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Johnson's extraordinary 1999 season in Double-A had the Yankees excited about what he might do in 2000. He led the Eastern League in '99 in hitting (.345) and topped the entire minors in walks (123), hit by pitches (37) and on-base percentage (.525). Johnson was ticketed for Triple-A to start 2000, though he had a chance to make the big league club at some point. And with Tino Martinez' contract set to expire, Johnson was in position to take over the first-base job in 2001. But all that went awry in spring training, when Johnson felt something pop in his right hand when he checked a swing. Doctors struggled to diagnose the injury, which didn't heal until his hand was placed in a cast. As a result, he didn't play in a game all season. Johnson is a tremendously gifted all-around hitter. He obviously produces for average and his power is coming. He had 14 home runs in 1999, when he played his home games in a park (Norwich's Dodd Memorial Stadium) not conducive to power. Johnson was seen as a Mark Grace type when he signed, but since has put on 44 pounds and should be much more of a masher. The Grace comparisons were a tribute to Johnson's glove, and he was named the EL's best defensive first baseman in 1999. He also made a league-high 20 errors at first base that season, though the Yankees think he only needs to be more aggressive to avoid getting caught in between hops. The biggest negative surrounding Johnson is his lost year of development. To try to overcome that, he spent much of the offseason in Tampa going through daily hitting drills. He's not going to overwhelm anyone as a runner, but he doesn't need to. Defensively, he just has to charge more grounders. The Yankees picked up Martinez' option for 2001, so he'll return while Johnson gets Triple-A at-bats. Martinez has been slumping since bashing 44 homers in 1997, and New York got the worst production out of its first basemen among all American League clubs in 2000. There's no reason to assume Johnson won't regain his place among the most feared minor league hitters, which will put him in line to replace Martinez in 2002.
Soriano originally signed with Japan's Hiroshima Toyo Carp, then "retired" in 1998 in order to become a free agent. He got a four-year major league contract worth $3.1 million from the Yankees, then wowed observers in the 1998 Arizona Fall League and at the 1999 Futures Game. Soriano's tools are beyond reproach. He has a lightning-quick bat and can hit for average power. He runs well and has the arm and quickness to be an above-average shortstop. Soriano needs to translate those tools into baseball skills, however. He presently lacks the discipline to be the offensive threat he can be, the instincts to be an effective basestealer and the consistency to be a steady defender. Some don't think he'll be able to play shortstop in the big leagues. In three stints with the Yankees in 2000, Soriano didn't impress offensively or defensively, so he'll get more time in Triple-A. He won't take Derek Jeter's job, so a move to second base, third base or the outfield is in Soriano's future.
Jimenez led all minor league shortstops with a .327 average in 1999, putting him in line to serve in a big league utility role in 2000. Those plans were dashed in January when he broke his neck when his car hit a bus in the Dominican Republic. He was sidelined until July. All of Jimenez' tools are average or better with the exception of his power, and he can sting the ball well for a shortstop. He draws walks and makes contact. Defensively, he's solid at short and has shown an aptitude for playing second base. Unlike Soriano, who's still a work in progress, Jimenez is refined. He's not an above-average runner and he's still working on turning the double play at second, but those are minor flaws. Fully healthy again, Jimenez should claim that utility job. If the Yankees decide Chuck Knoblauch can't play second base, Jimenez would be the logical in-house candidate to replace him.
Though initial reports claimed Hernandez defected from Cuba disguised as a woman, he insists his escape was far less dramatic. What is certain is that he signed a four-year, $4 million major league contract in June. He reached Triple-A before a sprained ligament in his left knee ended his season. Hernandez' delivery resembles that of fellow Cuban Orlando Hernandez (no relation), which is why he earned the nickname El Duquecito. He throws a variety of pitches (sinker, cutter, curveball, slider, changeup) from a variety of arm angles, and his delivery and the life on his pitches make him difficult to hit. He can reach 92-93 mph when needed. Like Orlando Hernandez before him, Adrian needs to refine his changeup to combat lefthanders. They hit .250 against him with a walk for every four at-bats, while righties batted .209 with a walk for every 14 ABs. The Yankees will give Hernandez the opportunity to win the fifth spot in their rotation in spring training.
