The Yankees not only saw three of their better curveballs ascend to the higher levels, but they've…
Looking Back: "Sudden Impact"
Adding International signings to an organization's stable of prospects is an important part of any farm system's overall depth. The problem, however, is usually the 16-year-old players from various Latin American countries don't normally begin their careers until the following year and most of the times it takes a year beyond that to make an impact.
Such was not the case with left-handed pitcher Manny Banuelos.
Getting a jump on their 2008 International signing class, the Yankees signed a group of four Mexican pitchers from the Monterrey Sultans of the Mexican League back in February that included the likes of Alfredo Aceves and Banuelos.
The Yankees were very excited about the idea of signing a player who could give them possible immediate help in the form of Aceves, a 25-year-old hurler with a polished game who ultimately reached the big leagues in his first year, but it was the prospects of landing the young lefty that made the package too enticing to pass up.
"I'm particularly excited about two Mexican pitchers - Alfredo Aceves is one - but I'm more excited about Manny Banuelos," Abel Guerra, the former Yankees vice president of international operations, including scouting, told PinstripesPlus.com back in April [of 2008]. "I thought he was the gem in this deal.
"We did a package deal for four Mexican players with the Monterrey Sultans and Banuelos was the one I didn't want to lose."
Immediately becoming a priority signing from the first time the organization saw him throw, Lee Sigman, the Yankees scout in Mexico who eventually signed him, also didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to add an impressive left-handed pitcher.
"He was a kid who was real loose, not a big kid, but his arm action, being left-handed, and being young and coachable made us to believe he was a kid who was going to do something," said Sigman. "I really liked him from the first time he picked up a ball to start playing catch. He was the key, I didn't want to lose him."
Prior to signing on as a scout with the Yankees, Sigman had served as the scouting director for the Mexican professional league for a number of years, and he had established a good working relationship with a majority of the teams, none more so than the Monterrey Sultans.
Even while working for the Yankees over the past two years, Sigman had still maintained his working relationship with Monterrey and it was because of that the Yankees were able to get first crack at signing Banuelos.
"I was seeing an international tournament in Zihuatanejo in August of 2007," Sigman recounted. "It was a 17-18-year-old tournament and there was a scout who called me - I helped the Monterrey club - and he told me I needed to see this left-handed pitcher that was in the middle of Mexico. I told him to hold him there so I could see him.
"At that tournament, I had to go to Monterrey and they were in the final playoffs. I got there around two or three in the afternoon and Aceves pitched the sixth game of that finals and they were down three games to two, and he won that game.
"I then got on a bus and went and saw that kid [Banuelos] the next morning. As soon I saw him throw - not even pitching, just playing catch - I said to myself 'this kid's got a really good arm, he's left-handed, and his character was good.
"Then I saw him pitch, and then talked to his family, and ended up signing him for the Monterrey club. This kid was 16 years old, and right away I talked to his grandma, and he was a humble kid.
"His father left when he was young and they didn't have much resources. We sent him to the academy [in Monterrey], and he just took off."
Banuelos spent some time cultivating his game at the Sultans' complex and that allowed the Yankees a window of opportunity to get Carlos Rios, the Yankees Latin America coordinator at the time, a closer look.
"He's not a real big kid, but he's left-handed. His best characteristic was his character, and he's a real intelligent kid," Sigman continued. "He's real coachable, and he has a real loose, easy arm. He just kind of took off and started pitching well. He started throwing 87 MPH, then 88, 89, and had control for left-handed pitcher.
"I was telling Carlos Rios, who I reported to at that time, that he needed to see Banuelos. I told him that we had the first opportunity because I recommended Monterrey to sign him.
"Other teams started looking at him a little bit, and Carlos was so busy in the Dominican Republic and in Venezuela, but he finally got in there, and he liked what he saw so we worked with Monterrey.
"He was the key to that package deal. I had brought Carlos in to see Aceves too for one game and then the next day we went to the area where Banuelos was throwing.
"I think at that time the Dodgers were interested. They had purchased a few kids from Monterrey and they wanted Banuelos.
