EJ’s post yesterday on John Sickels’ Top 20 Yankee prospects list got me thinking about how the Yankee farm system has changed over the last few seasons. After producing key contributors to the dynasty of 1996-2000 (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada), the farm stagnated for a number of years, producing little in the way of impact players. Then, in the mid-2000′s, that began to change. The Yankees seemed to rededicate themselves to producing amateur talent, and the farm became much stronger as a result.
The re-dedication to amateur talent acquisition appeared to focus on pitching first. The revival of the farm began in 2004 with the drafting of Phil Hughes in the 1st round, who eventually reached the level of a top 10 prospect in all of the minors (top 5 in some places). Pitching was clearly an emphasis in the draft in that period, as the Yankees took pitchers in the 1st round in 2004 (Hughes) 2006 (Kennedy and Joba), 2007 (Andrew Brackman), and 2008 (Gerrit Cole). Toolsy bust CJ Henry was the only position player taken in the 1st round from 2004-2008. For the most part, the pitching selections were successful.
Hughes became part of the fabled “Generation Trey” along with Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain, soaring through the minors and up prospect lists. Even though 2 of the 3 have not lived up to the minor league hype, they were the types of pitching prospects that the Yankees had not produced in years. The selection of Brackman in the 1st round, signing Dellin Betances to an overslot bonus in the 8th round, and discovering Manny Banuelos in Mexico led to another generation of hyped pitching prospects, the “Killer B’s.”
During this time period position players were not emphasized as much in the draft, particularly with early selections. That said, Brett Gardner and Austin Jackson look like they will have long major league careers, so there have been some successes. International free agency produced Jose Tabata and Jesus Montero, a bona fide major league starter (for the Pirates) and a possible future star.
As the Sickels list illustrates, however, the next wave of talent in the Yankee farm is primarily made up of position players (many of them at lower levels). Of the top 20 prospects on the list, only 6 are pitchers (Banuelos, Betances, Adam Warren, David Phelps, Nik Turley, and Brett Marshall), and 4 of the 6 have already reached AAA. When they graduate, the list will likely be even heavier on position players, since bonus babies like Jake Cave and Greg Bird did not make Sickels’ list.
The Yankees have continued to produce talented position players through international free agency, as guys such as Gary Sanchez and Ravel Santana look to be fixtures in the organizational top 10 for years to come. However, the rise in position player talent in the Yankee farm, while primarily at the lower levels, seems to be the result of a changed emphasis in the draft. After the Cole selection in 2008, the last 3 drafts have seen the Yankees take high school position players with their first selection (Slade Heathcott, Cito Culver, and Dante Bichette), and also shell out big bonuses to high school hitters in later rounds (JR Murphy, Mason Williams, and Greg Bird, to name a few).
It definitely seems like a strategic shift on the part of the Yankees’ draft team, but was it also a philosophical shift? Perhaps they feel good about their upper-level pitching depth, and wanted to focus more on developing bats. Or maybe they have simply found the high school hitting talent to be the best value in recent years, and haven’t liked the pitchers available to them in the 1st. In any case, it has been interesting to watch the Yankees make a complete 180 from focusing heavily on producing pitching a few years ago, to now having a farm stocked with hitting talent.
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