Last week, Hal Steinbrenner, managing general partner of the New York Yankees, summoned his "baseball people" to Tampa to discuss why the team's farm system has been so damned dry that Brian Cashman has had to staff out his billion-dollar franchise with items from the remainder bin such as Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano, and a copy of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" on cassette that was bought from a now-defunct "Nobody Beats the Wiz" store back in 1989. Some of these players have done very well, all things considered -- Overbay has slugged roughly .450 against right-handers and Soriano has 11 home runs in 31 games -- and the Yankees remain on the fringes of the wild-card hunt in spite of all their age and frangibility, but this ad hoc approach to contention is far from ideal.
Referring to the Yankees' front office as "his baseball people," as was done in the linked article and echoed here, is an archaic holdover to the days of George Steinbrenner, who continually referred to "my baseball people" as a way of deflecting questions about his hands-on (in the proctological sense) ownership of the team. Rumors of the pitching coach being fired, almost always true? "That's up to my baseball people." Billy Martin coming back for a sequel? "My baseball people will decide." These "people" were rarely named -- if Steinbrenner had meant general manager he would have said general manager -- though cats like Clyde King, Billy Connors, and Dick Williams recur frequently throughout the People saga. "Baseball People" made it sound like a large deliberative body. You could imagine a cushy boardroom with a big mahogany table and high-backed leather chairs, Steinbrenner convening the Yankees duma, then shuffling them out of the room after a brisk and businesslike meeting so he could gather his shipbuilding people, his kneecap Dave Winfield people, and so on.
It wasn't like that. I was in George Steinbrenner's office in the old Yankee Stadium once. It was a tawdry dump with a threadbare carpet and tired furniture that hadn't been updated since 1975. But forget aesthetics. The problem with pawning off vague responsibilities on a cadre of ministers without portfolio is that if no one is actually responsible for anything then it's hard to hold them accountable when things go wrong. Steinbrenner would fire the People anyway, not that that changed anything because he remained the person pulling the levers. If Steinbrenner's heirs still think of the Yankees front office in terms of amorphous dehumanized shadowy baseball dwarves working a dark mineshaft somewhere far away and deep within the earth -- whatever the titles on their business cards say -- it would explain a lot about why the organization behaves like a rudderless dreadnaught -- no one is steering. Tel père, tel fils.
That Hal Steinbrenner is just now getting around to holding his drafting and player-development operation accountable for its performance makes one suspicious that he only just now noticed that it was there. Wandering Yankee Stadium late one night, Hal Steinbrenner noticed a door he had never seen before. "Gee, I wonder where this leads?" he thought. Pushing it open, he entered a wondrous world of elves and Jeters. "Curiouser and curiouser!" he exclaimed.
(Arthur Rackham, Wikimedia Commons)
George Steinbrenner never had any use for young players -- except to trade them for elder statesmen -- until Gene Michael got ahold of him in the early 1990s and convinced him to retain the occasional Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte for his private use. Players of less than potential Hall of Fame quality still had a difficult time getting even a cursory look -- quick, name all the relievers after Mariano Rivera established in the major leagues during the Joe Torre years -- we'll wait. Hal Steinbrenner may not be controlled by the same paranoias and prejudices, but it seems fair to say that like his father he has expected nothing of his farm system and so he has received nothing. That was fine so long as he didn't need it, but now that he does, well, time to turn the key on this player-development thing and see what we can do to be better and cheaper faster!
Drafting and development doesn't work like that. It takes time and intelligent scouts and operators to build a farm system. Now, some will tell you that the Yankees have operated under a disadvantage because they've always posted winning records and therefore are punished with low draft positions. This is true, but only to a point. Consider their performance in the draft in comparison with that of the rival Red Sox in this century. On average, the Sox have had higher draft positions, but not dramatically higher, and they have actually gone without a first-round pick (for the purposes of this discussion, a pick in the top 30) more often than the Yankees. Both teams have used the compensation system to trade up in the draft, losing a pick for signing a free agent but also gaining one for failing to retain a free agent of their own. Nevertheless, the Yankees have been shut out of the first round three times (2002, 2009, 2011), the Red Sox four times (2001, 2002, 2004, 2007). Not only have the Red Sox been more successful with the first-round picks they did have, calling the name of one star player, Jacoby Ellsbury, to the Yankees' none, but they have done a far better job at mining the later rounds for talent.
Parenthetically, Ellsbury was drafted at number 23, six picks after the Yankees selected infielder C.J. Henry.
Jacoby Ellsbury (Thearon W. Henderson)
In the first round, a place in the draft where competent scouting should net a team at least a decent player, the Yankees have repeatedly gone out on limbs for the likes of catcher Dave Parrish (2000), infielders Henry and Cito Culver (2005 and 2010, respectively), and basketball player/ostensible pitcher Andrew Brackman (2007). Their most successful first-round picks of the period to actually sign have been Phil Hughes in 2004 and Ian Kennedy in 2006. Gerrit Cole, their 2008 first-rounder and possibly their best choice this century, failed to come to terms.
