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.

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MLB players should consider cheating.

I’ll admit the title is a bit of a misnomer. It should probably be “Some MLB players should consider cheating as it pertains to banned substances some of the time.” Also, before going any further with this, I’d like to point out that this article was inspired by one of my great friends (who will hopefully allow me to share his proposal on how to best resolve this issue at some point in the near future).  For the sake of the article (and dialog in general), let’s put conventional sentiments surrounding ethics as they pertain to athletics on the shelf for a moment*.

* In other words, let’s not just claim players shouldn’t use banned substances simply because it’s “wrong.” Before you all completely hate on me for writing this article, know that my personal beliefs on performance enhancers are not being reflected, but rather, my observations on how players may perceive the current environment are.  I am not really qualified to explain the long term effects of steroids to one’s physical health, so some of my points may be leaps of … ahem, faith. Okay, disclaimers in order … check.

As far as I can tell, the basic motivation for cheating comes down to one primary goal in baseball (and probably sports in general) – that is to obtain a competitive advantage whether it be via skill or durability. For some players, this means transitioning from “subpar or expendable” status to, say, a useful role player. For other players, it may mean going from very talented to exceptional. In any event, I believe certain players in Major League Baseball have much more to gain by cheating then they have to lose compared to others.

Now, I’m not talking about your Alex Rodriguez or your Barry Bonds. Personality traits aside, it’d be completely asinine to claim that either of those players weren’t incredible in their day. Both represent generational talents, who in their prime (and perhaps even past it), would represent an upgrade for any team looking to contend. The problem with cheating for these guys is a matter of perceived legacy. They were always likely to get paid assuming they could stay on the field. If they get caught cheating, the only real jeopardy they’d face is exclusion from the Hall of Fame (assuming the HOF doesn’t change its criteria which I think it will in time). Sure, they may face a suspension as the rules currently stand, but my guess is they’d still typically acquire the big contract more often than not as they’re naturally more gifted than their peers, and being gifted is an expensive commodity.  To put this into clear context, I’m not talking about a guy like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, or any of the other exceptional players in the league.

No, the type of guys I’m referring too are of the Melky Cabrera ilk. Let’s rewind back to 2010. Having been traded to the Braves (in the infamous Javier Vasquez swap) from the Yankees, he was awful. We’re talking a .255/.317/.354 slash line (.292 wOBA) with four home runs bad. For those wondering, that translates out a 77 wRC+ and a -1.1 fWAR. Basically, if all was just in the world, he would have had to pay the Braves for letting him “contribute” to their cause (and he’d probably have to offer a sincere heart-filled apology to [insert generic replacement level player here] for keeping him in the minors). Instead, he was non-tendered as the Braves wanted no part of his $3.1M salary.  But the point stands; at this juncture, Melky barely qualified for any Major League roster spot … anywhere.

But something happened, and no, it wasn’t the invigorating atmosphere of Kauffman Stadium or the refreshingly cool San Francisco air that caused it (presumably). Over the next two seasons with the Royals and Giants, Melky was legitimately good. This past season he was so good, in fact, he even contended for the batting title in the NL (.346/.390/.516, .387 wOBA, 149 wRC+, with 11 home runs). There were rumblings as far back as May, that by the end of the year, he was going to cash in a serious contract too, whether it be with the Giants or another team – some even mused a paycheck as lofty as four or five years, $50-60M (roughly $10-15M per year) which was probably quite realistic. For a guy who was about to potentially face a minor league contract, and who was barely a footnote in Major League Baseball as recently as 2010, that’d be one hell of a pay day.

