With the amateur draft signing deadline having just passed, I want to spend a couple of entries here looking at the Yankees’ farm system with an eye towards a very specific problem, the absence of solid outfield prospects. The Yankees don’t have them and haven’t developed one in a very long time. While Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner have their uses, the last outfielder to emerge from the farm system and have anything like a substantial, above-average career with the Yankees was Bernie Williams.
This puts immense pressure on them to retain an aging Johnny Damon this offseason whether giving him another contract is a good idea or not. This is the same pressure that led to the decision to sign Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright a few winters ago when the farm system could not render up quality pitchers. That problem has been treated to a large extent, but the absence of quality position players continues to impel the Yankees towards free agent adventurism.
Since the great center fielder/guitarist, numerous outfielders have passed through the system on their way to the Bronx without making a lasting impression. The parade includes Gerald Williams, Shane Spencer, Ricky Ledee, Ruben Rivera, Kevin Thompson, Justin Christian, Kevin Reese, Shelley Duncan, Donzell McDonald and even Mike Vento. The best of the lot were Marcus Thames, who was dealt away to the Rangers for the mortal remains of Ruben Sierra in 2003, and Juan Rivera, a strong hitter with a tendency towards injuries. He too was traded in 2003, to the Expos as part of the package for Javier Vazquez.
What is meant by a “solid” outfield prospect? It’s a young player who might hit even five percent better than the league average at his position. That’s not asking for the moon or Joe DiMaggio. Five percent better than a Major League average left fielder would be .282/.358/.460; for a center fielder it would be .281/.353/.441; for a right fielder, .284/.362/.465. This is asking for a good player, not a great one. Don’t take those numbers too seriously — they’re just broad guideposts for a hypothetical player who might hit for more power or take fewer walks while arriving at roughly the same place. Whatever your definition of “slightly above-average outfield starter,” that is what is being aimed at.
Prior to the season, Baseball America compiled their list of the top 100 prospects in baseball and placed two Yankees position players on it, Austin Jackson (No. 36) and Jesus Montero (No. 38). Considering Yankees prospects exclusively, they ranked the top 30 players in the organization and found only 10 position players worthy of ranking that high. Among these were four outfielders: Jackson, Kelvin DeLeon, Abraham Almonte and Gardner.
Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus also compiled a top 100 prospects. As with Baseball America, Jackson (No. 46) was the only Yankees outfielder to rank among the elite prospects in the game. Goldstein also compiles rankings of each organizations top 11 prospects, plus honorable mentions. Using those lists, I compiled the top 86 prospective outfielders coming into the season. Just two of the 86, Jackson and DeLeon, belong to the Yankees.
Although Goldstein’s lists of 11 are more restrictive than BA’s top 30, the shorter list ensures that we are examining players who have a chance to start, as opposed to the likely reserves who often fill out BA’s lists for thinner organizations. Almonte may be the 30th-best prospect in the Yankees organization, but given his current offensive profile (“current” because he is quite young and could evolve) his chances of starting for the Yankees or any team is nil.
Thus, 84 of 86 top outfield prospects coming into the season belong to other organizations. The purpose is not to second guess — as you will see, some of the best of these prospects were early first-round picks, and thus unavailable to the Yankees due to the nature of their consistent high finishes, and it would be unfair to criticize them for that — but to ask what priorities and assumptions the Yankees were working off of in the draft, and to see if other teams are doing a better job of finding outfield prospects in the later rounds or on the international talent market, where good scouting and luck play a greater part.
If the Yankees are stumbling into fewer of those “solid” non-star starters than would be expected, be it because of organizational priorities or simply poor choices, we’ll see why as we explore the top 86 and where they were selected in the draft.
First Round (13): Colby Rasmus (2005/HS), Cameron Maybin (2005/HS), Andrew McCutchen (2005/HS), Brian Bogusevic (2005/C), Trevor Crow (2005/C)Travis Snider (2006/HS), Drew Stubbs (2006/C), Tyler Colvin (2006/C), Jason Heyward (2007/HS), Matt LaPorta (2007/C), Ben Revere (2007/HS), Wendell Fairley (2007/HS), Aaron Hicks (2008/HS).
