Even I, proudly possessed of Southern roots and a Midwestern address, can’t resist writing about the Yankees.

With the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline making threatening phone calls from the attic, the Yankees, as they do every year, are hogging the bandwidth. With the Bombers poised to do something of import over the next 10 days, many have been led to ruminate on the farm system that’s about to be gutted–in as much as you can gut something that is already devoid of innards.

The Yankee farm system, at this writing, is devoid of noteworthy prospects in the higher rungs of the system. Dioner Navarro placed 30th on our 2004 Top 50 Prospect List, but a paltry showing this season has dimmed his star. Robinson Cano is the other name bandied about, but he smacks long and hard of pinstriped fool’s gold. If they wind up parting with those two, it’ll be a little like kicking a cadaver in the groin: perhaps unseemly and not the greatest of ideas, but ultimately the cadaver has more systemic issues to fret over.

That said, as weak as the upper affiliates of Yankee Nation are, there are some prospects in the lower haunts of the system who are most certainly worth watching. Here are my top five Yankee prospects who, for the most part, have yet to see action in the high minors on an extended basis. In other words, these are the guys that the forthcoming Yankee trading partner to be named should be focusing on instead of Cano:

  1. Eric Duncan, 3B, Age: 19

    Duncan, the Yanks’ top pick of the 2003 and a New Jersey product, is, at this writing, the best prospect in the system. And, lest you think that’s damning him with faint praise, he’s a good one by any standard.

    Last season, Duncan split time between the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and the short-season NY-Penn League. In 61 games, he hit .301/.364/.473, showing passable plate discipline and some modest gap-power numbers. Still, nothing wrong with those numbers coming from a prep-trained, cold-weather draftee using wood for the first time. This season, however, is shaping up to a be a breakout year for Duncan. He started ’04 in the Midwest League, where he hit .260/.351/.479. Notable are Duncan’s significant jumps in Isolated Slugging Percentage and walk rate; he drew an unintentional pass in 11.4% of his plate appearances and cracked an extra-base hit every 7.8 at-bats. After a mid-season promotion to the Florida State League, he’s hitting .261/.358/.565 in his first 11 games. Again, the secondary hitting skills are impressive.

    Scouts love Duncan’s left-handed stroke, and in particular his ability to hit for power to the opposite field. He knows the strike zone, and the organization loves his poise and maturity. Some question whether Duncan has the defense to stick at third, and his 23 errors in 84 games have probably done nothing to quell those worries. A possible shift to first is something to keep in mind when considering his long-term ceiling. Still, his offensive potential is impressive in any context.

  2. Tyler Clippard, RHP, Age: 19

    Coming out of a Florida high school in 2003, Clippard had a baseball scholarship awaiting him at the University of South Florida. But an undisclosed rules violation got him booted from his prep team, and it was on to the draft. Although he had high-round talent, Clippard, because of behavioral concerns, tumbled to the ninth, where the Yanks nabbed him with the 274th overall pick and signed him only days later to a modest $75,000 bonus. Clippard hasn’t looked back.

    In his pro debut in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, he tossed 44 innings, struck out 56 and walked only five. This year, he’s been impressive once again at Battle Creek of the Midwest League: 99.2 innings, 99 strikeouts, 21 walks, six homers allowed. On the downside, he does have an elevated hit rate (106 allowed) and is giving up 4.61 runs per game. Still, that 4.7 K/BB ratio and modest homer rate point to his substantial peripheral skills.

    Clippard’s fastball is usually in the 88-91 range, but it does have good movement. His curve is his money pitch, and he’s making progress with his change-up. Clippard shows advanced command for his age, and he repeats his delivery. He’s a long way from 161st and River, but there’s a lot to like about his performance to date. Don’t be surprised if he’s in Tampa before season’s end.

