I need to start this with an admission.
I've never had as many problems with first evaluations than I've had with the New York Yankees prospects. While I won't claim to be perfect with first evaluations of a prospect, I usually get a good feel for what they are and can become- at least as good as one can get from a first evaluation.
Yet for some reason I miss more often with the Yankees prospects as a whole than I do with any other organization.
Maybe it's because I live in the backyard of their Triple A team and am near their Double A team as well so I get a lot of extra Yankees coverage. Or maybe it's because the Yankees are an organization that has their fair share of prospects with loud tools over the years. Whatever the reason is, I'm definitely not alone when it comes to this system.
When it comes to the Yankees I've been wrong both ways. There have been some guys I saw as future stars or solid contributors(Jesus Montero comes to mind, along with Tyler Austin and Dante Bichette Jr.) who were clearly not what they looked like on those first evaluations.
But more often than not, especially lately, I've been wrong in downgrading their prospects.
I thought that Aaron Judge had too big of a hole in his swing to be a solid big league contributor(I finally started to come around on him in March after seeing the adjustments he made) and thinking Luis Severino was destined for the bullpen. I was even wrong on Miguel Andujar, as he didn't impress me in my first evaluation, but I've come around on him pretty quickly.
Estevan Florial is no different than the other guys who I got wrong on the initial evaluation. Coming into the year I saw him as a super toolsy but super raw prospect who had a ton of upside and not much of a hit tool. It was a fair observation after he hit just .225 with 78 strikeouts in 268 plate appearances for Pulaski of the Appalachian League last year.
I had always believed in his other tools being loud but I was so skeptical of his hit tool coming around that I passed on him in about 120 picks into my 30 team Strat-o-Matic league's annual rookie draft(for guys making their North American debut or not yet owned already as the criteria) in favor of Braves SS/2B Derian Cruz as I debated the two against each other for selection. Was I ever wrong.
That story should illustrate how far he's come in the last year, from a guy who was still on the board roughly 120 picks in, and a guy that I chose the other option instead of him in a player versus player decision despite being fully aware of his other tools, to being a guy worthy of a Top 50 prospect status in the game right now. He's come a long way since this draft happened in March.
The biggest difference in between a guy who hit .225 in the Appy League to being a guy who hit .298 across both levels of A ball as a teenager has been an improved approach.
He's seen himself greatly improve on his BABIP and type of contact. Despite his plus speed, Florial had a BABIP barely over .300 last year as he hit almost 60% of his balls in play as grounders(59.2%).
This year he hit over .400 BABIP at both stops as he decreased his ground ball rate slightly(to 55.6%) and doubled up on his line drive rate(10.3% in 2016 to 20% this year). He's made some adjustments that have allowed him to make better, harder contact and it's really translated in his production.
Florial still has some work to do in order to not hit so many grounders and cut down on the strikeouts, but he is in line to be the next Yankee prospect I was completely wrong about if he's able to keep progressing. Considering his tools and the adjustments he made for this past season, that's not something I would be willing to bet against especially with the Yankees player development track record.
Yankees Player Development
That brings me to my next point, the New York Yankees player development group. These guys have done a fantastic job.
Taking guys with some questions and getting them to improve in those areas isn't an easy task, but this group has been able to do as good of a job as any team in baseball in recent years excluding teams like the Cubs and Astros who had the benefit of adding elite talent via the draft. We've already talked about the changes that Florial has made and his development, but it's look at some other guys.
I mentioned Judge before. He definitely had a hole in his swing, but any mammoth human being who stands in at 6’7” and 280 pounds is going to have some type of hole in their swing as there is only so much of the strike zone a bat can cover and a guy like that has a much bigger strike zone than say Mike Trout. A guy like that is always going to strike out a lot, and Judge has- but that's something you'll live with when the guy produces power like Judge does.
The adjustments he has made to his swing haven't so much cut down on the strikeouts, but have allowed him to cut a ridiculously high infield fly rate- one never lower than 15.3% in any stop in the minors which reached as high as 29.5% in his first taste of Triple A.
Those infield fly balls have zero value as they're almost always outs. He's experienced his 2017 breakout in part because he's dropped that rate all the way down to 6.6% this year, a career best.
The mechanical changes he's made have gone a long way towards that, but so do the plate discipline changes. Judge hasn't just walked at a higher rate than he has in the minors, but he's taken more pitches than he's ever done in the minors. Being willing to sit back and wait for his pitch has been just as big of an asset to Judge as the changes to his mechanics.
I also mentioned Severino. He was just talked about by Keith Law as a miss the other day, and like Law I saw the same stuff.
The delivery was not ideal for a starter and he lacked a third pitch. Well look at 2017 Severino, who has seen his slider become a third plus pitch as well as a guy who averages 97.6 MPH on his fastballs from a starting role, up two miles per hour from his 2015 big league debut.
That's not even mentioning that he's throwing more strikes than he has at the big league level. Obviously when you have a plus fastball that gets a couple more MPH added onto it, turn a well below average pitch into a plus pitch, and throw more strikes, good things are going to happen.
I haven't even mentioned Dellin Betances, as a very high upside arm that I didn't see with enough command to be anything significant at the big league level. Couldn't be more wrong there as he's usually one of the best relievers in the game despite his recent struggles, a guy who has been selected to the last four All Star games.
The player development guys have done great things with other types of prospects as well, not just the super toolsy guys. They've had probably more under the radar types than anyone else come up and become quality big leaguers. Guys who were either second tier prospects, or not even really true prospects at all.
One good example is Chad Green, who was more of an afterthought, but has developed into a premium big league reliever. Same with Yangervis Solarte, who was very lightly regarded with the Yankees but has carved out a very nice big league career after being dealt to San Diego. Tommy Kahnle began his career as a Yankee and was lost to the Rockies in the Rule 5 Draft, and it's the same story with George Kontos and the Padres taking him from the Yankees system- both guys who have had very nice seasons in relief in the last few years.
I haven't even got to Brett Gardner, who has become an All Star himself, only because he came along a little earlier than the others on the list, or David Robertson but both guys very much fit the criteria of being player development wins. Then you've got guys like Eduardo Nunez, who started to emerge two years after leaving the Yankees organization, and Francisco Cervelli who also came up in the Yankees system.
Internally I also didn't mention how Didi Gregorius went from a light hitting glove first shortstop to a guy with 25 homers, or the emergence of Aaron Hicks after he failed to reach his ceiling for years in both Minnesota and the minors. Then you've got the guys on the doorstep like Dustin Fowler(I realize he was traded), Chance Adams, Jordan Montgomery, and even Andujar that have gone from second tier types of prospects into being very legitimate pieces.
The list just goes on. Greg Bird was a second tier prospect himself, who blossomed into one of the most talked about prospects in the game before injuries have destroyed his last two years.
The Yankees don't seem to get as much credit as they should from the media for the way they churn out quality big leaguers and develop prospects. Obviously not all prospects are going to work out, but that happens to every team. The team's track record speaks for itself.
What does that mean? Simply don’t overlook the Yankees prospects. That toolsy, but raw lottery ticket could end up being the next Florial, or Judge, or Severino among others.
Even if they don't quite reach those heights, look at all of the other names listed and see the value they produce. It also means that you might see some solid big league contributors that come from a group of players that no one is talking about right now.