As right-hander Luis Severino and Greg Bird proved this past season -- two prospects who seemed to be somewhat longshots to even make it to the big leagues in 2015 before the season began -- not every burgeoning big league prospect has to make it to the big leagues right at the start of the season to impact the team in positive fashion.
Both Severino and Judge not only helped out the Yankees in a big way during their eventual playoff run but both burned through their rookie eligibility already. Still, the Yankees have no shortage of potential impact rookies for 2016. Here are five potential candidates who could impact the Yankees next season.
RHP, Bryan Mitchell: Seemingly around forever, many forget that this former 16th round pick way back in 2009 is still a rookie. Many have been waiting for his control and pitch-ability to catch up to his plus stuff and very much in Ivan Nova-like fashion Mitchell has seen steady progress in his overall production on the mound as he has ascended the minor league ranks, seeing his 4.71 ERA in 2013 go down to 4.37 a year ago and then all the way down to 3.12 with Triple-A Scranton this season.
Though 24 years old currently, he still isn't a finished product yet and that has the Yankees very excited about his big league potential. He has learned to rely on his defense more and not nibble so much at the corners, and allow his mid-to-high-90s fastball work with his plus curveball and rapidly developing cutter.
Outside of taking a hit off of the face earlier this season in a big league game, he's been the bastion of health too over the years, pitching more than 100 innings in each of the past four seasons. With no arm problems to speak of, he's also proven to be able to keep up his velocity and stuff not just deep into games but deep into seasons too.
Perhaps the product of "prospect fatigue", being around for a number of years and not exactly tearing it up numbers-wise, Mitchell is now poised to be a huge help to the big league club going forward. He has proven he has the stuff to thrive in a bullpen role if need be much like Dellin Betances before him and he's also made the necessary steps to be a viable starting option too. That's a nice feather in the Yankees' collective cap, especially for a starting rotation that has some current and even potential longer-term health concerns. He could be a big-time force for the Yankees in 2016 and appears will have the opportunity to prove it.
OF, Aaron Judge: Nearly everyone paying attention realizes the Yankees are a little imbalanced in their current lineup. Boasting a lot of left-handed batters overall and not too many right-handed ones, the Yankees, despite finishing second in the league in home runs, don't have a ton of power from the right side either. Judge, a first round pick in 2013, can fit two immediate lineup needs in one fell swoop.
There's also potential impact defensively too. While Carlos Beltran did a more than admirable job at the plate this year, hitting a team-high .276 with 34 doubles and 19 home runs, his advanced age and quickly eroding range in the outfield have left the Yankees needing some younger, fresher legs in right field. Judge doesn't have the speed to be a world-beater but he's young, quicker than most internal options, and has a cannon for an arm too. He would be an immediate major defensive upgrade in right field.
Now like Bird was entering the 2015 campaign, Judge most likely won't be big leage ready right out of the gate but he may not be as far away as his .224 performance in his 61 Triple-A game trial might suggest either. Pundits will point to his rather low average and higher strikeout total [74 Ks in those 61 games] as evidence that he's not yet ready and that may be true to some degree, but his rock-solid .866 OPS in the first half of the season in Double-A Trenton shows he may be just a tweak or two away from making the necessary adjustment.
Like Bird he seems poised to open up a new season back in the minor leagues and could see significant minor league at-bats through the first half of the season too, but, possessing even more power potential than Bird, it may not take Judge long to make a huge contribution on the big league club once he's initially called up.
2B, Rob Refsnyder:The former University of Arizona standout and College World Series MVP was a fast riser through the Yankee farm system, leading the organization in hitting in his two prior minor league seasons, including a stupendous .318 average in 2014. And while nearly all critics realized there was some work to do in his continued defensive transition to second base it wasn't a big issue because he was hitting so well.
Like Judge, however, there's been a growing group of pundits overly concerned with sub-par offensive numbers posted lately by Refsnyder that may be a little over-reactive and it's led to some exaggerated opinions on his defensive development too. He hit "just" .271 for Triple-A Scranton this past season, a far cry from his .307 combined average the previous two seasons, and that has led many to believe his defensive shortcomings are a little less forgivable.
Still, his walk ratio has stayed the same and his strikeouts have actually gone down too so perhaps he just ran into a little less luck in 2015, and his entire game has taken some knocks from the general masses, and it could very well be tabbed a little unfair from those within the game of baseball. He's proven he can be every bit the hitter that fellow New York second baseman Daniel Murphy is and nearly all scouts agree his defensive game is much, much further ahead than at similar points in their careers.
With the aforementioned lack of quality right-handed hitters currently in the Yankee lineup and not a whole lot of proven depth at the second base position either it would appear that Refsnyder, who did look a lot better later in the year during his brief 16-game big league trial, could force his way into big league discussions sooner rather than later and there is still considerable ceiling left in his game on both sides of the ball.
LHP, James Pazos: It's easy to get lost in the shuffle in a deep farm system, one which saw 18 rookies make their big league debuts for the Yankees in 2015, including Pazos, but what this southpaw has done over the past two seasons has been pretty remarkable. All he has done is post a tiny 1.38 ERA during his time at the two highest minor league levels combined the past two seasons, limit opposing batters to just 57 hits in 84.2 innings, and strike out 91 batters, and that's not including his zero runs allowed in eleven big league appearances during his September call-up this year.
Not a higher dollar signing or a high draft pick, Pazos had always flown under the radar at the minor league level as a result and now pitching behind the likes of Andrew Miller, Justin Wilson, and Chases Shreve, more established big league left-handed relievers, he continues to get overlooked despite his rather unprecedented effectiveness.
He has a number of arms ahead of him on the current depth chart [through no fault of his own] but all he continues to do is get a slew of outs consistently. And the scary part is he still has some considerable ceiling left to his game too, especially in terms of further refining his breaking ball. He could have a big rookie impact with the big league club next season, if for no other reason than allow some of his bullpen cohorts currently higher on the depth chart to become viable trade chips in the short-term.
C, Gary Sanchez: Like Pazos, Lindgren, and Refsnyder, Sanchez has already made his official big league debut, getting called up this past September but just receiving two at-bats thus far as he continues to work his way up the catching depth chart. Like Judge, however, it is Sanchez's above average to plus power potential from the right side of the plate that gives him not only a chance to get to the big league club but also become an impact rookie for them too.
He didn't exactly set the baseball world on fire during his time in Double-A Trenton this year, hitting a respectable .270 with 12 home runs in his return trip to the Eastern League, but he did turn a few more heads during his time in Triple-A. He hit .294, clubbed six home runs, and OPS'ed at an .849 clip during his 35-game trial with the RailRiders. Perhaps losing a bit of luster nationally on the prospect scene due to being around for several years now, the fact is the 22-year old is coming off an 18-home run season and still has a lot of power left in the tank.
Defensively he has always been vastly underrated too and he's become more of a defensive stalwart than critics like to give him credit for. In fact, he is already big league average behind the plate overall with the plus arm strength and quick release to be even better than that in many instances.
Like Pazos and Lindgren he's a bit buried on the depth chart right now but as Bird proved this past season all it takes is one injury to get your at-bats and then make the most of your opportunities. Sanchez has the top-shelf talent on both sides of the ball and the desired power from the side of the plate specifically to quickly become a viable impact option for the Yankees in the not-so-distant future. He could have a Bird-like impact in 2016 if things break right for him.
Other Potential Rookie Impact Players For 2016: Johnny Barbato, Nick Goody, Slade Heathcott, Brady Lail, Jacob Lindgren, Nick Rumbelow, and Mason Williams.