Reviewing the farm system’s lean years from 2003-06

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Wanger. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Over the last … I don’t know … five or ten years, the Yankees have been criticized quite heavily for their player development failures and deservedly so. They haven’t developed many useful homegrown pieces of late, and I don’t just mean stars. They’ve struggled to produce even average players who could fill in on the cheap. Things have been a little better recently but for a long time there the system was barren.

At the turn of the century, the Yankees had a great farm system headlined by Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson. Things really started to thin out by 2003, however, mostly because the team was trading away all their good young players and forfeiting first round draft picks to sign free agents. In 2002, Baseball America ranked New York’s farm system as the 5th best in baseball. Then, from 2003 through 2006, they ranked 17th, 27th, 24th, and 17th. That’s bad. The Yankees shot back up to 7th in 2007 thanks to their outstanding 2006 draft class, which produced ten big leaguers overall and five regulars.

So, since we are now nearly a full decade removed from that 2003-06 farm system dry spell, let’s go back and see who the Yankees had in the system back then, and what happened to those players. Because they’re the best in the business, let’s use Baseball America’s annual top ten prospects lists as the basis of our little trip back in time. I’ve cherry-picked a quote from the scouting reports for each player as well. Some are funny, some are serious. Away we go…

Pre-2003

No. 1: OF Juan Rivera
Select Quote: “On his way to his first game at Yankee Stadium, he got lost on the subway. Then he broke his right kneecap when he ran into a golf cart during pregame drills, which knocked him out for two months.”
What Happened: In 2002, a then-23-year-old Rivera hit .325/.355/.502 with 21 doubles and eight homers in only 65 games with Triple-A Columbus before playing almost everyday in the Bronx as a September call-up. Rivera went up and down a bunch of times in 2003 and was then traded to the Expos in the Javy Vazquez deal after the season. He spent one year in Montreal before being traded to the Angels. Rivera played in parts of 12 MLB seasons and hit .274/.323/.443 (102 OPS+) with 132 homers and 9.5 bWAR. Not a bad outcome at all.

No. 2: OF Bronson Sardinha
Select Quote: “Bronson was named for his mother’s favorite actor, Charles Bronson. His brothers Dane (named after a famous Hawaiian surfer) and Duke (named for John Wayne) play in the minors for the Reds and Rockies.”
What Happened: The Yankees bought Sardinha away from Pepperdine with a $1M bonus as the 34th pick in the 2001 draft. He hit .279/.362/.427 with 16 homers and 19 steals in 129 games spit between Short Season Staten Island and Low-A Greensboro in 2002, then he sorta stopped hitting. Sardinha put up a .239/.333/.353 batting line between Low-A Battle Creek and High-A Tampa in 2003 before stagnating in the minors for a few years. He did reach the big leagues though, going 3-for-9 in ten games with the 2007 Yankees. Sardinha has been out of baseball since 2011. Fun fact: His middle name is Kiheimahanaomauiakeo. Seriously.

Claussen. (Getty)
Claussen. (Getty)

No. 3: LHP Brandon Claussen
Select Quote: “Claussen emerged as one of the game’s top lefthanded pitching prospects by leading the minors with 220 strikeouts in 2001. He also topped the organization with 187 innings, and the workload took a toll on his arm in 2002, as he had Tommy John surgery in June.”
What Happened: Ah the good ol’ draft-and-follow system. Back in the day, teams could draft a player, keep tabs on his progress in junior college the following spring, then decide whether to sign him. Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were both draft-and-follows. The draft-and-follow system died when MLB implemented the signing deadline a few years ago. It was a good run.

Anyway, Claussen returned from Tommy John surgery at midseason in 2003 and was never quite the same, showing less stuff and not missing nearly as many bats (65 strikeouts in 95.2 innings in 2003). The Yankees called him up for a spot start against the Mets in late-June (two runs in 6.1 innings) then traded him to the Reds for Aaron Boone at the deadline the following month. Claussen spent three seasons in Cincinnati (86 ERA+ in 309.2 innings) and bounced around the minors until 2007. Tommy John surgery: not without risk!

No. 4: 3B Drew Henson
Select Quote: “Few prospects can match Henson’s size, strength and athleticism. He can mash fastballs down in the zone and hit mistakes a long way … His take-charge mentality makes him a favorite of Yankees brass.”
What Happened: Henson was my first real head over heels prospect crush. I thought he would be a megastar. He hit .240/.301/.435 with 18 homers in 128 games for Triple-A Columbus in 2002 — the Yankees traded Henson to the Reds for Denny Neagle in July 2000 and reacquired him for Wily Mo Pena in March 2001 — and then hit .234/.291/.412 with 14 homers in 133 games for Columbus in 2003. He went 1-for-9 in two MLB cups of coffee. After the 2003 season, Henson announced his retirement from baseball and decided to go play football, quarterbacking for the Cowboys, Vikings, and Lions from 2004-08. He’s now a hitting coach for one of the Yankees’ two rookie level Gulf Coast League minor league affiliates.

No. 5: RHP Chien-Ming Wang
Select Quote: “There hasn’t been a Taiwanese pitcher who has come to the States and avoided major injury, so his durability remains a question.”
What Happened: Wang missed the entire 2000 season due to a shoulder injury, which prompted that quote in Baseball America’s write-up. He stayed healthy in the minors from 2003-05 and was just okay (4.00 ERA in 308.1 inning) before getting called up to MLB in May 2005. Wang pitched to a 3.79 ERA (117 ERA+) with 15.4 bWAR from 2005-08 for the Yankees. Then he hurt his foot running the bases. Then he blew out his shoulder. CMW is still kicking around in the minors — he signed a minor league deal with the Braves a few weeks ago — but he hasn’t been effective at all since hurting his foot in 2008. For shame.

