John Sadak has a fun job. He is the voice of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, amongst many other announcing gigs. He has been on hand for an amazing transformation in the Yankees farm system, and has seen some of today’s stars at the big league level develop from question marks to the reigning AL Player of the Week.
He’s never been shy to talk Yankees prospects, as he brings an aspect to prospect talk little others can. He sees these prospects play every day, watching them grow in each at bat, or unfortunately sometimes never meet the lofty expectations that are placed upon them. This year, he saw a lot of positives.
Most recently, the Yankees acquired one of the premier outfielders in the game in the Andrew Miller deal. Clint Frazier is part of the new Yankees future that has already begun, and he created quite a buzz from the second he put on a RailRiders uniform.
"The first thing that strikes you is his size," Sadak said. "He's 21 years old, and he's already built like a man at the peak of his athletic prowess. Thick, muscular arms and legs plus the bat speed that had Brian Cashman buzzing upon his arrival.
"As a person, first-class. He was deluged with media requests within his first few days as a RailRider. Dozens of requests from New York media, our folks and several national outlets. He handled it all like a complete pro. He struck out more than you would like in the very beginning. But you have to consider a number of factors. He had just five games above Double-A on his career before the trade. He certainly felt a lot of pressure after the trade, pressure that I'm sure was heightened by the volume of interview requests. He found his rhythm. The early signature moments included a booming run-scoring double in his first home game and a key, game-changing homer that traveled over 400 feet off of Lucas Giolito, considered by some to be the game's top right-handed pitching prospect. He's really good and he will only get better."
Of course the Yankees also moved Carlos Beltran, leaving a gaping hole in right field. After an up and down season — one that saw him hit .183 in May only to bounce back and win the June International League Player of the Month — Judge made his long awaited debut in the Bronx with a bang.
"I think the biggest change was that of simplicity and comfort," Sadak said. "Our manager, Al Pedrique, has said he thought Judge "let the ball travel more". Basically, staying back on the off-speed. Aaron himself often spoke of "sticking to his approach". Several times he referenced a chat he had with Alex Rodriguez in spring training. That dialogue revolved around the core of their approach at the plate. For Aaron, his singular focus was to "drive the ball up the middle". Obviously, as pitches arrive, you adjust. When he was really cooking in June, what was truly a six-week run of dominance, he lined the ball to all fields. But his consistent efforts to send the ball up the middle enabled that growth. In many ways, he just needed to see pitches. Remember, he had very little pro hitting experience before he first came up to Triple-A in 2015. And fairly shortly after his arrival he had to deal with a minor injury. Considering the volume of plate appearances that he had, his growth was incredibly impressive. The RailRiders' first-year hitting coach, Tom Wilson, also played an integral role. This entire group has been a hard-working bunch and Aaron is one of the leaders in that regard. He's always on the field for early work and/or in the cage working with "Willie". The click moment came as all of those elements blended together and Aaron was on his way."
One of the Yankees that has struggled has been Luis Severino. Sadak saw him as a young fireballer last season who made his improbable leap to the bigs a success. This season, he saw him back in Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre trying to find the magic from last season.
"He's throwing harder than when we had him in 2015, but everything was harder," Sadak said. "His changeup was harder and the velocity difference had slimmed. His slider was inconsistent. I think his issues are part of the normal growth process for most players.
"This entire group of prospects has a number of shared traits. The one that probably stands out the most? How competitive they are. Severino is one of the most competitive in the group. This game is hard, really, really hard. And he has such amazing stuff that he achieved outstanding success in a short span of time, both in the minors and when he first arrived in the bigs last season. He's had some tougher moments even at Triple-A this season that don't necessarily show up in his overall stats. That said, I have no doubt that he will have Major League success."
The Yankees have had some nice pitching coming up the pipeline, as Chad Green and Luis Cessa just threw consecutive solid outings for the big league club. Climbing the ladder also is Jordan Montgomery, who has certainly become a Yankees pitcher to monitor closely.
"Montgomery just started the team's franchise-record 22nd shutout of the season. The short answer? You watch him pitch and you see a lot of Andy Pettitte. He changes eye level, moves in and out and overall makes for a smart and difficult at-bat.
So many on this team have opened eyes. Dietrich Enns has enjoyed one of the best seasons in all of minor league baseball between Double-A and Triple-A. A winner who works in similar fashion to Montgomery. Luis Cessa enjoyed an outstanding start yesterday for the Yanks. A former third-base prospect for the Mets who didn't hit enough, he's on his third organization after a couple of trades but takes it all in stride. He's evolved from a fastball-changeup guy who profiled as a pure reliever to incorporate a slider and curveball that have him on that radar. I also am a huge believer in Chad Green. He evolved from very good to overwhelmingly dominant at this level. Adding the cutter and continuing to grow with his changeup have taken him to the next level. In many ways, I feel like Green and Severino have similar traits. Severino throws harder while Green has better command right now. But I think they can both have great success."
There always seems to be a player that jumps out whom no one expected to be "that guy". Last season, Sadak gushed about Ben Gamel’s breakout, one that would see him make two trips to the big leagues this year as well as make his first Triple-A All Star Game start. This season, Sadak has seen two Yankees break out.
"Conor Mullee, who missed basically over three years with arm injury before he cracked the bigs this season," Sadak said. "Mostly an infielder at a small D1 school in Northern New Jersey, St. Peter's, his slider was the best pitch out of the RailRiders' bullpen this year. It's a shame that injury came for him again, because he was poised to make a major splash with more innings in the Bronx.
"Also, catcher Kyle Higashioka. A career .233 hitter, he's had one of the best seasons in the minors, ranking top-15 in full-season slugging percentage. His game-calling and work behind the plate were known commodities. But he has taken huge strides offensively with his power and contact. The Yankees have a gluttony of riches at the catching position these days."
Joining Gary Sanchez and Judge in the big leagues is long time Yankees prospect Tyler Austin. Austin of course, climbed the Yankees prospect charts after a tremendous 2013 but was never able to match those numbers on the higher levels. After being designated this past September, Austin came firing back with arguably his strongest campaign in the minors, eventually making history by going back-to-back with Judge in their big league debuts.
"Austin drove the ball hard the opposite way," Sadak said. "The homer in his first plate appearance is something we saw throughout his stay this season. From his arrival on June 4 until his departure to the bigs, he led this league in homers and RBIs. While he can pull the ball for pop, most of his doubles and homers sailed to right, right-center.
"I think his turnaround was very similar to that of Aaron Judge. He got more at-bats, he gained more comfort, and he kept his approach simple. Great to see for one of the great guys in the game. Unfortunately, I was traveling for an NFL broadcast opportunity when he got the call. But I heard there was a deep, resonant appreciation from one of the game's straightest shooters and hardest workers."
Many thought that the Yankees may be throwing in the towel when they started to deal major league stars for prospects. However, with the promotion of several top Yankees prospects, they have remained competitive. It shouldn’t come as much of surprise, considering how well that the RailRiders have performed this season.
"It's incredibly exciting, but not surprising," Sadak said. "The RailRiders have been the best team in Triple-A just about all season. And they've been led by young stars. That's rare. Triple-A historically is a level that sports more veteran players with a sprinkling of young, rising talent. That's changed for some in recent years, the Yankees and Phillies in this league most specifically. But they're still facing teams loaded with former big leaguers. To not just win, but win more than any other team at the level with a team full of youth? Those are some good prospects. And now, the baseball world and Yankees' fans are enjoying the most exciting time for the franchise in years. But, knowing their work ethic and high ceilings, the best is yet to come."