Unlike many Yankee fans I run into these days, largely people who signed on as bandwagoners since the mid-1990s or younger fans who came of age only knowing perennial playoff appearances (until this year, at least) I have been a fan long enough to vaguely remember the 1981 World Series and acutely recall the competitive near-miss years that followed through the mid 1980s. Even though 1981 marked the last time the Yanks would see the playoffs until 1995 (that drought tragically spanning almost the entire length of the great Don Mattingly’s career) the team was quite competitive through most of the 1980s, averaging 91 wins from 1983 through 1987.
But anyone who followed the team in those days remembers a steep descent that began in the latter years of that decade, the lessons of which seem sadly forgotten by the current stewards of the franchise. It somehow escapes them that the effort to remain competitive through the 1980s was quite similar to the current approach. The Yankee braintrust in those days fell into the habit of chasing one free agent after another, each one touted as that final piece which would lift them them to the next level. In 1984 they signed 46 year old Phil Neikro. In 1985 they signed Ed Whitson. In 1986 they signed 41 year old Joe Neikro and 43 year old Tommy John. In 1988 they signed Jack Clark and John Candeleria. In 1989 they signed Steve Sax, Mel Hall, Dave LaPoint and Andy Hawkins.
I can’t find a record of how many or which of those players were class-A or class-B free agents, but most of them likely fell under one of those categories, which means those names represent an awful lot of draft picks sacrificed in exchange for supposedly established (and almost always grossly overpaid) players who never had any significant positive impact on the team.
Further sabotaging the stock of young talent in those years was the working philosophy that developing players are less reliable than established veterans and therefore are best used as bargaining chips for obtaining players who are proven assets. Prior to the 1987 season, they traded Doug Drabek (who would quickly become one of the better starters in the NL over the next 8 years) for Rick Rhoden. Later that year they traded Bob Tewksberry (who later blossomed and had some pretty good years for St. Louis in the early 1990s) for Steve Trout. The next year they famously traded Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps. Then in 1989 they traded Al Leiter for a broken down Jesse Barfield. And then in the following offseason they traded Hal Morris (who would establish himself as a career .300 hitter over the next 11 seasons) for Tim Leary.
Looking back on those free agent acquisitions and trades is a study in the futility of that philosophy. The result of this indifference to “unproven” talent and thorough undermining of the developmental system turned those yearly contenders into the doormat of the American League East. The team’s plunge in the standings was accompanied by the usual disarray and dysfunction that often surrounded the Yankees in the old Steinbrenner days, with various scandals and reports of infighting torturing the remaining faithful fans from the back pages of the newspapers. In 1990, they hit bottom, winning only 67 games. Their .414 winning percentage that year was the lowest in franchise history since 1908, when the team was still called the Highlanders and Babe Ruth’s New York debut was more than a decade away.
But for once their dysfunction served them well; in the middle of that terrible 1990 season, meddling owner George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball and forced to relinquish control of the team. And the Yankees were lucky enough to have a highly competent general manager in Gene Michael who was ready to take over the reins. With the freedom to rebuild the farm system without interference from the owner, it only took Michael several years to construct the best minor league system in MLB. His work during that period – top-rate scouting and drafting, nurturing that young talent into a an all-star core that would become heart of the team for years to come and having a solid stable of veteran role players in place as they emerged – yielded nothing short of the greatest postseason dynasty of the last half-century.
Steinbrenner’s lifetime banishment lasted three years, though even he couldn’t deny Michael’s success in his absence and the glory years of the middle and late 1990s came and went before he eventually settled back into the old way of doing business. During the championship run, signing and trading for veteran players such as David Cone, Tino Martinez, David Wells and Roger Clemens seemed like reasonable measures to maintain the team’s dominance. The young core was in place and producing at the highest level and the future was now. But Steinbrenner’s old tendencies and the annual ritual of chasing top established stars at the expense of developmental talent became the norm again and eventually took its toll.
Admittedly, the renewed disregard for player development of this decade didn’t appear to have the same detrimental effect that we saw in the 1980s. Thanks to the new big money era, 2/3 of MLB teams don’t have the budget to make competitive offers to top free agents or to make trades in which they would take on large salaries. Further, more and more small market teams began using trades for the purpose of dumping salaries and rebuilding from scratch, hoping the next crop of young talent will collectively blossom before they are eligible for free agency and mesh well with whatever marginal players they can afford to retain.
So thanks to the narrowed field of teams to compete with for established players, they managed 7 consecutive playoff appearances since the end of the glory years and the last World Series title, despite the active depletion of the developmental system. But in reality, the decline has just been slower this time around. Consider, the last World Series title was in 2000. The last World Series appearance was in 2003. The last time they won a playoff series was 2004. The last time they finished the regular season at the top of their division was 2006. And the record-breaking playoff streak that began with the Gene Michael-built team in 1995 was finally broken this October. Indeed, without a robust farm system to rely on as a source of developing young players, we watch a team that has become increasingly committed to aging and/or injury prone players with diminishing skills and ever more obscenely bloated contracts.
In September, ESPN’s Buster Olney chronicled the downfall of the Yankees’ amateur drafts of this decade. Money quote:
Consider that in the drafts of 1997-2005:
The Yankees produced a total of 10 position players who have appeared in a major league game; that is the fewest of any team in the major leagues, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The 10 position players drafted by the Yankees had accounted for a total of 888 career at-bats as of Sept. 9, which means that not only have the Yankees generated few major league position players, but they have produced no stars, and just a handful of journeymen. The draftees of the Toronto Blue Jays from the same time frame, by comparison, have combined for 27,427 big-league at-bats; the Mets, 11,469.
