Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com is visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today we check in on the New York Yankees.
TAMPA, Fla. -- In the early 1990s, the Yankees had one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, led by a quartet now known as "The Core Four." Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were the crowning achievements of a very deep Minor League organization.
A young hitting coach Gary Denbo was there to see it and be a part of it. Now more than two decades later, Denbo is the man in charge of the Yanks' system as the vice president of player development, and it's nearly impossible for him (and others) not to make comparisons.
"In the early '90s we had some really good young players," Denbo said. "It feels to me like this group is better than the group we had in the early '90s, before we went on to win four out of five world championships. Obviously, there is work left to do and these guys have to perform at that level. But in terms of the pure number of players we have, it's better now than it was then."
It's a bold statement, for sure, but Denbo does have the historical perspective to make such a claim, and the Yankees did come in No. 2 in MLBPipeline.com's top 10 farm system rankings. This spring is really the first time Denbo and his staff have been able to have them all under one roof, given the fact that some of the key pieces were added via the Draft and Trade Deadline last summer. Some have just returned from big league camp, most notably top prospect Gleyber Torres, and Denbo and company are working to get to know them as Minor League camp continues.
"First, our amateur scouts and our international scouts did a tremendous job of identifying these players and bringing them to us," Denbo said. "These are middle-of-the-field athletes who can run and throw and hit and play defense and a couple of them can hit for power. It really is an exciting group. Then at the Trade Deadline last year, our pro scouts and our baseball operations people stepped in and they did a tremendous job at identifying talent and bringing that in.
"You don't always get the opportunity to work with great talent like we have here. We think it's a privilege to be able to do that. I didn't recognize in the early '90s how lucky I was to be working with that group. I do now."
Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding playing time for all of them. All this talent certainly breeds competition, and the toughest job a farm director has, releasing players, looms for Denbo. But as he surveys what he has in camp from top to bottom, he can't help but smile just a little.
"They're spread out throughout the organization. We have the chance to have a nice line of players coming through for the next several years who I think will contribute to our Major League team," he said. "It's exciting."
Jorge Mateo might be one of the most dynamic prospects in all of baseball, starting with his top-of-the-scale speed. His upside is why he is still ranked No. 47 on the Top Prospects' 100 list, even if his prospect status took a bit of a hit in 2016 with an up-and-down season that included a suspension for insubordination.
It's clear that the 21-year-old Mateo has put that experience behind him, and perhaps learned from it. The Yanks have been very pleased with how he has grown, both physically and in tems of his maturity.
"He has come in bigger and stronger," Denbo said. "He has impressed everyone with how he's gone about his business. He is an unbelievably exciting player to watch on the field. He did really well in Major League camp and has done everything we've asked him to do. He has made some adjustments offensively. We look forward to him having a bounce-back year and doing really well."
The big league staff liked what they saw from Mateo at shortstop, a position he shifted from to second base when Torres was acquired from the Cubs last summer. With manager Joe Girardi's desire to have more positional flexibility, Mateo will continue to see time on both sides of second base. He's also going to start playing some center field, where his speed would really play. With so many shortstops, starting with Didi Gregorius on the big league roster, Mateo's ability to change positions could help him when the time comes for his first Major League opportunity.
"He's going to start the year in the Florida State League," Denbo said. "He'll play three or four games a week at shortstop, he might see some time at second, and he's going to see a couple of games a week in center field. He's 100 percent bought into it. Our outfield coordinator Reggie Willits has worked with him for the past several days since he came down from Major League camp, and Reggie has been extremely impressed with the way he's working, with the way he's bought in to being not just a good player out there, but a great player.
"He's a very talented guy. He's going to get the chance to play a number of different positions, all in the middle of the field. We'll see what happens."
Denbo pointed to a couple of international signees who have flown under the radar since joining the Yankees as guys who could take strong developmental steps forward in 2017.
Korean infielder Hoy-Jun Park isn't a complete unknown, as he received a seven-figure bonus to sign in July 2014. He went to full-season ball in '16 and while he hit just .225 for Charleston, he did lead the South Atlantic League with 12 triples and finished tied for sixth with 32 stolen bases. Park reported to camp in very good shape and showing added strength that should help him be more of an offensive threat in 2017.
Outfielder Estevan Florial signed in March 2015 after missing nearly a year following an identity issue. Born in Haiti and raised in the Dominican, he ended up signing for a fraction of what he would've gotten. Florial has shown the speed and raw power that made him a top international prospect, but his approach has needed work (he struck out in 29 percent of his at-bats in the Appalachian League a year ago). But Denbo has been impressed with the adjustments the No. 17 prospect in the organization has made so far this spring, pointing to a potential breakout.