MLB.com Columnist

Mark Feinsand

Bronx dreams could come true for prospects

Sheffield, Adams know that path to bigs much different now in Yanks' system

Bronx dreams could come true for prospects

TRENTON, N.J. -- The hallways leading to the home clubhouse at Arm & Hammer Park are lined with framed jerseys, reminders of young Trenton Thunder players who went on to experience success at the game's highest level.

Robinson Cano. Brett Gardner. Phil Hughes. Each of them All-Stars in the Major Leagues; each a former member of this Double-A club in the heart of New Jersey's capital.

Justus Sheffield and Chance Adams are hoping to be the next players to make such a transition, having the same type of impact in the Bronx with their talented arms that sluggers Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Greg Bird have with their bats during the past 18 months.

Yankees' Top 30 Prospects list

"Everyone keeps calling it a youth movement," Adams said. "I just think they're seeing how we're performing down here and thinking, 'If they're doing so well down there, why can't they help us with the big league club?' Instead of signing someone to a fat contract, they're giving guys down here a chance. Same outcome, less money."

That's been the case when it comes to Sanchez, Bird and Judge so far, though the Yankees haven't been quite as fortunate when it comes to their rookie arms. Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain were supposed to be the future, but that never happened. Ditto for Andrew Brackman, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, who has excelled as a reliever while the other two were busts.

Luis Severino looked like a future ace following his two-month debut in 2015, but a difficult '16 season brought that conversation to a grinding halt. Current No. 5 starter Jordan Montgomery was impressive at both Double-A and Triple-A last season, but his stellar spring was something of a surprise, leaving some wondering whether the towering lefty is the real deal.

Former No. 1 pick James Kaprielian was considered by many to be the Yanks' best hope for a homegrown rotation star, something the club hasn't developed since it drafted Andy Pettitte in 1990. But the UCLA product is slated to undergo Tommy John surgery on Tuesday, knocking him out of action until sometime in 2018.

That leaves Sheffield and Adams as the top candidates to fill the void, one which could be considerably larger when CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and possibly Masahiro Tanaka head for free agency at the end of the 2017 season.

Top Prospects: Sheffield, NYY

"This is a great opportunity for some of these young guys; there's obviously chances here," Betances said. "Whoever does the best will grab it and run with it. It's an exciting time for anybody in the Minors. They're moving guys up. When I first came up, there wasn't much of that."

Five or 10 years ago, Sheffield would never have found himself in the Yankees' system. A first-round pick out of high school by the Indians in 2014, the hard-throwing southpaw was part of the four-player package sent to New York in the deal that landed Andrew Miller in Cleveland after the Yanks made the very un-Yankee-like decision to become sellers at the 2016 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Outfielder Clint Frazier was widely considered the centerpiece of that trade, but Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was quick to point out that Sheffield was as integral to the deal as anybody.

"This wasn't a case of Batman and Robin," Cashman said of Frazier and Sheffield. "More like Batman and Superman."

Sheffield laughed at the comparison, but he knows that being a Yankees prospect during this era is an entirely different experience than it would have been as recently as five years ago, when Minor Leaguers were seen as little more than currency to bring in the next experienced veteran.

"It was very humbling, knowing that they traded for me in that deal," Sheffield said. "All I have to do now is go out there and prove them right."

Sheffield is doing a good job so far. In 24 starts at Class A, he posted a 3.19 ERA before making one scoreless start for Trenton last year. Sheffield opened this season with a strong 5 2/3-inning outing, allowing one unearned run, carrying the momentum from his first spring in big league camp.

"Obviously I believe that I can pitch there," Sheffield said of the Majors. "I believe in my stuff, I believe in my ability. It's just a matter of continuing to progress down here and get better day by day. I can't control where I'm going to be. All I can control is every fifth day out there on the mound."

Sheffield gets out of a jam

"It's a huge jump from Triple-A to the big leagues, and it's a big jump from a full-season A club to Double-A," Cashman said. "The competition is better and the game is faster. Once they're in the Double-A arena for a period of time, they're starting to put themselves on the Major League radar."

Adams was drafted as a reliever by the Yankees, who took him out of Dallas Baptist University in the fifth round in 2015. He made 14 relief appearances for three Class A teams that season, but the Yanks decided to give him a look as a starter last year in an effort to finish off the development of his pitches.

After opening 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA in 12 starts with Class A Tampa, Adams earned a promotion to Double-A. He kept rolling in Trenton, going 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA in 13 outings (12 starts). This season, he's 2-0 with a 0.79 ERA, allowing four hits and striking out 13 over his first 11 1/3 innings.

"To everybody's surprise, he maintained his stuff and velocity from pitch 1 to 100 and from April through September," Cashman said. "Now all of a sudden, he's a starter."

Well, not everybody is surprised. The 22-year-old Adams said his success as a starter hasn't shocked him one bit.

"I don't mean that in a cocky sense, but I've been playing a long time, and I know my abilities," Adams said. "I knew I could pitch that well. It was just, could I pitch that well for that many innings? To me, the success wasn't a surprise. That I was able to go into the sixth inning still throwing 95 [mph] or so, that's what was surprising to me."

Adams works into, out of jam

A lot of pitchers have shown great promise in the Minors before succumbing to the pressure of the pinstripes. Sabathia, who served as a mentor to Sheffield this spring, believes his young protege has both the physical talent and mental makeup to make his mark in the Bronx.

"He's on a good track; I think he's going to be one of the really special ones," Sabathia said. "He's competitive enough, but still laid back enough to get here and not let it drive him crazy. He understands what it would mean to pitch in New York. He should get a chance soon."

How soon? With no veteran starters signed beyond this season other than Tanaka -- who can become a free agent with the aforementioned opt-out clause -- the Yankees might be turning to their unseasoned pitchers next season the way they viewed their young hitters this year.

"I know it could be a possibility that positions could be open, but if I think about that, it's not going to help me go out there and get outs," Sheffield said. "I still have to do my job no matter if there are five Cy Youngs in the rotation or five open spots. I have to do my job and be the best I can be."

"Everyone in the Minors thinks they can pitch [in the Majors]. You have to have that confidence, or you won't do that well," Adams said. "Theoretically, once you get to Double-A, you could be one phone call away. I just have to go out and keep pitching my game, not think about it too much."

For now, Sheffield and Adams will continue to gaze at the jerseys on the wall and wonder whether theirs is destined to join their predecessors in the clubhouse halls.

"They realize that they're on the verge probably more than others -- you'd have to be blind not to see that," Trenton manager Bobby Mitchell said. "We always talk about staying with the process, and they realize it's a process and that they're not there yet. I think they realize that if they do well, they may not be here very long."

Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.