(Jose could be closer to the show than you think. Courtesy of the AP)
The time for the unveiling of the 2013-2014 AB4AR Top 30 draws nearer. As part of the prelude to that and to AB4AR Prospect Week in general, I'd like to revisit a post topic from last offseason and take a look at some of the organization's top prospects who are serious candidates to make the jump and contribute at the Major League level in 2014. The Yankees haven't gotten any younger in their free agent spending spree and don't appear to be making that a priority as they fill out the rest of their remaining roster holes. We saw this past season how that approach with an old core worked out, and the constant barrage of injuries created many opportunities for upper-level MiLers to break into the lineup and attempt to carve out roles for themselves.
Last season's version of this post came in late December, so I'm a little behind schedule on this post in comparison. I hit the nail on the head with my first 2 picks, then whiffed on the next 4 and missed out on guys like Adam Warren and Preston Claiborne. After the jump, my picks for the prospects most likely to follow in the footsteps of Austin Romine and David Adams and work their way into Major League game action in 2014.
J.R. Murphy- C
The easiest selection of the bunch. Murphy got a late-season cup of coffee in 2013 when Romine went out with a concussion. He hit .154/.185/.192 in 27 plate appearances and looked pretty good behind the plate working with a pitching staff with which he'd had no previous experience. Murphy put himself back on the prospect map in a big way in 2013 and figures to open the 2014 season as the starter for the Triple-A RailRiders. With the Yanks possibly shopping Romine and Frankie Cervelli a constant red-level threat to get injured, Romine could be looking at a call up to back up Brian McCann at any time.
Manny Banuelos- LHSP
I'm on the record as saying I think ManBan could be the sneaky best option for the 5th starter spot, and it's that belief that lands him second on this list. He's lost a lot of development time the last 2 years and he was far from a finished product before he got hurt, but let's not forget that he's still 2 months away from his 23rd birthday and will open the season in Triple-A. The Yankees most likely will and should take it slowly with him at first, as is customary for young pitchers coming back from TJS. If they get to the point that they need pitching staff reinforcements in the late summer, and they will, they'd be wise to roll the dice on ManBan. He can still be a productive part of the team's future and a low-leverage audition as a spot starter or lefty long reliever would be a great way to evaluate his Major League potential.
Mark Montgomery- RHRP
This was one of the picks I whiffed on last year, but I'm willing to take the plunge and put Montgomery on here again. His 2013 season was basically a lost one because of all the shoulder problems and the decision to shut him down and let him rest was a smart one. He's expected to be 100% healthy and ready to go to start this spring and I anticipate he'll be invited to Major League camp. Last year's hiccup aside, Montgomery is still the organization's top relief prospect and the fact that they moved him up to Triple-A as quickly as they did means the Yankees like him a lot. If his stuff is back to full strength, he'll be one of the first relievers called up when the injury bug starts biting.
Jose Ramirez- RHP
If Montgomery is the top relief prospect in the Yankee system, Ramirez could very well be #2. That may seem strange considering his development path so far (only 2 relief appearances in his MiL career), but the problematic downward trend in IP has the talk shifting more and more towards converting Ramirez to a reliever. He's struggled to stay healthy since 2010 and he's not the most mechanically sound pitcher in the world by any means, so that might be the best way to maximize his top shelf stuff. He turned a lot of heads in ST in 2013, lasting longer in Major League camp than I think anyone anticipated, and he got promoted to Triple-A early in the year before injuries cut his season short. He's another arm the Yankees clearly love and could have some "Joba circa 2007" spark to him if the Major League 'pen really gets in a bind.
Slade Heathcott- OF
While Heathcott may look like a bigger stretch than Ramirez, consider these factors. Before he was shut down, Heathcott was starting to heat up in Double-A and play his best ball of the 2013 season. At 23, he's the oldest of the Yankees' group of top OF prospects. The rest of that group of prospects, headlined by Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, and Ramon Flores, are likely to return to Double-A to start this season for a variety of development-related reasons. This should bump Heathcott up to Triple-A as one of the starting OFers for the RailRiders and he was recently added to the 40-man roster, the same 40-man roster that features a ton of injury question marks (Gardner, Ellsbury, Beltran) and production question marks (Wells, Ichiro). It's a longshot, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that Heathcott is needed at some point in the season. It's also not outside the realm of possibility that he gets a September call up if he stays healthy and hits at Triple-A.
There are other players who could fit onto this list, Zoilo chief among them, but I didn't want to load it up with players who played in 2013 and I'm not going to waste anybody's time writing about Quad-A types like David Huff or Matt Daley. From the pool of legitimate prospects in the system, these 5 are the ones I think we're most likely to see in pinstripes at some point in 2014.