As we wait for the right-field situation to resolve itself, I frequently find myself frustrated that there is no Babe DiMaggio ready to take over the position from Nick Swisher -- or ready to take over any other position, for that matter. Now, I know that Babe DiMaggio types are hard to come by, but surely there could have been even a decent placeholder in the system, particularly given that the Yankees have known for some time that this was the winter they were going to go in for European-style austerity.
Alas, that did not happen, and you know the reason why: the farm system just isn't very good at producing position players. It's not necessary to go over the team's miserable record of drafting and development during the Steinbrenner ownership, a practice exacerbated by years of self-destructive free-agent signings that kneecapped the team's draft position year after year. The team has, of course, also paid the price for having successful finishes year after year - you're not going to get Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in the draft by finishing first, and even an underrated player like Mike Trout might not fall to you. Still, the lack of any real position-player products from the draft is telling.
The Yankees have had two scouting directors going back to 1996 - Lin Garrett, and since 2005, Damon Oppenheimer. Garrett was a five-star disaster film. Oppenheimer was initially more successful. His first draft punted the team's first two picks on C.J. Henry (who Brian Cashman salvaged by turning him into Bobby Abreu, even if the Phillies would have taken anybody - or any body - for Abreu at that moment) and the tempestuous J.B. Cox, but in later he tabbed Brett Gardner, Austin Jackson, and Doug Fister, the last of whom did not sign. In year two, Oppenheimer did a simply amazing job, pulling Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Zach McAllister, Colin Curtis, George Kontos, Dellin Betances, Mark Melancon, Daniel McCutchen, David Robertson, and Kevin Russo. Perhaps none of those players are future Hall of Famers, or even much more than fringe major leaguers, but in a sport in which just making it to the major leagues is an accomplishment, this was a heck of a draft.
Then, though, Oppenheimer or whoever was pulling his strings (for all we know Randy Levine is making draft picks) started taking odd fliers in the draft. If a player was 18 in 2007, he would be 23 now, or old enough to be either in the majors or knocking on the door. The Yankees don't have those guys due to misses in the 2007 through 2009 drafts; it is those missed picks who are putting the Yankees in the position of having to go with marked-down old-timers as they try to reconfigure their payroll heading into 2014.
With the 30th pick of the first round of the 2007 draft, the Yankees called the name of Andrew Brackman, a sore-armed basketball player from North Carolina State University who had thrown all of 149 innings in three years of college due to hoops commitments and injuries. Knowing Brackman needed Tommy John surgery, the Yankees handed him $6 million, or $400,000 more than the Rays gave first-overall pick David Price and $2 million more than the Royals gave second-overall pick Mike Moustakas, then hunkered down to wait two years before actually seeing the kid pitch. The results were predictably disappointing.
Now, normally it is second-guessing to say, "Look at all the great guys who were selected after the Astros took Bobby Delsinatra in the first round!" because hindsight gives us perfect knowledge. However, it is perfectly fair to do so in the case of Brackman because his selection was viewed as a head-scratcher even in 2007, and the sheer number of useful players to go in the supplemental phase and the first half of the second round - Todd Frazier, Julio Borbon, Brett Cecil, Sean Doolittle, Josh Donaldson, Tommy Hunter, Jordan Zimmerman, Barry Enright, Giancarlo Stanton, Fredddie Freeman, and Zack Cozart among them - shows that if the Yankees had thrown a dart at the consensus second-round talents still on the board they had about a 50-50 chance at coming up with someone more useful than Brackman - and by more useful, I mean "able to make the majors and stay there for more than three seconds."
The rest of the Yankees' draft that year brought Austin Romine, Brandon Laird, and some future major-league talents who did not sign, including Drew Storen and Eric Thames. In short, scratch one draft class. Baseball America graded this draft a "C", primarily, one suspects, because the Yankees picked correctly on Storen even if they didn't sign him.