The Yankees are deep in lefthanders, and Graman has the highest ceiling of any of them. As a result, both the Tigers and the Cubs tried to get him when New York explored trade possibilities for Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa at midseason. He was rated the short-season New York-Penn League's top prospect in 1999. Graman is a legitimate four-pitch pitcher, with a great package for a lefthander, starting with a low-90s fastball that can touch 94 mph. With his frame, he's still projectable and could add more velocity. He's fearless when it comes to throwing his changeup behind in the count, has good bite on his curveball and puts hitters away with his splitter. Graman needs to improve his command, mostly of his pitches but also of his emotions. That should come with experience. Graman will begin 2001 in Double-A. With his stuff, he might be ready should the Yankees need him toward the end of the season, though a 2002 ETA is more likely.
Keisler recovered from Tommy John surgery in college to reach New York barely two years after he was drafted. He beat the Red Sox with five solid innings of work in his major league debut in September. He was made available to the Indians in the David Justice trade, but they chose righthander Zach Day instead. Keisler has three major league pitches. He throws his fastball from 88-92 mph, his curveball is average to slightly above-average and he has picked up a nice changeup. After defeating the Red Sox, Keisler got rocked by major league hitters, allowing 13 runs in six innings. He must improve the command of his fastball, which is solid but not overpowering. Though Adrian Hernandez is the frontrunner, Keisler also will contend for the vacancy in New York's rotation during spring training. A few more Triple-A starts won't hurt if he gets sent to the minors.
Baseball America ranked Almonte as the No. 4 prospect in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 1997, but his progress stalled over the next two years. He came on in 2000, batting .297 during the final three months of the season and opening eyes in the Arizona Fall League, where he ranked among the leaders in all three triple-crown categories and batted .301-4-21. Built along the lines of Derek Jeter, Almonte is an impressive athlete. He can run, throw and hit for power. The Yankees always had faith in him, and he finally responded as he matured. Like many young shortstops, Almonte alternates between making spectacular defensive plays and botching routine ones. He's also a free swinger who needs to gain better control of the strike zone. Unfortunately for Almonte, he's in an organization loaded with quality shortstops, starting with Jeter. Almonte is ready for Triple-A, where it might be time for him to try another position, especially if Soriano or Jimenez returns there. He spent most of his time in the AFL playing second base.
Mendez is the fourth shortstop among the Yankees' top eight prospects, and he has the best defensive tools of the bunch. He was 16 when he made his pro debut last summer, though he had no trouble in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and finished up as the league's No. 3 prospect. Mendez is unbelievably polished for a shortstop so young. His hands, range and arm are all plus tools. Not only that, but he also showed hitting ability, gap power and the willingness to take a walk. As he develops physically, his penchant for doubles may translate into decent over-the-fence power. Mendez will need to tone down his strikeouts, but his youth and knowledge of the strike zone bode well for his ability to do so. He also must improve his defensive consistency, but the main thing he needs is experience. At 17, it's unlikely he'll be sent to a full-season league in 2001. If he advances one level a year, he would reach New York in 2006, when he'll be 22 and Jeter will be 31.
Pena previously signed with the Marlins and Mets before both contracts were ruled invalid and he accepted a four-year big league deal worth $3.7 million from the Yankees in April 1999. After batting .184 in the first two months of 2000, he hit .294 before straining a ligament in his right knee in an outfield collision. Pena is probably the most impressive five-tool prospect the Yankees have had since Ruben Rivera. He's a pure athlete with awesome power, and he can run, throw and play center field. But he's as raw as he is gifted. He has a .234 average and a 168-32 strikeout-walk ratio in 132 professional games. He'll need time to develop into a productive hitter. The Yankees knew sending Pena to a full-season club at age 18 was a stretch, and it may be again at the start of 2001. Because he signed a major league contract, he must stick in New York to open 2003 or be exposed to waivers. That timetable appears too ambitious at this point.
