Remember the Killer B’s? Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman were, once upon a time, supposed to be the core of a newly dominant Yankee rotation. They were all ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects in 2011, before their magnanimous fall. The only one of the three that became a regular member of the 25-man roster was Betances, who’s been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball over his career, but that’s a far cry from the franchise-defining rotation strength the Killer B’s were supposed to be.
Before that trio was another trifecta of top pitching prospects that was supposed to form a class-of-the-league rotation. Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy were all first-round picks of the Yankees, developed in-house, who graduated to the majors in late 2007. All three had reasonably successful MLB tenures, and Kennedy still is pitching for the Kansas City Royals, but like the Killer B’s, they just couldn’t put it together all at once for the Yankees.
After the Yankees overhauled their organization’s belief in prospects, they seemed to focus primarily on the position player side. Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery both became full-time starters for the team, but even their considerable contributions have paled beside the production and profile of the best position players developed by the Yankees.
Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Miguel Andujar have been in the Yankee organization their entire professional careers, Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres were highly-touted prospects polished off in the Yankee system, and even players like Didi Gregorius, Luke Voit and Aaron Hicks were not really Yankee prospects, but became the stars they are today with the help of the team’s developmental outlook.
This is very much in line with what a lot of teams have been doing. “Build your bats, buy your arms” has become something of a mantra in player development. The last three World Series winners followed this to varying levels, which certainly helps explain why it’s become such an organizational template. The Chicago Cubs added names like Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Aroldis Chapman to a team that had already developed Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber. The Houston Astros acquired Justin Verlander, Colin McHugh and Gerrit Cole to compliment their outstanding, homegrown position players, and the Red Sox nabbed Chris Sale and David Price to team up with internal batters like Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr.
The genesis of this approach is the transfer of risk - a pitching prospect will carry more risk than a positional player at the same future value, and so teams will allow another team to absorb that pitching risk while developing their own batters. Then, three years later when those batters are producing at the major league level, it’s easier to go out and get pitchers who have shown themselves to be less risky than a generic pitching prospect.
So after graduating their impressive crop of batters, the Yankees have shifted focus to the pitching mound.
If we assume that a 45 FV prospect is the lower band of real prospect value, then by FanGraphs’ rankings the Yankees have outpaced the league each of the last two seasons in terms of pitching prospects. New York’s made it a focal point to develop their arms at a time when baseball writ large is doing that less.
The thing about the Yankee system in particular is that it doesn’t have many high-ceiling prospects, with Estevan Florial the highest ranked FV at 50. Deivi Garcia has certainly made a name for himself in 2019, and should appear on most midseason top 100 lists. Other than that, the system is chock full of lively arms without a lot of major league upside, but that can change in a hurry.
In a lot of ways, the new focus on pitching plays well into the current Yankee roster. CC Sabathia is gone after this season, Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton become free agents after next year, and J.A. Happ’s last guaranteed season is 2020 as well. Only Severino and Montgomery are locks beyond 2020, which is going to open up a lot of pitching slots for the big league club.
We know from Inside the Empire that Brian Cashman’s biggest ambition is to create a revolving door of players, to develop an organization so talented at producing MLB talent that every player is expendable. He seems to be well on the way to doing that with his plethora of live arms in the minors, but the shadow of the Killer B’s looms over everything the Yankees are doing. We’ll have to see if there really is any such thing as a pitching prospect.