New York Yankees: Zack Littell Building a Case for Promotion

Aug 14, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; General view of Yankee Stadium after a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Tampa Bay Rays won 12-3. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 14, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; General view of Yankee Stadium after a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Tampa Bay Rays won 12-3. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

A top prospect in the New York Yankees system, Zack Littell has put together an impressive 2017 to date. The Florida State League won’t be home for him much longer.

Prospects have a hard time getting acclimated with professional baseball. A rough start shouldn’t worry a team, but a couple years of poor performance will. The Seattle Mariners saw the raw talent in Zack Littell when they picked him in the 11th round of the 2013 draft out of high school. It’s good they held back their doubts in his abilities, because the Yankees are reaping the benefits.

Littell, 21, hails from Eastern Alamance High School in Haw River, North Carolina. He’s just the second player drafted from the school. Littell was also quite young, making his professional debut at 17 years of age. He signed for a $100,000 bonus, and left his Appalachian State commitment at the door.

Out of high school, Littell threw a fastball in the low 90s. He hasn’t seen much gain since, despite his growth and ‘professionalized’ mechanics. His best secondary offering was his curveball, and he was growing comfortable with a changeup which still needs work. He’s worked hard and improved every season, raising his trade stock in the process.

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Seattle made the trade in November of last year, sending Littell to New York in exchange for a left-handed reliever in James Pazos. Yankee fans have loved the trade so far, and they should. Littell was the Mariners’ 14th best prospect at the time of the trade. Moving to a more talented system, Littell settles in at number 20.

Before the Yankees went and got him, the 6-foot-3 righty hadn’t done anything impressive across three professional seasons. Something clicked in his fourth season, 2016. His stuff came alive and he got smarter in his approach. The North Carolina native posted a career-best 2.66 ERA between Single- and High-A. With the Yanks deciding to hit the reset button earlier in the year, Zack Littell was a perfect talent to go after.

Littell has shown he’s dedicated to the process and right now, he is having the best season of his life. He’s turned in a 1.76 ERA so far in High-A Tampa after finishing last season at High-A Bakersfield with a 2.51 ERA.

There isn’t much left at the level for Littell to prove. He’s third in the Florida State League in ERA. his 66.1 innings are seventh league-wide. Eight wins to his name is two more than Jesus Reyes who’s second in the league.

A 7.2 K/9 rate isn’t breathtaking, no, but when he’s averaging about seven innings per start, that rate becomes more efficient and a link to his dominance. Littell isn’t walking anyone either according to his 1.9 BB/9. Now that he’s made 21 starts at the level in total, it’s high time to move on from High-A. It’s good to see this level of performance after logging a career high 165.2 innings last season.

So, what does he look like going forward? MLB Pipeline believes his ceiling is that of a number four starter. It makes sense, considering his game is built around his above-average curveball and control. Everything he has to offer otherwise is average at best. It’d be surprising at this point for his fastball to sit consistently in the mid-90s as a starter.

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Zack Littell has the work ethic and desire to surpass his potential. The New York Yankees are willing to bet on his drive. If you mark him down as a fringe-starter, he’ll just make sure to prove you wrong. If he does prove to be a reliever, he’ll likely play out as a great budget set-up man.