The Cubs drafted Noel 17th overall in 1996, then traded him two years later to the Marlins. The following spring, Florida sent him to New York. Noel missed the first six weeks of 2000, then made just four starts before needing arthroscopic surgery to clean up the labrum in his right shoulder. The Yankees say Noel has the best pure arm in the organization since 1991 No. 1 overall pick Brien Taylor. He pitches at 95-96 mph and can reach 98. He has a smooth delivery, which should lead to good control, and his secondary pitches (curveball, slider, changeup) are fine. Noel has elite stuff. He just needs innings and health. In five pro seasons, he has pitched just 293 innings and has yet to advance past Class A. The Yankees consider Noel's surgery a minor setback and expect him to be ready for spring training. Pitching a full season in 2001 would be a big step forward. He'll probably begin his third consecutive season in the Florida State League.
Signed in 1996, Rivera spent two seasons in the Rookie-level Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues before making his U.S. debut in 1998, when he led the Gulf Coast League in homers and RBIs and ranked as its No. 1 prospect. He hasn't excelled like that since, repeating the Florida State League last year and struggling after a late-season promotion to Double-A. Rivera makes decent contact and has hit for gap power, but he won't hit for a higher average or tap into his raw power until he develops more patience at the plate. He's an average runner with a plus arm, which makes him a legitimate right fielder. When Jackson Melian was included in the Denny Neagle trade with the Reds, Rivera became the Yankees' top upper-level outfield prospect. But he's still at least two years away from New York.
The Yankees have worked the draft-and-follow process as well as any club, with Exhibit A being Andy Pettitte, a 22nd-round pick out of high school in 1990 who signed after a year at San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College. A 34th-rounder in 1998 out of Howard (Texas) Junior College, Claussen returned for his sophomore year before joining the Yankees. He reached high Class A Tampa in his first full pro season and has plenty of upside. He has a fastball that has above-average movement and velocity (90-91 mph). His curveball is his second pitch and his changeup is developing. Claussen's biggest needs are to consistently repeat his delivery and improve his command within the strike zone, two things that go hand in hand. He may start 2001 in Double-A and could reach New York at some point in the following season.
The Yankees joined the list of teams signing players out of Taiwan when they gave Wang a $1.5 million bonus in May. He had the best arm in an all-prospect rotation that led Staten Island to the New York-Penn League championship. Wang showed a lot of polish for a 20-year-old pitcher making his U.S. debut. Opponents batted just .233 with two homers against him. He throws strikes with quality stuff: a consistent 92-mph fastball that can reach 94, a splitter, a slider and a changeup. He also keeps his pitches down and has a projectable body, a sound delivery and plenty of poise. Nicknamed "Tiger," he'll move up to Class A Greensboro this year.
Martinez threw a no-hitter in the Gulf Coast League in his U.S. debut in 1999, then began 2000 at Staten Island. He earned a quick promotion to Class A Greensboro, and when he returned to Staten Island just before the New York-Penn League playoffs, he paid two dividends. First, he won the championship clincher over Mahoning Valley. Second, when Martinez moved back into the rotation it sent Jason Anderson to the bullpen, where the 10th-round pick saw his fastball suddenly soar to 96 mph. Martinez has exceptional velocity as well, particularly for a lefthander. He consistently works at 91-92 mph with a high of 94. He also has a promising curveball and changeup that should get better with experience. And that's essentially all Martinez needs: more experience to refine his secondary pitches and command. New York has handled him carefully in his four seasons in the organization. He should be ready for his first full season in 2001, when he'll be assigned to Greensboro.
