Both the Red Sox and Yankees are getting younger and better, developing players who will fuel the rivalry for years to come. Some of those players are on display right now in the AFL.
Pro ball is over in the northeast for 2016. Well, the American northeast anyway. That means, among other things, that the greatest rivalry in sports is on hold for a few months: Yankees versus the Red Sox. But like any great show bound for New York, it is currently playing in previews in an out-of-town venue: the Arizona Fall League.
Out there, in the sand and the heat, some of the best prospects for the two clubs are playing. And the top prospects for these clubs seem to be among the top prospects in the desert. Considering that one of the reasons teams send players to the AFL is that they think some of them can help in the coming season, it is likely that a few of these guys will show up in the rivalry as early as 2017.
Maybe the two best pitchers in the American Outback are the Yankees James Kaprielian and Bostons Michael Kopech. The two have a lot of similarities and equally bright futures, but their potential pitfalls are completely different.
Yankees fans are familiar with Kaprielian. He was drafted in 2015 and immediately became an even better prospect by increasing his velocity from low-90’s to upper 90’s. He came in to spring training looked at as a probable contributor for 2016.
In his first, and only starts for the year, he looked ready to make true the promise. In 18 innings he pitched close to a 1.50 ERA and struck out 22, while his fastball topped out at 99 mph. An injury forced him from the field but he is healthy now and pitching very well in the AFL.
In his only start reported on so far, his fastball was sitting at 94-96 and could pump up to 99 when he needed to. His command was also back as he threw 22 of 40 pitches for strikes. Baseball America called his outing dominant. Tom Goodwin is the manager of the Yankees team (the Scottsdale Scorpions); his day job is as the Mets third base coach. After the outing, Goodwin compared Kaprelian to Jacob Degrom.
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The Red Sox have their own pitching phenom: Michael Kopech. He throws routinely at 97-98 and has an 88-mph slider. He pitched to a 2.25 ERA at high A this year with a whip close to 1. The Sox hope he will throw some of those pitches in the bigs next year, even if it is as a reliever. Jason Groome is the other top prospect for the Sox and we might see him next year, but he is not in Arizona.
“I’m just here to help the team”
It is intriguing to think of these two young players making a difference in next year’s rivalry, the games of which could decide the division. Kaprielian and Kopech have some similarities: Kap is 6’4” and Kop is 6’3”, and both weigh about 203. Kap is 22 and has been through the college wars, while Kopech is two years younger and only now facing college-age competition. It makes sense that Kaprielian is a little further along in his development and that Kopech is likely to catch up soon.
However, the differences between their disabled stints shows the difference in the players and their potential paths to failure. Kaprielian is throwing harder now than he did in college. That is great for prospect status but can be a harbinger of arm injuries. After his first three starts of 2016, he had to be shut down with elbow inflammation. It could be that his arm is not meant to throw as hard as he is. This could be the first in a series of arm issues that preclude Kaprelian from ever pitching for the Yankees.
Kopech’s issues are between his ears. He was suspended 50 games last year for PED use, which he denies he did knowingly. Yes, I am sure that is true. And this year he fractured his throwing hand in a fight with his own roommate. Even Red Sox GM Mike Hazen called him stupid for that one. He would have been wise to watch Bull Durham, the font of all baseball knowledge. Crash Davis specifically warns against throwing punches with your pitching hand.
On the offensive side, both Gleyber Torres and Greg Bird are playing for the Yankees while Yoan Moncada plays for the Sox. We already know we will see Bird next year and we expect to see him do well. In 2015, he had more total bases per games played than anyone but Mark Teixeira and had the second highest OPS of anybody who played as much as he did (again, Mark Teixeira). He
Scottsdale Scorpions outfielder Gleyber Torres thinking about next year’s rivalry games. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
will hit third or fourth next year.
Torres is unlikely to play next year but is getting great reviews. His power is starting to peak through just like variegated leaves on NYC trees. His attitude, work ethic and talent all point him to a big-league job sometime soon, just not 2017. But he will start next year in Double A and could be ready for a September call-up. If so, he could get a few big at-bats or chances to be a defensive replacement in big games.
Blocked by a Panda
Yoan Moncada, like the Bird, is not only ready to play in the majors but also has made an appearance. After another brilliant year in the minors, Moncada played September in Boston. He did not play well, but he played. That is not unusual and is well off-set by him becoming the number one prospect in all of minor league ball. In Arizona, he wrapped his first week against the other best minor league prospects by hitting .429 and driving in five runs.
On the Yankees side, first base is completely open. The only thing that will prevent Bird from playing the position every day in 2017 is another injury. Sorry, Tyler Austin fans. Torres is slightly blocked this year but if he became something special, Starlin Castro can be moved. Again, Torres will probably not arrive until 2018 but it is worth mentioning.
Moncada’s path is a lot more challenging. Dustin Pedroia is going nowhere. And there are two players in front of Yoan at third: Travis Shaw and Pablo Sandoval. Shaw was okay this year while Sandoval was a bust. Still, they are paying him $17 million per year and would like to get more than the 6 at-bats they got from his this year. If he can come back and adequately man the position, Sandoval will play the hot corner.
Still, it is exciting to think of some of these players facing off against each other when it counts. It is highly likely that next September we could see Greg Bird trying to get a game-winning hit against Kopeck. We might see Moncada trying to beat out a base hit before Torres can throw him out. Kaprielian could be facing down Pedroia in a game with playoff ramifications.
Right now, the Red Sox are where the Yankees want to be. They just won the AL East and are stocked with young, rising talent. The Yankees seem not far behind and are likely to spend their free agent dollars better than the Sox (see Pablo Sandoval).
For the Sox to maintain their new position, and the Yankees to challenge them for it, both teams will have to continue to produce talent. We are seeing some of the best of that talent right now, competing against each other, in the Arizona Fall League. By this time next year, some of those players will have fueled that great competition. As much as I look forward to that, I am more interested in seeing how that rivalry fuels the players.