No. 6: IF Robinson Cano
Select Quote: “He generates plus bat speed and has a knack for making adjustments with his hands to put the barrel of the bat on balls in different zones. He covers the plate well with a good idea of the strike zone, makes consistent hard contact and projects to hit for power.”
What Happened: Cano hit .276/.319/.437 with 15 homers between Short Season Staten Island and Low-A Greensboro in 2002. Then he hit .277/.322/.374 with six homers between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2003. That’s not very good! Cano improved a bit with Trenton and Triple-A Columbus in 2004 (.283/.339/.457 with 13 homers) and, before you knew it, he was hitting .342 in the big leagues by 2006. Robbie was an MVP candidate with the Yankees from 2010-13 before signing a ten-year, $240M contract with the Mariners last offseason. We know nothing about prospects.

No. 7: LHP Danny Borrell
Select Quote: “His arm has relatively low mileage, and Borrell could throw harder with more innings.”
What Happened: Despite that low mileage, Borrell blew out his shoulder in 2003 and continued to battle injuries until he retired following the 2008 season. He threw only 282.1 ineffective minor league innings (4.53 ERA) the rest of his career after being dubbed the team’s seventh best prospect by Baseball America. Borrell has been working as a pitching coach and pitching coordinator in New York’s farm system for several years now.

No. 8: RHP Jorge DePaula
Select Quote: “DePaula was able to channel his intensity to become more efficient on the mound. He must continue to keep his emotions in check to avoid losing control of the game.”
What Happened: The Yankees acquired DePaula from the Rockies for Craig Dingman (Craig Dingman!) back in 2001 and he developed into a quality pitching prospect from 2001-03. He spent most of the 2013 season in Triple-A (4.35 ERA in 167.2 inning) and got a September call-up, allowing one run on three hits and one walk in 11.1 innings. DePaula made the Opening Day roster in 2004 but blew out his elbow that April and needed Tommy John surgery. He returned in 2005 and just kind of sputtered. The Yankees cut him loose after 2006 and he bounced around the minors until 2009. (DePaula pitched in Mexico as recently as 2012.) DePaula retired with a 4.00 ERA (114 ERA+) in 27 big league innings, all with New York from 2003-05.

No. 9: OF Rudy Guillen
Select Quote: “Guillen might have the highest ceiling in the organization … While Guillen has five-tool potential, his ability to hit for average will be tested against more advanced competition.”
What Happened: After hitting .306/.351/.397 with three homers in 59 games for the rookie GCL Yanks in 2002, Guillen hit .260/.311/.414 with 13 homers in 133 games with Low-A Battle Creek in 2003, which was pretty good for a 19-year-old in full season ball. After that though, Guillen hit .259/.302/.359 with 20 homers from 2004-07 and simply didn’t develop. He played a total of 49 games above Single-A ball, all with Double-A Trenton. Guillen has been out of baseball since 2007. Yet another reminder to not get worked up over rookie ball stats.

No. 10: LHP Sean Henn
Select Quote: “The Yankees drafted Henn twice, but it wasn’t until his velocity jumped two grades that they signed him to a $1.701 million bonus, a record for a draft-and-follow. Henn went down with a sore elbow nine games into his pro debut and needed Tommy John surgery that wiped out his entire 2002 season.”
What Happened: Henn returned from elbow reconstruction in 2003 and was pretty rough, striking out 62 and walking 40 in 80.1 innings. The next season he had a 4.41 ERA with 118 strikeouts and 63 walks in 163.1 innings with Double-A Trenton. Henn got to MLB for the first time in 2005 and allowed 16 runs in 11.1 innings. He walked eleven and struck out three. Three! Henn went up and down in both 2006 and 2007 and wasn’t any good — 37 runs allowed with 35 strikeouts and 32 walks in 46 innings. Eventually the Yankees gave up and put Henn on waivers. The Padres claimed him and he’s been bouncing around since. Henn last played with the Mets in 2013. Like, the big league Mets, not their Triple-A team. Classic case of a guy with a big arm who never figured it out but kept getting chances because he’s a lefty.

Pre-2004

Navarro in Trenton. (Mike Ashmore)
Navarro in Trenton. (Mike Ashmore)

No. 1: C Dioner Navarro
Select Quote: “Nagging injuries — including an inner-thigh infection that led to a sty in his eye, and a hand injury from a home-plate collision — weren’t enough to stop him from raking. His combined .321 average ranked fourth among minor league catchers.”
What Happened: After hitting .321/.376/.469 with seven homers in 110 games as a 19-year-old for High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2003, Navarro slipped down to .263/.341/.366 with four homers in 110 games for Trenton and Triple-A Columbus in 2004. The Yankees called him up in September then traded him to the Diamondbacks for Randy Johnson after the season. Arizona flipped him to the Dodgers for Shawn Green and the Dodgers flipped him to the (Devil) Rays for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson. Navarro’s been in the show on and off since 2004 and is a career .255/.313/.375 (85 OPS+) hitter with 7.4 bWAR.

No. 2: 3B Eric Duncan
Select Quote: “Some teams compared Duncan’s lefthanded power potential to Jim Thome’s. As with Thome, Duncan’s defense at third base may force him to move across the diamond to first.”
What Happened: Duncan had a really good year in 2004, hitting .258/.357/.473 with 16 homers in 123 games while climbing from Low-A Battle Creek to Double-A Trenton. He was only 19 too. Duncan hit 19 homers in 2005 but his slash line (.235/.326/.408) was pretty ugly. The Yankees had him in Triple-A by age 21 and he just stopped hitting, putting up a .226/.290/.343 line with in parts of four seasons at the level. Duncan had serious power but not much else. It didn’t help that the team rushed him up the ladder in an effort to boost his trade value.