  3. Melky Cabrera, CF, Age: 19

    Signed as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican in 2001, Cabrera hit .283/.345/.355 in the NY-Penn League last year after a strong showing in the Dominican Summer League. This season, Cabrera has hit the statistical trampoline.

    He’s split his time almost evenly between the Midwest and Florida State Leagues, hitting .333/.383/.462 in the former circuit and .309/.364/.457 in the latter (despite Tampa’s hitter-unfriendly tendencies). It doesn’t require an exhaustive level of data mining to see that much of his value this year is built around his batting average–a measure that’s especially prone to random variation. That can be a concern if the skill to hit for average doesn’t hold up, but for now he gets the benefit of the doubt.

    Cabrera is arguably the best defensive outfielder in the system, and he shows good speed on the bases, if not high stolen base totals. He’s also a switch-hitter who uses all fields and handles the bat well. If he’s to gain traction as an elite prospect, at least in this corner, he’s going to need to show more secondary hitting skills. Still, he’s one to watch as he climbs through the system.

  4. Matt DeSalvo, RHP, Age: 23

    A product of Division-III Marietta College, DeSalvo recorded more career strikeouts (603) than any pitcher in college baseball history. But despite the impressive collegiate dossier, he went undrafted until the Yankees signed him as a free agent, fifth-year senior just prior to last year’s Rule 4 draft.

    After inking, DeSalvo put together a strong 71 innings between the NY-Penn and Midwest Leagues: 73 strikeouts, 22 unintentional walks, 2.92 R/G and only two homers allowed. This year, the Yanks, despite some speculation they might skip DeSalvo all the way to Double-A, dispatched him to the FSL to begin the season. Once again, he impressed: 75.1 innings, 80 strikeouts, 29 unintentional walks, 2.39 R/G, one home run allowed. They did in fact promote him to Trenton not long ago, and his performance over his first four starts in the high minors has been a mixed bag. His R/G for Trenton stands at 5.32, but his K/BB ratio is a strong 3.67. He’ll get attention for his sub-2.00 career ERA, but he’s allowed 19 unearned runs in 170 career innings. Still, the supporting skills are impressive.

    DeSalvo’s bag of tricks includes a low-90s fastball, good 12-6 curve and developing change-up. He sports a deceptive delivery, but his mechanics lead some to believe he’ll have arm troubles in time.

  5. Bronson Sardinha, 3B, Age: 21

    A Hawaii native and brother of Rockies prospect Duke and Reds prospect Dane (points off, misspelling), Sardinha was the 34th overall pick of the 2001 draft. He was a shortstop in high school, but since the Yankees signed him he’s spent time at short, left, center and, this season, third. Coming into this year, in three minor league seasons, Sardinha had hit .266/.356/.404, showing some gap power and solid plate discipline. Last season, he foundered in Tampa, but that was after having skipped over Low-A entirely. After the Yankees demoted him to Battle Creek, Sardinha altered his swing and began producing.

    In 2004, he began the season at High-A Tampa, where he hit .315/.398/.403 with a solid walk rate. Yes, he was repeating the circuit, but, as Clay Davenport’s research in BP 2002 showed us, that’s not necessarily an impediment to future success.

    After a semi-recent promotion to Trenton, Sardinha has hit .296/.373/.480. The most troubling element of his statistical profile is the lack of power. He’s seen an impressive uptick in his power indicators since coming to the Eastern League, but he’s seen only 25 games of action there. With an ISO of .138 coming into this year, he’ll need to show some skills growth in terms of power. Sardinha has some loft in his swing, so it’s possible a homer spike will come. Still, if he can make even modest strides with his already adequate walk numbers and improve his gap-power numbers, he’ll be a hitter. How he fares in Trenton for the balance of the season will be telling.

    The other issue is that Duncan is about to pass him for good in the organizational third-base queue. And then there’s something called Alex Rodriguez in his way at the major league level. It’s doubtful that Sardinha has the defensive chops to handle a middle-infield slot, so he’ll need to hit his way up the ladder.