Prospect #1: C Gary Sanchez
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Sanchez, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic for a cool $3 million, is one of the most promising offensive prospects in the minors. He has precocious in-game power, a projectable and playable hit tool, and a game plan at the plate that goes beyond “grip the bat and swing as hard as possible.” Sanchez was only 18 years old when he made his full-season debut in 2011, but he managed to slug .485 against much older competition in the prospect-heavy Sally League. His work behind the plate wasn’t as attractive, and there are already whispers of a future position switch. The arm is plenty strong and the necessary athleticism is present to handle the physical demands of the position, but his receiving ability is immature and will require years of additional development. The catch here is that Sanchez’s bat is setting an accelerated timetable that his glove development won’t be able to match strides with.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Sanchez is a hitter who seems to see the ball very well; he tracks and diagnoses pitches like a much more experienced player. In High-A, the young right-hander will no doubt face a more advanced secondary sequence, and despite the good pitch-recognition skills, the characteristics of his swing could limit his ability to make contact against such offerings. Like most power hitters, Sanchez has a leveraged swing with length and loft, making him susceptible to inner-half velocity and off-speed stuff that will require barrel manipulation to stay on. Sanchez has a good feel for hitting, but I don’t think the hit tool can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the power, which should end up as an easy 70 on the 20/80 scale, and possibly a legit 80 at the top of his developmental arc. The explosion that occurs on contact is loud and violent and sexy and people will pay money to see it and the skies will turn red with the blood of his enemies, but the hitchy trigger and the lengthy path to the ball make exploitation possible. However, it should be noted that Sanchez’s offensive game doesn’t have the glaring weaknesses that scar the faces of most prospects his age. This is a minor nitpick. Sanchez could be very special at the plate. I want to have a son and name him Gary.

Prospect #2: LHP Manny Banuelos
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Banuelos, a diminutive lefty with three major league-quality pitches and a fluid delivery that allows for command projection, has slowly climbed the prospect ladder and is now in the queue for a rotation spot in 2012. What the 20-year-old Mexican southpaw lacks in size he makes up for in stuff; he works his fastball in the low 90s with good arm-side fade and the power to push the offering into the mid-90s with relative comfort. His changeup is a monster pitch, brilliantly disguised as a fastball with a late reveal and good action. I don’t often feel comfortable or confident throwing a 70-grade on a secondary pitch, especially at the minor-league level, but Banuelos’ changeup is one of the best complementary pitches I’ve seen from a young arm. His curveball flashes above-average potential, with good deception out of the hand and some vertical depth, but he struggles to command the offering and the break can be a bit soft. It's a 50/55 pitch now, with the potential to be a 60 pitch if he can show better command of it. The curve is clearly envious of the beast that is the changeup.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Banuelos is unlikely to win a rotation spot out of camp, so he will head back to Triple-A to wait in the wings for an opportunity to take the big stage. His command needs refinement; he’s still very loose in the zone and hittable when he elevates and provides hitters with a flat-plane look at the ball. The southpaw’s path will be determined by command refinement; it’ll either keep him in the minors for another season, or propel him to Yankee Stadium. Another minor complaint about Banuelos—and one that might lead to exploitation at the highest level—is that the arsenal seems to play a little soft. That’s not to say the stuff isn’t good; it’s very good. The offerings are just a little round, a little dull. The overall intensity of his pitches seems to be muted (e.g., a softer break on the curve, a fastball that shows intimidating velocity on the radar gun but doesn’t seem to intimidate minor-league hitters, etc.).

As long as Banuelos can use the fastball to get ahead in the count, he can throw the changeup as an out pitch to both righties and lefties alike, mixing in the curve to keep hitters off-balance. That combo is going to work in Triple-A, and the young starter should continue to show solid on-field production. At the major-league level, the curve will need to play a larger role, the command will need to take a big step forward, and the overall intensity of the arsenal will need a few more volts. Banuelos has legit stuff and could develop into a number-two/-three starter, but his limited size shrinks his margin of error and puts more pressure on the development of his command for sustainable major-league success.

Prospect #3: RHP Dellin Betances
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Big right-hander Dellin Betances was selected in the eighth round in the 2006 draft and given a million dollars to forgo a commitment to Vanderbilt. Since signing, he has seen his prospect stock ebb and flow; it fell into oblivion after his elbow was caught hanging out with Tommy John, and ascended back to national prominence after a stellar 2010 campaign.

Built like an NBA power forward with the athleticism of a designated hitter, Betances is an imposing figure on the mound. He uses his 6-foot-8 frame to create a steep plane to the plate that few pitchers in the game can match. His fastball is lively and heavy, with low-90s velocity out of the rotation and easy plus-plus velocity in short bursts. The curveball can also look scary good; some in the industry suggest it could eventually be a 70-grade pitch. Like the fastball, the curve is thrown on a steep plane with a nasty vertical break, but Betances has a tendency to slip under the ball, losing the tight rotation and subsequent vertical depth. Betances struggles with his delivery because of his size and limited athleticism; he loses his release point and drops his slot, which negatively affects his changeup and his overall command.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: I don’t think Betances is ever going to be a consistent strike-thrower, and given the electricity of his short-burst arsenal, a move to the bullpen has to be in the cards at some point. For now, it seems Betances will continue to pitch out of the rotation, where he can attempt to refine his command and encourage secondary development. However, there is going to come a time when the Yankees have to use the weapon they have rather than fantasize about the weapon they don’t. As long as Betances remains 6-foot-8 and can pump that fastball on a steep plane, he’s going to miss bats at any professional level. But after multiple looks, the steep fastball will need a few accouterments to remain in fashion; add to the mix a command profile where below average is the reality and solid-average is the fantasy, and you have a pitcher that is going to struggle in a rotation. In 2012, what could go wrong is also what could go right, as failure out of the rotation could lead to success out of the ‘pen, where Betances can play to his strengths and send that waterslide fastball into the zone at intense velocity and use his demon curve to force awkward swings.

