Longtime friend of NoMaas and Baseball America Co-Editor-In-Chief, John Manuel, returns for a lengthy Q&A about the Yankees’ farm system. Armed with the 2011 Prospect Handbook, Manuel trains with Sensei John Kreese as they talk prospects.

Sensei John Kreese: How would you describe the overall state of the Yankees farm system?

John Manuel: The Yanks’ system had a bounce-back year in 2010. Most of the guys that the organization was counting on had good or even great years, and so did some of the guys it wasn’t counting on. Montero had a big year, Sanchez down below, Laird and Noesi, and Nova, Warren, and Phelps at higher levels — That’s a good year for the system. Just a couple of injuries as a downside.

SJK: Are there any prospects you would “sell high” on at this point, assuming you could find a willing trade partner?

JM: I’m not comfortable advocating trades with specific players. I will propose a couple of trade-related observations:

(a) The best items to use in trade, as far as prospects go, are catchers and hard-throwing pitchers. The Yankees have both.
(b) The other key to making deals is the ability to absorb salary, which the Yankees obviously have.

In other words, I’m surprised they haven’t used their system this offseason to make a deal, especially considering they didn’t get Cliff Lee.

SJK: The Yankees vehemently insist Montero can catch. In fact, Cashman said he’s a better defensive catcher than some guys in the bigs right now. What’s the opinion of the general scouting community, and has he improved defensively?

JM: Not sure what else Cashman is supposed to say; is he supposed to degrade the value of his top prospect by saying, “Well, he’s not really a catcher.” The consensus is (and frankly has been for the last two years) that Montero has improved, but will never be an average defender.

He’s got plus raw arm strength, but a slow, inconsistent release. He’s become more flexible and agile behind the plate, but is who he is — a behemoth for a catcher. He’s just big, in a better way now, but still big. I believe he can catch in the majors, but it would always be “adequate,” and he would be an asset for his offense, not his defense.

Comparing him to Mike Piazza, he has a better arm but is a lesser receiver. He’s never been held up as a guy who is great at handling pitchers, either. It’s hard to get that type of info, and that’s a story I’m trying to work on –how different is it for minor league catchers to handle minor league pitchers vs. major league pitchers. But, I’ve talked to a couple of Yanks’ pitchers over the years on teams that have had Montero, and no one ever has stuck his neck out to say he’s a joy to work with, or that he handles pitchers well or catches them well.

SJK: How’s Austin Romine’s stock at this point?

JM: My sense is that it’s solid, not spectacular, as has been the case throughout his career. He’s young for his level, athletic for a catcher, and has solid all-around tools. He’s an inconsistent receiver, but when I was in the Arizona Fall League, he received well, and the scouts I talked to there thought he was an average receiver. I wrote in the 2010 Handbook that “at times he struggles handling velocity, being a little late getting his glove to pitches on the corners.” He’s made progress there, but scouts I talked to in the Eastern League this year said that was still an accurate assessment.

Offensively, he’s still streaky, but he had a solid year for a 21-year-old C in Double-A. His stock may be down a tick because the higher he goes, the more exposed he gets, like any other prospect. For example, the future plus power projections, you don’t hear that anymore. But, he’s a solid catching prospect and will be in my personal top 100; we do personal top 150s internally and merge those together to start our top 100 discussion.

SJK: Cito Culver — People were shocked at the pick. Did he do anything to alleviate the skepticism?

JM: Culver’s fine. The Yankees didn’t see premium athletes on this year’s international front, so they went for up-the-middle athletes in the 2010 draft. Culver fit the bill for them as a defender who can play SS, switch-hits, and was one of the draft’s youngest players. He needs time for his bat to catch up to his glove, that’s the consensus. He needs to get more physical, but that’s said of most 18-year-old professional baseball players, especially middle infielders.

SJK: Graham Stoneburner had one of the best 2010s of any pitcher in the Yankee system. Is he really just a reliever, long term?

JM: That’s definitely the consensus. I’ve always been lower on Stoneburner than the blogosphere and remain so.

SJK: Of the Yankees projectable, back-of-the-rotation arms (Hector Noesi, David Phelps, Ivan Nova, Adam Warren), who do you like the most? Do you think any of those guys could surprise us with a little more upside?

JM: Noesi commands the fastball best of that group, followed by Warren. There’s not a ton of difference between them, but Noesi’s breaking ball, while fringy, is better than Warren’s. If you’re a back-of-the-rotation guy, you better throw strikes or you’ll lose your spot in a hurry. That’s what those two guys do.

Phelps does it less, but his secondary pitches improved a bit last year. Nova always has had the best arm, we’ve been ranking him since he was in low Class A. Last year he threw harder, and with all the Yanks’ offseason misses on pitchers, Nova has a good chance to earn a starting role in New York. I do not expect him to be a starter long-term because he has such power stuff and inconsistent control (not to mention command) that he fits better in the bullpen. I have to say overall I’m not a Phelps believer, but I’ve been wrong before.

SJK: You guys ranked David Phelps’ slider as the best in the Yankee system. Is that a result of not many good sliders to choose from, or has it really come that far?

JM: It’s an average slider, I got one 55 grade on it. It’s really more that the Yankees prefer curveballs and don’t really have a plus slider in the system among legit prospects. Andrew Brackman toyed with a slider in the EL and showed some 90-mph ones. If he decides to commit to a slider, he could have a hellacious pitch. He clearly has a feel for spinning a breaking ball, always has, which is why we stuck with him in our rankings when others bailed. He’s such a mixed bag.

