TRENTON, N.J. -- For years, being a Yankees minor leaguer was like being a Broadway understudy, or vice president of the United States: You tried to keep busy, waited a lot, and hoped something happened to the guy blocking your path.
But nowadays, things are different, and the young guns down on the farm have a real opportunity to join the Bronx Bombers soon.
Pitchers Manuel Banuelos and Dellin Betances, as well as catcher Austin Romine, all could be with the Yankees within a year, if not sooner. For now? They'll start the season with the Class AA Trenton Thunder.
But they're not likely to be in New Jersey for long.
"I can't wait to get there," said Betances, the 6-foot-8 righthander who has the Yankees excited with his 98 mph fastball and above-average curveball. "I'm going to work hard until that dream comes true. I grew up a fan of this team, and just knowing I have a chance to be putting on the pinstripes still hasn't sunk in. It will be one of the best days of my life."
Betances and Manuel Banuelos give the Thunder their most talked-about pitching duo in years. Together with Andrew Brackman, who played for Trenton last year and has advanced to Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this year, they form "The Killer 'B's," a trio of pitching prospects around which the Yankees have built their future. All three received extensive time in spring training with the big league club, and Banuelos won the James P. Dawson award for the top rookie in camp.
He made two starts in six appearances, going 1-1 with a 2.13 ERA. Banuelos allowed 10 hits in 12 2-3 innings, giving up just three earned runs to go with eight walks and 14 strikeouts. Betances, meanwhile, went 0-1 in four games this spring with a 6.00 ERA. He allowed six hits in as many innings, while striking out eight.
"Betances looks the part -- he's a monster -- and he throws the (heck) out of it," said Baseball America editor John Manuel, who has tracked the Yankees minor leaguers for years. "He grades out as a top-of-the-line, premium pitcher. His fastball and curveball are pretty special pitches. The question is more about his athleticism."
Betances and Banuelos are the Yankees' top two prospects, according to Baseball America.
"Banuelos has been the biggest story of the spring. He throws hard, great stuff and he touches 94 (mph). He went from an average fastball to an above-average fastball. That takes him from a member of the rotation somewhere to being a potential front-line starter.
"For the list of top left-handed pitching prospects in the game, he's in that discussion. He's on a very short list. He's got very good control and major-league command. And he just turned 20."
Thunder manager Tony Franklin had a hard time remembering a pair of pitchers who came through Trenton as highly regarded as Banuelos and Betances. He vows the organization will not rush them to the majors before they're ready.
"They're young in their careers and we have to be very protective with them," he said. "But everyone is extremely excited about them and what they can do. I know I am."
Of the three, Romine, 23, had the best chance to win a major-league job in spring training, because Yankees backup catcher Francisco Cervelli suffered a foot injury. Romine and Jesus Montero, the Yankees' top two catching prospects, were both in camp and given the chance to win the backup job. But neither impressed, and the Yankees brought in journeyman Gustavo Molina.
Nonetheless, Romine and Montero know one is likely to be catching in the Bronx before long, with the other probably being traded in a package for a top-line starter. Current starter Russell Martin is viewed as a short-term solution behind the plate for the big club.
"Having a foot in the door and having it close a bit gives you an incentive to work that much harder," Romine said. "We both work hard and we both want to be a catcher in the big leagues. I'm going to be a big-league catcher one day, whether it's with the Yankees or some other team. I'm confident it's going to work out."
Betances and Romine soaked up every spring minute with the Yankees stars.
"Mariano Rivera talks with all the young kids in camp, telling them how to work hard, do the right things, respect God," Betances said. "I just wanted to make a good impression."
One moment from camp stands out in his mind: facing Tampa Bay slugger Manny Ramirez, who hails from the same New York neighborhood as Betances: Washington Heights.
"We both played in the Youth Service League there," he said with a smile. "It was exciting facing him. I struck him out."
Romine said Jorge Posada, the Yankees' 17-year catcher who will DH this year, mentored both young catchers in camp.
"He's been very good to the young guys, and he didn't have to be," Romine said. "He said, 'Keep going, you did a good job, just keep doing it.' That's huge for us to hear from a guy like that."