Yankees MiLB Report (4/22): Ben Rice erupts, new pitching prospect blossoming, and walk-off trifecta

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Another week of successful games for the Yankees’ Minor League affiliates, as the organization is continuing to see some of their top prospects take off. They’ve got one of their teams in first place right now with the Scranton RailRiders, who have gotten off to a fast start after missing the playoffs last year. Spencer Jones is now finally back in the lineup on an everyday basis as well, and there was some roster movement across the organization that created some fun debuts to monitor.

With the Yankees having success at the Major League level, their farm system becomes even more important as the trade deadline will give the team even more ammo to work with at the deadline. There could also be names that find themselves on the MLB roster sooner rather than later, as the organization continues to usher in a new youth movement.

Wild Week of Walkoffs, No-Hit Bids, and Home Runs in the Yankees’ System

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There were plenty of dominant performances across the week, but the most impressive was Ben Rice, who posted a 1.340 OPS and hit a home run in four games straight. He has erupted after a quiet start to his season, and the left-handed hitting catcher could be Scranton-bound soon. The Yankees have played him at first base frequently as well, an indication that he could make the transition there if his bat is needed at the MLB level.

His wRC+ on the season is at 144 now, and he’s on a similar pace as last year in terms of home runs. We’re talking about a prospect who has the offensive profile to dominate in the Bronx, with a high pull rate and strong launch angles that allow him to crush baseballs toward the right-field wall. Rice could be an MLB-caliber bat right now, but as the Yankees give him more reps behind the dish, it’ll keep him in the Minor Leagues (for now).

His teammate, the highly touted Spencer Jones, also had a huge week as he smashed his first home run of the MiLB season and has gotten off to a fast start. Slashing .300/.400/.500 on the week with three steals, the towering outfielder is rocking a 191 wRC+ and .458 OBP through his first six games with the Somerset Patriots on the season. Jones has made some strong defensive plays in centerfield already, and if he has a breakout campaign we could potentially see him debut with the Yankees by Opening Day in 2025.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Miami Marlins
Mar 4, 2024; Jupiter, Florida, USA; New York Yankees outfielder Spencer Jones (78) hits a single against the Miami Marlins during the fifth inning at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Moving a level down to High-A Hudson Valley, the Hudson Valley Renegades had three straight walk-off wins against the Aberdeen IronBirds, the Baltimore Orioles’ High-A affiliate. Front and center in their 4-2 week was catcher Omar Martinez, who is one of the more impressive bats in the organization. The left-handed hitting catcher had a .647 OBP and .700 SLG% after working seven walks and socking a home run for good measure as well.

The left-handed hitting catcher has a 202 wRC+, slashing .333/.458/615 across his first 11 games in High-A, and he could find himself in Somerset sooner rather than later. The defensive value isn’t great behind the dish, but perhaps the Yankees can transition him to first base where he has a decent amount of professional experience. Some in the organization have viewed Martinez highly for a couple of years now, and last season was definitely interesting.

Jace Avina made his season debut this week, and he got off to a solid start after beginning his year on the Injured List, getting on base 10 times in five games. The Yankees acquired the 20-year-old outfielder from the Brewers in the Jake Bauers trade, and after posting a 134 wRC+ and .373 OBP in Single-A, there’s some excitement about what he could become with an improved hit tool. It should be noted that Avina cut his strikeout rate down to 22.7% after the All-Star Break, and his contact rates have been pretty strong in the early going.

Yankees’ 2023 1st Round pick George Lombard Jr. is still working the count in Single-A, reaching base 11 times this week and continuing to be an OBP machine. He’ll need to pick up the slugging rates, but offense across the Florida State League is pretty poor, so this isn’t a massive concern. Just 18 years old, the middle infielder could be one of the 100 best prospects in baseball if he’s able to get the ball rolling and make the jump to Hudson Valley, where he’ll be tested against some older competition and more refined pitchers.

Everson Pereira, who came up last season for the Yankees down the stretch, launched two home runs with six hits and a 1.412 OPS this week, and he’s gotten off to a great start. The problem remains the poor strikeout rates, as he’s whiffing 46.2% of the time in Triple-A, but the Barrel Rate has spiked due to an increase in launch angle. A perplexing hitter, the upside is truly remarkable due to the excellent ability to do damage on contact, but the contact rates are just not playable at the Major League level.

You dream of a world where he could strike out about 30% of the time at the MLB level, as his newfound ability to lift the ball in the air and his natural athleticism scream All-Star upside, but that might not be able to happen in this organization. The outfield depth includes Jasson Dominguez and Spencer Jones at the MiLB level, and Alex Verdugo has gotten off to a fast start with the Yankees.

READ MORE: Yankees’ potential one-and-done outfielder has been a major positive

MLB: New York Yankees at Pittsburgh Pirates
Sep 17, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; New York Yankees outfielder Everson Pereira (80) reacts on the field before the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Some interesting bats to keep an eye on include Josh Moylan and Garrett Martin, and you can see why the Yankees picked them up as Undrafted Free Agents. Moylan is a left-handed first baseman with serious power, and he smashed his first home run of the week, sporting a .389 OBP and 122 wRC+ as a 21-year-old in High-A Hudson Valley. Outfielder Garrett Martin also has some serious raw power, and he did some serious damage on contact this past week including a scorching triple to the left-center gap.

