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Yankees Magazine: Back to the Future

The big club looks stacked, but the 2017 Arizona Fall League was evidence that the Yankees have reinforcements at the ready
Yankees Magazine

At first glance, you'd have to squint to see the differences. The venues were the same, the Yankees jerseys and Scottsdale Scorpions caps just as they appeared the previous year. The names -- at least to fans familiar with prospect reports -- were mostly known. The weather was perfect because it was Arizona in mid-fall, and mid-fall weather in Arizona is always perfect.

Not much about the Yankees' 2016 and '17 Arizona Fall League experiences proved terribly out of sync. These are years of plenty on the Steinbrenner farm, and nowhere does that come into clearer focus than down in Arizona. The differences, though, were subtle, contextual, because the key to comprehending where the Yankees prospects stood at the end of the 2017 AFL lay more in the Bronx than anywhere in the Minor League system.

At first glance, you'd have to squint to see the differences. The venues were the same, the Yankees jerseys and Scottsdale Scorpions caps just as they appeared the previous year. The names -- at least to fans familiar with prospect reports -- were mostly known. The weather was perfect because it was Arizona in mid-fall, and mid-fall weather in Arizona is always perfect.

Not much about the Yankees' 2016 and '17 Arizona Fall League experiences proved terribly out of sync. These are years of plenty on the Steinbrenner farm, and nowhere does that come into clearer focus than down in Arizona. The differences, though, were subtle, contextual, because the key to comprehending where the Yankees prospects stood at the end of the 2017 AFL lay more in the Bronx than anywhere in the Minor League system.

In 2016, the Yankees shipped nine players to the desert, ranging from lesser-known names such as Nestor Cortes or Brody Koerner to top prospects in Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and James Kaprielian. Even Greg Bird, who had impressed in his brief 2015 Big-League debut before an injury cost him the entire 2016 season, headed to Scottsdale to get in some swings. There was a sense of optimism rising from the deeper reaches of the organization. You just had to go to Arizona to see it all come together.

But then the future arrived early for the Yankees. A young, dynamic team, with American League Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge and AL Cy Young Award finalist Luis Severino leading the way, drew the focus back to the Bronx in 2017. The Fall League team, which began play on the off-day between Games 4 and 5 of the Yankees' AL Division Series matchup against the Indians, suddenly felt more like a distant future than a present-day refuge. And frankly, that's the way it should be.

Albert Abreu, Cody Carroll, Thairo Estrada, Estevan Florial, Kyle Holder, Billy McKinney, Andrew Schwaab and Justus Sheffield represented the New York Yankees exceptionally well in the 2017 AFL. With eight players of that caliber climbing the team's prospect rankings, there is a lot to be enthusiastic about, but unlike the group that dominated conversation in 2016, this past year's participants excited more on account of depth than immediacy. The Yankees have an incredible collection of Major League talent that will take the field in 2018. But as this year's AFL proved, that World Series contender wasn't built by taking a machete to the farm system.

"I think the most encouraging thing for the Yankees is that even with the amount of guys who graduated to the Big Leagues and helped that team make their playoff run, there's another wave coming," said Jonathan Mayo, MLB.com's draft and prospect expert. "And a bunch of them are here."

Below, take a look into the Yankees' future.

ESTEVAN FLORIAL

2017 AFL Statistics: 19 games, .286/.313/.414, 4 HR, 10 RBI

Of the Yankees' hitters in Arizona, Estevan Florial ranked highest on the team's prospect charts. And considering that he started the 2017 season in Low-A Charleston, the fact that Florial showed he belonged among the AFL competition bodes well for his future.

"This will give him a basis of understanding of what the competition will look like in Double-A," said MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo. "That's the biggest leap there is, other than the jump up to the Big Leagues. The players are so much more advanced, and the pitchers Florial is going to see will have a much better idea of what they're doing; they won't make as many mistakes. So all of those things, I think he's seeing in a smaller, maybe slightly watered-down side here."

Florial, who turned 20 in November, had quite a year, jumping from Charleston to High-A Tampa, then heading to Double-A Trenton for the Eastern League playoffs. Along the way, he made a stop in Miami for the SiriusXM MLB All-Star Futures Game, an All-Star Week showcase for the top Minor League talent across the sport. "I thank the Yankees for giving me that opportunity," said the young prospect. "It's been a great year for me. Defensively, running the bases, offensively. I think I have improved a lot with my approach at the plate."

Signed out of the Dominican Republic, Florial brought more to the Yankees contingent in Arizona than just his baseball acumen. Living in a house with Thairo Estrada and Albert Abreu, as well as Billy McKinney and Andrew Schwaab, Florial proved to be an excellent bridge, helping players of all backgrounds connect. He translated for Estrada during an interview (during which Estrada was sure to praise his teammate's work ethic), and McKinney, who speaks a few Spanish words, leaned on him regularly around the house. "He's definitely a help," McKinney said. "I try to speak with Thairo and Albert as much as I can in Spanish but sometimes we'll kind of get a little stuck, and I'll ask Estevan for help."

