A few weeks ago it was announced that Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez would be a part of the 2015 All-Star Weekend activities as both will take part in the MLB Futures Game on Sunday, July 12. Started in 1999, the Futures Game was devised as a showcase for young talent within professional baseball. Over the years it has evolved from an exhibition game for baseball's next rookie class, to a prospect All-Star Game to allow MLB's best young talent a chance to impress on the national stage. In celebration of this understated and often completely overlooked event, I'd like to take you on a journey through the years to explore the history of the game and how it relates to the Yankees organization. Today we look at the first four games that took place.
1999 Futures Game
The inaugural event took place at Fenway Park and hosted a treasure trove of future MLB regulars, some of whom ended up on the Yankees at some point in their careers. The game (a seven-inning contest until 2008) proved to be a one-sided affair as the World Team demolished the US Team 7-0, while collecting 11 hits against only three. That year the Yankees were represented by second baseman Alfonso Soriano on the Word Team and first baseman Nick Johnson on the US Team. While Johnson didn't contribute much, Soriano proved to be the difference-maker of the day, going 2-3 with two home runs (a three-run shot off Mark Mulder) and five RBI to take home the game's first MVP honors.
It was a great victory for a Yankees prospect who went on to make his MLB debut in September. Johnson, on the other hand, was in the middle of a season for the ages where he hit .345/.525/.548 with 14 home runs and 123 walks in almost 600 plate appearances at Double-A. He likely could have reached the majors in 2000, but as was always the case with Nick Johnson, he missed the entire season due to injury.
Future All-Stars among this crop included Lance Berkman, A.J. Burnett (2015, baby!) Francisco Cordero, Michael Cuddyer, Aramis Ramirez, Mark Mulder, Brad Penny, B.J. Ryan, Alfonso Soriano, and Vernon Wells. Some went on to become Yankees as A.J. Burnett signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the organization before the 2009 season (we all know how that turned out). Lance Berkman joined the Yankees for the 2010 playoff push, but ultimately had a forgettable career in pinstripes, while Vernon Wells was an unwanted member of the miserable 2013 squad. Other participants went on to sign minor league deals with the organization. Outfielder Dee Brown spent a few weeks of the 2005 season in Double-A Trenton, first baseman Erubiel Durazo played at Triple-A Columbus in 2006, Russell Branyan spent most of the 2012 season with Triple-A Scranton, and outfielder Corey Patterson latched on in Scranton during the 2013 season.
2000 Futures Game
The crop of Yankees prospects who appeared in the 2000 Futures Game ended up being nothing more than a footnote in the greater story of the New York Yankees. And by footnote, I mean piece of scrap paper that never made it into the actual book. This year they were represented by third baseman Drew Henson (there's a name out of the annals of history) and outfielder Jackson Melian. The game took place at Turner Field as the Braves hosted the All-Star Game that year and, despite only meant to go seven innings, actually went nine when the affair needed extra innings before USA beat World 3-2 after nine.
Henson, Baseball America's no. 24 prospect before the season, hit .287/.347/.439 with seven home runs over 245 plate appearances at Double-A Norwich that year, while Melian, BA's no. 72nd, hit .252/.299/.400 with nine homers in 316 plate appearances at the same level. That year they had attempted to trade for Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa and nearly ended up acquiring him for a hefty price:
The Yankees offered Ledee, Westbrook, outfielder Jackson Melian and a choice of Soriano or D'Angelo Jimenez for Sosa; the Cubs insisted on five players, including Melian, Westbrook, Ledee and two players from a group of three that included Soriano, Jimenez and Alex Graman, a Class A pitcher.
Instead of that deal, the Yankees opted to acquire David Justice in June and the rest was history. Justice cost them Zach Day, Ricky Ledee, and Jake Westbrook, as he hit .305/.391/.585 with 20 home runs over the half-season in the Bronx to help lead them to their third-straight World Series title. A few weeks later, the Yankees basically used the Futures Game as a showcase for their prospects. Henson and Melian were packaged together, along with right-hander Brian Reith and left-hander Ed Yarnall, just days later to the Reds for center fielder Mike Frank and left-hander Denny Neagle. Frank was out of baseball two years later, while Neagle was incredibly bad for the Yankees over the last few months of the season.
Out of that group of prospect, the Yankees only ended up missing Westbrook, and even then only because of a few solid seasons. Neither Henson's or Pena's Yankees career was over as Henson returned to the organization just months later and Melian eventually returned to the organization in 2004, but never reached the majors. He eventually started playing full-time in the Venezuelan Winter League where he hit a walk-off home run in the 2010 championship series for the eventual winner Leones del Caracas (cue it up to 2:00):
In 2000, the Futures Game included eventual All-Stars Danys Baez, Josh Beckett, Mark Buehrle, Marcus Giles, Josh Hamilton, Felipe Lopez, CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Vernon Wells, and Barry Zito. Among them, Wells and Sabathia would eventually play for the Yankees major league team. Carlos Silva would finish his American baseball career rattling around the Yankees system in 2011. Grant Roberts finished his professional career in 2005 with Double-A Trenton. Carlos Pena played a few months in Triple-A Columbus during the 2006 season, while Jack Cust and Corey Patterson (as mentioned above) played for Scranton in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
2001 Futures Game
This year's roster included two old friends that should be familiar to Yankees fans–Nick Johnson, back from injury (what else is new), and Juan Rivera!? This year, USA beat World 5-1 at Safeco Field in Seattle as Johnson singled in the second inning and went on to score the game's first run when a young Chase Utley brought him in. Future Yankee Wilson Betemit also hit a home run off Jerome Williams (Could this be the Futures Game at its lowest point?) to give the World team their lone run of the day.