No. 3: Guillen

No. 4: SS Joaquin Arias
Select Quote: “Nicknamed ‘Spiderman’ because his arms and legs appear to be going in every direction at once, Arias displays good body control in the field.”
What Happened: As you may know, Arias was traded to the Rangers along with Alfonso Soriano for Alex Rodriguez in February 2004. Texas selected him from a pool of prospects that also included Cano. Yankees got lucky there, eh? Arias had some nice upside but didn’t develop as hoped. He bounced from the Rangers to the Mets to the Giants, where he’s been since 2012. Arias is a career .269/.298/.354 (82 OPS+) hitter with 0.9 bWAR. Two World Series rings though.

No. 5: RHP Ramon Ramirez
Select Quote: “Ramirez had Japanese-style mechanics with a hip-turn and hesitations, but pitching instructors Billy Connors and Greg Pavlick converted him to a more conventional over-the-top delivery.”
What Happened: Ramirez has a weird back story. He was originally outfielder but converted to pitcher after signing with the Hiroshima Carp in 2002. The Carp posted him in March 2003 after a strong winter ball showing and the Yankees won his rights with a $350,000 bid. They signed him for $175,000 and he pitched to a 4.83 ERA in 284.2 innings at three minor league levels from 2003-04, then was traded to the Rockies for Shawn Chacon in 2005. Ramirez is still active — he pitched in one game for the Orioles last season but spent most of the summer in the minors — and has a 3.42 ERA (125 ERA+) with 6.9 bWAR in 434.2 career innings, all in relief. Not a bad little career.

No. 6: Cano

No. 7: SS Ferdin Tejeda
Select Quote: “A switch-hitter, Tejeda handles the bat well from both sides and uses quick hands and an efficient line-drive swing. He puts the ball in play, though not with the same authority as Joaquin Arias.”
What Happened: So Arias with less bat, got it? Tejeda had some nice defensive skills but man he didn’t hit at all — .220/.288/.247 in 94 games at High-A and Double-A in 2004 — so much so that the Yankees stuck him on the mound in 2005. He had a 1.80 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 15 innings for the GCL Yankees in 2005 and was lost on waivers to the Padres that summer. Tejeda’s been out of baseball since 2008 and only played 30 games above Single-A ball.

N0. 8: DePaula

No. 9: OF Estee Harris
Select Quote: “The Yankees went against the consensus to snag Harris in the second round, but they love his bat … Harris has drawn comparisons to a young Garret Anderson and could produce 30 home runs annually once he matures.”
What Happened: Shockingly, the Yankees went against the grain in the draft and it didn’t work. Harris hit .221/.306/.368 with ten homers and 153 strikeouts in 113 games split between three levels of Single-A in 2004 and was playing in an independent league by 2007. He’s been out of baseball since 2011 and hit .218/.296/.365 with a 30.7% strikeout rate in 327 games with the Yankees, none above Low Class-A.

No. 10: Sardinha

Pre-2005

No. 1: Duncan
No. 2: Cano

Hughes. (Post and Courier)
Hughes. (Post and Courier)

No. 3: RHP Phil Hughes
Select Quote: “The Angels strongly considered him at No. 12 before deciding to take top-rated pitcher Jered Weaver.”
What Happened: We all know what happened, but man, Hughes was the bomb back in the day. He had a 2.19 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 20 walks in 86.1 innings for Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa as a 19-year-old in 2005 then had a 2.16 ERA with 168 walks and 34 strikeouts in 146 innings for Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2006. Baseball America ranked him the top pitching prospect in the game before the 2007 season. Well, top non-Daisuke Matsuzaka pitching prospect. Hughes had a (very) up and down tenure in New York but seems to have found himself with the Twins after leaving as a free agent last winter.

No. 4: RHP Steven White
Select Quote: “White’s development was an important step for the Yankees, who could use an innings-eater as soon as possible. He fits that profile, but needs at least a year to hone his secondary stuff.”
What Happened: White was a four-year college guy with okay stuff who got overrated as a prospect pretty quickly because he dominated Low-A Battle Creek and High-A Tampa as a 23-year-old (!) in 2004 — 2.61 ERA in 117.1 innings. He had a 4.45 ERA with a weak 16.9% strikeout rate from 2005-08, though he did at least reach Triple-A. White’s been out of baseball since 2008. The lesson here: age relative to level is important!

No. 5: Navarro (hadn’t yet been traded when Baseball America released their Yankees top ten)

No. 6: RHP Christian Garcia
Select Quote: “He has easy velocity on his fastball, working at 93-94 mph and topping out at 96 … His curveball, at times a true power hammer, could be a better pitch.”
What Happened: Man, Garcia had nasty, nasty stuff. He just couldn’t stay healthy. Two Tommy John surgeries, an oblique strain, and some other stuff limited him to only 258.1 innings — none above Double-A — from 2005-10 before the Yankees gave up and released him. The Nationals picked him up and he actually made it to the big leagues with them in 2012, allowing three runs with 15 strikeouts in 12.2 relief innings in September 2012. Here’s that “true power hammer” curveball:

Christian Garcia

Garcia got hurt again in 2013 and has thrown only 27.2 innings the last two seasons. Washington released him last June and from what I can tell, he’s still a free agent. Great, great arm. Just couldn’t stay healthy. Pitching prospects, man.