While these two names aren’t necessarily highly touted prospects in the organizations, their big frames and the Yankees’ ability to develop power make them perfect players for their developmental team. Despite what people think, developing contact tools has become a strength for the Bronx Bombers, and they take plenty of time to help hitters improve their bat-to-ball skills because it is a huge part of player development.

Moving onto the pitching staff, however, there are even more names to discuss across the farm system.

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As always, the pitching was brilliant for the Yankees across their Minor League affiliates, and their best individual start came from Trystan Vrieling who fired 7.2 innings of no-hit baseball with two walks and six strikeouts. Coming off of Tommy John Surgery that he underwent almost as soon as he got drafted by the Yankees, he has fired 18.2 innings of one-run baseball across three starts.

He’s impressed with the volume early on, and on a funnier note, has walked two batters and struck out six in each start thus far. This is his first taste of professional action, and given that the Yankees began his season in Double-A, there’s a lot to love about this fast start. He has a 46.5% groundball rate and boasts a strong fastball-slider combination while mixing in a changeup as well, and we could see the right-hander in Triple-A by the end of June if he keeps shoving.

Will Warren twirled a fabulous start as well this week, blanking the Lehigh Valley IronPigs across six innings while racking up seven strikeouts. His four-seamer has become a serious weapon for him, as the low-slot release and solid movement profile make for a pitcher who can seriously positively impact an MLB rotation today.

The diversity of his arsenal and his improving command are remarkable, and after a hideous start in the cold conditions of late-March Buffalo, he’s been remarkable. Dating back to last September, Will Warren has a 2.25 ERA and 21% K-BB%, as batters have hit .172 against him with just a 0.82 HR/9.

Brock Selvidge made two starts this week, firing 10 innings of two-run baseball with 10 strikeouts and five walks, as he’s getting his feet wet at the Double-A level. The southpaw made the jump to Somerset after dominating in Hudson Valley the year prior, and he was their starter of choice in the MLB Spring Breakout Game, where he fired four innings of scoreless baseball and opened many eyes with his impressive arsenal and fiery personality.

Fellow Double-A starter Bailey Dees, who spent all of last year as a reliever, twirled in a strong outing where he allowed three runs across six innings with nine strikeouts and no walks, and he’s starting to find himself after a nightmare first start where he walked five batters and allowed eight runs in 3.1 innings pitched. Since then, he’s posted a 30.2% K-BB% across two starts, and the stuff is exciting. His 6’8 frame gives him good extension numbers, sitting between 92-95 MPH on the fastball with a solid slider and changeup to play up the arsenal.

19-year-old righty Luis Serna fired a brilliant start against the St. Lucie Mets, as he struck out nine batters and walked just one across 4.1 innings of one-run baseball. He throws a 91-92 MPH fastball with good vertical movement and run, but easily his best pitch is a nasty screwball that has generated unbelievable swing-and-miss numbers. In the young season, his changeup has a 60% Whiff Rate and .225 wOBA allowed, as the -1.7 inches of Induced Vertical movement makes it drop off the table.

Paired with over 18 inches of arm-side run, and we’re talking about one of the nastiest secondaries in baseball, and his slider is pretty strong as well. It’s a tight bullet-spinning slider that hovers right around the zero-line in terms of vertical and horizontal movement, and with a 77.6 Exit Velocity against and a 38.9% Whiff Rate, it’s a reliable breaking ball that he mixes in with an okay fastball. Still a teenager, if Serna can about a tick or two in terms of fastball velocity, expect him to become one of the Yankees’ best pitching prospects.

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As for their top relievers, Ben Shields has quickly become a must-watch name in the Yankees’ organization, as I believe his stay in Hudson Valley will be very short-lived. His fastball velocity is in the 92-94 MPH range, but the secondaries are strong, and he’s been remarkable at High-A thus far. This past week he came out of the bullpen twice, firing six total innings of one-run baseball with nine strikeouts and just one walk.

In four outings thus far, he has a 36.8% strikeout rate to a 2.6% walk rate, allowing one run and running a groundball rate of 45.5%. The southpaw could be a fast riser, and I’d anticipate a Double-A call-up in the near future, where perhaps he ends up being stretched out as a potential starter soon. The left-hander made 16 starts at George Mason last season and has always been able to generate swings-and-misses, so I’d love to see him get a chance to get starter reps.

Perhaps with the apparent injury Kyle Carr suffered this past week, we could see Shields inserted into their rotation, as the Hudson Valley Renegades may not want to push it with the third-round pick from last year’s draft. Don’t sleep on Trent Sellers either, who has been extremely impressive in that multi-inning relief role Ben Shields has had this season, as he’s struck out 43.6% of batters faced with a 1.86 ERA in four appearances.

This upcoming week here’s where the Yankees’ MiLB affiliates will play:

  • Triple-A: Scranton Railriders @ Durham Bulls
  • Double-A: Somerset Patriots @ Reading Fighting Phils
  • High-A: Bowling Green Hot Rods @ Hudson Valley Renegades
  • Single-A: Lakeland Flying Tigers @ Tampa Tarpons
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