"I told Monterrey that was the one kid who was hands-off, that [the Yankees] should have the first opportunity. He was a kid I really liked from the first time that I saw him. I thought he had the chance to do something."
Signing so late in the offseason didn't allow much time for securing visas and such, and that prevented Banuelos from participating in Spring Training earlier this year.
Instead, Banuelos wasn't able to get into his first game action until the extended spring training season in April, and it didn't take long for him to quickly impress.
"He has pitchability; he just knows how to pitch," Guerra said back in April. "He kind of reminds me of Mike Hampton with his bulldog mentality on the mound.
"He's not a very big kid, but he throws hard and he has the great curveball, just like Hampton. He has such great presence on the mound and he has maturity beyond his years. I think he's going to succeed anywhere he goes."
Inevitably it is Banuelos' maturity and mound presence that are always the first traits mentioned when evaluating him, and it was a major contributing factor in his initial signing.
Growing up without a father figure, he was immediately pushed into the role of being the male of the house and those circumstances, especially coming from minimal means, forced him to mature a lot quicker than most players his age.
"Banuelos does have that extra in his eyes and in his heart," said Sigman. "He's very coachable and he's very confident. Even when I met him that first day, he was a very poised young man, and he was a humble kid who didn't have any money.
"His grandmother and mother were the backbone to that family to keep him straight, he's just a very mature kid for his age. He's a kid who the Yankees believe has the chance to pitch in the big leagues at a young age, and that's outstanding for the kid."
Even though he missed all of Spring Training, the fact that he pitched so well in extended spring training, which included striking out a rehabbing Jimmy Rollins three times in one game against the Phillies, Banuelos bypassed the normal first stage of development and went directly to the Gulf Coast League.
"He's a kid who really appreciates being a Yankee. He wanted to be a Yankee, he just took off and he's done real well," said Sigman. "He skipped the Dominican [Summer League], which is really hard to do.
"They thought his coachability and character was going to help him, and he more than held his own in the Gulf Coast League."
Banuelos pitched to a 4-1 record with a 2.57 ERA for the Gulf Coast League Yankees, posting nearly a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and holding opposing batters to a combined .208 average in his debut season.
Boasting a fastball that already sits 90-92 MPH, an above average to plus curveball, and a plus changeup at such a young age is what made many shake their heads in disbelief.
"It's ridiculous, the kid just turned 17 and he already has stuff like that," said GCL Yankees catcher Chase Weems. "It's unbelievable. I've never seen a 17-year-old with stuff like he has, but he's going to be something else."
Kyle Higashioka, the other catcher for the Gulf Coast League Yankees and this year's seventh-round pick, agrees with Weems.
"He has good command of every single one of his pitches, and he has three pitches. He had good command of all of them this year, and all of them were pretty much above average, especially his fastball and changeup.
"I like the curve too. I don't really know which pitch was better because they are all effective. He could throw anything and get guys out."
Skeptics might conclude it's not too difficult for one teenager to impress other teenagers, but the fact that Banuelos dazzled people in charge of finding and fixing players' flaws puts him on a different level.
"He's got the fastball, the curveball, and the changeup," said Nardi Contreras, the Yankees minor league pitching coordinator. "He mixes his pitches and he's got pitchability."
"He's got some life with his fastball, and we're only allowing him to use his four-seam right now. He's got a curveball which he's been able to develop over this past summer. The changeup is probably his best off-speed pitch, it's got a lot of fade and a lot of action."
It wasn't just his stuff, however, that drew rave reviews from teammates and scouts alike. His command was also quite uncanny for a kid who can only now legally attend a Rated-R movie.
"He's a heck of a pitcher," said fellow GCL Yankees pitcher Mikey O'Brien. "A couple of times I watched, it seemed to me the catcher was just setting up his glove and he'd hit it.
"He hits his spots with every pitch, he's aggressive, he attacks the hitter no matter who they are, and he stays calm out there."
Possessing a rare combination of stuff and command for a teenage hurler are two main ingredients for a special prospect. The third key to the recipe is having great makeup and that actually might be Banuelos' strongest asset.
