The New York Yankees 2016 deadline deals have been well documented, as their farm system has jumped the rankings to top-five status. Justus Sheffield was one of the big pieces that transformed this system from middling to near-elite, and he immediately rewarded the Yankees with a strong finish to the season. In fact, it has arguably propelled him to the top pitching prospect in the Yankees system and one of the best left-handed prospects in the game.
We know the skinny on Sheffield by now. He had a commitment to pitch at Vanderbilt alongside his brother — and now Dodgers prospect — Jordan entering the 2014 MLB Draft, which is high praise alone considering what Vandy has pumped out the past few seasons. A $1.6-million signing bonus after the Indians selected him No. 31 overall kept him out of college. Despite a solid professional debut (3-1, 4.79 ERA, 29-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 20.2 AZL innings), the 18-year old unfortunately made more headlines for, well, being a teenager. Questions about Sheffield’s maturity after he was arrested for an under age drinking incident didn’t last long, as the young lefty had a solid 2015 campaign in the Midwest League as one of the youngest pitchers in the league. He went 9-4 with a 3.31 ERA and an impressive 138-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 127.2 innings.
Sheffield has seen his velocity rise on his signature fastball from a low-90s offering, to consistently being a 93 to 95 pitch, topping out in the upper 90s. His secondary offerings are greatly improved, especially his mid-80s change. It is interesting to note that his best secondary offering is described differently amongst experts. Sheffield had a four-pitch arsenal in high school consisting of his fastball, curveball, slider and change. Baseball America suggests he uses his slider as a strikeout pitch, while MLB Pipeline seems to suggest that he has abandoned the slider and relies on the curve. Here’s what our own John Sickels said in his preseason analysis:
He threw a slider and a curve in high school but looks to have settled on using the curve most often, at least according to Midwest League observers.
The bottom line is that Sheffield has three above average pitches (including a vastly improved change up), all of which he repeatedly throws for strikes and induces misses at a strikeout rate of a little bit more than one per inning all throughout his career. Perhaps his curve is so deceiving it has the experts fooled. I see a lot more break than slide so to speak (but keep in mind I am not a scout), but all of his pitches seem to have very nice movement, as seen in this video from Adam Hayes.
Sheffield was having yet another solid year in 2016, a mid-season All Star season for Lynchburg as a matter of fact, when he was dealt to the Yankees in the Andrew Miller deal. He settled in nicely in the pitcher friendly FSL, going 3-1 over five starts with a 1.73 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and a 27-to-10 ratio over 26 innings pitched. He earned a late season promotion to Trenton for their Eastern League playoff run and impressed in his first outing by striking out nine in four innings.
His first start of the playoffs against Reading’s power-packed lineup didn’t fare as well as he was hit hard for eight hits and six runs over 4.1 innings, including allowing a pair of home runs to the Phillies elite catching prospect Jorge Alfaro. He was able to bounce back in his next start, although a bit wild, allowing one earned run over 4.1 innings, striking out five, but walking four.
The Yankees don’t normally rush pitching prospects, and after Luis Severino’s sophomore campaign, they will even be less likely to do so again. Despite their rotation being somewhat of a mess moving forward with a lot of question marks,they have more major league ready pitching prospects in Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams. Sheffield, however, may be the best they have to offer. While James Kaprielian — who is bouncing back nicely in the AFL from injury — may have the highest ceiling, Sheffield looks like he is destined to be that middle of the rotation starter much sooner than later. Still just 20 years old, Sheffield will be amongst the youngest at Double-A, but if he remains as consistent as he has from day one, he should finish the season in Triple-A. There is no reason to expect a 2017 debut, but it’s reasonable to expect that when he arrives in 2018, it will be fun to watch.