This past Saturday night, the Arizona Fall League (AFL) Rising Stars All-Star game was held at Surprise Stadium. Three New York Yankees prospects participated, including LF Brandon Laird, C Austin Romine and starting pitcher Manuel Banuelos.
Banuelos is only 19 years old and is the youngest pitcher out here in the AFL. He was signed by the Yankees from the Mexican League in March 2008 at the age of 17 and has pitched well at every level of the organization.
Banuelos began the season on the disabled list after undergoing an appendectomy, and then started pitching at High A Tampa. He was then promoted to Double A Trenton, where he posted a 3.52 ERA in 15 innings at that difficult level.
Tampa was where I first got a glimpse of Banuelos, and was immediately impressed with his skills and stuff. You can read those games in my prior report here.
He showed tremendous command of his fastball and changeup, and reminded me of Johan Santana, but with a smoother delivery and better curve ball.
I have seen him pitch in the AFL twice, a start this past Tuesday and the start in the Rising Stars game.
Banuelos’ performance here is still very good, but there are some differences to his game.
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Up until the Rising Stars game, Banuelos was primarily throwing fastballs and changeups here, not using his curveball much at all. He threw a handful of curves in that Tuesday start, most of them without any bite. He reversed the trend Saturday, throwing eight curves in the Rising Stars game, with only a couple changes.
He was mostly fastballs, consistently at 94 MPH, hitting 95 once.
He threw the fastball in on the hands to the left handed hitters, busting No. 3 hitter Dustin Ackley for a called strike three in the first inning.
While allowing three second-inning hits, two were on tough fastballs inside to left handed hitters, who fought them off into right field for singles.
There are many really good hitters here in Arizona who can fight off tough pitches.
And that is one reason why Banuelos was sent here to pitch. First, he needs to get his 2010 inning count to increase, as he only had 60 innings combined in Tampa and Trenton.
Second, and more importantly, the Yankees wanted to see how Banuelos performed against many of the best minor league hitters.
In his two starts prior to my arrival, Banuelos allowed 15 hits in seven innings of work and five earned runs. I spoke with Yankee catching prospect Austin Romine about those starts.
“You have to expect him (Banuelos) to get hit a little bit here. He is only 19 and facing complete lineups of top of the order hitters.”
Great point by Romine. Many of the No. 7, 8 and 9 hitters out here were top four or five hitters during the regular seasons. AFL pitchers are facing All-Star caliber lineups every day.
I asked Romine if the Yankees wanted Banuelos to work on anything specific out here.
“No, not at all, they just want us to come out here and play our game. Manny has been throwing lots of changes here. He is a little stubborn sometimes, but that’s good. He wants to compete and has confidence in his changeup.”
When Banuelos was getting hit out here and in Tampa and Trenton was when he got his fastball over the middle of the plate. When that happens there is very little movement to the pitch. At this level, velocity will only get you so far.
He allowed two runs in three innings on Tuesday. Both runs came in the third inning on back-to-back doubles and a ground out.
The first double was on a slurvy breaking ball, and the second double was a good piece of hitting with the right handed hitter staying inside a good fastball and lining it to right center.
Overall, his changeup was really good both games, generating foul balls and swings and misses. It was very similar to when I saw him earlier in the season.
When I have seen him (Tampa, Trenton, AFL), Banuelos is never afraid to throw his changeup back to back, and even when behind in the count.
To be able to throw off-speed pitches in hitter’s counts is the sign of a very good pitcher, and for Banuelos to have that kind of repertoire, attitude and confidence bodes well for him and the Yankees in the future.
However, he needs to complement both plus pitches (fastball, changeup) with his curve. In July, Banuelos was able to throw the curve to both sides of the plate, getting swinging and called strikes. When he missed, he usually buried it in the dirt.
The curve is a funny pitch in that pitchers need to keep throwing it during a game even if it is not working early on.
When a pitcher keeps throwing that pitch, they eventually begin to get a better feel for it in the middle innings, and make the pitcher even tougher later in the game.
With Banuelos not throwing the curve ball much here, it has not had the same depth and movement as it did earlier in the season.
