Banuelos, Williams Push Forward Through Struggles, Injury And Media Glare
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
May 23, 2014, 18:02
RICHMOND — Mason Williams and Manny Banuelos' road to being top prospects within the New York Yankees' organization could not have been more polar opposite. Williams comes from a family of athletes with his father a former player in the National Football League while Banuelos only had a dream of making money to one day help his family.
But no matter how different their paths have been, both have climbed the ranks of the Yankees' organization reaching top prospect rankings within all of baseball — Banuelos has been named as high as the No. 13 prospect prior to the 2012 season — with a work-ethic that has been fostered throughout their lives. Both have dreamed of the moment they would don a professional uniform and have aspirations higher than those placed upon them by a New York media market glare since they joined the organization at 17 and 18 years of age.
Yet, for Banuelos, the added media attention and glare that comes with being a top prospect — especially one within the Yankees' organization — pales in comparison to growing up in Gomez Palacio, Durango, Mexico. The 23-year-old remembers the hard times and seeing the struggle his mother faced to earn money in order to put food on his plate every night.
He remembers the joy of being able to work every weekend at the age of 13 to help his mother with finances and the constant dreams of making money anyway he could. And the way he envisioned himself earning money was through the game of baseball. In a country like Mexico which has a soccer-rich tradition, Banuelos never found himself attracted to the game, instead finding pleasure on a baseball diamond. Once on the field, his talent took over. In fact, it was enough for Banuelos to be noticed by the Sultanes de Monterrey of Liga Mexicana de Beisbol.
"It was hard leaving my family for the first time," Banuelos said before a weekend series against the Richmond Flying Squirrels. "But it was a way to make money and I saw myself playing in the Mexican League. I never thought I would get this chance."
The chance the left-hander referred to was an offer from the Yankees to sign just four months into his Mexican League career. It was a dream scenario for a 17-year-old kid from Durango who grew up watching the Yankees on television. It was the only team he followed and the only one he wanted to be a part of.
While scouts from other teams were in attendance, it was the sight of a Yankees' scout which pushed Banuelos to throw harder in an attempt to impress the team he grew up a fan of.
"The team told me the Yankees wanted to see me, so I wanted to work even harder because they gave me the idea that I had a chance to sign with the Yankees," Banuelos explained of the December workout the scout attended. "I thought to myself, 'wow,' and started running like crazy. I worked all the time after the game with my trainer and the more workouts I did, that helped me gain more miles per hour. I signed with the Yankees and everything happened so quick. I was named a top prospect and it's nice especially because there are so many players in the Minor Leagues."
Williams' path to signing with the Yankees was more direct than the plight of Banuelos. Williams is the son of former New England Patriots wide receiver Derwin Williams and his great uncle is Walt Williams, a former 10-year major league veteran and was a brief member of the Yankees' organization between the 1974 and 1975 seasons. It's no surprise then that Mason would follow in the athletic footsteps of his family in a pursuit of a dream, but it was never forced upon him.
Mason Williams wowed the Yankees with his athletic play, but his recent struggled have made those sour on his prospect future.
Mason remembers growing up in Rhode Island and playing both hockey and baseball. Living in the Northern part of the United States, especially being around the dominant Boston College hockey teams of the past few decades, a pursuit of hockey is expected out of most youngsters and Mason was no exception, but baseball would soon become his biggest passion.
A move to Winter Garden, Florida allowed Williams to play baseball all year round and it created a new type of atmosphere for the then 16-year-old.
"The baseball aspect was completely different. Up North, hockey was huge really, and baseball not so much because you can't play year round," Williams explained of the differing situation. "Moving to Florida is when really began getting my main focus on baseball knowing I could play all year long."
Yet, the true moment of when Williams realized his dream of playing professional baseball may come true was during his final two years of high school. He was getting noticed by colleges around the country and received many offers, but only one stood out.
The University of South Carolina baseball program was in the midst of reaching their ninth-consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament — the Gamecocks have now reached 13-straight in the present time — and it enticed Williams. He watched the Gamecocks closely and saw a program on the verge of something great, resulting in his commitment to the university. Then, during his senior year of high school, Williams watched South Carolina win their first National Championship in program history.
His mind was set at that moment. He wanted to experience the college lifestyle and grow as a person and as a ballplayer while continuing a winning tradition at South Carolina, but the Yankees would draft Williams in the 4th round of 2010 Major League Baseball Draft. The decision to forego college was not easy.
"It was hard. It was really hard, but the good thing was my parents weren't forcing me to go to college or do this. They left the option and the choice to me," Williams explained outside the Trenton Thunder clubhouse. "It made it a lot easier choice for me to make."
And with his selection, the accolades followed. The media marveled at his athletic ability, the ease in which he swung the bat and the athletic pedigree he was born into. In his first full season in the minors, Williams hit .349 for short-season Staten Island, showcasing the tools which made him a top prospect within the Yankees organization and No. 32 in all of baseball prior to the 2013 season began. But in a game built for failure, the struggles would begin.
