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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Mailbag: Nationals, Betances, Rotation, Trout

Six questions in this week’s mailbag, so you know what that means: six answers. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything throughout the week.

Storen. (Jamie Squire/Getty)
Storen. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Pete asks: Wilson Ramos is hurt again. Would a trade of either John Ryan Murphy or Austin Romine for Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard work?

I really doubt the Nationals, who have World Series aspirations, would trade on of their ace setup men for a catching prospect who will only be a backup to Jose Lobaton while Ramos is out. If you’re going to shoot that high, I’d ask for Danny Espinosa instead. I’m confident the Yankees can cobble together a quality bullpen from internal options — Clippard or Storen, both of whom the Yankees drafted once upon a time, would obviously help though — but the infield cupboard is bare. You’re ambitious, The Yankees would have to add major sweeter to the pot to build a trade for one of those two righties around Murphy or especially Romine.

Jonathan asks: Dellin Betances has looked great out of the bullpen in ST and in the opener. Is the door closed to him ever competing for a spot in the rotation in the future?

I don’t think he’ll ever start another game in his career. The Yankees stuck it out and tried to make it work with Betances as a starter for a long time, but it never took. He’s had a lot of success in his relatively short time as a reliever and considering that he looked like a lost cause as recently as last April, I’d leave him right where he is and be happy he’s contributing. Betances has said the move to the bullpen helped him because it simplified things, remember. No need to get cute and try to make him a starter again.

Cory asks: Would it surprise you at all if any one of the starting five ended up being the best pitcher of the group this year? Or the worst? There’s a lot to be excited and worried about.

I would be surprised if Hiroki Kuroda ended up being the worst pitcher in the rotation, but that’s about it. The starting staff is very boom or bust in my opinion. It could be excellent, legitimately one of the best in the game, but there’s also a ton that could go wrong and make it one of the worst. The end result will probably be somewhere in the middle. Some things go right, some things go wrong. Such is life.

Anonymous asks: Let’s say the Yankees find some luck and have some of their minor league players come up and have success. Being that they broke their policy and signed Brett Gardner to an extension this year, do you see them signing more of their homegrown players to extensions that seem to be the norm around the league now?

Yes, definitely. Cashman confirmed the “no extensions” policy was a thing of the past after the Gardner deal and it has to be. The game has changed and keeping your own players is incredibly important. Relying on free agency to build your roster year after year won’t work like it did back in the day, when star players were available every winter. Heck, forget star players, even solid regulars are hard to find these days. Whenever the Yankees have another young player worthy of an extension (Ivan Nova? Michael Pineda?), I’m sure they will explore signing him long-term.

(Harry How/Getty)
Trout and some other guy. (Harry How/Getty)

Warren asks: Thoughts on the Mike Trout deal? My initial reaction is seriously? How did he give up that much money especially in light of what Miguel Cabrera just got paid?

I thought it was fair for both sides. Maybe he left a couple bucks on the table, but he is still a player under team control with little leverage. He was going to be with the Angels the next four seasons no matter what. Cabrera was much closer to free agency when he signed his (crazy) deal the other week. Sure, Trout could have asked for ten years and $300M, but I’m not sure he would have gotten it. The Angels might not be in a position to make that sort of commitment right now. Trout has his generational long-term security and he still gets to hit free agency at 29. The Halos have the prime years of the best player in the world under contract. Seems pretty great for both sides.

Anonymous asks: (Regarding last week’s mailbag question about Derek Jeter‘s best teammates) I’d like to see this with best single season WAR during this era. Obviously Ryan remains on the bench. Do other positions change?

So I put together that teammate team for Jeter last week using bWAR accumulated during his career as a full-time player, so 1996 through 2013. Instead of using total WAR — I’m using bWAR because it’s easy to search and it’s perfect for a fun, quick-and-dirty exercise like this — we’ll now use single season bWAR. So the best season by a Yankees catcher during Jeter’s career, the best season by a first baseman, so on and so forth. My only playing time criteria is that the player played at least 50% of his games at whatever position in a given season.

Here’s the single-season bWAR team. Click on the links for the full results at each position:

Ryan doesn’t make the bench because Nix simply had more at-bats with the team last year and accumulated more WAR in pinstripes. Nix had 1.2 bWAR during his two years with the team but he played more games at third base (70) than shortstop (66), which is why I took Ryan as my backup shortstop on the other team. Got it? Good.

