Yankees youngsters keep on impressing
Commitment to home-grown talent continues to pay dividends
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
Yankees prospect Austin Jackson is making a big
impression in his first big-league camp.
Three pitching prospects (Mark Melancon, Humberto Sanchez and J. Brent Cox) are coming off Tommy John surgery after missing all of 2007. Which is closest to returning and what is the status of the trio?
Given the slew of young hurlers who made an impact in New York by the end of 2007 and the pending arrival of yet more pitchers who shone at Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last summer, little mention has been made of this trio. All three were highly regarded before undergoing the surgery that cost each of them the entire '07 campaign.
The closest to the big leagues right now is probably Melancon, a right-hander taken out of Arizona in the ninth round of the 2006 Draft. A pure closer prospect, his fastball is already approaching the mid-90s he threw pre-surgery.
Melancon posted a 3.52 ERA in eight innings at short-season Staten Island in '06 before being sidelined, but made up for lost time this past fall in the Dominican instructional league.
"He'll probably start off in the Florida State League for a few weeks until it warms up, but we think he could pitch in Triple-A right now," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president for baseball operations and longtime farm director. "But he's only had six or seven innings so we'd like to give him a little time to adapt."
Cox, a second-round pick in 2005, was the nation's top collegiate closer that spring at Texas. When healthy he commanded a plus slider and a sinking fastball around 90. Once he reestablishes that command, he could move quickly to the big league bullpen. In his last pro stint with Trenton in 2006, he went 6-2 with a 1.75 ERA in 41 games, limiting Eastern League hitters to a .196 average. He's expected to break camp on time with the Class A Advanced Tampa club.
Sanchez is the furthest away from returning to active competition -- a second operation to clean up his elbow last October set him back an additional two months.
The Dominican-born right-hander, who spent most of his formative years just a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, was originally signed as a 31st-round draft-and-follow by Detroit in 2002 for first-round money and came over to the Yankees during the 2006-2007 offseason in the Gary Sheffield deal. The 6-foot-6 right-hander has primarily been a starter, posting a 1.76 ERA in 11 games at Double-A Erie and a 3.86 ERA in nine starts at Triple-A Toledo in 2006, combining to strike out 129 batters in 122 innings. He hopes to head north by the beginning of June.
"I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now," Sanchez said. "For myself, just to be healthy is the biggest thing."
It should be a very big spring for Sanchez and his wife Jen, who are expecting the arrival of his first son at the end of May.
The three injured pitchers have been working together all offseason.
"We've all been pulling for each other," Sanchez said. "Coming to work out every day with someone who's going through the same thing you are helps."
Other News of the Day
If 2007 was the year of Joba
(he doesn't need a last name), Philip Hughes
and Ian Kennedy
, who might be this year's emerging hurlers? Possibly Alan Horne
and Jeff Marquez
, who are getting a taste of big league life in Major League camp right now. Horne was the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year in 2007, going 12-4 with a 3.11 ERA for Trenton, while Marquez, the starting pitcher for the South squad in the Eastern League All-Star Game, was 15-9 with a 3.65 ERA. ... Teams frequently invite their entire cadre of Minor League catchers to camp to handle all the pitchers. It doesn't necessarily correlate to improved prospect status. But fans at the Yankees' 9-3 win against Philadelphia on March 1 got a glimpse of the future when 18-year-old Jesus Montero
crushed a two-out homer in the eighth inning. Montero is one of several promising catching prospects in the system. The youngest player in camp this spring, he hit .280 in his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League last summer and is slated to make the jump to Class A Charleston to start the season.
Five Questions with Brett Gardner
MiLB.com: What has been the biggest highlight so far for you at Spring Training?
Getting to start yesterday [the first official game of Spring Training], getting to play center field and lead off. I know that's not going to happen much but Melky [Cabrera] and Johnny [Damon] didn't go on the road so I got to do it and I was happy about that.
MiLB.com: What did you find last year was the biggest adjustment from Double-A to Triple-A?
