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Talking Yankees top prospects with SWB's John Sadak

John Sadak, the voice of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, discusses what it's been like to witness first hand the revival of the New York Yankees farm system and some of their elite prospects.

Top Yankees pitching prospect Luis Severino.
Top Yankees pitching prospect Luis Severino.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

John Sadak has a pretty darn cool job. He is the highly decorated voice of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. From his early beginnings as the voice of my beloved alma mater -- The University of Delaware Fighting Blue Hens -- to his 2012 Carolina League Broadcaster of the Year Award winning season, Sadak has made quite a name for himself.

He would join on with the RailRiders in 2013 and quickly earn Ballpark Digest’s Broadcaster of the Year. To say John not only knows baseball, but enjoys baseball is an understatement.

I have spoken with Mr. Sadak several times over the past few years. I enjoy speaking with John because he sees every game of these young Yankee bucks — the evolution from an intimidated Double-A newbie to established International League star.

This year, he has had the luxury of watching the final leg of the transformation of a New York Yankees system that has changed them from an afterthought to a Top 10 farm system. He has also had the honor of watching pretty much all of the top 10 Yankees prospects, some of which are now in pinstripes. John took the time to talk with me about some of those prospects, other Yankee hopefuls and what we can all expect in the near future from the Baby Bombers.

Wayne Cavadi: What are your first impressions of Aaron Judge (physically and in regards to talent), and has he met your expectations?

John Sadak: Immediately you’re struck by his immense size. At 6’7" and 275 pounds, that clearly stands out. Then you engage him, or rather, he reaches out to you.  He’s as amiable and mature a young man as I’ve come across in the game.  He has a polite sincerity about himself that few possess in today’s world.

When you watch him play, he has obvious power.  His home runs are line drive missiles most of the time.  That’s something you expect.  But you might be surprised to see just how athletic he is.  He’s played center field at Triple-A a few times and has done well.  He’s a natural right fielder with a very strong throwing arm.  However, he’s also made full-extension headlong catches.  He’s had to dive into tumbling, acrobatic defensive displays to rob hitters and it looks natural.  Aaron Judge might be in a traditional football player’s body, but he has the mind and skills of a true baseball player.

WC: Talk a little bit about Gary Sanchez. Where does he fit into the Yankees future? Do you see a MLB starting catcher in him?

JS: Great questions.  He has an excellent throwing arm behind the plate and a legit bat, balls that he doesn’t square still travel tremendous distances.  His home runs are epic moonshots.  And like many of his Triple-A brethren this season, he’s doing it at a shocking age.  At 22, almost five years younger than the league average, he’s already become basically an RBI-per-game man in the middle of this league’s best lineup.  But between McCann’s abilities/contract status and his own developing talents as a catcher, I don’t know what will happen.  I do think that his bat will get him there in some way in the very near future though.

WC: You have seen a lot of Bryan Mitchell. Do you see him as a future part of the rotation or more in a Ramiro Mendoza swingman role?

JS: Another excellent question.  I think he’s more than capable of taking the ball every five days in the bigs and pitching well for a playoff team.  He took tremendous leaps from last season to this one with his overall approach.  He’s told us he learned to trust his defense more, that he doesn’t have to strike out every batter and he can pitch to contact.  That took him from a great arm with inconsistent results to ace status of the Triple-A rotation for a few months.  But he’s in the bigs now in that swingman-type role and I think we’re all still learning what he’s like in that job. I could see both, but there’s obviously more value in a starter than long reliever/spot starter, so if he pitches well enough my gut tells me he’ll be taking the ball out for first pitch on a regular basis.

WC: Is Greg Bird as exciting a prospect in person as he seems to be on TV and in the stat book?

JS: Greg Bird is fun to watch.  He takes pitches, but not with abandon.  He calls his approach "selectively aggressive".  I think it’s the right mentality for a man with his talents.  He, like Sanchez, is just 22 and in a month became the everyday three-hole hitter with an above .300 bat.  He can go to all fields but has a natural pull strength with his home runs, which should work quite well at Yankee Stadium.  For a converted catcher, he’s taken to first base pretty well.  And like a number of his SWB teammates, he has both a maturity and a competitive edge about himself.  He’s demanding of himself and puts the work in every day.  He has the charisma and mindset that should take to New York quite well too.

WC: You’ve seen Severino, Judge, Refsnyder, Pirela, Bird, and Sanchez this season. Talk a little bit about under-the-radar Cole Figueroa’s breakout season. Do you think he can help at the big league level?

JS: Austin Romine composed the IL’s longest hitting streak of the season, a 19-gamer from June 5-July 3.  But he’s said that Figueroa’s 10-game hitting streak from about a month ago (June 28-July 6) was more impressive. The reason?  He had multiple hits in every game hitting .548 in that time.

