The Yankees Aren't Good At Trading For, Developing, or Signing Pitchers

After five years of developing Jesus Montero into a budding young star, they traded him for fellow budding young star Michael Pineda. Almost instantly, Pineda disappointed with some kind of shoulder injury, which eventually developed into a labrum tear, and will not only sideline him for the remainder of year, but is a severe existential threat to his career.

Pitchers are time bombs waiting to explode. They commonly suffer catastrophic injuries. They see much more variance in their skills from season to season than do hitters. It would be foolish to judge a team by looking at the performance of one pitcher. The Yankees may have just gotten horribly unlucky with Michael Pineda.

I’m concerned about a long term pattern. Since the dynasty pitching staff was broken up in 2003, the Yankees have consistently failed to add effective pitchers, both in the rotation and the bullpen. And they haven’t failed because of a lack of trying. The Yankees have a horrible success rate in the free agent market, through trades, and the farm system.

You all know the free agent failures. Jaret Wright, Kei Igawa, Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett failed in the starting rotation, at times spectacularly. Pedro Feliciano, Damaso Marte**, Rafael Soriano, Mike Myers, and Kyle Farnsworth were all horrible multiyear signings, especially Feliciano and Marte. Balance these against the successful signings: C.C. Sabathia and Tom Gordon? Is there any other multiyear deal that the Yankees have signed that turned out well? I guess you could add lottery tickets like 2011 Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon or Jon Lieber, but I’m pretty loath to give them too much credit one-year successes on low-risk, high-reward gambles.

They haven’t done much better on the trade market. They are already huge losers on the Pineda trade. The two Javier Vazquez trades turned out horribly. I’ll give them a pass on Randy Johnson, who was effective despite horrible Yankee defense and his advanced age. Boone Logan helped salvage some of the horrible return on the second Javier Vazquez trade.

The farm system record has been just as bad. The Yankees have developed a grand total of three MLB starting pitchers who would pitch in New York since the 90s: Andy Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang, and possibly Ivan Nova. They’ve had plenty of chances, with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Andrew Brackman (and possibly Dellin Betances, if he doesn’t right the ship quickly) failing on the top end, and a very long list of promising and/or expensive prospects flaming out before finding success in the majors, including names like Ian Kennedy, Tylar Clippard, Alan Horne, Jeremy Bleich, Wilkins De La Rosa, George Kontos, Christian Garcia, Eric Hacker, Daniel McCutchen, Ryan Pope, Jeff Marquez, Zach McAllister and Sean Henn either flaming out, being traded away, or getting injured before contributing to the major league team.

Prospects are prospects for a reason. Most fail. But when it comes to pitching, the Yankees have a terrible success rate. They’ve seen Double-and-Triple-A rotations loaded year after year with solid or better prospects, but only Ivan Nova has emerged from the fray so far as a real MLB starter with the Yankees. Others that have emerged were traded away, including Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy, at times dominant (and at times bad enough to be sent to Triple-A) Mark Melancon, and the underrated Tyler Clippard, not to mention Jon Axford. They have identified plenty of pitching talent, but have very little to show for it.

Most of this is probably bad luck. I used to attribute the low success rate in New York entirely to a combination of bad luck and horrible Yankee defense. But at some point, the luck should even out and the Yankees should find some success. That hasn’t happened yet. Failures like Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Michael Pineda have become the norm for the Yankees. One failure is bad luck, but a pattern of failures points to bad decision making, scouting, and/or coaching.

I hope that the Pineda disaster prompts introspection in the Yankee offices. The Yankees don’t have to become the Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, or Tampa Bay Rays, but at some point they need to put together a competent starting staff other than C.C. Sabathia, and stop making bone-headed decisions with free agent relief pitchers.

** I know he was originally traded, but he was resigned to an extension

E.J. Fagan been blogging about Yankee baseball since 2006. He lives and works in Washington, DC.

25 thoughts on “The Yankees Aren't Good At Trading For, Developing, or Signing Pitchers

  1. If the Shoe Fits

    I think one aspect that gets overlooked is that the Yanks have recently had AAA teams stocked with AAAA talent, beecause they’ve been frequent players in the free agent pitching market.
    By having proven starters fill the positions at the major league level, they haven’t had a chance to succeed/ fail at the major league level.
    I’d love to see a study/ ranking of how each franchise has fared with AAA pitchers in the subsequent 5 year period (maybe cumulative 5 year WAR). I would bet that the Yanks have the lowest # of innings from their farm system since 2003. As such, they are reducing the ability to have anyone reach MLB and prove themselves within the organization. Small sample size, and all that.

  2. They seem to have done well with identifying and developing relievers (Wade, Robertson, Logan, etc. in recent years), but I agree that the track record with starters has been pretty atrocious.

