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The Yankees’ hidden draft strategy

You might think the Yankees need to rethink their draft strategy, but what if I told you it was working just according to plan?

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The MLB Draft is a notoriously fickle endeavor. It can be a tossup whether your first round selection will outperform your picks from the second, third, fourth, or even later rounds. Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, and Jacob deGrom were all taken in the fourth round or later. Meanwhile, first overall pick Mark Appel watched the AstrosWorld Series win* from his couch and second overall pick Danny Hultzen has thrown a grand total of 3.1 innings in the majors.

At the beginning of the week, I criticized the Yankees for, at first glance, drafting poorly in the first round over the last decade. However, upon closer inspection it appears the Yankees derive more value than most teams from their recent draft selections, just not in the manner you might think. Rather than developing their picks in-house, the Yankees get the biggest contribution from their draftees through an indirect avenue: via trade.

Of all the first round selections the Yankees have made since Gerrit Cole turned them down in 2008, only two have suited up at the big league level. One, Aaron Judge, is the face of the franchise while the other, Slade Heathcott, makes his living as a commercial pilot. That being said, other picks have netted the Bombers Cy Young candidate pitchers, budding superstars, and bullpen anchors. In fact, the Yankees have been so successful flipping their draft selections for major league talent, you wonder if that was the strategy all along. Let’s take a look at some of the more notable swaps involving Yankees draft picks.

The transaction that immediately jumps off the page for me is the Yankees’ acquisition of Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle from the White Sox in 2017. The Yankees traded two of their former first round picks, Blake Rutherford and Ian Clarkin, alongside Tyler Clippard in order to beef up a Baby Bomber roster set for a premature postseason run. While ultimately falling short of their goal, the deal is still paying dividends for the Yankees with Kahnle an integral member of their daunting bullpen.

The other trade that paid massive returns for the Yankees centered around former first rounder Eric Jagielo, who was sent to the Reds in exchange for Aroldis Chapman. Chapman eventually netted the Yankees Gleyber Torres before returning in free agency, so the Yankees essentially added a top-three closer in the game plus a future perennial All-Star shortstop all for a single first round pick who has yet to log a major league at-bat.

The Yankees acquired two of the mainstays of their roster over the last half decade in exchange for draftees. Didi Gregorius was secured in exchange for Shane Greene while John Ryan Murphy landed the Yankees Aaron Hicks. Neither drafted player made a meaningful contribution during their short Yankees tenures, while the acquired players played at near-All Star levels in seasons past.

The trades don’t even have to involve household names, or names at all, in order to benefit the Yankees. Mike Tauchman came over in exchange for Phillip Diehl, and he appears poised to bolster the Yankees roster in years to come. In 2018, the Yankees traded Caleb Frare to the White Sox for $1.5 million in international bonus pool money. That infusion would make up approximately one-third of the sum used to secure Jasson Dominguez’s signature.

The Yankees are no strangers to leveraging their draft picks to pursue pitchers. Dom Thompson-Williams was a bit part in the trade for James Paxton. Nick Solak was part of a three-team swap that brought Brandon Drury to the Bronx, before he was eventually exchanged to the Blue Jays for J.A. Happ. Cody Carroll and Josh Rogers flanked centerpiece Dillon Tate in the deal for Zack Britton. Jake Cave was sent to the Twins for Luis Gil, currently the fifth-best prospect on the Yankees farm.

Some of the trades for pitching seem less successful on the surface, but are still worth dissecting. The one every Yankee fan is familiar with involved former first-rounder James Kaprielian alongside Dustin Fowler and Jorge Mateo for Sonny Gray. Similarly, they Yankees traded Tyler Austin to the Twins in exchange for Lance Lynn. And perhaps less notably, the Yankees swapped Caleb Smith for Mike King.

As I said, these three deals appear to indict the Yankees, but that has more to do with the failings of the former Yankees pitching coach regime and less to do with the players acquired. Lance Lynn and Sonny Gray turned into top-ten pitchers in the season following their departure from the Yankees, and a lot of this has to do with inefficient deployment. Both pitchers upped their four-seamer usage after leaving the Yankees, to great effect. As for Caleb Smith, he was never really given a chance with the Yankees, and may yet be outshone by Mike King over the next couple seasons.

Perhaps the only bigger crapshoot in MLB than the postseason is the Draft. While one hopes that a player taken in the first round is good enough to stick, it is never quite that easy. One could be forgiven for scolding the Yankees and their general inability to turn their early-round draft picks into steady contributors. However, this fails to realize that the Yankees have gotten more than surplus value from their draft selections, it’s just had to come via trade.