AFL allowing '22 draftee to show Yankees what he's all about

October 10th, 2023

When heard his name called with the 100th overall pick (third round) of the 2022 Draft, he immediately got to work. The 6-foot-4 right-hander bulked up, adding 20 pounds to his frame in an effort to bolster his arsenal as he prepared to embark on the leap from Gonzaga University to the rigors of pro ball in the Yankees’ system.

After taking the remainder of his Draft year off, Vrieling prepared to embark on his pro career as the 2023 campaign began -- but then a fracture in his right elbow scuttled those plans. With the entirety of his regular season wiped out, the Arizona Fall League offered an opportunity, one that he is ready to seize.

“You just got to take it for what it is,” Vrieling said at AFL media day of his setback. “And it's just the [same] game. And there's a ball in your hand. We've been doing it now for how many years now? I get to pitch here in Arizona instead of wherever I was supposed to be to start the year this year.

“Yeah, I had a plan and it got thrown around a little bit. But now we're back at it. So let's get after it.”

Vrieling, who turned 23 on the Fall League’s Opening Day on Oct. 2, last pitched competitively during his junior year at Gonzaga, his first as a full-time starter. One of three members of the Bulldogs’ rotation to go in the first three rounds of the 2022 Draft, the right-hander arrived in Arizona with starter’s intentions, hoping that his strength gains will give his low-to-mid-90s mph heater some added life.

The Yankees’ farm system is rife with talented arms. Drew Thorpe was named the 2023 Minors Pitching Prospect of the Year after leading all Minor League pitchers with 182 strikeouts, while fellow right-hander Chase Hampton cracked the Top 100 Prospects list even earlier in the summer. While a homegrown top-of-the-rotation arm has proven elusive for the Bronx Bombers in years past, the system is beginning to churn out big league contributors with regularity.

At the start of 2023, Vrieling was expected to be a part of that next wave, checking in as the club’s preseason No. 17 prospect. His year away from in-game action has made him something of a wild card: while he does possess two plus offerings (slider and curveball), he has yet to toe the rubber with pro batters digging in across from him. Still, that desire to succeed permeates across levels.

“Definitely, there always is,” Vrieling said of the competition between members of the club’s system. “I mean, we're in this sport for a reason. And you're a part of a part of a brotherhood … you see guys do well, and you want to do well.

“You just have to keep your head down, work and just pitch.”

While Vrieling doesn’t enter the Fall League with any pro innings under his belt, he boasts something that he argues is even more valuable: the tutelage of pros. While rehabbing, Vrieling was able to pick up tricks of the trade from big leaguers who were similarly working their way back from their own injuries, garnering mental reps while his elbow healed.

“You get to learn to just take every day as what it is, at face value, and kind of treat everything as a present,” Vrieling said. “To be able to spend those days and those months with those guys who were there was a true blessing, for sure. I look back at it and take away a lot of good from it.”

Yankees hitters in the Fall League

Benjamin Cowles, INF: A cog in helping High-A Hudson Valley reach the South Atlantic League Championship Series, Cowles delivered career highs in homers (10) and steals (23) while providing defensive flexibility with at least 30 appearances at shortstop, second and third base. While he again showed an ability to take his walks (.353 OBP), his 28 percent strikeout rate will be challenged against new arms in the Fall League.

Caleb Durbin, INF: The 23-year-old infielder enjoyed an offensive breakout during his first season in the Yankees’ organization, hitting .304 across stints with High-A Hudson Valley and Double-A Somerset. Acquired in an offseason deal with the Braves, Durbin missed nearly two months during the summer due to injury, but when healthy, his biggest impact was felt on the bases, where he swiped 36 bags in just 69 games and posted a miniscule 6.2 K% rate.

Nelson Medina, OF: Aggressive promotions in 2023 have become par for the course as it pertains to Medina, who earned a 12-game stint with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after posting an .859 OPS during an impressive debut with Single-A Tampa. Having spent more than two months on the injured list, a stint in the desert will allow the 23-year-old – who signed for $60,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2017 – to garner valuable stateside reps after multiple Rookie-level stints.

Yankees pitchers in the Fall League

Matt Sauer, RHP: The 2017 second-rounder put himself on the map last season when he struck out 17 batters in just his third Double-A start, tying the mark for most K’s in an affiliated game dating back to ‘19. But a right forearm strain pushed his season debut this year to June, although he enjoyed a solid campaign – 3.42 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 10.9 K/9 – across 14 outings for Somerset once he settled in. The righty, who will turn 25 during the offseason, will be looking to use his stint with the Solar Sox to further prepare him for a potential ascension to the big leagues.

Baron Stuart, RHP: Signed as an undrafted free agent in July 2022, the righty posted a 5.72 ERA across parts of five college seasons between the University of South Florida and Pittsburgh but showed an impressive pitch mix during his pro debut this year. He features a low-90s mph heater, low-80s sweeping breaking ball and an 82-84 mph changeup that he sells well due to similar arm action. He was hit or miss in his first taste of High-A to close the year, recording three starts with one run or fewer allowed but also yielding a combined 19 runs across another trio of outings.

Nolberto Henriquez, RHP: First signed out of the Dominican Republic in August 2018, the 6-foot-4 reliever made his affiliate debut this season with Tampa to mixed results. A two-pitch hurler who relies on a hard sinker that sits in the mid-90s and a 78-82 sweeping breaking ball, Henriquez didn’t miss many bats in the Florida State League with just five strikeouts (to nine walks) in 13 2/3 innings. There is multi-inning appeal as the 23-year-old recorded more than three outs in 10 of his 23 appearances this year.

Kevin Stevens, RHP: The Tucson native gets to return to his home state for his 2023 debut. A starter during college at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the Yankees have shifted the 6-foot-2 hurler to the ‘pen in an attempt to unlock his velocity, which has worked wonders. Prior to hitting the 60-day injured list in April, the righty consistently clocked in at 97 mph with above-average spin rates on his heater.