After nearly two years, a Killer B returns

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Manny Banuelos waited nearly two years to step on a mound again after Tommy John surgery. So just throwing a pitch was an accomplishment.

The fact that Banuelos gave up a three-run homer to Chris Carter ripped a nice little bow from the story. However, the radar gun readings on Banuelos topped out at 93 and Banuelos' elbow felt fine.

"The best thing is I feel healthy," said Banuelos, still a few days shy of his 23rd birthday.

To begin the fifth, Banuelos allowed a chopped double down the third-base line to Jose Altuve before walking Jason Castro. He next hung a change to Carter, who did what major league home run hitters do.

Banuelos retired the final two batters and, as Joe Girardi noted, he left with a smile. It became a bit larger when he found out his velocity was in the 90s.

"They said it was 3," Banuelos said, meaning 93. "That was awesome. I thought it was 89-90."

Banuelos' pitches still leave his hand like they are on a spring, according to former major league manager and current special assistant Trey Hillman. Girardi mentioned the confidence that Banuelos exudes. He walks around the clubhouse like a big leaguer.

“We believe he has a high ceiling,” Girardi said. “If he were to help us this year, I can’t say how that will be. We are going to look at everything that gives us the best 12-man pitching staff.”

Banuelos could be a big part of a young pitching transformation that might materialize for the organization over the next year and beyond.

On Friday, a healthy-looking Michael Pineda, 25, made an impressive return, highlighted by striking out the best hitter in baseball, Miguel Cabrera. Masahiro Tanaka, 25, has displayed his world-class splitter and seems like he could be a No. 3 or better if expectations don't swallow him up. Ivan Nova, 27, had a 2.70 ERA over his final 16 starts in 2013 when he was clearly the Yankees' best pitcher.

Dellin Betances, who turns 26 this month, has thrown 5 1/3 scoreless innings this spring. He is putting himself in position to make the team as a one- or two-inning reliever.

"Two days in a row," an excited Francisco Cervelli said. "To see Pineda yesterday and Manny, I know that he has been working so hard."

In this game, things can change swiftly. A year ago, the Red Sox were an organization in disarray. Now, they are the world champs.

The Yankees could see their young pitching prospects make that sort of leap in 2014. A weekend in March foretells nothing definitive, but the seeds for October harvests are planted in the baking sun of Florida. So, it is OK for Yankee fans to dream a little about what they're reading, hearing and seeing about these potential comebacks.

Betances is already making a strong impression. Girardi pointed to the 6-foot-8 righty as someone who has stood out thus far.

The Yankees thought Betances could be a top starter, but could settle for him being a top bullpen piece. At Triple-A in 2013, he had a 1.35 ERA over 32 relief appearances, spanning 60 innings.

Betances and Banuelos have remained close, as they've grown up with the hype of being the Killer B's (the third "B," Andrew Brackman, is long gone from the organization).

When Banuelos underwent Tommy John surgery, Betances had some advice for his younger friend. Betances told him to keep a positive mindset, focusing on the fact he is at Triple-A, still just one step away from the big leagues. Betances also emphasized that Banuelos is still very young.

The two hang out all the time in Tampa, going out to eat and playing video games. (Betances wanted to make sure it was mentioned that he consistently beats Baneulos in FIFA soccer.)

The Yankees are considering Banuelos for an Opening Day bullpen spot. More likely -- and more prudently -- Banuelos will begin as the No. 1 starter at Triple-A.

Banuelos might not have gotten the result he wanted Saturday, but he was in the right place.

"Now, I'm back, so I keep working hard and forget the past," Banuelos said.