The following is the third installment of ESPNNewYork.com's three-part series on the state of the New York Yankees' farm system.
NEW YORK -- The Yankees can dream about a perfect summer day in the Bronx. A former All-Star -- now just 25, maybe not firing his fastball at 98 mph anymore, but still filthy at 95 -- goes seven dominant innings.
A reliever, now just 23, comes in for the eighth dispensing lightning bolts from a left arm that Mariano Rivera once said was the best young one he had ever seen in a Yankees camp.
Michael Pineda's shoulder is repaired and his body is in shape, according to the Yankees. Pineda, two years after arriving in the Jesus Montero blockbuster, will compete for the No. 5 spot with the man who traded for him rooting hard that Pineda finally debuts in the Yankees' rotation.
"He's gonna compete for the last spot and hopefully he wins it," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said of Pineda, who will be challenged by David Phelps, Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren. "But if it's not him it'll be somebody else. I can't tell you the shoulder surgery is behind him. He's someone who had a massive shoulder surgery and he's trying to come back. He'll either pitch for us or he'll pitch for Scranton."
Pineda could be at Triple-A with Manny Banuelos, who had Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2013. Banuelos, who turns 23 in March, will have an outside chance to make the big club out of spring training as a reliever, a source told ESPNNewYork.com. If not, he will be preparing at Triple-A to be the first starter or reliever called up in 2014.
"It feels normal, just like before surgery," Banuelos said. "I feel ready to go."
Speaking from Tampa -- where he arrived more than a week early for spring training -- Banuelos sounded hungry to compete after not pitching in a game in nearly two years. He said he is eager, even at his young age, to finally make it to the big leagues.
"I will work more than years ago," Banuelos said. "I want to show Brian Cashman and [Hal] Steinbrenner and all the people what they have now. I want to show them I can do it in the big leagues, this year. I want to make it. I can't wait to pitch again."
The Yankees may ultimately decide that the best thing for Banuelos is to churn the odometer up on his innings at Triple-A. He threw only 24 innings in 2012 and none in '13.
"He has already been labeled a bust, but he is so young," an AL scout said. "He's knocking on the door."
Another scout added, "If he is healthy, he could be a No. 3 MLB starter at some point."
The Yankees' farm system's rebirth in the near term centers around these two comeback stories. While the Tommy John elbow surgery Banuelos had is nowadays seen as a bump in the road because it is such an advanced procedure, Pineda's shoulder issue is a more onerous one.
Still, if he is anywhere near to what the Seattle Mariners saw in his All Star first half of 2011 -- 3.03 ERA and a strikeout per inning on average -- the Yankees suddenly could have a young starting foundation with Pineda joining fellow 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka, 27-year-old Ivan Nova to begin 2014 -- and soon-to-be 23-year-old Banuelos around the corner.
The possible resurgence of Banuelos and Pineda gives Cashman hope for the other prospects in the Yankees' farm system, many of whom have not panned out as expected.
"Basically it's fair to criticize where we're currently sitting, but because some of it is injury-related, it gives us hope for rapid improvement,'' Cashman said. "The talent happens to still be there so therefore the projections still have a chance to occur. Hopefully we can start to cash in on that this year.''
The Yankees are different than nearly all the 29 other teams. J.R. Murphy has emerged from the Yankees' catching prospects as the one who soonest could be an everyday-caliber player in the majors. So what did the Yankees do this winter? Of course, they guaranteed Brian McCann $86 million, which could shoot up to $100 million.
Even with McCann as an immovable road block -- barring injury -- Murphy, 22, moved to the front of the line among a large group of Yankees catching prospects. Montero was traded to Seattle and stripped of his gear. Francisco Cervelli is trying to return from injury and his Biogenesis suspension. Austin Romine's stock has slipped "a little bit," in Cashman's opinion, while top prospect Gary Sanchez is still 800-1,000 or so minor league at-bats away from the big leagues.
So Murphy will have a real chance to beat out Cervelli and Romine to be McCann's backup in 2014.
"Murphy is considered not just by us, by teams who have called about him, an everyday catcher in the big leagues," Cashman said. "A future everyday catcher in the big leagues. He'd been a great defender and now his bat has finally come around."