ALBERT ABREU 

2017 AFL Statistics: 1-2, 2.60 ERA, 23 SO in 27.2 IP

Albert Abreu came to the Yankees as part of a November 2016 trade that sent Brian McCann to Houston, and he spent the 2017 season climbing the organizational prospect rankings. He boosted his velocity up to the mid- to upper-90s range by making adjustments to his stride and throwing motion, and he worked hard to improve his secondary pitches. The results were clear in Arizona, where he made it through his first 15 innings allowing just two runs against 15 strikeouts, earning AFL Pitcher of the Week honors for the week ending Oct. 21.

"You'll be impressed," fellow pitcher Justus Sheffield predicted before the Dominican Republic native's Oct. 30 start in Glendale. "He throws hard, of course, but he can also slow it down and throw a change-up that's 10 to 12 mph different than his fastball. Just watching him get after it out there is so fun."

That afternoon against Glendale, Abreu showed his potential - and then some - but his youth and rawness were also on display. He walked three batters early, despite not allowing a hit until the fourth inning. When he got into trouble, it escalated quickly - a double, then after two outs, another double, a home run, a single and a walk. But over the course of his six starts for Scottsdale, Abreu emerged as one of the most impressive pitchers in the league, making his way onto Mayo's list of the breakout players in this year's AFL.

THAIRO ESTRADA

2017 AFL Statistics: 20 games, .342/.381/.430, 3 HR, 19 RBI

The shortstop gets into his set position as the pitcher begins his wind-up. A little juggle step on the balls of his feet, hand and glove readyfor whatever comes. Contact, and the ball bounds to his right. The shortstop makes a quick and efficient crossover step, then a few more fleet strides before corralling the ball, planting his foot and firing a strike for the out.

Yankees fans are plenty used to a shortstop making dynamic moves going to his right - it was Derek Jeter's trademark for two decades. Maybe someday Thairo Estrada will be showing off his skills in the Bronx, as well. "I'm not going to be surprised if he ends up being a longtime Major Leaguer," manager Jay Bell said of the Venezuelan prospect, who turned 22 on Feb. 22. About the only thing Estrada needs to change is his uniform number; No. 99 is already taken in the Bronx.

As Estrada maneuvered about the infield during an Oct. 27 game in Arizona, it was easy to pick up on what impressed Bell. Excellent defensive range, with a terrific arm. Good situational hitting, placing a ball in the hole between first and second, then going first to third on the next batter's single. For good measure, he later walked with the bases loaded. For most prospects, the Arizona Fall League represents the top level of competition they have seen up to that point in their careers; Estrada responded by batting .342.

"He can really play baseball, and he can really swing it," said Kyle Holder, another Yankees prospect playing for the Scorpions. "He's just a smart baseball player and still young, so I think he has a bright future."

ANDREW SCHWAAB

2017 AFL Statistics: 0-1, 6.35 ERA, 8 SO in 11.1 IP

"Andrew Schwaab already is my favorite pitcher," said Jay Bell, the Scorpions manager and also the skipper for the Yankees Double-A affiliate, the Trenton Thunder. He wears out right-handed hitters, and I think he's going to eventually wear left-handers out, too. He just knows how to get out of jams, does a good job with it.

"I put him in a lot of situations this year; I closed with him, I set up with him, I pitched him in all scenarios, and he was always ready to compete. One of the things I learned from Jim Leyland a long time ago, all he wanted to know whenever that door swung open down in the bullpen was what was going to walk through it. And with Andrew Schwaab, I knew he was going to be ready to pitch whatever the scenario was, whatever situation, and he was fun for me to put into games this year."

CODY CARROLL

2017 AFL Statistics: 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 18 SO in 11.2 IP

A 22nd-round draft pick by the Yankees in 2015, Cody Carroll has seen his strikeout rates improve dramatically, and he attributes much of the improvement to the work he and the Yankees' coaches put in to developing a splitter. It's a process that takes dedication and drive to master, with each piece needing to work perfectly before it can be effective in games. "That's one thing we're still working on," Carroll said, "trying to be able to command it a little better, figure out what I want to do with it, what are safe counts I could use it in. And also just command of my fastball, and continuing to make sure I have the shape of my slider."

Most of Carroll's work on his budding pitch came in the bullpen between games, when he felt comfortable tinkering. The goal is to make everything about the pitch feel natural, perfecting it through muscle memory. "Just making sure I get my fingers in the right place," said Carroll, who was named to the All-AFL Team. "A centimeter to the left makes all the difference."