Like Claussen, Corporan is a promising draft-and-follow who was initially selected in the 1998 draft. Corporan signed after a season at Lake City (Fla.) Community College, and did a nice job of recovering last year after being overmatched in the Class A South Atlantic League as a teenager. Demoted to the New York-Penn League, he ranked as the circuit's No. 2 prospect. Switch-hitting third basemen with power abound in the Yankees system--Donny Leon and Juan Camacho are others of note--but Corporan is easily the best. He has good pop from both sides of the plate and should be a terror once he fills out his 6-foot-2 frame. He has the arm and lateral movement to be an exceptional third baseman. Corporan is ready for another shot at the Sally League in 2001.
Aramboles originally signed with the Marlins in 1996, but the commissioner's office struck down the contract a year later because he was underage when he agreed to the deal. Spirited bidding from several teams ensued, with New York winning out for $1.52 million in February 1998. After a fine debut, he injured his elbow and required Tommy John surgery that knocked him out for much of 1999. Back at full strength last year, he held his own at Greensboro. His fastball once again was topping out at 95 mph, and he has good secondary pitches. His changeup is outstanding, and his curveball is slightly above-average. In 2000, Aramboles got hit a little more than a pitcher with his stuff should. That's because he relied on his changeup at the expense of his fastball. He has the heat to overpower hitters and needs to do so when he can. Aramboles will move to high Class A this season.
Borrell reminds the Yankees of Eric Milton, another lefthander from an Atlantic Coast Conference school (Maryland) whom they took early in the draft (first round, 1996). Both Borrell and Milton were two-way players in college, and Borrell was far more effective as a first baseman/outfielder (.336-37-172 in 175 games) for Wake Forest than he was as a pitcher (10-8, 6.21 in 50 appearances). Focusing fully on pitching as a pro, he performed much better. Borrell has an average fastball and a plus changeup. Very athletic, he has a fluid delivery and a nice, loose arm. He needs to come up with a breaking pitch, and to that end he has worked on both a curveball and a slider. Because he's relatively inexperienced as a pitcher, Borrell probably will be assigned to Greensboro in 2001.
Lilly has been involved in two trades as a pro, and both teams that got rid of him regret the deals. In 1998, during Tommy Lasorda's ill-fated reign as Dodgers GM, he traded Lilly to the Expos. Last spring, Montreal sent him to New York for Hideki Irabu. After offseason surgery to clean up the labrum in his shoulder, Lilly turned in a decent season in Triple-A. He can reach the low 90s with a four-seam fastball, though it tends to get pounded when he leaves it up in the strike zone. His curveball is his best pitch, and his changeup is solid. Lilly would do well to refine a two-seam fastball that would have more life than his four-seamer. With his curve he should dominate lefthanders, but they have hit .335 off him in Triple-A. Lilly was used as a reliever when he was promoted to New York in 2000, but he could factor into the race for a rotation spot this spring, albeit as a longshot behind Adrian Hernandez and Randy Keisler.
In 1999 the Yankees made Walling just the 16th pitcher they have drafted in the first round. The track record of the first 15 is dubious, as only Bill Burbach (1965) reached New York. Two others, Scott McGregor (1972) and Eric Milton (1996), enjoyed major league success after being traded. Walling is on track to escape that dreadful history, having reached Double-A in his first full season. The Yankees compared him to Orlando Hernandez without a curveball after signing him, and they still think that's what he'll become. He throws an 88-93 mph fastball and a quality changeup, both with command. He got knocked around at Norwich after dominating the lower minors because he lacks a good breaking pitch. He needs to tighten his curveball, and New York may try to get him to experiment with a slider or a cut fastball. Though Walling will return to Norwich to start 2001, he remains on the fast track.
Parker was a throw-in in the trade that sent Hideki Irabu to Montreal last spring. He wasn't protected on the Expos' 40-man roster the previous winter, nor was he selected in the major league Rule 5 draft. So the term "breakthrough" doesn't quite do justice to Parker's 2000 season, when he threw 40 consecutive scoreless innings in Double-A and led the minors in innings. His fastball shot up from 86-90 mph to 91-93, and he touched 93-94 mph every game. Parker already knew how to throw strikes, change speeds and mix his pitches, which also include a cut fastball, slider and changeup. After surrendering 11 homers in 89 Double-A innings in 1999, he permitted just eight in 204 innings last year. Parker will get Triple-A experience in 2001 but has a good chance to surface in New York in the second half.
