Banuelos, the 19-year-old Mexican pitching prospect, was coming off a very solid full-season debut in 2009, even attending the All-Star Futures Game. He had pitched very well in the South Atlantic League, earning a very late bump up to the Florida State League. His development made it a little easier for the Yankees to deal another young arm, Arodys Vizcaino, to the Braves for Javier Vazquez.
Yet Banuelos' stuff graded out no better than average across the board and he received higher marks for his advanced feel for pitching. The Yankees were very curious to see how the young southpaw progressed in 2010.
Banuelos was shut down before things even got started when he needed to get his appendix removed in April. Banuelos figured 2010 would be a complete wash.
"When I had the operation, I thought I was going to miss the whole year," Banuelos said Wednesday after making his final start of the Arizona Fall League season. "I worked a lot on my rehab and I missed just half of the year."
After a pair of rehab outings in the Gulf Coast League, Banuelos went back to Tampa, where he promptly posted a 2.23 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings. He pitched well in three starts in Double-A to end the regular season and capped things off with a solid performance in a pair of playoff starts. It appeared Banuelos was back.
And then some. When Banuelos returned to action -- and it extended to the 25 innings he threw in the AFL -- scouts began to notice that his stuff seemed a bit better. He was throwing much harder, up to 94-95 mph. Instead of a really interesting undersized -- he's listed, perhaps kindly, at 5-foot-11 -- lefty who knew how to pitch, he suddenly was a southpaw with pitching know-how along with a plus fastball.
"When I came back, I felt really strong," Banuelos said. "I was surprised with my velocity, too. I worked a lot on my body during rehab, so I came back really strong.
"I worked more on my body than when I'm pitching in the season. I wasn't pitching, I was just working and working. That helped me gain more velocity and power."
Banuelos got the start in the AFL's prestigious Rising Stars Game, a kind of autumn version of the Futures Game. Facing the best of the best in the Fall League, one of the youngest performers in the league went two innings, allowing an unearned run on three hits while striking out three. His performance, and his improved stuff, left a very good impression among the many scouts in attendance, with many feeling he was one of the more exciting arms in the league.
"I learned a lot in this league, against hitters with more experience," said Banuelos, who finished his AFL tour with a 3.60 ERA over 25 innings of work, ending with a five-inning, one-run start on Tuesday. "I learned how I can mix my pitches and how to throw it inside more. I also learned how to make my changeup better and my two-seam fastball. That will help me a lot for next year."
With more weapons in his arsenal, Minor League hitters should beware in 2011. It's already clear that nothing seems to faze him, whether it's talk about him being too small -- "I hear them say I'm a short pitcher, but I don't care. I try to throw hard and get guys out, that's it," Banuelos said -- or the fact that he lost 15 pounds following his surgery and had to work extremely hard to get back to full strength. That's now a positive, as Banuelos has a better understanding and appreciation about what hard work, conditioning and eating right can do for his abilities on the mound. All of what he's experienced in 2010 is pointing to a potential breakout season next year.
"I hope so," Banuelos said. "I will try to have my best year next year. I will keep working hard, doing all the things I've been doing. I've learned many things here and I will use them next year."