The 2014 New York Yankees are poised to finish on top of the baseball world. The 2014 Tampa Yankees, Trenton Thunder, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders are not. The minor league system continues to be a work in progress as they scramble to fine their next true star.
The Yankees currently rank 20th among the 30 Major League ball clubs down on the farm. The strength of their farm system rests on some big bats, especially at the catching position, while the pitching appears to be barren. Tony Blengino of FanGraphs.com recently said of the Yankees minor league pitching depth that, “there may not be a single future MLB starting pitcher in the system at present.” Looking across the board, he may unfortunately be right. How does a team as legendary as the Yankees allow their farm system to get so depleted? Here are three primary reasons behind the current collapse of their minor league affiliates:
1. The Steinbrenner Way. The Yankees simply aren’t very good at drafting. Experts are high on their top three picks from the 2013 draft, but Yankee fans have heard that several times through the years. The Yankees seemingly do not care about developing talent. They don’t rely on their minor league pitchers to amount to much, so they invest in big name imports to become the future pieces in the rotation. Names like Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Jose Contreras, Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa, and Masahiro Tanaka are the Yankee prospects that fans remember, not their draft picks. When the Yankees have put faith in their own draft stock, such as in the early 90s and then the Hughes/Joba/Kennedy era, the results have not been good. Yankees’ management has made it no secret that they intend to make a big splash this summer in the international market to get a new influx of youngsters into their system.
2. You can’t unlearn what has been learned overnight. The Yankees have realized there is an inherent problem within the system and began moving forward last season. Longtime pitching “guru” Billy Connors was fired after the 2012 season. Later that off-season, Minor League Pitching Coordinator Nardi Contreras was reassigned and Gil Patterson was brought on board to assume the same role. From 2008 to 2012, Patterson worked with the pitchers in the Oakland A’s farm system. He worked with guys like Jarrod Parker, Sonny Gray, Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin, four pitchers who are now the anchors of the 2-time AL West champions. Contreras on the the other hand, is known for “developing” Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Mark Melancon, Phil Coke, Tyler Clippard, David Robertson, and Ivan Nova. Six of those aforementioned names are no longer with the Yankees and, while some have turned out to be good players, none are considered great. Nova struggled the last two seasons until a mid-season visit to the minors in 2013 helped straighten out his mechanics. He has been pretty solid since his return. If you want further proof that Contreras set the system back a few years, he was the official monitor of the “Joba Rules.”
3. Injuries and setbacks. The big names both in the field and on the mound suffered big time from inures and failed expectations the last two seasons. Jose Ramirez, who was the center piece of the Javier Vazquez trade to the Braves in 2010 was working his way up the minor league system until an oblique strain forced him to miss the entire second half of 2013. Manny Banuelos, one of the Yankees’ prized possessions, looked disastrous is his comeback from 2012 Tommy John surgery this spring. Mark Montgomery and Rafael De Paula, two pitchers the Yankees had big hopes for, struggled mightily after their promotions to higher-level ball last season. It appears that many of the young guns in the farm system may be heading towards the same destiny as Dellin Betances: once elite starting pitching prospects trying to become bullpen mainstays. I’m pretty certain the Yankees didn’t envision their elite prospects as middle relievers when they invested draft picks in them.
The simple truth, is that the Yankees farm system has produced ONE elite starting pitcher in the last 20 years. Andy Pettitte led this same Yankee franchise with the same middling farm system to 5 World Series titles over the last two decades. As long as there is a Steinbrenner in charge, the Yankees can continue to take chances on questionable prospects. And as long as there is no salary cap, the Yankees will continue to build their rotations not with the draft, but the all mighty dollar. Based on the Yankees success rate throughout their history, Yankee fans should be just fine with that.