No. 7: 3B Marcos Vechionacci
Select Quote: “Vechionacci can hit. His advanced approach includes plate discipline, smooth swing mechanics and the ability to use the whole field. He shows developing power as well.”
What Happened: Well, no, Vechionacci couldn’t hit. Or at least he didn’t. He followed up his strong 2004 season (.319/.390/.454) with a .252/.314/.348 line and two homers in 128 games for Low-A Charleston in 2005. From 2005-09, Vechionacci put up a .245/.314/.345 batting line before having a nice dead cat bounce season with Double-A Trenton in 2010, hitting .283/.350/.421 with eleven homers in 114 games. People asked if he was regaining prospect status. I said no. They mocked at me. Vechionacci became a minor league free agent after that season, no team bothered to sign him, and he’s been out of baseball since. So no, he didn’t regain prospect status. Jerks.

No. 8: OF Melky Cabrera
Select Quote: “One club official compared his offensive game to Jose Vidro’s.”
What Happened: Melky has turned into a nice little player. His cup of coffee in 2005 was a total disaster, he looked like a deer in the headlights, but in 2006 he hit .280/.360/.391 (95 OPS+) while filling in for the injured Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. Cabrera hit .267/.323/.385 (84 OPS+) from 2007-09, got traded to the Braves for Javy Vazquez, got fat, got released by Atlanta, signed with the Royals, got less fat, and has hit .309/.351/.458 (124 OPS+) since. Melky is a career .286/.339/.415 (103 OPS+) hitter with 17.7 WAR and just signed a three-year, $42M deal with the White Sox. Too bad he didn’t figure it out while in pinstripes. By the way, when he was Melky’s age, Vidro had 17.0 WAR. Freaky.

No. 9: Sardinha
No. 10: Wang

Pre-2006

No. 1: Hughes
No. 2: Duncan

No. 3: OF Jose Tabata
Select Quote: “His ceiling is as high as any Yankees minor leaguer since Alfonso Soriano.
What Happened: Tabata was peak Yankees Hype Machine. There were Manny Ramirez comps flying around and they were ridiculous. Tabata did hit though, at least at first. He authored a .298/.377/.420 line in 86 games with Low-A Charleston in 2006, his age 17 season, and Baseball America ranked him as the 27th best prospect in the game after the season. Then he hit .307/.371/.392 in 103 games with High-A Tampa the next season.

Tabata was not without his issues, however. He had been insubordinate — he literally left the stadium in the middle of a game while with Double-A Trenton in 2008 because he didn’t like a strike three call — and there were always whispers he was older than believed. Those whispers still exist too. Anyway, the Yankees got fed up with Tabata’s act and traded him to the Pirates in the Damaso Marte/Xavier Nady deal in 2008. He’s a career .275/.336/.379 (99 OPS+) hitter with 2.5 bWAR in part of five seasons. Tabata never developed any power and the off-the-field issues persist. The Yankees did well to cash him in as a trade chip when they did.

No. 4: SS C.J. Henry
Select Quote: “Henry is a premier athlete, already the best in the system. He has well-above-average raw power and is a plus runner.”
What Happened: Henry was a great athlete who split his time between baseball and basketball in high school, and the lack of experience showed in pro ball. He didn’t hit at all. Henry had a .240/.330/.353 line with a 27.2% strikeout rate in 77 games with Low-A Charleston when the Yankees cut bait and sent him to the Phillies as part of the package for Bobby Abreu in 2006, one year after drafting him. Henry briefly returned to the organization in 2008 but never made it out of Single-A ball. He played college hoops from 2009-11 at Kansas and Southern Nazarene University, tried independent ball in 2003 (.332/.410/.523!) and has been out of sight since. I thought Henry was a great pick at the time (17th overall), he was loaded with tools, it’s just didn’t work out.

No. 5: OF Austin Jackson
Select Quote: “Jackson’s basketball jones threw off many area scouts, who doubted his desire to play baseball. But Mark Batchko realized Jackson wanted to be a Yankee, having written his first scouting report on him when Jackson was 12.
What Happened: The 2006 season at Low-A Charleston was a little rough (.260/.340/.346 with 151 strikeouts) but Jackson broke out in 2007 and was one of the team’s very best prospects before being traded to the Tigers for Curtis Granderson during the 2009-10 offseason. Jackson is a career .274/.336/.402 (101 OPS+) hitter with 19.9 bWAR in five MLB seasons. He’s turned into exactly the player he was projected to be. Sometimes it all makes sense.

No. 6: SS Eduardo Nunez
Select Quote: “Nunez had a 70 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale and good hands defensively … Nunez has shaky footwork at shortstop, and some question whether he’ll have the range or mobility to stay there.”
What Happened: Oh Nunie. He didn’t hit at all from 2006-08 (.243/.312/.329), broke out with Double-A Trenton in 2009 (.322/.349/.433), held his own with Triple-A Scranton in 2010 (.289/.340/.381), and saw way too much playing time with the Yankees from 2010-13. With New York, Nunez hit .267/.313/.379 (88 OPS+) with -1.8 bWAR and plenty of hilaribad defense:

Eduardo Nunez

Nunez was traded to the Twins last year and did more of the same in Minnesota (82 OPS+ and 0.3 bWAR) while also playing some outfield. If nothing else, he was a goofy guy good for some comic relief. But geez, Nunie’s defense was gross.