What the Yankees did: These players were selected in the 2005 through 2008 drafts, so we’ll look at what the Yankees did in those drafts. In 2005, the Yankees picked at No. 17 thanks to the Phillies signing away Jon Lieber. Their own pick at No. 29 went to the Marlins because they signed Carl Pavano. By the time the Yankees picked, Maybin (No. 10), McCutchen (No. 11), and Crowe (No. 14) were off the board, as was Jay Bruce (No. 12). The Yankees spent their pick on the miserable high school shortstop C.J. Henry. Subsequently, John Mayberry (No. 19), Jacoby Ellsbury (No. 23), Bogusevic (No. 24), and Rasmus (No. 28) were selected.
In 2006, the Yankees gave up their first-round pick (No. 28) to the Red Sox to sign Damon, but for the second year in a row the Phillies handed them their own pick to sign a Yankee who wouldn’t help them much, Tom Gordon. By the time they picked at No. 21, Drew Stubbs had gone to the Red at No. 8, as had Colvin (No. 13) and Snider (No. 14). Another strong hitter, Chris Marrero, went to the Nationals at No. 15 (he was later shifted to first base). The Yankees selected Ian Kennedy. Two other outfielders went in the first 30 picks, Cody Johnson to the Braves at No. 24 (he appears to have potential in a Steve Balboni kind of way), and Jason Place to the Red Sox at No. 27.
In 2007, the Yankees picked 30th, last in the first round. Jason Heyward, who might be the best hitting prospect in baseball just now, was selected from the planet Krypton at No. 14. Ichiro-type Ben Revere went at No. 28, and the Giants took Fairley at No. 29, setting up the Yankees to shock the nation by selecting Andrew Brackman, the less said of whom the better. We’ll look at who was still on the board in the ’07 supplemental and second round when we get to the supplemental picks.
In the Year of Our Draft 2008, the Yankees picked at No. 28. Naturally, a lot of the interesting guys were gone. Even the Yankees’ own interesting guy was gone because they didn’t sign their pick, pitcher Gerrit Cole. Hicks was the only outfielder selected in the first round. He went to the Twins at No. 14.
These last four drafts have been borderline disastrous for the Yankees insofar as the first round, where the sure things are supposedly to be found. They completely missed on Henry, and only the recklessness of the Phillies allowed them to redeem the pick by taking him in return for Bobby Abreu, but it’s clear that if the Phillies took Henry they would have taken anybody — the move was the Alex Rios salary dump of 2006.
Brackman also appears to be a complete miss, but it’s too early to write him off despite the 6.56 ERA and seven walks per nine innings in the Sally League. The failure to sign Cole got the Yankees
an extra pick in the 2009 draft, but there’s still an empty spot in the organization where a player with one year of experience would have been.
Only Kennedy has rewarded the Yankees’ evaluation of him as a prospect, at least until his blood clot surgery this year. That, at least, is an act of God, not scouting. What rankles is the availability of Rasmus, now a rookie center fielder for the Cardinals, in 2005, not to mention Ellsbury, Matt Garza, and Joey Devine, all first-round selections after the Yankees took Henry. Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances, such as Georgia boy Rasmus indicating he would not be happy in the big city, but the same cannot be said of the other players available at that spot.
First Round, Supplemental: Michael Burgess (2007/HS), Kellen Kulbacki (2007/C), Corey Brown (2007/C), Julio Borbon (2007/C), Zach Collier (2008/HS), Jaff Decker (2008/HS).
What the Yankees did: The Yankees didn’t have a supplemental pick in 2007, so they got to watch as Burgess, Kulbacki, Brown, and Borbon (now playing well in the Majors) were selected. In 2008, the Yankees did get a supplemental first-rounder due to the Rockies signing Luis Vizcaino. It was the 14th of the round, two from the bottom, and Collier and Decker had already disappeared by the time they picked. They used the pick on Stanford lefty Jeremy Bleich, now pitching at Double-A Trenton. Note below that a number of quality outfield prospects were available at this point, as several were selected early in the second round.
