Yankees Rookie-level Prospects Raise Hopes

TAMPA–Waiting for prospects can be an exercise in patience. Some, like the White Sox’s Carlos Rodon or the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber can make an impact fairly quickly. Others will take years in the minors before they are ready.

That’s particularly true with young talent signed out of Latin America as 16-year-olds. They don’t get a chance to play official games until the season after they sign, and even then they might spend years on Rookie-level and short-season clubs before finally making it to Class A.

The Yankees have begun to filter prospects into the big leagues. The Yankees also added several quick-fix prospects at this years trade deadline, including outfielder Clint Frazier and lefty Justus Sheffield from the Indians, righthander Dillon Tate from the Rangers and shortstop Gleyber Torres—the rare fast-moving July 2 signee—from the Cubs.

In total, the organization added 11 prospects in three trades completed before Aug. 1. They also added two players to be named later from the Pirates in exchange for righthander Ivan Nova.

Frazier, Sheffield, Torres and Tate are the headliners of the team’s trading spree, and rightly so. They’re each in a position to help the big club within a year or two.

Below that group, though, in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, is another wave getting ready to burst into full-season ball. Comprised primarily of players from the organizations nearly $30 million spending spree in Latin America two summers ago, the group contains some of the highest ceilings in the organization.

Pulaski might not be the most successful team in the standings, (they were 22-27 in mid-August) but there’s very little question that its one of the most prospect-heavy teams on the circuit.

“I think they’re a very talented team, but that’s obvious,” Pulaski manager Tony Franklin said. “I think that’s what comes across when you come to watch batting practice and you watch them in the game, especially when they’re performing well and you see their ability to throw and their ability to run and they hit. Some guys hit for power and some guys even pitch. They’re very talented, but having said that they’re very inexperienced.”

Pulaski typically starts its lineup with the newest member of the organization, outfielder Blake Rutherford, taken by the Yankees with the No. 18 pick in this years draft and given a $3.28 million bonus to sign. After a few games in the Gulf Coast League, Rutherford was moved to Pulaski and made an immediate impact.

Since the promotion, the 19-year-old Californian was hitting .408/.459/.645 with seven doubles, four triples and a home run in 76 at-bats. More impressively, he’s shown a knack to spray hits to all fields with authority. In games, he’s shown most of his early power to the pull side, but he puts balls out to the opposite field in batting practice.

“He’s an advanced hitter. I met him in Tampa before he got here. I talked to him a lot and he’s an advanced hitter with his mentality is advanced for his age,” Yankees lower-level hitting coordinator Edwar Gonzalez said. “He knows about his swing and what it takes for him to hit. It’s impressive to see the type of knowledge he has about his swing and how his swing works.”

Rutherford has been getting work in center and left field. That’s not necessarily a knock on his ability to play center, but rather a nod toward the presence of Estevan Florial on the roster.

“He’s just awesome, a pleasure to be around. Works his butt off. It’s fun to talk to him about hitting because he knows what he’s doing and what he’s trying to do. He’s fun to be around. He’s full of life,” Pulaski hitting coach Kevin Mahoney said. “You tell him something and he can (snaps fingers) do it and adjust to it. He’s very coachable. He takes what you teach him and he can put it into play right away.”

Tools Over Stats

Rutherford’s rotating partner in center field, Florial, has been one of the biggest risers in the Yankees system this year despite a lack of eye-popping statistics; .229/.322/.372 in 188 at-bats. Signed in March 2015 for $200,000 after a suspension surrounding an identification snafu (Florial was initially showcased under the name Haniel d’Oleo), Florial hit .313/.394/.527 in the Dominican Summer League before moving stateside for the first time this year.

As an amateur, the Yankees coveted Florial for his wide range of skills. His bat speed, power and throwing arm all rank as above-average, and he’s already drawn interest in trades. He’s struggled so far with Pulaski, but his tools still show up in spades even if the results don’t.

“I’m glad we got him because he’s a very talented player and he’s very young,” Franklin said. “There’s only one way to go for him and that’s forward. He’s made progress so far. (The power) is there. It needs to play in a game and I think in time it will. He’s finding which pitches that power plays with, that’s a key. Recognizing which pitches you don’t hit so well, that’s a key. That’s part of the process of becoming a better hitter, and I think he’s learning that as he goes.”

