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Bryan Cuevas File Photo (Bryan Green)

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A Look Back At The 2014 Gulf Coast Yankees Season

By fielding two teams in the Gulf Coast League, the New York Yankees made a commitment in player development most organizations do not make. It is more expensive to field an extra team, and you have to have enough quality players to make the investment worthwhile. Thus, it had to be somewhat rewarding for the Yankee organization to see both of its Gulf Coast teams in the playoffs upon the completion of regular-season play.

Success in the minor leagues is not always measured by wins and losses, but baseball is all about competition, and that means winning should always be viewed as a good thing. The GCL Yankees 1 and 2 combined for a record of 73-47, and they faced each other in the first round of the playoffs after both winning their respective divisions. The Yankees 1 defeated their organizational teammates 8-4 in a one-game semifinal playoff to set up a best-of-three championship series with the Red Sox, where they fell in three games.

Since over eighty players suited up for the Gulf Coast Yankees this year, and it was not uncommon for players to appear for both teams, perhaps it is best to discuss the seasons of both teams in combination through the stories and themes that stood out.

The Risers

If you follow the GCL teams, you are more concerned with individual performances than you are with winning teams. You want to know who the prospects are, or at least who they could be. Some players jumped into that conversation with their performances this summer.

Alexander Palma received a healthy bonus to sign with the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic in 2012, and, after a full season in the Dominican Summer League in 2013, he put together a very nice debut in the GCL at the age of 18. Reputedly a good hitter coming into the season, he hit for average (.305) and some power (4 home runs), and he led the league in RBI with 45. Palma, mostly a right fielder, put himself in position to move up the ladder next year, and he caught the eyes of some prospect-watchers this summer.

Drew Bridges was drafted in the 20th round out of a Missouri high school in 2013, and at age 19 he showed why some have viewed him as a sleeper prospect. He had 22 extra-base hits, including five home runs, and improved as the season went on, raising his batting average 39 points in the month of August. Bridges plays mostly third base but can also play first, and the development of his power may make him a player to watch closely.

Allen Valerio, considered “old” coming over from the DSL at 21, showed he needed no adjustment period, putting up an .876 OPS after an .879 showing last year. Valerio plays third, and while he may be a deep sleeper, he also appears to be a good baseball player who will likely be in the everyday lineup somewhere next year.

Angel Aguilar, a shortstop, had a terrific season, batting .311/.373/.536 and hitting seven home runs. That’s a big home run number for a shortstop in the GCL, and it’s four more than he hit in two Dominican Summer League seasons combined. Aguilar is only 19, and he has been touted as a player to watch since the Yankees signed him out of Venezuela three years ago. There is an excitingly high number of shortstops in the Yankees’ lower minors right now, but Aguilar has put himself in position to start in Pulaski or Staten Island next summer.

Bryan Cuevas seems to be able to play all over the infield, and he broke out with the bat in his second GCL season. He hit .356 and put up a ridiculous OPS of .969. He seemed to do everything well this summer, and he was an offensive catalyst featured prominently in many winning box scores. Cuevas will have to keep hitting to remain in prospect discussions, but he just might be able to do that.

Jorge Mateo only played in 15 games this summer, but he is likely the most exciting prospect the GCL Yankees have to offer. His physical ability is too evident to be ignored, and it is highly unlikely he will be back in the GCL next year. Mateo is part of the shortstop logjam from Tampa (FSL) to, well, Tampa (GCL). If everyone comes to camp healthy, there will be Tyler Wade, Abiatal Avelino, Vincent Conde, Thairo Estrada, Mateo, Angel Aguilar, Bryan Cuevas, Yancarlos Baez, Yonauris Rodriguez, AND all of the shortstops signed out of Latin America this past summer vying for significant playing time. It’s a good problem to have.

The Free Agents

The Yankees brought some players into the organization this summer who were acquired through free agency, either because they were undrafted or because they were once with other organizations, and these players bolstered the GCL rosters and made solid contributions.

On offense, Billy Fleming (.375/.466/.488), a second baseman from West Virginia, Kevin Alexander (.304/.474/.393), a catcher out of Dallas Baptist, Jake Hernandez (6 HR, 25 RBI), a first baseman from USC, and Tyler Palmer (15 extra-base hits), a former 4th round pick of the Marlins making his debut, all had significant roles and may even have some prospect shine left. Fleming received a late-season promotion to Staten Island and may be a player.

On the mound, Jonny Drozd (0.57 ERA, 6 saves) and Mike Noteware (5 saves) stepped into closer roles and pitched well. Drozd, in particular, is interesting. At 6’7″ and throwing left-handed, he gets attention on paper. Throw in 23 strikeouts in 15.2 innings and a .83 WHIP and this becomes a guy you want to see challenged up the ladder.

The Pitchers

The GCL teams came into the season promising the exciting debuts of power arms Simon De La Rosa, Domingo Acevedo, Juan Jimenez, Manolo Reyes, and Orby Tavares. The finals results were not that exciting. There were no disasters, but Acevedo, who touched 100 with his fastball, and Jimenez missed significant time, and Reyes and De La Rosa were hittable and walked too many, though they put up good strikeout numbers (combined 80 in 73.2 innings). Tavares, who doesn’t throw as hard but is left-handed and 6’4″ and 225 pounds, had a solid season at age 19, posting a 2.68 in 40.1 innings. It is possible he enters next season in the Pulaski rotation.

Standout performances came from pitchers Jhon Morban, Gean Batista, Chris Cabrera, Luis Cedeno, Reynaldo Polanco, and Nestor Cortes. Morban was 5-1 with a 2.79 ERA in 42 innings, tying Batista (1.16 WHIP) for the GCL Yankees lead in wins. Cabrera and Cedeno put up miniscule 1.29 and 1.13 ERAs respectively, with Cabrera not allowing an earned run until his thirteenth appearance and Cedeno closing the season with 14 scoreless innings. Polanco pitched much better in his second go-round in the GCL, with a 2.29 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. Cortes, a lefty drafted last year and a deep sleeper, struck out 38 in 31.2 innings.

The Leftovers

Leonardo Molina, last year’s prize on the international amateur market, played half of the season at the age of 16, and his numbers did not indicate the potential that most scouts see in him. He struggled offensively, hitting .193 with a .528 OPS, but he remains a possible five-tool player who will likely repeat the GCL next year.

In his second GCL season, outfielder Jose Augusto Figueroa improved statistically across the board and hit .290 with a little power to boot. Likewise, first baseman Dalton Smith showed improvement in year three of his GCL career. Known to possess some power, it started to show up in his four home runs.
Dominic Jose, a 2014 draft pick from Stanford and the son of former big-leaguer Felix Jose, had a nice debut at .300/.364/.462. He’s 21, and Stanford hitters sometimes break out late, so Jose will be one to watch next year.

Second baseman Junior Valera had a .316/.409/.449 debut in the GCL and stole 14 bases. He can do a lot of things on a baseball field, but at 22 he needs to get moving up the ladder with all of the middle-infield competition in the Yankees’ lower minors.

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