    At what point do you have to look at and rethink organizational development philosophies/strategies for pitchers? The Yankees’ minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras (for instance) has gotten praise for developing some good pitching prospects, but if they fail to become effective big league pitchers, should that be an indictment of Contreras? I’m not sure I know the answer, and there are certainly a whole host of issues to deal with here.

    • T.O. Chris

      The one thing I would change about the Yankee minor league policy is the pitch caps they place on pitchers. Guys have to pitch to develop the strength and cardio to pitch top of the rotation inninghs, you don’t have pitch them 100+ pitches a game but it should be much more fluid than 65 pitches good or bad. If a guy is rolling and in a groove let him keep pitching, if a guy is struggling or throwing stress pitches monitor the pitches more strictly.

  3. SER

    If some of the current prospects dont work it out it may cost Cashman his job. Not directly but indirectly. I think Hal sees other teams winning with a far lower payroll and if the Yankees have to keep signing FA pitchers there is no way they are getting under the 189 mark. I think if Cashman cant win with that payroll the Yankees will look elsewhere.

  4. bg90027

    We’re dealing with really small sample sizes here. You need to really focus on the guys whow were the top prospects and forget about the Marquez/Hacker/McCutcheon types that were never much more than organizational depth guys. Even then, you have to keep in mind that a lot of the top talents like Joba and Brackman fell to the Yankees because of injuries and other concerns. They were high risk, high reward picks to begin with and it’s not really fair to compare them to higher picks who didn’t have those risks.

    Hughes is the biggest failure here and I never really thought his talent matched the hype. He could have been a fine starter if everything worked out but I don’t he really ever was going to become an Ace on a championship level team. His biggest problem in my view is his secondary stuff is just awful and it has been for a long time now. I’m not sure what happened to that really good curve he had when he first started. I know he abandoned it for a slider and then went back to the curve. But the curve he throws now seems to be either a hittable one if in the strikezone or one that doesn’t fool anyone if he throws it outside the strikezone. They clearly didn’t handle his development that well but how much your really can assign his failures to the org versus Hughes himself is highly debatable. I’m frankly surprised how patient they have been with him.

    • Fair enough, but I guess I was wondering at what point do you consider the development process to be flawed rather than the players? I don’t know if we’re there yet (and I agree about the sample size issues as well as the lower draft pick issue), but it’s something worth pondering.

      • Phil C

        I think the time is now for a complete re-think and overhaul of their player (pitcher) development process. Considering the effects of the new CBA it will be very difficult to get a quality starter in his prime. That leaves trades and internal development.

        The one good thing about staying under the luxury threshold for 2013 & 2014 is that hopefully that means no long-term, high dollar commitments to players covering all of their declining years.

    • SDM

      Hughes originally had a really promising slider that the yankees had him abandon for the really good curve he had, but then he abandoned that to learn the knuckle-curve from Moose before abandoning that and going back to the old grip.

      slider->curve->knuckle-curve->back to original curve

    • Scout

      I’m puzzled by this. If the Yankees never really had much top-end talent, as you suggest, that would seem to be an indictment of the organization, too. It is, after all, the responsibility of Cashman and Oppenheimer to draft or sign that young talent. Perhaps Hughes was more hype than reality. But that just points to a different organizational failure.

  5. Shamed Lemon

    You call yourself a Yankees fan! U R a hater!!!

    Cash is da bomb. He’s a ninja!

    Let’s go Yankees!!!!

  6. oldpep

    I think the biggest problem is that it’s all three things: signing FAs, trades, and developing our own. I think that Cashman has never been a good judge of talent, and that the people he relies on to know who’s worth getting are hit-or-miss at best. Add that to the almost total lack of player development, and you end up where we are now. Considering how much money we spent on FAs during his tenure, we should have gotten a whole lot more than we did.
    Two ‘tells’ are 1. after Feliciano got hurt, he complained about the Mets overusing him. If he was aware that Feliciano had been overused, why did he sign him? 2. Signing Igawa and then passing on Darvish.

    Kevin Brown could be added to the list.

    • T.O. Chris

      Signing Igawa was an organizational overreaction to Boston getting Dice K. Cashman didn’t have near the control then as he does now, he probably deserves blame for that move but I’m not putting it all on him. Besides the team has seemed to learn from that one, they no longer make big moves just to counter Boston making one.

      The fact that everyone is complaining about not signing Yu makes me laugh. The guy has a handful of starts, only one real dominant one, and already we are regretting not spending 100 million for him? On paper Darvish was a bigger health risk than Pineda, and he’s older and a 100x more expensive. Between the two moves I would’ve done the Pineda deal and would do so again knowing what we knew then. Getting a young cost controlled pitcher is much bigger than rolling 100 million dollar dice.

