On a breezy evening in Stockton, Michael Ynoa was busy explaining just how much he enjoys pitching at Banner Island Ballpark, and for the Oakland A’s organization in general.
‘This is my second home.” He exclaimed in his native Spanish. “I like it. I’ve been here since 2009, and I’ve already become accustomed to it.”
It’s a long way from his first home in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. When asked if it’s strange to be pitching so far away from where he grew up he responded with an emphatic: “No.”
The pitching prospect shares a hometown with current A’s starter Bartolo Colon, but so far he has only had the chance to meet the veteran right-hander briefly during spring training.
The A’s snapped up Ynoa back in the summer of 2008 for a club-record signing bonus of $4.25 million. That figure dwarfed the previous record, which at the time, was $1.2 million doled out to Mark Mulder.
GM Billy Beane told BaySportsNet.com’s Mychael Urban (then of MLB.com) back in 2008:“You kind of run out of superlatives.”
It’s easy enough to understand why, since Ynoa stands six-foot-seven inches tall, and was throwing 95 mph darts while most kids his age were still in high school.
Fast forward to spring training of 2013, though, and after four years in the minor league system the righty had pitched just 39.1 innings over 17 games.
This is the same player who was dubbed “the most impressive Latin American prospect since Felix Hernandez” by Raymond Abreu, who also happens to be the scout who signed the pitcher. The A’s were not alone in their evaluation, though. ESPN Deportes labeled Ynoa: “the crown jewel of the pool of Latin American players.”
So, what went wrong for the pitcher? Pretty much everything.
After signing with the team on July 2, 2008, Ynoa spent his first summer pitching at the A’s La Victoria Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic. He was slated to debut in the United States in 2009, but instead that whole season got wiped out due to an elbow strain and some inflammation.
His 2010 season was delayed by an issue with his wisdom teeth. Eventually, he made three starts for the Arizona A’s over a three-and-a-half week stretch, punching out 11 batters in nine innings, before getting shutdown again. This time elbow issues ultimately led to him undergoing Tommy John surgery at the end of August. That surgery and subsequent rehab knocked out Ynoa for all of 2011.
By June of 2012, Ynoa was back on the mound for the Arizona A’s. He made six starts in the Arizona Rookie League before getting bumped up to the Vermont Lake Monsters of the New York-Penn League (Short Season Single-A).
It was while playing for the Lake Monsters that Ynoa grabbed his first stateside win. He ran up a 6.97 ERA in eight games, but continued a trend of posting big strikeout numbers as he racked up 19 K’s in 20.2 innings pitched.
This year Ynoa has finally remained healthy, well almost. He was a week late to spring training due to a case of Chicken Pox, but once he navigated past that ailment, he was off to pitch for the Beloit Snappers, the team’s Low-A affiliate in the Midwest League. It was also his first time playing of full-season professional baseball.
The right-hander dominated in his first extended stretch out on the mound as he went 2-1 with a 2.14 ERA in 15 starts. That performance earned him a promotion to Stockton in the California League back on June 30.
Ynoa was also rewarded with a selection to the Futures Game, a showcase for the top prospects in all the minor leagues.The game is also part of MLB’s All-Star festivities, and he was joined on the trip by Stockton teammate Addison Russell. The 19-year-old shortstop is already the top prospect in Oakland’s system.
Ynoa noted of the experience at the Futures Game in New York: “Everything was fantastic. I felt well, thanks to God. And I was able to share it with a lot of my friends in the game.”
Back in Stockton, though, Ynoa has learned firsthand about the difficulties of pitching in the Cal League. The circuit is known as one of the most hitter-friendly in all the minors, and Banner Island in particular, is known for being a great place to hit, not so much to pitch.
The Ports have already clubbed 180 home runs this season, which is 32 more than anyone else in the league and more than any MLB team has tallied.
For the Ports, Ynoa has posted a 9.00 ERA in fours starts and one relief appearance. On the difference between pitching in “small town” Beloit as he described it, and Stockton he noted: “It’s very different. In Stockton the batters don’t just swing at everything you throw. They are intelligent, and stronger, stronger than the players in Beloit.”
Despite serving up 22 hits in 18 innings for the Ports, Ynoa has also continued to miss plenty of bats. He’s recored 16 strikeouts over that stretch, and on July 26 he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. That night he picked up his first Cal League win and also out-pitched Ryan Vogelsong, who was working his way back to the San Francisco Giants from injury.
However, he’s also walked 16 batters. That’s the same number of free passes he issues in almost exactly three times as many innings back in Wisconsin.
“In Beloit, they swing at almost everything that passes through the strike zone,” Ynoa noted. “Here you always have to get the ball low in the strikeout zone.”
For the right-hander, that’s still a work in progress. What kind of goals does the pitcher set for himself?
“My goal was to stay healthy.”
Unfortunately Ynoa landed on the DL in early August.
“I have a small problem with shoulder tightness,” He explained last week.
He then assured that it was “no big deal”and that he’d pitch again this year. Based on his extensive injury history, the club might just as easily have shut him down.
However, as he’d said, he ended up getting into a game on Wednesday night. He threw a shutout ninth after allowing a leadoff triple to close out a win for the Ports over the Bakersfield Blaze. He also picked up his first ever save. For now he’s definitely a starter, but a towering power arm out of the bullpen isn’t such a bad backup plan either.
Perhaps he’ll get into another game this year, but time is running short. The Ports are about to begin their finals series of the season this weekend, and the playoffs will be out of reach.
Since arriving in Stockton, Ynoa has been living in an apartment with catcher Bruce Maxwell, who he also played with earlier in the season for the Snappers. Maxwell was drafted in the second-round of the 2012 draft, and after about 15 months in the system he’s already progressed as far as Ynoa has in five seasons.
Ynoa, though, is actually nine months younger than his roommate. After all the injuries, it’s easy to forget that Ynoa won’t turn 22 until the end of the September. At the moment there are just two players on the Stockton roster, who are younger than the right-hander. They are fellow Dominican starter Raul Alcantara and Russell, who Baseabll America tabbed the 19th best prospect in all of baseball.
Ynoa mentioned Justin Verlander, another tall right-hander, as his favorite MLB pitcher. When might fans see Ynoa out at the O.co Coliseum?
At this point it’s probably just best to take it one start at a time with Ynoa, and to focus on keeping him healthy. He’s all but certain to start next year back in Stockton, and it would be ideal if Ynoa could make it to Double-A Midland at some point next season.
Ultimately, though, his development might be impacted by factors other than how well he throws the baseball.
Since the pitcher was signed at such a young age, the A’s were forced to place him on the 40-man roster last fall to avoid the risk of losing him to another organization via the Rule-5 Draft. The roster rules work such that Ynoa can be sent to the minors for three years straight before he has to stick on the big league level. That means Ynoa has all of 2014 and 2015 to master Single, Double and Triple-A before he runs out of options at the start of 2016.
At that point if the team wanted to send him back to the minors, he would have to be designated for assignment and pass through waivers. In that sense, the development of Ynoa is much more than just the tall right-hander.
It’s not often that the A’s are able to compete for the most highly-sought after talent. One example that leaps to mind would be when the team lured in the prodigiously talented Yoenis Cespedes with an over-market contract offer.
In the case of Ynoa, the A’s were able to grab a super talented player, and even outbid teams like the New York Yankees in the process. That was possible because while $4 or 5 million doesn’t go very far on the major league free-agent market, it goes quite a bit further on the international free-agent market.
It’s just another example of Beane exploiting market inefficiencies. In the end, the slowest of plays by the A’s executive could prove to be one of his biggest coups yet.