By this point in Spring Training, I can’t imagine that any attentive Yankee fans don’t know a lot about Manuel Banuelos. He is about to turn 20 years old. He’s a 5’10″ left-handed starting pitcher who throws 92-95 mph with a very strong changeup and a decent, improving curveball. We’ve all heard the glowing comments from Mariano Rivera, Joe Girardi, and Russell Martin. He’s earned Clayton Kershaw and Johan Santana comparisons. People are even calling for him to start the year in the majors. There’s a lot to talk about, and I’d like to offer some specific opinions.
First off, all the glowing mental stuff isn’t new. The Yankees signed Banuelos in 2007, along with Alfredo Aceves, out of Mexico. They immediately pushed him much faster than they push most young international free agents. He pitched a full schedule in rookie ball as a young (his March birthday gives him a very young baseball age) 17 year-old. He was pretty good, but like most non-drafted rookie ball players, no one noticed too much. His coming out occurred during his 108 innings with Charleston in 2009, again very young for his level. Although he showed average stuff (90 mph fastball, solid changeup, average curveball) at the time, coaches and scouts universally raved about his makeup. That makes what Mariano Rivera and Russell Martin and everyone are saying now simply confirmation of what we’ve long known about Banuelos: he’s got the perfect makeup for a MLB starter.
That was enough for plenty of people to rate him in the mid-teens range of top Yankee prospects. You all probably know the rest of the story here too – he went down with an appendectomy, missed half the season, and then came back throwing much harder than before. This isn’t as common among young pitchers as a lot of people make it out to be. But something clicked for Banuelos, and the Yankees all the sudden had an ace prospect on their hands. He was so good in Tampa that the Yankees let him get his feet wet in Trenton for 3 starts to finish the year. That’s where he’ll pick up where he left off.
I find the calls to promote Banuelos to the majors this season, out of spring training or not, pretty ridiculous. Banuelos is far from a finished product in any sense. The most obvious concern is innings. He didn’t get to pitch much in 2010 and needs a full minor league season of innings under his belt. We all remember the mess that the Yankees got into with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain by rushing prospects, and Banuelos can certainly fall victim to the same thing. The danger is even greater because he’s a small guy. But aside from injuries, Banuelos should not be regarded as major league ready. He struggled with control both in his short Double-A stint and in the Arizona Fall League (3.6 BB/9 and just 5.76 K/9 in Arizona, plus reports had him reluctant to throw the curve), plus he still has some pitch count issues to overcome. He’s looking really impressive in Spring Training, but its Spring Training. The Yankees should flat-out tell Banuelos that no matter how well he pitches, he won’t get more than a short September call-up in 2011. He needs the freedom to experiment, refine his curveball, work on his pick off move, etc.
I think Banuelos can be a really great pitcher. The only real concern about him right now is his size (5’10″, though he’s strong in the right place, his legs), which I view more of a longer term aging thing than a short term issue. I rated him 8.0B, but contemplated something like a 9.0 or 8.5C, because he does have a lot of potential. That said, I’m a bit loath to project him forward too far. He’s still got a lot of work to do on his curveball and overall pitch efficiency, and we’ll see if sharp upward velocity shift holds up over a full season. If he pitches 160 innings in 2011 like his 60 innings in 2010, I think he might warrant a higher talent rating. But still, Banuelos is an exceptional pitcher, capable of consistent all star level play. In terms of ability level, think Jon Lester, with a little better control.
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