The splitter is obviously at its best when Carroll can locate it down in the zone (or below), but during his time coaching the pitcher in Tampa and Scottsdale, manager Jay Bell saw the way that the 6-foot-5 pitcher can work the whole strike zone, from top to bottom. "Whenever you've got a guy that throws as hard as he does with that type of height and downplane action, it's really, really good," Bell said. "I'm not sure what his breaking Z is (a measure of movement on the vertical axis), but I know that he can go up in the zone and get you swings and misses, also. So whenever he's downhill, downhill, downhill and he wants to pop one up top, he can get some swings and misses.

"He's got the ability to be a closer, he's got the ability to be a set-up guy, and he's a guy that comes into the game, and you know you feel good about what he can accomplish."

BILLY McKINNEY

2017 AFL Statistics: 19 games, 2.79/3.73/.426, 1 HR, 20 RBI

"I'm working on first base right now, just trying to get that under my belt," said McKinney, who is trying new positions to make himself more suitable for the Major League roster. "It absolutely is a lot of work, but it's a lot of fun, too. Every aspect - reading picks, reading the hops for a ground ball, throws to second base, third base, all-around bunt defense and stuff like that - if you really enjoy doing it, it just makes it an easier process. So I'm having fun doing it, but it's not easy."

KYLE HOLDER

2017 AFL Statistics: 11 games, .333/.367/.511, 1 HR, 6 RBI

When asked about what he wanted to wrok on this offseason, Holder had a straightforward answer. "Speed and first step and strength and stuff like that," he said. "I want to work on the first step, become a better base runner. I hope to steal a lot more bases next year and just get stronger in that aspect. It's just repetition and doing the right thing, the right drills. A lot of core work, a lot of quick movements in the weight room, whether that's doing ladder drills or resistance sprints or uphill sprints.

"I've always wanted to be a base stealer. I'm a little taller and I kind of weigh more than I feel like I should to be doing that, so I want to drop a couple pounds and become more quick. And the first step on the base path is ultimately going to help me defensively, as well."

JUSTUS SHEFFIELD

2017 AFL Statistics: 2-2, 3.10 ERA, 22 SO in 20.1 IP

Justus Sheffield came to the Yankees as part of the 2016 blockbuster Andrew Miller-for-Clint Frazier swap. And after a solid showing in Trenton in 2017, before injuries cost him almost the entire second half, Sheffield seems to be knocking on the Bronx door. "I'm expecting 2018 to be a big year for me," he said matter-of-factly.

Whenever he does get the call, it figures that he will be used as a starter - all but a handful of his career games have seen him take the ball in the first inning. But Cody Carroll, his teammate in Arizona, sees another side of the 21-year-old Tennessee native.

"He's all out, all the time," Carroll said. "He's kind of like a closer, but he starts."

It's almost hard to believe when you spend time with the mild-mannered left-hander, who stands an unimposing 5-foot-11, armed with a low- to mid-90s fastball, an effective slider and an easy smile. "I think it's just my aggressiveness," Sheffield said, trying to dig into his teammate's analysis. "I know some starters like to work their way into the game from the beginning to the end but I feel like when I'm out there, I have to be aggressive from the get-go, throw every pitch with conviction, and not let up. That's just how I've always pitched."

Belying his even-keeled nature off the mound, Sheffield's aggressive approach was right there to see on Oct. 28, when Scottsdale took on the Surprise Saguaros. He came out to pitch the fourth inning with a 3-0 lead and promptly gave up a single to Kevin Padlo. Padlo advanced to second and then third on a pair of wild pitches, and Sheffield responded by striking out the next three batters, all swinging. "I was fired up," he said afterward. "Literally, I was kind of mad, because I kept bouncing the sliders, giving them the free bag. He got on third, and pretty much it was on me. So I told myself, 'I'm going to bear down, try and get these guys out and just go after them.' Just kind of getting that bulldog mentality and attack the guys."

But it was more than the fighter's chin that Sheffield showed on the mound. He skillfully used his change-up early in counts, trying to induce ground balls and get out of innings quickly. His 22 strikeouts against just three walks during AFL play showed that he could rely on the punchout when necessary, but manager Jay Bell was pleased to see the smarts and maturity his pitcher displayed.

"Talk about mound presence," Bell said. "Justus Sheffield is the epitome of somebody who's always in control. … He's one of those good, rare breeds that can get through a game with a limited pitch count because he gives up early contact with weak contact at the same time."

Sheffield said he feels like a new pitcher after just a season and a half in the Yankees organization. When he looked at tape from last April, he saw a totally different approach - a guy who wouldn't go to his backdoor slider, who wouldn't use his change-up enough even in strikeout counts. There wasn't the same thought that went into his pitch sequencing, and he was animated in his excitement about the way he has developed.

"I feel like it's changed me as a ballplayer, as a person, as a professional, the way I go about my business," Sheffield said. "I just kind of feel like I'm more serious."

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Albert Abreu, Cody Carroll, Thairo Estrada, Billy McKinney, Justus Sheffield