Obviously, things went a bit differently though. Melky was caught using a banned substance. He didn’t win the batting title (because he withdrew his name from consideration), and he was suspended from baseball for 50 games. Now you’d think that teams might have been worried this offseason that some major performance regression could happen for Cabrera and that his performance as player wasn’t entirely legitimate the past couple seasons. You might reasonably expect that Melky could be an interesting “buy low” type of candidate for a lot of teams looking to strike gold on a player with some question marks along with some potential. Instead, the Toronto Blue Jays set the market with a two-year deal worth $16M – that is to say eight million dollars per season despite the question marks surrounding him! Not too shabby, really.  And if he puts up solid numbers for the Blue Jays for the next couple seasons, he’ll be right back in line for another solid pay day the next time he hits free agency. That’s far more certainty than he had a few seasons ago when he was viewed as nothing beyond a fourth outfielder/depth guy.

So let’s pretend we’re the proverbial little red devil sitting on the shoulder of the next Melky Cabrera for a moment. We’re going to say. “Son, let’s be honest. You suck. Your dream of being a Major Leaguer could disappear very soon altogether. Go ahead; give yourself a boost while you still can. Maybe you’ll turn it around and extend your career a little while (let’s face it, you’re not getting any younger). Maybe you’ll heal faster from your injuries. Maybe you’ll even become more productive like the Melk Man with a just a bit of help, and you’ll put yourself (and let’s not forget your family) in a better position to earn whatever you can while you can! And if worse comes to worst, you’ll get caught, you’ll face suspension, and you’ll be viewed as a pariah. But then again, that sounds a lot like what’s happening right now. Just consider it. You know everyone else is.”

Of course, ironically, Melky still has the footnote to his name.  He’s just substantially wealthier for it.

Outfield Notes: Melky, Ichiro, Andruw, Upton

(Christian Petersen/Getty)

The Yankees need a right fielder and maybe a fourth outfielder depending on how they feel about Chris Dickerson and Melky Mesa, so let’s round up the latest on the outfield search…

  • At least five teams have already shown interest in Melky Cabrera, but the Yankees (and Mets) aren’t one of them. Given the team’s emphasis on makeup and character, I’m guessing they’ll steer clear of the Melkman following his PED fiasco. [Joel Sherman]
  • Brian Cashman said there is nothing new going on with Ichiro Suzuki, though he did acknowledge talking to his agent. The Yankees are reportedly open to re-signing Ichiro and he “strongly wants to stay” with the team. [Chad Jennings]
  • Unsurprisingly, Cashman hasn’t spoken to Scott Boras about bringing Andruw Jones back. The 35-year-old wants to keep playing, but the Yankees figure to go in a different direction after his miserable second half. [Dan Barbarisi]
  • Still nothing on Justin Upton; the Yankees are apparently not involved in any trade talks for the Diamondbacks outfielder. [Jon Heyman]

Mailbag: Melky, Soriano, Swisher, Felix, Garcia

Got seven questions for you this week, so consider this a jumbo-sized edition of the mailbag. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us questions and whatnot.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Countless people asked some variation of: Can/should the Yankees sign Melky Cabrera to a cheap one-year deal after the season following his suspension?

Sure, it’s worth exploring. Based on my last few days at MLBTR, the fans of the other 29 teams are wondering the same thing as well. I suppose the Yankees may have a leg up considering their history with Cabrera, plus the fact that his good buddy Robinson Cano plays here. Either way, I’m sure the club can make a competitive offer if they’re so inclined.

The real question is what kind of hitter do you expect him to be going forward? I don’t buy that testosterone alone turned him into an MVP caliber hitter, but I also don’t think this season’s performance — .346/.390/.516 (146 wRC+) — is a reasonable expectation going forward simply because I don’t believe anyone is a true talent .346 hitter. Not Melky, not Mike Trout, not Miguel Cabrera, not Derek Jeter. No one. If he’s more of a .310 hitter doing forward, that’s still really awesome and shouldn’t be considered a knock. If they can get him for one-year at like, $5-8M to shore up the outfield next season, sure that’s something they should seriously consider. Whether or not it’s actually realistic is another matter entirely.

