Monday, June 23, 2008

Meanwhile, back at the farm

Under Brian Cashman's guidance, the Yankees' farm system has gone from wasteland to one of baseball's best in a few short years.

With the Bombers on a travel day, I figured today was as good a time as any to check in with five prospects making noise in the Minors. If you're a farm junkie, these are all familiar names, but in each of their cases it's interesting trying to project when and where they will fit in the Yankees' future plans.

All stats are through Sunday's action.

Austin Jackson, OF
Trenton Thunder (Double-A)
.283 BA, 7 HR, 45 RBIs, 11 SB, .364 OBP, .445 SLG

An eighth-round pick in the 2005 Draft, Jackson's stock has risen quickly in the organization. His home run and RBI totals are team highs in Trenton, and his steal total ranks second. Jackson made a name for himself in Tampa last year, hitting .345 with 15 doubles, six triples and 10 homers in just 67 games. Baseball America has called him the most athletic player in the Yanks' system and the Texas native entered the season as baseball's 24th best prospect by ESPN's Keith Law:

Jackson has good speed, a solid-average arm in center and good instincts on fly balls, but still has some work to do at the plate. His setup is excellent and his path to the ball is short, but he needs to continue working on keeping his weight back to get more power from the contact he makes, and he's too eager to chase the ball up. He's a potential middle-of-the-order bat because of his power and improving plate discipline.
The Yankees don't have a distinguished track record of developing outfielders into stars over the past 25 years -- Bernie Williams being a notable exception -- but the system is stacked right now with high-ceiling talent. Jackson is just 21, which likely makes him a season or two away from joining the big club in a full-time capacity. Melky Cabrera is the current Yankees center fielder, but you get the feeling his grip on the job is tenuous. The talent bubbling down below will only make the Melky's hot seat warmer. With two 30-something veterans flanking Cabrera, the Yanks outfield should be wide open for new blood in the near future.

Jose Tabata, OF
Trenton Thunder (Double-A)
.231 BA, 2 HR, 29 RBI, 10 SB, .308 OBP, .285 SLG

An international signee by the Yankees in 2005, Tabata joined the Thunder this season and is still playing catch up following hand surgery last August. Jackson's presence in Trenton has shifted Tabata from center field to right, but he has a strong and accurate arm that fits in nicely on the corner. Tabata is just a baby who won't turn 20 until Aug. 12, and the biggest question mark surrounding him is how long it will take to get all the way back from the broken hamate bone suffered late last season. ESPN's Keith Law ranked Tabata as the game's No. 21 prospect.
Tabata has a quick bat and great hand-eye coordination, and he squares up balls as well as anyone on this [Top 100 prospect] list. He also has good pitch recognition, although that can manifest itself in working the count to get to a fastball he can drive.
With Jackson, Tabata and Brett Gardner all at a similar development stage, it will be interesting to see how the Yankees play this down the road. It's hard to imagine the parent club nurturing three young outfielders at once. But as things stand now, Tabata seems to have the tools to be a big-time contributor once he gets 100 percent healthy.

Andrew Brackman, RHP

The Yankees opened up their checkbook to sign North Carolina State star Brackman after selecting him as their top pick (30th overall) in the 2007 Draft. It seems there are the advantages to hiring Scott Boras as your agent, contrary to what Alex Rodriguez may tell you. Brackman has yet to throw a pitch in the Minors; he signed too late to play in 2007 and then underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in August. He's currently rehabbing the elbow, and was set back three weeks following an appendectomy on June 12. Despite these pitfalls, Brackman is scheduled to pitch in the Arizona Fall League. At 6-foot-10, the 22-year-old throws a mid-90s fastball and also possesses a two-seam fastball, knuckle curve and changeup. Elbow issues are a concern, but this is the club's most promising prospect.

Alan Horne, RHP
Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees (Triple-A)
2-1, 3.70 ERA, 24.1 IP, 22 K, 10 BB

Elbow injuries don't scare the Yankees. Horne is another example of this, he already had a Tommy John surgery under his belt when the Yanks took him in the 12th round of the 2005 Draft. The Draft was already old hat for the 6-foot-4 right-hander by then -- he had previously been chosen by the Indians in 2001 (first round) and Angels in 2003 (30th round).

The 2007 season was a big one for Horne, named the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year Award. He went 12-4 with a 2.97 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 158 strikeouts in 142.1 innings for the Thunder. This season has been more modest in its production, but the 24-year-old remains on track to join the Yankees' rotation in the near future.

Brett Gardner, OF
Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees (Triple-A)
.292 BA, 3 HR, 29 RBI, 29 SB, .408 OBP, .436 SLG

The third highly-touted outfielder on this list, Gardner is said to be the fastest player in the organization, and his stolen-base total at Scranton-Wilkes Barre speaks to that. He was drafted in the third round of the 2005 Draft and has shown an ability to hit and get on base on every level. His speed makes him a natural fit in center field, but Jackson may send Gardner to left in the Bronx. At 24 years old, he is the closest of the bunch to big-league ready, and Melky's middling play may leave the door open for a promotion as early as this summer.

Having a sparkplug like Gardner at the bottom of the lineup during the dog days of summer has to be a tempting proposition for Mr. Cashman.

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