  7. bg90027

    I disagree that the Yankees are terrible at this. One, they never never never go through a re-building phase where there is a youth movement and talent infusion through trades. For the past 15+ years, they have always set the goal of making the world series each year. When you do that, you can’t be nearly as patient with the growing pains of young pitchers. It’s much more surprising to me that they simultaneously tried to develop Hughes, Joba, and Kennedy as starters than that they failed to do that.

    Kennedy is a success story even though he’s not pitching for NY. Chien Ming Wang was a success story. Nova has been a success story. And there are lots of relievers who have been success stories both in the organization and now outside it. How many organizations have developed a lot more pitchers than that on their own without the benefit of drafting high or rebuilding? Tampa and Atlanta are obviously great at this but there aren’t a whole lot of organizations that are.

    As you said, most prospects fail. Many get hurt – especially pitchers. And the Yankees never draft early where most “can’t miss” prospects are taken in the draft. It’s incredulous to me that you would label the fact that mediocre talents like Hacker, Marquez, Pope, McAllister, Henn and De La Rosa don’t become ML’ers as development failures.

    And it’s far too early to label the Pineda – Montero trade a failure. Campos could be the jewel of the trade. Pineda could recover and be dominant. Montero could get hit by a bus tomorrow. I don’t blame people for the disappointment or for a feeling that they wish we could take the trade back. I’m sure Cashman does too. I agree with him though that the process was fine even if the result doesn’t turn out to be.

  8. Julian Mark

    Couldn’t agree more. The missed opportunity to add Yu Darvish was the final nail in the coffin.

  9. b9indifference

    what about free agent Mike Mussina

  10. SER

    Hmm, seems to me Joba was handled as poorly as could be. We knew this at the time it was happening and we know it now. We knew Brown would suck and he did. We knew Feliciano had thrown a million innings and would likely get hurt or be ineffective long before his very unneccassary contract was up and he did. They barely knew anything about Igawa when they signed him.

    In my opinion its Cashman that screwed Pineda up. He didnt bother to find out that Pineda was told to rest, not throw, and not work out by the M’s. He planned to report very early, in January to work himself into shape. Cashman didnt know this. Instead he started the negative comments to press of how he had traded away Cabrera for a pitcher that needed to learn a changeup to make the trade worth it. How Pineda was overweight and out of shape and how he wasnt guaranteed a spot in the rotation. This all culiminated with him having to earn his job in that last ST start and he overthrew and the rest is history. I mean hell, right before that last ST start Cashman said he didnt even know if Pineda had thrown a ball in the offseason. SHouldnt he have found this stuff out as soon as the trade was completed? This seems unforgivable to me.

    I am willing to admit that some of the pitchers were just bad luck and do to injuries, innefectiveness or never developing are just part of the pitching world in MLB. Guys like Hughes, Vazquez, Pavano and IPK for Granderson all seemed good moves at the time and Granderson is still a good move. However, I think there has been enough serious mistakes that dont require hindsight to see, for the organization to take a serious look at how they evaluate, develop and handle pitchers.

  11. bg90027

    Well if you kept Kennedy then you wouldn’t have Granderson. I would have liked them to have had more patience with Joba as a starter but I’ll fully admit that I don’t know whether Joba would have developed into a strong starter or not. His stuff even as a reliever isn’t nearly as good as it was when he first came up and he still broke down as a reliever.

    In any case, it was inevitable when the Yankees tried to break those three in at the same time as 3/5 of their starting rotation that they wouldn’t be able to be patient with them. You don’t have a $150-200 million payroll every year and just accept the inconsistent performance and simultaneous growing pains of multiple young arms. I didn’t really have any problem with forcing Joba and Hughes to compete for one starting spot. I thought it would allow them to be more patient with the winner. I was just hoping that Joba would win it because I always thought he had more upside.

    They can live with subpar performances from a 5th starter if that’s the spot Hughes pitches from and they get good pitching from the other 4 spots once Pettite is ready. If he could at least give them 5 innings and keep them close and let them win half of his starts just based on the strength of their bullpen and offense, I’d be ok with that. They can’t accept such short starts on a regular basis though — that taxes the bullpen too much. I also don’t have a whole lot of confidence that Hughes is going to improve much without dramatically improving his secondary offerings. He might do better to work on revamping those in the minors and let Garcia stay in the rotation when Pettite is ready. Otherwise if he has to survive just on his fastball, he’s a middle inning reliever at best.