The pitching you see. In Double-A there are a lot more young guys, more prospects, more lively arms which isn't easy to hit but they also don't have as good control. At Triple-A you have guys who pick at the corners constantly. Obviously there are some guys who fit the Double-A mold at Triple-A and some guys who fit the Triple-A mold at Double-A, but for the most part the guys at Triple-A get ahead and then nibble off-speed, off-speed, off-speed.
MiLB.com: What is your greatest accomplishment, on or off the field?
Just getting to where I am today. Obviously I haven't played in the Major Leagues but out of high school I wasn't recruited by hardly any colleges. I barely made the team at College of Charleston as a walk-on. But I've worked hard, just to make the college team and then to get a couple of at-bats and then to become a starter. Just getting an opportunity to play here for the Yankees and be here in big league camp, I'm just glad to be in the situation I'm in right now.
MiLB.com: Identify anyone, past or present, that you'd like to have dinner with and why.
Being here with the Yankees I've met a lot of special people like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Yogi Berra, and Reggie Jackson. But I guess I'd like to sit down and talk to Pete Rose. I admired him for the way he played the game. I felt he played the game the right way and he had a lot of respect for the game of baseball. And I know a lot of people would probably say, well, how could he have respect for the game of baseball when he did what he did? But on the field he had as much respect for the game of baseball as anybody I'd ever seen.
MiLB.com: What is your favorite aspect of playing in the Yankees organization and why?
The fans. The fans are tremendous. At nine, 10 in the morning there are two thousand people here to watch us stretch. We love them and appreciate them and no matter where we're playing, whether it's New Hampshire or Kentucky or New York or New Jersey we always have fans there. There are always Yankee fans around.
Outfielder Austin Jackson
carries himself with the perfect combination of confidence without cockiness, with a smile as bright as the early morning Florida sunshine.
The eighth-round pick in 2005 was also recruited by Georgia Tech as a basketball player, so it wasn't until he signed with the Yankees that he fully dedicated himself to baseball. He's been making a big impression in his first big league camp.
"The biggest thing that surprised me is the work ethic of the big league guys," Jackson observed. "They're established and they could take days off but they work harder than anybody I've ever seen. It's exciting to see what a family it is over here, how everyone works together. They make me feel like I'm one of the team."
Jackson has skyrocketed up the Yankees' depth chart despite having less pure baseball experience than most prospects. He is expected to start the year at Trenton with just 67 games at Class A Advanced Tampa under his belt. He hit .345 in those 67 games, though.
"One thing that clicked for me was I got a lot more confidence and trust in my ability that I could play at a higher level," Jackson said. "I had to learn that baseball is not a perfect sport. You will never be perfect.
"Keep working hard and never take a game off because you never know when someone is watching that is important and could make a decision," Jackson said, sharing what he'd learned from guys like Derek Jeter. "It's things you've heard before but it's good to hear from people who have been there."
Fans will get to follow his progress closely as he'll be one of six prospects who will be keeping a regular journal for us at MiLB.com.
From 1996-2006, being a New York Yankees prospect was sort of like purgatory. On the one hand you had pinstripe pride and all that history. But on the other hand, your chances of making it to the big leagues were slim. The club was much more likely to bring in big money free agents or package a bunch of Minor Leaguers for a marquee player than turn to its own system.
But those days are gone. As outfield prospect Brett Gardner says, "It really motivates you when you're in the Minor Leagues to see guys you're playing alongside get a chance. And I'm not speaking just for myself, I'm speaking for 150 other guys. When I became a part of this organization in 2005 it wasn't like this. Everybody was kind of like, 'I hope I get traded.' Now the way the system is being run, a lot of guys are getting opportunities. Even if it's just for a few weeks, all guys like us want an opportunity."
The new philosophy started in 2005 when the Yankees brought up unheralded fifth-year infielder Robinson Cano to play second base and Taiwanese hurler Chien-Ming Wang to join the rotation. Outfielder Melky Cabrera joined the youngsters as a full-timer in 2006 and the Joba-Kennedy-Hughes troika arrived in 2007.
When you add in veterans Derek Jeter (the 1996 AL Rookie of the Year), Jorge Posada (first full season 1996), Mariano Rivera (first full season 1996) and Andy Pettitte (first full season 1995), the Yankees have perhaps the most homegrown lineup in baseball. Who would have thought that would ever happen?