Hidden gem pitching prospects shine at Yankees camp

March 19th, 2024

TAMPA, Fla. -- Pitching may be the most prized commodity in baseball and the most difficult to scout and develop.

To cite just one example, teams spent 23 first-round picks on arms in the 2019 and 2020 Drafts. Just three of them (George Kirby, Reid Detmers, Bobby Miller) have established themselves as big league starters with no questions about health or performance.

The Yankees stealthily have had a lot of success in the last five years drafting useful pitchers in the fifth round or later. Their efforts haven't drawn a lot of attention because most of those arms have become trade fodder, but right-handers Chase Hampton and Will Warren are on the verge of contributing in the big leagues.

The run started in 2019 with fifth-rounder Ken Waldichuk and sixth-rounder Hayden Wesneski, who blossomed into Top 100 Prospects. Waldichuk was dealt to the Athletics in a package for Frankie Montas and Lou Trivino, while Wesneski was shipped to the Cubs for Scott Effross.

New York only had three picks in the shortened five-round 2020 Draft, then unearthed several later-round arms in 2021. Richard Fitts (sixth round) went to the Red Sox in the Alex Verdugo trade this winter, Robbie Ahlstrom (seventh) helped land All-Star Jose Trevino from the Rangers and Chandler Champlain (ninth) was part of the package that brought Andrew Benintendi from the Royals. Warren (eighth) has added a sinker and improved his slider since signing and highlights the group of pitchers from that class whom the Yankees have retained, including Jack Neely (11th), Zach Messinger (13th) and Danny Watson (15th).

Hampton was a sixth-round steal in 2022. New York also is bullish on Cade Smith (sixth round), Brian Hendry (10th) and Josh Grosz (11th) from its 2023 Draft, which also included another piece of the Verdugo trade in Nicholas Judice (eighth). The Yankees' ability to draft and develop pitchers also made them more comfortable giving up four arms in the Juan Soto deal with the Padres in December.

"It's really a collaborative effort and to me, that's what's really special about it," Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said. "It's the veteran scouting eyes we have with our area guys, and then our crossheckers: Scott Lovekamp, Mike Wagner, Jeff Patterson. Those guys are really good with pitchers. Scott spearheads a lot of this in terms of what we like and what we develop.

"It's also [director of pitching] Sam Briend and the development guys. Our sports science department tests a lot of players and they can predict velocity gains, weight gains, stuff gains. It's been a hell of a collaborative effort among a lot of departments."

Hampton has gone from Texas Tech to No. 92 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list in less than two years. His stock dropped when he struggled after a midseason bout with salmonella poisoning in 2022, but area scout Brian Rhees liked him and stayed on him. Assistant scouting director Scott Benecke, who specializes in analytics, appreciated how his long arm action and low release point created deception without detracting from his control.

Hampton finished strong, matching or setting a career high in strikeouts in each of his final four starts and running his fastball up to 99 mph in the NCAA regionals. The Yankees signed the Draft-eligible sophomore for $497,500 and helped him add an upper-80s cutter after he turned pro. Now he has a pair of plus pitches in his fastball and slider and two more solid offerings in his curveball and the cutter, an arsenal that translated into a 145/37 K/BB ratio in 106 2/3 innings while he reached Double-A in his 2023 pro debut.

Camp standout: Spencer Jones

There's some debate as to which outfielder is the Yankees' best prospect: Jasson Domínguez or Spencer Jones. While Domínguez is recovering from Tommy John surgery, Jones has been tearing up the Grapefruit League. The 2022 first-rounder from Vanderbilt bashed a 470-foot homer in his first Spring Training at-bat and has gone 8-for-18 (.444) in big league camp.

Jones also stole the show in New York's Spring Breakout game, homering twice and also beating out an infield single with the highest sprint speed (29.8 feet/second) in the 9-1 rout of the Blue Jays. At 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, he offers an intriguing combination of size and athleticism that produced 16 homers and 43 steals in his first full pro season.

Besides allowing him to show Yankees manager Aaron Boone and his coaching staff what he can do, his time in big league camp also has given Jones the opportunity to learn from fellow big-bodied sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

"It's been a lot of watching, observing, asking little questions here and there, mostly about defense and other things," Jones said. "I think my job more than anything is to just watch how they go about their business. It's easy to see how professional those two are and all the things they go out and do really well every single day. Ultimately, it will get to a point where I'll be asking more questions and apply as much as I can learn from them into the season."

Breakout potential: Henry Lalane

It's easy to dream on Lalane, a Dominican left-hander who's the son of a former St. Francis and European professional basketball forward of the same name. He signed for the largest bonus ($350,000) in New York's 2020-21 international class and already shows the potential for three plus pitches with solid control.

The 6-foot-7, 211-pound Lalane's best offering is a 93-95 mph fastball that reaches 97 with plenty of run and carry. He has precocious feel for a fading mid-80s changeup and is working on improving his command of his 78-82 mph slider. He stood out as the best pitching prospect in the Rookie-level Florida Complex League during his U.S. debut last year, posting a 34/4 K/BB ratio in 21 2/3 innings.

Something to prove: Luis Gil

Acquired from the Twins in a March 2018 trade for Jake Cave, Gil made his big league debut three years later and didn't permit a run in his first three starts before getting roughed up in his next three. He injured his elbow in May 2022 and required Tommy John surgery that ended his season and limited him to four Single-A innings last year.

Gil needs to show that he's healthy and has regained his stuff, and the early returns from Spring Training have been positive. He has logged a 2.31 ERA while allowing just nine baserunners and striking out 18 in 11 2/3 innings. His fastball has sat at 96 mph and topped out at 99, and he has thrown both his power secondary offerings (low-90s changeup, upper-80s slider) for strikes.