Yankee Talent Evaluation
Jesus Montero, Photo Courtesy of Tim Farrell, the Star-Ledger
One of the reasons that people engage baseball blog communities like SSTN both as writers and readers is to attempt to evaluate players and more broadly, roster and farm system construction, in an attempt to understand their team’s true talent level for the current time and beyond. In-depth analysis leads all of us to either under-value or over-value certain players and prospects relative to industry perspectives and talent evaluations. I am certainly not immune from this, as like everyone else, I have guys on the current roster in whom I have both semi-irrational belief and unrealistically negative projections. This is particularly true on the prospect side of the equation. Despite the fact that most of us are only ever able to see a handful of a team’s prospects, if any, prior to their Major League arrivals, we develop perceptions of who our favorite prospects are and which prospects are expendable based on short in-person sightings, online videos, prospect publications, and statistical analysis.
At the end of the day, there is so much more information that individual teams have on their players, it is always worth checking ourselves when a team makes a trade that provides a return that surprises. In the modern Cashman era (say since 2008), the Yankees have been among the best teams in baseball at evaluating their own talent.
It is something I have kept in mind many times throughout the last decade-plus as the public has gained more publicly available knowledge regarding young players and prospects. In 2012, the Yankee Universe was shocked when Cashman dealt all-world prospect, Jesus Montero, in a deal that netted them a young starter, Michael Pineda. At the time of the trade, Montero was widely considered a consensus top-3 prospect in the entire sport. In fact, to complete the deal, the Mariners also included a well-regarded young minor leaguer, Jose Campos, to “even-up” the deal. We all know what happened thereafter: Montero never lived up to his prospect status, while Pineda suffered injuries throughout his tenure in pinstripes, never quite establishing himself as a rotation stalwart. Sad though it is to recollect, the Yankees probably won that trade, as Pineda at least still pitches in the Majors and was worth 6.3 bWAR over 509 IP for the Yankees. Reasons for Montero’s failure as a Major League player have been dissected ad nauseam, but there is little doubt but that the Yankees sold high on Montero.
The Yankees have done this continually over the last few seasons as well. Following the 2015 season, the Yankees traded John Ryan Murphy, a guy who had seemingly just established himself as a solid backup catcher who many prospect evaluators felt had a chance to become a starting-caliber catcher, for post-hype Aaron Hicks, who was once a consensus top-30 prospect in the sport, but who had lost significant shine during his struggles in Minnesota. Fast-forward to today, and John Ryan Murphy has barely hung on as a quad-A type of player, while Hicks earned a long-term extension from the Yankees and is a main cog in the Yankee machine (when healthy).
The last trade I want to highlight is a more recent deal involving yet another consensus top-100 prospect. In the 2018-2019 off-season, the Yankees acquired stud pitcher James Paxton for Justus Sheffield and a couple of good, but expendable prospects. Yankee fans were excited to see a homegrown pitcher spin it every 5th day in pinstripes, so Sheffield’s prospect hype was significant by the end of 2018, when he made his Major League debut in September. The jury is still out on that trade, but Sheffield struggled mightily last year at every level, even forcing a demotion all the way to AA just to try to straighten himself out. Admittedly, many prospect observers, like myself, had doubts about Sheffield’s likely big league performance, but his prospect status and value were significant.
All of these deals point to the Yankees’ significant abilities with regards to evaluating and valuing their own talent, but it also gives us some insight into some current Yankee prospects on the cusp of the Major Leagues. Last season, there was significant speculation that the Yankees wanted a starting pitcher at the trade deadline. Brian Cashman acknowledged as much after the deadline passed, noting that the acquisition cost for the available starting pitchers on the market were far too high for his tastes. Many Yankee fans remain incredulous that some seemingly square pegs in round holes, like Clint Frazier, remain on the team. Much as I have come around on analysis that shows the limited upside of some of the current Yankee talent in the high minors and shuttle squad, I think it is important to recognize the meaning of the Yankees’ current reticence to include these guys in deals that could improve the current roster.
As an example, Clint Frazier was a consensus top-100 prospect over multiple seasons when he came to the Yankees via the Andrew Miller trade. He has since become a subject of much division in the Yankee Universe. I myself have waffled regarding my thoughts on Frazier over the years. Lately, my opinion has trended towards seeing the limits of his upside, based on his current defensive limitations and his lost development time to injuries that have likely stunted further development of his plate discipline. Yet, Frazier remains a Yankee, and the tools that made him a popular prospect remain largely intact.
As we attempt to evaluate players and prospects like Frazier from afar, it is important to realize that the Yankees, and Brian Cashman particularly, have earned the benefit of the doubt. While Cashman surely can find deals for some of the guys in prospect limbo, he has resisted, likely for good reason. It is entirely likely that Cashman and crew place a higher value on some of these guys than even Yankee fans and observers, who let’s face it, tend to be total homers when it comes to predicting value. Prospects will break your heart, but in Cashman, I trust. Cashman may just be holding out for the right deal on some of the guys who have either lost their prospect shine or are seemingly expendable based on the current construction of the roster, but it is also possible that the Yankees see something we don’t. Cashman’s crew has earned the benefit of the doubt through demonstrated skills in correctly evaluating their own talent.