The New York Yankees have notoriously been known to be the biggest spenders in baseballs free agent market for a majority of General Manager Brian Cushman’s tenure with the club. Suddenly faced with an influx of aging talent with diminishing skills that has brought forth three straight disappointing postseason finishes, the team is now changing their organizational philosophy, or at least it appears that way.
The standard for the Yankees success is set at a bar much higher than any other organization in baseball or professional sports for that matter. Despite making it to the ALCS two of the last three seasons, make no mistake about it, a World Series Championship is the only token of success in Yankee land. The team has had the highest payroll in baseball for the last decade but have just one championship trophy during that span. Sporting a roster that amounts to one of the oldest in baseball history, the lack of youth is beginning to bear its consequences.
Yankees Hall of Famer Dave Winfield certainly agrees that it is time for the organization to begin shifting the way they construct their team moving forward.
“They’ve got to find a way to win by adding some young players who aren’t at the top of the wage scale, Winfield said. “You have Alex Rodriguez who is making a lot of money and isn’t going to be productive over five years. You’ve got to start working some young people in; you’ve got to do it sooner or later.
Winfield added, “I don’t know who exactly is in their system or whatever the case may be. But, the top guys are getting older. Whatever they do, they can only get younger because they cannot get any older.”
Co-Owner Hal Steinbrenner has gone on the record, publicly stating to the media that it is in his interest to have his payroll at the $189 million MLB luxury tax threshold by 2014. To fulfill that desire, the Yankees have begun to demonstrate this offseason that they will no longer be looking to lure the games grandest stars to the Bronx with wide open check books.
With tighter purses, the organizations player development will be that much more vital to the Yankees ultimate success in the very near future. As an organization with a farm system that some would describe as “middle of the pack,” the growth of the teams top prospects in the next calendar year will certainly influence the personnel decisions Cashman makes on the open market in the months and years ahead.
“I’m a finance geek,” Steinbrenner told the media in November. “That’s my background. Budgets matter and balance sheets matter. If you do well on the player-development side, and you have a good farm system, you don’t need a $220 million payroll. You can field every bit as good a team with young talent.”
Many of those young assets who are viewed as the crown jewels of the farm system will find themselves in Double-A playing for the Thunder in Trenton at some point or another this coming season. Of the Yankees top four prospects as ranked by Baseball America, top prospect Mason Williams-OF and number three prospect, Gary Sanchez-C, will likely open the season in Single-A Tampa before garnering promotions mid-season while number two prospect, Slade Heathcott and number four prospect Tyler Austin will almost certainly open the year together in Trenton’s outfield.
Williams, a speedy and athletic 21-year old left handed hitting centerfielder was a fourth round draft selection out of high school in 2010. Williams hit a combined .298 in 91 games last season between low-A Charleston and Tampa while blasting 11 homers and driving in 35 runs and swiping 20 bags on the base paths. For his age and level of development, perhaps the most important factor about Williams as a top of the order hitter is his plate discipline. In 397 plate appearances in 2012, Williams struck out just 47 times all season and in his three season career which amounts to 164 games (714 plate appearances), Williams has struck out just 92 times. As the team’s top prospects, Baseball America ranks Williams as the best athlete, fastest base runner and best defensive outfielder in the organization.
Heathcott was the Bombers first round draft selection in the 2009 draft (29th overall) and is looking to build off a solid season in which he hit .307 with 5 homers and 27 RBI in 60 games with the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State League. The strong-armed right fielder appears to be fulfilling the promise that so many saw in him before undergoing two shoulder surgeries that have certainly delayed his development. The strong and athletic lefty participated in the Arizona Fall League where he was a key component to the Scottsdale offense; hitting .388 with a home run and 15 RBI with six doubles and three triples in 67 at bats. Given his age and his solid play, I expect Heathcott to begin the season in Trenton.
Sanchez like Williams will likely open the 2013 season in Tampa before coming up to Trenton sometime in the late summer when JR Murphy goes to Triple A. Sanchez is a solidly built, 20-year old right handed hitting catcher who also spent 2012 between Charleston and Tampa. In 435 at-bats, Sanchez hit .290 with 18 homers and 85 RBI; the second straight season that Sanchez has posted double digit home run totals. Sanchez projects by many scouts as a middle of the order hitter with unlimited potential in essentially every offensive category. The Yankees obviously feel strongly about Sanchez, having given him a hefty $3 million signing bonus during the international signing period in 2010. Baseball America ranks Sanchez as the best power hitter in the system and the scouts that I have spoken to feel as though he is below average defensively behind the plate but agree that his bat has so much potential that it will be his meal ticket to the big leagues.
Austin is regarded to be the best hitter for average in the system and in my personal opinion has the potential to be the best player of this bunch. Austin was selected out of Heritage High School in the 13th round of the 2010 draft by the Yankees. In his first full-season in 2011, Austin raised eye brows of scouts and front office executives around baseball when he hit a combined .354 between the Gulf Coast League and the New York-Penn League and effectively placed himself on the prospect map. Austin spent a majority of the 2012 season between Charleston and Tampa before having a cup of coffee with Trenton for their Eastern League playoff run and hit a combined .322 with 17 home runs and 80 RBI with a .400 on-base figure while stealing 23 of 25 bases over 413 at-bats. Austin’s season garnered him the MiLB Breakout Prospect of the Year and Cashman has certainly taken notice as well.
When asked what minor league player surprised him most this past season, Cashman said, “I think it was Tyler Austin. He just catapulted himself up the prospect list with what he did down in Charleston and obviously carried it up into Tampa. He has to have the high mark…he was a prospect, but now he’s made himself a mega-prospect.”