Before I get into this, my first post at The Yankee Analysts, I’d like to thank everyone here for giving me this opportunity and for welcoming me so fully to the team. I have accepted this position knowing that TYA is not only among the best Yankees blogs on the internet, but among the best team centered blogs in all of baseball, and I hope I have something worthwhile to contribute.
I thought I’d introduce myself to the readers by exploring a phenomena I’ve been considering for quite some time now. Given plethora of young arms in the system – Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Hector Noesi, David Phelps, and Adam Warren - ostensibly close to their shot with the big league club, it’s worth noting how little success the organization has had developing starting pitchers during Brian Cashman’s tenure as general manager. In fact, since Cashman took over before the 1998 season, his system has succeeded in developing exactly one front of the rotation starter.
As with most informed Yankees fans, I have a healthy respect for the job Cashman has done over the past fourteen seasons. Thirteen playoff births, six American League pennants, and four World Series wins make for an impressive resume. Yet one has to wonder how much more this franchise could have accomplished since the turn of the century, and how much better a position it would be in, had the farm system produced the same kind of pitching talent as it drafted. Oh, the hitters are there. Robbie Cano and Brett Gardner are already All-Star caliber talents and Jesus Montero showed last fall how quickly he could reach that level. In fact the bullpen has also been kept afloat in recent years by a healthy influx of young talent. Yet all the current rotation has to show for a decade of high draft picks and bonus babies in Latin America is a mid-rotation starter and a guy who can’t stay healthy – or pitch up to expectations when he is.
The question one must ask then is simple. Why? Why is it that an organization with such a large payroll advantage over the rest of the league, an organization that has focused heavily on the draft over the past half-decade and has developed a plethora of offensive pieces and pitching prospects, failed to develop any of those arms into front of the rotation stalwarts? Is it a question of poor resource allocation? Poor draft picks and signings? Has the organization mismanaged talent? Or is it as simple as bad luck? Let’s take a trip back to the good old days of the 90’s dynasty and try to find out.
Brian Cashman was named general manager of the New York Yankees in February of 1998 and at the Major League level he inherited quite the team. The first – and, so far, only – GM in baseball history to win the World Series in his first three seasons, Cashman inherited a home grown core of Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada, a core that not only led him to great success in the late 90s, but in the later part of the next decade with a World Series victory in 2009.
The farm system Cashman inherited, however, was fairly weak. The Yankees best prospect was Ricky Ledee, a 24-year-old outfield with some pop who hit .309 with just ten home runs the year before. No other Yankee minor leaguer made Baseball America’s top-50 prospects list. The system had it’s share of offensive talent. Within a couple of years, Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera would be top prospects, on their way to productive Major League careers. Mike Lowell as well, though he left the organization earlier. Jackson Melian was just getting starter, an 18-year-old at the backend of BA’s list. Pitching? Nowhere to be seen.
Cashman’s Minor League strategy early in his career was similar to his Major League strategy: win now. Instead of spending heavily on talent at the lowest levels, the Yankees front office focused on high-profile international players. Early in 1998 Orlando Hernandez signed with the Yankees. He shot through the system, and by June was winning games in the Bronx. Alfonso Soriano also signed out of Japan. He would make his big league debut within a year. El Duquecito, Adrian Hernandez, signed two years later and by April of 2001 he was pitching in pinstripes.
The low levels of the farm system were not entirely barren. D’Angelo Jimenez, and John-Ford Griffin, and Willy Mo Pena, and even Drew Henson made many a top prospect list preceding some careers of varying success in other organizations. Still… where was the pitching? Perhaps the one top prospects to come out of the Yankees drafts and signing classes early in the past decade, Brandon Claussen, struck out 220 in 2001 before undergoing Tommy John Surgery. Was this simply a case of bad luck? Of course not. With such little organizational depth on the mound, one injury was crippling. Claussen never returned to form and the system suffered.
In the early years of Cashman’s tenure in New York, the reason for the organizations failure to develop young pitching was quite simply a failure to draft and sign talented young pitching. It was a failure of scouting and of resource allocation. The big league payroll was escalating. The front office was entirely focused on the near term. Finding internal solutions to rotation problems was never a priority. This strategy came to a head in 2003 with the signing of Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras.
By the middle of the decade, though, depth was on the rise. Though most of the mid-decade Yankees system, from Julio DePaula, Ramon Ramirez, Sean Henn, and Christian Garcia, and Steven White went nowhere, Cashman and co. through just enough darts. After signing for an unprecedented for the region 1.9 million dollars out of Taiwan in 2000, Chien-Ming Wang slowly and surely ascended the Yankees system, landing in New York in 2005 at 25 years old with a hard sinker and good command. The rest, of course, is history as Wang won 46 games over the next three seasons and nearly captured a Cy Young award in his second year. Though few Yankees fans would see the middle of the decade systems as a source of pride, quantity had won out in a single instance. The Yankees teams of ’05 and ’06 and ’07 had been saved by their system. Perhaps for this reasons, but perhaps because of a power struggled that occurred just around then, more was on the horizon. The resource allocation and scouting problems were about to be solved.
Enter Phil Hughes. 6’5″ and 240 pounds. A mid-90s fastball and a knee-breaking curveball. Exceptional command. The 18-year-old from Southern California was the Yankees first round pick in 2004. Hughes signaled the beginning of a new era in Yankee-land. A picture perfect prospect, he shot through the system, dominating at every level before making his big league debut in 2007 as maybe the best pitching prospect in the league. Then came the 2006 draft. Ian Kennedy, a polished righty from USC with second starter potential. Joba Chamberlain, a righty from Nebraska with a big fastball and slider and big injury concerns. And Zach McAllister, and George Kontos, and Betances, and Mark Melancon, and Daniel McCutchen, and David Robertson. And then, before the 2007 season, the Yankees traded Gary Sheffield for Humberto Sanchez, the Tigers top pitching prospect and a guy with a poor health record. Though Sanchez’s impact was minimal in the long run, the fact that Sheffield, an MVP candidate just a year or two earlier, could be moved for a prospect was astonishing. The pitching onslaught had begun.
