The Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders won last tonight to lock up their first International League North division title since 2010. It's a cool accomplishment for those younger players, and in some way it's a testament to the quality of the Yankees' upper-level organizational depth and talent. This is a team that, at some point during this season, had Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Bryan Mitchell, Mason Williams, Ramon Flores, Rob Refsnyder, and Jacob Lindgren playing for it, along with the slew of other relief arms that have ridden the roster shuttle this year.
The name left out of that group that may have been the biggest part of this division title is Ben Gamel. The 23-year-old outfielder, picked in the 10th round of the 2010 draft, had a monster year in his first Triple-A season and was the one consistent roster presence on a team of change. Entering last night's game, Gamel led the RailRiders with 124 games played 485 plate appearances. He was hitting .301/.357/.472 in those plate appearances with 10 home runs, 14 triples , 74 runs scored, 61 RBI, and 11 stolen bases. By going 1-5 with a double in last night's game, Gamel gave himself an even 50 extra-base hits on the year, the highest season total for any Yankee Minor Leaguer this year.
Not bad for a guy who hit .261/.308/.340 in almost 600 PA at the Double-A level last year. Prior to this season, Gamel's career best year was in 2011 when he put up an .804 OPS in SS Staten Island. He's always been a fringe-y prospect at best, the kind of player that has a little bit of every tool but not enough of any one to really raise the meter. He could hit a little bit, but not for big average and definitely not for power. He had some speed, but he wasn't a huge base stealing threat. He can play multiple outfield spots, but he's not especially great in any of them.
Whatever he did between last season and this, it appears to have been the final piece of the puzzle. Gamel put together a very good all-around season this year, and whether it was truly the completion of the process of him "putting it all together" or a freak 1-year outlier, he has put himself on the Yankees' prospect radar. The timing of his big breakout year couldn't have been better either, as Gamel is Rule 5 eligible this coming offseason and the Yankees will need to make a decision on whether or not to protect him from that draft and add him to the 40-man roster.
His age and terrific performance this year should seemingly make that a no-brainer decision, but the one thing Gamel has working against him is the fact that he's a lefty-hitting outfielder in an organization already chock full of them. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner aren't going anywhere at the Major League level, Carlos Beltran is going to be around again next year, and both Williams and Slade Heathcott are already on the roster as additional depth. Each of them played well in their short MLB stints this year, and I would imagine the Yankees will keep both of them around in 2016.
So where does that leave Gamel? Hard to say without really thinking through the potential 40-man moves between now, the end of the year, and the Rule 5 draft, but it's hard to see him leaping ahead of other guys in the prospect pecking order to force himself into Major League bench consideration. If the Yanks do decide to keep him, he would end up back in SWB to start 2016 and then the pressure would be on him to repeat this season's performance. Failure to do that would quickly erode any prospect value he's built up (see Refsnyder's situation this year) and then he'd probably end up being nothing more than org depth for a team that already has plenty of that in the lefty-swinging outfielder category. The best chance for him to help the Yankees may come via trade, as part of a package to address the team's other areas of need this offseason.
For all the high profile prospects that have spent time with the RailRiders this season, Ben Gamel may have been the best performer. He went from a guy who could do everything but nothing that well to a guy who can do pretty much everything well, and he was recognized for that by being named the International League Rookie of the Year earlier this week. He's forced himself in the Yankee prospect picture, but circumstances may keep him from ever becoming a Yankee. I'd love to see him stick around but regardless of whether he gets Rule 5 protected and stays with the organization or not, I'll definitely be following Gamel from here on out. He seems like one of those undervalued guys who ends up carving out a nice MLB career, like Brett Gardner for example. Those guys are always easy to root for.