Later-round picks for the Yankees have included Jeff Karstens, Brett Gardner, Austin Jackson, Joba Chamberlain, Mark Melancon, David Robertson, Austin Romine, David Adams, Adam Warren, Preston Claiborne, and David Phelps, as well as current prospects Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, and Pete O'Brien. A truncated list of the players the Red Sox have come up with outside of the first round: Freddy Sanchez, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester, Brandon Moss, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie, Justin Masterson, Josh Reddick, Will Middlebrooks, Anthony Rizzo, Brandon Workman, and Ryan Lavarnway, as well as prospects Jackie Bradley Jr., Henry Owens, Garin Cecchini, Christian Vazquez, and Mookie Betts.
So, it's not just initial draft position, it's not only first-round picks. There's gold outside of the first round if you have scouts good enough to identify it and a scouting director canny enough to call the right names. While both teams have found good players later in the draft, the Red Sox have managed to unearth star-level players. The Yankees largely have not. It doesn't help that the Yankees drag their players through the minors at a glacial pace, then sour on them if they don't hit .450 or post a 2.00 ERA in their first month in the big leagues.
The Yankees have perhaps done a better job in Latin America, netting Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Francisco Cervelli, Jesus Montero, Dioner Navarro, Eduardo Nunez, Alfredo Aceves, Ivan Nova, Hector Noesi, and Gary Sanchez. The Red Sox have come up with Hanley Ramirez, Xander Bogaerts, Jose Iglesias, Yamaico Navarro, Felix Doubront, and Anibal Sanchez.
It seems redundant to say that as a result of all of this weakness in June the Yankees haven't developed many position players in recent years, but the fact of it needs to be stated because if Hal Steinbrenner is just noticing this now it represents a lack of observational power akin to Douglas MacArthur receiving intelligence reports of Chinese soldiers crossing the Yalu River into North Korea and concluding they must be tourists -- heavily armed tourists to be sure, but still tourists. The list of homegrown Yankees developed after the 1990s to play even 100 games for the team is limited to Cano (1346 games), Gardner (606), Melky Cabrera (569), Eduardo Nunez (249) Francisco Cervelli (201), Ramiro Pena (180), and Eduardo Nunez. That's the lot for a period of 14 years and he's just getting around to asking now?
The pitching list is similarly limited: Homegrown pitchers to throw as many as 100 innings with the team from 2000 on include Hughes (770 innings), Nova (478), Chamberlain (439), Robertson (318), David Phelps (182), Jose Contreras (166 and more of a veteran free agent, but let's be generous) and Aceves (126). Where the hell has Hal Steinbrenner been?
That last is a serious question. Yankees ownership criticizing its own draft ‘n' development crew at this late date is akin to a self-indictment. If Hal Steinbrenner did know that his prospects crew was out to lunch and didn't do anything about it then he's incompetent. If he truly didn't know then he's ignorant. Take your pick.
Was Hal Steinbrenner imprisoned on Elba? (Wikimedia Commons )
The Yankees had what looks like a promising draft in 2013, but it will be years before any of the players taken will have an impact in the minors. In the meantime, it hasn't helped that many of the team's top prospects have had disappointing years, catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielders Slade Heathcott, Tyler Austin, and Mason Williams among them, or were sidelined by injuries. While some new prospects have emerged this year, it will be some time before they make their presence felt in the majors.
As for pitchers, even talent evaluators within the Yankees organization concede that pitching prospects move too slowly -- witness the team preferring to torpedo its own dim playoff hopes by sticking with lame duck Phil Hughes, the human launching pad, than gambling that even a Double-A pitcher might do better than a 5.00 ERA and two home runs allowed per nine innings.
Other teams' pitchers reach the majors without making extended stops at every level of the minors. The Yankees' get their passports stamped at every port of entry or they don't get the call -- if it ever comes. That's the one element of the Yankees' approach to player development that having greater expectations of the scouting director won't fix: The front office has to be willing to gamble on the upside of the unknown rather than embrace mediocre certainties. Nothing ventured nothing gained, except perhaps salary obligations.
The recent focus on that last element by the Steinbrenners suggests the answer to question asked above: Ownership simply hasn't been paying attention. If you insist on a payroll reduction that leads to the departure of several free agents and the lack of offers to others but also have no ready prospects and only a cadre of expensive, Biogenesis-booted vets to offer in trade, you have foreclosed all possibility of improvement.
The pieced-together Yankees that resulted from a decision apparently conceived in ignorance of the team's depth has put together a surprisingly good, if lackluster, run. Still, this is no way to run one of baseball's marquee franchises. In the years before senescence and death took him away from the Yankees, George Steinbrenner modulated his posture on young players. Perhaps the Tampa meeting is the beginning of a similar awakening on the part of his son. Until then, we're left asking what did the managing general partner know and when did he know it? The answers appear to be (c) none of the above.