Murphy had a .773 OPS between Double and Triple-A in 2013. He impressed the Yankees with his preparation during his 16 games with the big club.
JOSE, JOSE, JOSE
Jose Ramirez is another minor leaguer who could make an impact in the majors in 2014. Ramirez, a 24-year-old righty, may be one of the guys asked to revitalize the Mariano Rivera-less bullpen that has pushed everyone up a rung with David Robertson moving to the closer spot. Like Banuelos, Ramirez could win a spot if he stars in Tampa.
"He's a freaking flamethrower from the right side," one Yankee official said.
Ramirez is a guy that Cashman said makes scouts go, "Wow." He has yet to dominate Triple-A, but Cashman loves his 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings at Double-A in 2013.
TRADE BAIT -- OUTFIELDERS -- OF THE FUTURE
In the Yankees' win-now universe, prospects need to be developed for trades as much as for the Bronx. Just like with Murphy, the Yankees rarely give players time to grow into a position in the majors, but need them to be ready to pack their bags.
The Yankees' regression from 10th best farm system in the majors in 2013, according to ESPN.com's Keith Law, to 20th in 2014 is a direct result of injuries and poor years for many of their top prospects.
"Most of their top guys either regressed or got hurt," an AL scout said. "When guys do that, your farm system doesn't look good."
This begins with the Yankees' outfield prospects. They still have two outfielders in Law's Top 100 prospects and a third whom scouts think has everyday center-field skills, but they all need to show progress this year.
Law rated Tyler Austin (85th) and Mason Williams (87th) in his top 100, but both disappointed in 2013 at Double-A Trenton. At 21, both were considered young for the Eastern League last season.
Austin had a .717 OPS for Trenton, dulling expectations for the time being, while Williams -- between Single and Double-A -- combined had a .664 OPS and raised concerns with a DUI.
Slade Heathcott, only 23, has always heard questions about his attitude. Law quoted a scout saying that Heathcott was "legitimately a crazy person."
During a phone conversation recently, Heathcott said he has his attitude in the right place. He has had recurring shoulder and knee problems that have slowed his progress and combined with his fearless approach -- some say reckless -- to the game has dropped him out of the Law's 100.
"I learned that this game is about having fun," said Heathcott, who had a .738 OPS at Double-A in 2013. "It is not about being so serious. It is a privilege to play the game. The beginning of the year I was in my own head, trying to figure everything out. I think that put a little too much pressure on myself instead of just reacting and having fun."
With the signings of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran to team with Brett Gardner, the Yankees don't really have a near-term need for any of these outfielders in the Bronx. But, they need them to have big years so other teams will begin to covet them. They need trade chips.
While the Yankees dream on Pineda and Banuelos for 2014, they have long-term images of Class A starter Luis Severino becoming a starter one day. Left-handed hitting Greg Bird, a Class A first baseman who caught the eye of none other than Alex Rodriguez in 2013 during A-Rod's rehab, is said to have plate discipline to go with power. Bird could be someone who might be able to team with an aging McCann at first when Mark Teixeira is done. At 20, Bird had a .938 OPS at Charleston.
Venezuelan catcher Luis Torrens, whom the Yankees signed for $1.3 million in 2012, is another in the long line of Yankees potential backstops, joining top prospect Sanchez.
Righty reliever Mark Montgomery, who seemed on the brink of joining the major league team prior to the spring of 2013, could make a comeback and be a contributor in '14.
But, like everyone else, the Yankees know there are no guarantees. From Pineda to Banuelos to a guy such as Dellin Betances, potential just means they haven't fully made it yet.
The 6-foot-8 Betances was a Killer B with Banuelos and now journeyman Andrew Brackman. But his development has been slow with the Yankees finally moving him to the bullpen during 2013. They ceded that the soon-to-be 26-year-old Betances -- despite his great stuff -- could not keep his huge frame in order over six-plus innings. So he will try to make the big club as a reliever.
"He has filthy stuff," Cashman said. "You don't give up on a guy like that."
You keep dreaming.