They say contention comes in cycles. A competitive team ages, so the organization takes a step back, rebuilds its farm system. The system grows strong, then eventually graduates talent to the big league club. The major league team progresses back to contention, while the farm withers away again, waiting for the cycle to being anew in a matter of years.
The Yankees’ contention cycles don’t work like most. Their down years are less down, their fallow periods short, and their windows of contention typically wider. Even so, the Yankees did see something resembling the usual cycle of contention when the core of the 2009 championship team aged, the team retooled its farm system in the middle of the decade, and emerged in 2017 fully equipped to compete for the long run.
Unsurprisingly, the team’s farm system fell back over the past year or two, from its peak when it was brimming with prospects like Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, Miguel Andujar, and the rest. That’s natural; an elite team like the Yankees should be converting its prospects into current production by means of trades and graduations. Before last season, I profiled the team’s farm system, and looked at how it had taken a step back from years prior.
I also noted that the nature of the team’s farm, with its notable depth and plethora of high-variance prospects, was exactly the kind of farm that could immediately bounce back. There’s no surefire way to gauge a system’s exact quality, but a quick perusal of the top public rankings of the game’s farm systems suggest that the Yankees’ farm has indeed swiftly reversed its downward trajectory.
Last month, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and The Athletic’s Keith Law released their organizational farm system rankings. BP’s and Law’s rankings are behind paywalls, but I do encourage you to read through their work if you can. Each site has the Yankees ranked higher than they did in 2019.
BP nudged the Yankees up from 12th last year to ninth this year. Law ranked the Yankees 19th in 2019 and moved them all the way up to sixth in 2020. FanGraphs, which uses a model to mathematically rank farm systems based on total estimated “future value”, had the Yankees all the way down at 21st a year ago, but up at seventh now.
It’s not hard to see why. Again referencing something I wrote last year, in 2019 the Yankees didn’t have a clear top pitching prospect, but instead had any number of exciting young arms that could pop into something special. Luis Gil, Deivi Garcia, Luis Medina, Albert Abreu, and many, many more all seemed like they had at least a chance to become a blue-chip pitching prospect.
Of course, we know now that 2019 was Garcia’s time to rise, and that the diminutive righty is now considered among the best pitching prospects in the world. That gives the Yankees a top prospect they didn’t have last year. The team also signed international prospect Jasson Dominguez last summer, giving it a pair of young talents that would be the envy of any system.
Those two go a long way toward explaining the farm’s rise back up the rankings, but they don’t explain all of it. The team’s continued excellence with helping lottery ticket arms develop at the lower levels of the minors has also kept the farm going. It’s this proclivity for generating hard-throwing arms seemingly out of thin air that could give fans hope that the farm will keeping chugging along even as the MLB team keeps winning.
Take a glance at FanGraphs’ list of top Yankees prospects. Prospect writer Eric Longenhagen felt it proper to profile 54 Yankees farmhands. The farm has inconsistent but interesting power arms falling out at the seams. Hard-throwers like Yoendrys Gomez, Alex Vizcaino, and Roansy Contreras, prospects that would edge into the top ten of a lesser system, struggle to break into the top 20 of the team’s prospects.
In a way, the Yankees essentially appear as though they’re one uber prospect away from having one of the best farm systems in the game. Note that the Yankees have almost exactly as many prospects ranked by FanGraphs as the Rays and Padres, regarded by many as the best farm systems in baseball. The gap between the Rays, Padres and the trail pack, made up of teams like the Marlins, Tigers, Dodgers and Yankees, is almost entirely explained by a pair of best prospects in baseball.
The Rays have Wander Franco, the best position player prospect on the planet. The Padres have Mackenzie Gore, perhaps the best pitching prospect. In a sense, what separates the Yankees’ farm from the elite is that Dominguez is no Franco, and Garcia no Gore. The Yankees have depth and premium talent, but not quite the premium talent.
Even so, having a farm system that clearly ranks among the league’s better ones is more than enough for a team like the Yankees. They don’t absolutely need their top prospects to become superstars, because they already have stars. They do need their farm to provide ample ammo for trades and to fill in holes that pop up on the roster. This quickly rejuvenated farm looks up to those particular tasks. If the Yankees can keep their farm humming at around this level, they’ll be able to ensure their cycles of contention continue to last longer than those around the league.