No. 7: Vechionacci
No. 8: Garcia

No. 9 : RHP Jeff Marquez
Select Quote: “Marquez shows three pitches that could be 55 or 60 offerings on the 20-80 scouting scale … If his control and command improve to be major league average, Marquez could top out as a No. 2 or 3 starter.”
What Happened: Marquez was a pretty good pitching prospect who had solid yet unspectacular years in 2006 (3.58 ERA in 98 innings) and 2007 (3.65 ERA in 155.1 innings) while climbing from High-A Tampa to Triple-A Scranton. He struggled in 2008 (4.47 ERA in 102.2 innings) and the team sent him to the White Sox as part of the package for Nick Swisher after the season. Marquez returned to New York on waivers in 2011 and allowed one run in five innings for the team that summer. He’s been out of baseball since 2012.

No. 10: RHP Tyler Clippard
Select Quote: “Clippard combines a knack for pitching with solid-average stuff and a strikeout pitch. He profiles as a No. 3 starter and could move quickly.”
What Happened: Clippard was a pretty polarizing prospect back in the day because he had gaudy minor league numbers but the scouting report was just meh. He manhandled Double-A in 2006, posting a 3.35 ERA with 175 strikeouts in 166.1 innings, and although he sorta stunk with Trenton and Triple-A Scranton the following year (4.50 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 96 innings), the Yankees called Clippard up and he beat the Mets in his MLB debut.

Yankee Clippard

The Yankees traded Clippard to the Nationals for Jonathan Albaladejo after the season and that trade has been a disaster. Albaladejo mostly stunk in pinstripes and Clippard took off when Washington moved him into the bullpen full-time in 2009. He’s been one of baseball’s elite relievers ever since, pitching to a 2.64 ERA (150 ERA+) with 10.1 bWAR in an absurd 453.2 innings from 2009-14. Quite the blunder by the Yankees. Oh well. You win some and you lose some.

* * *

Baseball America ranked 27 different players among New York’s top ten prospects from 2003-06, and, of those 27, there is one superstar (Cano), two above-average players (Wang and Clippard), five solid big leaguers (Jackson, Melky, Rivera, Navarro, Hughes), four spare part big leaguers (Arias, Ramirez, Nunez, Tabata), and 15 others who either flamed out or got hurt or turned into up-and-down guys. Other players ranked among the team’s top 30 prospects in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook from 2003-06 were IF Andy Phillips, OF Marcus Thames, RHP Scott Proctor, OF Brett Gardner, RHP Jeff Karstens, and the late LHP Brad Halsey. Gardner’s the prize there.

More than anything, I think this little exercise shows just how ridiculously difficult it is to project future MLB success. Ranking prospects is a fool’s errand but hey, it’s fun and people love rankings, so everyone does it anyway. Quality MLB players come in all shapes and sizes and have all sorts of different backgrounds. Jackson was a basketball prospect who became a big league center fielder. Arias was a stud shortstop prospect who now can’t hit his weight. Navarro looked like a monster who turned into a fringe regular. Cano was an okay prospect before turning into a star. Go back and look through the worst ranked farm systems in history and, inevitably, they produced some decent big league ballplayers.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

According to Tim Graham, Derek Jeter explored purchasing the Buffalo Bills last year. The team eventually sold for $1.4 billion, so I assume the Cap’n was only part of a potential ownership group, but he was there looking into buying the club. Jeter’s made it no secret that he would like to own a team one day, and I guess he doesn’t necessarily mean a baseball team. With something like this, I can’t help but wonder how it would go over if A-Rod was looking into buying an NFL team in the middle of the baseball season.

Anyway, here is your open thread for the evening. The Nets and suddenly Henrik Lundqvist-less Rangers are both playing tonight, and there’s a full slate of college basketball as well. Talk about those games, Jeter trying to buy the Bills, or anything else right here.

A decade of bad shortstops before Derek Jeter

Rickey and Alvaro. (Getty)
Rickey and Alvaro. (Getty)

You can disparage his defense all you want, there is still no argument to be made that anyone other than Derek Jeter is the best shortstop in Yankees history. It’s not even close. Jeter was excellent for two decades in pinstripes, both on the field and the way he represented the organization off the field, and now the Yankees are set to move forward without him.

In the decade before Jeter, the Yankees went through some really terrible starting shortstops. Bad shortstops are not the only reason the team didn’t go to the postseason from 1982-95, but geez, they didn’t exactly help either. Here’s a look back at the guys who manned the shortstop position in the Bronx the decade before Jeter arrived.

1986: The Five-Headed Monster

Bobby Meacham, who put up a 59 OPS+ as the starting shortstop in 1985 and was in the conversation for the worst everyday player in baseball, started at short on Opening Day in 1986, but Wayne Tolleson started the most games at the position that season (53) after coming over from the White Sox at the trade deadline. Mike Fischlin, Paul Zuvella, and Dale Berra all started 15+ games at short as well. Tolleson had an 85 OPS+ and was the best of the lot. Overall, the Yankees got a .227/.295/.283 (75 OPS+) batting line with zero homers and more caught stealings (eleven) than stolen bases (six) out of their shortstops in ’86.

1987: Tolleson, then Meacham

Tolleson started the year as the everyday shortstop but eventually lost the job to Meacham because he hit .236/.318/.261 (58 OPS+) with one homer in the first half. Meacham put up a very nice .275/.351/.423 (109 OPS+) line with five homers as the everyday guy after the All-Star break. Smash them (and some others) together and the Yankees still received a woeful .229/.306/.277 (72 OPS+) batting line from their shortstops that year.