Daniel asks: The Cubs are offering to turn Alfonso Soriano into a $3M/year player. Any interest in him as a RF solution next season?

This is an unequivocal no for me. Soriano is having a real nice .263/.320/.448 (112 wRC+) year with the bat, but he’s a 36-year-old one-dimensional player. If he’s not hitting homers, he has zero value. Soriano doesn’t walk, doesn’t hit for average, doesn’t steal bases anymore, and doesn’t play much defense either. He’s under contract through 2014 so you’re talking about a $6M commitment for a player that is basically a bad HR/FB% slump away from a forced retirement. Soriano would be like, my Plan F for right field next season.

Brett asks: Let’s say the Yankees don’t re-sign Nick Swisher this offseason and then think like you and let Cano walk after 2013. With Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson (Yankees sign him after Cano leaves) all two years older and currently not even performing that well, as well as a black hole offensively at catcher, do you really think the Yankees lineup will be good enough?

I spy a nice free agent payday. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Well that’s the thing, why are we assuming catcher is a black hole? If they let Cano and Swisher walk, the Yankees will have the opportunity to turn over the second base, right field, catcher, and DH positions in the next two offseason. If you think A-Rod is resigned to being a DH down the line, then you can bring in a new body for third base. That four of the nine lineup spots they have to work with. Plenty of room to add some offensive punch.

Bill asks: So with Swisher all but assuredly leaving next year, what do you think the chances are he ends up in Boston? The team needs some pop in right field and they need a good clubhouse guy, with everything that is going on in Boston right now. Think this is a possibility?

Absolutely. If for whatever reason the Yankees had declined his option last offseason, I think the Red Sox would have been the first team to call Swisher’s agent. Pretty much every contending team in need of a bat — the Rangers, Dodgers, Braves, Tigers, Giants, Reds, etc. — figures to have some interest because he’s versatile (corner outfield or first base) and a switch-hitter. Swisher could go 0-for-October and he’ll still have plenty of suitors on the free agent market after the winter.

Sal asks: Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where teams start structuring contracts so that players are paid appropriately in their peak years but the contract dollars are “tapered” in the end years so that they don’t over pay for a players decline?

No, definitely not. I’m sure the club would love it, but I highly doubt the players and agents would. I think it’s pretty normal to want to make more money the older you get, which is why most multi-year contracts include some kind of year-to-year raise. Another part of this is that most GMs won’t be around to see the end of the multi-year contracts they hand out, specifically the big six and seven-year ones. What do I care if I saddle the next GM with a back contract when I could win right now and enhance my reputation? It’s a good idea, but I don’t think the players and agents would go for it.

I found this floating around on Twitter and have no idea where it originated, but props to you good sir (or madam).

Tucker asks: This is a bit of a hypothetical, but would the Yankees even have the pieces to acquire Felix Hernandez if he were made available? Could the Rangers swoop in and nab him instead?

No, I don’t believe the Yankees have the pieces to acquire any kind of high-end talent like that right now. Not unless they’re willing to dangle Cano and the other club really values him despite being a year away from free agency. The lack of impact, near-MLB ready prospect really hurts them here.

The Rangers could certainly jump in and make a great offer for Felix if they wanted — if you’re Seattle, don’t you have to listen if Texas offers Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt? I have to think that would at least get their attention. The Yankees can’t put together any kind of offer like that right now, so they’re handcuffed on the trade market. As much as I’d love to see him in pinstripes, there’s just no realistic trade scenario for Justin Upton at the moment.

Craig asks: Do you think Freddy Garcia is now (or should be) in the post-season rotation?  Even if Andy Pettitte comes back?  I think I’d rather take my chances with him than Ivan Nova or Phil Hughes.

Right now, with both CC Sabathia and Pettitte on the shelf, yes Freddy would definitely be in postseason rotation. I’d probably have him start Game Two behind Hiroki Kuroda in that scenario, which is … yikes. If Sabathia and Pettitte come back, I would use Freddy as the fourth starter and stick Phil Hughes in the bullpen for October. I don’t see how they could trust Nova in the postseason given his current performance, but he does have about six weeks to figure things out.