The shortstop for this team would be 1999 Jeter (8.0 bWAR), which isn’t very surprising. We could have taken 2005 A-Rod at third base instead of 2007 A-Rod since he had 9.4 bWAR both years, but yeah, I’m taking the guy who hit 54 homers, not the chump who only hit 48. Giambi actually had the best DH season (2.8 bWAR in 2006), but I didn’t want to use him at two positions. If I were to use the same player multiple times, there would be two Mussinas in the rotation plus pretty much the entire bullpen would be Mo. I also pick actually bench/part-time players for the bench.

Anyway, that team is pretty stacked. Granderson is the worst regular position player (by bWAR) and he hit .262/.364/.552 (142 OPS+) with 41 homers during that 2011 season. The gap between the top three reliever seasons and everyone else is pretty big — there were several Rivera seasons in the 3.something bWAR range — but it’s not surprising considering how dominant those three were in those years. The gap between 2002 Giambi the next best first baseman (2009 Mark Teixeira) is almost two full wins. That’s nuts. Then again, Giambi was a monster that year. What a team that is.

FanGraphs Q&A with Tyler Clippard

David Laurilia of FanGraphs interviewed former Yankee and current Nationals closer Tyler Clippard when Washington was visiting the Red Sox last weekend, and the two spoke about a number of topics that I thought were worth sharing. Clippard spoke about having a “closer’s mentality” and the idea of leveraging relievers, why he falls off to the first base side on fastballs and the third base side on offspeed pitches, why he thinks he could go back to starting, plus a whole bunch of other stuff. It’s really fascinating stuff and gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation, so check it out.

Yankees have interest in Tyler Clippard, Craig Breslow

Via Nick Cafardo, the Yankees have varying levels of interest in relievers Tyler Clippard and Craig Breslow. Yankees fans should be familiar with Clippard, who has blossomed into one of the game’s best relievers since being traded away. I can’t imagine the Nationals are going to just give him away though, so I don’t rally expect a deal to happen.

As for Breslow, he’s left-handed and breathing, so of course the Yankees will have interest. He’s got a shiny 2.93 ERA with the Athletics, but ERA is a bad way to evaluate relievers. His real value comes from being able to handle both righty (.207/.291/.331 against since joining the A’s in 2009) and lefty (.240/.290/.388) batters, but Breslow hasn’t been effective against same-side batters this year (.390/.403/.559). That’s probably a sample size thing though (just 62 PA). He’s making $1.4M this year and would be under team control through 2013 as an arbitration-eligible player. He’d be a decent pickup, but not anyone that would save the season.

Past Trade Review: Tyler Clippard

(From Flickr user MissChatter via Creative Commons license.)

Last year, as he continued his ascension as one of the league’s better setup men, Tyler Clippard earned a reputation. He cruised through the first half of the season with a remarkably low ERA, but he had a knack for allowing inherited runners to score. The Nationals’ offense also had a knack for scoring runs just after Clippard had blown a lead. That led to an 11-win season for a guy who pitched just 91 innings, all in relief and mostly in late relief. It begat the term, clipping a win, in which a reliever blows a lead but the offense gives him the win anyway. Last night he was at it again, facing one batter in the All-Star game and allowing a single, but benefitting when Hunter Pence gunned down Jose Bautista at the plate to end the inning. Prince Fielder homered in the bottom half of the inning, and so Clippard was awarded the W.

Only the youngest of fans doesn’t remember Clippard’s time with the Yankees. He was a 9th round draftee in 2003, and he quickly established himself by striking out a batter per inning or more through his first four seasons in the minors. His stuff wasn’t overpowering, but he mixed pitched and employed enough deception to fool minor league hitters. In 2006 he even tossed a no-hitter, which elicited this juvenile response from some amateur hack. Baseball America rated him the Yanks No. 7 prospect before 2007, right behind Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy. It was during the 2007 that he got his first taste of the show.

The Yankees had plenty of pitching problems that year, and by mid-May they absolutely needed a starter. Clippard was struggling in the upper minors — he had a 4.50 ERA between AA and AAA that year — but a need is a need. Clippard came up to start a Sunday night game against the Mets, and he got through it as well as anyone could have hoped: six innings of one-run ball, including six strikeouts. That earned him a longer look, though his next few starts didn’t go as well. After a failure in his repeat performance against the Mets — 3.1 IP, 5 R — the Yankees sent him back down to the minors. About six months later, he was no longer on the team.

