It’s easy to visualize the excitement at Steinbrenner Field during Spring Training of 2011.
On the mound, dominating big-league hitters, a 20-year-old lefty named Manny Banuelos, signed by Yankees scout Lee Sigman out of Gomez Palacio Durango, Mexico, was looking big-league ready. Throwing a mid-90s fastball that reached 97 at times, a plus changeup and a nasty curve, he seemed on the road to The Bronx and the Yankees rotation.
As happens, however, some roadblocks emerged. Starting 2011 at Double-A Trenton, Banuelos was 4-5, 3.59 in 2o starts. His strikeout/walk ratio was 94-52 and his command of the strike zone faltered. He earned a promotion to Triple-A Scranton, where he was 2-2, 4.19, but lacked control again with a 31-19 strikeout/walk ratio.
At the time, Yankees development people attributed this to youth and Banuelos throwing harder than before. But there were some underlying problems, first a back malady then pain in the left elbow. Banuelos’ 2012 season was halted after just six Scranton starts and, after rest didn’t cure the problem, he underwent Tommy John surgery in October 2012, missing all of 2013.
Working hard to come back, a man who never lost his smile and fun times dealing with the media, Banuelos registered 94 with his fastball in simulated games last fall and started 2014, under a strict innings limit, at Class-A Advanced Tampa. Through the year, he advanced to Trenton and Scranton, finishing with a 2-3, 4.11 mark in 26 appearances (25 starts), never going more than five innings or 75 pitches.
“I really feel Manny made a lot of progress,” said Trenton manager Tony Franklin, who sent Banuelos to the mound 17 times (16 starts). “His stuff is certainly still there, but he’s learning how to use it again. He’s seeing that if he throws his curve ball, there is no pain.
“He’s still young (23), and we’ll see how it goes for him.”
Banuelos pitched well in the Eastern League. His first few starts were three innings, then four, then five. He ended with a 1-3, 4.59 mark at Doubke-A, but improved as the season went on. He held Double-A hitters to a .194 average and had a strikeout/walk ratio of 44-19. Essentially he pitched as well as any 23-year-old in Double-A.
Better yet, his stamina and control improved as he went along. Banuelos was given four starts in Scranton in August and 1-0, 3.60 mark in 15 innings. Control was an issue, however, as he walked 10 in those 15 innings. For the season, he threw just 76.2 innings as planned.
“I would say, coming back from elbow surgery, he got back on the mound and performed,” said Franklin. “He’s starting to put it all back together.”
Given that, the question arises whether Banuelos, still 23 and a talented left-hander, would work better as a starter or reliever. Many have asked that.
The reliever role, with a lefty who can hit 97 with his fastball is enticing to consider, but so is one who is still young as a starter with three quality pitches.
With this week’s acquisition of Justin Wilson, a lefty reliever who has hit 100 – and also has battled control issues – it seems Banuelos’ future role is that of a starter who can help the Yankees rotation if he stays healthy and his control improves.
This season will be a key one in his development. Look for him to start at Scranton, waiting for a call if needed. Once a top prospect, Banuelos appears on the road back to that status if his left elbow remains sound.