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Yankees mailbag: What happens to the minors, and unheralded Yankees heroes

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Here are your answers to this week’s mailbag.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

Good morning everyone, get your answers to this week’s mailbag here. Remember to send in your questions for our weekly call by e-mail to pinstripealleyblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

Ben Burnett asks: I’m confused about what potentially happens to New York’s minor league players if their season is cancelled, especially all their top prospects that they can’t put on their major league roster. Could other teams potentially “steal” or sign our minor league players?

In my opinion, it’s hard to find a group that’s been hurt more by baseball’s suspension than minor league players, other than in-stadium employees who may not have games to work with fans in the stands all year. While major league players are struggling to hold the owners to the word of their March salary agreement, at least those players will be paid something no matter what, and will accrue service time. No such floor exists for the players in the minors.

Minor league players obviously won’t accrue service time, and are guaranteed nothing but the minimum salary for their level. I doubt any teams will be able to “steal” the Yankees top prospects, but other teams are free to sign any of the 45 or so players the Yankees cut earlier this week.

If the minor league season is cancelled, as is expected, most prospects will have to find ways to stay sharp or improve in more controlled situations. They may be able to train at team facilities and take part in practices with other players in the organization. They will almost certainly not be traveling the country to take on other players in other systems.

The team’s best prospects will likely play at the major league level. If baseball returns, it will probably utilize some sort of taxi squad or flat-out expanded roster to give teams more options after a brief second spring training. Those players might be the ones that make it through this year with an experience that at least somewhat resembles the one they expected to have entering the year. Everyone else below, whether it’s far from the majors prospects who will have to find a way to grow real games, or the fringy players the Yankees let go to save a couple hundred thousand dollars, will have a tough road to hoe this year.

Byron Fear asks: I saw some underdog posts (last week), and my favorite was Hiroki Kuroda. He wasn’t a ‘long time’ Yankee, but he was one of my favorites in an odd time for for the Yanks. He pitched very well, yet my favorite short term Yankee was Kerry Wood as Mo’s set up man for half a season. What are your thoughts?

I’m assuming Byron is asking for our favorite unheralded, short-term Yankees. He lists a couple good ones; Kuroda didn’t arrive in the Bronx until his age-37 season, but was one of the team’s best players over the next three years, averaging a 117 ERA+ and over 200 innings a season. Wood is also a strong choice, as his Yankee career consisted of a 26 brilliant innings in which he allowed just two runs while bridging the eighth inning to Mariano Rivera for the 2010 Yankees.

I can think of a number of players in the same vein, guys who didn’t stick in New York for very long and whose stories may slip through the cracks, but nonetheless made a real impact in their brief stints with the team. Consider these kinds of players the anti-2013 Yankees, players that had tenures with the team as glancing as Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells, and Lyle Overbay, but actually managed to endear themselves to fans with quality play.

Current Yankee hitting coach Marcus Thames fits this mold to me. Thames played seven games with the Yankees as a rookie in 2002, and returned eight years later to the 2010 team on a one-year deal. Across 237 plate appearances, Thames hit .288/.350/.491, good for a 122 OPS+, and provided some dramatic moments on the way, notably a walkoff home run against the Red Sox:

Thames would retire the next season after a brutal 36-game stretch with the Dodgers, but we’ll always have that dinger against Boston.

We’d also be remiss not to mention Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small of the 2005 Yankees. That squad had a tremendous lineup, but desperately needed pitching. Randy Johnson had a strong season as the team’s ace, but Mike Mussina had a down campaign, and aged starters Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown, and Al Leiter all struggled through miserable, injury-riddled years.

Chacon and Small were essentially flashes in the pan, as both saw their short-term success flame out by the next season. But in 2005, their contributions were manna from heaven to a production-starved rotation. Chacon gave the Yankees 79 innings with a 149 ERA+, and even saved their season with a excellent start in a must-win ALDS Game Four against the Angels that October. Small famously didn’t lose a game, going 10-0 in 15 appearances with a 133 ERA+.

Looking back at their numbers, it’s clear they weren’t destined for sustained success. Both Chacon and Small missed shockingly few bats, and needed to dance through a forest of balls in play to keep runs off the board. They figured out a way to do so in 2005.

I’ll mention one last pair, one that mirrors the Chacon/Small duo: Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia of the 2011 Yankees. Like the 2005 edition, that team needed to dig to find starting pitching behind it’s lefty horse, in this case CC Sabathia. Projected number-two and -three starters A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes each had awful years, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the team’s rotation.

Enter, for one short year, Colon and Garcia. We all know Colon as an ageless wonder now, but back then, he looked like he could be nearing the end of his career at age-38. Colon had barely been able to stay on the field the previous four seasons, averaging just 64 innings a year over that span, with an 89 ERA+ to boot. Garcia, age-34, was also far from his peak, having averaged 72 innings and a 92 ERA+ over the previous four years.

Colon’s stunning run over the first half of last decade started with the Yankees that year, as his 164 innings of 107 ERA+ pitching helped keep the team’s rotation afloat. While Garcia didn’t kick start a late-career renaissance like Colon, his contributions in 2011 were just as vital, as his 119 ERA+ in 146 innings gave the Yankees the high-level mid-rotation production Burnett and Hughes failed to provide.

There are surely countless Yankees who had brief but crucial stints with the team. I’ve highlighted these simply because they stuck with me as they occurred during my childhood. Which unheralded, short-tenured Yankees will always stick with you? Let us know in the comments.