Yankee prospects and controlling the controllables

Could Jeter's successor already be on the Yankees' roster?
Ten years of The End of Mariano Rivera

A recent profile of track prodigy Galen Rupp and his coach, former marathon champion Alberto Salazar, noted that it’s been forty-eight long years since an American man won an Olympic medal at the 10,000 meter distance. Salazar believes that Rupp, his twenty-five year old student of 12 years, can end that drought this summer in London. Rupp is an extremely talented runner, one of the best at the 5 and 10k distances, but both Salazar and Rupp know that besting the dominant Africans at this distance would require virtually everything to go right. And so they’re doing their best to ensure that it does. “The mantra is control the controllables,” explains Nike’s sports psychologist, Darren Treasure.

 “”We’re not at all intimidated by the Africans; they’re great runners but there’s so many of them. With our [American] runners, we have so few of them that we have to do everything perfect,” says Salazar…

Since 2001, Salazar has ensured that his small crop of Oregon Project runners have access to every technological, physiological and psychological advantage available. From altitude simulation tents and rooms to both anti-gravity and underwater treadmills to the Cryo Sauna, a cylindrical chamber that turns liquid nitrogen to gas to cool an athlete’s body at bone-chilling temperatures for rejuvenating purposes, Nike, who reported revenues of $19 billion in 2010, pays for and houses them on their 193-acre Beaverton, Ore., campus.”

So what do Cryo Saunas and altitude simulation tents have to do with Yankee prospects? The Empire State Yankees, the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees, are currently without a home stadium. The Yankees are in the process of tearing down the old PNC Field and replacing it with a $40M facility, but in the interim the club has nowhere to call home. This means that players like Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine will be spending the entire season on a 142 game road trip, playing “home games” in six different cities. The hope is that the stadium will be completed in time for the 2013 season, but 2012 will be a tough order for these Yankee minor leaguers.

This is a more extreme example of the grind of minor league life, detailed in depth by Mike Ashmore here. While the facilities at the major league level are top notch, players just below that level often deal with situations that wouldn’t be suitable for elite athletes in other sports. Of course, plenty of these athletes are not elite, and the lion’s share of them won’t ever become major league regulars. Regardless it’s not a stretch to say that the nutrition opportunities in particular for players at the minor league level do not come close to that of an Olympian or a major leaguer. I asked Josh Norris, beatwriter for the Trenton Thunder, about the food habits of the players he covers:

 “The per diem is certainly meager, and the postgame spreads aren’t exactly Jenny Craig approved… Fast food is the only available option a lot of the time, but they can obviously choose, say, Subway over McDonald’s. A personal chef/nutritionist would obviously be helpful, but for 30 guys on the road and at home would get really, really complicated.”

Norris went on to astutely note that an in-shape ball player isn’t always the superior ballplayer:

 “A perfect example is a guy like Richie Robnett. With his shirt off, that guy was a Met-Rx commercial waiting to happen. At the plate, however, his washboard abs rarely translated into solid contact. Contrast that with a guy like, say, Prince Fielder, who obviously isn’t the picture of health. If you went in with no knowledge of the players other than their appearance and perceived health/strength, you’d take Robnett every time. Being a successful baseball player requires much more than pristine physical fitness. There’s coordination, adherence to practice regimen, and, on some level, I think, superior genetics.”

Given that prime nutritional health and peak baseball performance aren’t perfectly correlated, and given that most of these players have little ultimate value to the major league team, what’s the impetus to spend more money to institute a more rigorous exercise and nutrition program? New, advanced technologies don’t always translate directly into improved baseball skills. Maybe there isn’t a smart, snappy answer to these questions. But these players are athletes, and we don’t know what sort of talent and skill is left underdeveloped when they aren’t given every chance to become the greatest they can be.

Do the Cryo Saunas mean that Rupp recovers better from his hard workouts and gets faster, leading to one or two seconds gained on the track? Would he have been that fast if he had just used ice? You can’t know. But when there’s so much at stake, and so much money to be made (especially in baseball), it would seem prudent to take every avenue possible to maximize the value of your players. They may not need Cryo Saunaus, but ensuring that every minor leaguer in the Yankees organization gets the best nutrition and workout facilities available to them might lead to an organizational advantage and a more efficient development of talent. If I were the owner of a team and had some extra cash lying around, perhaps leftover thanks to new restrictions on how much I can spend on the draft, I might see if this would be a worthy investment.

