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What we talk about when we talk about player development

2022’s All Star Game showcased just how good the Yankees are at striking gold.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

It was a funny week for Yankee baseball, a week that featured six Yankees going to the All-Star Game, and the MLB draft highlighted the next class of potential stars — including a polished, gigantic Vanderbilt outfielder taken by those same Yankees. Three of the players sent to the All-Star Game were blue chip types, MVP and Cy Young candidates every year, and the other three, a year ago, were nobodies.

All this got me thinking about what exactly is player development? Spencer Jones is now a beneficiary of the Yankee player dev machine, once he signs he’ll go to the complex league, either be exposed to or continue taking advantage of dev tools he had at Vandy, then he’ll hopefully advance to Tampa, then Somerset, then two years from now when the Yankees trade for a veteran left fielder at the deadline, we’ll all wonder why they won’t just call up the monster with an .884 OPS at Double-A.

That’s a very conventional understanding of player development — the role of that group is to take players not on the MLB roster, polish, refine or add new tools, and produce a final player that’s MLB-ready. For a lot of teams around the game, this IS their entire player dev system.

But there’s another side to development, one that was on display in that All-Star Game. Even the bluest of blue chips, Gerrit Cole, who went No. 1 overall in 2011 after being one of the best college pitchers ever, was not the Gerrit Cole that we know today playing for Pittsburgh. The talent was always there, and he wasn’t BAD as a Pirate, but it took another team seeing his profile just a little differently to take him from Decent Starter to Perennial Cy Young Candidate.

Not to pick too much on the Pirates, but Clay Holmes was much worse than Cole when he was in black and gold. A year ago Sunday he pitched his final game for Pittsburgh, leaving with a 4.93 ERA. He came to the Yankees, we all kinda scratched our heads, the Yankees employed a “lol just sinkers” strategy, and in the year since, Holmes has been nothing less than the best relief pitcher in baseball.

Nestor Cortes, well, his journey has been told over and over this year, but even something as simple as his weird little cutter-to-slider continuum is an example of what I’m talking about. Cortes was the definition of replacement level, he could be added and cut from major league rosters at virtually no cost.

Now, making Nestor the No. 2 pitcher in a strong rotation like the Yankees isn’t as simple as “hey, throw this” but its indicative of the larger point — you don’t need 12 weeks at the Tampa complex to change, massage or polish players, you can largely do it on the fly, while they’re on a major league roster.

This ability to walk and chew gum at the same time is becoming a new dividing line between teams. Again, everyone kind of understands the Spencer Jones path to the majors, and every team has some version of that system, though not every team is equally as good at it. That’s one line of demarcation, but a second is this comprehensive approach to development, that it’s an ongoing pursuit of a more perfect ballplayer. Some teams are able to identify the tweaks needed, fewer still are able to communicate and execute those tweaks.

This comprehensive approach to development gives the Yankees, and the Dodgers and the Rays and the Astros, and to a lesser extent the Jays, Orioles, and Giants, two distinct advantages. First, in the purest ideas of Moneyball, it allows them to identify undervalued or overlooked tools, to see players not as what they are but they could be, and thus acquire them for less than the market should bear. If you traded Clay Holmes today, he’d bring back much more than Diego Castillo and Hoy-Jun Park.

The second advantage, and one that I want the Yankees to pursue more aggressively, is that this development strength allows you to hunt the blue chips MORE, not LESS. You can add Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton — and Juan goddamn Soto — because even though you’re not guaranteed to continue to develop major league talent for pennies on the dollar, the experience, institutional knowledge, and reputation you’ve built by turning nobodies into All-Stars indicates that you probably can.

Thus you can add the massive, ceiling raising, often expensive talent that takes you from a 92-win team to a 100-win team, and you pay for it on the back end by having Nestor Cortes pitch like a $25 million dollar arm for a million dollars. The best teams aren’t actually completely “homegrown”, they’re this mix, like the Yankees and Dodgers and Astros, of developed talent and added star power. This becomes more and more possible by being able to build multi-win talent on the fly.

Player development is so much more than a swing tweak at Double-A. There’s the old joke that every winter Mike Trout picks one of his few weaknesses and turns it into his strength, and that’s what I’m talking about. Dev is a constant process, one that opens up the teams that do it right to both discover gold, and make big splashes subsidized by that gold on the back end. The Yankees should go get Juan Soto, but pay for it by finding the next Clay Holmes too.