- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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George Steinbrenner lorded over the staff meetings he attended, and as the Yankees prepared for the amateur draft in the spring of 2000, Steinbrenner noted aloud that Jorge Posada was moving closer to free agency.
"We need a catcher," Steinbrenner said. When it came time for the Yankees to make their first round pick, 28th overall, they called out the name of a catcher. He was David Parrish, the son of Lance Parrish and a University of Michigan product, with the kind of pedigree that Steinbrenner liked and recognized.
Parrish also was regarded by executives and scouts with other teams as a fifth-round talent.
"No better than that," said one AL general manager.
Eight years later, Parrish has yet to play in the big leagues, like the vast majority of the Yankees' picks from 1997 to 2005 -- a period in which the Yankees' drafting and developing has been clearly the worst of any team in the major leagues. The Yankees failed to make the playoffs this season, in large part because the team is paying for its inability to generate young talent, as the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Tampa Bay Rays and others have been able to do.
Instead, at the end of the 1996-2001 dynasty, which was built largely on homegrown talent such as Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Posada, the Yankees began a period of free spending on veteran free agents, a habit that often exacerbated their player development problem and increased their reliance on older players.
The Yankees began shifting their draft philosophy after general manager Brian Cashman began overseeing the player development system after the 2005 season, but they still have a lot of catching up to do.
"They're probably two or three or four years behind the Rays and Red Sox and Toronto," an American League general manager said recently.
The Yankees chose University of Maryland left-hander Eric Milton with their first pick in the 1996 draft, but in the nine drafts that followed, the Yankees' draft and development rate can be assessed as nothing short of abysmal. Consider that in the drafts of 1997-2005:
The Yankees produced a total of 10 position players who have appeared in a major league game; that is the fewest of any team in the major leagues, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The 10 position players drafted by the Yankees had accounted for a total of 888 career at-bats as of Sept. 9, which means that not only have the Yankees generated few major league position players, but they have produced no stars, and just a handful of journeymen. The draftees of the Toronto Blue Jays from the same time frame, by comparison, have combined for 27,427 big-league at-bats; the Mets, 11,469.
The Yankees drafted and developed 20 pitchers, which is tied for the 12th-most among the 30 major league teams. However, those 20 pitchers selected by the Yankees have amassed 1,852 2/3 innings in the majors -- the fewest innings for any group of pitchers drafted by any team. The Oakland Athletics' draftees rank first, at 9,686 innings, according to Elias.
The Yankees' thirst for yearly success at the big league level has hurt the team's efforts to regenerate the organization's player development, of course. The unofficial Steinbrenner Doctrine deemed that anything less than a World Series championship has been regarded as a failure. In the moments after the Yankees lost Game 7 of the 2001 World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Steinbrenner said aloud in the team's clubhouse, "There are going to be changes."
And he was right. The Yankees, who already had become a middle-aged team during the dynasty, began relying almost solely on free-agent spending to augment the team, to paper over weaknesses, and the Yankees sacrificed draft picks along the way. From the fall of 2001 through 2005, the Yankees sacrificed nine high draft picks to sign free agents Jason Giambi, Steve Karsay, Rondell White, Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill, Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, Kyle Farnsworth and Johnny Damon. In addition, the Yankees' consistent high finishes in the standings -- propped up by the free-agent signings -- naturally hurt their draft position.
"The bottom line is that there is a lot of value, in the big picture, to have a down year now and then," said a rival GM, "because that's the only way you're going to have a real shot at the elite talent in the draft. You can't say that out loud to your fans, but that's the truth. You might have someone fall through the cracks to you every once in awhile, but the best draft talent is, generally speaking, going to be at the top of the draft."
The Yankees have changed their draft philosophy in recent seasons, selecting the best player on their board, rather than trying to address a specific position, like catcher. They still lack depth among their position-player prospects, but they have done well in landing highly regarded pitching talent, like Joba Chamberlain.
But the Yankees are at a crossroads again. In the aftermath of the frustrating 2008 season, the Yankees have the option of diving back into the free-agent market again and addressing needs immediately. They will likely pursue CC Sabathia, and if they fail to sign him, Hank Steinbrenner already has mentioned the name of A.J. Burnett as a possible offseason target. They could also go after first baseman Mark Teixeira.
If they take that approach, of course, there will, again, be a high-end cost. They probably will lose their first-round draft pick, and their second-round draft pick, and further retard their player development system that was, in the early '90s, the best in the major leagues. A dynasty was born from that, and from that dynasty came the YES Network, support for a new Yankee Stadium -- and an insatiable quest for success that, in the way it was managed, effectively cannibalized the organization.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He updates his Insider blog each morning on ESPN.com.
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