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Playoff Rookies in Review: New York and Detroit

Prior to playing on the biggest stage in professional baseball almost all ball players must take the long bus rides, live off late-night fast food runs and toil in the near obscurity that can be minor league baseball. For some players on the 2012 playoff clubs those memories are a little fresher than for others. With work well under way on the 2012-13 Top 15 Prospects lists at FanGraphs – due to begin in early November – I thought it might be fun to look back and see what I wrote about those players during the previous three annual prospect reviews. Below are excerpts from what was originally written.

New York Yankees

The Yankees organization seemingly hasn’t had as much focus on the draft and international market as it has in the past. The club was never one to heavily lean on its own development system – instead preferring to dabble in the free agent and trade markets – but it always seemed to stumble upon some key, home-grown talents such as Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner. That change in focus has resulted in a lack of impact, home-grown players over the past few seasons.

Eduardo Nunez, Utility Infielder: The injury to Derek Jeter means that Nunez could play a more pivotal role for the Yankees during the 2012 playoffs but the club has already shown a preference for big league journeyman Jayson Nix, who provides a more consistent effort.

2011 (Ranked 7th overall): “Scouts have always been impressed by his strong arm and range at short, but questions lingered about his bat… For the Yankees, Nunez is never likely to be more than a utility player because, while his defense is solid he’s not a true above-average defender and, as a hitter who doesn’t walk or hit for much power, his offensive ceiling is limited.”

Ivan Nova, Right-Handed Starter: Not currently on the playoff roster, Nova struggled with his fastball command in 2012 and saw his ERA balloon to 5.02 despite a career high strikeout rate of 8.08 K/9. A big jump in hits allowed (thanks to a big jump in BABIP) is one of the culprits.

2011 (Ranked 9th overall): “Nova enters 2011 as the leading candidate to seize the Yanks’ fifth starter’s spot. Selected by the Padres in the 2008 Rule 5 draft, Nova doesn’t do anything especially well, but he has few weaknesses. His fastball averaged 93 mph in the big leagues last year, and he also features a solid curveball and a change-up… Nova doesn’t have much star potential, as his K/9 rate has never been above 7.2 in a full-season league, but he has the stuff to profile in the back of a big-league rotation.”

David Phelps, Right-Handed Pitcher: Phelps didn’t appear on many pre-season prospect ranking lists but he was a key contributor as a swing man during the regular season – even though his success has not carried over to the post-season (like most Yankees).

2012 (Ranked 12th overall): “Phelps gets the nod over Adam Warren because the former is more likely to stick in the starting rotation than the latter even if his fastball is not quite as powerful. Phelps has a four-pitch mix that includes a low-90s fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. He’ll probably never be more than a fill-in starter or long reliever for the Yankees so he really needs a trade, as he’s already 25 years old and will be returning to triple-A in 2012 for the third time.”

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers organization, over the past few years, has leveraged its minor league system to improve the big league product – not by promoting prospects – but by trading them for more proven players. As a result, the club has not graduated a ton of impact talent over the past three or four seasons.

Alex Avila, Catcher: One might describe Avila’s amateur and college career as solid but unspectacular so few people expected him to have the type of impact that he has had at the big league level. Although he had a bit of a down year during the regular season, Avila was still a tick above average.

2010 (Ranked 5th overall): “Avila has shocked just about everyone with his quick development since turning pro in ’08… One knock on Avila is that he needs to improve against southpaws if he’s going to avoid the platoon; he hit just .216/.300/.392 against left-handers at double-A. Even if his batting average stays low in the .240-.260 range, Avila has value due to his patience at the plate and developing left-handed power. He’s solid defensively and he threw out 44% of base stealers in double-A.”

Drew Smyly, Left-Handed Starter: Like Avila, Smyly had a decent amateur career but not one that necessarily hinted at such quick MLB success. The lefty blew through the minors in a year and then played a key role in helping the club reach the playoffs. He’s appeared in just one playoff game but he worked two scoreless innings.

2012 (Ranked 3rd overall): “He has both polish and an impressive four-pitch repertoire; he understands how to mix his pitches throw off hitters’ timings…. [Smyly] has a solid pitcher’s frame but the southpaw has battled arm injuries in the past, leading to concerns about his ability to throw 180-200 innings on a consistent basis.”

Avisail Garcia, Outfielder: Despite just 55 games of experience above A-ball, Garcia finds himself with 12 playoff at-bats for the Tigers club, due mainly to a lack of outfield depth. Don’t get me wrong, he definitely has some talent, but his overly-aggressive nature gets the best of him and keeps him from realizing his full potential.

2012 (Ranked 15th overall): “I always temper my enthusiasm for players like Garcia. First the positives: He’s been young for every league he’s played at and he’s loaded with tools, including speed and plus defense. And now the negatives: He is overly aggressive at the plate and lacks a plan. He hacks at everything, which led to a 3.5% walk rate in high-A ball. As a player whose best offensive tool is his speed, he needs to embrace the importance of getting on base.”

2011 Yankees Top 10 Prospects list written by Reed MacPhail