First-rounders Kaprielian, Holder enduring ups and downs with new club
By Mike Rosenbaum
James Kaprielian and Kyle Holder will be forever linked as first-round Draft picks of the New York Yankees -- an honor that isn't lost on either player.
"This is a special organization, and I think everybody knows that," said Kaprielian, the Yanks' top pick (No. 16 overall) in the 2015 Draft.
"The amount of history and players -- just look at all the retired numbers going up right now. There are a lot of legendary players who have worn pinstripes."
Unsurprisingly, Kaprielian isn't referring to the pinstripes worn by the low Class A Staten Island Yankees. That's where he and Holder, whom the Yanks selected with the No. 30 overall pick, are wrapping up their first professional season.
Kaprielian tied a bow on his excellent college career at UCLA with a dominant junior season, going 10-4 with a 2.03 ERA over 106 2/3 innings (17 games). The 6-foot-4, 200-pound right-hander led the Pac 12 Conference in strikeouts as both a sophomore and junior, including a career-best 114 punchouts -- against only 33 walks -- this past spring.
Headed into the Draft, scouts lauded Kaprielian for his strong track record, durability and advanced feel for four pitches, with the overall combination possibly moving Kaprielian at an accelerated pace through the Yankees' system.
However, the fact that Kaprielian was one of the final 2015 first-rounders to sign kept him from making his highly anticipated professional debut until late July. The 21-year-old was rusty when he finally took the mound, allowing four runs (three earned) on one hit and two walks in one-third of an inning for the Yanks' affiliate in the Gulf Coast League.
Since then, the Yankees' No. 5 prospect has rattled off five straight scoreless innings, during which Kaprielian has struck out six batters and allowed just one hit.
Kaprielian was especially sharp in his latest outing -- his first professional start as well as his debut for Staten Island -- striking out four (all swinging) over three hitless frames, with 24 of his 35 pitches going for strikes.
"My goal is to build off every outing," said the right-hander, whose fastball sat around 92 mph while topping out at 95.
"My [UCLA] coach used to say, 'He's still trying to learn about the game every day,' and that kind of channeled into me to know I need to just trust the process. Nobody has it all figured out. I think there's a lot of different things I can learn from a lot of different people."
But while the early return on Kaprielian has been promising, the jury's still out on his fellow first-rounder.
Holder was viewed as arguably the top defensive shortstop in the 2015 Draft class, as the athleticism, footwork, hands and arm strength he showed on the field at the University of San Diego left little doubt about his capacity to handle the position at the next level.
"A lot of it came naturally, but playing basketball definitely helped my footwork," said the 21-year-old, who dreamed of playing both sports in college, before finally deciding on baseball.
"Playing defense in basketball is kind of like going up the middle or to the six-hole. I think it helps keep you quick and with agility. I think it definitely gave me an advantage."
Holder's upside at the plate is still up for debate.
"I know my defense is what I'm known for," Holder said, "but I want to be known as that all-around, five-tool guy who can hit, play defense, run -- all those things."
Since Holder's debut with Staten Island on June 19, the Yankees' No. 13 prospect has batted just .197 with a .218 slugging percentage and three extra-base hits in 45 games.
Yet Staten Island hitting coach Eric Duncan isn't concerned with Holder's early struggles. In fact, he sees it all the time with recent draftees in the New York-Penn League.
"There's always an adjustment period at every level you go to," Duncan said, "and I think one of the great things about this level is guys need to figure who they are as professionals.
"Sometimes it's going to be shorter than others, sometimes it's going to be a long one. I think that's what a lot of guys at this level are going through, coming here from high school, JuCo or college."
The bulk of Duncan's work with Holder has been centered on improving his bat path so as to allow him to utilize his best tool -- his hands.
"He's got phenomenal hands, phenomenal barrel awareness," Duncan said of the young left-handed hitter.
Holder's plate discipline -- one of his strengths in college -- has carried over as a professional, and he's posted a respectable 7.2 percent walk rate to begin his career.
But Duncan believes Holder's advanced approach also can be a detriment at times, resulting in too much forced contact in advantageous count.
"He doesn't swing and miss much, so we've talked about recognizing not just strikes, but pitches you can drive early in the count," Duncan said. "Not being afraid to swing and miss before two strikes."
Once fully developed, Duncan sees Holder as a potential "two-hole type guy -- someone who can see pitches and isn't afraid to hit with two strikes, and who can manipulate the barrel well enough to help an offense in different ways."
With Holder likely to reach the Major Leagues based on the merits of his sparkling defense, the Yanks can afford to ease him along at lower levels over the coming years.
In Kaprielian's case, a strong finish to his professional debut followed by a hot start in 2016 could place the right-hander on the fast track the Major Leagues.
For now, though, the UCLA product is left wondering whether the Yankees -- who retired the numbers of Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada earlier this month -- will have any single- or double-digit numbers remaining when he finally arrives.
"I might be the first guy to wear No. 101."
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.