TRENTON — The veritable bible of minor-league baseball has spoken, and for the second consecutive season catcher Jesus Montero sits atop Baseball America’s list of top 10 Yankees’ prospects.
Eight of the 10 players featured in the Nov. 15-28 issue have played for the Thunder. The other two, 2009 first-round draft pick Slade Heathcott and Class-A catcher Gary Sanchez, are ticketed for Waterfront Park by 2012.
Catcher Austin Romine dropped from second to sixth on the list after a largely disappointing season at Double-A in 2010, while three of Trenton’s playoff starting pitchers – Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos and Andrew Brackman – round out BA’s top five.
Following Romine, whose offensive struggles seem to have carried over to the Arizona Fall League (.286, 0 HR, 7 RBIs), are right-hander Hector Noesi at No. 7, infielder and 2009 Thunder postseason All-Star Eduardo Nunez at No. 8, the multi-tooled outfielder Heathcott at No. 9 and 2010 Eastern League Most Valuable Player Brandon Laird at No. 10.
Laird has been playing the outfield at the AFL and is hitting .222 with three home runs and 17 RBIs.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said last week that Montero and his big bat will be given every opportunity in spring training to be the Yankees’ starting catcher now that the club has informed Jorge Posada that most of his at bats will come as the designated hitter in the final year of his contract.
Interestingly, Montero almost was traded to the Seattle Mariners near the July 31 deadline for Cliff Lee before the Mariners pulled the trigger on what they felt was a better offer from the American League Champion Texas Rangers.
However, should the free agent Lee sign with the Yankees, as many expect, he could very well have Montero as his catcher in 2011.
Montero, 21, has yet to appear in a major league game, but Cashman thinks his top prospect (and bargaining chip) could meet the challenge, similar to the faith the World Champion San Francisco Giants invested in their young catcher, Buster Posey.
“I do have people who believe (Montero’s) major league ready at the catcher’s position, with a tremendous offensive bat,” Cashman recently told mlb.com. “But nothing gets handed to somebody. You have to take it and earn it.
He’ll have a chance to come to spring training and fight for something, and he’ll either show he is ready for something at a higher level or not.”
Montero batted .289 with 21 homers and 75 RBIs last season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Here is a look at the remaining nine Yankees’ prospects on Baseball America’s top 10 list.
2) Sanchez – The Yankees gave him a $3 million signing bonus _ the fourth highest in club history _ as a teenager in the Dominican Republic. He split last season between the Gulf Coast League (Rookie) and Staten Island (short season) and is expected to begin 2011 at low-A Charleston.
3) Betances – The 6-foot-8 right-hander is highly coveted and made five starts for the Thunder, including two in the playoffs, after being promoted from Class-A Tampa Aug. 23. Betances is expected to be at the top of the Trenton rotation again next season.
4) Banuelos – The left-hander showed poise and an array of quality stuff in his five starts for the Thunder last season after being sent up from Tampa. He is 0-2 with a 4.05 ERA in the Arizona Fall League. Will return to Trenton next season.
5) Brackman – Had a combined 10 wins between Tampa and Trenton (3.01 ERA in 15 games) and was the Thunder’s most dominant starter down the stretch. Has a solid chance to begin next season at Triple-A.
6) Romine – The organization’s No. 2 prospect last season, Romine started hot and then consistently tailed off, as the fatigue of catching every day set in. Will start at SWB if Montero sticks in New York … or unless one of them is traded.
7) Noesi – The right-hander largely struggled at Triple-A after dominating Eastern League batters. Still, Noesi ascended three levels in a short amount of time and will be back in the SWB rotation.
8.) Nunez – With Derek Jeter a lock to re-sign with the Yankees, look for Nunez to take over for Ramiro Pena as the Yankees’ top utility player after getting his feet wet with 50 big league at bats (.280) last season. Nunez replaced Mark Teixeira on the ALCS roster when the Gold Glove first baseman pulled his hamstring against the Rangers.
9) Heathcott – The 29th overall pick in 2009 hit just .258 with two homers and 30 RBIs for Charleston and is expected to start next season in Tampa.
10) Laird – With the farm system thin on corner outfield prospect with power, the Yankees are hoping to plug one of those holes with Laird, who is coming off a career year that featured a .291batting average, 23 home runs and 90 RBIs for the Thunder before being elevated to Scranton.