1988: Rafael Santana

Man, I completely forgot about Santana. He originally came up through the minors with the Yankees, was traded to the Cardinals for reliever George Frazier in 1981, then wound up with the Mets from 1984-87. The Yankees got him from the Mets in a totally forgettable five-player trade in December 1987. Anyway, Santana was the team’s regular shortstop in 1988 and he hit .240/.289/.294 (65 OPS+) with four homers in 148 games. The downward trend continues.

1989-91: The Alvaro Espinoza Era

Following the 1987 season, the Yankees signed Espinoza as a minor league free agent, and he spent just about the entire 1988 season with Triple-A Columbus, where he hit .246/.262/.306 in 119 games. But, because he could play the hell out of the position, the Yankees entrusted him as their starting shortstop in 1989. And again in 1990. Also in 1991 as well. During those three seasons, Espinoza hit .255/.281/.318 (68 OPS+) with seven homers in over 1,500 plate appearances spanning 444 games. His defense was good! But my gosh, that’s 1,500 plate appearances the club just threw away those years.

1992: Andy Stankiewicz

Randy Velarde started the year at shortstop but Stankiewicz, who spent the 1990-91 seasons with Triple-A Columbus, got the job in early-June and hit .268/.338/.348 (94 OPS+) with two homers in 116 games. It was by far the best stretch of his career. Velarde, Mike Gallego, and Dave Silvestri also saw time at short in 1992. The amalgam of shortstops hit .248/.317/.331 (99 OPS+) on the season. Compared to 1986-91, this was like getting All-Star production at short for New York.

1993: Spike Owen

Spike. (Getty)
Air Spike. (Getty)

I remember thinking Owen was a baddest mofo around when I was kid because his name was Spike. The Yankees signed him as a free agent during the 1992-93 offseason because he’d just hit .269/.348/.381 (107 OPS+) with the Expos, then Owen hit .234/.294/.311 (66 OPS+) in pinstripes, which was much more in line with the rest of his career. The Yankees traded Spike to the Angels after the season and he put up a 118 OPS+ with the Halos. Go figure. Gallego and Velarde also saw a decent amount of playing time at short in 1993 and they all somehow combined to hit .268/.330/.372 (103 OPS+). That’s good!

1994: You Say Gallego, I Say Gallago

Gallego was the primary shortstop during the strike-shortened 1994 season with Velarde and Kevin Elster — Elster managed to go 0-for-20 on the year — also seeing time at the position. Gallego hit .239/.327/.359 (81 OPS+) with six homers and the Yankees received a .231/.308/.367 (91 OPS+) line out of their shortstops overall. At least Gallego could play defense. Not too many of these pre-Jeter shortstops could say that.

1995: Tony Fernandez

Finally, a brand name. Fernandez made a name for himself as a slick fielder/just good enough hitter with the Blue Jays in the 1980s. He bounced around a bit in the early-1990s before landing with the Yankees as a free agent. Fernandez was 33 at the time and coming off a 106 OPS+ with the Reds in 1994, then, in 1995, he hit .245/.322/.346 (75 OPS+) with five homers in 108 games in pinstripes. Velarde played a bunch of shortstop while Fernandez was hurt in May — that’s when Jeter got his first taste of the show — and overall these guys hit .246/.321/.352 (95 OPS+) with seven homers on the year.

* * *

From 1986-95, the decade before Jeter, Yankees shortstops combined to hit .241/.296/.314 (80 OPS+) with 37 homers in nearly 6,000 plate appearances. That’s a decade of futility. In fact, you can go back even further than that. Before Jeter in 1996, the last Yankees shortstop to qualify for the batting title with even a 100 OPS+ was Roy Smalley in 1983 (126 OPS+). The pre-Jeter years were ugly at shortstop, folks. Let’s hope the post-Jeter years are better.

Prime Time: The Deion Sanders Sideshow

(Getty)
(Getty)

Few athletes in recent history were as physically gifted as Deion Sanders. He was an All-State performer in baseball, football, and basketball in high school, and a two-time All-American football player at Florida State while also running track and playing baseball. Playing one sport at the collegiate level is hard. Sanders played three and was excellent at all of them.

Sanders hit .281 with 38 stolen bases in 76 games for the Seminoles from 1986-87 before the Yankees selected him in the 30th round of the 1988 MLB draft. His football potential was no secret, the Yankees knew keeping him away from the gridiron would be tough, but Sanders agreed to play baseball and the team agreed to let him continue playing football. His first pro contract paid him upwards of $10,000 per week in the minors and included an insurance policy in case he suffered an injury that ruined his football career.

“He’s a good major league prospect, and by that I mean automatically that he could be a starter,” said team executive Syd Thrift to the New York Times that summer. “His greatest asset is his speed, and his fielding is above average. He will learn to be a good hitter; he’s already improved so much in a short period of time. His weakness is only a lack of playing time. I’d hate to see anyone with that talent walk away from the game.”

After signing, Sanders played 28 minor league games in 1988, most in rookie ball but he did climb as high as Triple-A. At age 20, he hit .284/.323/.379 with 14 steals. Sanders returned to Florida State in the fall to play football before reporting to Spring Training with the Yankees. The team assigned him No. 71 in camp — minor leaguers always get high numbers — but Deion’s agent made a big stink, and eventually the team issued Sanders No. 44. ”You don’t have to tell me that,” he said to reporters when asked if he knew who had previously worn No. 44. “He was the man around here for a long time.”

