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June 23, 2011

Future Shock

Yankees + Prospects = Fear?

by Kevin Goldstein

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It's easy to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to the New York Yankees’ season. They've been riddled with injuries to important members of the roster, they've dealt with serious downturns in performances from aging stars like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, and they had one of their annual one-day media circuses when Posada refused to hit lower in the lineup. However, the team has the third-best record in baseball and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Yet the team could be better, and the Yankees seem to be reluctant—at this point to their detriment—in leaning on young players. For much of the first part of the century, the Yankees didn't have the prospects to help the team due to some downright embarrassing drafts. But that's not the case anymore: A combination of good picks and excellent work in the international market has transformed the system into one of baseball's best, and one that general manager Brian Cashman is happy to show public pride in while insisting that the Yankees want to keep their top prospects as opposed to using them as trade chips come July. For the first time in ages, they actually have the kind of prospects they've been hoping for, but they don't seem to know what they are doing with them.

Take the Brian Gordon situation. Gordon is a fantastic story, but he’s also a perfect example of what's going wrong in the Bronx when it comes to long-term thinking. The Yankees needed a starter, and while Gordon performed admirably in his first turn, the club has very good prospects in Double-A with Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances. If they wanted to avoid the hype train coming to town, Triple-A righty Adam Warren has been surging for Triple-A Scranton and could have been promoted in the same quiet manner Ivan Nova arrived last year. But the Yankees seem almost scared to bring their prospects up. “They just don't seem to trust their young players,” said one big-league executive. “Look at what the Braves did. When they needed a warm body, they had no issue with calling on [Julio] Teheran or [Randall] Delgado, even though those guys weren't fully big league-ready.” Nobody is saying to call up one of the new Killer B’s for good, but to go through all of the machinations for Gordon instead of leaning on what the team already has for a handful of outings shows either a lack of confidence in their own prospects, or maybe more telling, an almost perverse fear of failure.

The same applies to position players: The Jesus Montero situation showcases some of the unique variables the Yankees are dealing with. In nearly any other system, Montero would be a big-leaguer, and multiple scouts who have seen Montero play during his disappointing .291/.336/.414 showing at Triple-A say that there is a lack of effort and frustration to his game this year. One talent evaluator said, “He looks like a player who knows he's stuck in Pennsylvania.”

The problem is that calling Montero up would mean benching Posada, and if you thought it was a kerfuffle when Posada opted out of the lineup for one day, imagine him hitting the pine for the most well-known prospect in the system.

The Yankees don’t seem to have learned that when they've been forced to take chances on young players, those risks have paid off. They've done nothing in the draft lately; Brett Gardner represents the only regular player they've drafted and developed since the turn of the century, but New York has thrived in the international market. Robinson Cano was always seen as a good prospect—not a future superstar—during his minor-league career, yet when the Yankees gave him a shot at a job, he turned into an All-Star. That chance only came after the team figured out what everyone else already knew: Tony Womack wasn't anyone's answer at second base.

Here’s a modest proposal: Call Montero up. The Yankees don't have to bench Posada, but they do have to limit his role to get Montero consistent at-bats. New York can give Mark Teixeira the occasional day off, and you can even catch Montero once a week. Sure, he's awful back there, but so is Francisco Cervelli. At least Montero can make up for his mistakes behind the plate when he steps up to it. The next time the team needs a starting pitcher, which is going to happen to any team that is not the 2005 White Sox, call on somebody in the system. Warren and David Phelps at Triple-A are every bit as good as Gordon if the Yankees don't want to make a splash with the Double-A kids, but keep in mind that a quick one- or two-start debut with the up-front knowledge of a return ticket to Trenton regardless of the results can greatly lessen the pressure, both for the player and the fans.

 “The Yankees have made this big deal about their farm system, and they seem to be afraid that if those players fail. People will start asking what have they been making such a big deal about,” theorized a National League executive. The problem is, if the Yankees don't bring the prospects up, the same question applies. 

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Yankees Prospects,  The Call-up

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