A little something different for you Yankees’ fans today. There is intense, increasing interest in following the prospects in the team’s minor league system, and with that in mind I reached out to get you guys some expert information.
What I have for you today is a Q&A style chat with ‘MinorLeagueBall’ editor John Sickels. Author of two books about minor league baseball, Sickels has been posting info on prospects at MinorLeagueBall since 2005.
I’m thrilled that he was willing to spend some time answering my questions about the Yankees’ farm system.
Here is our chat.
Bugs & Cranks: Let me start with a Phil Hughes question. We were always given the impression that his minor-league velocity was 93-95. He has only been hitting 88-91 last year and so far this year. Is there cause for concern there?
John Sickels: Minor league velocity reports are sometimes exaggerated, even by the best sources. However in Hughes’ case he was legitimately hitting those numbers. The fall-off last year was supposedly due to the nagging injuries he suffered. This year, I’m not sure. It is not uncommon for young pitchers to lose velocity … sometimes they gain it, sometimes they lose it. It’s a case by case thing. Remember, it’s not necessary to have a 95 MPH fastball to be successful. Obviously it helps, but if Hughes can show good command of his fastball and his secondary pitches, even 90-91 should be enough. Nevertheless, its’ possible that he may end up being a number two or three type starter rather than a dominating ace-type.
John Sickels: The other possibility is that the velocity drop is an indicator of an underlying health issue that we don’t know about yet.
Bugs & Cranks : Yankee fans don’t want to hear that. It’s the thing that scares us most. Am I right, though, that his minor-league velocity was better?
John Sickels: To the best of my knowledge, yes it was.
John Sickels: At times at least. There were reports as early as 2006 that he was down “just” in the 92-94 range.
Bugs & Cranks: OK. You may have posted this somewhere but I haven’t seen it. Where does the Yankee farm system currently rank among all major league teams?
John Sickels: Well it would be above average. I don’t have an exact ranking, as I think ranking systems like that is often misleading. But they would rank above average, assuming you count Chamberlain and Kennedy as prospects still. They are pretty deep in pitching, but are weaker with hitters at the upper levels.
Bugs & Cranks: OK. Here’s a Yankees-Red Sox question. Given your choice would you take Buccholz/Lester or Hughes/Chamberlain? Why?
John Sickels: Well I like Buccholz slightly more than Chamberlain. So it comes down to Lester vs. Hughes, and that’s real tough. Do I take the power lefty? Those are harder to find. But Hughes could be special. I think I would probably take Hughes/Chamberlain but it is close
Bugs & Cranks: Yankee fans will love you for that. OK, you mentioned the Yankee pitching prospects. Can you run down the guys not currently in New York who you feel are likely to make the biggest major league impact?
Bugs & Cranks: If you want, I can throw names at you and you can tell me what you think.
John Sickels: Alan Horne is the main guy I have my eye on. He could be excellent if his command sharpens a bit more, and he should be ready soon.
John Sickels: Go ahead and throw names.
Bugs & Cranks: OK.
Bugs & Cranks: Tell me a little more about Horne, then I’ll throw names at you.
John Sickels: OK. Horne had a rather odd college career, moved around some, had Tommy John, then had some command troubles in 2006 in his first look at pro ball. But he started to take off last year. He’s got plus stuff, just needs to improve the command a bit more. I really think he’s underrated by a lot of people.
Bugs & Cranks: Could he make an impact this year?
John Sickels: Yes.
Bugs & Cranks: Andrew Brackman.
John Sickels: Skeptical at this point. Even before the injury I thought he was overrated. I know he’s 6-10 and all but he’s very raw for a college pitcher and the injury was ill-timed.
Bugs & Cranks: Jeff Marquez.
John Sickels: Ground ball guy, will need a good defense behind him. Possible inning-eater type starter, or a get-the-double-play reliever.
Bugs & Cranks: Anybody in that Scranton bullpen right now who should really help eventually? Albaladejo, Britton, Ramirez, Veras, Patterson? I’m particularly interested to know if you think Patterson’s spring was a mirage.