The Yankees sent Sanders to Double-A Albany out of Spring Training in 1989 and, in late-April, the Atlanta Falcons selected him fifth overall in the NFL draft. Sanders hit .286/.380/.361 with 17 steals in 33 games with Albany — his manager: Buck Showalter — and leveraged his NFL career into a big league promotion. ”Football is number one with me,” he said to the Albany Times Union just before the draft. ”This would be a different conversation if we were sitting in Yankee Stadium right now. But to miss half the NFL season for this, that’s crazy.”

So the Yankees called Sanders up at the end of May. He went 7-for-33 (.212) in nine games with the team before being sent down to Triple-A Columbus, where he played 70 games before being called back in September. Sanders was stuck in a contract dispute with the Falcons — he was using the Yankees as leverage in contract talks — and continued to play baseball rather than report to training camp with Atlanta. ”Some interesting things have been going on,” said attorney Eugene Parker to reporters. ”I think it’s fair to say the Yankees have made a serious move on Deion and Deion is listening.”

Sanders played five games in September, including going 3-for-5 with a homer in a game against the Mariners, before reaching a contract agreement with the Falcons and reporting to training camp. The Yankees finished the year 74-87, well out of the postseason race, so it’s not like he abandoned the team in a pennant race. The Yankees outrighted Sanders off the 40-man roster in December just so he could continue playing in Triple-A during the 1990 season should their be a work stoppage. (There was, but it ended in early-April.)

The Yankees and Sanders had a bit of a contract dispute that offseason — once again, he was using his NFL as leverage — but he eventually signed and made the 1990 Opening Day roster as the fourth outfielder. He played very sparingly in April, getting seven plate appearances in eight games before being sent to Triple-A. The Yankees called Sanders back up in late-May, and, on May 22nd, he had a run-in with Carlton Fisk during a game against the White Sox because he didn’t run out an infield pop-up. Fisk cursed at him and told him to run the ball out and Sanders responded by saying “the days of slavery are over.”

Sanders remained with the Yankees through the end of July and was just awful — he hit .158/.236/.271 (42 OPS+) with eight steals in 57 games, mostly as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. He did, however, manage to hit an inside the park home run against the Royals when Bo Jackson, the other two-sport star, missed a diving catch in center field. That was pretty awesome:

Questions about whether Sanders would report to training camp with the Falcons in July persisted all summer. ”I can’t see myself swinging a bat here on Friday night, jumping on Delta, suiting up on Sunday, jumping back on Delta and getting here on Monday,” said Sanders to Michael Martinez in July when asked about playing both sports at the same time. ”I haven’t ruled that out. It would probably be if worse comes to worse.”

Sanders, once again, was using his NFL career as leverage against the Yankees, this time to get a contract extension. The Falcons threatened to reduce his pay and take back part of his signing bonus if he continued his baseball career, but that never happened. In late-July, the Yankees officially cut off contract talks with Sanders, partly because the Falcons were in position to take legal action against them. Sanders the baseball player simply wasn’t worth it, especially since he made it clear football was his top priority.

”Under no circumstances could we offer Deion that kind of salary for the 1991 season. Even so, we still would like Deion to continue with the Yankees and wish him well in whatever he chooses to do,” said George Steinbrenner to Malcolm Moran. Sanders reported to the Falcons and resumed his football career, and, in September, New York placed him on release waivers. The Yankees no longer wanted the distraction. ”It’s just better we part because of the atmosphere here,” said GM Gene Michael to Jack Curry.

All told, Sanders hit a weak .178/.247/.306 (55 OPS+) with five homers and nine stolen bases in 71 games with the Yankees from 1989-90. He was a major distraction off the field in addition to being unproductive on it. Sanders was arrested for assault while in Triple-A in 1989 because he got into a fight with two fans who heckled him, he had the incident with Fisk, he literally drew dollar signs in the dirt in the batter’s box before at-bats, and he was constantly using the Yankees as leverage against the Falcons and vice versa. Deion was so not worth the trouble.

Sanders continued the two-sport thing for a few years, suiting up with the Braves, Reds, and Giants after leaving the Yankees. His baseball career was more or less over by 1997 — he attempted a comeback in 2001 but that wasn’t happening — and to date he is still the only person in history to play in both a Super Bowl (1994 49ers and 1995 Cowboys) and a World Series (1992 Braves). Sanders was an incredible and unforgettable athlete, but he was an awful Yankee.

Willie Randolph and a different path to greatness

(Getty)
(Getty)

Last offseason the Yankees let go of the best hitting second baseman in franchise history. Among second basemen who batted at least 1,000 times in pinstripes, Robinson Cano is the franchise leader in doubles (375), home runs (204), batting average (.309), slugging percentage (.504), OPS (.860), and OPS+ (126). It’s not particularly close in most of those categories either.

A strong case can be made that Cano is not the best second baseman in Yankees history, however. According to both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs versions of WAR, Cano is no better than the third best second baseman in franchise history. Robbie lags behind some others in on-base percentage and games played — he and the team mutually agreed to part ways, for sure, but tenure counts, no? — and, well, in rings too.

You needn’t take WAR at face value to argue Willie Randolph, not Cano or Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Tony Lazzeri, is the best second baseman in franchise history. Randolph is just behind Lazzeri on the all-time hits (1,784 to 1,731) and on-base percentage (.379 to .374) leaderboards at the position while ranking first in walks (1,005) and steals (251). The gap between Willie and second place is 175 walks and 100 steals, so it’s not close either.

The Yankees originally acquired Randolph in one of the least talked about best trades in franchise history. On December 11th, 1975, New York sent workhorse righty Doc Medich to the Pirates for righty Dock Ellis, lefty Ken Brett, and the Brooklyn-born Randolph. Medich was okay after the trade (95 ERA+ in 1,209.1 IP) but never did repeat the success he had in pinstripes (107 ERA+ in 787 IP). Ellis had a 114 ERA+ in 231.1 IP for the Yankees and Brett was flipped for outfielder Carlos May a few weeks later.