Figueroa has an innate calmness that’s built for baseball.  He also possesses an uncanny ability to consistently deliver line drives while rarely striking out.  Entering today, he ranks third in the IL in batting average (.309), fifth in OBP (.368) and owns the circuit’s best PA/K ratio.  He strikes out once every 18.74 times at the plate.  That’s more than 50% better than the next-closest man, former Braves’ second-base prospect Jose Peraza (12.2).  Figueroa has done this throughout his career and his accomplishments this season have come while floating up and down the lineup.  He has batted in every slot from leadoff man through and including the nine-hole and delivers in each position.  He’s not a home run masher, but his line-drive swing makes him impactful at this level in every spot.  I have no doubt that he can help win games in the bigs.  Heck, he’s already done it.

WC: Who has been the biggest surprise of the 2015 season?

JS: Ben Gamel has been the surprise. What a season Ben Gamel has had.  On a team full of big names known for their "prospect" status, Gamel has come seemingly out of nowhere to compose what is likely a team MVP season.  He has always been known for his scrappy style and was well liked by his teammates.  He entered 2015 as a solid .278 career hitter after an ok 2014 at Double-A (.261/.308/.340/.648).  He was the RailRiders’ fourth outfielder at the start of the year.  He’s become the everyday leadoff hitter and perhaps the team’s most exciting player.  He co-leads Minor League Baseball with 14 triples, the result of his speed and line-drive swing fitting perfectly with the expansive gaps at PNC Field.  He stands two triples shy of the franchise record set by Shane Victorino in his 2005 IL MVP season (the team was the Phillies’ top farm club then).  Gamel entered yesterday with the IL's longest active hitting streak at 12 games (21-for-49, .429/.472/.776/1.247) and an IL-best 12 outfield assists.  He had multiple hits in 12 of his last 19 games, hitting .413/.471/.760/1.231 in that time.

Gamel had lifted his overall contact clip to .304, good for fourth in the IL, and ranked among the IL's best in hits (3rd, 127), runs scored (T-2nd, 68), slugging (3rd, .481), extra-base hits (T-4th, 42) and total bases (3rd, 201). He’s also shown power with nine home runs despite playing at a big park that swallows up most fly balls.  He had 10 homers over more than 1,600 at-bats as a pro before this season.  And he has been incredibly clutch.  From game-winning diving catches in the outfield to his inside-the-park walk-off homer earlier this week, he’s a darn special player that has put himself firmly on the prospect radar.

WC: You saw Severino at arguably the finest of his young career. What were some impressions over his 11 game stint in SWB?

JS: Fantastic fastball. One of the game’s more electric and dominating pitches.  He also owns an impactful hard changeup (high-80s/low-90s) that has a lot of fade to it.  The slider was a developing pitch that he threw both better and more often as his Triple-A time passed.  I don’t think he’s yet at 75% of what he’ll eventually become. Once his command is refined, he will truly overwhelm hitters.

The scary element of his game though?  At this level, there were nights he had basically one pitch. The command was not there on that given night for his other weapons and he still was rarely challenged.  He gave up just 40 hits in 61.1 innings (.184 BAA) and 35 of those hits were singles (plus five doubles).  The contact that came was innocent, balls that found holes or just bled through.

Another huge positive for him that shouldn’t be overlooked – he has mound presence.  It’s impossible to quantify, but when you watch him pitch he has "it". There’s a confidence to his game that cannot be taught.  He never got rattled. Add in his surprisingly high level of athleticism, and you’ve got a very dangerous young pitcher. He fields his position quite well. As mentioned, the contact that came against him was made up mostly of weak efforts that barely left the infield. That meant flashing off the mound on multiple occasions when he was the only man that could make the play. Not only would he nimbly do so, he would complete the feat without ever looking rushed. His confidence, calmness and built-in sense of timing allowed for plays so smooth it made you wonder what might have happened had he come up as a shortstop. He’s a special prospect.

WC: The Yankees seem to have been searching for that one bullpen arm that will stick. Which arm do you think has the best chance at becoming a permanent fixture in that vaunted Yankees pen?

JS: This is likely the toughest question you’ve offered. I don’t know if we’ve seen enough innings for any one man to separate himself yet. It is a large and legitimate stable of young bullpen arms. This has been the youngest, most talented and hardest-throwing SWB bullpen that I’ve seen in my tenure. Our catchers have said it’s a common refrain at the plate from opposing hitters.  They ask, "do all of your relievers throw 95-plus?". The answer – "yep, and the lefty too". From Andrew Bailey to Johnny Barbato, Caleb Cotham to Nicky Goody, Jacob Lindgren to Diego Moreno, James Pazos to Nick Rumbelow – I wouldn’t be surprised to see all of them achieve in the bigs in the near future. The Yankees will have some very hard decisions to make and they’ll have some high-value pieces in their trade inventory as well.

WC: Lastly, is there someone in Trenton or even lower that you are looking forward to watching in SWB either this year or next season?

JS: Well, I don’t know what the Yankees have in mind for their players’ progressions, but among the Trenton players that have not yet seen Triple-A time the currently injured Eric Jagielo was having a pretty impressive season. In 58 games he hit .284/.347/.495/.842 with nine homers. He was the regular clean-up man when Trenton was really rolling. Scouts I’ve spoken with were quite impressed with his play.  I’m looking forward to watching him play at PNC Field one day.