When I first started blogging about minor league baseball in 2006, the most common narrative about the Yankee farm system went something like this:
“After the late-dynasty era that produced Nick Johnson and Alfonso Soriano, the Yankee farm lay barren from 1998-2003. Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang were the first two prospects to break the ceiling, but true change came that same year, when Brian Cashman was handed more control over the Yankee organization. The team started putting large resources into the farm system. The result was that a tremendous amount of talent was infused into the system in 2006, and the Yankees became one of the best farm systems in baseball.”
I think that the perception among a lot of Yankee fans is that people who wrote about the Yankee farm system, like me, were blowing smoke. We either bought into the hype or created hype out of thin air. While I’d argue that the Big 3 (Hughes, Joba, Kennedy) were actually pretty successful as prospects, there is no doubt that there has been quite a lot of disappointment in the Yankee farm system since 2006.
Put on a bar graph though, I think we can see what happened. Below is a very simple graph. I took all the prospects who came through the Yankee system (some were traded away) to have what I’m deeming ‘significant’ MLB careers. I didn’t use a hard and fast rule. For pitchers, I was looking for 100+ games started or 200+ relief appearances. For hitters, I was looking for 300+ games. For newer players, I used my crystal ball to predict a little bit into the future. I even gave half credit (.5 players) for Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, David Adams, Adam Warren, and Preston Claiborne, whose stories are incomplete. The result:
Each bar represents the number of players that entered the Yankee minor league organization that year who eventually had significant MLB careers. For Americans, I used their draft year. For Latin Americans, I used the year they first played professionally in the US.
We weren’t wrong in 2006! That was the year the Yankee farm system peaked. Not only did they sign Jesus Montero, draft Ian Kennedy, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Zach McAllister, Mark Melancon and George Kontos, but they also had a bunch of young, talented players coming up through the minor leagues from previous years. These players included Brett Gardner, Austin Jackson, Jose Tabata, Phil Hughes, Tyler Clippard and Ivan Nova. This cohort ended up producing quite a few solid MLB players, several strong supporting players, and even two or three legitimate stars.
And then… disaster. So many things went wrong for the Yankee farm system in 2007 that the year’s events eventually resulted in budgets being slashed and philosophies being abandoned. Kei Igawa happened. The team signed Andrew Brackman to a huge MLB deal right out of the first round, including a $3.35 million bonus, and he immediately underwent Tommy John surgery. They then splurged on Brad Suttle and Carmen Angelini for over a million dollars each, and both turned out to be total flops almost right out of the gate. Several other above-slot signings produced absolutely squat. To date, Austin Romine is the only hopeful piece to emerge out of the draft.
The Yankees stopped spending massive piles of money on the draft. They went for the occasional above-slot signing, but mostly only after failing to sign their top round picks (Gerrit Cole, Scott Biddle, Sam Stafford) or after saving money on too-clever-by-a-half first round picks (Dante Bichette Jr, Cito Culver).
Now, some of this data is premature. The Yankees have a lot of prospects from the 2010-2013 drafts still in the minor leagues. Some are on track to be potentially be pretty good. But, at the very least, they’ve taken their sweet time. The Yankees have been in dire need of reinforcements for the past two seasons, and very few have been available.