TAMPA, Fla. -- The Yankees could certainly benefit from a healthy and productive farm system. And the sooner the better.
While the Yanks spent aggressively to fill holes at the Major League level, there is an awareness that if the pipeline continues to run dry, it's going to make it more difficult for the organization to compete annually over the long haul. The first step in the recovery will be to shake off a lackluster 2013 season and get prospects back moving in the right direction.
"With some underperformance and some injuries, it wasn't a particularly good year," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations. "Those injuries at Double and Triple-A, if we get through that stuff, we'll be OK."
There are some encouraging signs, led by Manny Banuelos. Once the No. 1 prospect in the organization, but now No. 12 on the new Yanks' Top 20 list, Banuelos appears to be healthy for the first time in a couple of years and is pitching in big league camp.
Others need to get back on track. No. 3 prospect Slade Heathcott needs his knee to improve. Tyler Austin (No. 6) has to get past a recurring thumb problem. Neither outfield prospect performed up to their potential in 2013.
"We still think they're talented," Newman said about the pair, and others. "Those performances can turn around easily. We had an unhappy convergence of some of that stuff. We'll see how it goes. We're all working hard, the players are working hard, to improve their performances."
There is still plenty of optimism at the top of the system, with catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielder Mason Williams both having tremendous upside potential. Sanchez and Williams, who are both ranked among the Top 100 prospects in the game, have looked good thus far during Spring Training.
There's also been an influx of talent from the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, with the three first rounders -- Eric Jagielo, Ian Clarkin and Aaron Judge -- all ranked among the club's top 10.
Newman said that the strength of the system is on the hitting side of things, and that it's time for the system to take a big step forward.
"Based on what we're seeing in the beginning of camp, those guys are doing well," Newman said. "That doesn't mean a whole lot at this time, but we need to have some of those guys have good years."
Three questions with Eric Jagielo
Eric Jagielo was a first-round pick of the Yankees in 2013, taken No. 26 overall
MLBPipeline.com: You've been tagged with the "advanced college hitter" label, with the expectation of moving quickly. How do you balance those expectations and try not to do too much?
Jagielo: One of the cooler things with me being down here early [for Spring Trainging], I was able to talk to Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter and work out with them, see their progression. Obviously, they were both [drafted as] high school guys, but they really emphasized taking one day at a time, getting into a routine and really preparing yourself, so when the time is right and that opportunity does present itself, that you can take it and hit in full stride. That's the way to do it. Talking to some of these older guys, you realize it's a slow process. At the same time, you're competing every day for a job for New York.
MLBPipeline.com: You've worked really hard on your defense. Before your junior year, some scouts weren't sure you could play third. That doesn't seem to be a question anymore. How much pride do you take in that improvement?
Jagielo: It all started back in my freshman year. I started at first base, just to get my bat in the lineup. I was blessed to be a freshman, starting on opening day. Then I played the outfield for a year and a half. Then I came back to third. From that standpoint, I thought, "Good, I have versatility." But I realized if I wanted to be a prospect, I really needed to get in at one position. I was getting more comfortable during that college season. As soon as I got here, I felt good. I'm learning the position more. When I talked to Alex, too, he told me that your bat will get you to the Major Leagues, but that you need to play defense every single day to stay there. That really hit home. I've tried to get the quality work in so that I can stay there and so they're not questioning whether you'll have to move.
MLBPipeline.com: No matter where you're from, there's a mystique and history with the Yankees and the pinstripes. What was it like putting on the uniform for the first time?
Jagielo: When I was growing up, that's when they were winning all those championships. Coming from Chicago, as a Cubs fan, I was like, "Come on, why can't we win these championships?" Now you're a part of it, you understand why. You understand what types of people go through the system, why the guys at the next level are the way they are. To be able to go to a place like this, with rich history, is unbelievable, but I feel kind of spoiled because at Notre Dame, I got an early glimpse of that. My agent put it a good way -- there are so many parallels; you could end up playing for two of the most prestigious names in the world. I was fortunate. I know what the interlocking "ND" means. Now, the interlocking NY. It's still unbelievable. I think about it every day. Now I have to work hard so I'm playing in Yankee Stadium.
Camp standout: Mason Williams
Since the Yanks signed Williams to an over-slot deal in the fourth round in 2010, he's teased with glimpses of just how well his athleticism might play on the diamond, though consistency has eluded him.
Williams' 2013 season was more of the same -- an up-and-down affair that did see him reach Double-A before he turned 22. He performed capably in the Arizona Fall League, showing consistent effort, something the No. 75-ranked prospect has been accused of not doing so regularly in the past.
That's carried over into big league camp, where Williams has looked good in the early stages of the spring. His defense in center field has always been excellent, and that has continued, while some adjustments at the plate have the Yankees encouraged that Williams might be ready to take the next step in his offensive development.
"He's been pretty good and he's gotten to play a lot," Newman said. "He's played well defensively. He's had some good at-bats. He's playing hard and with confidence. His balance at the plate is better. He looks really good. He can fly and he's a fabulous center fielder. He's going to hit some home runs, too.
"When we signed him, I bet he weighed 168 pounds or something like that. Now he's at 195."
Breakout candidate: Bryan Mitchell
It's amazing what one pitch can do to change things.
Prior to the end of the 2013 season, Mitchell was a typical "big arm strength, so-so results" kind of pitcher. The 2009 16th-round pick could crank it up into the upper 90s and displayed a good, hard curve at times. His performance didn't match the raw stuff, leading to a career 4.47 ERA through '13.
Near the end of last year, pitching coordinator Gil Patterson introduced a cutter to Mitchell's repertoire. The Yanks' No. 14 prospect took to it like a cat to cream. Despite an ERA over 5.00 in the Florida State League, the right-hander got bumped up to Double-A. With his new weapon, Mitchell posted a 1.93 ERA in three starts, and all of his peripheral numbers improved. It's carried over into big league camp this spring, as Mitchell tossed two shutout innings in his Grapefruit League debut.
"Since he started throwing [a cutter], he's been really good," Newman said. "He had a game when he struck out 10 and threw 20 of his 23 cutters for strikes. With pitchers, sometimes you add a pitch and they can become different guys. He has a big arm. He can spin a breaking ball. His curveball has bite. He's been pretty impressive in big league camp."