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Could Jeter's successor already be on the Yankees' roster?
Ten years of The End of Mariano Rivera
  • nick

    I thought this article might be about MANNY! Reasure me about Manny please

    • http://twitter.com/stephen_mr Stephen Rhoads

      I regret to inform you that Manny passed away this afternoon. RIP.

      • Tyrone Sharpton

        troll

        • http://www.facebook.com/dougchu Doug

          It’s true. He died on the way back to his home planet

    • jsbrendog

      manny will be fine. so will tim lincecum, cc, cole hamels, etc

      • Damian

        Hope you’re right. However, I think the other guys you mention have slightly different track records from Manny’s.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    Excellent write-up, Stephen.

    It doesn’t matter what minor league level it is. This is the Yankee organization, which we know holds itself to a higher standard than any other with how it views its young players. The team should be going the extra mile to make sure the food it is feeding its players compliments the physical level the players are expected to be at. Just because Prince Fielder is Prince Fielder doesn’t mean players should be fed as if it doesn’t matter if they all wind up weighing as much as he does.

    Excuse the rant. It just falls in line with a lot of what I personally care about on a daily basis.

    • Preston

      I agree wholeheartedly. But I don’t think everybody thrives on eating healthy and being fit. Baseball, hitting and pitching, has a lot to do with mindset. A happy, comfortable player will play better. But some players do feed off of being healthy, and if that player wants to do that we should provide him the opportunity. Although this season sucks for our guys I think that better player comfort is the long term goal of the renovated stadium.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Oh, absolutely. I was just picking out the one part of the article where Stephen mentioned the spread of food being served. This is a competitive sport. Serve healthy food, whether they wind up hitting .350 and looking like John Kruk or not.

      • Plank

        I disagree. I think everyone does better when they are healthy and fit. The people that thrive without being healthy are doing so despite their physique not because of it.

  • Peter R

    Cool article.

    A couple seconds to a Olympic track runner is gigantic though lol. We are probably talking about a couple tenths of a second perhaps hundreds of a second difference between Americans and Africans no and winning and losing? Just think the scale is wrong.

    • YanksFanInBeantown

      He’s a distance runner, so seconds is probably correct.

      • Stephen R.

        Yeah in a 5 or 10k the difference is going to be in seconds.

  • YankeesJunkie

    Considering the limitations in their futures drafts and IFAs investing 10 million for example on better nutrition, workout facilities, recruiting, scouting, other advancements could pay huge dividends especially as player prices continue to increase so rapidly.

  • Ted Nelson

    I agree with the premise of the article, but I would point out that part of what’s going on in Scranton might be exactly trying to upgrade the facilities. I’m sure a lot of it is to improve the fan experience, but they might also be modernizing the infrastructure used by the players.

  • Canadian Yankee Fan

    First let me say that I really enjoyed this article.

    As to one of your points – “Do the Cryo Saunas mean that Rupp recovers better from his hard workouts and gets faster, leading to one or two seconds gained on the track? Would he have been that fast if he had just used ice? You can’t know.”

    I think you can know. As a Canadian the first thing that came to mind was our countries improved performance at the Vancouver Olympics, prior to which the Canadian government invested huge sums of money in amateur athletic programs.

    • http://twitter.com/stephen_mr Stephen Rhoads

      Thanks for the comment, I agree with you. I should have been more firm on that point.

  • TomG

    Really good article.
    It does seem kinda like buying a Ferrari, but refusing to spring for high-octane gas at the pump.

  • Kvothe

    This article makes a great point. I frequent some college sports blogs covering my alma mater, and my university is finally taking nutritional control of the football players a little more seriously with training tables. It doesn’t make much sense to take elite athletes and then not giving them the means to maximize their physical potential. A lot of minor leaguers get paid like shit, so they can’t afford to maximize their training and nutrition. If the team can step in and provide better facilities and better food, they can help their athletes maximize their physical potential.

    Is the cost worth it? Difficult to say. Keep in mind, though, that in addition to the physical benefits to the players, better minor league facilities might make it easier to sign prospects and veterans to minor league deals, or even just to sign minor league filler type players. Given a choice between going to a team with shit facilities and a team with better facilities, it could make a difference.

    Of course, it depends on the cost, and the aggregate cost of improving facilities and providing better food to hundreds of players on a yearly basis might be too much, but if the Yankees have the financial resources (and supposedly this is our greatest asset), this type of investment is the kind that doesn’t count against the salary cap, but can lead to a better team.

