Yankees Farm System Falters

02.11.2005 | Tim Marchman | Sports

From The New York Sun

A few years ago, it was easy to look at the Yankees’ farm system and think it quite likely that by 2005 they would be sporting an All-Star lineup comprised nearly entirely of homegrown stars. The idea was for Nick Johnson, D’Angelo Jimenez, Alfonso Soriano, and Drew Henson to man the infield, with Derek Jeter in center, Jorge Posada behind the plate, and unknown quantities in the outfield.

Then Johnson proved to be fragile, Henson proved to be a football player, and the Yankees proved not to care about building from within. The same team that came up with both Soriano and Jimenez now somehow has Tony Womack at second base.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If anyone ever wondered what it would cost to fill an entire roster with expensive veterans, the Yankees have provided the answer: $200 million, give or take a few million. The conventional wisdom that a team needs to subsidize its costly stars with cheap young players who earn less than they’re worth - which holds even for teams as rich as the Red Sox, Cubs, and Mets - doesn’t apply to the Yankees.

The team’s current problems aren’t the result of a lack of young talent, or even of spending too much money on veteran talent, but the result of giving too many long-term contracts to players in decline. With a different approach and the same budget, they’d win 120 games every year.

So when appraising their farm system, it’s important to judge it by the right standard: Does it produce enough marginal young talents to fetch the old players whom the Yankees crave? Since it has been doing so - the Randy Johnson deal, for example, went through because the Yanks could toss in catcher Dionner Navarro and pitcher Brad Halsey - you have to say that over the last few years it’s been a success, after a fashion.

Whether it will continue to be so is an open question. Having traded Soriano, Johnson, Javier Vazquez, and Jeff Weaver over the last two years, the Yankees now lack a single major leaguer who would make remotely desirable trade material. Their purchasing power will thus be limited to the fruits of their farm system, which is so barren that no player is even a sure bet to become a solid major league regular.

The two best position players in the system are 20-year-old third baseman Eric Duncan and 22-year-old second baseman Robinson Cano. Duncan, who spent last year in A-ball, projects as a low-average hitter with a decent eye and good power. Unfortunately, his poor defense looks likely to force a move to first base. While his bat is good, it’s not good enough for him to project as anything more than a decent regular at first.

Cano has a similar profile: He is a decent hitter for a middle infielder, but doesn’t have a good defensive reputation. If he plays well at Triple-A this year, he could see action in the Bronx; he’s a better player than Womack right now, but he’s nothing to get overly excited about. It would be surprising if Duncan and Cano turned out to be as good as Travis Lee and Miguel Cairo.

These two are much the better of things. Other than Melky Cabrera, an outfielder who hasn’t done much in the low minors but looks like he’ll be playing in Double-A ball this year at age 20, there aren’t even any interesting prospects. The best of the Yankees’ pitching prospects, Chien-Ming Wang and Stephen White, are the sort of generic right-handed batting-practice pitchers the Mets trot out whenever they face injury woes.

Again, this isn’t such a bad thing in its own right. The 21st-century Yankees don’t need to bring up prospects when they can scoop up veterans in the free-agent market or from other teams. But with the farm system in the state it’s in, the Yankees are going to have problems making trades; players like Halsey and Navarro enable blockbusters not because they’re so valuable in their own right, but because they sweeten the deal and allow the other GM to tout the “future stars” he’s received.

The Yankees’ big-league roster is also short on the platoon players, defensive specialists, swingmen, short relievers, and other role players that most teams can bring up from their minor-league systems. This lack of depth is another way in which the neglect of the system harms their chances of winning.

Above all, though this is harder to nail down, there’s a certain value in having someone like Drew Henson around, someone fans can anticipate getting his first cup of coffee, breaking into his first Opening Day lineup, making his first All-Star team.

This Yankees team has become awfully hard to get attached to over the last few years. It would be nice if there were at least some hope that the team’s future won’t involve an endless procession of big trades and joyless free-agent signings. With this winter’s shake-up of the player development side of the front office, that hope may come; but not any time soon.

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