Commentary

Have the Bombers gone barren?

The Yankees have shown remarkable weakness in drafting and developing talent

Updated: February 4, 2014, 1:51 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews and Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

Dust BowlESPN New York Photo IllustrationThe Yankees' farm system hasn't been anywhere near as fertile as it was in the years leading up to the team's late-1990s dynasty. What has happened since then?

The following is the first installment of ESPNNewYork.com's three-part series on the state of the Yankees' farm system.

NEW YORK -- Since Manny Banuelos was promoted to Triple-A ball before the 2011 season, he is 2-4 with a 4.32 ERA. His walks-per-nine innings ratio has soared and his strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio has dropped.

Plus, he is coming off Tommy John surgery and has not thrown a pitch in a professional ballgame in more than 18 months.

In spite of it all, the soon-to-be 23-year-old remains the only top prospect in the Yankees' farm system who might -- just might -- have a chance to impact the major-league club in 2014.

"Banuelos has got that big arm," a front office source said. "If it's still there and the lightning still strikes then you're going see people say, 'F--- it, bring him with us [on Opening Day].'"

The source said that as soon as this season, Banuelos -- who has yet to distinguish himself even at the Triple-A level and still projects as a starter long-term -- might turn out to be a useful part in the Yankees' bullpen. This is either irrefutable evidence of the electricity in Banuelos' left arm, or the lack of juice in the Yankees' farm system.

Perhaps it is a little of both.

For a team that has shown remarkable success over the past two decades -- five World Championships, 13 AL East titles and 17 postseason appearances in the past 19 seasons - - the Yankees have also shown some remarkable weakness in their ability to draft and develop their own talent.

Although the Yankees team that won the World Series four times between 1996 and 2000 was led by a core of home-grown talent -- Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams all came up through the Yankees system, as did Robinson Cano -- the team has developed just one everyday Yankee (Brett Gardner) over the past decade.

"It's not as good as we need it to be in terms of results," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said when asked if it was fair to characterize his farm system as a bust. "There are a number of reasons behind that. At the end of the day, we've had some misses, without a doubt. We've had some guys who didn't make their projections, who failed to cross the finish line. So basically it's fair to criticize where we're currently sitting."

In fairness, it is probably harder to project success for a prospect in Major League Baseball than in any other sport. Somehow, a talent evaluator must be able to look at a teenager in action against other teenagers -- in some case, especially when it comes to Latin American prospects, as young as 14 or 15 -- and visualize how that teenager will one day perform against grown men in the big leagues.

Further complicating the process is the fact that to reach the major leagues, a prospect must successfully navigate a series of ever more difficult levels, from rookie ball through Triple-A. Some prospects never make it out of Class A ball. Others excel in the lower minor leagues, only to find that they have reached their limit in Triple-A. Still others are derailed because of injury.

The fact is, except in the rarest of cases, like a Bryce Harper or a Stephen Strasburg, it is nearly impossible to foresee what will happen between Draft Day and a player's big-league debut, if it ever happens. According to one talent evaluator, a study his club conducted showed the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for the No. 1 pick as four times more valuable compared to the 30th pick of the round. In the draft, the Yankees are victims of their own success.

"If there's a good player out there, the scouts are going to find him," Cashman said. "There are no secrets in this game. But there's always still a gap between what they are and what they can become."

And as always, filling in that gap is the most difficult task of all.

THE DRAFT

Three years ago, their minor league system was ranked among the top 10 in baseball, but this year ESPN.com's Keith Law placed the Yankees' farm system 20th out of 30 teams.

In Law's Top 100 prospects, he included just three Yankees: catcher Gary Sanchez (68), and outfielders Tyler Austin (85) and Mason Williams (87), though none of them have even excelled at Double-A Trenton yet.

All three are so far from the majors the Yankees spent nearly $300 million on free agents Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran this winter.

Over the better part of the past decade, the Yankees' first-round draft choices have not worked out well. While making their first pick either late in the round or not among the first 30 selections at all, excitement has been replaced by disappointment.

Pitcher Ty Hensley, 2012's first pick, needed a hip operation shortly after taking a pro mound. Third baseman Dante Bichette Jr. (51st overall in 2011) hasn't hit, while, in the words of one scout, 2010's choice, shortstop Cito Culver, "can't hit."

Outfielder Slade Heathcott, from the 2009 draft, has trouble staying healthy, but might make it if he stops going to the hospital. Heathcott, 23, has not played above Double-A yet.

"I think he can still be an above-average outfielder," an NL scout said. "We are not at the finish line yet."

With Gerrit Cole, the Yankees' No. 1 pick in 2008, the Bombers never even made it to the starting line. Cole dropped to the Yankees at 28, because no one thought they could sign him.

The Yankees believed otherwise, but were wrong.

After he attended UCLA, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Cole with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. He arrived in the majors in 2013, going 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA.

In 2007, the Yankees chose the 6-foot-10 Andrew Brackman with visions of Randy Johnson in their head. The Yankees made the pick, knowing Brackman needed Tommy John surgery.

They paid him $4.55 million and he pitched in three games for the Yankees, none of them meaningful.

In 2013, Brackman, now 28, pitched in Class A ball for the Chicago White Sox organization.

[+] EnlargeManny Banuelos
Mike Janes/AP PhotoManny Banuelos might very well help the Yankees in 2014. Then again, he might not.

"Good development usually starts with good scouting," said an executive from an AL team.

The Yankees did well in 2004 and 2006, spending first-round picks on Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes in those years.

