Remember a couple of months ago when Stephen Strasburg was ready to advance to the majors? The anticipation was as high as ever before. Nationals Stadium was sold out within hours of the announced date of his debut. It seemed as though the world of the Washington Nationals was waiting for the future to thrust upon them.
That is how it works for bad teams. Fans wait and wait and wait for the moment when a prospect is ready to pull the team out of a ditch. Young players spend minimal time in the minors, just brushing up for the moment when they can finally help their team. It is a game of waiting.
But for good teams, it is a different story. The team that goes onto the field everyday is there to stay and there to win. The team in the minors, however, is the one that does the waiting. The players wait for a player above them to get hurt, get traded, or retire. Otherwise, they stay in the minors.
And that is the problem that the New York Yankees face today. The team that they throw out on the field is one of the best—if not the best—combinations of players in the big leagues. There is no need for any help, so players in the minor league system have nothing to do but wait.
Infielders in the Yankee minor league system face the biggest problem. The major league combination of Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez is one of the best infields in history. Essentially, if you are an infielder in the New York minor league system, you're not going to put on pinstripes for a very long time.
That is the problem that players like Eduardo Nuñez and Brandon Laird face right now.
Nuñez, a 23-year-old, switch-hitting shortstop, had a .322 batting average in AA last season. He has a .289 batting average this year, and the Yankees are extremely excited about his talent. But with Jeter, the Yankees all-time hit leader at shortstop, Nuñez better get used to playing in AAA.
Laird, a 22-year-old third baseman, is stuck in the minor league system. He was recently promoted to AAA Scranton/Wilkes Barre, where he is hitting .346 with two home runs in six games. In AA and AAA this year, he has hit a combined 25 home runs. As good as that sounds, it doesn’t beat the 600 career home runs that Rodriguez has at third base for the Yankees. Laird won’t see the majors for a while.
What fate do these players stare in the face? With A-Rod, Cano, and Teixeira locked up for at least another five years, and Jeter likely looking at another four- or five-year deal, these players will not get to see a starting role until their thirties. But don’t expect them, or the Yankees, to wait that long.
Unless these two players can learn to play another position, the Yankees will likely trade them away. Another option would be to have them come into the majors as bench players, but don’t expect the Yankees to do that either.
If New York can’t find a full-time role for Nuñez and Laird, making them bench players can only hurt their trade value—a road the Yankees rather not stare at. Bench players only see minimal time, and typically do not put up eye-opening numbers. Nuñez and Laird will have higher trade value if they continue to tear it up in the minors, rather than having sup-par numbers as replacement players.
So it seems as though being a Yankee prospect is all about timing. Just think about what would have happened to Jeter if Tony Fernandez didn’t get hurt back in 1995. Jeter wouldn’t have played until 1996, and Joe Torre may not have been so confident making him the starting shortstop. That one injury was the difference between Jeter in a Yankees uniform, and Jeter in a Reds uniform (for example).
Presently, the Yankees future is gridlocked. With all the great players on the Yankees every year, young players have to wait for an injury, trade, or retirement to see time in the majors. Barring an injury, Nuñez and Laird, along with many Yankee prospects to come, are going to be traded. As much as it will hurt to see talent fly out the door in an instant, Yankee fans will have to get used to it. I guess winning, too, has a cost.