McDonald's younger brother Darnell was an Orioles first-round pick in 1997, but Donzell has become the better prospect. After missing half of 2000 recovering from a broken right thumb incurred while sliding in May, Donzell tore up the Arizona Fall League. He batted .354, missing out on the batting title by .001, and led the AFL in runs (29), hits (45), stolen bases (18) and on-base percentage (.435). A chic prospect in 1997 who nevertheless was left unprotected in the expansion draft, McDonald endured a disappointing 1998 season before resurrecting his career. Over the last two years, he has taken his role to heart: get on base by any means necessary so he can use his disruptive speed. He has done that, drawing more walks and cutting down his swing. He's also a switch-hitter, which enhances his ability to contribute offensively. He's a plus defender in center field. McDonald won't hit for much power, but he won't be expected to as a leadoff hitter. He'll begin 2001 in Triple-A. Wily Mo Pena and Juan Rivera rank ahead of him on this list, but if they don't improve their offensive production then McDonald could wind up in New York's outfield of the future.
Dingman is another Yankees draft-and-follow, returning for his sophomore season at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College after getting drafted in 1992. He showed potential with 51 strikeouts in 32 innings in the Gulf Coast League in his pro debut in 1994, then missed all of 1995 after having elbow surgery. Dingman made a full recovery and has posted remarkable minor league numbers. He's a pure power pitcher, throwing a 93-95 mph fastball and a high-80s slider. He's also working on a splitter that could make him tougher on lefthanders. Dingman has a deceptive delivery, which gives batters less time to pick up his pitches. He got knocked around in 10 big league appearances last year, but he's ready for a spot in New York's bullpen.
Jodie was almost an afterthought in Tampa's 2000 Opening Day rotation, which included bigger-name prospects Jeremy Blevins, Alex Graman, Brian Reith (since traded to the Reds) and David Walling. Previously known as a control specialist, Jodie's career took an upswing in 2000 when his velocity did the same. His fastball, which used to top out at 90 mph, suddenly averaged 90-91 mph and reached as high as 94. Jodie always had a projectable pitcher's body, and his fastball suddenly caught up with it. Jodie can locate his fastball with precision, and he had developed his secondary pitches when he lacked velocity. He throws a curveball and isn't afraid to come in with a changeup when he's behind in the count. He also isn't vulnerable to lefthanders or home runs. Jodie doesn't need to do much except keep throwing strikes with all his pitches as he moves up the ladder. He'll begin this year at Double-A, where he did well in three starts at the end of 2000.
Rogers led the summer amateur Cape Cod League in strikeouts in 1997 and finished second in NCAA Division I in whiffs in 1998. But in between, he had knee surgery that cost him velocity and messed up his mechanics. As a result, he went from a sure first-round pick to a fifth-rounder. That turned out to be an astute pick by the Yankees, as Rogers has had no knee problems as a pro. His best pitch is a hammer curveball that drops straight down, and he has a fastball capable of reaching 93 mph. Rogers has put up solid numbers in the minors, but he hasn't overmatched hitters. He needs to improve his command, and he's working on a changeup and a cut fastball. He spent all of 2000 in Double-A, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to send him back there so he could have a big first half before going to Triple-A.
Brown was a first-round pick in 1998 but didn't perform like one until the final two months of 2000. Entering August, he had a career .219 average and 26 homers in 206 pro games. Then he finished last season by batting .291 with eight homers in 48 games. Power usually takes a while to develop, and it seems to be happening for Brown. At 6-foot-6 he has a frame perfect for generating leverage. He's more than a one-dimensional slugger, too. He's a decent athlete with average speed and a good arm in right field. Brown led the South Atlantic League in strikeouts and had nearly six whiffs for every walk, so he has a ways to go to tighten his strike zone. He also needs to add strength. The Yankees like his work ethic and believe he'll be able to do both. He'll make the jump to high Class A this season.