  12. bg90027

    It’s easy to criticize their pitching acquisitions over the years. A lot of them haven’t worked out, but we need to consider the context. Pavano and Wright were terrible signings for example, but if not them who should they have signed? They didn’t have internal options and they didn’t have a lot of trade chips. Don’t forget that Pavano and Matt Clement were the two biggest names of that year’s free agent pitching class and the Red Sox might have gotten even less out of Clement than the Yankees got out of Pavano. Looking over the list of free agents that year with the benefit of retrospect, I think the Dodgers signing of Derek Lowe was by far the best pitcher signing of the 2004 offseason and he was absolutely terrible in 2003 having an ERA close to 6.00 and a WHIP of over 1.6. Someone like Corey Lidle or Kevin Millwood was probably amongst the next best signings. They had to fill out the rotation and there weren’t alot of good options via free agency and they didn’t have a lot of trade chips, which was the price of having an expensive veteran roster and having thinned out the farm system through trades every year and losing their top picks as compensation for free agent signings. You can criticize the Kevin Brown acquisition too but how many better options did Cashman really have? People underestimate how difficult it is to be competitive year in and year out and the Yankees have been that for a very long time.

    It was as a result of the difficulty in filling out the rotation as well as Cashman’s gaining more organizational power with his new contract that the Yankees started to put a much greater emphasis on the farm system. They’ve had some top tier prospects fail to pan out but that happens to every team and we should expect it to happen more in NY than most simply because the Yankees rightfully are going to be less patient because they have to put a greater emphasis on competing than long term player development than other teams. Since 2005, they’ve developed Kennedy and Nova which to me isn’t that bad given where they draft and the number of picks they’ve lost due to free agents they signed. They got one decent year from Hughes and Joba had some starting success before getting shifted to the bullpen. That’s not all that bad really. Most prospects fail.

    I also think you have to consider all the added pressure of playing in NY. It’s got to be a lot harder to find your way as a young player. I wonder how much all the questions about Pineda’s missing velocity contributed to his injury. Might he have put too much stress on his body trying to increase his velocity in response to all the critics?

  13. tony

    Right now is the perfect time for hughes to develop. He has never had two straight seasons of where he has pitched as a full time starter. Yankees have been bad at developing their pitchers because they bring them up and pretty much tell them we need you to be an ace right away. Hughes needs to stay at the 5th starter spot and get back on track to where there is no pressure. The same thing goes for banuelos when he comes up and/or pineda. Just think of what our rotation would be right now if we would have let phil, joba, and ian kennedy develop right…. Scary

  14. Tom Swift

    They should bring in someone from outside the organization to study how pitcher selection and development works in the Yankee organization and recommend changes. If there is a problem in the process or in the personnel, let’s figure it out this year. The days of solving pitching problems by spending $100 million plus for a FA pitcher are largely over. The Yankees have to figure out how the Braves and other clubs do it.

  15. Jon

    Mike Mussina was one of the rare instances of a successful free agent signing of a pitcher.

  16. One thing I was looking for in this article was to address the fact the Yanks play in a very tough division, a league with a DH, a ballpark geared toward lefties and the realities of what is available on the market annually. None of which was addressed.

    Its much easier for a GM in the NL West to look smart. Boston has had similar issues importing and developing pitchers, so to single out Brian is unfair.

    • I don’t know, this seems revisionist to me. Plenty of AL teams – Anaheim, Tampa, Texas, Oakland, arguably Chicago – have been reasonably successful at bringing in either farm-developed pitchers or acquisitions from other teams. The Yankees threw enough mud against the wall for a few pitchers to stick, but still have a horrible success rate.

      At some point, they need to either change something (personal, methods, strategy) or just keep batting .150.

      • Agreed. I really do wonder if it’s a coaching thing more than anything.

        I’ll choose to believe that the Yankees’ scouts are not nitwits because we certainly have seen them unearth some good players over the years. As such, I have to assume that if scouts are identifying good raw talent then it is the job of the minor league coaches to turn those players into usable MLB products (to the best of each player’s ability, of course).

        An earlier comment highlighted Hughes’s transition from what was considered the makings of a plus curve into a slider that ended up being ineffective and then tinkering with a spike curve, adding a cutter and returning to the original curve. Isn’t that sort of wishy-washy take on what secondary pitch would best work with Hughes’s fastball something that a minor league coaching staff should’ve figured out a long time ago?

        If we’re graduating players that come up and experience trouble in a sort of routine or predictable way, is it ALWAYS the talent’s fault? Can it not be issues in the coaching of these players that, say, Tampa does not experience?

        Maybe we need to look at how the kids are being coached.

  17. I don’t think its fair to point to one single case and try to prove a rule. Pitchers in general are bombs waiting to explode, and Pineda’s injury itself could have just been one of those freak, unforeseeable accidents.

    If I had to come up with a list of Yankee organization sins, I’d say:

    1) Mishandling of Joba and Hughes.
    2) Horrible FA acquisitions out of Wright, Pavano, Igawa
    3) Javier Vazquez’s two failures
    4) Every single non-Gordon FA reliever
    5) Going 1-for-six-years on developing young starting pitching.

    I’m not sure where I put the decision to trade away Ian Kennedy on the ledger, since the trade helped bring in Curtis Granderson. I remember at the time feeling that the Yankees seemed to give up on Kennedy.

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