Second Round: Seth Smith, (2004/C), Nolan Reimold (2005/C), Jon Jay (2006/C), Mike Stanton (2007/HS), Charles Blackmon (2008/C), Cutter Dykstra (2008/HS), Destin Hood (2008/HS), Xavier Avery (2008/HS), Dennis Raben (2008/C), Kenny Wilson (2008/HS), Jay Austin (2008/C).
Now things get interesting, because any of these players were available at the time that the Yankees picked at the end of the first round. In 2005, the Yankees picked at No. 15 in the second round thanks to the White Sox signing Orlando Hernandez (there should probably be an axiom in baseball that says that if the Yankees don’t feel like spending the money to retain their own free agent player, that player is probably not worth having). Their own second round pick (No. 29) went to the Braves due to the ill-considered signing of Jaret Wright. The Orioles took current rookie Reimold two picks ahead of the Yankees, who selected reliever J.B. Cox, now pitching at Trenton.
The Yankees had no second-round pick in 2006 because their pick went to the Braves as compensation for Kyle Farnsworth, which is depressing. Cardinals center field prospect Jay would have been available to them. The Yankees had the last pick of the round in 2007. They made a solid pick in catcher Austin Romine, currently batting .277/.319/.445 for High-A Tampa. The Yankees picked 29th in round two, 2008. They went with Ole Miss righty Scott Bittle, who they elected not to sign. As we will see momentarily, this meant passing on a couple of quality outfield prospects who would be selected in the third round.
We’ll pick up with the third round in our next entry.
“Remember when the Yanks were winning the World Series that we never had an MVP winner on our team (1996-2000)? We had guys who knew how to perform as a team.”
Steve, could you get your Webmaster to fix it so that any time somebody types some version of those quoted sentiments, they automatically get an electric shock through their Web connection? Thanks! — lorodov
I’m pretty sure your suggestion would have been legal just a few months ago but wouldn’t pass muster with the current Justice Department. Congratulations: you’ve actually made me miss the old guys. I didn’t think that was possible… I’m trying to figure out the best way to say that the MVP vote is just a poll of a bunch of guys who write about baseball and may or may not reflect the best player in the league in a given year, often not. That no Yankees player received an MVP award in the years 1996-2000 is not evidence that they received no MVP-level performances during those years, but that the voters had their heads up their — how to put this politely — fundaments.
Bernie Williams played at an MVP-level in the four years under examination — a center fielder who hit .324/.410/.551 in the years in question, winning a batting title and (deserved or not) four Gold Gloves as well. In two of those years, 1996 and 1998, the award went to the cranky corner outfielder Juan Gonzalez, who had a ton of home runs and RBIs, but when you look at Williams’ more important defensive position and superior ability to reach base it rapidly becomes apparent that Bernie was the superior player.
Derek Jeter would have been deserving of an MVP award in any of the three years from 1998 to 2000, and I will always contend that he should have won it in 1999 rather than Pudge Rodriguez’s double play machine. Rodriguez was not one of the 10 best hitters in the AL that year. Jeter was, at least by one measure, the best.
Jorge Posada’s 2000 season (.287/.417/.527, 151 games) lacked the RBIs usually associated with an MVP winner, but was of that quality given that it was produced by a catcher. Tino Martinez’s 1997 had all the hallmarks of an MVP season — 44 home runs, 141 RBIs. He finished a distant second in the balloting to Junior Griffey.
There were several players throughout, including Paul O’Neill (through 1998), who made star-level contributions to those Yankees teams. They were very deep clubs, with talent spread nicely around the roster, but they weren’t some gutty version of the Pittsburgh Pirates, grinding it out with a bunch of mediocre players. These were Cadillacs, not K-Cars, and we haven’t yet discussed the pitching or the defense, the latter of which was surprisingly effective in those years, far, far more effective than anything the current unit has done or will do.
Sure, the media liked to celebrate Scott Brosius, Joe Girardi, and the like, and no doubt they played their part, but without the big guys they would have “known how to win” right into fourth place. The Yankees need their stars. In the absence of Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees are down on just one on offense. Citing the 1996-2000 teams as evidence that one is enough fails the exam before you even pick up your pencil.