The Yankees drafted and developed 20 pitchers, which is tied for the 12th-most among the 30 major league teams. However, those 20 pitchers selected by the Yankees have amassed 1,852 2/3 innings in the majors — the fewest innings for any group of pitchers drafted by any team. The Oakland Athletics’ draftees rank first, at 9,686 innings, according to Elias.
Looking at the past decade more closely, the list of free agent signings since the last World Series title looks only a little better than the list from the late 80s: Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Steve Karsay, Rondell White, Tom Gordon, Paul Quantril, Jaret Wright, Tony Womack, Kenny Lofton, Carl Pavano, Kyle Farnsworth, Johnny Damon, Gary Sheffield and Roger Clemens (in 2007). And while the young players they traded away in this era haven’t proven to be significant sacrifices like we saw in the 1980s (largely because the Yankees’ developmental talent of the past decade has been so poor) the excessive contracts they took on to obtain players such as Javier Vazquez, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Alex Rodriguez and Bobby Abreu have combined with those free agent signings to send the team payroll soaring to staggering levels, making their diminishing rate of return (in terms of playoff success) all the more plain to see.
As Olney noted in his column, things began to look up for the Yankee farm system in 2005 when GM Brian Cashman successfully negotiated in his new contract the freedom to run the team without interference from the Steinbrenner-controlled Tampa office. The surprise emergence earlier that year of second baseman Robinson Cano and starting pitcher Chien-Ming Wang (both players were called into action when “proven” talents Tony Womack and Carl Pavano showed themselves to be anything but) provided Cashman with the argument to convince the brass to allow him to restock the eroded farm system. In 2006, left fielder Hideki Matsui’s wrist fracture led to the emergence of fan favorite Melky Cabrera, who in the following year would take over centerfield from big-time 2006 free agent signee Johnny Damon, who’s declining defensive skills had become a noticeable liability by the end of the first year of his 4 year contract.
Cashman made good on his pledge to nurture the team’s developmental talent right away. Promising young players would not be used as trade bait to acquire aging stars. The #21 overall 2006 draft pick lost to the Red Sox for signing Johnny Damon was replaced by the #18 overall pick obtained from the Phillies when they signed Tom Gordon. Gary Sheffield was traded for a trio of minor-league pitching prospects. And with the exception of Damon and Kyle Farnsworth (for whom the Yankees lost their 2nd round pick in 2006) the Yankees did not commit to any more free agent signings that required the sacrifice of draft picks through the duration of Cashman’s 3 year contract.
But the commitment seems to have ended with Cashman’s last contract. He negotiated a new deal after the 2008 season but this time (following the Yanks’ first playoff absence since before the strike of 1994) with no promise of freedom from Steinbrenner (now George’s son, Hank Steinbrenner) and no pledge to commit to the farm system. The young pitchers whom Cashman refused to trade for stud starter Johan Santana last year were supposed to usher in the new era of home grown talent. But they proved still unready for the big show while Santana was traded instead to the cross-town rival Mets.
The remedy was not hard to predict. In the past week the Yankees awarded a record-breaking $161 million over 7 years to gifted but morbidly obese starting pitcher CC Sabathia and 5 years and $82.5 million to sometimes dominant but often injured starter, AJ Burnett. Both pitchers are listed as class-A free agents, which means the Yankees will sacrifice their 1st and 2nd round draft picks in the 2009 amateur draft. This news came in the same week that the Yankees lost 4 more minor league players in the Rule 5 Draft. 3 of them looked like they might have had some promise:
2B/SS Reegie Corona hit .274 and stole 24/28 bases in AA last year. He was the 2nd player taken in the draft, by the Mariners.
Lefty relief pitcher Zach Kroenke struck out 44 in 43.2 innings with a 3.09era in AA and was promoted to AAA at the end of the year, where he struck out 10 with a 1.80era in 10 innings. He was the 12th selection.
RHP Jason Jones was 13-7 with 91 Ks in 143.1 innings and a 3.33era for AA and was promoted to AAA at the end of the year where he was 0-1 with 11 Ks and a 2.38era in 10 innings. He went #14.
Further, the Yankees chose to not offer arbitration to Bobby Abreu, who’s contract ended at the close of the 2008 season. This means that if another team signs Abreu, the Yankees will not be compensated with their 1st round draft pick. Presumably the thinking was that they did not want Abreu back and wanted to avoid the unlikely event that Abreu might accept the one-year arbitration offer. This was unlikely because Abreu is 34 years old, coming off a solid offensive season and there is a market for him. He’ll be looking for what will probably be the last big contract of his career and it would be quite a gamble for him to put off free agency another year on the wrong side of 30. And even if he did accept arbitration, the Yankees would simply have had to eat a few million dollars to move him to the team offering the best package of prospects. For a team that just gave nine figures over 7 years to a player they’ll be lucky to get 4 good seasons out of, a $3m or so investment in developmental talent sounds like a bargain.
The Yankees also chose to not offer arbitration to class-a free agent Andy Pettitte and class-b free agent Ivan Rodriguez. The markets for these players are not at certain as that for Abreu, so those decisions are not quite as easily scrutinized.
At some point you have to look at the data as a whole and acknowledge that there are several very obvious trends. The most important being that the Yankees have a history of unparralled success when they keep their farm system stocked and healthy, and that the team faces a long slow decline when they neglect the farm and enter the ugly cycle they seem destined to loop themselves back into with this off-season’s activity: sign veteran free agents who don’t live up to their billing which depletes the farm system which leaves them desperate for talent in the short term which they appease by signing free agents who don’t live up to their billing which further depletes the farm system which will again leave them desperate for talent in the short term which they appease by… etc.
A close friend and fellow Yankee fan who disagrees with me insists that such is simply the Yankee way. The only “Yankee way” that I care about is winning. The established way to accomplish that has been triumphantly displayed like no other professional American sports team has ever managed: by building from within.
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