By Chad Jennings
The minor league schedule always starts a few days after the big league season gets underway. This year’s minor league Opening Day came last night with three of the Yankees’ four full-season affiliates playing their first games. Double-A Trenton was rained out. Here’s a quick look at the minor league lineups and results from last night’s start on the farm.
Ramon Flores hit for the cycle as the RailRiders won their opener 8-3.They had 16 hits and won with a late-inning comeback. Kyle Roller had three hits, while Slade Heathcott, Rob Refsnyder and Nick Noonan had two hits apiece.
Slade Heathcott CF
Ramon Flores LF
Rob Refsnyder 2B
Kyle Roller 1B
Tyler Austin RF
Jonathan Galvez DH
Cole Figueroa 3B
Nick Noonan SS
Eddy Rodriguez C
– RHP Bryan Mitchell
One to watch: Clearly Refsnyder is right on the verge of the big leagues. The Yankees want him to improve his defense, which is why they signed Gregorio Petit at the end of spring training. If Refsnyder can smooth out some of his rough edges, though, he could be in the big league conversation as soon as there’s an opening.
Lingering question: How will the Yankees use Jose Pirela once he’s healthy and ready to be activated? Much of Pirela’s value is in his versatility, so he’ll surely move around quite a bit, but it might make sense to give him regular turns at third base where the Yankees don’t have a standout everyday alternative to Chase Headley. Alex Rodriguez can play third occasionally, but surely not on a regular basis should Headley get hurt.
Something to prove: The final pitching cut in spring training, Chase Whitley clearly pitched well enough to make the big league team, but the Yankees preferred to have him stretched out in Triple-A. With the Yankees planning to use spot starters occasionally in late April and early May, Whitley has a chance to prove he’s still be best choice for that job.
Big picture: This could be a pretty good Triple-A roster with legitimate young talent and a ton of depth in the bullpen. Heathcott’s return, Jacob Lindgren’s emergence, and Jaron Long’s somewhat surprising Triple-A assignment are all interesting story lines, but there’s real reason to think plenty of guys on this team — Flores, Austin, Mitchell, Nick Rumbelow, Jose Ramirez, etc. — could play a role in New York this season.
Trenton was rained out last night, but since this exercise is more about seeing who’s with each affiliate, here’s a rough guess of what the Thunder lineup might have looked like. At the very least, these seem to be the lineup regulars. The team really has a lot of guys who could stack up in the middle of the order.
Mason Williams CF
Jake Cave LF
Aaron Judge RF
Greg Bird 1B
Gary Sanchez C
Eric Jagielo 3B
Dante Bichette Jr. DH
Cito Culver SS
Dan Fiorito 2B
– RHP Miguel Sulbaran
One to watch: Just one? This is the team to watch in the Yankees’ system this year. Judge, Bird, Sanchez and Luis Severino are among the very best prospects in the organization, and that’s to say nothing of guys like Williams, Jagielo, Cave and relievers Nick Goody and Johnny Barbato. Severino and Judge will surely get the most attention, but this roster is loaded with high-end talent.
Lingering question: How quickly can these guys move if the play well? If the Yankees need a bat, need a right fielder or need help in the rotation, could Bird, Judge or Severino become legitimate big league options before the end of the season? Williams and Sanchez are the only Thunder players on the 40-man roster, but there might be enough talent here for someone to force his way into the mix with a big year.
Something to prove: Somewhat of a surprise that the Yankees sent Sanchez back to Double-A for yet another turn with the Thunder. He generated rave reviews this spring — one source said he looked like a different player behind the plate — and needs to take steps forward to ease concerns about defensive ability and make up. This could be a year he becomes an elite prospect, or a year he begins to drift to the edges of the radar. Could very easily put Williams, Culver and Mark Montgomery in the something-to-prove category as well.
Big picture: This roster alone should be evidence that the Yankees’ farm system is improving. It’s one thing to have a bunch of raw talent in the lowest levels, but this is a roster full of potential that’s only two levels away from the big leagues. There’s power, speed, defense and pitching ability on this team, and all of it could be on the major-league radar within the next year or two.
Brady Lail struck out nine, walked none and pitched five shutout innings for a 2-1 Tampa win. Matt Snyder and Claudio Custodio each had two hits and Ericson Leonora had a double. Conor Mullee got a four-out save.
Mark Payton RF
Tyler Wade SS
Miguel Andujar 3B
Matt Snyder 1B
Isaias Tejada C
Angelo Gumbs 2B
Ericson Leonora DH
Danny Oh LF
Claudio Custodio CF
– RHP Brady Lail
One to watch: Payton is coming off a strong professional debut, Wade played well in a handful of big league opportunities this spring, and Lail has legitimate potential out of the rotation, but the biggest name on this roster has to be Andujar. Even with a couple of legitimate third base prospects ahead of him, Andujar just might have the best chance of replacing Chase Headley in a few years. Still very young, though.
Lingering question: The biggest name on this roster shouldn’t be with the team very long. Veteran reliever Andrew Bailey is opening the season in Tampa just to go through the final steps back from shoulder surgery (building up innings, pitching back-to-back, things like that). If he’s sharp, Bailey could very quickly become a big league option. How good can he be?
Something to prove: With Wade emerging and some young middle infielders coming up from the lower levels, Gumbs is running out of time to get himself back on the prospect radar. His problem has been staying healthy. Could be a solid offensive young middle infielder if he can stay on the field, but that’s been easier said that done.
Big picture: Not a lot of big names on this roster, but plenty of sleeper prospects. Guys like Payton, Lail, Wade and Mike Ford aren’t filling any top 10 lists, but they’re worth having on the radar. This team would have had one more standout had Domingo German not needed Tommy John surgery. Vicente Campos has been assigned to Tampa and should pitch there once he’s healthy again. Ian Clarkin isn’t listed on the current Tampa roster, but I assume he will be eventually.
Scored a couple of late runs but still lost 3-2. Abe Avelino and Chris Breen each had two hits, while Gosuke Katoh and Brandon Thomas each stole a base. Three relievers combined for five scoreless innings.
Abe Avelino DH
Jorge Mateo SS
Dustin Fowler CF
Connor Spencer 1B
Chris Breen LF
Austin Aune RF
Gosuke Katoh 2B
Allen Valerio 3B
Alvaro Noriega C
– RHP Jordan Foley
One to watch: No question the most intriguing part of this roster is the shortstop Mateo. A young speedster with defensive skills to stay at the position, Mateo is the top low-level prospect in the Yankees minor league system. The Yankees signed a lot of young international talent last season, but those guys aren’t ready to play in the States just yet. Mateo is the young gem of the system.
Lingering question: Frankly, these kids are young enough that they’re full of nothing but lingering questions. Even Mateo, with all of his raw talent, hasn’t proven anything just yet. Hard to ever make too much of anything that happens at this level, but it will be interesting to see which players currently in extended spring training get a chance to play here before the end of the year.
Something to prove: Both Katoh and Aune are high-round picks coming off disappointing seasons. Katoh put up strong numbers in his half-season debut two years ago, but he seemed to lose a lot of believers last season. Aune has never hit much despite rave reviews of his athletic ability. Those two are at risk of falling off the map before gaining any traction to begin with.
Big picture: As I’ve written many times, I don’t make too much of Low-A results. Guys like Spencer, Fowler and Avelino have some reason to spark interest, but they’re also a long way away. Kind of have to let this season — and a few more — play out before we have a great sense of what some of these guys might be able to do in the big leagues some day.