Yesterday I spoke by phone with Mark Newman, New York Yankees Vice President with Baseball Operations. Here is a transcript.
Interview with Mark Newman, Yankees Vice President for Baseball Operations
SICKELS: Most experts see the Yankees farm system as above-average right now, not as robust as Kansas City or Tampa Bay, but in good shape with talent on the way up. You have a lot of strength in pitching and at least a couple of impact bats. What do you see as the strengths of the system. And what are your weaknesses, areas you want to improve?
NEWMAN: Our strength is clearly in upper-level pitching. We have several high-ceiling arms who will be at the Double-A and Triple-A levels this year and will be in the majors within a year or two. We have pitchers who can be high-end rotation members, it is our obvious strength. Our second strength is behind the plate. We like the catching, we have depth there as well as high-ceiling options, great depth at a premium position. I also like our group of center fielders. Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Melky Mesa all have the tools to play center and we think they all have a good chance to hit. Angelo Gums may end up there too. So, I would say pitching, catching, and center field are our strengths.
SICKELS: What about your weaknesses?
NEWMAN: Corner players with power. We have (Brandon) Laird who is a solid prospect, but we are thin for corner bats otherwise in the system. We always try to take the best players available in the draft and on the international market, and doing that can result in positional imbalance. We're aware of it, but we would rather get as many high-end athletes as we can and worry about the rest of it later. In a perfect world you get both, of course, high-end guys who fill up the slots you need to fill.
SICKELS: I assume the theory is that if you have strong prospects at positions of scarcity, you can trade to fill others spots or sign any free agents needed.
SICKELS: Let's talk about some specific players. Jesus Montero. Everyone wants to know if he can catch.
NEWMAN: I think he can. Jesus has made severe improvements with the glove. If you didn't know his name was "Jesus Montero," and just watched him play, you'd look and say his glove was fine. He has a good arm, he receives the ball well, sets a good target. He's really improved his mobility. A couple of years ago, he was not a good catcher, that's true, but he is much more flexible now. He's really worked hard at his technique. Julio Mosquera, our catching coordinator, has spent a lot of time with him. So yeah, I think Montero's going to be a good defender.
SICKELS: Even if he works out with the glove, could the demands of catching hurt his bat?
NEWMAN: I don't think it will hurt him. He's just a really, really good hitter. I don't think catching will impact that.
SICKELS: What about these reports that he is in contention for a backup job behind Russ Martin? Wouldn't that stall his development, to sit on the bench?
NEWMAN: Montero is in the competition.
NEWMAN: It depends on what you mean by backup. If he is a backup who plays once a week, then no, I don't think so. If he is a backup who can play 70 or 80 games, spend some time at DH and get enough at-bats to stay sharp, then yeah, I think that's a possibility, that could happen.
SICKELS: Austin Romine, your other strong catching prospect behind Montero. Good arm, good defensive reports, but he threw out just 23% of runners last year.
NEWMAN: I don't worry about his glove, Romine can really catch. He turns bullets into marshmallows. His arm is strong and accurate. By the internal defensive metrics we use, Romine rates as a very strong defender, and Montero isn't far behind him.
SICKELS: Could you see a situation where Romine is the eventual backup to Montero behind the plate?
NEWMAN: We just want to get them to the majors. Who knows what the roster will look like in two or three years?
SICKELS: The other top catching prospect is Gary Sanchez. Where does he start the year? How does his glove compare to Montero's at the same stage?
NEWMAN: He should go to Charleston and will probably be there all year. The hardest thing for him will be adjusting to the workload and length of the season. He is way ahead of Montero at the same stage defensively. He's very bright, works hard, needs experience but already calls the game well. He's a very sharp kid. The bat is terrific and he is much more mature and professional about hitting than most players his age. He is way ahead of the curve mentally, outthinking the pitchers.
SICKELS: David Adams, where does he stand? Is he healthy?
NEWMAN: He's dealing with a bout of plantar faciitis right now but should be fine. He's a solid hitter when he's healthy. I think his glove is underrated. His range is OK, but he is just amazing at turning the double play. If I had to give him a 20/80 number on turning the double play, I'd give him an 80.
One infielder that people need to watch closely is Eduardo Nunez.
SICKELS: What do you think about him?
NEWMAN: He's always had the tools. He can run and throw, very legit defender at shortstop, has some surprising pop in his bat, efficient at stealing bases. He is still working on his plate discipline, work in progress. He could start at shortstop for a lot of clubs. He was really great back in rookie ball five years ago, then kind of stalled out when he lost confidence. But he's had his confidence back the last two seasons and has played much better. We really like him.
SICKELS: A few more position players before we move onto pitching. Slade Heathcott. You mentioned him earlier. He is supposed to have power but hit just two homers last year. And there were makeup questions in high school.
NEWMAN: We have no worries about the makeup, it is a plus for us. He'll run into walls for you. He's a strong kid, the home runs will come eventually. Yeah, he strikes out a lot, but he also draws walks, and remember he was jumping from high school to A-ball. The strikeouts will reduce.
SICKELS: Is Cito Culver sticking at shortstop?
NEWMAN: Absolutely. Range, hands, arm strength, all above average for shortstop. His feet work well. He has a great sense of timing.
SICKELS: The bat?
NEWMAN: I think he'll be fine. He might not hit for a ton of power, but he should hit for average, hit a few homers. He'll be a legitimate hitter.
SICKELS: Mason Williams?
