New York Yankees: What's Wrong with the Farm System?
The New York Yankees followed Brian Cashman's image of a strong, sustainable organization in approximately 2006, reverting to player development over blockbuster deals. The front office began to devote time, funds and effort toward improving its farm system and grooming players for the Bronx limelight.
For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, George Steinbrenner used his minor league teams like a shop, with a set price for each player for any team interested. He had no patience for allowing minor leaguers to develop into major league talent. Instead, he traded all of the Yankees' top prospects for short-term fixes.
Yet, the sudden ideological change from George Steinbrenner to Cashman has fostered minimal gains at the major league level. The Yankees only had nine of their farm-system players on their 2012 Opening Day roster.
I attribute these issues to subpar player development, scouting and management.
Let's look at the players who have not fulfilled expectations, and the problems they faced.
There is a disconcerting trend of highly touted pitching prospects becoming injury prone and losing their velocity.
Only a few years ago, Phil Hughes was an upper-90s arm destined to become a top-of-the-rotation guy. He showed potential in 2010 with an 18-8 record and an All-Star appearance. But he followed it up with an injury-riddled 2011 season, where he posted a 5.79 ERA. Hughes returned to mediocrity last season finishing 16-13 with a 4.23 ERA as an above-average fourth starter, sitting in the low-to-mid-90s.
We all remember when Joba Chamberlain took the world by surprise with his 100 mph-plus heater and back-breaking slider in 2007—his ERA was 0.38 and he posted a 12.8 strikeout-per-nine average.
The Joba Rules and the organization's indecision between making Joba a starter and reliever helped cause a flurry of injuries, including Tommy John surgery. Last season, Chamberlain returned to the bullpen as a middle reliever and posted a respectable 4.35 ERA and 9.6 strikeout-per-nine average, topping out at 97 mph. Many expected him to become an elite starter or untouchable closer, but the expectations have been tempered.
The strong-framed Ivan Nova developed late, but shot up the minor leagues and projected to become a top starter. Nova possessed the poise and demeanor to supplement his mid-upper 90s fastball and dazzling changeup. In his first full season, he finished 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA, winning his final 12 decisions.
Super Nova broke down in the final three months of the season, going 3-6 with an ERA of 6.38. He, too, was hitting low 90s. Projected as the fifth starter in 2013, the jury is still out on the 26-year-old.
In December of 2010, the New York Daily News posted:
One scout I talked to at the winter meetings called [Manny] Banuelos, whom he'd watched in the Arizona Fall League, "the best lefthanded pitching prospect I've seen in years. He may be only 19, but he's got both the stuff and the poise and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he was in the big leagues as early as sometime next year." You hear the same sort of raves about [Dellin] Betances.
Who do you blame for the issues with the Yankees' minor league system?
The 21-year-old Banuelos just underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire upcoming season.
Meanwhile, Betances reached the majors as a late season call-up, but has not lived up to the expectations after a subpar season last year. Yankees Analysts wrote, "He has shown little of the stuff and none of the command that he developed over the last few years."
These former studs were expected to develop into the next generation of Yankees starting pitching, but that has yet to come to fruition.
Along in that plan was Michael Pineda, a 2011 All-Star with the Mariners. He experienced a loss of speed on his fastball and underwent surgery in his throwing shoulder. He will not return to the team until deep into this season. The Yankees' scouting department and front office are not at fault in this instance because he was only with the organization for a few months, but the team doctors failed to diagnose a structural issue during his physical.
If they did so, prized power hitter Jesus Montero would still be in pinstripes.
Sadly, some of the successful pitchers from the Yankees' system are no longer on the team. Ian Kennedy has become one of the top pitchers in the National League and the ace for the Diamondbacks, totaling 45 wins since being traded to Arizona. Meanwhile, Tyler Clippard and John Axford are reliable end-game relievers.
The Yankees have had less high-ranked hitting prospects, but nonetheless, these players have not worked out.
Melky Cabrera was once viewed as the heir to Bernie Williams in centerfield. As a 21-year-old, he showed flashes of power and speed, batting .280 in 130 games. But he never fulfilled his promise in pinstripes, and was traded to the Braves in 2010 (in the Javier Vazquez trade; don't remind me).
Last season with the Giants, he batted .346 and reached his first All-Star team, but tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Cabrera signed a contract with the Blue Jays and his play will be scrutinized severely.
The Yankees' top prospect in 2005 and 36th-best in the majors according to Baseball America, Eric Duncan possessed a power bat and great eye. With A-Rod at third, he was converted to a first basemen for an easier path to the bigs—the only player in front being Jason Giambi. But Duncan never reached the major leagues. Released from the Bombers in 2009, he floated around Triple-A organizations and announced his formal retirement last July.
There are notable exceptions, like the speedy Brett Gardner, who has become an above-average outfielder when healthy. And of course, I would be remiss to ignore Robinson Cano, the best second baseman in the game and one of the top hitters in MLB.
But considering all the resources spent in player development, the Yankees lag far behind their competition. The Rays replenish their roster through the minors year in and year out.
The Yankees have been a staple near the top of farm-system rankings for the better part of the past decade. But we should expect much more correlation between the rankings and major league success. Here's the Yankees farm system in the past 10 years, according to Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus.
As seen above, 2006 is the year the Yankees began to focus resources on the development of their prospects. Since then, the Bronx Bombers average a spot in the top third in MLB.
But these players have failed to live up to their expectations.
Think about it: since the core four in the mid-1990s, the only bona fide All-Star who went through the Yankees system is Robinson Cano (and don't forget, Cano was in afterthought in 2004, when the Bombers tried to throw him in the A-Rod deal).
The farm system's ineptitude has been masked by the Yankees overpaying for top free agents, like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira. But as the Yankees' core ages and the team looks to cut payroll, the problems in their farm system are amplified.
If the Bronx Bombers don't adapt to the new era of player development, they could be looking up to the Rays and Orioles in the AL East standings for many years to come.
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