Fall and winter ball are nearly here. On August 31, rosters for the Arizona Fall League were announced. Though the Yankees should have eight players headed to play for the Phoenix Desert Dogs, only five have been announced so far.
There’s a slight chance that the manager of the Desert Dogs will be familiar to you: Don Mattingly. Donnie Baseball is headed for the dry lands to prove that he is ready to succeed the possibly-departing Dodger manager Joe Torre. The former Bomber will take charge of the following Junior Yankees in his first real managing opportunity:
Craig Heyer, RHP, High-A Tampa: Of those making the trek to Phoenix, none had a lower profile coming into the year than Heyer, a 2007 22nd-round pick out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him twice, in 2004 and 2005, but he did not sign. He worked his way up to Tampa last season before getting shut down in mid-August when he was placed on the seven-day disabled list.
This year, the 24-year-old with a low-90s fastball and low-80s slider is repeating the level and has been dominant in two facets of the game: command and control. Heyer has displayed both qualities in years prior, but what is making him stand out this year is that he’s also getting batters to chase his pitches; his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 66/6 this season in 92 innings pitched. He did not allow a walk until July 15. Granted, the Arizonan’s season was interrupted in late May when his mother succumbed to cancer; he missed about six weeks before returning.
Heyer may seem to be an odd choice to send to the AFL, where a team’s more promising prospects are usually sent for extra seasoning. Old to be in High-A, he has never made any top prospect lists, but the Yankees likely want to see what they have; as a 2007 college pick, he is eligible for the Rule 5 draft. A ground-ball pitcher (he gets nearly two ground balls per fly and allowed one home run this season) with pristine control can be worth something, so a good performance might mean getting protected in spite of his limitations.
Corban Joseph, 2B, Double-A Trenton: After a stellar 2009 season at Low-A Charleston, the 21-year-old Joseph was ranked as the organization’s 12th-best prospect by our Baseball Prospectus colleague, Kevin Goldstein, and the 13th-best prospect in the system by Baseball America. Bumped to High-A Tampa to begin the year, the Yankees’ 2008 fourth-round pick put on a show, knocking six homers and collecting 27 doubles in just 98 games.
Fellow second-base prospect David Adams was having a spectacular year at Double-A, but 39 games into the season, he broke his ankle sliding into second base. After it became clear that he would not be able to return this season, Joseph knocked down the door in Tampa and was promoted to Trenton. He hasn’t set the world on fire since, hitting .216/.305/.342, but has maintained the patience he manifested in Tampa with a 33/15 K/BB ratio.
Joseph will head to Arizona looking to shorten up his swing in the zone and try to capture the same magic that helped him out in Florida. There, he will have a familiar face across the diamond. His older brother Caleb, drafted by the Orioles in 2008, will play for the Scottsdale Scorpions.
George Kontos, RHP, Triple-A Scranton: On the cusp of the big leagues last year while cruising through Scranton, Kontos felt the awful, telltale pop in his elbow that augurs Tommy John surgery. Though he was Rule 5-eligible at the end of the season, the Yankees guessed that no team would put a claim on the injured righty, so they left him off the roster and he went unclaimed.
Now on the rehab trail, Kontos has made stops in Tampa and Trenton this season, and he was recently promoted to Scranton to help fill the roster spots left behind the recent spate September call-ups. The righty has done reasonably well, though like most who have had Tommy John surgery, he has had issues with his control—not that control was ever one of his strengths. What Kontos does do, though, is get slightly more than a strikeout per inning with his low-90s heat, curveball, slider, and changeup. He profiles as a reliever, a role that would let him scrap the change, his worst pitch.
The main reason Kontos is heading to the AFL is for innings; the Yankees have not brought him back as a starter, which is somewhat surprising, as he would have been able to accumulate innings quicker. As a reliever, he only has 45 innings under his belt, a far cry from his career high of 151 2/3 innings in his breakout 2008 campaign.
Brandon Laird, 3B, Triple-A Scranton: Though the righty had an impressive campaign in 2008 with Low-A Charleston, smashing 23 homers and 31 doubles as a 20-year-old, prospect gurus have never sent much love Laird’s way. After a subpar year in 2009, the Southern Californian worked to add 15 pounds of muscle to his frame in the offseason. Promoted to Double-A Charleston, the 22-year-old pummeled Double-A pitching to the tune of a .291/.355/.523 line with 23 homers and 90 RBI.
When Chad Tracy opted out of his minor-league deal and elected free agency on July 31, there was a void for an infielder at Triple-A. The next day, Laird was called up and announced his presence with gusto, launching two home runs and collecting two singles for a 4-for-4 performance. He followed up his debut by smacking two doubles in his second game, giving him six hits in his first eight at-bats. After that, though, his bat started to slumber; his August slash rates were .211/.240/.305. With the calendar flipped to September, it looks like Laird’s bat has re-awakened, as he had 10 hits in seven games.
It’s almost assured that the Yankees will open some roster space for Laird to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. The 27th-round pick will likely take some reps at the outfield and infield corners in Phoenix, as the team looks to increase his versatility (and his trade value).
Austin Romine, C, Triple-A Scranton: I discussed Romine at length when I unveiled my list of the Yankees’ top 10 prospects. At that time, his bat seemed to be frozen in carbonite, with a .222/.279/.314 line since June 1. In the last 10 days, his warp core—er, his bat—hasn’t quite sidled into slipstream, but he is smoking hot, as he hit .326/.341/.558 over Trenton’s last 10 games.
With the Desert Dogs, Romine will be getting more reps in behind the dish and (hopefully) continue to heat up his bat in the sweltering Phoenix autumn. Like Corban Joseph, Romine will have his older brother playing in the AFL. Andrew Romine, an infielder for the Angels, will be playing for the Mesa Solar Sox.
With three roster spots to fill, it seems reasonable the Yankees will even out their roster with four position players, four pitchers. It’s hard to speculate, though there is one player that can be ruled out. Manny Banuelos cannot be assigned to the AFL because his Mexican League team still holds his winter-ball rights, though the Yankees can send him to their instructional leagues once his season with Double-A Trenton is complete.