Monday, March 14, 2011

Derek Jeter and New York Yankees “Lucky 13” Most Hyped Prospects of All-Time

The New York Yankees are proud to display their best collection of minor league talent since the early-to-mid 1990s.

They also have a fan base that is now more abreast on prospects than ever before, which inevitably causes love affairs and limitless hype thrust in the direction of teenagers.

There has been a heightened interest in young stars across the MLB landscape in general, as players such as Stephen Strasburg, Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Bryce Harper, and Aroldis Chapman have captivated baseball circles.

All of this prospect hysteria has inspired me to create a list of the most hyped Yankees in team history—representing a caveat that cliffs lay waiting at each turn on the way to the mountain top.

These prospects will span more than six hype-filled decades, and will tell stories of both immortalized success and unbridled failure. Without further ado, let’s dive into the archives of Yankees minor league development:

Honorable Mention: Kevin Maas

Drafted by the Yankees in the 22nd round in 1986, Maas was not originally hyped or viewed as a big-time prospect.

That all changed after a torrid start to his MLB career in 1990, as he broke the record for fewest at bats to reach 10, 13, and 15 home runs. Suddenly he was viewed as “the heir apparent to Don Mattingly at first base.”

Mattingly’s back had limited him at this point of his career, and it was actually argued that the Yankee captain was going to be “Wally Pipp-ed” by Maas. This of course refers to Lou Gehrig taking over for Pipp at first base and subsequently never losing his spot.

Needless to say that never happened, and Maas amassed just a .230 AVG, 65 HR, and 169 RBI in his career. He finished up in the Japanese leagues after trying his luck with three other MLB franchises.

13. Eric Duncan

Before the days of Alex Rodriguez in New York, Eric Duncan was determined to be yet another “Yankees third baseman of the future” candidate as an 18-year-old first round pick back in 2003.

Duncan was viewed as a true “can’t-miss” prospect, and was riding high after winning the MVP of the High School All-American game after his senior year. I was in attendance, and his 3-for-3 day had everyone buzzing about what he could be at the next level.

Growing pains hit him hard early in his career, and the Yankees quickly abandoned the idea of him playing long-term in the Bronx. A resurgence in the 2006 Arizona Fall League put him back on the map, but his MVP honors were not enough to translate into a successful Triple-A season.

Duncan was later let go, and all hopes of playing for his favorite team (he grew up in NJ and attended the same high school as Tigers pitcher Rick Porcello) were squashed.

12. Manny Banuelos

The newest branch of the Yankees hype tree is 19-year-old left-handed stud Manny Banuelos.

Though still a teenager, and with zero career innings beyond Double-A, he is already being discussed as the system’s best pitching prospect in decades (I’m admittedly guilty of this).

Banuelos is flying up prospect lists (as high as No. 12 on Keith Law’s Top 100), and is reaping the benefits of jumping from 89-91 to 94-96 MPH while already knowing how to get by with command.

Mariano Rivera called him “the best prospect I’ve ever seen,” Alex Rodriguez said “I wouldn’t trade him for anyone,” Joe Girardi that he “reminds of Johan Santana on the mound,” and Russell Martin added “he is like a more refined Clayton Kershaw.”

Very lofty expectations and praise for a pitcher after five dominant spring innings, no?

11. Joba Chamberlain, 10. Ian Kennedy, 9. Phil Hughes

These three recent prospects are lumped together for good reason. While Hughes was the most hyped in the minor leagues, he was often discussed as part of New York’s new trio of high-ceiling arms.

Joba, Phil, and Ian were essentially the New York Yankees version of Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, and Paul Wilson. The hype seemed to reach a new level when a Johan Santana trade fell through based on the organization’s feelings about the young stars.

They have all experienced mixed results at the big league level, but each has established himself as a quality arm with room to rise.

8. Ruben Rivera

Former Yankees outfield prospect Ruben Rivera is the epitome of knee-jerk hype.

Though already a legitimate blend of speed and power, he began to captivate baseball circles after a big 1994 season in the minor leagues.

Rivera clubbed 33 HR with 101 RBI in 139 games in Single-A, but it may have been his 48 steals that wowed scouts most of all. The breakout campaign catapulted him from Baseball America’s No. 76 prospect all the way up to No. 2.

The success and hype accumulation continued until he was eventually traded to the San Diego Padres in a package for Hideki Irabu (another player potentially worthy of this list). His MLB career fizzled, and he managed just a .216 batting average over 662 games.

7. Jesus Montero

Another recent addition to the list, hitting phenomenon Jesus Montero has been hyped as the next Miguel Cabrera or Manny Ramirez (I have also heard a 40 home run version of Victor Martinez).

