TAMPA — Who will be this year’s Gio Urshela?
Which Yankees player will I cluelessly stumble past here at George M. Steinbrenner Field, only to interview him in September for our postseason preview?
I posed that question to a few Yankees officials the last week or so and report back to you with four names. It shouldn’t surprise you, given how the Yankees’ 2020 has proceeded so far, that three are pitchers, nor should it surprise you, given these baseball times in which we live, that all three pitchers already have undergone Tommy John surgery. With Luis Severino already out for the season, James Paxton set to miss at least the first month and Domingo German suspended until early June — and with the trade and free-agent markets sparse — the logical bet calls for the Yankees to reach deep within their depth, if you will, in order to thrive this season.
Here are your four pinstripers of interest:
1. Brooks Kriske. A sixth-round selection by the Yankees in the 2016 amateur draft, the right-hander Kriske endured his Tommy John procedure later that year and finally registered his first full professional season last year. He struck out 80 and walked 28 in 43 appearances for High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, totaling 60 ⅔ innings, and his velocity increased about four miles per hour, ranging from 94 mph to 97, while he added a slider, to boot. The Yankees added him to their 40-man roster last winter.
Kriske, a USC alum like his manager Aaron Boone and Yankees vice president of domestic amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer, credited his rise to his participation two offseasons ago in the weighted-ball program created by former — and current — Cubs minor leaguer Luke Hagerty.
“(We worked on) kind of repatterning my arm path,” Kriske said. “Overloading and underloading. Arm strength and arm speed. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I feel healthier and stronger.”
At 26 — older than Severino — Kriske knows he’s on the older side for a minor leaguer. “If there’s any way I can help out the team, even if it’s just being in Triple-A and being depth the whole year, being in Double-A, (I just want to) continue to get better,” he said.
2. Clarke Schmidt. The right-hander shouldn’t be obscure to any hardcore Yankees fan. The 16th overall selection of the 2017 draft, tied with 2015 (when they went with James Kaprielian) for the highest they have picked during their streak of 27 consecutive winning seasons, Schmidt went under the knife about a month before the Yankees picked him.
“He would have been a top-10 guy (if he hadn’t gotten injured),” Oppenheimer said of Schmidt. “It was just a matter of him getting strong enough, and let’s go.”
Back in 2007, Oppenheimer took Andrew Brackman with the 30th overall pick knowing that Brackman would need TJ surgery. Brackman wound up pitching in only three big-league games, in 2011. Said Oppenheimer: “I think the difference was, Brackman, I thought he had this huge ceiling, but he still needed development. Clarke still has a good ceiling, but he needed less development. Clarke had had a lot more true success in college baseball than Andrew ever had. I never even thought about it as a comparable. There was too much talent (with Schmidt).”
That talent surfaced last year, as Schmidt, now 24, reached Trenton, where he put up a 2.37 ERA in three regular-season starts and allowed a total of two runs, one earned, over 10 ⅔ innings in two more postseason starts there.
“If you count the three starts and then the playoff starts, I felt really good,” Schmidt said. “It was one of those types of things where it was an ‘I’m here now’ kind of moment. I had the whole year and a half or whatever it was with the Tommy John recovery, and I was just waiting for that moment. I wanted to open their eyes. I wanted to show guys, these guys who took an opportunity on me and a chance on me when i had the Tommy John a month before the draft. For them to show that much honor in me, that much appreciation, I wanted to go out there and show those guys that they made the right pick.”
The Yankees are feeling pretty good about it right now. Schmidt said his current projects are getting his sinker to go low and away to righty hitters and improving his changeup, which worked quite well in Trenton. His fastball tops out at 96 mph.
“The big leagues, that’s my number one goal,” said Schmidt, who played alongside current Yankees pitcher (and yet another Tommy John patient) Jordan Montgomery at the University of South Carolina. “It’s something I set my sights on and worked towards in this offseason.”
3. Tyler Wade. Him, you surely know. The one non-pitcher in this group, the infielder-outfielder Wade has his best chance yet to make an impact thanks to the departure of Didi Gregorius to the Phillies. The addition of the 26th roster spot for each team further increases his chances of making this team and sticking on it.
“I just feel like the opportunities are there for me to take,” said Wade, 25, who has compiled a .197/.268/.298 slash line in 109 big-league games over the last three years. “I feel like the last couple of years have been a learning experience for me. And I think everyone’s path is different. It takes failures to succeed, and so it didn’t happen as fast as I wanted it to. It’s not going to. I feel like, when I’m playing every day in September, I’m kicking down the door a little bit. Just build off that success I had and take it into this camp and throughout the year.”
Last September, Wade slashed .297/.366/486 in 18 games totaling 41 plate appearances. The Yankees’ belief in him and his fellow young infielder Thairo Estrada is exemplified by their decision to not import a veteran to serve as an insurance policy for new starting shortstop Gleyber Torres.
4. Miguel Yajure. His TJ surgery took place in 2016, and at 21, the Venezuela native has plenty of time to prove himself. The Yankees put the right-hander on their 40-man roster last November after he excelled with both Tampa and Trenton. Boone calls him “Yahoo,” as the manager told John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman on Sunday’s radio broadcast.
“Understanding how close (I am to the majors), the drive is even higher to keep working harder,” Yajure said with the help of an interpreter, although he handled most of our conversation by himself, in English. His velocity topped at 96 mph last year, and he’s working on a slider, to add to his fastball, changeup, curveball and cutter.
Also keep in mind: Some of the Yankees’ best surprises of recent vintage weren’t even Yankees by this juncture on the calendar. Luke Voit didn’t show up until a July 2018 trade with the Cardinals, and Mike Tauchman emerged at the end of camp last year thanks to a trade with the Rockies.
Let’s catch up on Pop Quiz Questions. Both come from Gary Mintz of South Huntington:
Former Phillies general manager (and Mets coach/adviser) Ruben Amaro Jr. is portrayed on the TV shows “The Goldbergs” and “Schooled” by the son of a former big-league relief pitcher. Name the relief pitcher.
During the 1992 film “Bad Lieutenant,” the title character (played by Harvey Keitel) listens to a Mets-Dodgers playoff series. One game features two starting pitchers who, as the broadcaster notes, are in decline. Name the two starting pitchers.
Yankees great Bernie Williams will appear in concert with Shelea on Thursday at The Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here.
Your Pop Quiz Answers:
Dwight Gooden and Orel Hershiser
If you have a tidbit that connects sports with popular culture, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.