The Yankees have traded Jim Leyritz twice, and both times it has worked out for them. When they shipped him to Los Angeles last June, they got Jose Vizcaino, who provided the game-winning hit in the World Series opener against the Mets. When they dealt Leyritz to the Angels after the 1996 season, they got Blevins and third baseman Ryan Kane. Kane was released in 1998, but Blevins blossomed into a relief prospect. He hit the wall as a starter in Class A, then converted saves in his first 13 relief appearances in 2000. His velocity picked up when he was used in shorter stints, as Blevins threw 92-93 mph repeatedly and reached 95. He continued to use the slider and changeup he employed as a starter, but his new role allowed him to rely on his fastball more often. His command is still spotty at best and remains his biggest point of concern. The Yankees will promote him to Double-A in 2001 and see if he can climb the ladder in relief. He threw well in the Arizona Fall League.
Jones ranked among the NCAA Division I home run leaders throughout 2000, breaking Bob Horner's Arizona State school record with 27, and he set a Sun Devils career mark with a .731 slugging percentage. The Yankees are still trying to figure out how they got him with the 218th pick in the draft, especially after he led the short-season New York-Penn League in doubles, homers and extra-base hits. He generates a lot of bat speed, and the ball jumps off his bat. He has a decent eye at the plate, though he'll have to cut down on his strikeouts if he's going to hit for average. He's an average runner with a plus arm, and he can play a solid left or right field. Jones also worked out at third base in a Yankees mini-camp, though the team will keep him in the outfield for now. Considering his 2000 success and his age, Jones is a prime candidate to skip Greensboro and go straight to high Class A Tampa.
The Yankees have liked Parrish for a while, drafting him in the 10th round out of high school in 1997. Though he was Michigan's MVP as a junior in 2000, several teams were surprised when New York took him in the first round. The Yankees, bereft of catching prospects, are intrigued by Parrish's upside, which resembles that of his father, former big league all-star Lance. David has raw power and arm strength, which he showed in his pro debut at Staten Island. Though he hit just four homers, he did stroke 20 doubles, and he finished second among New York-Penn League regulars by gunning down 37 percent of basestealers. Parrish still needs to refine all aspects of his game however. He needs to improve his plate discipline as well as his blocking and receiving skills. New York has a quality big league catcher in Jorge Posada, so it won't have to rush Parrish. He'll probably begin 2001 at Greensboro.
If Seabol reaches the major leagues, he'll be the lowest-drafted player ever to do so. Seabol went in the 88th round of the 1996 draft, the 1,719th of 1,740 players selected. The Yankees didn't hand him an everyday job in the minors until 1999, his third season in the South Atlantic League. He responded with a 35-game hitting streak and a minor league-best 55 doubles. Showing that was no fluke, he jumped to Double-A in 2000 and led the Eastern League in doubles with a career-high 20 homers. Seabol made himself a hitter by working hard and adding strength, though he still could tighten his strike zone. Defensively, he offers solid hands and agility, and his arm is good enough to play third base. He's capable of playing well at first base or adequately in left field, and he made a couple of appearances at second base in 2000. Seabol has passed Donny Leon on the organization's depth chart, which means he'll be the Triple-A starter this season. When they tire of Scott Brosisus, the Yankees are more likely to convert one of their shortstops to third base rather than hand their starting job at the hot corner to Seabol, but he could be a versatile big league reserve.
Few players in the system can match the array of tools possessed by Thames, yet another draft-and-follow on this list. His power potential, speed and arm all are above-average, though he's still learning how to put them to good use. He's too undisciplined at the plate, which is why he makes inconsistent contact and has batted .234 and .241 in the last two seasons. He also needs to improve his baserunning skills after going 1-for-6 stealing bases in 2000. Regularly used in right field, Thames could play center field if needed. He has been at Norwich since midseason 1999, but he'll have to return there yet again this year to show he can handle Double-A pitching. It will be a pivotal season for Thames, who likely will fall by the wayside if he doesn't show improvement.