With the multitude of injuries the Yankees have had to deal with this year, a number of spots have been vacated that a minor league prospect could have stepped into in a perfect world. Thanks to the lopsidedness of the farm system, though, over-the-hill veterans who are lauded for their clubhouse presence and grit instead of kids ready to step up and make their major league debuts have filled those spots. The Yankees have generally seemed a little shy about throwing their prospects into the fire, perhaps for good reason, considering the win-now business model they have followed for so long, but that really isn’t the case in 2012. Just taking a look at the roster the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees are fielding tells you all you need to know: the major league-ready prospects just aren’t there.
Clamoring to trade more prospects at the approaching deadline would only stand to weaken an already unbalanced farm system that currently has little hope for a position player making the majors as an every day player at any level higher than High-A Tampa. It may not be detrimental to the team immediately, but at some point it becomes a vicious cycle that they are already experiencing a bit of right now. Bargaining the future to patch up the present won’t help weather the storm for long.
The bat of Jesus Montero headlined the upper levels of the farm system for years before he was shipped off to Seattle for Michael Pineda this Winter. Unfortunately for depth purposes, that trade and a lull in talent left a good number of utility players and 30-somethings on minor league deals in AAA to take the call in case of an emergency in the Bronx. Pineda was always intended to be a huge contributor in 2012 and particularly beyond before a torn labrum ended his season before it began, but the trade represented the end of a chance to see a position player make it out of the farm and into the majors for good on this team anytime particularly soon.
The injuries to top prospects Manny Banuelos and Austin Romine didn’t help their case for getting a shot to make it with the big club, but it’s hard to say either of them would be ready regardless of health. Banuelos had struggled almost since arriving at the AAA level and Romine’s bat desperately needed to prove its viability against the better pitchers in the minor leagues. Ineffectiveness, not injury, kept Dellin Betances from having a chance to move up. It kept him from even being able to remain stationary, as he was sent down a level to work out the season-long funk he’s been in that seems to reduce any value he has and raise more questions about his future as a major league pitcher by the day.
Finding real hope in the system requires looking all the way to High-A Tampa where Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, and Gary Sanchez recently joined Ramon Flores and Slade Heathcott on a team that seems to be hoarding most of the promising prospects the Yankees have since their promotion, especially in the way of promising outfielders. That’s great to have for the future, but not so great when the team has needed the likes of Raul Ibanez, Dewayne Wise, and Jayson Nix to become more regular players than their talent levels suggest they can be at this stage. With Brett Gardner missing nearly the entire first half of the season, it would have been a perfect time to see what a prospect could do in his absence. The sad part is that only retreads and scrappy veterans existed to seize that opportunity.
Lopsidedness in a farm system is certainly not the end of the world, especially for a team like the Yankees that has plenty of positions blocked for years to come. If the team had the good fortune of staying healthy, the issue most likely wouldn’t have even been a mark on the radar of concern, but that’s not what happened, and there is reason to feel at least a little uneasy about it. It’s never easy to lose a talent like Jesus Montero, especially when the player has been practically beating down the door of the majors for months, but it is especially difficult to look back and see so few prospects ready to make up for the loss of trading that caliber of player.
It’s hard to argue against the success that the Yankees have had with their veteran fill-ins, because they certainly haven’t prevented them from getting out to a nice lead in the division to this point. The question is whether that success from those players is sustainable as the days get hotter and the games seem to hold more value in moving toward eliminating competition from the race to the postseason. Raul Ibanez’s production has already trailed off, whether thanks to being forced into the role as an almost every day left fielder or simply being 40 years old. Brett Gardner’s return seems like it will be sooner than later, but setbacks have happened enough times with this injury to be cautious about setting that in stone. Few of the backup plans available would make fans rest easy.
Sometimes it may be easy to put system troubles out of sight, out of mind because the main concern is the success for the major league club, but the gap between the Bronx and Tampa is already wide enough, and the lack of homegrown options would only become worse if a big name pitcher is acquired in the next couple weeks. Wanting a manageable payroll can be greatly assisted by having cost-controlled players under team control for years to come, and that comes from complimenting free agent signings with major league-ready prospects that come up from the farm.
With Nick Swisher’s impending free agency and the uncertainty of Brett Gardner’s return, having a prospect ready to go in the minors would potentially keep Brian Cashman from trading off more top prospects for an outfielder that can help them win today. Because that doesn’t exist, the risk of digging an even bigger hole for the future by trading away the top talent in the system remains a large concern. Trading away Manny Banuelos, Gary Sanchez, or Mason Williams would just stand to push back the date the Yankees can reasonably assume to see their top talent break into major league baseball with their club, making the farm system a little less enjoyable for lack of tangible production.