That's largely been because of a renewed effort in Latin America and, as a result, the staffs of New York's affiliates at the bottom of the ladder have been exciting to watch. The recent trade of Arodys Vizcaino took away one of these high-ceiling pitchers, but there are plenty more on the rise.
Jose A. Ramirez wasn't considered as high-profile as some of the other international signees in the system, but the teenager was as good as anyone in his United States debut this past summer. By going 6-0 with a 1.41 ERA in the Gulf Coast League, he was an easy choice for the MiLBY as Short-Season Starting Pitcher of the Year.
At 19, Ramirez finished eighth in the league in ERA and eighth in strikeouts with 53. What set him apart was the .159 batting average-against and the fact he walked just 16 over his 61 innings. He led all pitchers who qualified in BAA and his 7.23 base-runners/9 IP ratio was also the lowest on the Rookie-level circut.
"He wasn't a high-profile guy, but he's kind of what we're searching for in Latin American pitching," said Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations. "He had a feel for the strike zone. He can spin the ball and has a good feel for a changeup. He can get it up to 96 mph. And he throws strikes."
Ramirez began his season with a bang and kept on going. His first start was a six-inning, one-hit shutout affair in which he struck out eight and didn't walk a batter. He finished the summer with a two-hit, nine-strikeout scoreless six-inning effort in which he didn't walk a batter, capping off a string of four straight scoreless starts spanning 24 innings. Go back to the prior start and Ramirez will carry a 26-inning regular-season scoreless streak into the 2010 season.
He was a tough-luck loser in the GCL playoffs when the Yankees dropped a 2-1 decision to the Marlins. Ramirez gave up the two runs on four hits and an uncharacteristic three walks in six innings. Still, take away one truly bad outing in which he gave up five earned runs in five innings and Ramirez's ERA, including the postseason, would be a miniscule 1.02. Needless to say, the Yankees were thrilled with his progress.
"There's some level of crapshoot of projection at any level,and it's a higher degree with the 16- to 17-year-old kids," Newman said. "No one's smart enough to hit it most of the time or all of the time. His fastball is getting better and better and he can locate it. He can get it to his glove side, a really good indicator of command for his age. There's a lot to like."
It will be interesting to see what the next step will be for Ramirez, who will turn 20 in January. The Yankees are not afraid to push a young pitcher to full-season ball if they feel he's ready for the challenge. That's what they did with Manny Banuelos. Granted, the left-hander is a different type of pitcher, but he seems to share a "know-how beyond his years" with Ramirez.
"He went from the Gulf Coast League to the South Atlantic League," Newwman said. "We think, right now, Jose is probably on track to do that. With the young Latins, Banuelos and this kid, we feel real good about those two guys. They're leading the way."