Posted: Friday September 15, 2006 12:55PM; Updated: Friday September 15, 2006 5:08PM
The Yankees signed slugging prospect Jose Tabata out of Venezuela last year for $550,000. The 18-year-old outfielder batted .298 in Class A this season.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Until recently, the prevailing belief about the Yankees was that their run was about up. Their cycle of success was complete. After finding the ideal mix of a productive farm system and a characteristically aggressive approach in the trade and free-agent markets during the mid-to-late '90s, the Bombers seemed to revert to their old selves after 2001.
Instead of developing their own talent, they returned to the tactics that characterized George Steinbrenner during the '80s: trading their best chips for big-name, top-dollar veterans while breaking the bank in their pursuit of glitzy free agents. At the start of the 2005 season the Yankees' farm system was considered to be underwhelming, with no clear help in sight.
But nearly two seasons later, thanks to the breakout successes of Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang and Melky Cabrera and a budding crop of farmhands, that perception couldn't be any more different from the truth.
"A year ago at this time, these Yankees seemed to be in a 'win now with this group' mode," says Pete Abraham, who covers the Yankees for The Journal News. "Now they have Cano, Cabrera and Wang as transition players with right-hander Philip Hughes, outfielder Jose Tabata and others on the way. There may be no letup."
Jay Jaffe wrote about the Yankees' farm system two summers ago in an article for Baseball Prospectus titled, "The Claussen Pickle," the upshot of which was that while the Yankees lost some good young players from 1994 to 2004, they didn't lose any Hall of Famers. Mike Lowell is the best position player the Yankees have traded in the past 10 years; perhaps Nick Johnson will surpass him one day.
Eric Milton, a No. 1 draft pick, helped land Chuck Knoblauch; Jake Westbrook and Zach Day fetched David Justice. However, "in the two years since that article was written," Jaffe explained recently, "it's even clearer that they've traded away players that were better than what they came up with for their secondary players. Juan Rivera, Marcus Thames or even Wily Mo Peña would have been superior to Ruben Sierra or Bubba Crosby on last year's team."
All of which makes the emergence of Cano, Wang and Cabrera even more crucial as the Yankees look to keep adding to their current streak of AL East titles (eight and counting, with nine almost assured). Sometimes, as the old baseball saying goes, it's better to be lucky than good, and there are many who consider the success of these three players to be, if not a fluke, at least a very pleasant surprise.
Take, for example, how Cano and Wang got their opportunities in the first place. A $200 million payroll buys the ability to survive disastrous mistakes like the 2004-05 offseason, which YES Network analyst Steven Goldman dubbed the worst of the Steinbrenner era, when they signed Carl Pavano, Jared Wright and Tony Womack and passed on Carlos Beltran. But the Yankees can absorb a bad signing like no other team, and in this case a poor decision proved to be a blessing in disguise: Womack's failures hastened the promotion of Cano. (In truth, the Yankees were desperate and willing to try anything.)
Uneven performances, combined with injuries to Pavano and Wright, allowed Wang the opportunity to crack the starting rotation. I don't think anyone would have envisioned Wang winning 17-plus games this year or Cano hitting over .330. But here they are, two key contributors to the 2006 team. Not everyone believes that their success has simply been a stroke of luck, though.
"No, I think it is real," says John Sickels, minor league analyst for Rotowire.com and author of the upcoming 2007 Baseball Prospect Book. "[Yankees GM] Brian Cashman & Co. realized about four or five years ago that they needed to revamp the system and have put more effort into scouting and player development, particularly on the international front."
The Yankees GM, flush with more control than ever after winning a front-office power struggle, refused to trade either Cano or Wang last season, and this year Hughes, the team's shining pitching prospect, was off-limits. Furthermore, "Cashman is firing scouts left and right and making significant changes within the system," says Abraham. "If he continues to get his way, the Yankees could become a player-development machine."
Damon Oppenheimer, a one-time protégé of Stick Michael, is part of the Tampa faction but appears to have a productive relationship with Cashman, as the tensions between New York and Tampa have eased significantly over the past couple of years. Oppenheimer has officially run the last two drafts, but his influence was all over the 2004 draft as well, when he was the VP of player development and scouting.