Assuming David Phelps is headed back to the bullpen at some point, I’d rank the potential playoff starters are Sabathia, Kuroda, Pettitte, Garcia, Hughes, Nova. Just remove players and bump everyone else up as needed due to injury. I don’t think it’s out of the question that Phelps pitches his way ahead of Nova in the pecking order, but I wouldn’t count on it. I think he’ll run out of innings before that happens.

Thoughts after another win over the Rangers

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Yankees have won three straight over the Rangers and seven of their last eight overall, restoring some order to the universe after playing sub-.500 ball for about three weeks. They’re on the verge of sweeping Texas in a four-game series, something that was honestly unthinkable when the week began. The Yankees are playing so well and with the quick turn-around for the afternoon game today, there’s no use for a focused post this morning. Instead, here is a collection of some random thoughts. Feel free to expand or add to the discussion in the comments…

1. I think that we, as a fanbase, don’t give Freddy Garcia enough credit. He had that brutal April and it seems to have lingered in everyone’s minds, but he’s been rock solid ever since regardless of role (starter or reliever). Part of the problem is that he doesn’t fit the profile of the type of pitcher that usually succeeds in the AL East. He’s not a hard-thrower and he doesn’t miss bats, but he generates lots of weak contact and simply outsmarts hitters. When I saw the weather prior to the game last night, my thought was that the Yankees were in pretty good shape because Garcia’s a veteran starter who has pitched through everything. A little rain wouldn’t bother him. Freddy really does deserve a lot of credit for stepping up once Andy Pettitte went down.

2. He isn’t going to continue hitting this well through the end of the season and into the playoffs, but don’t the Yankees have to find a way to keep Eric Chavez in the lineup once Alex Rodriguez comes off the DL? They could get him three or four starts a week at third base and/or DH, but to do so they would have to take some playing time away from Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez. I suppose they could platoon those two and use Ichiro in left for the fly ball pitchers (Phil Hughes and Garcia) while Ibanez gets the call for the ground-ballers (CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova). Either way, Chavez has been far too productive to turn him back into a once-a-week type player. Someone’s going to lose at-bats when A-Rod comes back and it shouldn’t be him.

(AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr)

3. Isn’t this Melky Cabrera stuff just sad? You know I’m not the biggest Melky fan in the world, but it’s sad because he was so close to a life-changing contract. We have no idea how much the added testosterone helped his performance, but the story about him getting into shape and taking his career seriously after getting released by the Braves seemed completely plausible. Melky always had some skills, he makes lots of contact and he has a pretty good idea of the strike zone, so it’s not completely unexpected that he turned into a BABIP machine during his peak years. Now his free agent value is destroyed — I was thinking something along the lines of six years and $80-90M this offseason, but he might have to settle for a one-year, prove yourself contract now. He was staring at money that would put his great great great grandkids through college, now he has to do it all over again to land that kind of payday. Rough.

4. On the heels of his perfect game yesterday — which was just absolutely brilliant, I can’t tell you how filthy he was if you didn’t see it — would you take Felix Hernandez over any other pitcher if you had one game to win? I’m pretty sure I would. The top three names that immediately jumped to mind for me were Felix, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw, but I’d rather have Hernandez over the other two. MLB Network joked (or maybe it wasn’t a joke) yesterday that the ninth inning of the perfect game were the three biggest outs of his career, and that kinda bummed me out. Felix has never pitched in the postseason and only once have the Mariners finished above third place during his career, but he just seems to give off that vibe that he would be untouchable on the big stage. Maybe I’m completely off the mark here, but he always seems to perform his best when facing top teams like the Yankees or Red Sox or Rangers or the Rays yesterday.

