There’s plenty to get excited about at the top of the Yankees prospect food chain right now. They have a small group of players who could step in and contribute at the Major League level right now, some in bigger fashions than others, and an even bigger group of players in the lower levels of the system with high ceilings who could fill the gap left at the top after the higher-level players move on in the next year or so. Check any top 10 or top 20 list out there and you’re bound to see a lot of the same names time and time again- Banuelos, Betances, Williams, Bichette, Campos, Romine, Sanchez. Beneath that top tier or two of Yankee prospects, there is another group of prospects who could develop into top 5 talent in the next few years, your Brett Marshalls, Slade Heathcotts, Tyler Austins of the world. The players I want to look at today are the guys beneath THAT group; the players who aren’t on many people’s prospect radars, if any at all. Part of the strength of the Yankee system is the overall depth at all levels, and there is value in this group of “off the radar” prospects that is deserving of attention. Here’s a quick look at five off-the-radar prospects worth keeping an eye on this year.
Kyle Roller- 1B/DH- High-A Tampa
The word “tools” would probably never be used to describe Roller as he’s not an athletic physical specimen by any stretch of the imagination. But you can’t argue with the results he’s generated in his short time in the Yankee system. After posting a .272/.367/.402 line for SS Staten Island in 2010, Roller came back last year and hit .305/.379/.545 in 211 PA for Charleston and then .265/.365/.427 in 244 PA after his promotion to Tampa. In three mini-seasons at three different levels, Roller has posted wOBA values of .362, .411, and .366. He doesn’t get any ink because he’s a college hitter who will turn 24 this year, but production like that should speak for itself. His power numbers have fluctuated as he’s moved up, but Roller has maintained his ability to get on base, showing a mature approach and an ability to work counts that most young hitters don’t have. As an older player, he probably should be moved up to Double-A Trenton to start this season to see how his game translates to the next level. He might get exposed against better competition, but if Roller can continue to show an advanced ability to get on base and hit the ball with some pop, the Yankees could give him a look as a future bench bat. He’ll undoubtedly put up subpar defensive numbers at first base or anywhere else he could be used defensively, which does limit his value, but his hitting makeup reminds me of Nick Johnson. If he can avoid the injury pitfalls that doomed Johnson, that kind of bat has value at the next level.
Rob Segedin- 3B/OF- High-A Tampa
Most people don’t consider Segedin much of a prospect for many of the same reasons they don’t like Roller. He’s older than most in A-ball because he’s a college hitter, he doesn’t hit with a whole lot of power as a corner infield prospect, and he doesn’t have quite the level of patience and ability to draw walks that you’d like to see for a hitter his age. But the Yankees must see something in him because he’s been moved quickly through the system to start his career after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. Interestingly enough, Segedin didn’t light the world on fire during his limited time in the short season leagues, but he raked in his 61 games for Charleston last year to the tune of a .323/.396/.482 slash and a .394 wOBA. His momentum was slowed a bit after his promotion to Tampa, and he will probably start the 2012 back there to see if he’s made any improvements. As with Roller, the Yankees would be wise to bump him up to Trenton if he shows enough early on in Tampa this year to see if he can hack it at the next level and really be a future option for them. He’s not as flashy a name as Dante Bichette, Jr., but Segedin has enough hitting tools (solid approach, ability to put the bat on the ball, low K rate) to legitimize himself as a prospect this year if he can add some consistent thump to his bat and solidify his defense.
Phil Wetherall- RHP- Low-A Charleston
The Yankees have quietly used the last few drafts to build a nice stash of young power relief arms in the Minors, and while guys like Branden Pinder and Mark Montgomery are drawing a lot of attention after their debut seasons in 2011, Phil Wetherall flashed some of that same electricity for Staten Island as Pinder’s setup man. He isn’t as polished as Pinder, indicated by his 4.50 BB/9, but Wetherall possesses the same solid 1-2 punch with his offerings- a fastball that sits low-to-mid 90s and a nasty splitter. The split is a pitch not typically seen in a young pitcher, especially a reliever, and Wetherall used it to his advantage by striking out 41 batters over 30.0 IP last season (12.30 K/9). The presence of that splitter in his arsenal also helps lessen the blow of not having a power curve or slider as his out pitch, and he shouldn’t be hindered as a relief prospect by not having either of those if his split stays as nasty as it is. Wetherall still needs a ton of seasoning and refinement of his mechanics, but he already has the stuff to be a shutdown-type reliever and should move quickly through the system because of it. If he gets some pointers from the Charleston coaching staff this year on how to clean up his delivery, we could see a spike in velocity and reduction in walks, both of which would put Wetherall right up there with Pinder and Montgomery in the discussion of who will be the next D-Rob.
Matt Tracy- LHP- Low-A Charleston
Those really in the know might be familiar with Tracy, but to most he’s an unknown commodity thanks to the bevy of high-ceiling talent that dominated the headlines of the short season leagues last year. Like Wetherall, Tracy started out 2011 in the Staten Island bullpen, but then was stretched out at the end of the season in an experiment to see how he would do as a starter. The results weren’t earth-shattering but overall Tracy had a solid year for SI, posting a 3.04 ERA/2.65 FIP in 47.1 IP as both a reliever and starter with 9.13 K/9. He capped the season off with a pair of shutout starts in the NY Penn League Championship Series, and he enters 2012 as a full-time starter with a lot to offer. Tracy has three quality pitches (fastball, curveball, change), he misses bats, and he already has a solid ability to keep the ball down and generate groundballs against right or left-handed hitters. The Yankees might take it easy on him in his first full year as a starter in terms of workload, but they clearly see something they like in Tracy and with what he brings to the table it’s easy to see why. Tracy finds himself in a similar category as my sleeper pick Nik Turley- an older, left-handed prospect with good stuff, good command, and a sound approach on the mound. Because of that, and because of the lack of left-handed starting depth in the system, Tracy could become a much hotter commodity if he continues to improve upon his 2011 results.
Tim Norton- RHP- Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre
You might recognize the name from years past, as Norton has been in the Yankee system since 2006, but you might not remember that Norton was having a monster year last year in Double-A before he suffered a season-ending labrum injury to his pitching shoulder. And when I say “monster,” I mean 1.55 ERA/2.20 FIP, 13.66 K/9, and only 23 total baserunners allowed in 29.0 IP at Trenton before being promoted to Triple-A and promptly suffering his injury. At 28, and with a checkered injury history, the window of opportunity is all but closed for Norton in terms of being a serious prospect worthy of a spot on any list. But he’s back pitching again at the Yankees’ Spring Training complex and the reports are that he’s feeling fine and showing no ill effects from his latest injury. If he can stay healthy through the spring, Norton should open in the Triple-A bullpen and could be among the first in line for a call up if and when the Yankees need some bullpen depth this season. The Yanks have a very good recent track record of finding quality relief help from unexpected sources with guys like Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, and Alfredo Aceves. Norton getting a chance to be the latest in that long line would be a nice feel-good story for a guy who’s had a long struggle in his career, and who’s recent performance certainly warrants the chance.