Yankees Future more than just arms
Yankees prospect outfielder Austin Jackson waits to take batting practice before the team's
spring training game against the Phillies Saturday.
BY KAT O'BRIEN
March 1, 2008
The Yankees prospects who have gotten the most attention and acclaim the past couple of years have been their pitchers, particularly Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. But they have some position players on the way, too. Here are five prospects to watch, including four position players.
The Yankees have had several top players from the Dominican Republic in recent years, but lately are making more noise with Venezuelan prospects. One of the most exciting of that bunch is rightfielder Tabata. The 19-year-old has a .305 average in two-plus seasons in the minor leagues, and the Yankees think the power should show up soon.
"I got a lot of experience last year," Tabata said. "I've been working hard on my swing. For me, it's really great to be here [at big league spring training]. I want to get to the major leagues as soon as possible."
General manager Brian Cashman, who is keeping a close eye on Tabata, said: "He and Austin Jackson are potential middle-of-the-lineup power impact bats."
Tabata was given a locker next to Derek Jeter this spring training. He said fellow rightfielder Bobby Abreu and Robinson Cano have been especially helpful in offering advice. As much as Tabata respects Abreu's career, though, he said he tries to look at another rightfielder as a model.
"I never saw him play, but the player I most admire is Roberto Clemente," Tabata said. "The way he carried himself and the things he did on and off the field."
One of Tabata's top skills is one that Clemente remains famous for: a terrific arm. Clemente may be remembered as much for his community work as his Hall of Fame play, though, which is why Tabata has a portrait of Clemente on his wall and has read several books about him.
The youngest player invited to the Yankees' major league spring training, Montero turned 18 in November. The Venezuelan native has drawn the notice of manager Joe Girardi, who has commented on the catcher several times and even poked at Jorge Posada by pointing out that Montero is half Posada's age.
Montero, who hit an opposite-field home run off the Phillies' Vic Darensbourg Saturday, is listed at 6-4 and 225 pounds, and already puts on impressive power displays in the batting cage.
"I feel very grateful that they brought me to big-league camp," Montero said. "I'm working hard to get better at everything, but especially behind the plate."
Montero hit .280 with three homers and 19 RBIs in 33 games for the Gulf Coast League Yankees in his debut season last year. He was one of the youngest players to compete for Magellanes in the Venezuelan Winter League. Montero signed for about $2 million out of Venezuela in 2006 and has a younger brother, Jesus Rafael Montero, who is a catcher in the Cardinals' system.
Said Posada: "He's got a lot of tools. I thought he was older, that's how good he is."
Hitting coach Kevin Long said: "He's got a big, powerful stroke. He's a very talented individual who has a huge, huge upside."
Baseball America rated Montero the Yankees' top power-hitting prospect this winter. The Yankees also think highly of Venezuelan-born catcher Francisco Cervelli, who will turn 22 this week. Cashman said Cervelli could be an everyday player.
While Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy got most of the attention from Friday's game against the University of South Florida, the first player Cashman commented on was Marquez. The 23-year-old right-hander could well be the next starter to get a major-league look for the Yankees.
"He's a strike-thrower, he's got plus stuff, he works fast and he gets ground-ball outs," Cashman said.
Marquez spent the 2007 season at Double-A Trenton, where he was 15-9 with a 3.65 ERA in 27 starts. He's well aware that guys he was drafted with (Hughes) and played with (Kennedy, Chamberlain, Chase Wright) have seen big-league action.
"It's definitely awesome that's happening," Marquez said. "If I get the opportunity, I want to make sure I'm ready."
To ensure that happens, Marquez has been concentrating on throwing first-pitch strikes.
Pitching coach Dave Eiland is impressed, saying he expects to see Marquez "next year for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if he comes up this year at some point. The stuff that he has, his pitchability."
Although Jackson likely is a year or two away from contending for a big-league position, the Yankees are psyched about the 21-year-old outfielder. He is widely ranked as one of their top prospects (Baseball America lists him behind only Chamberlain) and he is touted for both his offense and his defense.
Jackson made big leaps forward last year, a year in which he was named the team's top minor-league position player. He hit .260 with three homers, 25 RBIs and 33 runs scored in 60 games at low Class A Charleston. Then at high Class A Tampa, he batted .345 with 10 home runs, 34 RBIs and 53 runs in 67 games. He stole a total of 33 bases.
"I think Austin Jackson has the chance to eclipse all of them," Cashman said of his young outfielders. "Nothing against Melky or Brett Gardner, but he and Tabata, those two guys are the highest-ceiling guys."
The athleticism Jackson displays has long been evident. He was a top basketball player at Denton Ryan (Texas) High School and signed for well above eighth-round slot money to pass up his basketball scholarship to Georgia Tech.
In Saturday's 9-3 win over the Phillies, Jackson made a terrific catch of a low line drive hit by Mike Cervenak. After the game, Reggie Jackson called him the "best athlete in the organization."
Said Austin Jackson: "That's coming from one of the best players in baseball, so when you hear that, your hard work is starting to pay off."
Although Tabata and Jackson have "higher ceilings," Gardner is the outfield prospect knocking on the door of the big leagues. He's a speed demon who was rated the eighth-best prospect in the organization by Baseball America.
"I just want to come in and show them that I'm ready to play at the major-league level," Gardner said.
Cashman said: "We believe he could become a Juan Pierre who walks."
Gardner split time last year between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He hit .300 with 17 RBIs, 43 runs scored and 18 steals in 54 games at Trenton and hit .260 with nine RBIs, 37 runs and 21 steals in 45 games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
"My job is to get on base and make things happen," Gardner said.
Last year, Gardner said he worked on his stance and trying to be more open at the plate. Hitting is the area in which he needs to show the Yankees he is ready for the next level. He's already solid defensively.
Said Girardi: "He can really run down some balls in the outfield."