5. Is this not the most likable Yankees team in quite some time? At least since the 2009 squad, and I think you might even be able to go back farther than that. The mid-aughts teams were just awful in that regard, full of grumpy and unlikeable players that came off as far too corporate (Gary Sheffield and Kevin Brown stand out as notable examples). This team has likeable players all over the place, from Chavez to Sabathia to Kuroda to Curtis Granderson to Robinson Cano to many others. They’re all just very easy to root for and it makes the whole baseball fan experience that much better. The Yankees placed a renewed emphasis on makeup and character a few years ago, and I think this is a byproduct.

NL shuts out AL in 2012 All-Star Game

The National League wrecked the American League on Tuesday night, winning the 2012 All-Star Game by the score of 8-0. Starter Justin Verlander gets most of the blame after allowing five runs before his teammates even got to hit in the first inning. Former Yankee Melky Cabrera took home the MVP Award thanks to his 2-for-3 showing. He hit a two-run homer off Matt Harrison. It was the NL’s third straight All-Star Game win.

As for the Yankees, captain Derek Jeter went 1-for-2 with an infield single off Matt Cain. Robinson Cano went 1-for-2 with a ground ball single up the middle (off Stephen Strasburg) and Curtis Granderson went 0-for-2 with a fly out and a ground out. All three started the game at their regular positions and played five innings in the field. CC Sabathia was selected to the game but did not pitch due to his groin strain. Cano left his good friend Melky hanging on the above high-five attempt following his homer, so that was pretty funny.

More importantly, the National League has clinched home field advantage in the World Series. That’s pretty unfortunate. The Yankees are legitimate contenders and should they make it to the Fall Classic, it would have been nice to both open the series as well as play a potential Game Seven at home in the Bronx. Oh well, they’ll just have to do it the hard way.

[box score] [WPA graph] [.gif via  @bubbaprog]

Kevin Long talks about Melky Cabrera, superstar

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

As you know, former Yankee Melky Cabrera has been one of the very best players in all of baseball this season. He’s hitting .363/.399/.532 with a league-leading 101 hits for the Giants, resulting in 3.0 fWAR and a .401 wOBA that rank 10th and 14th in MLB, respectively. Melky broke out with the Royals last season — .349 wOBA and 4.2 fWAR — but he’s taken his game to another level in 2012.

Cabrera’s career was basically left for dead after 2010, when he was literally the worst player in baseball (-1.0 fWAR) before being released by the Braves. Melky was never a great player for the Yankees but he wasn’t terrible, just a useful fourth outfielder that often played full-time. Getting cut by Atlanta seems to have been the wake-up call he needed to start taking his career seriously, as hitting coach Kevin Long indicated to Joel Sherman

“He’s a hell of a player,” said Long. “He has totally gotten committed to his career. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t take anything for granted any more. His personal trainer is with him all the time. When you go all in and have talent, this is what happens — and it is evident he has the talent.

“If Melky committed himself to the Yankees as he does now, he would still be a Yankee,” added Long. “And he would say the same thing. He made himself tradeable then.”

Just do a simple Google Images search of “Melky Cabrera Braves” and compare it to “Melky Cabrera Giants” and the difference is obvious. Melky was fat in Atlanta, fatter than he ever was in New York. Maybe it had to do with the huge ($3.1M) arbitration award he received that winter; he just got a little too comfortable or something. I dunno, whatever. Now? He’s not fat. Not even close. He appears to have rededicated himself to baseball after being released and is going to be rewarded with a monster contract after this season.

The Yankees could sure use Melky right now given Brett Gardner‘s injury but so could every team in baseball. He’s been that good, a star-caliber hitter for over 1,000 plate appearances now. Had he not been traded to the Braves three offseasons ago, there’s a very real chance he would not have developed into the player he is today though. Getting traded away by the team that signed and developed you and then getting released is often the worst moment of a player’s career, but it appears to have been a blessing for the Melkman.