TAMPA — For the much-maligned Yankee farm system, this spring is the best of times and the worst of times.
The best of times is Jasson Dominguez, the young switch-hitting phenom center fielder, who is living up to all the accompanying hype from when the Yankees signed him for $5.1 million out of the Dominican Republic as the No. 1 rated international prospect in 2019. As of Friday, Dominguez was 7-for-16 with three homers, seven RBI and a 1.526 OPS in Grapefruit League play as the cries of “Martian” (his colorful and appropriate nickname for his “out-of-this-world” five-tool talent) have been resonating through the stands of George M. Steinbrenner Field.
More best of times has been the emergence of Jersey-bred fan favorite Anthony Volpe from longshot in the shortstop sweepstakes to the frontrunner in the early going of spring.
It has been a while since there has been this much rookie buzz in the Yankee camp. For other than Aaron Judge (and granted he’s a pretty good one), the Yankees have not developed a frontline position player since Brett Gardner in 2008, and before that Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada in the ‘90s. It’s been the same with pitchers. Not since Andy Pettitte in 1995 have the Yankees drafted and developed a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. We will see if that changes this year with Clarke Schmidt, their No. 1 draft pick in 2017 out of South Carolina who is getting a golden opportunity for a spot in the rotation with Frankie Montas having undergone shoulder surgery prior to spring training that will sideline him for months.
So what possibly could be the worst of times?
Well, for one thing, as electrifying as Dominguez has been this spring, he’s played only five games above A ball and most of his Grapefruit League at-bats have come as a late-inning replacement against “garbage time” minor league pitchers. So even with the oblique injury to Harrison Bader which will likely prevent him from opening the season in center field, much to the fans’ chagrin, the Yankee high command is not about to rush the timetable on Dominguez. Everyone you talk to around the Yankees insists the kid is the real deal, with uncommon calm and plate discipline for a 20-year-old, but his time, they also insist, has not yet come.
The other “best of times, worst of times” scenario playing out this spring has to do with the Yankees’ other two top prospects, Volpe and Oswald Peraza who unfortunately both happen to play the same position. It’s pretty clear Volpe is the fan favorite if only because of his north Jersey roots and infectious personality. But like Dominguez, Volpe has limited experience, only 89 at-bats above Double-A as opposed to Peraza, who spent most of last season at Scranton-Wilkes Barre, hitting .259 with 19 homers and 33 stolen bases.
Of the two, Peraza is perceived to be the more natural shortstop, although Volpe’s boosters have been quick to point to Jeter in 1996, who had his doubters about being a true shortstop among the Yankee high command, and proved them wrong by flat-out winning the job in spring training and never looking back. It’s a real dilemma for the Yankee brain trust, especially for those who believe Volpe in the long run is better suited for second or third base.
If Volpe continues to hit (6-for-20 with a homer and five runs scored as of Friday) and demonstrate that he can handle the position, how do you tell him he’s not a shortstop? Indeed, if, at the end of the spring, it’s deemed that Peraza will be the Opening Day shortstop, how do you still send Volpe to Triple-A as anything but a shortstop?
I asked that question to a veteran scout following the Yankees this spring. “You can’t,” he said. “You have to let the player prove he can’t play the position. Volpe’s only 21 and played shortstop his entire life. The Yankees have to be very careful here.”
At the end of the day, one of them is going to be the winner of this competition but for now Brian Cashman isn’t going there. “Anthony Volpe is doing everything he needs to do,” the GM said Thursday when asked for his assessment of the shortstop situation. “I’m not surprised he’s played well and he’s here for consideration. We’ll see how ultimately he measures up compared to everybody else in our internal dialogues. That hasn’t happened yet. I know everybody would love to have an answer sooner rather than later but we’re not prepared to make those decisions yet.”
In 2022, the Yankees had the second-highest overall average age in the majors (behind the Mets) of 30.12 and it’s fair to say they could use an infusion of youth. Either way, they’re going to get that at shortstop, but it could be complicated. Meanwhile, what remains to be seen is the very best-of-times scenario — which would be Dominguez hitting his way into the Yankee outfield sometime during the ‘23 season.
IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD
Back in the ‘80s when he was a coach for the Astros, Yogi Berra did a series of short programs, sponsored by Stroh’s Beer and created by MLB’s TV guru Tom Villante called “Yogi at the Movies” in which he would offer quick commentaries on the current movies. Well, now Yogi is the movies! On May 12, Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing “It Ain’t Over,” a 95-minute documentary of Yogi’s life to be shown in theatres in New York and Los Angeles and expanding to the rest of the country shortly thereafter. I hafta say documentarian Sean Mullin and his producers did a remarkable job in scoring interviews with so many of Yogi’s former teammates (Bobby Brown, Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson), Yankee legends (Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph), in addition to Vin Scully, Billy Crystal and Bob Costas, and Yogi’s sons, Tim, Larry and Dale. It’s a highly entertaining tribute to an American treasure and if Yogi was critiquing it, he would almost surely say “you can observe a lot by this movie just by watching” while also reminding us not to leave the theatre early “because the movie ain’t over ‘til it’s over!”
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