For as long as the Steinbrenner family has been signing the checks, the New York Yankees have notoriously been the biggest and flashiest spenders in baseballs free agent market. With aging veterans on inflated contracts hampering the roster from top to bottom, the payroll on an MLB imposed $189 million luxury tax is suddenly quite inflexible for an organization that has built the core of its roster through free agency.
Because General Manager Brian Cashman spent so many years forfeiting early draft selections for tendered free-agents, the Yankees farm system was neglected of depth capable of contributing sooner rather than later. This became quite evident last season when the injury bug bit the Bombers harder than any organization in baseball and forced them to scurry the bottom of the scrap heap for replacements.
With so few in house options to resort to, the Yankees have started to place a greater emphasis on player development and how they handle the crown jewels of their farm system. A vital part of that process takes place in Trenton where prospects get their first taste of advanced minor league ball when they suit up for Manager Tony Franklin and the Thunder. Franklin, the 2012 Eastern League Manager of the Year, is regarded by most in the industry as one of the best managers in the minor leagues.
The strength of Franklin is his ability to connect with young talent and get maximum effort out of them. The Yankees have placed great faith in Franklin over the years to guide their premiere prospects through the emotional roller coasters of a long and grueling season. In 2013, Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott, Ramon Flores and JR Murphy were a few of those young guns who leaned on Tony for guidance out of early season slumps.
In a season where the major league club suffered injuries on a seemingly everyday basis, the Thunder too dealt with the same health issues. Franklin will go on record everyday and tell you that he manages each game the very same way, regardless of the nine names in the lineup. In 2013, Franklin had to use a roster of 70 different players throughout the season and was still able to lead his team to a championship victory.
Cashman was in Trenton last season and spoke glowingly of Franklin and the Thunder family for the handling of their young talent. “Tony is an ace. He’s such a pro,” said Cashman. “He’s done so much for our franchise, our players are in great hands with him here. He’s obviously been great here in the community. He’s just got the perfect demeanor for what we’re looking for at this level. Trusting him with our assets at this level has been very easy to do since he came to us.”
Cashman added, “We’re comfortable, more than comfortable sending our assets, our prized possessions through Trenton as they try to find their way all the way up to New York.”
Based on the recent acquisitions of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury, much of the mainstream media has suggested that the organizations off-season spending is a direct reflection of their confidence in the farm system. While that to a degree may be true, the sheer talent within the system is greater than it is generally given credit for. The consensus I receive on a daily basis from fans is that they have heard the names like Heathcott and Mason Williams for a few years but because they have yet to dawn the pinstripes in the Bronx, they view them as busts.
Casual fans, who for arguments sake, make up the majority of baseball fans, dont know very much about a teams minor league farm system. They hear the names in their rare mention during big league telecasts or read them from time to time in the newspaper. The same can be said for mainstream media members who write and evaluate a particular teams prospects; many of them don’t ever see them play an inning in person. Instead, they often times rely on stat lines and box scores alone in their evaluating process, which doesn’t always paint a fair depiction of a player and his value to an organization.
In the case of the Yankees, you can read about how Heatchott and Austin had down years for Trenton in 2013, but a lot of that was hinged on injuries. Heathcott should probably have made his major league debut two years ago had he not had to cope with so many injuries over the course of his career. While his “injury prone” label is fair and just for the most part, he has not lost any of his talent as a player. When he is healthy and in a groove, you would be hard pressed to find a prospect in any system with tools that could compare to his. I covered him all season long before it was cut short and after struggling mightily through April and parts of May, Heathcott really put in extra work and study to swing his way out of a slump. To understand his early struggles, you must first understand that even though he has been around since 2009, this past season was the very first time he had more than 298 at-bats in a season. In a league often dominated by pitching, the advantage for a first-timer definitely is not in the batters box.
Outfielder Mason WIlliams and catcher Gary Sanchez are viewed now by many talent evaluators as the top two position prospects in the Yankees farm system. Both players were summoned to Trenton late last season out of necessity to assist in guiding the Thunder in a thick and heated pennant race in August. After struggling mightily during a tight playoff race, both players proved to be vital cogs in the Thunders hoisting of the league championship trophy. Regardless of their early struggles in important games, Franklin feels as though their development as future major league players is hinged to enduring failure . If a player cracks under pressure in a playoff race in Trenton, they surely cannot thrive in championship haven of the Bronx.
“It’s new to them; how well you can adjust and how quickly you can adjust and figure out what these pitchers are trying to do to you can make all of the difference in the world,” said Franklin. “I think Sanchez is a good baseball player, I think Mason is a good baseball player and I think they’re going to be able to handle it just as well.”
Franklin added, “Never forsake player development for winning. Never do that. I’ve never done that. I don’t think I ever will. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the youngster. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the organization.”
At 21-years old, Sanchez certainly qualifies as a “youngster” and has all of the offensive tools to make an organization foam from the mouth. The questions surrounding Sanchez to this point have been on the defensive side of the game, where he has worked mightily to improve his blocking ability and the process of calling a game. Before every game, Sanchez works with Thunder coach Luis Dorante on catching drills in the Trenton bullpen before catching the pregame bullpen. For such a young player, he has certainly put forth the effort and recognizes the importance of improving on the defensive side of the game. His value to the Yankees or some other organization is maximized as a catcher.
“Gary is young and loaded with tools,” admitted Thunder Manager Tony Franklin. “He is potentially a first-rate, front-line major leaguer. The potential with him is there and he certainly has all of the tools to play at the highest level but he has to play some games down here before everybody anoints him as the next guy there.”
Williams, a 22-year old center fielder is major league ready right now defensively but has to hone his offensive skills in order to make him a viable option in the Bronx. In his first 17 games of advanced minor league ball with Trenton, Williams hit just .153 and was held without a stolen base. After looking over matched in those 72 at-bats, Franklin stuck it out with Williams in the playoffs and watched the speedster turn the corner during postseason. Much like Heathcott did the year before, Williams went to the Arizona Fall League in October and led the Scottsdale Scorpions in hits (23) and doubles (6). For a player that has his game predicated on speed; the continued development of Williams strike-zone judgment and plate discipline will be most vital as he enters next season with the Thunder.
“It’s part of their development,” Franklin said. “It’s about learning how to do this at this point in the year because if you’re at the Major League level and you’re going to play for a championship-level club; this is what you’re going to be asked to do. You’re going to be asked to perform and you’re going to have to do it well. That is the message that I have brought to them.”
Franklin added, “I look for Gary Sanchez to be a third or fourth hitter in the major leagues. I look for Mason Williams to be a leadoff hitter in the major leagues. This is where they’re going to have to perform, and I think they’re very capable of doing that. I don’t care how bad they struggle, they’ve got to play through it. They’ve got to learn how to adjust and get through these difficult times because b0th have the ability to be tremendous ballplayers.”