Mark Newman, the Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations in charge of scouting and player development, noticed his makeup right away.
"Stuff, control, some command, and outstanding mound presence," Newman said, listing his favorite traits of the young lefty. "He's 90-92 MPH, [he has] the feel for the changeup, the curveball improved, and he pitches like he's five or six years older. He has been one of the real pleasant surprises in our farm system."
"For his age, he kept his poise," added Sigman. "That's one thing in my experience in baseball, you have certain ability but the character - the poise, the command, the confidence - that's what takes that ability to a higher level, or take it away if you don't have those traits."
When looking at the complete package - stuff, command, and makeup - and then putting all of that it into the context of a 17-year old pitcher made GCL Yankees manager Jody Reed a huge fan.
"He's a little Fernando [Valenzuela], that's what I call him," Reed exclaimed. "He's a little Fernando right there. This kid is special. I love him.
"Every time I gave him the ball I felt good about the outcome of the game, and as a manager and a coach, that's a nice feeling. When Manny's pitching, I feel good about today."
There is no higher praise for a pitcher than earning his manager's complete confidence, especially one that has just begun his professional career.
If there is a negative to Banuelos' game, however, it seemingly is his size. Standing just 5-foot-11 and weighing just 180-pounds, while his game is exceedingly polished for such a young player, his physical stature could limit his ceiling down the road.
Sigman, though, cautions people to not overlook Banuelos on his size alone.
"He's not real tall but he's young enough where he's going to grow a little bit," he said. "When I went to Tampa in August, I had seen that he had grown a little bit. I don't think he's going to grow a lot, but his shoulders are very strong to make him durable."
"When he gets on top of the ball - when we see a kid who's not tall, but if they can get on top of the ball, stay tall, and throw on a downward plane - that's the key.
"A Pedro Martinez is a prime example of a star that wasn't tall but was listed at 5-foot-11, and like him, Banuelos has the chance to pitch as a starting pitcher.
"As a starter you just have to be strong and durable, get on top of the ball and have enough pitches, and he's all that. Yes, you'd like to be taller, but with the way he pitches as a left-hander, I think he has the chance to be a starting pitcher."
Contreras isn't concerned with his height either because he believes his is a rare case where he'll be able to add velocity despite being smaller than some.
"I believe he's going to throw harder than he is right now," said a convinced Contreras. "He's going to mature. [Billy] Wagner or [Mike] Hampton are two little left-handers who throw hard, I believe Wagner has gotten it to 100 MPH.
"I believe there's more in there for Manny in that arm. As he learns the strength program and just pitching more baseball, he's going to get stronger. That's why I believe he's going to throw harder."
Reed also believes his size is a non-issue when considering all of the other positives and he's quick to point out it's not like Banuelos doesn't have good velocity already.
"He's surprising on the fastball because you see his size, his stature, and you see the zip and you're like 'wow'," said Reed. "He has command of his pitches, he's controlling the game out there far beyond his years with his maturity out on the mound, he knows what he wants to do, he knows how he wants to attack - like I said, I really enjoyed giving him the ball and watching him work day in and day out."
While it's one thing to make your manager, teammates, and scouts big believers, it's a completely different thing to quickly impress the people in charge of future advancement and that's why Banuelos, despite his age, is one to watch in the coming years.
"One, he's left-handed, which is huge," said Newman. "Two, he's got arm strength now as a 17-year-old. He didn't pitch in the Dominican [Summer League], he came right here [to the United States] and pitched.
"Beyond all of that stuff, however, his mound composure is outstanding and his feel for pitching is outstanding. He's impressive."
Showcasing the stuff and command of a seasoned veteran already at a such a young age has allowed Banuelos to make an immediate impact on the Yankees farm system. It is his maturity, however, that should allow his impact to remain a constant in the years to come.
"Manny is a young man who pitches beyond his age," said Contreras. "I think the kid is going to move fast because he can pitch, and he's got some quality stuff.
"The biggest part of him, however, is this kid's got a lot of guts, he has a lot of know-how, he's got pitchability, and he knows how to read swings really well to go along with his stuff."
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