The Yankees Prospect Dilemma: Part 1

The Yankees are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to prospects.

We generally see a team half-filled with All-Stars. Jeter, Arod and Mo are future first-ballot Hall of Famers (discounting any voting effects of PED usage). Pettitte, Posada, Tex and Sabathia (maybe Cano?) all have chances of making it.

The worst everyday hitter on the team is Curtis Granderson, sporting a 99 OPS+. That is a hair below average (though he's an above average player when taking into account defense and baserunning). Every other hitter is over 100. They have the top lineup in baseball (115 OPS+) and lead the league in scoring.

The pitchers have the fourth best ERA in the league (seventh best ERA+), and allow only 4.09 runs/game (a hair off the fourth place Twins at 4.08).

In other words, the Yankees employ good players. It's tough to crack the team. And that creates a problem for up-and-comers in the system. A prospect has to almost be among the top 10 in MLB to have a chance. Let's look at the last five everyday players to come up from the farm (via the draft or IFA signing):

In chronological order -

Alfonso Soriano, Nick Johnson, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner

Two All-Stars, an OBP machine, and two average all-around players. That's a pretty high bar - and don't discount average players, especially ones that are under team control.

The pitchers:

Chien-Ming Wang, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke and Dave Robertson

Again, a Cy Young runner-up, an All-Star and three solid set-up men. Are you noticing a pattern here? Not just anybody breaks onto the Yankees - you really need to excel to get a look, then remain an everyday player, or on a few occasions, play a position of need when the current Yankee isn't cutting it (e.g. Cano/Womack in '05, Joba/whoever in '07).

Those prospects that aren't excelling or are playing positions of strength have a tough time getting promoted to the Bronx.

The question is: when should prospects be traded and when should they be kept? Once they get to their mid-20s, the luster fades and their trade value drops. Is it worth it to keep a prospect wallowing in the minors for 'depth,' trade him for an area of need, or force him onto the ML roster?

Let's look back at some past prospects/youngsters who were traded away -

Dioner Navarro, C

Traded to Arizona in a package for Randy Johnson before the 2005 season, Navarro was the Yankees' top catching prospect. His age 19, 2003 season was his best: .321/.376/.469 in 110 games between High-A and Double-A, while throwing out 33% of potential base-stealers. 2004 was a down year for him (.263/.341/.366 in AA and AAA), but he was still highly thought of, at least enough to help land The Big Unit. In hindsight, the Yankees made the correct call, as Jorge Posada has remained a productive player into his late 30's and have a system loaded with catching talent while Navarro's had just one good ML season: 2008, when he hit .295/.349/.407 and gunned down 38% of base-stealers. Other than that, he's been a disappointment and is currently in Triple-A; however, the guy is only 26, so a productive career is still not out of the question.

Verdict: didn't hurt.

Jose Tabata, OF

Traded to Pittsburgh in a package for Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady in mid-2008, Tabata was promoted to the Bigs about two months ago and has showed the kind of solid contact ability (.303/.353/.394) that made him a top Yankee prospect not long ago. He'd been having off-the-field issues before he was traded: he didn't always hustle and apparently considered retiring at 19. He was traded at his lowest value (hitting .248/.320/.310 at the time), then went on a tear in the Pirates system. 

This is a really tough call. It's possible Tabata would have never fulfilled his potential with the Yankees and needed a 'change of scenery.' On the other hand, I was never a big supporter of the trade simply for the fact that he was sold low and the return really wasn't that good (even before the injuries to Marte and Nady).

Verdict: jury's still out.

Eric Duncan, 3B/1B

Remember him? Eric Duncan was once the jewel of the system, supposedly the future first-baseman, yet he never OPS'd higher than .836 and declined every season from his first year on. The Yankees held onto him way too long and finally released him last year. From there he signed with Atlanta (he's now playing for their Double-A team).

This scenario is basically the worst of both worlds: he was never traded and turned into a dud. That's what we don't want to happen with guys like Eduardo Nunez, Corban Joseph, Brandon Laird, etc., prospects who aren't superstars in the making but could fetch a decent return via trade. Admittedly, it's tough; how do you know who are the Jeters, Canos and Pettittes and who are the Eric Duncans? Sometimes it's just luck: the Yankees nearly traded Mo Rivera and Jorge Posada to the Reds in the early 90's and Cano was nearly traded in place of Navarro for Randy Johnson.

Verdict: should have been traded.

Ian Kennedy, RHP

Traded to Arizona in the Curtis Granderson deal, Kennedy was never that highly thought of due to his low-risk, low-reward nature (he's having a decent season in Arizona). And as we saw above, a guy like that doesn't really have a place on a team like the New York Yankees, except maybe in the bullpen. He's worth more to, frankly, a middling team like the D'Backs than a $200M team. Kennedy never would've had a place in the Yankees' rotation (I thought he would've been a damn good reliever), but Brian Cashman thought it better to get a (thought to be) star centerfielder. It's still too early to judge this one, but if Grandy can even approach his '07-'08 seasons, it'll leave the Yankees with no regrets. 

Verdict: jury's still out.

Austin Jackson, CF

Traded to Detroit for Curtis Granderson, this one might end up hurting the most: Jackson is a front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year, batting .301/.351/.400 with 16 steals. He went from appearing like a five-tool prospect into more of a batting average and speed kind of player (not that there's anything wrong with that) without much power or discipline: 1 HR and 122 K. That said, he's still been more productive than Granderson this season and is 23 making the league minimum - in other words, he's much more valuable. Only time will tell if giving up A-Jax was a mistake, but the early returns aren't good.

Verdict: jury's still out.

Melky Cabrera, OF

Traded to Atlanta in the Javy Vazquez deal, Melky was an enigma during his four years with the Yankees. He looked so promising in 2006 when he hit for average and showed discipline (.280/.360/.391, 56 K, 59 BB) at age 21. Unfortunately, the league seemed to catch up to him: he OPS'd .718 and .641 the following two seasons. His best season was 2009, when he posted a 99 OPS+, and that's when the Yankees traded him. They apparently didn't think he could maintain or progress from that point, so they swapped him at what they thought was his highest value. It looks like the right move, as Melky's had a disappointing first year with the Braves (90 OPS+).

Verdict: probably won't end up hurting.

Overall, we see that Brian Cashman has made largely solid decisions, especially considering the win-now philosophy of the Steinbrenner Yankees. None of the prospects the Yankees traded away in recent years have turned into superstars (yet).

 

- Part 2 coming soon - the prospects that were held onto and those that are going to be tough decisions in the coming years.

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