Randolph was obviously the real prize though. As a 21-year-old in 1976, he put up a .356 OBP with 37 steals and was an All-Star. He went to four All-Star Games in his first six years with the Yankees and was a catalyst atop the order for the Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss led teams that were winning pennants and World Series titles in the late-1970s. In 1986, Randolph was named the team’s co-captain with Ron Guidry. He and the Yankees eventually parted ways after the 1988 season, when Willie put up a career worst 77 OPS+ at age 33.

Although he was never the biggest name or the biggest star on the team, Randolph was consistently one of the best players on the Yankees during his 13 seasons in pinstripes. He just went about it in a way that was underappreciated at the time. Randolph was a classic number one or two hitter who controlled the bat well but he never really bunted — averaged six sac bunts per year with the Yankees — and had zero power. He had a career .075 ISO and averaged only 20 doubles and four homers per season in New York.

What Randolph did do, however, were two things that didn’t really become highly sought after skills until this century: he drew a ton of walks and played some crazy good defense. Willie averaged 77 walks per year with New York and led the league with 119 free passes in 1980. Not only did he never once strike out more than he walked, he averaged 38 more walks than strikeouts per season while in pinstripes. The closest his strikeout total ever came to his walk total was in 1977, when he walked 64 times and struck out 53 times.

Because he excelled at drawing walks and putting the bat on the ball while having zero power, Randolph managed to post a higher OBP (.374) than SLG (.357) during his 13 seasons in New York. His career numbers are a .373 OBP and a .351 SLG. Only 108 players in history have batted at least 3,000 times and finished their careers with a higher OBP than SLG, and, of those 108, Willie ranks 21st in OBP and fifth in plate appearances (9,461). Of the 20 players with a higher OBP, only two (Dave Magadan and Brett Butler) started their careers after 1975.

Measuring defensive skill is a bit tougher than measuring offense, especially since we’re talking about the late-1970s and 1980s. Among second basemen, Randolph is seventh all-time in games at the position (2,152), ninth in putouts (4,859), tenth in assists (6,336), third in double plays turned (1,547), and sixth in defensive WAR (19.4). Following the 1977 season, Rangers scout Joe Branzell filed this scouting report on Randolph and praised his defense (via Diamond Minds):

Willie Randolph scouting report

On the 2-8 scouting scale (some use 20-80, some use 2-8, same thing), a 6 is above-average and 7 is well-above-average. Branzell gave Randolph a 7 for his range and 6s for his arm strength, arm accuracy, and fielding ability. Clearly, at least one scout considered Willie an above-average defender, which matches his reputation. Randolph never did win a Gold Glove, however, mostly because Gold Gloves are stupid and historically have been a popularity contest more than a “who’s actually the best fielder?” award.

Players like Randolph — powerless bat control specialists on the middle infield — were not uncommon back in the day, but very few were as great in that role as Willie. He drew a ton of walks, never struck out, never hit for power, and played a mean second base for 13 years in pinstripes and 18 years overall. Randolph was a great Yankee, arguably the best second baseman in franchise history, and he did it with a unique skill set that is more highly valued in today’s game than it was three decades ago.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

On this date in 1998, the Yankees named Brian Cashman their new general manager after Bob Watson stepped down. At age 30, Cashman was then the second youngest GM in history. ”I think I’m better prepared than other people for this job because my entire pro career has been with the New York Yankees. I started here right out of college. This is all I know,” said Cashman at his introductory press conference. Eighteen years, man. That’s a long time in that line of work.

This is your open thread for the night. The Knicks, Islanders, and Devils are all playing and there’s a bunch of college basketball on the schedule as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Passan: Yoan Moncada officially a free agent and able to sign

(Jesse Sanchez)
(Jesse Sanchez)

3:55pm: Kiley McDaniel says MLB will now accept a general license from the OFAC and a “sworn statement [from the player] that the prospect permanently resides outside of Cuba and has no intent to return to Cuba.” McDaniel also says this only applies to players who have already left Cuba, like Moncada, who now resides in Guatemala.

3:43pm: According to Jeff Passan, Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is now officially free to sign after MLB changes its rules regarding Office of Foreign Assets Control licensing. MLB had required a “specific license” from the OFAC before a player can sign but presumably now only requires a more basic “general license.” MLB used to accept general licenses but changed their policy a few years ago.

Now that Moncada is able to sign, the Yankees are free to pursue him and can offer him any amount. Had MLB not gotten its act together before June 15th, the team would not have been able to offer him more than $300,000 due to the penalties stemming from their international spending spree last summer. Most expect Moncada to receive a bonus in the $30M to $40M range, which would be taxed at 100% no matter who signs him.

By all accounts, the 19-year-old Moncada is a potential switch-hitting star with five tools. The expectation is that he will settle in as a second or third baseman when it’s all said and done, but I expect whoever signs him to at least keep him at shortstop for a little while to see if he improves. The Yankees are considered one of the “heavy favorites” to sign Moncada and have already had him in for a private workout at their complex in Tampa.

I’m guessing Moncada will have a deal in place before Spring Training. He wants to get paid and start his career, not sit around even longer than he already has. Now that MLB stopped dragging its feet, Moncada can begin negotiating with teams in earnest and get the process started. Since we’re talking about a $60M to $80M up front payment (bonus plus tax), the Yankees should have an advantage over smaller market teams. We’ll see.