On Sunday, the Yankees announced that top prospects, including outfielder Aaron Judge, shortstop Jorge Mateo, right-hander James Kaprielian and relief pitcher Jacob Lindgren, were sent to minor-league camp. None of those highly regarded players were expected to make the Opening Day roster, but it is somewhat surprising that the Yankees decided to send them to minor-league spring training this early.
Judge had only one hit in his 14 at-bats in spring training before being sent down, Mateo had only three hits in 15 at-bats (with a homer and a steal) before being demoted, Kaprielian had a 4.91 ERA after allowing two earned runs and four hits in his 3.2 innings pitched and Lindgren had a sky high 15.43 ERA after allowing four earned runs on four walks and a hit in 2.1 innings pitched. None of these four prospects performed like they are capable of in this small sample size and proved that they need more seasoning in the minors. However, it might have made sense for them to learn from and be mentored by the established major leaguers on the Yankees roster for about one more week.
All of these players will likely make some kind of an impact in the Bronx this season or next season, but the player who is most likely to make a major impact in August or September is Judge. His size (6-7, 275 lbs) can be compared to former Yankee Dave Winfield and current Marlin Giancarlo Stanton and he hit a homer during batting practice in February that cleared the massive left field scoreboard at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
“Did you see the balls he hit today? [I’ve] never had that,” Brian McCann said. “It’s super impressive. Then you meet the guy, and he’s actually, he’s top of the line.”
Judge (23 years old), who is from Linden, California and was drafted with the 32nd pick in the 1st round out of California State University Fresno in 2013, performed well at Double-A Trenton last season but struggled when he was called up to Triple-A Scranton. In 63 games with the Trenton Thunder last season (250 at bats), Judge had a solid .284 average with 12 homers, 44 RBIs, 16 doubles, 36 runs scored and a .516 slugging percentage.
However, Judge’s productivity decreased once he was promoted to the Scranton RailRiders, who face many pitchers who have previously pitched in the majors and have better command and off-speed pitches. In 61 games with the RailRiders last season (228 at bats), Judge had a sub-par .224 average with eight homers, 28 RBIs, six steals, 10 doubles and a .373 slugging percentage. He hit a similar amount of homers at Double-A and Triple-A, but he needs to improve in every other category to prove he is ready.
According to Meredith Marakovits, Judge reported early to spring training and the biggest thing that he worked on during the offseason was his approach and patience at the plate. Another positive sign is that Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson believes that Judge’s issues at Triple-A were mental and not physical. Marcus Thames, who was the RailRiders hitting coach and is now the Yankees’ assistant hitting coach said that Judge was having trouble with the advanced breaking pitches that the Triple-A pitchers were throwing to him.
Judge said that he spent part of the offseason working on pitch recognition and hitting the breaking ball. He has the work ethic to improve on hitting that pitch and if he can do that his stats should greatly improve in April, May and June. He has the most upside of any Yankees outfield prospect, and if Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury or Brett Gardner gets injured or if Beltran underperforms in August then Judge could make a similar impact this season as the one that Greg Bird made last season.
Bird made his major league debut on August 13 and went 0-5, but in the fourth game that Bird started after replacing the injured Mark Teixeira, Bird hit two homers and drove in four runs. He finished the season with a .261 average with 11 homers, 31 RBIs and an impressive .529 slugging percentage. The Yankees might not have made it to the wild card playoff game without him.
Judge said that he has to better adjust to the Triple-A pitchers and he realizes that he has to improve on the little things.
“It’s a learning process, and just making adjustments,” Judge said. “I really didn’t make enough adjustments that I needed to. Pitchers made adjustments. That’s what the game of baseball is, just little adjustments to fine tune your swing, your approach, and I’m still trying to get ready for the 2016 season.”
The mammoth outfielder can cover a lot ground in right field and has a strong arm will now get to improve on his weakness in minor league camp, which has less pressure. He is capable of doing well against Triple-A pitchers because from June 25 through July 2 he had 15 hits in 27 at-bats (.625 average) with one homer, three RBIs and six runs scored. However, he needs to be more consistent because from July 29 through August 6, Judge only had two hits in 30 at-bats. Further proving his inconsistency was that he ended the season with no hits in 11 at-bats over two games, but previously had three multi-hit games in his previous five games.
Lindgren could get called up at some point in the middle of the season and have a minor impact in the bullpen after the big three, Mateo could get called up in September for his speed and be able to win the Yankees a game or two with his speed on the base-paths. However, it is most important for Judge to improve mentally and prove that he can hit above .280 for three or four months at Triple-A so that he can be called up as a replacement if an outfielder gets injured.