(James Kaprielian’s 2016 season ended before it really began thanks to an elbow injury. Now healthy, he appears ready for a breakthrough season that’s been a year in the making. Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)
Today, we enter the final stretch of the Top 15 prospects who could help the Yankees at some point this season. Let’s take a look at No. 5, James Kaprielian.
Position: Starting pitcher
Weight: 200 pounds
40-man roster: No
A season that began with so much promise and hype ended prematurely for the then-22-year-old. Kaprielian entered what was supposed to be his first full professional season as the Yankees’ top pitching prospect and No. 4 overall, according to Baseball America. He started at High-A Tampa but many speculated he could be on a fast track to Double-A Trenton, the RailRiders and even the Yankees. Three starts into the season, that seemed to be the case.
Kaprielian went 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 22 innings. He had two nine-strikeout performances and opponents were hitting just .136 against him. But his April 21 start proved to be the last. Kaprielian went on the disabled list for right elbow inflammation that later developed into a flexor tendon strain..
Despite it all, Kaprielian got himself healthy enough to pitch for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. His numbers weren’t as dominant as they were in Tampa — 1-2 with a 3.93 ERA, 17 strikeouts and three home runs allowed in 18 1/3 innings. But all that truly mattered was that Kaprielian came away from those five starts healthy.
Simply put, this kid is a power pitcher who can bring it. Kaprielian has four pitches — fastball, curveball, slider and changeup — that he can throw for strikes when he’s on. The obvious go-to pitch is the fastball, which sits in the 93-96 mph range. I saw him pitch for the first time in person on Sunday and the fastball velocity was about 94-96 mph with one reaching 97. Some have said he’s gotten it 99 mph and I wouldn’t doubt that.
When it comes to his secondary pitches, there isn’t necessarily one that stands out more than the other because they’re all so effective. He has a mid-80s slider that he can get to 90 mph at certain times to go along with a low-80s curveball and changeup. The thing that makes it difficult for hitters is that Kaprielian throws all four pitches from the same arm slot.
Here’s the Yankees’ profile of Kaprielian during the Arizona Fall League. In it, you’ll see the standard highlights and analysis as well as Kaprielian describing his elbow injury and the road back from it.
Below is a sequence of at-bats from one of Kaprielian’s Fall League outings.
And here’s all nine strikeouts from Kaprielian’s combined no-hitter at UCLA in 2015. You’ll see him use his offspeed for the majority of the strikeouts. It was the first no-hitter in UCLA history but, ironically, Kaprielian didn’t get the win. The game went to extra innings and Kaprielian was pulled prior to the 10th inning before the Bruins won.
Kaprielian made the most of his lone big league spring appearance for the Yankees on March 16, firing two no-hit relief innings with three strikeouts and a walk before getting re-assigned to minor league camp shortly thereafter. Considering the initial plan was to have him strictly pitch simulated games, that’s a win for Kaprielian.
Now, the key for Kaprielian, other than staying healthy, is to get innings back but at a reasonable pace. No reason to push him early on. While there hasn’t been any official confirmation, I’m assuming that the Yankees will keep Kaprielian on an innings limit this season. I’d actually be pretty surprised if they didn’t considering the type of injury he had at such a young age.
Either way, his season will begin back at Tampa and that would make the most sense even though he already looks ready for another challenge. Besides the fact he’s only made three starts at that level, I doubt the Yankees would send a pitcher who’s coming off an elbow injury up north to Trenton or Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for the first month of the season, especially one who’s as highly-regarded as Kaprielian.
However, if he stays healthy and shows he can handle the workload early on, that’s when the fast track to the Bronx could really begin, similar to the one Luis Severino had two years ago. You have to think at the very least, he’ll be with the RailRiders at some point this summer. Personally, I think he’ll make his Triple-A debut by mid-June if he’s healthy. It’s unreasonable to expect to see Kaprielian in Yankee pinstripes during the first half of the season but if he maintains the mid- to upper-90s velocity on his fastball and commands all four pitches, he could get his chance later in the season.