(Am I the only one looking at the elbow there? Courtesy of Bombers Beat/Bryan Hoch)
When Jesus Montero was jettisoned off to the land of grunge, Manny Banuelos became the clear cut #1 prospect in the Yankee organization. If you voted for Gary Sanchez, more power to you, but a 21-year-old lefty with ace-caliber stuff and advanced command who rises through the system to Triple-A in just 3 full seasons gets the nod in my book. After he put in some solid work in his brief SWB debut late last season, and impressed the Yankee coaching staff in Spring Training, my hope/dream/thought was that ManBan would be best served spending another year in Triple-A refining his command and building up his innings count to prepare for an introduction to the Yankee rotation as a low-stress #4 or #5 starter in 2013. But with the way things have gone for Manny over the past couple seasons, now I'm not so sure about that plan. I swear I'm not trying to be the harbinger of prospect doom here, but in the same way that I was concerned about Dellin Betances last week, I've got some concerns about ManBan now.
My first, and biggest concern, is health-related. As he's risen through the system, Banuelos has hit more than his fair share of injury speed bumps. He missed some time after an appendectomy in 2010 (and I believe there was a groin injury somewhere in there as well), dealt with blister issues in 2011, and this year has had 2 separate stints on the DL because of injuries to his lat and his left elbow. For some reason, FanGraphs still lists him at 5'11"/155 when he's clearly up to 185-190, but his smaller stature and recent bouts with injuries are enough to make me think twice about how he would hold up over the grind of a 162-game, 200+ inning Major League season.
The recent elbow injury, and the way it's being treated, are of great concern to me. The Yankees were very quick to have Banuelos MRI'd after he reported the discomfort, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when the MRI came back negative and the resulting DL trip was described as "precautionary." But that was back on May 21st, over 3 weeks ago, and the "tired arm" diagnosis and precautionary status of the DL placement don't seem to add up with the recent comments by Cash himself that Banuelos will be out for another month "or so." Maybe I've just watched "Conspiracy Theory" one too many times on TNT, but 7-8 weeks seems like an awfully long time to be on the shelf with just a tired arm. I can't help but think back to Michael Pineda's tired arm/sore shoulder situation in ST and how that ended up when I think about this current elbow situation with Banuelos.
If he is going to be out for at least another month, that means Banuelos won't start throwing again until some time in mid-July, and that means we probably won't see him back in game action until some time in August. That's another 3 months of missed development time, and this is where my other concern comes in. The collection of health-related problems have served to prevent ManBan from building up innings, something that nobody wants to see as an issue with young Yankee pitchers after the way Joba and Phil Hughes were handled earlier in their careers. Banuelos threw just 129.2 innings last season, which ranked as a career high for him, and has only thrown 24.0 this season. By the time he comes back from his DL stint, he's going to have no shot of reaching 100 innings this year and that's not a good thing.
And like Betances, ManBan has seen some regression in his peripherals as he's advanced up the MiL ladder. His bump up to Double-A in late 2010 saw his BB/9 jump to 4.70 in an admittedly small sample size of 15.1 IP, the first blip on his previously clean command radar. That elevated BB rate remained through his stint in Double-A last year (4.91 BB/9 in 95.1 IP) and also after his promotion to Triple-A (4.98 in 34.1 IP). He's also seen his K/9 drop from 12.59 to 9.98 going from High-A to Double-A in 2010, to 8.87 in Double-A last season, and to 8.13 from Double-A to Triple-A. The K numbers had improved slightly this season, as had the BB rate, but in just 24 innings it's hard to make much from that. He's had 3 really crummy starts this year and 3 really good ones, and now he's not going to pitch again for 2 months.
Banuelos is still a legit ace-type pitching prospect and at age 21 he's still way ahead of the normal learning curve for a starting pitcher. But his meteoric rise through the system has been seriously halted by his health and command problems over the last year plus, and the plan for his continued development and eventual promotion is going to have to be seriously re-evaluated. The fact of the matter is that he still doesn't have enough experience pitching against this upper level of hitters, he hasn't shown that he can consistently command his stuff at this level, and he still hasn't thrown what can legitimately be called a "full" season's worth of innings. I still have high hopes for ManBan, and I'm still greatly looking forward to seeing him break into the Yankee rotation. I'm also much more cautiously optimistic about him than I was this last time year, and I'm bordering on starting to worry about what his future really holds.