MORE FROM ME…
…After today’s game. In the meantime, this week my travels take me to Washington, DC, where I’ll be doing two events on Wednesday. First, Jay Jaffe and I will be hosted by the Georgetown Lecture Fund at Georgetown University at 4:30 p.m. This event is open to the public, if public I have. The location is McShain Lounge at McCarthy Hall (Building 42), 27th and O Street NW.
Following rapidly on the heels of that, Jay, Clay Davenport, and I will be traveling to one of my favorite tour events, the great independent Politics & Prose bookstore, for a 7 p.m. chat ‘n’ sign. The address: 5015 Connecticut Avenue NW. They usually have pizza and beer available. I’m not sure that that will be the case this year, but we can hope.
Finally, I’ve continued and will continue to update Wholesome Reading. Warning: Politics (and a Harold Reynolds reference)!
OZYMANDIAS: THE MEMOIR
I’ve been reluctant to offer much conversation on the Joe Torre-Tom Verducci book because I’ve not read the thing (get your act together, Doubleday publicity!) and of all the things the world needs, it’s not another uninformed commentary on that bloody book. Nonetheless, I feel like I can’t let the Greatest Story of Our Time pass without a few words, at least until I get hold of the holy pages. Given what I’ve heard so far of the “controversial” passages, I feel validated.
Longtime readers know I jumped off the Torre bandwagon a few years before he actually left town. I was a convinced fan of Torre’s after the buttoned down and seemingly know-nothing Buck Showalter epoch. However, as I wrote here many times, I became convinced that Torre had outlived his usefulness. He was not a builder and he wasn’t a strategist. His main skill was creating a professional atmosphere, something that the organization had proved incapable of doing over a period of nearly two decades.
However, Torre’s ability to do that ebbed, and now the new book suggests that this ability was largely mythological. Torre seems to blame Brian Cashman for foisting too many irregular-size players on him, but this gets into circular, chicken-and-egg territory: were Cashman’s players unable to blend, or did Torre fail to blend them? For every end-of-the-line gamble Cashman took, like Kevin Brown, where no manager would have been able to save the situation, there have been others who left New York and went on to productive work. Perhaps more importantly, in 2008, Joe Girardi minted more Major League relievers than Torre did in his entire 12-year stay.
Torre’s failing judgment climaxed with Alex Rodriguez. When Torre batted A-Rod eighth in the fourth game of the 2006 ALDS, he publicly demonstrated that his usefulness was at its end. That was actually the second such gesture that year, and the first of his self-immolating collaborations with Verducci, when he conspired in the swift-boating of his own third baseman in the pages of Sports Illustrated. If you will recall, A-Rod had slumped that August, the boos were again raining down and Torre was at a loss. At that point, Torre enabled the Verducci story, which then waited like a time bomb for Rodriguez to emerge from his slump and enter the playoffs. It went off just in time to kneecap A-Rod at the most important moment of the season.
With this helpful stab in the back, Rodriguez was “motivated” right back into his slump.
Not satisfied, Torre then jerked the future Hall of Famer up and down the lineup throughout the short series. Where a player hits over the course of four games isn’t all that important, but the psychological impact of those moves is. Rather than leave Rodriguez alone, and minimize the stress on his player, Torre did everything he could to make him the story.
If Torre wasn’t an Xs and O’s manager, if he couldn’t get young players into the lineup, and he was unable to communicate with the players the GM was giving him, no matter how difficult, then what did he bring to the table besides an increasingly illusory and irrelevant gravitas? Again, not having read the book as of yet, I cannot draw any firm conclusions, but from A-Rod to his bitterness about not getting Bernie Williams back in 2007 (another example of hideously poor judgment, one he apparently tries to excuse by character-assassinating Carlos Beltran, the player who would have displaced the beloved Bernie) this tome seems to be one of the greatest examples one can think of a man doing all he can to destroy his own reputation, the myth of his own greatness. Instead of proving his indispensability to the Yankees, Torre has made a persuasive case for why they had to let him go.