Posted: Friday September 15, 2006 12:55PM; Updated: Friday September 15, 2006 5:08PM
Prospect Philip Hughes has been deemed untouchable by the Yankees' front office.
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"Starting with the 2005 draft," says BP's scouting expert Kevin Goldstein, "the Yankees finally realized what everyone else has been thinking forever, which is, Why don't they just flex their muscles here, too? The Yankees had this long stretch where they'd say, 'Who is the best guy there? And whoever wants him, we'll pay him more.' They gave Wily Mo Peņa $3 million and realized they weren't getting the kind of returns they wanted, so then they moved things around and said, 'Let's identify 10 high-ceiling guys and instead of spending $3 million on one, let's spend $300,000 on 10.' And that's where you get Melky Cabrera, and that's where you get Robinson Cano, and that's where you get Jose Tabata."
Prospect guru Bryan Smith, formerly ofBaseballAnalysts.com and a contributor to SI.com, is similarly impressed by Oppenheimer's first two drafts. "The depth he added with shortstop C.J. Henry helped acquire Bobby Abreu from the Phillies, and the team likes what they see from right-hander J. Brent Cox and outfielder Brett Gardner," he said. "Furthermore, the Yankees' deep pocketbooks allowed them to take a risk by drafting a guy like outfielder Austin Jackson in the later rounds, and then paying him enough to return to school. That methodology continued in 2006, when the Yankees took and signed right-handers Mark Melancon and Dellin Betances."
The biggest challenge for the Yankees will be allowing the younger talent to develop. Goldstein notes that all of the Yankees' top prospects are under 21, presenting a two- or three-year gap between Cano, Cabrera and Hughes -- who could be in the big leagues as early as next season -- and the likes of Tabata.
"I do think because of all the draft problems that they had [prior to Oppenheimer taking over], there is a gap in the system," Goldstein says. "There is nothing at Double and Triple A unless you have any faith in infielder Eric Duncan, and I don't. Other than that, there is nothing there except for Hughes. So there is a gap and there is going to be patience that is needed, which will require the Yankees to spend on the free-agent market, which is something they are obviously able and willing to do."
Of course, the Yankees are equipped to fill holes like no other team.
"The Yankees do not have to become a homegrown team," says Abraham. "But every homegrown regular increases the money they can spend elsewhere, be it on free agents or international signings."
This winter, the most attractive foreign talent is a 26-year-old pitcher from Japan, Daisuke Matsuzaka. While financial clout doesn't necessarily always win out with Japanese players (witness Ichiro's desire to play in Seattle), the fact that the Yanks will have Wang on the cheap helps them prepare to make a serious run at Matsuzaka.
Smith expects the Yankees to continue to be both aggressive and successful in signing players from Latin America and Asia. "But it will be Oppenheimer's success with the draft that turns the farm system around, taking the right players early and the expensive players late," he says.
While it should take several years before Oppenheimer's efforts can be properly evaluated, it seems as if the Yankees are intent on applying both smarts and financial aggressiveness in the way they run their farm system, perhaps allowing them to remain atop the AL East for years to come.
Alex Belth is the founder and co-author of Bronx Banter. His biography of Curt Flood, "Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights," is available on Amazon.com.