Despite their success, expectations have made the three seem like disappointments even though one made the playoffs possible in 2007, another was an All-Star in 2010 and a third was fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2011. Each has gone backwards as a major leaguer, with Chamberlain and Hughes doing so under the Yankees' watch.

In the 17th round in 2006, they grabbed a skinny kid from Alabama, who is now Rivera's replacement in David Robertson.

With their 2005 first pick, they chose C.J. Henry. Henry spent four seasons in the Yankees' system before returning to college to play basketball, spending some time at Kansas before ending up at South Nazarene University. In 2013, Henry, now 27, played baseball for the Independent League Evansville Otters.

In '05, the Yankees made up for the Henry mistake when Gardner lasted to the third round and Austin Jackson was left in the eighth.

Unlike with Cole, the Yankees convinced Jackson to skip college -- he was going to play hoops at Georgia Tech -- to work his way up the minor league system, where he ultimately was traded in the Curtis Granderson deal.

In 2013, the Yankees' head of amateur scouting, Damon Oppenheimer, drafted three players in the first round. The industry all seem to like the potential of third baseman Eric Jagielo, outfielder Aaron Judge and lefty Ian Clarkin. Jagielo hit well (.266-6-27) in 51 games for the Class A Staten Island Yankees, but neither Judge (quad) nor Clarkin (ankle) has yet been able to play due to injuries.

"The bottom line is, we have high hopes for them just like we have for all our number ones," Cashman said. "Those selections were made very similar to all our picks. Have we made adjustments over time and continued to try to evolve and improve? Always. But the hopes and dreams on Jagielo, Judge and Clark are no different from the ones we had on the guys we've selected in the past. Unfortunately, we just haven't been able to back up, to see the benefits reaped by those guys in those dreams, whether because of injury or failure."

The 2013 Big Three are part of next wave of Yankees hopefuls, along with Sanchez -- whom the Yankees signed out of the Dominican for $3 million in 2009 -- and 2010 draft picks, Williams (fourth round) and Austin (13th). They will develop with the extra attention of being a Yankees prospect.

"The Yankees prospects have so much written about them," said an AL scout who has worked with the Yankees. "If a player is a Brewer, he doesn't get as much attention. The standard becomes so high. So guys like David Phelps, Adam Warren or an Ian Kennedy aren't looked as good. It is either you are the next Derek Jeter or a failure."

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'

[+] EnlargeAndrew Brackman
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThe Yankees once saw the next Randy Johnson in 6-foot-10 Andrew Brackman.

In December, at the news conference to announce the McCann signing, Hal Steinbrenner said, "We're teaching our scouts to look for different things, things that maybe they hadn't looked for before, things Cashman thinks are important."

Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations since 2000, believes the team already has the second most domestic scouts in baseball after the Toronto Blue Jays and likely the most international ones. Still, the Yankees have added more scouts this winter, plus former MLB manager Trey Hillman for player development.

"I'm not going to go into specifics because some of the stuff, I think, is proprietary," Newman said. "It involves a lot of different decision-making methods and models. One of the things is we increased staff. We are trying to do things to improve injury rates, the way we scout and sign players, the way we coach them."

Newman and Oppenheimer, since 2005 the Yankees' director of amateur scouting whose responsibilities include the draft, remain in their jobs.

"We did what we typically do on a yearly basis," Cashman said. "We go back and try to assess what we've done and what we can do better. We try to determine what is actionable and what is just unfortunate circumstances."

"Actionable" is a euphemism for misjudging a player's tools, incorrectly projecting a player's ceiling, or simply making the wrong pick.

That refers to players like Brackman, the No. 1 pick in 2007, whom the Yankees' evaluators thought comparable to David Price, the overall No. 1 pick that year.

It refers to Henry, the Yankees' No. 1 pick in 2005, who never progressed past Class A ball.

Someday, it might refer to Culver, the No. 1 pick in 2010. Culver is the one pick officials from other teams questioned at the time the Yankees made the selection. His weakness at the plate has kept him in Class A ball for the past three seasons.

"Unfortunate circumstances" means injuries.

That refers to players like Hensley, the No. 1 in 2012 who was discovered after five rookie league starts to need the same kind of hip surgery Alex Rodriguez had to have after 16 seasons.

It refers to David Adams, who was projected to be an alternative to Cano at second base someday only to suffer a serious ankle injury in 2010 that not only scuttled a potential trade to make Cliff Lee a Yankee, but seriously compromised the rest of his career. Adams was released by the Yankees this winter and is now with the Cleveland Indians.

"He never got back anywhere close to the player he was prior to that injury," Cashman said of Adams, "or close to the player he was projected to become."

And it could also refer to Cole.

"We picked him believing he was signable, although we knew it would be an expensive check to write," Cashman said. "But either our analysis or our assessment of the situation was wrong. He changed his mind. He was the right pick. We just couldn't sign him."

The way Cashman sees it, the Yankees' failure to improve themselves significantly through the draft over the past decade is a combination of many factors: bad luck, happenstance, and the inexactitude of a science that requires one to look at a high school or a college kid and see the major league ballplayer within.

"All these guys have a great deal of potential, but potential only means you haven't made it yet," Cashman said. "So for anybody to say someone in A ball is going to be this or going to be that, it's still a prediction. There's still a risk. They got to stay healthy and they've got to perform as they go through the levels. They're educated guesses, but they're still guesses."

Check back Wednesday for Part 2 of the series: How the Yankees are planning world domination in 2014.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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