COMMENTARY | New York Yankees fans worried about the aging stars at the major-league level should find some relief in this fact: Help is definitely on the way.
While the Yankee farm system is thin on players who are ready to help the big club right now, the organization boasts several players currently at the low and middle levels who could potentially form the core of a new era of success in the Bronx.
Here are the five top prospects in the Yankee organization as the 2013 season is set to begin:
5. Manny Banuelos, lhp
(Ranked No. 5 in organization by MLB.com, No. 8 by Baseball America)
Manny Banuelos, who will be 22 on March 13, was signed by the Yankees as an international free agent in February 2008. He was selected for the 2009 Futures Game, was named one of the rising stars of the Arizona Fall League in 2010 and was named to the Eastern League All-Star team in 2011.
That’s when things began to drift off course for the 5-foot-10, 155-pound left-hander. Banuelos will miss all of the 2013 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last fall. He was limited to just six starts at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season before being shut down in May with a sore elbow.
Still, because of his youth and the track record for pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery, the prognosis is still bright for Banuelos.
4. Tyler Austin, of
(Ranked No. 3 in organization and No. 75 overall by MLB.com, No. 4 and No. 77 by Baseball America)
Tyler Austin, 21, has come a long way for a 13th-round pick in the 2010 June Amateur Draft.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound outfielder played at four levels in 2012 and was solid at each of them. He spent the most time at Low-A Charleston, where he hit .320/.405/.598 with 14 homers and 54 RBI in 309 plate appearances.
Austin also hit .321/.385/.478 with two home runs and 23 RBI in 148 plate appearances for High-A Tampa. He began the year at Rookie ball and also played two games late in the season for Double-A Trenton. A former infielder, he projects out to be a good right fielder in the bigs within a couple of seasons.
3. Slade Heathcott, of
(Ranked No. 4 in organization by MLB.com, No. 2 in organization and No. 63 overall by Baseball America)
Slade Heathcott, now 22, was taken in the first round by the Yankees out of Texarkana, Texas. The 29th-overall pick in 2009, Heathcott began to blossom as a speed threat after struggling with injuries early in his career.
In 2012, his season got off to a late start after returning from shoulder surgery, but once he made it back, he started to tap into the potential that made him a first-round selection. In 60 games for High-A Tampa, Heathcott hit .307/.378/.470 with five homers and 27 RBI in 243 plate appearances. He also stole 17 bases in 21 attempts and scored 38 runs.
His strikeout rate is still quite high (66 whiffs) but it has improved each year he’s been in pro ball. His power should get better as he matures and he is already known for his all-out style of play. If he stays healthy, he can make his mark at the big league level within a few years.
2. Gary Sanchez, c
(Ranked No. 1 in organization and No. 36 overall by MLB.com, No. 3 and No. 57 by Baseball America)
Gary Sanchez, 20, signed out of the Dominican Republic for a $3 million bonus in 2010 and has already advanced to High-A ball and appears ticketed for the next rung on the ladder in Double-A this season.
He is unlikely to make the big club in spring training this year, but the consensus is that it is just a matter of time and it could be sooner rather than later for the 6-foot-2, 220-pound catcher. He has plus power at the plate and his approach continues to get better. Still a work in progress defensively, he has been making strides.
He split last season between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. After hitting .297/.353/.517 with 13 homers and 56 RBI in 289 plate appearances for Charleston, he was a respectable .279/.330/.436 with five bombs and 29 RBI in 185 plate appearances for Tampa. For fans who are worried about the Chris Stewart-Francisco Cervelli battle behind the plate this spring, help is on the way.
1. Mason Williams, of
(Ranked No. 2 in organization and No. 41 overall by MLB.com, No. 1 and No. 32 by Baseball America)
Mason Williams, the lefty-swinging 21-year-old, can flat out fly and boasts a cannon for an arm.
He can also handle the bat. In 69 games for Low-A Charleston in 2012, Williams hit .304/.359/.489 with eight home runs and 28 RBI in 311 plate appearances and stole 19 bases in 28 attempts. He earned a promotion to High-A Tampa, but was limited to just 22 games due to a shoulder injury. Before he got hurt, he hit .277/.302/.422 with three homers and seven RBI in 86 plate appearance.
Williams was a fourth-round pick of the Yankees in the 2010 draft out of Winter Garden, Fla., and if the bat continues to develop, he has a chance to become an elite center fielder for a franchise that has had several of them in its storied history.
Phil Watson is freelance sports journalist and commentator based in upper Michigan.