NEWMAN: Very fast, very comfortable in the outfield, runs efficient routes, makes the best out of his speed, great hands, plus throwing arm. He threw 92 off the mound in high school. Great glove. With the bat, he needs to get stronger. He gets the barrel around the ball with consistency. His dad is a big guy so we think Mason can get stronger. We'll have to see if he develops much power, but he runs, makes contact, and profiles as a center fielder.
SICKELS: Let's move to the pitching. You mentioned the depth you have in high ceiling arms that are close to the majors. Let's run down the list. Dellin Betances. He seems recovered from injuries now, and looked good in his first outing. Is he a starter or closer, and what level does he begin at?
NEWMAN: Definitely a starter. Three-pitch guy, plus curveball, plus changeup, hit 96-97 in first game. There are some concerns about his durability until he proves otherwise, but we think he'll be fine. He has a great work ethic, I love the physique, his mechanics are consistent. His walk rates have gotten better. With the injury behind him we think he'll be durable now. He will start off in Double-A.
SICKELS: Manny Banuelos opened lots of eyes in the Arizona Fall League. I saw him down there and he's just incredibly smooth.
NEWMAN: Yeah, he is a smaller guy but wow, great stuff. It is hard to fathom how a guy his size, throwing that easy with the ball coming out of his hand the way it does, can throw so hard. He was at 93-95 yesterday. I have no worries about his arm. His delivery and athleticism scream durability. He's going to Double-A with Betances.
SICKELS: Hector Noesi. His key seems to be control. Possible fourth starter?
NEWMAN: Yeah, some of our people see him as a number three, some think he is more of a four/five guy. His key is the fastball/changeup combination, and he has amazing control. He's shown he can spin a breaking ball but needs to tighten it. Nardi Contreras is our pitching coordinator, and he's terrific at helping guys with their breaking balls. He's working with Hector.
SICKELS: Andrew Brackman, starter or reliever?
NEWMAN: Starter. His changeup has come miles and miles in the last year. He emphasized working on the changeup this winter and it looks so much better this spring. I know some people were frustrated with him until last year, but he is a unique guy. He was a college basketball player. He is 6-11. And he had the elbow injury. We told people to be patient because any one of those factors by themselves were enough to slow his progress, but he had all three. He had the trifecta of extenuating circumstances.
But once he got healthy, look at the progress. He went from 6.5 walks-per-nine to 1.9 walks-per-nine in A-ball last year. I've never seen a starting pitcher make that kind of leap in such a short amount of time. The stuff has always been there. He's an extraordinary athlete, fields his position, runs springs in the outfield like he's 6-2. He's going to start the year in Triple-A.
SICKELS: Ivan Nova: favorite for rotation?
NEWMAN: I don't know if he's the favorite. We would like him to be. He's young and has the stuff, pitched at 94-96 the other day. He's another guy working on his secondary stuff to go with the heater. The other issue is command. He has control, he throws strikes, but his command within the zone still needs work.
SICKELS: Like the difference between throwing strikes and throwing quality strikes?
NEWMAN: Yeah. That's what he's working on.
SICKELS: There are other interesting arms beyond the main group. Adam Warren for example. In other systems he would get more attention.
NEWMAN: True. Adam, compact arm stroke, throws his fastball and changeup at any spot in the zone. He's still refining his spin pitches, which will determine if he's a number three starter or a number five starter. He's heading to Triple-A.
SICKELS: We talked about David Phelps as a sleeper last year, and he really panned out.
NEWMAN: Yeah, David's secondary pitches have really improved. He's always had a decent changeup and slider, I would rate the slider as almost-plus. But his curveball is much better than it used to be, and he has a solid 90-93 MPH heater. Gives him four pitches. Just a solid blue-collar strike thrower. He'll begin in Triple-A.
SICKELS: Another one who looks really interesting is Graham Stoneburner.
NEWMAN: He's really come around. He threw hard in college at Clemson, and he still works at 94-96 with sink. But his secondary pitches have taken a step forward, he keeps the ball down, throws strikes. He was raw in college but much better now. Heading to Double-A.
SICKELS: Some observers really like Brett Marshall as a sleeper.
NEWMAN: He has the arm, and we gave him $800,000, so we've liked him too (laugh). He threw 97-98 before he got hurt. He still throws 93-95 with big-time sink. His fastball looks like a left-hander's slider. He has a good changeup, but is still working on the slider and curve. Great athlete, aggressive personality. Have to watch him this year, yeah.
SICKELS: One guy I liked as a sleeper from the 2010 draft is Chase Whitley, 15th round guy out of Troy University. He was a shortstop/pitcher and the two-way guys catch my eye.
NEWMAN: He fits in that category. Low-90s fastball, really good changeup. Breaking stuff needs work but his changeup is just terrific, unusually good for a reliever. Good athlete, too.
SICKELS: Potential middle relief type?
SICKELS: Finally, any other guys you want to mention as sleepers?
NEWMAN: We mentioned Melky Mesa and Brandon Laird earlier. Laird is just a solid hitter all-around. Melky has the tools, we just need to see what he does in Double-A.
A sleeper for you is Anderson Feliz. He's an infielder out of the Dominican, played in the Gulf Coast League last year. He'll probably end up at second base, but he can really hit. Strong guy with power, broad back, plus runner, great swing. He needs to walk more but that's normal at this point. I rate him as similar to Robinson Cano at the same stage of his career.