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Yankees felt draft pressure, compare Kyle Holder to Omar Vizquel

Icon Sportswire, Getty Images

NEW YORK -– The last time the New York Yankees had a pick this high in Major League Baseball's first-year player draft -- No. 16 overall -- Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were still in Class A ball.

So it is hardly surprising that Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees' vice president of amateur scouting, admitted there was added pressure on him and his staff to make this one count.

“I’m not going to lie about it," Oppenheimer said on a conference call Thursday. “You feel like that about most of them, but when it comes to picking higher than we have since Matt Drews, before I was even here, it does feel that way. It felt like you look to the Yankees and you look to the organization to get somebody with this pick who's going to produce and be a quality major league player."

And given the crapshoot nature of the draft -- Jeter was the sixth overall pick in 1992 and is headed to Cooperstown, while Drews, the No. 13 pick in 1993, never made it out of Triple-A -- Oppenheimer seemed pleased with how the Yankees used their top pick this year, selecting right-handed pitcher James Kaprielian out of UCLA.

“He’s got stuff, he performs, he’s got makeup and he’s got a quality body," Oppenheimer said of Kaprielian, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound 21-year-old from Tustin, California. “He’s a winner and he’s tough."

Oppenheimer cited Kaprielian’s fastball ("90 to 95"), high swing-and-miss rate on his curveball and slider, and the fact that he struck out 114 batters in 106 innings this season. He said Kaprielian projects as a “No. 3 starter or above."

Most of all, Oppenheimer seemed to believe that Kaprielian might be close to big league-ready, as was last year’s No. 1 pick, Jacob Lindgren, who is now in the Yankees’ bullpen.

“His stuff definitely is 'now' stuff, and it’s 'now' quality stuff," Oppenheimer said. “He has control to go along with mental maturity. I don’t know the timetables on these guys. It’s too hard to tell at this point. But he shouldn’t have to spend too much time at the lower levels."

Oppenheimer did, however, reject the oft-made comparison between Kaprielian and Ian Kennedy, the former Yankee (No. 21 overall in 2006) now with the San Diego Padres, who grew up not far from Kaprielian's hometown.

“Kaprielian’s got more fastball than Kennedy did when he signed," Oppenheimer said. “He has a more consistent breaking ball than what Ian did. I think that’s just because they’re both from Southern California and all that good stuff, but I don’t see it."

Oppenheimer seemed especially pleased with the Yankees' second pick of the first round (30th overall): shortstop Kyle Holder from the University of San Diego, a compensatory pick for the loss of David Robertson to free agency last winter.

“I got more text messages from scouts from within the game about how good a pick that was, more than any other pick we took," Oppenheimer said. “He hit .348 in a really good conference out there, he had as many walks as strikeouts, a .418 on-base percentage and a .900 OPS. Those aren’t numbers to scoff at."

But what Oppenheimer really likes about the left-handed-hitting Holder is his defense.

“The ball just sticks in his glove," Oppenheimer said. “There’s not a lot of guys that you say, ‘I want to get there early to watch this guy take ground balls.’ But that’s what I did with him."

Oppenheimer compared Holder’s defense to that of Omar Vizquel, an 11-time Gold Glove-winning shortstop. “I made sure I got there early in Cleveland to watch Omar Vizquel take ground balls," he said. “And this guy can do some of those things that Omar did between his legs and things. I don’t know. It was just really, really fun to watch."

The rest of the Yankees' draft, like that of all teams, is a roll of the dice, and Oppenheimer was unable to single out any of his lower-round picks for special praise.

“We obviously like a bunch of them," he said, “But we’ll just have to let it play out."

Among the more interesting picks are right-handed pitcher Alexander Robinett, a cadet at West Point who has to fulfill military commitments before joining the Yankees organization, and Andrew Miller, a left-handed pitcher from Sterling High School in Stratford, New Jersey, who is a namesake of the Yankees' injured closer.

The big fear must be that the 2015 draft will be remembered more for a player the Yankees did not take -- Mariano Rivera III, who was taken by the Washington Nationals in the fourth round -- than for any they did. (The Yankees had chosen Rivera III last year in the 29th round, but he opted to return to Iona College for his senior year.)

“We had him on our board," Oppenheimer said. “We had him as guy to reselect. I don't think that's fair to anybody to say where we had him."

There is a punch line to the story of the last time the Yankees picked this high in the draft: While Drews never made it to the major leagues, he still had some value to the Yankees, being part of the trade that brought Cecil Fielder over from the Detroit Tigers in 1996. Fielder went on to be a member of the Yankees' 1996 World Series-winning team.

“I think it’s impossible to project where any of them will wind up while they’re still amateurs," Oppenheimer said. “But I’m quite sure we’ve got a few major leaguers in there."