He needs to keep working the curve to once again make it a better pitch. It will also make his other pitches more effective.
Banuelos did nothing out here to dissuade any of the scouts about his future. The fact that the Rising Stars rosters and starting lineups derive from the cumulative votes of the various scouting directors indicates how much they think of Banuelos’ ability.
He should start the season in Trenton, and with the glut of arms ahead of him, Banuelos should pitch most of the season at Double A as a 20-year-old.
The ability is there. He just needs more innings on the mound and can be a top of the rotation type arm in the Yankees rotation.
Another thing I have noticed is that Banuelos can dominate lineups, but then has that one inning where he can get knocked around for a couple runs. It happened in Tampa when I saw him, and also in last Tuesday’s game.
Craig Heyer – RHP, New York Yankees
This is a virtual unknown pitcher in the Yankee system and is another guy who the Yankees wanted to get a few more innings in 2010 and to see how he pitches against better hitters.
So far so good for the 6’3” right hander from UNLV.
Heyer was selected by the Yankees in the 22nd round of the 2007 draft, but has had a very slow ascension up the Yankee ladder. He has spent the last two seasons at High A Tampa, but missed about a month this season after his father passed away.
I saw him pitch his first pro season in 2007 in Staten Island, then a little in 2008 in Charleston. Then once again earlier this season in early July, a few days after he returned from his team approved leave.
Every time I have seen him, Heyer has worked quickly, threw strikes and generated lots of ground balls.
With the lack of defense at the lower levels, many of these balls moved through the infield, but Heyer has begun to perform better with an improved defense behind him in Tampa.
He is a fielder’s delight, keeping his teammates in the game, and his record over three pro seasons is a stunning 24-8 with a 2.96 ERA and 1.145 WHIP.
During one of our twice-weekly segments, I remember back in 2008 telling a local sports radio host (Kevin Williams of WOBM) that Heyer was a Yankee sleeper.
He works from the old fashioned hands-over-head windup, throwing at a three-quarters slot, and while he does not strike out tons of hitters (averaging only 5.1/9 IP), his walk rates of 1.3/9 IP are superb, keeping extra runners off base.
He started 12 games this season, all late in the year. Primarily, he needed innings in 2010 after missing the approved time off, but the Yankees also promoted Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances and Banuelos to Double-A Trenton during the season, and the Tampa team needed starting pitchers.
Heyer was the starter in Tampa’s Game Four clincher to win the Florida State League championship. He allowed five hits in six innings, with three whiffs and zero walks. It was a typical Heyer performance.
Last Tuesday, Heyer relieved Banuelos and threw three shutout innings. He continuously threw his fastball at the knees mostly on the outside corner, but was squeezed by the tight-zoned home plate umpire.
However, he continued his pattern of pounding the lower half of the zone with low 90’s pinpoint fastballs and sinkers.
He worked himself into a jam by having to come over the plate a little to stud Royals first base prospect Eric Hosmer*, who singled sharply to left field.
*Hosmer has a great balanced swing, and the left handed hitter goes well to left field with the ball.
After a seeing-eye grounder by another lefty going the other way put runners on first and second, Heyer went to work dispatching the next three hitters rather easily, including another lefty hitter, 2010 first round pick Zach Cox.
Working quickly in his next two innings, Heyer worked seven up and six down, allowing only another seeing-eye ground ball single.
He was always low in the zone, in and around the knees with his fastball, to both sides but mainly outside corner to lefties.
When he was up in the zone, it was usually the change up to lefties, as Heyer had a tendency to pull his front shoulder out on the pitch. His slider had decent downward movement but was just average, however, it was always low in the zone.
After two seasons in Tampa, Heyer should start 2011 in Double-A Trenton. Maybe the Yankees will rid themselves of the Josh Schmidts and Kevin Whelans of the organization, giving guys like Heyer a shot at the higher levels.
Even though he was an effective starter late in the season, and was a starter at UNLV during college, with the quantity of current Yankee starting pitchers, Heyer is likely destined for the bullpen.
The ability to throw multiple innings, throw consistent strikes (43 walks in 301 IP) and work quickly, should allow Heyer to become a force in the Yankees system as a reliever who can spot start.