Heading into the 1999 season, the Yankees had an embarrassment of riches. A team that had just put together one of the best seasons in major league history was flush with quality players still in their prime and had a stable of prospects waiting in the wings. The infield of the future were plying their trade at triple-A in the form of D'Angelo Jimenez, who quickly worked his way up the minor league ranks, and a scrawny Dominican kid who they just controversially signed out of Japan named Alfonso Soriano.
With Scott Brosius making a star turn in 1998, the Yankees deemed top prospect and third baseman Mike Lowell expendable. In return for him they acquired another major-league ready player, left-handed starting pitcher Ed Yarnall. Throw in Ricky Ledee, an outfield prospect who made the most of his golden opportunity during the 1998 playoffs, and the Yankees had four rookies ready to make some noise in 1999.
In a part-time role with the Yankees that year, Ledee performed like a player that belonged in the major leagues. Jimenez, Soriano, and Yarnall each got cups of coffee in September and they each showed flashes of the brilliance. Unfortunately, only Soriano would stick around much longer than that. Along with the rest of the Yankees, Ledee and Yarnall were struggling by the middle of the 2000 season. In late June, Ledee was shipped to Cleveland for postseason hero David Justice. That was the beginning of the end for his once promising career. He played for six more teams over his 10 year career, amassing under three WAR total. A couple weeks after he was dealt, the Yankees sent Yarnall out of town as the centerpiece of a package that returned former All-Star Denny Neagle. Yarnall would never pitch in the majors again.
Jimenez missed most of that 2000 season due to injury and was still playing at Triple-A in 2001 when the Yankees were desperate for bullpen help. He was traded to the Padres for a half-season of the underwhelming Jay Witasick. Like Ledee, he became a journeyman from that point on but with a little more success thanks to two quality seasons with the Reds in 2003 and 2004. Alfonso Soriano was far and away the cream of the 1999 prospect crop, as he established himself as a superstar with the Yankees in 2002. Even then, they couldn't help but trade him when the Texas Rangers brought up his name as part of the infamous Alex Rodriguez trade.
The current version of the Yankees will never be mistaken for the 1999 squad, but they do have four prospects that are just about ready to break into the majors at some point. Jose Pirela, if healthy, and Rob Refsnyder will likely be the first alternates in the middle infield based on their strong showings this spring. Considering how uncertain the immediate futures of Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorius are, they may be pressed into action sooner than later. After showing some pop this spring and in triple-A last year, Ramon Flores could make an argument for a big league role. Working behind an aging and injury prone outfield, he may not be too far away from that shot. Catcher Gary Sanchez has been a top five Yankee prospect for years now and even though his bat has looked worse as he's risen through the system, it's clear that the organization looks to him as the catcher of the future. If the option-less Austin Romine gets picked up by another team, Sanchez will be one step closer to a major league promotion.
It's refreshing that we're on the verge of finally seeing the Yankees give a full crop of prospects a look at the major league level, even before the hopeful rise of even more exciting prospects who are a bit further away like Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, and Greg Bird. Unfortunately, as we saw with the class of 1999, even out of a group of four great prospects it would be unwise to expect any more than one of them to become a major leaguer of any significant value. So while giving these young players a shot is a step in the right direction on the road back to prominence, it won't get the Yankees all the way there.
On the bright side, it seems that Brian Cashman has recognized this idea, as evidenced by his recent shrewd trades for established major league talent either just entering or still in their prime. If the Yankees are to succeed it's absolutely vital that they complement a young, developing core with players like Nathan Eovaldi and Chase Headley, much like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams needed the likes of David Wells and Tino Martinez around to create a successful team. Cheering on the kids should be a fun and rewarding experience for Yankees fans this year, just don't expect too much of them, they're only kids.