Today starts the countdown of The Times-Tribune’s Top 15 New York Yankees prospects. We changed things up a little bit this year. I ranked a list of 20 prospects, Donnie Collins ranked a list of 20 propects and then we averaged them together. We didn’t take into account 2017 draft picks, because they’re too far away from the RailRiders — let alone the big leagues — at this point. Otherwise, guys just needed to still have rookie status to be eligible for the list.

Up first, er 15th, is Ben Heller, the hard-throwing relief pitcher the Yankees acquired in the deal that sent Andrew Miller to Cleveland for Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Heller and J.P. Feyereisen.

The basics

Position: Relief pitcher
Throws: Right
Age: 26
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 205 pounds
40-man? Yes
Draft: By Cleveland, 2013 22nd round out of Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, IL)
MLB Debut: Aug. 26, 2016

2017 season

Heller spent most of the year with the RailRiders. He pitched to a 2.88 ERA across 56.1 innings (41 games), becoming one of the top arms out of SWB’s bullpen and the International League overall. He had six saves — the RailRiders never really had a true closer after veteran Ernesto Frieri was released June 4 — struck out 82 (13.1 per nine innings), walked 21 and had a 0.976 WHIP. Looking back at his stats, the 3.4 walks per nine innings sort of stands out for a reliever, but control never really seemed to be a problem. Heller’s ability to go more than one inning also proved valuable for SWB.

Heller also appeared in nine games for the Yankees in 2017, going 1-0 with a 0.82 ERA in 11 innings. He allowed five hits, walked six and struck out nine.

Why 15?

This is something a little bit different than what’s been done with this list. Below, Donnie and I discuss why Heller lands at No. 15 on this list, what we like about him and what might need some work.

CF: So, Ben Heller … We’ll just put it out there that there was actually a tie between two relievers for the 15th spot on the list. I voted for Heller, you voted for JP Sears. Why did Sears deserve to be here instead

DC: Well, deserved is a strong word. I just thought Sears brought something nobody else in the system does: Strikeout stuff from the left side. Look at his spin rate numbers next time you get a chance. They’re unreal, and I know you — and the Yankees — love spin rate. He has a deceptive motion, maybe not the best mechanically, but I don’t mind that so much in a lefty reliever. Of course, you don’t see too many lefty relievers in this organization anymore.

CF: I’d say you could almost remove “relievers” from that sentence. Outside of Justus Sheffield — who, spoiler alert, will appear later on in this list — the system’s top pitching prospects are all right handed. It’s impressive how much depth and talent there is from the right side.

DC: It is. And it’s almost a total 180 from my days covering the Phillies, when everybody was so focused on piling up lefties. I was there the day they drafted Cole Hamels. He was coming off a horrific injury in high school that people have since forgotten about, but he broke his arm throwing a pitch. I asked about him that day, and one of their pitching guys said they had him and a few other right-handers on the board. They chose Hamels because he was left-handed, when others stayed away. And of course, they got extremely lucky.

CF: It’s pretty clear that baseball no longer has a preference. Teams just want outs. Which brings us to Heller. Here’s what I like: Heller has the ability to pitch during any point of the game, which fits right in to how the Yankees have used their bullpen recently. Heller went multiple innings, worked out of jams and closed games last year. Stuff wise, the fastball is Heller’s best pitch by far. It’s got movement and plenty of velocity. It’s a big reason why he averaged 13.1 K/9 with SWB last year. It would be nice if his secondary was a little better, but he’s shown a willingness to put the work in to try to get it there. Just look at his spring training outings this year. I’ve never seen him throw so much secondary stuff. And maybe I’m crazy, but I think I saw a couple changeups, too. Plus, Heller’s just a good dude. His teammates seem to like him — his “dance” during one of the RailRiders’ champagne celebrations was a big hit — and he’s did some impressive stuff off the field during the offseason.

DC: I am in the minority, I guess, but I kind of like his breaking ball. It used to look more like a curve to me, but I really thought as last season went on, the break seemed to get sharper and he was able to locate it. You always hear about pitchers who project to have a good secondary pitch and never really develop it, but I think Heller is on his way. His fastball is as advertised, and when he locates that, you can forget it. I see him more as a one-inning guy. But he’ll legitimately give right-handers fits when he’s spotting that fastball on the corners.

CF: He’ll definitely make an impact in the bigs this year, maybe even out of spring training. He’ll likely be guy No. 1 up on the Scranton Shuttle (man, there’s something about that name that I just don’t like). Heller was one of the best relief prospects we saw in the IL last year — off the top of my head, Durham’s Diego Castillo and former RailRider Nick Rumbelow would be in that same group — and it’s crazy to think he was the third piece of the Andrew Miller deal.

DC: They really got a great haul in that deal, and the scouts loved Heller from the start. I think, though, he has to be more consistent with his command. There are times he comes in and just gets blasted, and I don’t quite understand why. There are just days when it seems like his fastball straightens out and he can’t get that breaking ball where he wants it. That has happened a couple times in the big leagues when he has gotten a chance, and it can’t. His stuff is too good.

CF: Yeah, I noticed that he walked 3.4/9 last year but still had a sub 1.00 WHIP. He’ll have a rough outing, but has the ability to erase it from his mind the next time out.

DC: That’s a product of his stuff, and he stays on an even keel. He isn’t very different day to day. Some guys let it affect them. He isn’t one of them.

CF: Good thing to have in a bullpen guy.

DC: They say a short memory is great for relievers and kickers.


Associated Press photo