John Sickels: Well Patterson has been effective at every level. I don’t see any reason why he can’t be an effective short reliever in the majors. He has enough stuff as long as his command stays strong. He’d be the best bet to help I think.
Bugs & Cranks: Last year Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy came all the way from A ball to help the big-league team, which is unheard of for the Yankees. Anyone at that level right now who could be in the Yankee bullpen by season’s end?
John Sickels: I don’t think so. The guys at the A-ball level right now with the highest upside won’t be ready in 2008.
Bugs & Cranks: OK. The one guy who is at the A level Yankee fans are probably most interested in is Mark Melancon. What can you tell me about him?
John Sickels: University of Arizona guy, missed last year due to Tommy John. If healthy, has an impressive fastball/slider combination and was very successful in college. If his arm is OK and his command is back at previous levels, I think he could help in 2009.
Bugs & Cranks: Bullpen?
John Sickels: Probably, yes. MAYBE late 2008 if everything goes well.
Bugs & Cranks: OK. The Yankees traded Gary Sheffield to the Tigers for three prospects before last season. They have yet to get anything from any of those guys. Will any of the young arms the Yankees acquired ever pitch for the Yankees?
John Sickels: (Humberto) Sanchez if healthy has a good chance. I’ve liked (Kevin) Whelan a lot but he was weird last year, velocity was up and down.
John Sickels: I don’t remember who the third guy was, lol.
Bugs & Cranks: OK. Before we move on, the obligatory Kei Igawa question. Will this guy ever help the Yankees?
John Sickels: Maybe in a small role, but I don’t think he’ll be a major part of anything.
Bugs & Cranks: OK. Who is the best position player prospect in the entire Yankee system?
John Sickels: (Austin) Jackson or (Jose) Tabata. In the past I have leaned Tabata but Jackson is really intriguing and I’m thinking about moving him ahead.
Bugs & Cranks: OK. I was going to ask you to compare those two guys. So, can you give us the low-down on each of them?
John Sickels: Sure. Jackson is the better athlete of the two, should keep his speed longer and started to develop more power last year. His strike zone judgment needs work but he cut his strikeouts last season, a good sign. Tabata is a year and a half younger, which is important. He’s getting thick in his lower half but still runs well right now. Hasn’t shown as much power as Jackson did last year, but has been more consistent with his batting average. Both are Grade B/B+ type prospects, both project as regulars.
John Sickels: Both have a chance to be stars if they can continue refining their tools. Don’t expect them to be ready until 2009 or 2010.
Bugs & Cranks: So, if the Yankees need an outfielder from their farm system this season it will probably be Brett Gardner. What can you tell us about him? Is he a guy who can be a regular, or is he Bubba Crosby?
John Sickels: Very fast, gets on base, no power and unlikely to develop any. I see him as a Jason Tyner type, more useful as a fourth outfielder in my opinion than as a starter.
Bugs & Cranks: OK. Look to 2010. I know these are the Yankees and I know they love to bring in big-name guys. But, any chance by then that we have an outfield of Tabata-Cabrera-Jackson with Gardner as the fourth guy?
John Sickels: In theory, lol.
John Sickels: But I doubt it. They will bring in a big name.
John Sickels: However, fans of the Yankees farm system should not despair. The system is improving, and having a good farm system is ALWAYS a good thing.
Bugs & Cranks: Yes. Are there any guys in the system we haven’t mentioned who Yankee fans should be aware of?
John Sickels: Most Yankees fans nowadays are pretty decently informed about the farm system. A couple of sleeper pitchers I think are interesting are Daniel McCutchen and Zach McAllister. Both of them could be pretty interesting. McCutchen would be up sooner, McAllister is more of a long-term guy with high risk but an interesting reward. He was a high school pitcher from Illinois who is still putting his game together but has some upside, and he pitched better than the 5.17 ERA he put up in the NY-P last year indicates.
Thanks again to John for sitting down to chat with me. I’m not going to offer daily minor league coverage here, but I will try to periodically give you guys updates on what is going on down on the farm. You can check MinorLeagueBall for updates, as well as Chad Jennings outstanding SWB Yankees Blog.