Much has been made of the Yankees inability to develop top flight talent over the last ten to fifteen years or so. In the eyes of many, the team's post Core Four development record amounts to Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, David Robertson, and a slew of disappointments and busts. That is not wholly inaccurate, I suppose, as expectations for prospects - any team's prospects - are generally sky high. Optimism abounds, making disappointment an inevitability in most circumstances. For every Mike Trout that the Angels develop, for example, they suffer dozens of folk like Brandon Wood and Dallas McPherson (hold onto that thought). Our memories are geared to remember the extremes of most any scenario, hence our insistence on clinging to the booms and the busts, and not focusing on those prospects that simply worked out. With this in mind, I began perusing old Yankees prospect lists to see how their best talent on the farm has shaken out over the last decade. The obvious caveats hold true here - lists are a snapshot of a specific moment in time, no two people evaluate prospects the same, and we have the benefit of hindsight here. We cannot evaluate how prospects panned out without hindsight, though, leaving us prey to a necessary evil. So it goes.
The first list that I examined became the basis for this post, for two reasons - it is the tenth anniversary of the list (give or take a few weeks) and round numbers are simple, and it is led off by a bust, which fits the narrative oh so well.
- Eric Duncan
- Robinson Cano
- Phil Hughes
- Steven White
- Dioner Navarro
- Christian Garcia
- Marcos Vechionacci
- Melky Cabrera
- Bronson Sardinha
- Chien-Ming Wang
At first blush, some might see Robinson Cano and nine disappointments - and "disappointment" may not be strong enough for Eric Duncan, who was ranked as the 36th best prospect in baseball at the time, as the team's sole representative in the top-100. If one looks past the expectations laid upon the shoulders of these players, however, and focuses solely on what they accomplished in the Majors, you can see an incredibly successful class of prospects.
Cano is an obvious success story - a legitimate superstar with a few MVP caliber seasons, and a stretch as the best second baseman in the game. Greatness is not the only way to gauge a prospect's successes or failures, though. Hughes has been a league-average-ish starting pitcher for the last half decade, and he was much better than that in his first season away from the Bronx. Navarro has bounced around the Majors, suiting up for six teams in eleven seasons, but he has been mostly serviceable as a starting catcher for the majority of his career (with a few strong seasons along the way). Cabrera has been an average regular for the majority of his career, and has thrown in some All-Star quality seasons. And Wang was a fine mid-rotation starters for three-plus seasons, until the Houston Astros and interleague play ruined his career (I may still be bitter).
Developing a superstar, an All-Star, a fringe starting catcher, and a couple of starting pitchers is a fine outcome for a top-ten. The Angels, by comparison, had a top-five farm system for three years running, culminating in the number one ranked system in 2005 - a system that gave them Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, Erick Aybar, Jeff Mathis, Kendrys Morales, Brandon Wood, Ervin Santana, Howie Kendrick, Alberto Callaspo, and Steven Shell. Is that a better result than the Yankees crop? Probably. But this is also a comparison between the best system in the game at the time, and the 24th ranked group. The second ranked Dodgers system developed Chad Billingsley, Edwin Jackson, Russell Martin, James Loney, and Jonathan Broxton, and fumbled with Joel Guzman, Andy LaRoche, Greg Miller, Chuck Tiffany, and Blake DeWitt. The third ranked Brewers had a stellar run with their top-three of Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, and J.J. Hardy ... who were followed by Jose Capellan, Mark Rogers, Ben Hendrickson, Brad Nelson, Hernan Iribarren, and Dave Krynzel.
The 2005 system is not an outlier, either. The 2006 list included Hughes, Jose Tabata, Austin Jackson, Tyler Clippard, and Brett Gardner. In 2007, it was Hughes, Tabata, Dellin Betances, Ian Kennedy, Clippard, Mark Melancon, and Gardner. There is come overlap from year to year, as development is no linear, but the same is true for every organization. Each top-ten list from 2000 through 2009 developed four or more Major Leaguers, and the same pattern seems to be holding true (though, many of the prospects on the last five lists are still in the minors, with their stories yet to be written).
The point here is not that the Yankees system has been better or worse than any of these teams, or even that the narrative is wrong. Rather, it is that our expectations may simply be too skewed to appreciate what the system has produced. Or, alternatively, that the team has dealt too many of these prospects away to reap the rewards of the development process.
Regardless, if this current incarnation of the Yankees top-ten yields something similar to the group from ten years ago, the team will have a great deal of value either on the roster, or to be moved for big league talent. And if that is considered a disappointment, then I am not quite sure where your expectations lie.