Here's a #HotTake: the Yankees have struggled to produce major league caliber players from their farm system for quite some time now. Yes, this is a stunning development. All the luck the Yankees seemed to have in the early '90s when they conjured up three very long careers out of mostly unheralded prospects Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera has not followed them into the new millennium. The last productive position player prospect they churned out was Brett Gardner. While since the mid-'90s they've been typically able to supplement this core with a couple universally well-regarded prospects who worked out in Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams and a plethora of free agent signings and trade acquisitions, that well is about to run dry with the retirement of Jeter, the last active player from that youth movement.
The easy excuse would be to blame management for not doing a better job at producing prospects, but the fact of the matter is that it is incredibly difficult to do so and almost unprecedented to have so many prospects work out at once the way Rivera and company did. That being said, one would expect the system to have produced homegrown products at least a little better over the past 15 years or so around the majors than Gardner, Phil Hughes, Austin Jackson, and company. Of course, it's not a problem unique to the Yankees--producing "the next Core Four" is simply expecting far too much. It's a challenge to produce homegrown players. Look at the Oakland Athletics, who have had the best run differential in baseball this year. They have precisely two homegrown players on their roster: closer Sean Doolittle and starter Sonny Gray.
I don't think I'm wrong in saying that the general feeling around Pinstripe Alley is that we enjoy prospects. I know I do. It's exciting to look toward the future and hope for the best. The harsh truth of baseball though is that the cliche is true: prospects will break your hearts. One way to bring prospect expectations back to earth is to look at old top prospects list. Baseball America has all of its Top 100s available to the public dating back to 1990. While some of those players went on to great careers, most were just mediocre or never made it at all. The same can be said of the Yankees' own top ten prospect lists from years past. While the Yankees have admittedly not had as great a system as those in other franchises, the difficulty in succeeding in the majors is still apparent.
Take a look back at Baseball Prospectus's top ten Yankees prospects as of the end of the 2009 minor league season, roughly five years ago today. These players have now had five professional seasons to define their careers. So where are they now?
1) Jesus Montero - C
The cream of the crop and so far, one of the biggest prospect busts of all time. He wasn't just the top Yankees prospect--from 2010 through 2012, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked him among their top seven prospects in all of baseball for three years in a row, reaching as high as number three overall on both lists in 2011. After the '09 season, BP's Kevin Goldstein (who now works for the Astros) wrote:
Simply put, Montero is one of the best offensive prospects in the game, and possibly the best. He's a massive slugger with the contact skills of a batting champion, with one scout classifying his ability to put the middle of the barrel on the ball "almost supernatural." His raw power is at or near the top of the charts-and he's just starting to tap into it. He has the potential for 30-40 home runs annually. He's a hard worker who puts as much work into his defense as his hitting, and he's made great strides behind the plate... though he remains a well below-average catcher.
Goldstein said that Montero was possibly the best offensive prospect in a class that included Giancarlo Stanton and Buster Posey, just to name a couple players. That is heavy praise.
Of course, Montero never made it as a catcher. He was so dreadful behind the plate that after trading for him in 2012, he only caught 85 major league games for them before the Mariners ended the experiment. Even more damning is that his bat has not translated to the majors at all. Despite promising numbers in a 2011 September call-up with the Yankees, he has hit only .251/.291/.378 in Seattle with an 89 OPS+ in 170 games. He was suspended 50 games for his involvement in the Biogenesis PED scandal, and he showed up to spring training 40 pounds overweight this year and told reporters that he basically did nothing all off-season. He thus spent all but six games this year in Triple-A, and he was not called up in September, partially I'm sure as a result of the now-infamous ice cream sandwich incident.
2) Arodys Vizcaino, RHP
It wasn't long after this was released that the Yankees sent Vizcaino to the Braves along with Melky Cabrera and Mike Dunn in exchange for Javier Vazquez and Boone Logan. (Austin Jackson, a rare success story, is not on this list because he was traded for Curtis Granderson before the list came out.) Although the Braves liked Melky, who didn't pan out for them at all, the key to this deal for them was Vizcaino. He had just turned 19 that November, and Goldstein was glowing about him:
Vizcaino's combination of stuff and refinement is rarely found in a teenager. His clean arm action leads to effortless 92-94 mph fastballs that get up to 97 when he reaches back for a bit more, while his smooth mechanics allow him to harness his pitches and pound the strike zone. His power curveball already grades out as big-league average with the projection of becoming a true wipeout offering.
When Javy flopped for the Yankees, fans rued losing Vizcaino. Fortunately for them I suppose, Vizcaino has turned into nothing. He has not pitched in the majors since his major league debut in 17 games out of the bullpen for the Braves in 2011. He fell victim to the Tommy John surgery plague and missed all of 2012 and 2013 recovering, and in the meantime was traded to the Cubs in a 2012 deadline deal involving Paul Maholm. Now a reliever only, the righty pitched nicely in Double-A but not in Triple-A. He was recently recalled in September, but if he pitches for the Cubbies, it will be his first MLB action in almost three years.
3) Manny Banuelos, LHP
Sigh. In addition to his ranking on the pre-2010 list, ManBan was such an exciting pitching prospect as recently as spring training 2012. The small lefty rose quickly through the Yankees' system in 2010 and 2011, reaching Scranton by the end at age 20. He was the consensus top prospect after the Montero trade and among the overall top 30 by BP, BA, and MLB.com (who ranked him 13th overall). Then, he began having elbow problems and his shaky stats in Scranton early in 2012 were evident that something wasn't right.
The Yankees tried desperately to have him avoid Tommy John surgery, but eventually, ManBan went under the knife and missed the entire 2013 season. This current season felt like another year of rehab, as Banuelos worked his way up in abbreviated starts from Tampa to Trenton to Scranton again. He's certainly not a bust yet and will only be 24 next March, but he has a lot to prove in 2015.
