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Will the Yankees be able to keep finding diamonds in the rough?

Brain drain and reputation present two significant threats to the organization’s sustainable competitiveness.

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman values clubhouse chemistry over analytics. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sig Mejdal. Ryan Hallahan. Mike Elisas. Mike Fast. Do you recognize any of those names? If you don’t, that’s okay. They are all past or present baseball executives, specializing in advanced analytics, and that kind of occupation hasn’t historically lent itself to much fame or glory. The only reason we know these four guys at all is because of the organizational brain trust they helped build: the Houston Astros.

All four worked under Jeff Luhnow, building one of the best and most-favorably-projected rosters in baseball. They led the franchise to one World Series already, have a second ALCS appearance under their belt, and are projected to be among the very best teams in MLB again this year. They did it with top flight prospects like Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, but they also did it with “surprise” acquisitions, the Justin Verlanders and Charlie Mortons of the world.

It’s the pitching side that I really want to hone in on for a moment. Plenty of people thought Verlander was on his way out back in 2017. The Astros had the best record in baseball at the time Verlander was placed on waivers, and 29 other teams passed on making a claim before they did. The Astros were able to engineer a trade, and we know how that turned out.

Charlie Morton is a similar story, but baseball was even MORE skeptical of his ability. Houston signed him for $14 million across two years, and all he did as an Astro was post back-to-back three-win seasons for the first time in his career, strike out almost 11 men per nine, and stand as one of the biggest bargains in baseball over that span.

Gerrit Cole fits this paradigm too, as a former top prospect who never seemed to realize his potential in Pittsburgh, itself an organization that was heralded for unlocking secrets of otherwise underwhelming pitchers. The Astros have that reputation now. If Houston is calling a GM about his uninspired fourth starter, you can bet it’s because Houston sees some potential in that arm and thinks it can unlock it. So far, they’ve been right.

Now let’s talk about the Yankees. In some ways, they’ve been the mirror image of the Astros, turning near-anonymous position players into studs. Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Luke Voit, you all know about them. I’m not here to rehash their success or re-iterate the victories struck by advanced analytics, without which all three players could be languishing in the minors.

The point I am making, though, relates to the four names in the intro. None of them work for the Astros anymore. They weren’t even fired – they either let their contracts expire or were hired to higher positions with other teams. Organizations have very little control over talented people if those talented people want to go somewhere else. Another good example is Farhan Zaidi, regarded as perhaps the smartest exec in the game, leaving the Dodgers with all their resources and talent pool, to take over the Giants.

Baseball in the 21st century is as much a competition of the minds as it is bodies. Every team drowns in data, every pitch and sprint and batted ball is tracked and logged. It used to be teams built an advantage on valuing information that others didn’t have. Now everyone has the information, so the advantages are now found in new and valuable interpretation of it.

This is where the Astros incurred risk when they lost their four organizational All-Stars. Someone else is now benefiting from that interpretation, and the edge Houston enjoyed over at least one other MLB team shrinks. It’s the risk the Dodgers have had to absorb with Zaidi leaving – he can’t bring databases or biometric information, but he CAN take his own philosophies and beliefs about that data to San Francisco.

Nothing stays secret for long in baseball, and nobody stays in one place very long. Brian Cashman may very well have a job for life with the Yankees, but the people with titles like “Director – Advanced Player Development” are looking to sit in a GM chair one day, and will have to do it for another club. That brain drain, threatening the Astros and Dodgers right now, is looming for the Yankees too. It’s not as obvious a problem as an injured starter or an impending free agent, but it presents the same long-term threat to annual competitiveness.

Last point: remember what I said about the Astros calling to inquire about a team’s disappointing starter sending a yellow flag to that organization that they’re on the cusp of something special? I have to wonder if there’s a similar vibe with the Yankees now. If Brian Cashman calls the Rangers to talk about that Quad-A outfielder who looks promising but can’t quite work it out at the major leagues, Jon Daniels’ ears should perk up, and he should figure out what it is he’s missing that the Yankees aren’t.

That kind of copycat behavior is super common in sports, and means teams need to look for more and more edges, while combating the constant turnover in their front office. Dealing with both at the same time isn’t as entertaining as watching the team on the field, but for the Yankees, it’s probably as important to the franchise’s success going forward.