Depth was still no guarantee of success, of course. Kontos, and Alan Horne, and Sanchez, and a number of other pitchers suffered a series of injuries that derailed their minor league careers. McCutchen and McAllister and Ross Oldendorph – acquired for Randy Johnson after 2006 – were traded eventually and Betances proved a much longer development than initially expected. But the resources were there. And so, finally, was the elite talent. Hughes and Chamberlain and Kennedy came up through the system, not exactly together but not too far apart either. They were to lead the rotation of the future.
And then they didn’t.
Hughes was pitching a no-hitter in Texas and he got hurt. Chamberlain was having a tremendous debut as a starting pitcher and he got hurt. Kennedy was trying to find his groove at the big league level and he got hurt. Chamberlain was never the same. Kennedy was traded. Hughes made a comeback before recent injuries and ineffectiveness put his future in question. And so, the questions began. Is this just an issue of poor resource allocation? Bad luck? Or is there something wrong with the way the Yankees are developing their pitching talent.
With Hughes, it’s hard to say anyone saw this coming or that the management of his development was poor. He was about as close to a perfect prospect as one can be. He had no history of injuries, clean mechanics, and quite the combination of stuff and results. The Yankees brought him up conventionally. They didn’t rush him but they didn’t delay his progress when it was clear his time had come. They handled his injuries as one would expect. They eased him back into the big leagues at the end of 2009 and let him pitch a reasonable number of innings in 2010.
Chamberlain is quite obviously a different story. His big league debut in the bullpen was so impressive that he began the 2008 season in the same role and while he was able to prove dominant in the starting rotation to close out that season the questions continued to dog him heading into 2009. A solid start begot a terrible finished and by the following season he was back in the bullpen. The injuries were also something that could have been forseen. The Yankees would not have grabbed him in the sandwich round had he been healthy. Yet, while his failures remain his own, one has to wonder how he could have develop on another team, given a more consistent and longer shot at rotation success.
Perhaps the most telling of developments from these few draft classes came in the person of Ian Patrick Kennedy. After a dominant minor league stint he did practically nothing at the big league level in New York. The organization gave up on him and he was moved, essentially an afterthought in a trade for Curtis Granderson. He went on to a 21-4 season with a 2.88 ERA and a 5+ WAR for the Diamondbacks last season. The Yankees had the resources and the desire to go out and get one of the top college pitchers in the 2006 draft and yet question remain as to whether Kennedy could have developed as well in this organization. The rest of those classes were either moved or fizzled out or are just now reaching the big leagues.
And so we arrive again in 2011 and now 2012. The system is again stocked with minor league pitchers about to reach the big league level, about to try and break the noted trend. The good news is that organization, despite past failure, has continued to invest in pitching. Banuelos, Betances, and a number of other arms at the low and high minor league levels attest to that success in the draft and in international signing. One might also hope that they have learned from these past failures. That they were not ready, and inexperienced, when they were given Hughes and Chamberlain. That they took too many risks and mismanaged these talents and that they will be more careful, or more aggressive, or whatever it is they need to be to make sure these pitchers have every chance to reach their full potential.
The bad news is that, as we have detailed, it is not so simply as drafting and signing top talent. Even the best pitching prospects can fail. Even the best organizations can mismanage talent. Perhaps of more importance, the signs are there. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are not perfect prospects. Banuelos is undersized and Betances has an injury history. Both struggled with command last season – though Banuelos has a much better track-record. There are questions about durability, and about whether these two will remain starters. Noesi, Warren, and Phelps provide depth though they also remind one too much of the go-nowhere prospects of the last decade. There is still hope for Hughes and for Ivan Nova, who had a tremendous rookie season, though Hughes’ star has dimmed and Nova’s was never all that incredibly bright.
As Eric Schultz detailed yesterday, the history of the Yankees farm system in the Cashman era has been that of reactionary paradigm shifts. The farm-focused early-90s Yankees built a winner but they became greedy, too focused on short term payoff, and unable to build depth in the minor league system. Cashman responded by going heavy on depth and while this depth produced a success story in Chien Ming Wang, it failed to produce top of the rotation talent. Then came Hughes, and Chamberlain, and Kennedy, and the Killer B’s. Finally, with the failures of the big three and the success of Robinson Cano, the front office has shifted it’s attention to building offensive depth within the system to replace and aging positional core. Despite the relatively successful drafting and signing policies of the organization, a balance has not been reached, and each new strategy has been a response to the failures of a previous strategy. Perhaps tellingly, a corresponding bet on young big league pitching talent, proven big league pitching talent, has not been made. An expensive proposition? Sure. But one that could be pulled off, perhaps, with Matt Garza on the market, and Zack Greinke on the market a year ago, and Cole Hamels and Matt Cain potentially on the market within the next year.
So at the end of the day I think fans ought to be thankful of the resources and the scouting prowess that has been poured in to this system, at least over the past five or six seasons, but also wary of the failure of the system to take it’s players over the top and develop front of the rotation talent. We should hope this was the product of inexperience and luck but prepare for the possibility that these failures have been the product of some inherent mismanagement, a mismanagement that has been vaguely clear to even the untrained eye. We should hope Brian Cashman, and Damon Openheimer, and the rest of the front office continue to work to fix this problem, but do not become so arrogant, so sure of this (wonderful) Minor League strategy as to ignore the glaring rotational needs at the big league level and to bet the farm on the farm.