SJK: We picked Bryan Mitchell and JR Murphy as breakout candidates for next year. Thoughts?

JM: Good picks. Mitchell has the arm for it; we ranked him 11th heading into 2010, which ended up being a year too early. He had some issues being away from home for the first time and wasn’t quite mature enough, so we’ll see how he handles a full season now.

Murphy, I’m not as high on. It’s very unclear what his position will be. He may wind up a Brandon Laird-type on defense — more hit, less power, no true defensive home, though Laird is better at 3B than I ever thought he’d be. I’m not as high on Murphy as I was last year.

SJK: Where would Rafael DePaula have ranked in the Yankees system if he was signed by the time the BA Prospect Handbook was finished?

JM: That was a bone of contention late in the book. Ben Badler handles international stuff for us and is EXTREMELY high on DePaula. He would have been in the 15-20 range for me. It’s such a deep system in pitching. I probably would have slotted him in, if I recall my order correctly, behind Phelps (lower ceiling than DePaula, but obviously much closer to majors) and D.J. Mitchell, who’s a reliever in New York, but could be a back-of-the-rotation type elsewhere.

SJK: Did anybody expect Gary Sanchez’s bat to be this good, this fast?

JM: I don’t think expect is ever the right word for a prospect, but no, I don’t think the Yanks even hoped for that. Impressive debut, hence his high ranking in the Handbook.

SJK: Overshadowed by the aforementioned Gary Sanchez, Ramon Flores had a great season of his own in the GCL. What’s his projection offensively and defensively?

JM: He just missed the top 30. I got two separate scouts slap a Gerardo Parra on him, more of a fourth-outfielder type than a regular, but it’s early.

SJK: Which one of the Killer B’s has the best shot at actually starting in the majors?

JM: Right now, I’d say Banuelos, but there’s no way he goes pole-to-pole in the majors, or that any of them do. Brackman throwing 141 innings last year is the career-high for any of them. Betances has never thrown more than 121 IP in a season; Banuelos has not topped 110.

The Yankees handle all their guys with care — some would say too much, and I would frankly agree. What Yankees pitcher in recent memory has contributed a lot as a rookie starter? They’ve all been disappointments as rookie starters — Joba and Hughes leap to mind. So, I think all three of those guys are going to get a full season in the minors to prove they can handle the workload of a full season.

SJK: Brackman — Reliever long-term?

JM: Not yet. More feel for the breaking ball than anyone in the Yankees system. Tall guys take longer to figure it out, and he’s showing lots of signs of figuring it out. I also think his makeup is better suited for starting than relieving.

SJK: Yankees’ brass seems really high on Eduardo Nunez. Is he a viable stopgap until someone else is ready (Cito Culver / Angelo Gumbs /Christopher Tamarez) or acquired?

JM: Yes, “stopgap” is a good word. His best-case ceiling, for me, is average everyday shortstop. Nothing wrong with that. He’s always had the tools, but took a while to mature. New York’s development people deserve credit for sticking with Nunez and helping him improve. I do not see star potential there and was puzzled when the Yanks wouldn’t deal him, but I suppose they realize the Captain is not what he used to be defensively.

SJK: How does Mason Williams compare to Slade Heathcott when he was drafted in 2009?

JM: Not comparable. Totally different physically. Yes, both are CFs and plus runners. But, Heathcott defends better and throws better. Both are somewhat raw, but Williams has a better swing.

Williams just isn’t physical enough at this point. I’d be surprised if he followed Heathcott’s lead and played at Charleston in his first year. I expect Gumbs, Williams, and Culver to go to extended, then Staten Island or the GCL (Gumbs more likely GCL).

SJK: Two relievers drafted in 2010, Tommy Kahnle and Daniel Burawa, had good debuts in the NY-Penn League. Are they the top relief prospects in the system currently?

JM: Kahnle is one of them; you left out Chase Whitley, better prospect than Burawa, better command by a lot, good body. He’s actually in the Handbook. He’s the David Robertson of the 2010 draft (same area scout by the way). The top relief prospect in the system is one of the starters; I’d say Nova.

SJK: Is Brandon Laird starting material, or more of a bench player? How does Rob Segedin compare to Laird?

JM: I’m not a huge Segedin guy, but I was never a big Laird guy. Laird is a second-division regular. I got two Kevin Kouzmanoff comparisons on Laird, and one scout qualified it and said “better version,” so if that’s starting material in New York, then he’s a starter. I think it depends on the makeup of the rest of your team. He has right-handed power; that’s getting harder and harder to find domestically, according to the scouts I’ve talked to.

Segedin has some medical history and less raw power than Laird.

SJK: Kevin Mahoney seems to have a diverse and strong skill set. What are his chances of getting to the show?

JM:That name is a blast from the past; we loved Mahoney at Canisius, and he was the No. 2 prospect in the Coastal Plain League in 2008, one spot behind Deck McGuire and ahead of former Red Sox farmhand Chris McGuinnes (forget where they traded him). Mahoney for me is a good organizational player, but you’re right in that he has no glaring tool that sticks out as a weakness. I think his big league ceiling is as an up-and-down guy, but he’s not a bad sleeper. At 23, he better get going.

SJK: Word in prospect circles is that your abdominal muscles rival that of Jersey Shore’s The Situation? Is that true?

JM: My abdominal muscles are more like a sad situation, frankly. I’m hoping the Wii Fit I got for my birthday helps in that regard. I haven’t seen one of my ribs in years.

Many thanks to John for dropping some knowledge at NoMaas. For the most comprehensive source of prospect info, check out the brand new 2011 Baseball America Prospect Handbook.