The 2008 draft was more successful on paper if not in execution. The Yankees made Gerrit Cole their first pick and seemed set to sign him when Cole did an about-face and headed off to college. Three years later, the Pirates made him the first-overall pick in the draft and he is one of the top prospects in baseball. Chalk that one up to "Could have happened to anybody." Second-rounder Jeremy Bleich was a lefty whose appeal was based on his approach rather than his stuff. He had elbow problems in college and missed all of 2011 after 2010 labrum surgery. He pitched 32.2 innings in the lower reaches of the Yankees system in 2012, and his future is anyone's guess. The Yankees chose not to sign third-rounder Scott Bittle. The third- and fourth-round picks, David Adams and Corban Joseph, both have some extra pop for second basemen, but the former can't stay healthy and the latter is blocked by Robinson Cano. Baseball America now rates sixth-rounder Brett Marshall as the sixth-best prospect in the organization, though they peg his ceiling as that of a No. 4 starter.
Tenth-rounder D.J. Mitchell was dealt to the Mariners for Ichiro Suzuki, while 14th-round pick David Phelps remains with the organization and could be the fourth or fifth starter this year. Seventeenth-round pick Addison Maruszak had an interesting season for Double-A Trenton this year (.276/.330/.457 with 16 home runs in a tough park for hitters), but he's 25 and has no position. Pat Venditte, selected in the 20th round, saw his unlikely rise halted this summer by a torn labrum, and that is probably that for him -- when you had no stuff before your shoulder went blooey, you don't get to figure out how to survive with less than no stuff.
Nick Turley was selected in the 50th round of the draft, a time when teams are just calling out names that sort-of sound good, and has defied the odds to establish himself as a prospect. Time will tell. If he doesn't come, that leaves David Phelps. Phelps had a good year and has a future, but when all you get out of one draft class is a 25-year-old rookie fifth starter, that can't be counted as a good return. Baseball America graded this draft a "D."
The Yankees had no first-round pick in 2009 due to signing Mark Teixeira away from the Angels. The Angels used that pick to sign Mike Trout. Despite whatever happened subsequently, Teixeira was the right move for the Yankees. Still: ouch. This brings to mind the events of June, 1983, when the Angels used the third-round pick they received from the Yankees for losing Don Baylor (the Yankees' had already given their picks in the first two rounds to other teams) and selected Wally Joyner -- except, you know, worse.
Slade Heathcott became the team's top pick when they used the 29th-overall pick, payback for not signing Gerrit Cole the year before, to select him. Heathcott is clearly a talented player, but with two surgeries on his left shoulder, he hasn't moved quickly. At 22 he still has time, but if he stays healthy in 2013 it will be the first time. He looked great at High-A Tampa, but between High-A and the majors, many players have lost their way.
Other picks from 2009 that have shown promise at times include third-round pick Adam Warren, catcher-third baseman J.R. Murphy and right-handed starter Graham Stoneburner, both of whom were miserable in 2012. Stoneburner's problem, as it always has been, was injuries, and he might be restricted to the bullpen from now on. He's Rule 5-eligible this year and is not on the 40-man roster, so he could be gone as soon as the last day of the winter meetings. Baseball America graded this draft a "C," but if Heathcott is a star or Warren becomes a big-league pitcher, that grade will have to be revised. Still, right now the odds are against the Yankees here. Note that roughly ten players selected in the supplemental phase and second round of the 2009 draft following Heathcott have already reached the majors, while Reds stolen-base machine Billy Hamilton numbers among those still working their way up.
I'm not going to jump ahead to the 2010-2012 drafts, because it's too soon to know how those will shake out. Certainly 2010 is looking good despite another strange first-round pick in Cito Culver (taken while Nick Castellanos, regarded as one of the best bats in the draft, was still on the board); Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, and relievers like Tommy Kahnle and Chase Whitley have a chance to make that draft look really good. Time will tell. In the meantime, the Yankees will just have to make do with stopgaps, replacements for unknown players now on other teams.