  • MASONfYKS

    I’m surprised that with the new facility in Rockland County, the Yankees didn’t try to contract with them for the season. The have a semi-pro team playing there (Rockland Boulders) who are independent and don’t have a plethora of games. This is closer than Trenton, and could have been used in conjunction with Trenton for rehabilitation stints this season as well as keep the farm team close to home base. As well, don’t the Yankees have a budget to provide nutritional services to the minor leagues? I mean, they have enough money…

  • Mike Ashmore

    Guess I’m still getting some mileage out of that story…the players have plenty to say about food arrangements in that piece as well.

    • Plank

      What do the players say? I remember reading something a while ago detailing the things players did to stretch their per diem.

  • Plank

    I’ve always thought about this with regard to player development. Serving healthy food and teaching players about good food practices is important. A lot of the players are 16 or 18 when they sign. They need training in this area.

    This one is a bit more extreme but in the same vein:

    With the new CBA, I think the team would benefit from having a housing complex for the players in Tampa at a minimum. They could have a 24 hour gym, make sure their fridges are stocked, swimming pool, etc. The team could also monitor the players and root out bad behavior like staying out until 4 AM drinking. I was friends from high school with a minor league player and the only stories he had from the minor leagues were about partying hard. I think the team should be more on top of that kind of stuff.

    Not only would it benefit the health of the players, but it would help get players signed. If an 18 year old kid has to decide between college and the pros, seeing an apartment in Florida with a pool etc could tilt them in the Yankees favor.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Agreed on most points. Don’t know if I even have an opinion on the housing issue, but I really appreciate you sticking up for healthy eating as much as it appears you are. I spend a lot of time in my real world life promoting healthy eating to children and families. How a sport demands a level of physical fitness from its players, but doesn’t give them the food, or the per diem to buy something about fast food, is a bit strange to me.

      I agree as well on these sorts of facilities giving the team an edge with young players.

      Of course, the Dominican Summer League is allowed to serve heaping mounds of mofongo to its players. That should not change.

  • TomH

    Apart from this food-arrangement issue, what, exactly, are the life arrangements for these perpetually-wandering AAA guys? It sounds like a nightmare, hardly conducive to “player development” (at least in any positive direction).

    • Plank

      AAA salary isn’t that low. It’s definitely a middle class income for career minor leaguers. I also don’t see the big deal currently about the Yankees home situation. You can get an apartment in upstate NY and be within an hours drive from most of the ‘home’ parks. Lots of people commute that far every day.

      Not ideal, but not the major problem a lot are seeing. The ones it negatively effects are the Manny Banueloses. Guys who didn’t sign for much and are still under team control, not making much money.

  • thenamestsam

    I couldn’t agree more with the premise of this article. We have seen that for top of the line prospects teams are willing to lay out >$10M. Then they’ll take that player who they have such a huge future investment in and have him ride around on uncomfortable buses that tax your back and knees, eat McDonalds for dinner and train in less than ideal facilities. It really makes very little sense. For the price of one player you could dramatically improve the situation at every level for years.

    This only makes more sense with the recent changes to the international system. Top players are going to be choosing between a number of very similar (financially) offers. The Yankees can sell them on the Yankees brand, but they should also flex their financial muscles by selling them on a better lifestyle.

  • Duh Innings

    Every MLB team should build a housing complex for their AAA team right next to their AAA ballpark or as close to it as possible. There is no excuse not to build them considering the money these teams rake in.

    Like Plank wrote a 24-hour weight room. Absolutely no cigarette, candy, or soda machines in the complex. No smoking, drinking, or drugs in the complex. 1am curfew so most players would leave bars no later than midnight/ two hours before last call if they wanted to give themselves some room timewise to get back to the complex. The players can sort it out amongst themselves as to how to be alone with the wife, the girlfriend, or the groupie in the complex. All guests must be registered. Basically run it like a college dorm.

    • Plank

      I think the curfew is going a bit too far. These are still people, they should be allowed to do what they want. My mental image is a place with one bedroom apartments, a workout area, pool area, party room etc.

      As it stands, a player like Slade Heathcott had to come to the team and tell them about his drinking problem. The team should be involved in the lives of the players at least to the point where they know if a player has a drinking problem or not. These players represent massive investments, the team should protect their investments.

      There is a line between letting the players live their lives and dictating too many terms on them. If the players lived in a compound like this, the rumor mill would root out problems the team needs to be aware of, like alcoholism.

    • Plank

      AAA would be harder to do something like this. Players are older. Some have wives and families. Also, teams shift minor league affiliations. Unless they are sure they are staying at one place for a long time, the investment wouldn’t be worth it.