Banuelos would become an instant sensation once entering the Yankees' organization, utilizing a mid 90s fastball and a sharp-breaking curve-ball to carve up hitters in the lower ranks of the minors. In fact, over his first three seasons in the minors, a 19-year-old Banuelos never had an ERA above 2.67 in any level. His strikeout per nine inning ratio would increase at every level he pitched, reaching a high-point of 12.6 in 44.1 innings in the Gulf Coast league.
Media attention increased for a left-handed pitching prospect many presumed to have top-of-the-rotation stuff and would make those around the organization wash away the failures of previous top-arms like Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. Banuelos represented a future the Yankees aimed to repeat. A new wave of pitching prospects were in tow: Banuelos was just one of a trio that included Andrew Brackman and a local product in Dellin Betances. All three possessed the velocity scouts crave and teams need to counteract the powerful bats of the American League lineups.
Manny Banuelos has missed nearly two years of baseball after undergoing Tommy John surgery, losing his top prospect billing in the process.
The media dubbed the trio, "the Killer Bs." But that was just the start for Banuelos who would earn an invite to big league Spring Training where Mariano Rivera called the young lefty, "The best pitching prospect he had ever seen." In fact, the All-Time saves leader in Major League History would take Banuelos under his careful watch and talk with him during the Spring.
"I remember he would bring me to his locker to talk about how his life was and what's expected," Banuelos said of the 2011 encounter. "That was awesome. I mean, he's a superstar."
But much like Williams, the struggle would come for Banuelos. During the 2012 season, the lefty would suffer an elbow injury and would try to rehab it for five months. His arm never made enough progress during the rehab stint, forcing Banuelos to undergo Tommy John surgery, essentially sending one of the Yankees' top arms out of baseball for two seasons.
His rehab from the injury was not easy. Doubts lingered in the head of Banuelos throughout the process about him possibly never being able to pitch again, but when he was finally able to throw and his velocity was still there, the left-hander called it, "a relief," and a chance for a new beginning.
Williams' fast-start to his minor league career fueled the expectations the Yankees had found their center fielder of the future. The team had traded away top outfield Austin Jackson for Curtis Granderson and watched Jackson becoming a budding star in Detroit and Williams provided the good news the team needed. The then 20-year-old didn't miss a step when making the jump from low-level Single A to high-level Single A during the 2012 season.
While most prospects go through a learning curve as they deal with other teams' top prospects, Williams continued his maturation process. He hit a combined .298 between Charleston and Tampa, while smacking 11 home runs and driving in 35 RBIs. Williams also showed a deft ability of putting the ball in play, striking out just 47 times in 359 at-bats during the course of the 2012 season. Additionally, Williams flashed the speed needed to excel in the Yankees' outfield, stealing 20 bases, doubling 22 times and recording four triples.
Williams seemed to be on the fast-track to majors. He had all the tools one looks for in a hitter with what seemed to be developing power and elite speed. However, the 2014 season represented the first speed-bump he would encounter in his baseball career. Making the jump to Tampa, a high Single A affiliate, Williams hit .261 over 100 games giving the Yankees enough of a sample size for him to face Double A competition.
However, in 17 games and 76 plate appearances, Williams recorded just 11 hits for a .153 batting average. His start to the 2014 season has not been much better, either. Entering Friday's contest against the Flying Squirrels, Williams was hitting just .199 on the season in 40 games played, leaving many to sour on his prospect status. Yet, the 22-year-old has found success before and believes he can find it again, even while dealing with an intense media glare.
"It's just something you can learn from," Williams said of his 2012 season and recent failures. "I learned from it. I still have those ups and downs and I learn from game-to-game and day-by-day. But in this game, you try to get better everyday. It's a long season and you can't dwell on things you didn't do right the first time. You just have to keep learning and try to get better."
Two different paths to the same pit-stop in Trenton. A high draft pick and a free agent signee out of the Mexican League. One viewed as a top-flight pitcher and the other another in a long line of outfield lineage in Yankees' history. Manny Banuelos and Mason Williams have taken different paths to professional baseball and through the minor league ladder, but both have reached elite status within the Yankees organization.
While outside perceptions of the two have dwindled over the last few years — Williams is no longer considered a center fielder of the future which prompted the Yankees' signing of Jacoby Ellsbury this offseason — and Banuelos is overcoming injury while trying to rediscover the velocity which made him a top prospect, they are still regarded highly within the organization.
Both may have faced their struggles, all which are well-documented in the New York media market, but their goals remain the same. Williams wants to be the next great Yankees' center fielder to patrol the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium.
"Who wouldn't want to be a part of that," Williams said of the history around the position. "That's all you can really say."
Meanwhile, Banuelos longs to be reunited with his roommate of two years with the Thunder in Dellin Betances. Banuelos has watched Betances fulfill his dream and dominate opposing hitters this season with 45 strikeouts in 26 innings pitched with the Yankees. The two remain in constant contact with one another as well, with Betances showing concern with Banuelos' recent arm fatigue before reminding him of one more thing.
"Two days ago, he called me and asked how I was doing," he said of the phone call. "Then he said, 'hey, I'm still waiting for you.'"
So are those within the Yankees' organization who believe Banuelos and Williams can still be key contributors to the Yankees at some point in the future. There are still obstacles for them to overcome, but considering what the two have already accomplished, it would be hard to bet against them to reach their goal and don the pinstripes.