Don’t Look to the Farm System for Help
The Yankee season ended in disappointment as Eduardo Nunez’s throw across the diamond arrived at first base a split second before Gleyber Torres’s foot hit the bag. The bottom of the ninth, the ballgame and the Yankees 2018 playoff run was over. It was a frustrating way for the Yankees to go. If Torres had beaten the throw, the game would have been tied with the bases loaded for Andrew McCutchen against a struggling Craig Kimbrel, but that is not what happened.
After moving past the initial shock of such an early exit from the post-season tournament, many Yankee fans took some solace in knowing that this is a young team that will be back next year and for the few years after that. There is some truth to that as key players like Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, Torres, Miguel Andujar, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have some good years left in them, although Gregorius will miss much of 2019. However, the prospect pipeline for the Yankees looks very different than it did a year or two ago. This is largely because Torres, Judge, Andujar, Sanchez and Severino are now impact players at the big league level, but it is also because there is not much left in the system.
Top Yankee prospects are either a few years away like Estevan Florial or Anthony Seigler, major question marks like Clint Frazier or, like eight of the team’s top ten prospects according to MLB.com, pitchers. Overall, the system is no longer very impressive. The highest ranked, again according to MLB.com, Yankee prospect is Justus Sheffield at 31st. The Yankees placed a respectable but not overwhelming four prospects in MLB’s top 100. Prospect ranking are imperfect and always in flux, but these rankings are consistent with what we know about the system-no elite prospects ready to contribute immediately and a lot of somewhat unformed pitching.
Clint Frazier remains the most intriguing Yankee prospect. The likable outfielder had a lost season in 2018. He hit well enough when he got a chance with the big club, posting a .265/.390/.353 slash line in 41 plate appearances, but the nagging concussion related problems that precluded him from stepping in when Aaron Judge injured his wrist still may not have gone away. Frazier turned 24 next month, so is no longer young by prospect standards. He could contribute next year, something that cannot be said of any other non-pitcher in the Yankees system, but he also could see concussions derail his career altogether. There is an upside to Frazier to be sure, but for now the Yankees cannot simply pencil him in as the starting left-fielder in 2019.
Given that starting pitching is a major need for the Yankees, it would seem like good news that so many of the top Yankee pitching prospects like Justus Sheffield, Jonathan Loaisiga and Albert Abreu are pitchers, but the reality is more complicated than that. It is extremely difficult to turn pitching prospects into good pitchers, particularly good starting pitchers. This is a challenge with all players, but a much greater one for pitchers. It is also something at which the Yankees have not done particularly well in recent years. Luis Severino has emerged as a star, but other than Jordan Montgomery who missed most of 2018 with injuries, there are few pitching prospects who the Yankees developed into good starting pitchers in the last decade or so. Given Severino’s second half, and Montgomery’s injury status, even these two success stories head into 2019 as question marks. While it is possible that Montgomery could come back from his injury, Severino could have a solid season from wire to wire and one or more of the pitching prospects could develop into an impact starter, it is foolish to think that all these things will happen. The Yankees will be fortunate if even one of these occur.
This means that the Yankee youth movement that began midway through the 2016 season is at a turning point. It is likely that the farm system will not be sending any more help in 2019, meaning that the Yankees will have to look outside the system to solidify the lineup and more importantly improve the starting pitching. Given how most smart teams, including the Yankees, have changed their views about free agency, this may mean that the Yankees will have to trade a few prospects or young stars to address these problems and that the clock is ticking for the Baby Bombers faster than we might think.
Photo: cc/Shinya Suzuki