Read Alex Belth long enough, and you start to pick up the guy's biases. I'm not talking his love for rap, Ken Burns or Central Park, but the Yankees that command most of his ink: Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera. Notice the trend.
I'm not bashing my friend Alex here, as I think any team diehard (myself included) does the same thing. As baseball fans, or really, as sports fans, we are drawn to the players we can only imagine in one uniform. Bernie, Rivera, Derek Jeter, these guys are Yankees. Being homegrown is to be one step closer to being a fan favorite. As loved as Paul O'Neil was, he was half a Red. As dominant as Roger Clemens was, he had shoved it for years with the Beaneaters.
If the Major League Baseball draft was different, and trading up in the draft allowed, Derek Jeter would not be New York's captain. Heck, he probably wouldn't be their shortstop. Because if trading were allowed, George Steinbrenner would have moved up in the 1993 draft after reading his staff's reports on a young stud in Miami. Despite taking Jeter the previous year, the Yankees would have bought the top pick from Seattle and drafted Alex Rodriguez.
After suffering through 1994 with Mike Gallego, the Yankees would have never signed Tony Fernandez. Rather, they would have opened 1995 with A-Rod at short, and New York would have fallen in love with him over the next 464 home runs. Jeter would be one helluva leadoff hitter, still loved in New York, but always second fiddle to the Bronx shortstop.
That's what is funny to be about baseball: although we don't realize it, fan allegiances to players are as determined by player development as they are effort and media friendliness.
Alex has asked me to write about the Yankees farm system once a month this season because I think he senses a new era with this organization. Starved to end this World Series drought, the Yankees are returning to what defined their '90s dynasty: scouting. The Yankees demanded their farm system provide them with a foundation and it did in spades, with all the aforementioned homegrown talents and then leaned on Brian Cashman (and Steinbrenner's wallet) to decorate the interior.
This approach worked, and then was abandoned during the spending sprees of this decade that have defined the Yankees nationally. For much of the last 5-8 years, the Yankees have been near the bottom of Baseball America's farm system rankings. Recently, with renewed interest from Damon Opponheimer and Mark Newman, the Yankees seem ready to again allow the farm system to determine their future.
In 2006, Yankee Stadium began to see this revival. Chien-Ming Wang, plucked from Taiwan by the Yankees are a teenager, became the ace of New York's staff. Robinson Cano tied the American League lead for Win Shares by a second baseman. Hell, Melky Cabrera showed what Ricky Ledee once had for a fraction of the hype. While hardly defined by youth, the Yanks were indisputably propelled by it.
What I'm here to do is to prepare you for the future. My first draft of this piece was to go through the entire Yankees farm system, breaking down the twenty-some Yankee prospects that I think have a pulse. But, I realized that to many of you, that's not particularly valuable. Instead, I'll dedicate my words (this month, at least), to the smaller group of names that should have an effect on wins in the Big Apple down the road. Leave a question on Marcos Vechionacci in the comments and I'll answer it, but for now, he doesn't project to Pinstripes and we won't touch on him.
At present, it's impossible to talk about the Yankees farm system without starting on the two blue-chippers: Phil Hughes and Jose Tabata. These two dominate the headlines, and rightfully so, they can be the next Rivera and Bernie, where the rest of the names below are really just hoping to be the next Ramiro Mendoza.
With a beautiful delivery and vicious stuff, Phil Hughes will give any baseball fan something fun to watch every fifth day for the next decade. Hughes has pitchability scouting jargon for a combination of command and moxie rarely seen from someone his age. He mixes this with a live, sinking mid-90s fastball and a 11-to-5, late-breaking curveball. Hughes has some work to do on his change up, and while his Spring Training was a tad disappointing, he should replace Carl Pavano in the rotation by June. In September, he could already be the Yankees ace.
Alex relayed a quote of mine a couple weeks ago, as I saw Tabata play for the first time the day he hit an opposite field home run against the Indians. Tabata excelled in full-season ball last year as an 18-year-old; he is one of the few minor leaguers to rival Hughes in terms of polish. Scouts critique the bodies of prospects like much of us do women, and Tabata is a perfect 10, a frame yielding comparisons to Manny Ramirez. He's a gifted hitter, and if his swing develops enough leverage to add Manny-esque power, the Yankees won't be sad to see Bobby Abreu go after 2008.
