The names all bring back memories: Kevin Maas, Sam Militello, Ruben Rivera, Hensley Meulens, Drew Henson, and Eric Duncan. For some amount of time, all of these guys were set to be the next great Yankee and yet all of them were massive disappointments in a farm system that had more hype than results. These days, things are certainly different as the Yankees' farm system is both talented and productive as the club has both traded prospects and promoted prospects to make the postseason each of the past two seasons. The club shipped Austin Jackson and Phil Coke to acquire Curtis Granderson and in recent years has promoted Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Brett Gardner to be key contributors. Last spring, Yankees fans were buzzing about Jesus Montero as he did well in the Grapefruit League as a 20-year-old, but the club ultimately decided it was in Montero's best interest to go to the minors and sent him to Triple-A Scranton. There, Montero continued to rake as he hit .289/.353/.517 solidifying himself as one of the best offensive prospects in all of baseball while doing little to quiet the concerns about him ever being a quality catcher at the big league level. This spring, Yankees fans are aflutter about a different (soon to be) 20-year-old prospect – Manny Banuelos.
Last month, Yankees GM Brian Cashman was quoted as saying that Banuelos had “no chance” to make the major league team out of spring training and that the young man would begin the 2011 season in Double-A Trenton. Most people seemed to be fine with that logical progression as Banuelos has but 15 innings of experience above High-A and does not even turn 20 years old until this coming Saturday. Then, this past Friday night happened. Banuelos pitched at Steinbrenner Field against a Red Sox lineup that closely resembled what will be in Pawtucket this season and he looked exceptional. I tuned into the game specifically to watch Banuelos work and he did little to quell the groundswell of people who want him at the major league level right now over names such as Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova, or Sergio Mitre.
Banuelos worked anywhere from 91-96 with his fastball locating it to both sides of the strike zone and was in firm command on his secondary offerings as well. What was most impressive was his use of his changeup that Frankie Piliere once described as a pitch with a dead-fish drop to it. That is the best way to describe the action to the change he threw on Friday night as it came in 10-12 miles an hour slower than his fastball with the same arm action and dramatic downward fade to it. Banuelos threw his first changeup in a 2-0 count to veteran Jason Varitek and caught him looking on the pitch. Frankly, had I not known that Banuelos was just shy of 20, I would have guessed he was in his mid 20's. In that respect, he reminds me a lot of Jeremy Hellickson in that he pitches with polish and maturity that belie his age. Both Banuelos and Hellickson have at least two quality pitches and both are able to throw them for strikes at different points in the count.
Predictably, the hype following his outing grew on the interwebs very quickly. Here is a small sampling of some of the headlines and content I found online over the weekend:
"Hey, Yankees…Banuelos Is Ready NOW!"
But whether young Banuelos proves to be the next Mark Prior or the next Nolan Ryan when it comes to health, the question still has to be asked: Just how many of Manny's bullets do we wish to waste on the minor leagues?
Brian Cashman might not be ready to see Manny pitch in the major leagues, but the kid is sure enough ready to pitch at that level. To send him anyplace else would be a waste.
"Martin Suggests Banuelos is more polished than Kershaw"
“He has as good stuff as I've seen,” said Russell Martin, who caught Banuelos' two scoreless innings against the Red Sox on Friday. “I compare it to [Clayton] Kershaw or even more polished than Kershaw, which is pretty good.”
For the record, Martin was not the first one to see that comparison. Pinstripe Alley was saying that back in December of last year.
Those two pieces are an example of the hype that Banuelos is now facing as the newest Yankees prospect that will enter the hype terrordome that comes with being a good Yankees prospect. For a more conservative approach to how to handle Banuelos, I point you to two excellent pieces: one by Eric Schultz at The Yankees Analysts and the other by Hannah Ehrlich at River Ave Blues.
Understand, Banuelos has thrown just under 216 innings in his professional career to date and no more than 109 in any one season and he has never pitched above Double-A. Some people might point to examples such as the aforementioned Kershaw, CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels, Josh Beckett, and Jeremy Bonderman as examples of young pitchers who made the leap, but there is a difference. Most of the pitchers had roughly the same amount of minor league experience at the time of their callup in terms of innings pitched but each pitcher differed from Banuelos in one way or another. Kershaw had but 220 innings pitched when the Dodgers promoted him but he had also thrown as many as 122 innings in a single season – roughly two more starts than Banuelos. Sabathia had 230 innings but had also hit the 146 mark in a season and Beckett was very close with 140 innings. Cole Hamels had only 201 innings when the Phillies skipped him over Triple-A to come to the majors but he was also 22 years old and Jeremy Bonderman only saw one season in the minors before his promotion but it was a season in which he threw 156 innings.
Not even the most casual fantasy baseball player needs a reminder of what happened with Generation K back in the mid 90s when a young arm gets too much work too quickly. Kershaw has certainly become one of the outliers to that theory, but for every Kershaw, there are nine other young arms that are hurt by too much, too quickly. Most teams try to stick to a theory of no more than 20% increase from one season to the next and if the Yankees did that, Banuelos would be at a limit of 130 innings for 2011. Pitch count is more important than innings pitched as all inning totals are not created equally given that a typical Scott Kazmir inning is more work than even a Derek Lowe inning but it is tough to envision a large workload jump for Banuelos at the age of 20. After all, just 14 pitchers in the last 30 seasons have thrown as many as 100 innings at the major league level at the age of 20, or in Dwight Gooden's case, younger.
1. Dwight Gooden = 494.2 IP 1984-1985
2. Ed Correa = 202 IP, 1984
3. Fernando Valenzuela = 192.1 IP, 1981 (age 20..something)
4. Felix Hernandez = 191 IP, 2006
5. CC Sabathia = 180.1 IP, 2001
6. Rick Ankiel = 175 IP, 2000
7. Rick Porcello = 170.2 IP, 2009
8. Jeremy Bonderman = 162 IP, 2003
9. Bret Saberhagen = 157.2 IP, 1984
10. Zack Greinke = 145 IP, 2004
11. Mike Witt = 129 IP, 1981
12. Madison Bumgarner = 111 IP, 2010
13. Clayton Kershaw = 107.2 IP, 2008
14. Storm Davis = 100.2 IP, 1982
Certainly, there is a ton of talent on that list, but for every star, there is a bust. The amazing thing about Dwight Gooden is that he amassed 745 innings at the major league level before he turned 22 and that is more innings than guys like Matt Garza and Ricky Nolasco have at this stage of their respective careers at age 27. Felix Hernandez threw that heavy workload in 2006, but had also thrown 168 innings as an 18-year-old so the workload was not new to his system. Kershaw ended up with 169 innings in his season when combining his minor league numbers and his major league numbers while Bumgarner jumped to a whopping 193 innings last season.
Keeper league players absolutely must target Banuelos for their draft as left-handed starting pitching that can throw mid-90s with his polish do not grow on trees. This is one of the better pitching prospects in baseball and arguably the jewel of the Yankees' pitching prospects in that he has avoided injury up to this point unlike Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman. Players in reset (one-year) leagues need to temper their expectations for this season as it is unlikely Banuelos sees significant work at the major league level given his lighter workload up to this point. The earlier the Yankees call him up, the more frustrating it will be to own him for the 2011 season as they are likely to put him on some kind of pitch count or innings limit which will affect his potential to help in wins and strikeout totals despite his stuff.