After missing the entirety of the 2000 season, Nick Johnson was finally healthy enough to play in 2001. He made the jump to Triple-A Columbus, where he hit .256/.407/.462 with 18 home runs and 81 walks at the age of 22–over five years younger than the league average that year! Johnson would go on to make his major league debut in August backing up Tino Martinez. In 2001, Juan Rivera had his best season as a prospect when he hit .322/.360/.557 with 28 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A. He would finally make his debut with a brief cup of coffee at the end of the regular season before the Yankees went off to the World Series again.
Johnson and Rivera would remain with the organization through the 2003 season before they, and Randy Choate, were sent to Montreal for another old friend, Javier Vasquez. Despite his tremendous talent, Johnson often struggled to stay healthy while Rivera had some decent years out in LA. Unfortunately, Vasquez had a rough go of things in 2004, was eventually shipped out in the Randy Johnson trade that Winter, and ended up returning to the Bronx in 2010. Nick Johnson re-signed with the Yankees at the same time, but missed most of the season to injury and Juan Rivera signed a minor league deal with the team in 2013, nearly becoming the starting first baseman in place of an injured Mark Teixeira before he was instead released in favor of Lyle Overbay.
These two weren't the only former Yankees prospects involved in the game, though, as Wily Mo Pena also made an appearance. The slugger had hit a paltry .205/.268/.361 with 10 home runs in A-Ball during the 2000 season and was traded to the Reds in the offseason for outfielder Michael Coleman and third baseman Drew Henson, who the Yankees had traded to Cincinnati just months before. Despite a professional career in baseball, Henson, a college quarterback, wanted to enter the NFL Draft now that he was no longer with the Yankees. Still seeing his amazing potential, New York decided to reacquire him before he could choose football and the two teams agreed to the swap. Baseball is hard, though, and neither would end up amounting to much. Henson wasn't included in the 2001 game.
The 2001 Futures Game also included shortstop Angel Berroa, who went on to somehow beat Hideki Matsui for the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year Award. Many consider Berroa to be the worst player to ever win the award. By 2009, his MLB career was almost over and he hooked on with the Yankees through July, hitting a useless .136/.174/.182 in 21 games. His World teammate Wilson Betemit would ultimately find his way onto the Yankees in 2007 and was a key piece in the deal that brought the Yankees Nick Swisher (so thank you). Another player in the game who made their way to the Yankees was Cody Ransom, who played for the 2008 and 2009 squads and made history as the first starting third baseman of the new stadium, replacing Alex Rodriguez after hip surgery forced him to miss the start of the season.
The 2001 game included future All-Stars Grant Balfour, Hank Blalock, Miguel Cabrera, Adam Dunn, Adrian Gonzalez, Felipe Lopez, Ryan Ludwick, Carlos Pena, Chase Utley, and Jose Valverde. Future minor league additions included Carlos Pena in his second year at the game, outfielder Jamal Strong, who played for Trenton and Scranton in 2007, and catcher Mike Rivera, who participated in spring training 2010 before leaving the team before the start of the season.
2002 Futures Game
The 2002 game proved to be an odd entity, especially for the Yankees. A full season removed from the Wily Mo Pena trade to bring him back to the organization, Drew Henson was the only representative the organization sent that year. Wily Mo Pena also made his second appearance in a row for the Reds. After two years of getting beat out by Team USA, World finally got themselves a 5-1 win when the game was played at Miller Park. All the runs were scored in the third inning and World only allowed their opponents to collect three hits over seven innings.
With football seemingly behind him, the 22-year-old Henson hit .240/.301/.435 with 18 home runs, which wasn't the makings of the star they hoped he would be, but was seemingly good enough to finally get the call. Named the no. 9 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America that year, Henson made his debut in September and ended up playing a total of eight games in the big leagues between Septembers in 2002 and 2003 and a disappointing .234/.291/.412 with 14 home runs at Triple-A in the middle. At the end of the season, he decided to retire from baseball and pursue football. He was taken in the sixth round of the 2003 NFL Draft and bounced around between a few teams before finally retiring from professional sports in 2009. Henson now works in the Yankees organization as a scout. Wily Mo Pena also showed up again, making his MLB debut that September with the Reds. He spent eight years in the majors and found some success, though it wasn't lasting. He went on to hit 69 home runs between 2004 to 2007 before heading off to Japan in 2012, where he still plays today.
That year included an incredibly large sample of future All-Stars, including John Buck, Marlon Byrd, Miguel Cabrera, Aaron Cook, Carl Crawford, Corey Hart, Orlando Hudson, Omar Infante, Francisco Liriano, Jose Lopez, Victor Martinez, Justin Morneau, Brandon Phillips, Jose Reyes, Francisco Rodriguez, Adam Wainwright! Future Yankee Angel Berroa played again that day, as did reliever Billy Traber in 2008, catcher (and now Rays manager) Kevin Cash in 2009, and Lyle Overbay in 2013. Infielder Bill Hall would play with the Yankees during spring training 2012 before ultimately being released before the season, and Chad Tracy ended up playing in the organization for only a few weeks in July of 2010.
It's fun to hear that Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are going to be in the Futures Games, but good things don't always come out of it. As we see from Drew Henson, Jackson Melian, and Juan Rivera, prospects don't always work out how we want them to do. When they do, something they still have issues like Nick Johnson, but every once in awhile, you'll find someone who sticks around for a long time like Alfonso Soriano. Next we'll look at 2003-2007 to see a new generation of Yankees prospects on the Futures Game scene.