A perfect combination of power, plate discipline, high average, and the ability to hit with authority to all fields by the age of 18 will generally cause that sort of reaction.

Jesus has inevitably had his name turned into a bevy of nicknames and plays on words of the well-known Christian savior of the same name, and the Yankees fan base worships him in much the same way.

Will he ever reach his potential? I have no idea, but if hype was any determinant he will be somewhere between Mike Piazza and Babe Ruth.

6. Drew Henson

The first of many “third basemen of the future” candidates, duel-sport star Drew Henson was drafted by the Yankees in the third round of the 1998 MLB June Amateur Draft.

Following much the same path as Rockies star Todd Helton—who backed up Peyton Manning at Tennessee—Henson was the No. 2 behind Tom Brady on the Michigan Wolverines football team.

Forced to choose between signing a guaranteed baseball contract or pursuing the fortunes often awarded first round NFL quarterbacks, Henson followed his dream—fully committing to baseball in 2001.

Ranked as highly as No. 9 by Baseball America’s Top 100 MLB Prospects list, Henson never lived up to expectations—accumulating a .248 AVG, 67 HR, and 274 RBI in 501 minor league appearances. His MLB career was “brief” to put it generously, as he retired from baseball 1-for-9 with 0 RBI.

5. Derek Jeter

Expected to be taken No. 1 in the 1992 MLB Draft and long gone before the Yankees’ selection, Derek Jeter seemed destined to land far from his tri-state area roots.

In a shocking development, the Houston Astros were scared off by Jeter’s Michigan scholarship and selected college star Phil Nevin. Astros scout Hal Newhouser felt so strongly about Jeter's potential that he actually quit his job after the Astros went in another direction.

Not only did Houston pass on him, but Paul Shuey, Jeffrey Hammonds and Chad Mottola were also taken ahead of him.

Needless to say, the Yankees were not going to make the same mistake. The hype began to crescendo until hitting its peak with a 1996 Rookie of the Year Award and World Series title. The rest, my friends, is history.

4. Bobby Murcer

Bobby Murcer was a solid ballplayer and an even better man. I could never say a bad word about him for as long as I live, and neither could scouts once he entered the Yankees organization.

All that needs to be said to understand the level of hype surrounding Murcer was that he was dubbed “The Next Mickey Mantle”. No one should have to carry that burden, and to be frank no one could.

Murcer collected 250+ home runs, 1000+ RBI, made five All-Star teams, won a Gold Glove, and finished in the Top-5 of MVP voting. He had a very solid and respectable MLB career, but he unfortunately never lived up to the impossible expectations placed on his shoulders.

3. Ron Blomberg

More infamous for his “MLB’s First Ever Designated Hitter” moniker, Ron Blomberg was also the first ever No. 1 overall pick in Yankees franchise history back in 1967.

Much like another former Yankee Dave Winfield, Blomberg was an athletic freak in multiple sports. He was the first (and I believe only) high school athlete to ever be selected as an All-American in baseball, basketball and football in the same year.

After already being hyped as a future superstar, Blomberg enjoyed a very hot start to his MLB career with the Yankees in 1971. His streak of success immediately got him on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Sport, and The Sporting News.

Blomberg slugged just 54 home runs in his MLB career—which essentially ended at the tender age of 26. He unfortunately suffered four knee and two shoulder injuries, and this run of bad luck and pain forced him out of the game he loved.

2. Mickey Mantle

Perhaps the most hyped of all Yankees prospects, Hall of Fame outfielder Mickey Mantle was first noticed by a team scout in 1948 as a 16-year-old. He hit home runs from both sides of the plate in the game, and was later called “the best prospect he’s ever seen”.

Mantle was quickly dubbed “The Commerce Comet” for his blinding speed, and was called up to the big club at just 19 years old. Shortly after his arrival, manager Casey Stengel already was quoted as saying he “[had] more natural power from both sides than anybody I ever saw."

Though the early months of his pro career nearly drove him to quitting, he of course rebounded to become an immortalized player.

1. Brien Taylor

It was impossible to limit the hype on New York’s second No. 1 overall pick in franchise history, so lefty flamethrower Brien Taylor seemed doomed from the beginning.

Taylor possessed a fastball that touched 100 MPH with a horrifying ease to it, while also adding in a curveball that could be described as nothing less than a “hammer”. He was supposed to be the Yankees version of Dwight Gooden, but he unfortunately only achieved that symmetry while off the field.

A fight in which he defended his brother resulted in his shoulder being shredded, and the promising young prospect would never be the same. We will never truly know what might have been, but the hype tale will live on forever.

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