Perspectives: Prospects, Suspects, or Both?
by Paul Semendinger
January 14, 2023
Prospects, Suspects, or Both?
(Of course, the answer is both, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.)
I am greatly hoping that Anthony Volpe, Jasson Dominguez, Oswald Peraza, Austin Wells, and the rest of the (very) hyped Yankees' prospects pan out. I hope these players, and others, form the foundation that brings the Yankees some World Series Championships. To be more realistic, I would be thrilled if even one of them becomes the player that many predict them to be - a young difference-maker in the Yankees' lineup.
Yet, as so many get so excited about this next new wave of supposed difference-making baseball players, I take pause. I've heard this all before. I've heard this my entire life as a fan.
"Those kids on the farm... they're going to be great!"
The problem is, most often, they aren't.
I've been a Yankee fan for a long time, since 1977. I remember my first Yankees Yearbook - the 1977 edition (one that literally fell apart the moment I touched it) and being so excited about the photos, the articles, the players, the stars, and more. I remember one section of the yearbook titled, "On The Way Up" which focused on the Yankees' future stars.
Who were the players the Yankees highlighted in that yearbook... the supposed great stars of tomorrow? They were Larry Murray, Bob Polinsky, Doug Heinold, Del Alston, Dave Bergman, Kerry Dineen, Ed Ricks, Denny Sherrill, Gil Patterson, and Jim Beattie. There wasn't a star in that group. Most of those players, in fact, never even made it to the big leagues.
The next year, in the 1978 Yankees Yearbook, Jim Lysgaard, Bobby Brown, Dennis Irwin, Mike Heath, Larry McCall, Darryl Jones, Dave Rajsich, Steve Taylor, Damaso Garcia, Domingo Ramos, Doug Heinold, and Jerry Narron were all highlighted as future Yankees stars.
From an early age, I started to see that predicting greatness from minor leaguers was an inexact science - at best.
I also quickly learned that it wasn't just the Yankees who weren't able to predict future excellence in current minor leaguers.
In 1979, the Topps baseball card company produced a card listed the top three Yankees Future Stars as Brian Doyle, Mike Heath, and Dave Rajsich.
The next year, the three future Yankees stars in the 1980 Topps set were Bobby Brown, Brad Gulden, and Darryl Jones.
In 1981 Topps cited Tim Lollar, Bruce Robinson, and Dennis Werth.
It seemed everyone was making mistakes!
I also remember reading lists of prospects in Street & Smith's Baseball preview magazines, in paperback books like The Complete Handbook of Baseball, and in Baseball Digest year-after-year. It seemed that the vast majority of the players who were supposed to be great... weren't.
It's always been that way, of course.
The reality of all of this is that predicting the future is a difficult business. Since the beginning of the sport, there have been "can't miss" prospects who have missed. There have been consensus "future stars" who never made an impact on the game.
Here are two names: Frank Leja (1954) and Tom Carroll (1955). Those two players were the Yankees' only "Bonus Babies" - young players thought so highly of that they were signed and went right to the Major Leagues.
In the first ever MLB Amateur Draft, in 1965, the Yankees chose Bill Burbach, Danny Thompson, Stan Bahnsen, Darcy Fast, and Tom Shopay. Bahnsen become a Rookie of the Year and had a long career, mostly out of New York, but the others...
More recently, I have accessed the Baseball America top Yankees prospects lists dating back to 2000.
The following is a list of all the Yankees position players who appeared on those lists from 2000-2010: (I did not repeat names who appeared more than once, the #1 prospects are bolded):
Nick Johnson, Alfonso Soriano, D'Angelo Jimenez, Erick Almonte, Deivi Mendez, Wily Mo Pena, Drew Henson, John Ford-Griffin, Juan Rivera, Marcus Thames, Bronson Sardinha, Rudy Guillen, Dioner Navarro, Eric Duncan, Joaquin Arias, Robinson Cano, Ferdin Tejada, Estee Harris, Marcos Vechionacci, Melky Cabrera, Jose Tabata, C.J. Henry, Austin Jackson, Eduardo Nunez, Brett Gardner, Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, Bradley Suttle, Slade Heathcott, Gary Sanchez, J.R. Murphy.
Of that long list, 31 position players, ten years worth of players, a few became solid (or better) Major Leaguers: Nick Johnson, Alfonso Soriano, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Austin Jackson, Brett Gardner, and Gary Sanchez. Should I include Eduardo Nunez? (Why not?) That is 8 out of 31 or just about 26%. But, of note, the bolded future stars, the top consensus picks as the players who would be productive Major Leaguers, none ever panned out as Yankees. And, this wasn't Yankees' hype... this was from Baseball America. They are supposed to be smart about this stuff.
I also searched the Top 50 MLB Prospect lists dating back from 2010 to 2018 on the MLB website. These were the most highly regarded prospects, not just from the Yankees' system, but across the sport.
The following Yankees' minor league position players made the top 50 lists in those years
Jesus Montero (2010, #19), (2011, #9), (2012, #12)
Gary Sanchez (2011, #32), (2013 #36), (2014 #47)
Mason Williams (2013, #41)
Jorge Mateo (2016, #30)
Aaron Judge (2016, #31)
Gleyber Torres (2017, #3), (2018, #3)
Estevan Florial (2018, #44)
Gary Sanchez had some good years, at least with the bat. Aaron Judge is on his way to being a future Hall of Famer (at this point), and Gleyber Torres has been a frustratingly inconsistent player who is still young and can still be an impact player, but otherwise there were a lot of swings and misses.
Of course, I could list the players who came up through the system and succeeded... Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada... And going back I could list Mickey Mantle and Roy White and Thurman Munson. Of course there are prospects that prove to be great. Of course.
But for every Mickey Mantle, there was a Dick Tettelbach.
For every Roy White, there was a Steve Whitaker.
For every Thurman Munson, there was a Jake Gibbs.
For every Derek Jeter, there was a Robert Eenhoorn.
The point here is that most of the players who are targeted, hyped, or predicted to one day be great, just don't make it. That's just the sad and unfortunate reality.
Right now the Yankees have what they consider to be a collection of prized prospects. These kids are the latest group of "can't miss" prospects. The Yankees seem determined to hold on to these players because they just might be the successful players of the future.
And they might be. They just might be.
But, I would argue that the odds are against them.