I must warn you, when you start a farm system analysis with projections of Tom Seaver and Manny, the rest goes downhill. Really, where can we go from here?
Well, we'll start with a pair that New York locals will be able to fall in love with, pitchers that take "homegrown" to a new level. Humberto Sanchez, the Yankees main bounty for Gary Sheffield, grew up in a high school just 1.5 miles from Yankee Stadium. Sanchez is a broad-shouldered (trying to be nice here), big pitcher with stuff to match. For years he could not get a handle on his control, could not turn the life of his fastball and big slider into success. Last year, he found it, and the Yankees are convinced he's turned a corner. However, he's currently hurt, and it looks as if Sanchez' two-pitch arsenal will work best in the bullpen.
Preceding Sanchez as a NYC-lifer in the NY farm system was Dellin Betances, the Yankees bonus baby from last year's draft. Betances garnered a lot of notoriety as the New York City star last spring, and he leveraged it, claiming he wanted $1 million (only from the Yankees), or he was headed to Vanderbilt. The Yankees happily obliged to his demands Betances has greater upside than Sanchez while being further along for his age. Still, with inconsistencies in his velocity, the bite of his breaking ball, a third pitch and his delivery, he's a long way away. He might not return to the Big Apple until 2010, but when he does, it should be as the newest Golden Boy.
Betances was a microcosm of the Yankees 2006 draft approach: stockpile pitching, at whatever cost, whenever possible. Brian Cashman recognizes what young pitching is suddenly worth (see: Freddy Garcia trade), and in response to the market, seems to have focused his scouting staff focus on pitching. Besides Betances, there was one sure-fire selection from the 2006 draft (Joba Chamberlain), but also a host of pitching that could very well enter the equation in 2007: Ian Kennedy, Zach McAllister, George Kontos, Tim Norton, Mark Melancon, Casey Erickson and David Robertson. All should provide a huge boost to the Yankees low-level minor league rotations.
Choosing Ian Kennedy with their first pick was a "safe" selection that I wasn't very fond of, but in the end, landing Joba Chamberlain gives them a viable first round-caliber player. Chamberlain had a fantastic career at Nebraska, notably taking Omaha (at the College World Series) by storm as a sophomore, and then following it with a strong junior campaign. He has Humberto's chubby build, but is a far more controlled pitcher. With good control and multiple good pitches, he is going to fly through the farm system. If Nardi Contreras, Yankees roving pitching instructor and curveball expert, can sharpen Joba's breaking stuff, watch out.
I could re-phrase the last sentence, writing that if Joba can get his curve to become half as good as Tyler Clippard's, watch out. However, while that is a possibility, I just don't see Clippard adding life to his fastball with little tinkering. He's a low-ceiling guy that will end up giving the Yankees a better chance to win than Carl Pavano or Darrell Rasner. But, in the end, Clippard's total ceiling is somewhere between Brandon McCarthy and Gavin Floyd. The hitting version of Clippard is Brett Gardner: Johnny Damon lite that was beat to the Majors by Melky Cabrera, and by all accounts, will likely be traded this season. He doesn't fit in pinstripes.
I'll end today with a sleeper, as I realize I owe you that after 1,500 words about the minor leaguers you already know. In August, who do I think will be in the Yankees rotation? Well, Philip Hughes instead of Carl Pavano, for one. But I also can't see the other four starters all avoiding injury, so I'll project one more: Alan Horne. A college career derailed by injuries clouded Horne before the 2005 draft, but the Yankees saw something in his rebound senior season at his third college. With better control, an area where he showed improvements at the end of last year, Horne can be Joba with a better breaking ball. He could be, legitimately, the third best prospect in this system.
In the end, the Yankees are doing a great job at acquiring talent in their system, and returning to the mentality of the 90s should bring this organization a championship sooner rather than later. If that's with Mike Mussina leading the charge rather than Phil Hughes, however, I wouldn't be too sure.
The former co-creator of Baseball Analysts, Bryan Smith is joining Baseball Prospectus in 2007 to write about (among other things) the prospect scene. He has also written for Baseball America, SI.com and the Hardball Times.