The infield, too, is stuffed with top-end tools, including eye-popping power, slick glove work and extreme youth.

Of all of the Yankees international signings in 2014, Dermis Garcia garnered the highest bonus. The $3 million outlay is tied with Gary Sanchez for the fourth-highest ever awarded by the Yankees. A big-bodied corner infielder, Garcia’s main draw is his top-shelf raw power. He produces some of the biggest exit velocities in the organization, and his 11 home runs this year were tied with Greeneville shortstop Miguelangel Sierra for the most in the league.

Because he’s so young, however, that power has come with a lot of swing-and-miss. His 61 strikeouts also were the most in the league, and he’s whiffing at a clip of nearly 40 percent. Like the rest of the Pulaski squad, there will be growing pains.

“Dermis has come just a long way,” Yankees roving hitting instructor James Rowson said. “He is a credit to all of our coaches, a credit to him, a credit to all the work he’s put in. He’s been really fun to watch this year. He works his tail off, and the fact that he can get some results and see some things go his way is really solid.

“His power is really raw. He’s got big-time power and it plays in the game and it’s going to be interesting to watch him in the next couple of years continue to work on developing into a complete hitter. I think he’s got a chance to be a complete hitter, not just a power hitter.”

And while he’s never likely to win a batting title, the low batting average that accompanies his well above-average power will be tolerated if he can stick at third base in the long-term. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Garcia is already a large man. And at 18 years old, he’s likely not done growing.

The Yankees coaches acknowledge that Garcia hasn’t found his final form yet, and that he’ll pay special care to his work ethic and conditioning if he is to remain at third base and not have to transition to first base or the outfield. He’s certainly not a slam dunk to remain at the position, but he’s making progress.

“This is a guy that worked his tail off in extended and he’s doing it in Pulaski right now with Tony (Franklin) and all the coaching staff there,” Yankees roving infield instructor Carlos Mendoza said. “He’s got a plus-plus arm, he’s making the routine plays, he’s taking the right angles to the ball and he’s moving a lot better. He’s coming along nicely too.”

Pulaski’s current shortstop is Wilkerman Garcia, another major piece of the teams 2014 international spending spree and ranked No. 6 among Yankees prospects in this year’s Midseason Update. He’s hitting just .190/.242/.282 with one home run and nine RBIs in his first 42 games. Still, as a switch-hitting 18-year-old shortstop, he still has fans within the organization.

“Wilkie’s having a rough go offensively, but that’s something he’s working really hard on,” Mendoza said. “Defensively, he’s playing well. This is a young kid who’s playing under the lights for the first time and he’s handled it pretty well. Arm is really, really good. He’s got plus-plus hands and what really impressed me is the way he goes about playing shortstop for his age.”

Garcia’s double play partner, 17-year-old Oswaldo Cabrera, would play shortstop on many other teams. Instead, he’s started his Pulaski tenure by sliding over to second base in deference to Garcia. He didn’t open the year at Pulaski, either. Instead, Cabrera began his first professional season in the Dominican Summer League. After a dominant stand there–he hit .441/.487/.647 with a homer and 12 RBIs–the Yankees quickly bumped him to the GCL. After an impressive week there, he moved to Pulaski.

His offensive numbers there have slowed greatly (.192/.276/.269 with one home run), but that’s to be expected for a 17-year-old in that league. He’s the second-youngest player on the circuit—just 15 days older than Bluefield’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr.—and entered the season with no hype.

In Transition

The day after Alex Rodriguez took his final bows, outfielders Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge were summoned from the minors. The pair started their career batting back-to-back in the lineup, and responded by each hitting a home run in their first at-bat.

Gary Sanchez, too, has benefited from the teams newfound youth movement. Although he debuted last year and made cameos earlier this season, he’s now begun getting the first regular playing time of his career.

And although he’s just 23, Sanchez’s rise is a good blueprint for Pulaski’s pack of talented prospects. Signed as a 16-year-old in 2009, he spent most of the last seven seasons in the minor leagues, accumulating more than 2,400 plate appearances and 636 games.

Still, the Yankees hung on to Sanchez and resisted trade overtures from other clubs at the trading deadline each season. Now, with the organization in flux for the first time since the mid-1990s, he and his fellow prospects are getting an extended look.

The trades New York made at the deadline will help fortify the rebuild in the short-term, but the talented group at Pulaski is waiting in the wings to provide help years down the road.

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