That September the Nationals put on display one of their lesser regarded pitching prospects, Jonathan Albaladejo. He made a quick impression, striking out three in 1.2 innings in his debut appearance. He pitched very well that month, allowing just three runs while striking out 12 and walking just two in 14.1 innings. This came after he tore through AAA in a mid-season promotion. The Yankees, wanting to cash in while they could on Clippard, thought they could get a quality major league reliever in Albaladejo, and so made the swap that December.

Albaladejo definitely impressed the Yankees brass, as he broke camp with the team in both 2008 and 2009. There were circumstances involved in both instances, and he was soon after optioned to the minors. But they still liked his stuff, especially his sinking fastball. But with the results not coming, they had little choice but to stash him in the minors. Even in 2010, as he dominated as Scranton Wilkes-Barre’s closer, they hesitated to call him up. When they finally did they saw more of the same: not enough strikeouts, too many walks. After the season they released him and allowed him to sign with a Japanese team. His final tally as a Yankee: 59.1 IP, 4.70 ERA, 5.21 FIP, -0.2 WAR.

After the trade Clippard had his own set of struggles. He returned to AAA for the Nationals in 2008, and in 26 starts he produced a 4.66 ERA, which was in part because he walked far too many batters. This was a problem he faced in 2007 as well, making it seem like a longer-term issue. It didn’t help that he walked seven in 10.1 innings (two starts) during a brief call-up. He still had some promise, but things didn’t look optimistic. He was a guy with average, at best, stuff, and he couldn’t control it.

After the season the Nationals shifted him to the bullpen, and that’s where he began to shine. He pitched 39 innings in AAA in 2009, allowing just four earned runs while striking out 42 and walking 15. Something had apparently clicked. In late June they called him up to the big league club, and he never looked back. He continued to walk a ton of batters, but he compensated by striking out more than a batter per inning. A .197 BABIP helped get him through 2009, but in 2010 that went up to .284 and he was still reasonably effective: 3.07 ERA and 3.18 FIP in 91 innings. This year he’s been even better, lowering his walk rate by nearly a batter per nine while maintaining an 11 per nine strikeout rate. His 1.75 ERA is aided by his .184 BABIP and an astounding 99.4 percent strand rate, but by all means he has gotten the job done.

In the excellent interview with NoMaas, Yankees VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman said of Clippard, “The mistake we made was not seeing what [he] looked like in the pen.” It’s an understandable mistake, but it’s one that the Yankees probably won’t make again. Even the Nationals continued to view him as a starter for another year following the trade. It wasn’t until he had completely disappointed everyone in that role that they tried him as a reliever. Sometimes, that type of move sticks. The Yankees absolutely lost out on this trade, even though it seemed like a minor one at the time.

Is Tyler Clippard the one who got away?

The Yankees’ bullpen has cost them a few games over the last week or so, which really isn’t anything new in April. However, this year we were privy to an added bonus, some revisionist history pieces written about a trade the Yankees and Nationals consummated way back in December of 2007. That’s because over the last ten months or so, former Yankee Tyler Clippard has emerged as a bullpen force for the Nationals while the player he was traded for – Jon Albaladejo – toils away in Triple-A after being unable to make a positive impression in his many call-ups over the last two-plus seasons.

Photo Credit: Matt Slocum, AP

As I’m sure you remember, Clippard was a darling on the interwebs because of his gaudy minor league stats, and make no mistake, they were superb. He struck out 501 batters in 450.2 innings from 2004-2006, finishing among the top five in strikeouts per nine innings in all of minor league baseball each season. If you’ve followed me long enough, then you know that I was never a big T-Clip fan because the scouting report never matched the results, and I took a lot of heat for it. He relied on deception too much for my liking (look at this freaking delivery), and the stuff was merely good, not holy crap good. I acknowledged on more than one occasion that he was probably a back-end starter or reliever in the long run, and not for a team like the Yankees, which is pretty much what he is.

While Albaladejo was busy not missing bats during his many chances with the big league team (including two Opening Day roster assignments), Clippard struggled as a starter in Triple-A before the Nats made the decision to move him to the bullpen full time before last season. Without a doubt, Clippard has been tremendous for the Nationals since resurfacing as a reliever last June. He’s struck out 87 in 77 innings with just 43 hits allowed since, good for a rock solid 3.98 FIP. The ERA looks even better at 2.22, and he’s emerged as the team’s 8th inning setup man in recent weeks. However, there’s a little bit of luck fueling that performance.

