2/5/2013 12:24 P.M. ET
Sanchez's bat propels him up Minors ladder
Fast approaching maturity, young catcher still learning defensive part of game
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
The future success of every Major League team lies largely in its Minor League pipeline. With that in mind, MLB.com is looking at each team's farm system, from the Top 20 Prospects to under-the-radar types.
It could be a gusher. The Yankees have a fully stocked big league roster, but they can hear a wave of high-end position players gurgling through the prospect pipeline. The next generation of sluggers, headlined by blue-chip catcher Gary Sanchez, is fast approaching maturity.
Sanchez, an offensive backstop still learning the intricacies of his position, is just one of the intriguing bats floating through New York's farm system. The Yankees also have three outfielders -- Mason Williams, Tyler Austin and Slade Heathcott -- with a chance to be impact players.
Mark Newman, the team's senior vice president of baseball operations, said that he's thrilled with both the peak quality of his farm system and also the depth of his lower level affiliates.
"I really like our depth in position players right now," Newman said. "That's been an area of emphasis over the last couple years. Sanchez, Williams, Austin and Heathcott have a chance to be really good Major League players. They've got tools, they've performed at various levels and they're all young."
Sanchez, the youngest of the quartet at 20 years old, has hit his way up the team's organizational ladder. Sanchez split his 2012 season between Class A Charleston and Class A Tampa, and he managed to post a .290 average with 18 home runs in 116 games between the two levels.
The defensive part of the game hasn't come as easily to Sanchez, but Newman said that the Yanks are satisfied with his progress and are patient enough for him to consolidate his gains.
"He can really throw. He can catch the ball," Newman said. "He's got good lower body flexibility. It's a really hard position to play. He's made great improvement over the last two years. He's got the physical tools and the mental capabilities to do it. He's a catcher. We have zero doubt about that."
And if the Yankees have no doubt about Sanchez catching, they have few doubts about Austin's ability to hit. The 21-year-old played alongside Sanchez last season and saw his prospect status erupt, batting .320 for Class A Charleston and .321 after a late-season promotion to Tampa.
Newman said that Austin will have to develop a more sophisticated approach at the upper levels, but he should have company in Williams and Heathcott. Both players have flashed elements of an all-around game, and Newman said it will be interesting to see them take the next step.
"At some point in the not too distant future, they will be [together]," Newman said. "We have two legitimate center fielders in Williams and Heathcott. That will be an interesting developmental issue -- how we allocate the center-field time -- but we're not there yet. They can both fly. They both hit left-handed. They both throw well. Slade's got more power, but Mason has hit for a better average to this point."
Heathcott, in particular, has distinguished himself for a hard-charging demeanor and a willingness to make the play at all costs, and Newman said the Yankees won't try to discourage that trait.
yankees' top prospects
"He plays hard. I mean really hard," Newman said. "He's going to dive. He's going to run into the fence. He's going to run into the catcher. Two weeks into the Arizona Fall League, he was running into a catcher on a bang-bang play at the plate. We're trying to get him to not slide headfirst -- and that's something that everyone teaches now. ... I'm not going to criticize him for playing hard."
Top 20 prospects
And if those players weren't enough in terms of impact offensive talent, they could well be joined by Zoilo Almonte and Ramon Flores, a pair of international signees.
Angelo Gumbs and Dante Bichette Jr. give the Yankees a pair of interesting infielders, but they're both a couple years away from rounding into impact offensive players.
The Yanks also have their fair share of arms in the Minor Leagues, but they're not sure who stands at the top of the pecking order. Their best prospect, Manny Banuelos, is expected to miss the entire year while recovering from elbow surgery, and Dellin Betances is coming off a rough season.
Newman mentioned a couple arms who could fill the void, beginning with Jose Campos. Campos came over from Seattle in last year's Jesus Montero trade, but he only pitched in five games due to an elbow injury. Campos, like Michael Pineda, will be watched carefully this season.
New York will also take a long look at Adam Warren and Brett Marshall in the rotation at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and either one could fill in as a swingman in the big leagues. Nik Turley will likely make the leap to Double-A Trenton this year, and he should be joined by Jose Ramirez.
Under the radar
David Adams gets lost in the shuffle amidst some of his more heralded fellow prospects, but he's had a solid performance record thus far in the Minors. Adams, a second baseman, batted .306 with a .385 on-base percentage at Trenton last year and could play himself into consideration at Triple-A.
The Yankees liked what they saw out of right-hander Zach Nuding last year, and he got to experience pitching against upper-level bats in the Arizona Fall League. Nuding, a former 30th-round Draft pick, has 170 strikeouts and just 80 walks in his first 45 appearances as a professional.
Hitter of the Year
Austin is a career .331 hitter in the Minor Leagues thus far, and there hasn't been anything to check his progress at the lower levels. He's going to need to adjust to more sophisticated pitching patterns at Double-A and beyond, and he'll learn how to take a better mental approach every day.
But the bottom line is that Austin can hit, and there's no reason to think he'll stop now. It's hard to believe Austin was available in the 13th round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, but Newman said that just speaks to the difficulty of accurately forecasting the skill of an 18-year-old hitter.
"You realize that you can get an Albert Pujols down there. Not very often, but we're happy," said Newman. "He's got a very short swing. Good power. Great makeup, too. This guy's a baseball player. He's a special guy. He's one of the better hitting prospects we've had, and I've been here a while."
Pitcher of the Year
This may be the year for a breakout from Bryan Mitchell. Just 21 years old, Mitchell pitched to a 4.58 ERA for Charleston last year, but Newman said there is more than meets the eye. Mitchell is just beginning to figure out what he can do to hitters in the Minors and beyond, said Newman.
"The numbers won't knock you out, but young pitchers can change," said Newman. "His fastball, he can pitch 94-96 [mph], and not just touch it, but pitch there. A really tight, big down curveball. The changeup and command are coming. Not many have written about him yet, and there's risk, because he's young. He hasn't performed extraordinarily well yet, but man does he have good stuff."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.