IT'S A COUPLE of days before the New York Yankees play their first spring training game, and Justus Sheffield, Chance Adams and Dillon Tate are seated in chairs in a semi-circle around CC Sabathia in a corner of the clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida.
As the Yankees' elder statesman, Sabathia gets two lockers in a corner, away from the traffic that includes players, trainers, clubhouse staff, media members, media relations personnel, interpreters and the occasional coach or front-office member. It's certainly no coincidence that the two lockers on the adjacent wall, before you get to the doorway that leads to the dugout and other offices, belong to Sheffield and Adams.
Along with Tate, they are three of the most promising starting pitchers in a deep and talented Yankees farm system. Tate's locker is in another area of the clubhouse, but he, Sheffield and Adams often congregate together in those mornings before on-field workouts or throwing sessions begin, sometimes at Tate's locker and on this day in front of Sabathia's.
Sabathia's lesson was simple. "Just be yourself," Tate explained. "Don't get too amped up and overthrow just because you're pitching in front of the manager and big league coaches."
While Sabathia has embraced the role of mentor, he also had three willing students. The three young starters all come across as baseball rats.
Tate described himself as a visual learner and likes watching some of his favorite pitchers on the MLB app -- Chris Archer, Marcus Stroman, Justin Verlander -- to see how they set up batters and use pitch sequencing. Adams likes to mimic the deliveries of other pitchers and apparently does a spot-on imitation of David Price. Sheffield's eyes lit up when he explained how he was working on a backdoor slider to go with his more conventional power slider that dives to the back foot of right-handed batters. It's not about changing his grip, but making a subtle change in the landing spot of his front foot.
Tim Naehring is general manager Brian Cashman's right-hand man, the team's VP of baseball operations. He assists Cashman in evaluating players throughout the minor league system, roster management and trade discussions. I asked him if my assessment of these three was accurate.
"We call it the 'it' factor," Naehring said, praising the baseball acumen of all three. He used third baseman Miguel Andujar as another example. "He always has a smile on his face. Tremendous sense of urgency. Wants to get better every day. Those guys that have that desire to be the best that their tools will allow for are the ones who usually get to the majors and stay there."
Sheffield is the highest-rated prospect of the pitchers -- Keith Law ranked him No. 16 overall in his top 100 list -- but Adams might have the best chance to make an impact in 2018. After breezing through six starts in Double-A last season, he made 21 starts at Triple-A and posted a 2.89 ERA. He's a good example of what has transformed the Yankees' system into one of the deepest in the game: a combination of scouting, analytics and player development.
Adams was a reliever his junior season at Dallas Baptist and the Yankees took him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. "You had certain scouting guys say he looks more like a bullpen piece, then you had [minor league pitching coordinator] Danny Borrell running him through a bio-mechanic test saying this guy does everything you want to see out of a starter," Naehring said.
So the Yankees made him a starter. Adams is built more like a reliever -- he's listed at 6 feet, which might be generous -- but he's solidly built and has a starter's repertoire, throwing 92-97 mph with a good slider and a developing changeup that Naehring says he thinks has a chance to be a plus offering. He also has some deception in his delivery with a short-arm approach that hides the ball and maybe allows the stuff to play up. The Yankees also like his fastball.
"A hitter thinks about the ball coming out of the hand at a certain angle to the plate," Naehring said. "The way he delivers his fastball and the way the ball holds plane is an abnormal look for the hitter. The brain expects the ball to move in a conventional way and his doesn't do that. So he has attributes with his fastball that we all like."
Adams is back in minor league camp (he's not even on the 40-man roster yet), but if there's an injury in the rotation, he could be one of the first options to fill a hole.
Sheffield reached Double-A last year and also could be in the Scranton rotation, one step away from the majors. I pointed out to him that he'd have a better shot at the majors right now if he were in another organization, like the Marlins.
He smiled. "No way. I want to pitch in the Bronx."
IN 2017, THANKS to the emergence of Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez and Jordan Montgomery, the Yankees produced 25.7 homegrown WAR on their big league roster -- the second-highest total in the majors behind the Astros, according to data from thebaseballgauge.com. Homegrown talent accounted for 44.1 percent of the Yankees' total WAR, their highest percentage since 2007.
The Yankees not only just graduated all this high-level talent, but they have Law's No. 2-ranked farm system, headlined by Gleyber Torres (his No. 5 overall prospect), Sheffield (16) and Andujar (54). To see how much the system has improved, check out this chart that lists homegrown WAR, original WAR (all talent originally signed or drafted by the Yankees, although not necessarily still with the club) and then where Baseball America ranked the Yankees' system at the start of each season.
Let's turn back the clock to 2014. The Yankees finished 84-78, missing the playoffs for a second straight season for the first time since 1993. They were outscored by 31 runs. They were old and boring, with a lineup featuring 40-year-old Derek Jeter in his final season, a bad Mark Teixeira, Brian Roberts, Ichiro Suzuki, Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano. Vidal Nuno, Chase Whitley and Chris Capuano each made at least 12 starts. It was ugly.
