Commentary

Yankees' fall from grace stems from years of draft neglect

Originally Published: September 23, 2008
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Derek JeterAP Photo/Kevork DjansezianFor the first time in his major league career, Derek Jeter (aka Mr. November) will not play in October.
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.

[+] EnlargeJeter, Posada, and Rivera
Doug Kanter/AFP/Getty ImagesMariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada each made his debut with the Yankees in 1995.
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."

Not feeling a draft

From 1997 to 2005, the Yankees drafted and developed just 10 position players. In the table below, players are sorted by major league at-bats (through Sept. 9).

Player Draft
year
Draft
round
ABs
Andy Phillips 1998 3 544
Shelley Duncan 2001 2 131
Brett Gardner 2005 3 77
Kevin Thompson 1999 31 65
John-Ford Griffin 2001 1 23
Mike Vento 1997 40 20
Andy Cannizaro 2001 7 9
Drew Henson 1998 3 9
Bronson Sardinha 2001 1 9
Omir Santos 2001 21 1
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.

MLB drafts, 1997-2005 (stats through Sept. 9)
POSITION PLAYERS
PITCHERS
Team # of players At-bats Team # of players Innings pitched
Rockies 24 24,186 White Sox 30 7,637
Diamondbacks 23 19,272 Giants 29 5,937.1
Athletics 22 16,434 Athletics 28 9,686
Rays 21 19,987 Braves 28 3,513
Angels 20 11,873 Cubs 25 6,460
Tigers 20 10,154 Royals 24 4,173.2
Cardinals 19 25,096 Cardinals 24 2,124.2
Rangers 19 19,330 Nationals 23 3,200.2
Astros 19 14,600 Blue Jays 22 4,287.2
Royals 19 10,560 Padres 22 3,471.1
Cubs 19 10,214 Pirates 21 4,904
Giants 19 4,455 Diamondbacks 21 4,439.1
Pirates 18 7,533 Rockies 20 4,003
Blue Jays 17 27,427 Red Sox 20 3,849.2
Nationals 16 13,410 Twins 20 3,009
Mets 16 11,469 Yankees 20 1,852.2
Padres 16 9,419 Phillies 19 5,152.2
Dodgers 16 8,610 Rays 19 4,744.2
Red Sox 15 16,296 Orioles 19 2,968
Braves 15 11,183 Mets 18 2,892
Reds 15 10,886 Rangers 18 2,850.2
Brewers 15 10,219 Angels 17 3,815
White Sox 15 8,335 Brewers 17 2,575.1
Marlins 15 6,845 Marlins 16 3,810.2
Orioles 14 13,502 Astros 16 3,000.1
Phillies 13 17,970 Tigers 15 3,609.1
Twins 13 10,776 Mariners 15 2,375
Mariners 13 3,268 Indians 14 4,049.1
Indians 11 7,009 Reds 14 1,906.1
Yankees 10 886 Dodgers 14 1,867.1

Compensation picks
2006 DRAFT
• Signed free-agent center fielder Johnny Damon; the Red Sox drafted pitchers Daniel Bard (28th pick) and Kristofer Johnson (40th pick/supplemental).

• Signed free-agent reliever Kyle Farnsworth; the Braves drafted pitcher Cory Rasmus (38th pick/supplemental) and shortstop Robert Fontaine (72nd pick).
2005 DRAFT
• Signed free-agent pitcher Carl Pavano; the Marlins drafted pitchers Jacob Marceaux (29th pick) and Sean West (44th pick/supplemental).

• Signed pitcher Jaret Wright; the Braves drafted pitchers Beau Jones (41st pick/supplemental) and Jeffrey Lyman (77th pick).
2004 DRAFT
• Signed free-agent reliever Paul Quantrill; the Dodgers drafted third baseman Blake Dewitt (28th pick) and pitcher Justin Orenduff (33rd pick/supplemental).

• Signed free-agent reliever Tom Gordon; the White Sox drafted pitchers Gio Gonzalez (38th pick/supplemental) and Ray Liotta (69th pick).
2002 DRAFT
• Signed free-agent first baseman Jason Giambi; the Athletics drafted pitcher Joe Blanton (24th pick) and catcher Jeremy Brown (35th pick/supplemental).

• Signed free-agent reliever Steve Karsay; the Braves drafted shortstop James Greene (65th pick) and pitcher Dan Meyer (34th pick/supplemental).

• Signed free-agent outfielder Rondell White; the Cubs drafted pitcher Chadd Blasko (36th pick/supplemental) and shortstop Matt Craig (96th pick).
2001 DRAFT
• Signed free-agent pitcher Mike Mussina; the Orioles drafted second baseman Mike Fontenot (19th pick) and shortstop Bryan Bass (31st pick/supplemental).
1997 DRAFT
• Signed free-agent pitcher David Wells; the Orioles drafted outfielders Darnell McDonald (26th pick) and Ntema Ndungidi (36th pick).

• Signed free-agent reliever Mike Stanton; the Rangers drafted third baseman Jason Romano (39th pick/supplemental) and pitcher Chris Tynan (77th pick).

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He updates his Insider blog each morning on ESPN.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine