TRENTON, N.J. - As Manny Banuelos, bathed in a light sweat from pregame conditioning, walked past the Trenton Thunder locker room last week, the baby-faced 23-year-old could have been mistaken for a team intern.
But this was the pitcher who signed with the Yankees when he was 16 and once was hailed as the franchise's top prospect. Banuelos was part of the "Killer B's'' pitching trio -- along with Dellin Betances, now a Yankees All-Star, and Andrew Brackman, who no longer is in baseball.
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"Yeah, that was before, man,'' chuckled Banuelos, who returned to the mound this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. "It's kind of tough just to think about it; a couple of years ago, 2010-2011, I was here [in Double-A] for the first time. Now I'm still here. It's hard, you know?''
Banuelos was 0-3 with a 6.03 ERA in 311/3 innings for the Thunder going into yesterday's action. The southpaw from Durango, Mexico, is limited to three innings per outing while he regains mastery of his fastball, curve, changeup and cutter. He also is trying to increase his velocity beyond 93 miles per hour.
It's a slow process, Thunder manager Tony Franklin said, but that's expected for a rehab period that can take upward of two years. Franklin expects Banuelos to be at full strength by spring training next year.
"We've got time to wait on Manny to find his niche again,'' Franklin said. "You can still see the stuff is good; his fastball still moves, his curveball is almost a 12-to-6 -- not quite the Sandy Koufax curveball, but he's got a tight rotation on it. His changeup still has a good fade. It's a matter of regaining command, control and consistency.
"I wish I had a crystal ball, but when his performance shows up, Manny's probably going to be in the big leagues because his stuff is certainly good enough to pitch there.''
Banuelos beamed at the prospect of donning pinstripes and reuniting in the majors with Betances, his former roommate. The latter, who attended Grand Street Campus High in Brooklyn, has grown into a dominant reliever. Entering Saturday, Betances was 4-0 with 87 strikeouts and a 1.42 ERA in 57 innings with the Yankees.
"He's an example for me,'' Banuelos said.
Betances, who had elbow surgery in 2009, is a source of encouragement for Banuelos. The two bonded as teammates in 2010, and Betances called his friend after a recent poor outing to discuss pitching mechanics. His main message: stay positive.
"I told him [the rehab process] wasn't easy, and he knows it,'' Betances said. He added that Banuelos was on the rise before his injury and believes he almost made the Yankees out of spring training in 2011.
"Once he feels right and he knows he can do the stuff he was doing before surgery, I think everything will fall into place," Betances said. "He could be here. That's the ability that he has, and I'm sure he'll get back to that point.''
It's all Banuelos thinks about when he watches the Yankees on television. He wants his turn in the big leagues.
"When I see these guys like [Shane] Greene, David Phelps, Adam Warren -- I played with them in the minor leagues a couple of years ago -- I see how they're doing and I want to be there, too.''