The Yankees have long had the game's biggest payroll, but their farm system has lain fallow for several years, the result of some uninspired draft picks and trades that rid the system of the few prospects who remained. Over the last 18 months, however, the Yanks' system has made a stunning turnaround, going from one of the five worst systems in the game to one of the 10 best.
What sets the Yankees' system apart from most others is the presence of two of the 10 best prospects in baseball, something no other organization can claim. The first of these two is right-handed pitcher Philip Hughes, who should show up in the Bronx in the first half of this season. The Yanks' first-round pick in 2004 has rocketed through the system, and would likely have reached Triple-A this year had the Yanks not been keeping their best prospects away from the Columbus clubhouse. Hughes has two consistent plus-plus pitches in a 93-95 mph fastball with fair sink, and a 12-to-6 curveball, and he has a promising changeup as well. Hughes pounds the strike zone and his command made some strides late in the 2006 season, although he still relies a bit too much on his secondary stuff. A year ago, Hughes had promise, but had missed time with minor shoulder injuries and had command issues. Now he's one of the top two pitching prospects in the game.
Hughes' hitting counterpart on the Yanks' prospect depth chart is teenaged center fielder Jose Tabata, who spent all of 2006 in the full-season Sally League; only the Mets' Fernando Martinez and the Braves' Elvis Andrus were younger among such players. Tabata has an outstanding package of tools, but also has a degree of baseball acumen not often seen in players so young. He has a quick bat with developing power and good command of the strike zone. He has good instincts in center, with a plus arm that will allow him to move to right if he outgrows center. His season ended in early August due to a thumb injury, but he's playing in the Venezuelan winter league and swinging the bat with no trouble.
The Yanks' system also now boasts depth that it hasn't had in years. Trading Gary Sheffield netted the Yankees another top pitching prospect in Humberto Sanchez as well as two live arms in Kevin Whelan and Anthony Claggett. Randy Johnson didn't bring as much back, but the Yanks did grab another live arm in Ross Ohlendorf. Meanwhile, Tyler Clippard passed the Double-A test and looks like at least a fifth starter in the majors, while 2006 sandwich pick Joba Chamberlain, who fell out of the top 10 picks due to serious concerns about the state of his shoulder, threw extremely well in the Hawaiian Winter League.
The Yanks also added two more tough signs in Mark Melancon and sashimi-raw flamethrower Dellin Betances. It's a significant improvement for such a short period of time, and it's very bad news for the other four teams in the AL East.
1. Tampa Bay: The Devil Rays have the best farm system in the game right now, and it's not particularly close. They're stacked with impact bats like Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes, Evan Longoria, and possibly Reid Brignac, and they have a wave of young arms coming behind those hitters, including Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson. The question dogging them is whether they can get the pitching to the majors before their offense starts to hit free agency.
2. Colorado: Despite some odd first-round selections in recent years (Greg Reynolds, Chris Nelson), the Rockies have still managed to stack their system with promising hitters. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and catcher Chris Iannetta will see a lot of big league time this year, and corner infielder Ian Stewart and outfielder Dexter Fowler are both promising. The system is short on pitching prospects, though, with oft-injured right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez the closest to the majors.
3. Arizona: Former scouting director Mike Rizzo can still claim a good chunk of the credit for the wave of young talent showing up in Phoenix, and there's more coming, including homegrown products like outfielders Justin Upton and Carlos Gonzalez, catcher Miguel Montero and right-hander Micah Owings, as well as players acquired by GM Josh Byrnes via trades, including second baseman Alberto Callaspo and the system's jewel, center fielder Chris Young.
4. Kansas City: The Royals' system lacks depth, although new GM Dayton Moore has tried to fill in some of the gaps by acquiring guys like left-handed pitcher Tyler Lumsden. The Royals make the cut here, however, because their top three prospects are as good as any team's top three -- third baseman Alex Gordon, DH Billy Butler and right-handed starter Luke Hochevar. Outfielder Chris Lubanski and right-hander Chris Nicoll aren't in the same class, but both have promise as well.
5. Cleveland: Unlike Kansas City's top-heavy system, Cleveland's boasts tremendous depth but just one impact prospect, right-handed starter Adam Miller, who sits in a class with Hughes and Homer Bailey among the game's best pitching prospects. Left-handed starter Chuck Lofgren and outfielder John Drennen could make the leap into the top prospect ranks in 2007, and the system is stacked with useful prospects like left-handers Scott Lewis and Tony Sipp, slick-fielding shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and outfielder Trevor Crowe.