The ruling on the Yankees' farm system wasn't too encouraging this offseason. The Yankees have a ton of low-level depth, but no impact players at the higher levels. Though the system is ranked below average, most evaluators see the organization as a fast mover in the rankings, as the lower levels are loaded with possible breakout talent. Bigger names like Aaron Judge, Eric Jagielo, Mason Williams, and Gary Sanchez are all hitting well at the moment, but the Yankees also need to see contributions from players that lacked top prospect status last season. Dante Bichette Jr- For most rankers, Bichette fell out of prospect status following his down 2012 season. He wasn't much better in 2013, where he showed some fundamental changes to his swing. Though Bichette finally reached double digit home runs, his .214/.292/.331 slash was uninspiring for a former first round pick. Now at 21 years old, the Yankees bumped the third baseman out of Charleston and into High-A Tampa. In his first 59 plate appearances, Bichette is batting .364/.508/.568 with 6 doubles and 1 home run. He's also taken 14 walks to just 10 strikeouts. According to some early scouting by Steffan Segui of Baseball Prospectus, Bichette looks to have simplified his swing substantially.
Bichette looks like he might be turning the corner this spring. While still rotational, everything in his swing has been simplified, and his good natural power hasn’t been depleted. His swing is now rock, identify pitch, and roll. Short and quick, don’t ask questions, just hit the ball. Previously, he was doing too much: It used to be huge rock, never identify pitch, enormous Javier Baez-type leg lift, front shoulder bails, hands drop and then roll. This new approach should definitely help Bichette and might allow him to recapture the prospect status he once had, assuming his issues with off-speed stuff stemmed from his swing rather than his approach. At third, he isn’t very good, his hands lack softness and he really doesn’t have any fluidity. He might make strides there at some point, but if not the arm is good enough for right field
In a January interview, Bichette spoke a bit about his father's influence over his swing. In 2013, Dante Bichette Sr became the hitting coach for the Rockies, Bichette Jr indicated that this time apart may have had a significant effect on his 2013 performance. Instead of face-to-face coaching, the two would exchange videos, and the results were not the same. At the end of the 2013 season, Dante Bichette Sr left his position as the Rockies hitting coach saying, "The tug of the family was too much, I have unfinished business at home."
In that same video interview, Dante Bichette Jr talked about his extensive work this offseason, both getting in to the best shape of his life and on his swing. It's far too early to think that Bichette has returned to prospect status, but the early signs are encouraging. He's still just 21 years old, and if he can keep hitting, he could regain prospect status this season.
Peter O'Brien- O'Brien had a huge 2013 season where he showcased significant power from the right side of the plate. His early season success (a .325/.394/.619 slash) in Charleston earned him a quick promotion to high-A Tampa. The second half of the season proved tougher for the catcher, as he hit just .265/.314/.486 with 76 K's and 19 BB's in 280 plate appearances. Now in his second stint in Tampa, O'Brien is batting .340/.370/.660 with 4 home runs and 4 doubles in 54 plate appearances. Plate discipline is still a problem for the slugger, but his power is undeniable. O'Brien is already 23 years old, fairly old for this level, so he'll need to progress quickly to earn top prospect status. With Gary Sanchez ahead of him in Double-A, a promotion might be tough for him to earn.
Angelo Gumbs- At this time last year, some thought Gumbs was a top 10 prospect in the Yankees' system. The second baseman combined some power and speed at the age of 19 to hit .272/.320/.432 with 26 stolen bases in a very tough Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park. Gumbs suffered an early season injury in 2013, and then put up catastrophic numbers of .213/.263/.330. So far, Gumbs has hit .321/.345/.375 in his first 58 plate appearances of 2014. Over his last 6 games, Gumbs has been red hot, putting up 11 hits, 1 walk, and only 2 strikeouts in his last 26 plate appearances. Gumbs is still just 21 years old, and a strong performance in Tampa could go a long way in a system that is very light on middle infielders.
Manny Banuelos- I assume most of our readers are familiar with just how far Banuelos made it as a top prospect. In 2012, the left-handed pitcher was Baseball America's and Baseball Prospectus' top 29 prospect on their top 100 list. After succumbing to Tommy John surgery in 2012, Banuelos was not only forgotten about on top 100 overall lists, but also left out of most top 10 Yankee prospect lists. Now fully recovered, the Yankees sent the southpaw to Tampa so that he can see regular starts in a warmer climate. In his first three appearances, Banuelos has pitched 9.0 innings and given up just 4 hits and 1 walk with 11 strikeouts. The most encouraging signs are of his command and strikeouts, as they indicate that he still possess an out pitch, and he's comfortable enough with his elbow to stay inside the zone. The Yankees were extremely cautious with Banuelos' rehab, and the organization is hoping that it pays off as they bring him back up to Scranton sometime soon. He's still 23 years old, and Banuelos has the ability to be the top prospect in the Yankees system, so these early numbers are perhaps the most important on this list.
Rafael De Paula- Some thought of De Paula as the top pitching prospect in the Yankees' system last season. His early performance in Charleston was an encouraging sign that the 22 year old possessed a good enough outpitch for the major leagues. Unfortunately, when promoted to Tampa in 2013, De Paula showed that his command problems were a legitimate concern as he put up a 5.5 BB/9 and a 6.06 ERA in 49.0 IP. De Paula didn't look much better in his first start of 2014, as he gave up 4 walks in 3.1 innings of work. Since then, De Paula has been lights out in his next 2 starts, and thus far he has a 2.51 ERA, a 3.8 BB/9, an 11.9 K/9 and just a 1.047 WHIP on the season. His stuff obviously still translates to strike outs, but De Paula needs to command the strike zone to climb the upper levels of the Yankees' farm system. Batters will grow more patient as he advances, and the most important numbers to watch will be his walks.