Just as he was in the minors, Clippard is an extreme fly ball pitcher, getting nearly two outs in the air for every one he records on the ground (0.53 GB/FB ratio), and because of this he’s pretty homer prone, again just like he was in the minors. In those 77 innings since being called up, he’s given up nine long balls, or one for every 8.2 innings pitched or so. Furthermore, his batting average on balls in play during that time is … wait for it … an unsustainably low .204. Point two oh four! Clippard’s expected BABIP (xBABIP) based on the types of batted balls he gives up (line drives, fly balls, etc) over the same time is a still low .283, but it’s much more in the realm of normalcy. Essentially, he has allowed one fewer hit than expected out of every 11 balls put into play, so we’re talking about 16 hits that should have been charged to Clippard over those 77 innings that somehow ended up being turned into outs.

In addition to the BABIP luck, the percentage of runners that Clippard has stranded is a ridiculous 88.01%. The league average is right around 70-72%. If that were to ever regress back to the mean, his ERA would climb something like a run, a run and a quarter. Stranding runners is not a repeatable skill, though it is somewhat influenced by groundball rates because of the double play potential. However, we’ve already noted that Clippard is an extreme fly ball pitcher, so this does not compute.

Does this mean the Yankees are better off with Albaladejo than they would be with Clippard? No, of course not. They’d like to have him back just like the Mets would like to have Heath Bell back and the Brewers would like to have Nelson Cruz back. There’s no denying that Brian Cashman would like a do-over on that one, but let’s not act like the Yanks let a young John Smoltz get away here. Relievers are very volatile, and signs point to Clippard’s success having a lot more to do with straight up good great luck than true talent.

I’ve seen more than one person say recently that the Yankees screwed up by making the trade, but that’s incredibly easy to say nearly three years after the fact. They traded a surplus prospect with a less than stellar track record at Triple-A and above for a young reliever with a slightly better track record at the higher levels. The Yanks needed help for their beleaguered bullpen, the Nats needed anyone that offered some kind of promise. It really was a swap of spare parts, and Washington got the better of it. To claim the Yankees should have seen Clippard having such immense (luck fueled) success is weaksauce.

* * *

As an aside, take a quick gander at this sample of core peripheral stats dating back to last season…

Pitcher A is Clippard. Pitcher B is a reliever in the Yanks’ bullpen. His name rhymes with Ravid Dobertson. Considering the environment (league and division) each set was compiled in, who would you rather have?

Someone call 911! Tyler Clippard’s been kidnapped! (wait, maybe that’s just the real him)

Some tidbits from LoHud:

Spoke to Brian Cashman this afternoon. He is interested in acquiring a first baseman but offered no comment on Shea Hillenbrand. He did say, however, that he will not be trading Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain or Ian Kennedy.

Hughes has started his throwing program and a few days ago threw off the half mound in Tampa.

Update by Joe: Better news on Hughes: he’ll throw off a full mound this weekend. According to Pete Abraham, “The hope is that he will return by the end of July.” The article also mentions that they’ve signed third-round pick Ryan Pope (the pitcher from Savannah College of Art and Design) and are laying it on thick for Carmen Angelini. End of update.

Good news all around, although don’t think that just because Cash didn’t comment on Hillenbrand that means he isn’t interested; if he said he wanted him, it’d be tampering (I think).

Triple-A Scranton (6-2 loss to Buffalo) it’s not fair that Buffalo can roll this guy out of the ‘pen to protect a 4 run lead…
Justin Christian: 1 for 4, 1 R, 2 K
Kevin Reese: 2 for 4, 2 RBI
Shelley Duncan, Bronson Sardinha & Alberto Gonzalez: all 0 for 4, 2 K – Sardinha threw a guy out at third
Eric Duncan: 0 for 2, 2 BB – 6 for his last 44 with 13 K
Tyler Clippard: 3.1 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 1-7 GB/FB – 38 H, 26 ER, 22 BB, 15 K in 28.1 IP since he beat the Mets in his MLB debut…
Sean Henn: 2.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K
Steven Jackson: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K – 5 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 4 K in 7.2 innings since moving to the ‘pen

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