Check out a breakdown of the UCLA sports stories you might have missed this week.
The New York Yankees have changed, and James Kaprielian is evidence.
Yes, the Yankees still employ Alex Rodriguez, but the aging slugger is one of the final remnants of the franchise’s unapologetically lavish, undeniably successful approach to roster building throughout the early 21st century.
Kaprielian, the club’s No. 4 prospect in MLB.com’s rankings, represents a new era for the Yankees, one centered on the development of young talent rather than the acquisition of pricey, aging major leaguers.
The increased focus on the future is a philosophical shift that could threaten to test the patience of a fan base accustomed to marquee signings and countless division titles.
Enter Kaprielian, an enticing right-hander whose brief professional record suggests the future might not be all that far away.
The Yankees chose the UCLA product with the 16th selection of last year’s MLB draft, the team’s highest draft pick in 22 years, and gave him a $2.65 million signing bonus with the expectation that he would ascend quickly through their minor league system.
So far, he’s done nothing to disappoint.
The 22-year-old Kaprielian, earned an invitation to major league spring training this year and showcased an impressive repertoire in two appearances against big league hitters.
Although the Yankees sent Kaprielian and several of their other top prospects to minor league camp in mid-March, both general manager Brian Cashman and pitching coach Larry Rothschild said it’s possible Kaprielian reaches the majors this season.
In the lead-up to the draft, Kaprielian was considered one of the more polished pitchers on the board, a guy with an array of intriguing secondary pitches and an advanced feel for pitching.
What he didn’t have was standout velocity. Although he led the Pac-12 in strikeouts last season, punching out over a batter an inning for the second year in a row, the 6-foot-4-inch righty sat between 88 and 92 mph with his fastball.
But his lanky frame suggested room to fill out and add velocity. Less than a year later, he’s already done so.
After averaging 94 miles per hour in pro ball last fall, Kaprielian hit 96 mph with seven of his 26 pitches in his first spring training appearance, per Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post.
Facing the Detroit Tigers just two days after his 22nd birthday, Kaprielian struck out All-Stars Jose Iglesias and Ian Kinsler en route to two perfect innings.
Kaprielian ran into more trouble in his second outing, giving up two earned runs in 1 2/3 innings against the New York Mets, but even then, he showed why he’s a big-time prospect.
“As soon as he came into the game – I didn’t know him, but [Mets bench coach] Dick Scott said, ‘This is their No. 1 pick,’” said Mets manager Terry Collins. “And after about three pitches, I said, ‘Yeah I can see that.’”
In addition to the improved fastball, Kaprielian also displayed the above-average curveball and changeup that he used frequently during his UCLA days.
“His breaking ball has the chance to be a plus pitch for him,” said Gary Denbo, Yankees vice president of player development, in a February interview with NJ Advance Media. “The changeup also has improved the more he’s pitched and will as he develops.”
Kaprielian even received the endorsement of Mets ace Matt Harvey, who worked out with him over the offseason at a Newport Beach training facility owned by their agent, Scott Boras.
“He was obviously much more mature than a normal 22-year-old,” Harvey told NJ Advance Media. “Just to see his relationship with guys like Jered Weaver and Kyle Lohse and guys who are older and have really established their careers – he fit right in.”
It’s a common sentiment regarding Kaprielian. Pat Osborn, who managed Kaprielian in short-season A-ball last year with the Staten Island Yankees, said the ex-Bruin conducts himself like a 35-year-old.
“This kid is impressive,” Osborn said. “We’ve got a good one.”
Played three scrubs, earns Player of the Week
The Pac-12 announced Monday that junior Mackie McDonald was named Pac-12 Player of the Week. McDonald is coming off three road match victories, winning each in straight sets. Two of the opponents were ranked in the top 100 in the country.
The junior also went undefeated in doubles for the week with his partner sophomore Martin Redlicki. The two are the nation’s No. 4 doubles pair and improved to 8-2.
This is McDonald’s fourth weekly honor this season and the fifth of his career. He is currently No. 9 in the singles and boasts a dual match record of 10-1 for the season. His only loss was from reigning NCAA singles champion Ryan Shane.