The New York Yankees’ barren farm system was exposed in 2013 through injuries at the major league level, as the team was forced to use a franchise record 56 different players during the regular season.
As a perennial contender in the American League East, the organization has shown a preference for replenishing its talent over the years, opting to replace departed players with free agents or international players rather than relying on internal options.
Yet, while the philosophy is understandable given the lofty expectations associated with the franchise, it isn’t the only reason why the organization currently features a bottom-third system.
Here’s a look at several different ways in which the Yankees can begin to fix their poor farm system in the coming years.
Free Agents/Qualifying Offers
The Yankees’ offseason signings this year are a perfect example of the impacts of having a bottom-tier farm system devoid of upper-level talent. The team was forced to splurge on high-profile free agents Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann so as to remain competitive after a disappointing 2013 season. However, because each player was extended a qualifying offer, their signing came at the expense of a first-round (including the compensation rounds) pick in the 2014 draft.
Don’t get me wrong; the Yankees' aggressiveness on the open market this winter was admirable. But the fact that they now won’t draft until the second round (56th overall) next year is a huge blow to an already hurting system. Had they not signed Beltran, Ellsbury and McCann, the Yankees would have had three first-round selections in back-to-back drafts. In general, the Yankees should be coveting their potential early-round draft picks, at least more than they are, and extending as many qualifying offers as possible to departing free agents.
Furthermore depending on the organization’s needs, it might make more sense for it to avoid some free agents with qualifying offers, though that obviously would go against its “win now” philosophy.
Lastly, the Yankees should consider overpaying (to an extent) for those second- or even third-tier free agents so as to avoid losing future draft picks, even if that means inking more players like Vernon Wells and Mark Reynolds—as painful as it sounds—to fill holes at the major league level.
Drafting: Take a Risk
The Yankees boasted one of the better farm systems in baseball headed into the 2006 season, housing prospects such as Ian Kennedy, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Zach McAllister, Mark Melancon and George Kontos. It also was the year that the team signed international free agent Jesus Montero.
Additionally, 2006 was the season in which many of the team’s recent draft picks and top prospects started moving up the organizational ladder, including Brett Gardner, Austin Jackson, Jose Tabata, Tyler Clippard and Ivan Nova.
With the Yankees' system on the rise, they decided to target upside in the 2007 draft, selecting and signing prep pitcher Andrew Brackman to a record-setting $3.35 million major league contract. As fate would have it, the right-hander immediately underwent Tommy John surgery and never amounted to expectations before his release after the 2011 season.
The Yankees also unwisely spent money outside the first round, as they drafted college third baseman Brad Suttle ($1.3 million) in the fourth and high school shortstop Carmen Angelini ($1 million) in the 10th round. Sadly, Austin Romine is the only semi-productive major leaguer to emerge from the Yankees’ doomed 2007 draft class.
And let’s not forget about the offseason signing of international free agent Kei Igawa.
The organization once again went for broke in the first round the following year, drafting Gerrit Cole, another prep pitcher. However, the Yankees and Cole were unable to come to terms on a contract, and he ultimately honored his commitment to UCLA.
|New York Yankees First-Round Draft Picks (2009-2012)|
|Year||Player||Position||Signing Bonus||Highest Level|
|2011||Dante Bichette Jr.||3B||$750,000||Low-A|
|2012||Ty Hensley||RHP||$1,200,000||Gulf Coast League|
Since then the team has whiffed when drafting in the first round, at least considering the successes of players it passed on in those years.
After failing to sign Cole, dealing with Heathcott’s maturity issues and watching Culver go nowhere fast, the Yankees simply have tried to be too clever with their early draft picks in recent years, targeting players with marginal upside but no makeup and signability concerns. Oh yeah: Ty Hensley missed the entire 2013 season after undergoing surgery on both hips.
But if all goes well at the major league level, then the Yankees will continue to draft at the back end of the first round—not in 2014, though—which means they’ll need to find value where other teams don’t.
However, like the Boston Red Sox, who have built a top-ranked farm system based on savvy drafting, the Yankees would seemingly benefit from targeting top-tier draft prospects that fall due to injury or character issues.
As I noted in a recent article, Boston made a killing in the draft in 2010 and 2011, as their early-round selections from those years comprise their current prospect pool. Save for a few pitchers they selected, the Red Sox used those specific drafts to add high-upside athletes with realistic up-the-middle futures to their system (Garin Cecchini, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart).
Restructure Scouting and Player-Development Departments
Over the last half-decade, a concerning trend has emerged among the Yankees’ top prospects: They tend to stall out upon reaching the upper levels of the team’s system. It’s a major reason why the organization recently has relied heavily on free-agent signings.
So, exactly how bad is the team’s player development? Here’s what Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated had to say in an August article:
New York's entire 1997-2013 draft portfolio has been outhomered by Ty Wigginton, a journeyman most recently with the Cardinals who has hit 169 home runs in 12 big league seasons. Here's a look at the most home runs by hitters drafted and developed in the Yankees' system since 1997:
If you limit the sample to drafted players who actually produced for the Yankees, and take it back 20 years, the impact is even more negligible. The team hasn't benefited from an impact bat out of the draft since New York took Derek Jeter in the first round in 1992. Here's a look at the most home runs hit for the Yankees by players they drafted since '93:
1. Nick Johnson: 33
2. Brett Gardner: 23
3. Marcus Thames: 13
4. Andy Phillips: 11
5. Shelly Duncan: 8
6. Brandon Laird: 3
7. David Adams: 2
8. Austin Romine, Colin Curtis, Kevin Thompson, Andy Cannizaro: 1 each
The organization did take a few steps toward improving its internal scouting system over the last year, hiring former Cubs manager Mike Quade as a roving outfield coordinator and adding Yankees minor league manager Trey Hillman as a special assistant for player development and pro scouting.
Stronger International Presence
The Yankees made a splash this winter in the international realm, signing highly coveted free-agent pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract. In general, the move was a step in the right direction for the organization, as it landed a top-tier free agent, albeit at a steep price, without sacrificing a future draft pick.
Instead of signing a slew of cost-friendly, mid-level international prospects, the Yankees need to focus on signing the best players, even if that means incurring costly penalties for overspending under the new collective bargaining agreement.
However, according to Kiley McDaniel of ScoutingBaseball.com, that’s exactly what the Yankees plan to do with the 2013-14 international amateur class (an idea also echoed by ESPN NewYork's Wallace Matthews and Andrew Marchand):
I originally reported the Yankees had deals with with about a half dozen players for about $12 million in December (skip to the next section for details on the players). I've since confirmed with international sources that this is still essentially the case. The belief in December is that this was the main thrust of New York's plans, with the Bombers likely adding another notable player or two before July 2nd and possible spending up to $15 million.
Sources indicate the first wave of six verbal deals all happened on one day, in late November/early December. The Yankees struck all six deals at once, after rumors had already spread in the industry that New York had a much heavier scouting presence in Latin America in the fall. For competitive reasons, this plan makes sense: other clubs and agents couldn't adjust their actions based on word of one or two big, early deals the Yankees had struck.
That belief has now shifted and the industry is preparing for another wave of signings from the Bombers in the coming months. International sources are now saying they've heard a "second phase" is coming, with a significant amount of bonus commitments: presumably another coordinated signing wave. One source says he has heard $20 million mentioned as a possible target for overall Yankee bonus spending.
If the Yankees continue to spend beyond their international bonus pool, then it would make sense for the organization to trade players—ideally some of its once-promising prospects that still have moderate value—for additional international slot money.