, but they’re not going to be so bad he has to go to the bullpen,” one scout said. “He’s got a chance at a No. 3 starter but realistic No. 4. He was impressive in spring training too. This is the guy I want from the Yankees.”

Three spots down the list, behind shortstops Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe, is Medina. The electric-armed righthander’s upside is inarguably the highest of the group, but his track record of success is small and his floor is very low.

Without an 11-start turnaround toward the end of the year, he might have fit in among the Yankees’ No. 25-30 prospects if he didn’t plummet from the list entirely. With Charleston, Medina focused on baby steps. 

After a 2018 season in which he’d walked 46 hitters in 36 innings with Rookie-level Pulaski, simply throwing strikes could be taken as an overwhelming positive from a start with an otherwise ugly stat line. 

“I wanted him to be a little more dynamic. He used to go a little bit slower, especially when things weren’t going his way, and I think overthinking was part of it,” Luckert said after a midseason start. “We eliminated that part and now he’s a little more confident, and he’s showing it on the mound.” 

Those baby steps turned into massive leaps forward toward the season’s end. Beginning with a 10-strikeout game on July 11, Medina’s final eight starts featured 62 strikeouts against just 15 walks over 45.2 innings. 

The last two starts of that stretch were after a promotion to high Class A Tampa on Aug. 17. He struck out 12 and walked three over 10.2 innings in those outings before the Florida State League’s season was cut short by an incoming hurricane. 

Even though they were very encouraging, those eight starts were just that—eight starts. Were they a blip on the radar or a hint at what’s to come? Anybody who says they can answer that question with a large degree of certainty is kidding themselves. 

The quality of Medina’s stuff, however, is not up for debate. Each one of his three pitches projects as plus or better, and his fastball and curveball could each be double-plus. His delivery is relatively clean, and he doesn’t have a history of injuries. 

“The way the delivery works, there’s no reason he shouldn’t throw more strikes,” a second scout said. “He has a clean delivery and crisp stuff, but he’s a little soft. Mistakes snowball in his head. I just don’t see him being a starting pitcher now. If he brings that walk rate down a little, though, he has the best raw stuff out of all those guys I saw.”

Nestling in behind Medina was his polar opposite, the least flashy of the group, Contreras. The 20-year-old, whom the Yankees signed for $300,000 in 2016, finished 2019 with 113 strikeouts in a career-high 132.1 innings, which nearly doubled his total from the previous season.

He didn’t miss a start all season and finished with a 12-5, 3.33 mark while checking in as the SAL’s No. 12 prospect. None of his pitches projects as better than plus, but none projects to be below-average either. 

“I liked him. He has good feel for what he’s doing at 19,” a third scout said. “His changeup was his best pitch. He has less velo than Vizcaino . . . but a similar power changeup with sink. He can spin a breaking ball better than Gil and Vizcaino by far.”

A pair of disaster outings—a combined 12 earned runs over 6.1 innings—sullied his final numbers somewhat, but he showed impressive consistency otherwise. Of his 24 starts, just three ended with Contreras having allowed more than three earned runs. He also walked two or fewer hitters in 20 of those 24 starts. 

Contreras was also the only member of the group to make more than one start with Charleston in 2018. He got seven starts with the RiverDogs after impressing enough at short-season Staten Island to earn his way into full-season ball. 

“He’s got a great fastball, good changeup and a good breaking ball. He goes out there and starts attacking hitters, and he’s not afraid. He’s young, but he’s not afraid at all,” 2019 Charleston manager Julio Mosquera said. “He goes after the hitters and it excites me” 

Then there’s Vizcaino, the wild card of the group and the No. 13 prospect in the SAL. The Yankees signed Vizcaino four days before he turned 18, and he spent his first three seasons in the organization putting up fairly pedestrian numbers from the Dominican Summer League to Pulaski with a one-game cameo at Charleston to end his 2018 season. He also had elbow surgery in January of 2018.

In 2019, things were clearly different and scouts took immediate note of an improved changeup that some evaluators projected as high as a 70 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.

“I saw him last year and the changeup has really come on. It’s above-average to plus with split-like bottom at 90-92. It was really effective. He got probably 12 swings and misses on it,” a fourth scout said. “The other team had no chance. He was 95-98 with the fastball and it played to the velocity . . . He repeats a simple delivery and has a slider with three-quarter break that he manipulates well. He was around the zone with all three pitches.”

Vizcaino was moved from Charleston to Tampa on July 25 and made five starts with the Tarpons before ending his breakout season. He finished the year 6-6, 4.38 with 128 strikeouts (fourth-best in the system) and rate of three walks per nine innings. His strike percentage improved year over year, too, from 60.3 percent in 2018 to 65.9 percent in 2019.

More than the uptick in the raw stuff, the Yankees were delighted by Vizcaino’s improved ability to pound the zone.

“Commanding the fastball has always been the No. 1 factor for me. He’s learning how to throw the ball to different sides of the plate, up and down, in and out,” Luckert said. “The changeup was there, but the consistency of his delivery wasn’t there, and that made him be inconsistent with the changeup as well.

“So the changeup became a factor, and now the breaking ball, which he didn’t have, is into the package, and that’s upgrading his status way higher than what it was before. In my game reports, the changeup is usually as 70 or a 60, so it all depends. He’s got the ability to pitch with two pitches if needed, if the breaking ball isn’t present because his changeup is a swing-and-miss pitch.”

Mathematically speaking, there are 24 possible ways to rank Gil, Medina, Contreras and Vizcaino. And over the course of the season, after speaking with scouts and evaluators from inside and outside the organization, we might have considered every possible permutation before arriving at the arrangement that appears in this year’s Top 10. 

And while there’s very little consensus on which pitcher should head the group, most everyone believes that all four have tremendous upside.

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