Manuel Banuelos was the no-doubt top Yankee prospect entering this season, and held down the #2 spot, behind Jesus Montero, for a year before that. A lot of people, myself included, expect him to spend time on the Yankee roster down the stretch in 2012, and move on to a bright major league career. Instead, Banuelos had pretty much the worst possible 2012 season: after months of trying to rehab an elbow injury, Banuelos was shut down on August 6th after pitching just 24 innings.
Banuelos was 21 years old entering this season, and impressive age for someone starting at Triple-A. After having his 2010 season cut short by an appendectomy and his 2011 season slowed by innings and pitch counts, it was supposed to be his time to stretch out and put some serious workload on his body. Instead, he’ll have to deal with another season of careful handling and strict limits. He’ll be only 22 years old, but the development time lost makes him start to feel older.
Where do you rank Banuelos right now? He is undoubtedly still the #1 pitcher in the Yankee farm system. David Phelps has graduated, Adam Warren has slowed down, and Dellin Betaces’ performance has collapsed. However, he has three real competitors on the hitting side. Gary Sanchez, Tyler Austin, and Mason Williams are all legitimate candidates for the best prospect in the Yankee system. Slade Heathcott is also an interesting underdog. Can we justify ranking any of them below Austin? The case for each:
- Gary Sanchez – “Growing pains” is probably the best way to describe Sanchez’s development. At just 19 years old, he hit .290/.344/.485 between Charleston and Tampa, while improving his defense enough for even the biggest naysayers to project him at catcher long term. You’d like to see the man cut down the strikeouts, hit for power more consistently, and probably walk a little more, but for the most part there are no concerns here. Sanchez is a clear blue chip prospect, and under no circumstances should rank behind Banuelos.
- Mason Williams – Williams is a tough prospect to analyze. He started the season off great, earning a promotion from Single-A Charleston to High-A Tampa after hitting .304/.359/.489. He impressed a lot of commentators with a swing that both manages to produce consistent contact (10.6% K%) and line drive power. Add in his potential as a plus center fielder, and there was a lot to like about Williams. Then, after a mixed 22 games in Tampa, Williams’ season ended with surgery on his left labrum (shoulder). There’s some reason to be pessimistic here, but overall Williams has the package of a top major league baseball player. He’s ahead of Banuelos.
- Tyler Austin – Here’s where things get interesting. Austin was the big surprise of the year. He’s surprised everyone by hitting .331/.406/.563 since being drafted in the 13th round. He finished the season after a brief stint in Double-A Trenton, where I’d bet he ends up. Not every scout is high on Austin – particular on the defensive side of things. Still, numbers don’t lie. He’s one of the few (only?) Yankee prospects not named Jesus Montero to consistently mash in the low minor leagues over the past few years. He’s hit since the second he showed up. He seems like a safer bet than Banuelos, Heathcott, or even Mason Williams at this point. He’s ranked over Banuelos.
- Slade Heathcott – I had given up on Heathcott not long ago. After yet another shoulder surgery, he was set to miss the beginning of the 2012 season. He always hit enough as a prospect, but had never really mashed. That changed after his return. Heathcott hit .302/.380/.461 in 60 games for Tampa in 2012. Given his speed, age and athleticism, that is huge. However, he’s not yet going to pass Banuelos in the ranking. Heathcott was only allowed to play 19 games in the field, and hasn’t yet turned his twice-repaired shoulder loose. The Yankees insist that he is healthy, but we should be very skeptical for a long time on Heathcott – much more skeptical than we should be for Manuel Banuelos. But hey, if Christian Garcia can make the major leagues without his arm (yet) falling off, anything can happen.
So, Banuelos is a clear #4 in the system. That’s not bad news for a minor league organization that has had a very bad year. Many teams would be pleased to have a promising 22 year-old lefty in Triple-A as their #4 pitcher. He’s just become a lot more risky. This probably kicks him out of all but the most unorthodox top-100 prospect lists, and significant impacts any trade value that he would otherwise hold.
More is coming on Thursday, when I rank my top-30 minor league prospects in the Yankee system.