At the start of the season, Baseball America wrote, "It's hard to find a system that had a worse 2013, as many of New York's top prospects took a step backward, leaving the upper levels of the system quite thin." Now, in retrospect, the system was a little stronger than believed. Sanchez was the top prospect, Judge had been drafted in 2013 (although didn't play after getting drafted because of a leg injury), Severino had pitched 44 innings in the low minors, and guys such as Andujar, Greg Bird and Dellin Betances were already in the system.
Still, the Yankees knew they had to become more reliant on young players and less so on expensive free agents. In October 2014, Gary Denbo, who had served various roles in the organization, including major league hitting coach, was named VP of player development.
"When Gary Denbo took over, he brought a certain culture that changed the landscape, nothing against anyone that was there before," said Naehring, who served as a major league scout before assuming his current role after the 2015 season. "Gary brought a different level of accountability that I thought was outstanding. The development staff can be as good as it wants to be, but unless you have people out there in the international world and the amateur world bringing in the athletes, you're going to be capped off."
"[Estevan] Florial is a special, special human being. You can dream on him as much as anybody I've ever been around." Tim Naehring, Yankees VP of baseball operations
Denbo would leave the Yankees to join Jeter in the Marlins' front office after 2017, but as the Yankees played through the end of the Alex Rodriguez, Teixeira and Sabathia contracts, the system started developing the talent discovered by scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and the international scouting department. They invested heavily in Latin America. In 2014, for example, the Yankees signed 10 of the top 30 international talents. Along the way, Cashman made some astute trades, dealing Aroldis Chapman for Torres (and then re-signing Chapman as a free agent), Andrew Miller for Sheffield and outfielder Clint Frazier, and Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius.
"When I started going through the system a few years ago, I was impressed with the numbers of players who had a chance to make a significant impact at the major league level," Naehring said. "I've always been under the belief that if an organization can provide one championship-caliber player to the major league team each year, you can develop that core for sustained winning."
That's what makes the future for the Yankees scary for the rest of the American League. Torres and Andujar look like the next wave, even if Cashman did trade for Brandon Drury and sign Neil Walker as temporary placeholders in the infield. There is a slew of hard-throwing starting pitchers in the lower ranks of the minors and major-league-ready relievers at Triple-A such as Giovanny Gallegos and Ben Heller.
Then there's the kid with more tantalizing talent than any of them.
IN AN EARLY spring game against the Pirates in Bradenton, Estevan Florial slashed a ball in the right-center gap from the left side of the plate. He burned around the bases and reached third base standing up. There was no relay throw; by the time the shortstop received the ball from the right fielder, Florial was just a couple of strides from the bag. Put it this way: In the video I shot, Florial makes contact at 37 seconds and the video ends at 49 seconds.
Here's Estevan Florial showing off his speed with a triple from earlier this spring:
A few days before that, I was talking with Naehring in front of the Yankees dugout as the Yankees took batting practice at Steinbrenner Field. Before the slate of spring games begins, the Yankees have free admission for their workouts. The 1,500 or so fans might have been there mostly to check out Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, but the die-hards also got a glimpse of the future.
"Look at the body," Naehring noted as Florial stepped into the cage. Florial, who turned 20 in November, is listed at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, although he might have since added a few more pounds of muscle. With his speed, build and power potential, he reminded me of former Mariners center fielder Mike Cameron.
Florial's background is a little confusing. Reports say the Yankees signed him out of Haiti, which would make him the first major leaguer from that country. The Yankees media guide says he was born in Haiti; other sources say he was born in the Dominican Republic. He grew up in the Dominican Republic (they don't really play baseball in Haiti), but Florial said his mother is from Haiti, which created the mix-up. Discrepancies over his name and paperwork as an amateur led to a year in baseball purgatory before the Yankees signed him for a discounted bonus of $200,000.
Florial spent last season at Class A, hitting .298/.372/.479 with 13 home runs and 23 steals. He did strike out 148 times in 476 plate appearances and had the third-highest strikeout rate in the South Atlantic League. The swing-and-miss is a potential problem, but the strikeouts weren't necessarily the result of a poor approach or wild aggressiveness. Indeed, the independent reports on Florial describe a patient, fly ball approach.
Everybody agrees on the tools. He just missed Law's top 100, although other evaluators had him as high as 26 in their top 100 and Law wrote that Florial's raw tools alone could place him in the top 25. Naehring loves him, referring to Florial and Andujar as his two stepkids.
Maybe it will all come together for the young center fielder, maybe the pitch recognition improves to where he can fully tap into his power, maybe the plus-plus speed remains even as he fills out. At this point, he could be anything, a bright light on the baseball horizon.
"Florial is a special, special human being," Naehring said. "You can dream on him as much as anybody I've ever been around."
So remember that as you watch Judge and Stanton launch home runs all season. There are others on the way. You might just be watching the beginning of a new Yankees dynasty.