Prospect #4: CF Mason Williams
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: Williams, a fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft, exploded onto the prospect scene in 2011, flashing all sorts of enticing tools in the New York-Penn League. Thanks to my geographic proximity, I was able to watch Williams on several occasions, and there aren’t many minor leaguers who can cover the real estate in center field that he can. On defense, Williams uses his legit 80-grade speed to roam pole to pole; he reads the ball well off the bat and uses clean routes and angles. The glove is solid at worst and above average at best, and the arm is also quite strong, making him a potential weapon in the middle of the diamond. At the plate, Williams has a very mature hit tool and instinct for contact; this was evident when the then 19-year-old hit .349 against much older competition in 2011. Power is the only tool that isn’t currently a part of Williams’ game and doesn’t project to play a major role in the future; his combination of swing and strength aren’t conducive for over-the-fence pop.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Williams has a body that makes Dee Gordon look bulky. A coordinated, fast-twitch athlete, Williams gets the most out of his 6-foot-0, 150-pound (when wet) body, but he lacks strength, and given his narrow frame, it’s unlikely that he’ll add substantial strength to his game. In 2012, he will move up to full-season ball, and with his combination of speed and bat control, he’s going to continue to hit for a high average. However, pitchers will eventually start to challenge Williams, daring the slender slugger to muscle up and drive velocity up in the zone. Without a physical presence to his offensive game, Williams becomes more of a one-dimensional hitter, capable of contact but lacking the type of punch that forces pitchers to adjust. Against arms bringing quality stuff and aggressive approaches, the biggest weakness in Williams’ game will be put to the test. In the long run, I think Williams emerges as a solid-average regular at the major-league level, with defense as his calling card and enough stick to justify his spot in the lineup. Despite the crazy-impressive offensive performance in 2011, I just don’t see anything special at the plate.

Prospect #5: 2B Angelo Gumbs
Background with Player: My own eyes; industry sources.
Who: From my 12/23 article about my own documented prognostications:

On a short-season team that featured up-the-middle talent like Cito Culver and Mason Williams, second baseman Angelo Gumbs stood out as the athlete worth watching. I’ve been noisy about Gumbs’ athleticism and the projections he holds both on defense and at the plate. He flashed a bit of this promise in 2011, but his production won’t spark much prospect love. If you were lucky enough to see the former second-round pick in action, there is a good chance you witnessed Gumbs’ competitive fire take him out of games. Call it immaturity or give it another label, but when faced with a setback on the field, Gumbs’ own disappointment in the result was often visible, and on quiet nights, quite audible. Some industry sources I’ve spoken with question Gumbs’ makeup, but I’m not ready to call his competitive fire a flaw. It goes without saying that he needs to mature on the field. But Gumbs played the entire season as an 18-year-old, and at that age, I like to see a player who demands the best from himself.

From a BP report filed after a Staten Island Yankees game:

Based on the snapshot, Gumbs’ athleticism stands out, as I was able to see a few routine ground-ball executions, and one nice glove-side play where Gumbs was able to flash his first-step quickness and reactions. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that Gumbs wasn’t able to show off the full range of his physical abilities, as I was at the mercy of the balls in play, and Gumbs only touched the ball a handful of times. I would have paid extra to see him take flies in the outfield. His skill set belongs in the vast wilderness of center field.

At the plate, Gumbs looked more comfortable than [Cito] Culver, with a natural feel for his swing and natural contact ability; it just seemed easy for him to pull the trigger, jump into the zone, and control the bat and barrel the ball with authority. Even the balls he fouled off were quality swings, as he was locked in most of the night. The statistical results of the evening run counter to my claims of quality, but he was putting good wood on the ball; he just wasn’t getting any help from the holes on the field. He also has more power potential than I realized. The kid has juice in the bat.”

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Gumbs will no doubt be advancing to the Sally League as a 19-year-old. The jump to full-season ball can often trip up the most polished teenagers, and Gumbs is far from polished. He has a very quick trigger at the plate and his bat speed is evident, but the swing itself has some miss in it, and his aggressive approach could lead to high strikeout totals against more advanced pitching. Gumbs has a very long way to go, and it could take several years before the athlete transitions into the baseball player, but I’m still higher on Gumbs (long-term) than I am on Mason Williams, and I have Williams graded out as a solid-average regular. Gumbs has 6-grade potential if it all comes together, but it could get a little ugly before the clouds part. His prospect status could take a dip in 2012, but given his age and his collection of tools, the finished product will be worth the extra patience.

*Yes, I ranked Angelo Gumbs fifth in the Yankees system, ahead of several prospects with bigger profiles and better résumé. I offer no apology for this. I was fascinated with Gumbs in my first viewing, and I was fascinated with Gumbs in my last. My eyes told me Gumbs had star potential, a future you don’t often envision when watching short-season baseball. I’m probably a few years too early with this ranking, and I understand if people wish to question my sanity. The truth is I’d rather trust my own evaluation and be dead wrong than equivocate in order to say I was right.