The 2021 Yankees have displayed some frustrating traits in the eyes of many members of the media and fans alike who have watched their slow start to the season. After finishing in the top two of the American League in runs every year since 2017, the team has stumbled out of the gate and currently rank near the bottom of the league in offensive production. The team’s roster construction and style of play have come under attack from all angles.
However, a look at the players who the Yankees have recently brought into the system seems to indicate that the team is very aware of these flaws and has been taking steps to address them down the road.
The complaints are not new in 2021; rather, they just have more of a willing audience this season with the team battling over third-place rather than first. It’s a familiar refrain — they strike out too much, they’re too right-handed in both hitting and pitching, and they do not steal enough bases to manufacture runs when they are hard to come by.
The list of left-handed bats who have graced the Yankees’ lineups is a who’s-who of pinstriped heroes; Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, and Don Mattingly represent only a smattering of the elite. Those players have often been complimented with outstanding switch-hitters as well, such Mickey Mantle, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada, among others. With the iconic short porch in right-field sitting just 314 feet away, it has come as a surprise that in recent years, the team has often found itself lacking lefties in the lineup.
In the last two amateur drafts, though, the Yankees drafted left-handed hitters in Austin Wells, Trevor Hauver, and Jake Sanford all before the end of the third round. In addition, they also drafted switch-hitter Josh Smith in the second round of the 2019 draft.
The evidence is showing up with the Low-A Tampa Tarpon team, which is the highest-scoring team in all of minor league baseball. On a regular basis, over half of the lineup is made up of left-handed hitters with Wells, Sanford and Hauver being joined by Elijah Dunham and Chad Bell. The organization has put a recent focus on bring in lefty hitters. The switch-hitting Smith was with them just recently too until his promotion to High-A.
Congrats to Trevor Hauver who was named Southeast League Player of the Week (for the week of May 4th-9th) During that week, Hauver batted .556 (10-for-18) w/ 2B, 6HR, 13RBI, 7BB and 9R in five games. pic.twitter.com/unLLP06PBH— Tampa Tarpons (@TampaTarpons) May 14, 2021
On the pitching side, the Yankees’ system has been known for hard-throwing right-handed pitchers for several years now. Names like Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, Luis Gil, and Luis Medina have dominated the Yankees prospect rankings with numerous other righties in the mix as well. Just like Yankee Stadium was built for left-handed power, it has also been friendly to left-handed pitchers over the year as it was the home to legends such as Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry, Andy Pettitte, and CC Sabathia.
The Yankees seemingly made a concerted effort to bring some balance to the arms in their future rotations during the 2019 draft. The club selected three left-handed pitchers inside of the first five-rounds of the draft, including using the 38th overall pick on T.J. Sikkema. Behind the University of Missouri standout they also selected Jake Agnos and Ken Waldichuk early in the draft.
While Sikkema and Agnos have been sidelined to start the 2021 campaign, Waldichuk has been the best Yankees prospect so far this season. Through 24.2 innings, he has yet to yield a run while striking out 45 batters. Adding left-handed pitching was clearly a focus of the 2019 draft.
Another consistent criticism of recent Yankees teams is that they strikeout too much. Built around the power of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sanchez the club has been willing to trade strikeouts for game-changing home runs.
Going back to the recent drafts and international signings, the Yankees have focused their highest picks and biggest bonuses on players known more for their hit tool than massive raw power. Recent high-draft picks Smith and Wells both struck out 15 percent of the time or less while playing in some of the most competitive conferences in college baseball. Hauver another high pick had more walks than K’s when his final season at Arizona State was cut short due to the pandemic.
In addition, the Yankees used their first-round pick in 2019 on high-school shortstop Anthony Volpe, who was not projected to hit for much power in any scouting reports. A few days before the Yankees drafted Volpe and Smith, the team saw highly-touted Cuban shortstop Alexander Vargas make his debut for the organization in the Dominican Summer League. Vargas received the team’s largest international free agent signing bonus in 2018 while weighing in at just 145 pounds and being known for his high contact rate and defensive ability. He backed that up by striking out just 12.9 percent of the time in 2019.
After a short stint in the Dominican Summer League, SS Alexander Vargas hit his first home run in America yesterday. The 17-year-old switch-hitter has been productive out of the leadoff spot for the GCL Yankees East. Vargas is a native of Cuba and signed with the Yankees in 2018. pic.twitter.com/nxoVWXVGHq— NYYPlayerDev (@NYYPlayerDev) July 17, 2019
While relying on their power, the Yankees have not built a team that is going to push the issue on the bath paths. Through 61 games, the team has attempted just 18 stolen bases, the fewest in the AL.
Near the end of the 2019 minor league season the Yankees hired Matt Talarico to revamp their minor league baserunning program. Coming from Wright State University, Talarico’s baserunning techniques had helped the program consistently finish near the top of Division I baseball in stolen bases.
Slowed by the pandemic, the program so far has focused on the youngest members of the system, with a grassroots mentality. Already this season, the Yankees have seen top infield prospect Oswald Peraza swipe 15 bases to lead the High-A Northeast league before his recent promotion to Double-A. Volpe is another player who has taken to the system early on, as he has stolen 14 bases in just 28 games played.
The Yankees’ struggles through the first two months of the year have opened the organization to criticism about how they have built their roster. Fortunately, it appears that the Yankees were already on their way to addressing some of these issues internally. The worst you can say is that they misjudged the timeline for getting that help to the major league roster, but help will be on the way in the next couple years.