4) Zach McAllister, RHP
A third round high school pick in 2006, Goldstein liked what McAllister had to offer, calling him "a finesse pitcher hiding in a power pitcher's frame," while also noting "two quality breaking balls and a solid changeup." The Yankees sent him to Cleveland at the 2010 trade deadline in exchange for Austin Kearns, though it was basically a bigger trade that also involved Kerry Wood coming to the Yankees for Andrew Shive and Matt Cusick, if not officially.
Although Wood helped them down the stretch out of the bullpen, it appeared that this deal would hurt since McAllister pitched effectively for Cleveland in 2012 and 2013 with a 3.99 ERA and 4.13 FIP in 46 starts. The fact that this year has been an absolute nightmare for Z-Mac has made it easier to swallow as he pitched so badly in Cleveland that he was demoted to Triple-A. While his FIP is okay at 3.92, he has a miserable 5.89 ERA and 1.536 WHIP on the year, and is no longer in the rotation. Yuck.
5) Austin Romine, C
Romine has pretty much always been regarded as a guy who would turn into an all-field, no-hit catcher. There was more hope for his bat back at the end of the '09 season, when he hit .276/.322/.441 with a 119 wRC+ in High-A Tampa. He was even roughly league average in 2010 and 2011 with Trenton and Scranton, respectively. A back injury-shortened 2012 season did not help his stock though, and when he was effectively made the big league backup catcher to Chris Stewart (barf) in 2013 following Francisco Cervelli's season-ending injury, he was awful. Romine hit .207/.255/.296 with a 48 wRC+ in 60 games. How he actually hit his one home run in Petco Park is beyond me.
Romine returned to Triple-A in 2014 with the big league catching situation set with Brian McCann and Cervelli, and when Cervelli missed time, the Yankees instead elected to go with John Ryan Murphy as the backup to McCann instead of Romine. He wasn't doing himself any favors in Scranton by hitting .242/.300/.365 with an 82 wRC+ anyway. Maybe Romine turns into a big league backup after all due to his defense, but that appears to be his ceiling.
6) Gary Sanchez, C
A baby when this prospect list was written, Sanchez was only 17 and in Rookie Ball at the time. His bat was impressing people even then. His story has yet to be told, as he will only be 22 in December. However, while he was probably the team's top prospect at the start of both 2013 and 2014, it seems likely that Luis Severino or possibly Aaron Judge will pass him on most pre-2015 lists, though he could possibly still make it on top.
While rising through the minors, he's continued to hit pretty well for a catcher, including a .270/.338/.406 triple slash with a 108 wRC+ this year. However, he's also battled questions about his maturity and was even suspended by Trenton manager Tony Franklin for a week this year. His defense is also in doubt despite a good arm. We'll see how Sanchez turns out, but his 2014 has made me less optimistic than before.
7) Slade Heathcott, CF
The Yankees' top pick in the 2009 draft, Goldstein mentioned that Heathcott has "plenty to dream on" with scores throughout the scouting scale, especially in natural talent. Of course, Heathcott's biggest problem has been staying on the field since joining the Yankees five years ago. He has yet to play a full season at the minor league level, topping out at 103 games last year. The soon-to-be 24-year-old made it into only nine games this year with Trenton before undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. How fun. Slade still plenty of talent, but until he can actually figure out how to maintain his health for a season, it will be difficult to see him as anything other than another bust.
8) Kelvin De Leon, RF
If you said, "Who?" don't feel silly. I had no idea who this was, either. Another international signing, De Leon made his way onto this list by virtue of a .269/.330/.438 season in Rookie Ball at age 18. He never had a year like that again, struggling throughout A-ball in the four years afterward, hitting .226/.286/.351 in Low-A Charleston with even worse numbers in a 21-game Tampa stint in 2012. He was released at the end of minor league camp this year.
9) John Ryan Murphy, C
Like Sanchez, Murphy has made great strides on his prospect status since '09, when he a second-round pick out of high school. The book is still being written on him, even after a somewhat-disappointing follow-up to his superb 2013 campaign that saw him rise from Trenton to the majors by season's end.
10) Mark Melancon, RP
Another of the Yankees' sneaky late reliever draft picks to eventually flourish, Melancon unfortunately did not quite get there in pinstripes. He was terrific in '09 and '10 with Scranton, but in his 15 MLB cameos with the Yankees, he couldn't seem to find the plate and was battered around by big league hitters. They traded him and Jimmy Paredes at the deadline in 2010 for Lance Berkman. Since then, he's had a very weird career.
Immediately placed on the Astros, Melancon pitched better at the end of 2010 then served capably as Houston's closer in 2011 with a 2.78 ERA, 1.224 WHIP, and 20 saves. The Red Sox saw promise there and acquired him in the 2011-12 off-season, and he promptly bombed upon joining Boston, pitching dreadfully with a 6.20 ERA and 4.58 FIP, even getting demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket. Boston gave up on him and sent him to Pittsburgh in the somewhat-ill-fated Joel Hanrahan deal after the season that actually did get them Brock Holt as well. Melancon immediately became better than ever and made the NL All-Star team with a tremendous season for a surprising Pirates team that broke their 20-year drought of both playoff and winning seasons, and while he's regressed in 2014, he's still been quite effective. Not a bad turnout for a relief prospect at all, though I'm still not losing sleep over losing him.
Please do continue to become excited about the Yankees' future with the prospects they have in their system, especially Severino and Judge, among others. Just keep in mind that so often, the kids don't pan out, so if a very intriguing trade opportunity comes along, don't be too afraid to part with them.