TRENTON, N.J. – Last December 29, the Yankees traded veteran reliever Shawn Kelley to the San Diego Padres. In return, they received right-handed relief prospect Johnny Barbato.
There was belief at the time Barbato might need Tommy John surgery, as his promising 2014 season was cut short June 10 with an elbow injury. This was after the Miami native, drafted in the sixth round in 2010 out of Felix Varela High School, amassed a 2-2, 2.87 mark with 16 saves for the Double-A San Antonio Missions.
He was immediately placed on the Trenton roster after the trade, had a strong Spring Training and so far is 2-0, 1.35 in four appearances with the Thunder, striking out nine and walking three in 6.2 innings. He has allowed just one earned run, the result of a controversial inside-the-park home run many thought landed foul.
“I feel good, and everything is fine,” said the 22-year-old Barbato, who definitely has fun playing the game. “I had a strain in my right elbow that kept me from pitching after June last year. I was told to rest.
“I did, and now I am throwing well. Things like that inside-the-parker happen.”
What will transpire as the season goes on remains to be seen, but so far Barbato is showing TJ was not needed on his elbow. His fastball was clocked at 95 mph in two recent appearances.
“I’m confident and comfortable with how my elbow is now,” he reiterated.
Barbato, whose fastball has touched 97 in the past, also throws a knuckle-curve that has generated strikeouts. He is looking to refine that pitch, and also has tinkered with a changeup. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he generates a lot of power. He delivery can use some loosening up.
He is also working to polish his command a bit.
“The Trenton coaching staff, both in Spring Training and here, has been great to work with,” said Barbato. “I’m really excited about being part of the Yankees system and seeing what I can do. I know what I need to work on.
“We have a lot of talent on this team, and I think Trenton is going to have an excellent season.”
With lefty James Pazos on the 7-day disabled list and still in Tampa, Barbato has been sharing closer duties with fellow right-hander Mark Montgomery for the 8-5 Thunder, who open a 7-game road trip Thursday night in Portland, Maine. He has shown he can pitch multiple innings.
In addition to the 16 saves at San Antonio last season, he registered 14 at Class-A Lake Elsinore in 2013. Barbato was listed as the Padres’ No. 30 prospect by Baseball America entering the 2014 season.
He admits the events of last December surprised him.
“When I was told I was traded for an established major-league reliever, I was like, really? But I felt pretty good about it. It was obvious the Yankees wanted me and I’m glad to be with their organization. I can tell there are a lot of good things happening.”
The Eastern League is known more as a pitchers’ league as compared to its Double-A Texas League counterpart, but Barbato sees something else he likes about the switch, even though he endured a lengthy bus ride to Down East Maine with his teammates yesterday.
“San Antonio was a good place to play, but some of those trips in the Texas League, like to Arkansas and Missouri,” he said. “The teams in this league are mostly a lot closer.”
At the tine of the trade, there were questions about what to expect from Barbato in 2015. So far, he is healthy and proving to be an asset in the Trenton bullpen. The Yankees aren’t asking for much more.