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Yankees minors update – corner infield help

The All-Star Break has come and gone for the Yankees, and to prepare for the second half, they made a few moves that affected their Minor League system. Pitchers Domingo German, Bryan Mitchell, and Caleb Smith earned call-ups. Smith will be appearing with the Yankees for the first time and will become the 12th Yankee to make his Major League debut this season. You can read more about Smith here, in his profile from an earlier Yankees minor league update.

In addition, the Yankees traded left-handed pitcher Tyler Webb to the Brewers, acquiring first baseman Garrett Cooper in return. Cooper had been playing in AAA for the Brewers, but the Yankees called him up to the Majors. For more details on the kind of player Cooper is, keep reading, as his profile is further down in this article.

Lower in the Yankees’ Minor League system, several other players had noteworthy weeks. In AA, outfielder Zack Zehner earned the Eastern League All-Star Game MVP award as one of three Yankees’ farmhands to play in the Eastern League All-Star game. The young outfielder went 2-2 in the All-Star Game and chipped in 2 RBI. Again, if you’d like to find out more about him, you can find an earlier profile on him here. Credit to pitcher Yefry Ramirez and infielder Thairo Estrada, who also made the All-Star roster.

Fellow Thunder prospect Jorge Mateo has had a stellar stretch for Trenton, reaching base in his first 17 games in AA. Mateo has hit .375 with a .474 on-base percentage since his promotion, adding three home runs and 17 RBI. The speedy shortstop also has seven stolen bases over that span, but has done it relatively inefficiently, as he has been caught five times.

Blake Rutherford has also been on a tear down in A-ball with Charleston, riding an 11-game hitting streak. The 2016 1st-round pick also added a game-winning home run and has hit .380 during the streak.

Over the last few weeks, this Yankees’ Minor League update has dedicated space to highlighting players from a given position or group of positions who have flown under the radar. We’ve profiled some hard-throwing arms and some outfielders stuck in the high minors due to a positional logjam. This week, however, we turn our attention to a shallower position in the Yankees’ system: corner infielders.

While there are a handful of top-tier Major League-ready prospects at the corner infield spots, namely Miguel Andujar and Greg Bird, most other prospects have something missing. Some, like Tyler Austin and Bird, have dealt with injuries. Others, like Ji-Man Choi and Rob Refsnyder, are a little old and may face uphill paths to Big League regular status. Others still play at other positions, as infield prospects like Tyler Wade, Thairo Estrada, and even Gleyber Torres may be forced out of the middle infield due to the Yankees’ depth at those positions. Coincidentally, the corner positions have also been the least productive positions for the Yankees’ Major League club. With that in mind, we’ll take a closer look at four prospects at varying levels, including one of the newest Yankees.

Garrett Cooper- 1B- New York (MLB)– Cooper had earned an appearance in the AAA All-Star Game before being traded to the Yankees, as he had torn up the Pacific Coast League to the tune of a .366 batting average and a 1.080 OPS along with 17 home runs and 82 RBI. His eye-popping statistics must be taken with a grain of salt, however, as he played in the high-altitude hitter’s haven of Colorado Springs. Nevertheless, the Brewers thought of him pretty highly and admitted they only traded Cooper because of their own depth at first base. In a comment to MLB.com, Brewers GM David Stearns said, “[Cooper] did a tremendous job this year of vaulting himself into prospect status. Unfortunately for him, we had a situation here where first base is pretty well covered.” At 26 years old, Cooper is a little old to be a “prospect” per se, but he has consistently hit for a high average since being selected in the 2013 draft. Cooper’s main flaw had been his lack of power, and while hitting in Colorado Springs helped significantly, it may also be masking genuine improvement. If Cooper can hit for power while maintaining his high average, he could become an asset for the Yankees.

Chris Gittens- 1B- Tampa (A-Advanced)– Gittens has been on the disabled list for approximately a month, but was batting .292 with seven home runs and 28 RBI in 47 games for Tampa before the injury. He has consistently reached base at all stops, with a .387 on-base percentage this season closely matching his career .381 OBP as a professional. Gittens is thought of pretty highly in the Yankees system, as Gary Denbo, the team’s VP of player development, has singled out the big first baseman for praise on several occasions. At 6’4” and 250 pounds, Gittens has plenty of natural power, and has hit a home run just about every 20 at bats in his minor league career. The 23-year-old has plenty of time to develop and already has major league power. If he can refine his ability to make contact and continue to reach base, he could move quickly once he’s healthy.

Gosuke Katoh- IF- Tampa (A-Advanced)– Katoh has played all four infield positions this season with Tampa, and has also held his own at the plate, batting .261 with five home runs and 24 RBI in 161 at-bats. The 22-year-old has been in the Yankees organization for a while, as the team selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft. Katoh has still progressed naturally, improving his hitting approach and cutting down on strikeouts. Katoh has six stolen bases this season, but has topped double digits before, stealing 20 in 2014 and 17 in 2015. He has played all over the diamond, but has played the most at third base, where he has just one error in 26 games. He has some work to do to make it to the major league level, but still has a few more years to figure it all out.

Brandon Wagner- 1B- Charleston (A)– Wagner, a 6th rounder in the 2015 draft, is still just 21 years old and has been slashing through South Atlantic League pitching. In the month of July, Wagner is batting .400 with four home runs and 16 RBI. On the year, he’s batting .299 with a .389 on-base percentage. He has only six home runs in 2017, but with four of those coming this month, it may be a sign that Wagner is beginning to tap into his raw power. He has 85 strikeouts in 257 at-bats, which may be an issue once he cools off. He could work his way through the system as a “three true outcomes” hitter, but he has the talent to become a potentially dangerous hitter if he can put more balls in play.

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