History Working Against Pitch-Poor Yanks

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The New York Sun

In the 33 years that George Steinbrenner has owned the Yankees, they have done some things very well, like bring in top-dollar free agents, while failing consistently in other things, like developing players through the farm system. This is particularly true in the case of pitchers; the Yankees, first in so many things, have trailed the majors in developing pitchers for three decades.

During the Steinbrenner era, just two homegrown pitchers have racked up more than 100 wins in a Yankees uniform – Ron Guidry (170) and Andy Pettitte (140). Two other farm-raised hurlers, Mariano Rivera and Dave Righetti, qualify as successes based on earning saves rather than wins. A few other pitchers developed by the Yankees were traded away and had success elsewhere, but not many. It’s a thin harvest for 30 years of drafting and development.

In part, the Yankees have been unable to develop top pitchers because of the free-agent compensation system, which says that if a team signs a top free agent, it forfeits its first-round draft pick in the following year’s draft. Beginning in 1979, when they lost their first pick to the Dodgers for signing Tommy John, through 1989, when they again handed their pick to the Dodgers for signing Steve Sax, the Yankees had no first round draft choice in all but one season. It’s tough to develop top pitching when all the top prospects are off the board by the time you make your first selection, some 50 selections into the draft.

The one year the Yankees somehow retained their pick, 1984, is emblematic. The team drafted UCLA right-hander Jeff Pries, who topped out at Triple-A three years later. In his short career, Pries struck out 3.85 batters per nine innings, signifying that team scouts really misunderstood what they were seeing.

Pries embodies the other problem with Yankees pitcher development: when they have drafted – and in recent years the free agency compensation system has frequently worked in their favor – they’ve either drafted poorly or done a poor job of developing the pitchers, however suboptimal, taken later in the draft or signed through international scouting.

Consider the current pitching leader boards. American League ERA leader Johan Santana was a non-drafted free agent signed by the Astros. National League ERA leader Brandon Webb was an eighth-round pick. NL ERA runnerup Bronson Arroyo was a third-round pick. AL saves leader Jonathan Papelbon was a fourth-rounder.

That is not to say that there aren’t former top picks among the leaders; Roy Halladay and Scott Kazmir, both among the AL ERA leaders, were first-round picks. Still, there are an equal number of pitchers not deemed worthy of premium picks and bonuses who developed along the way through good coaching. Mark Buehrle, fifth in the AL in ERA, was drafted in the 38th round, the part of the draft where teams are throwing darts at names. Jason Schmidt, third in the NL in ERA, was drafted in the eighth round. It is said that even blind squirrels find a few nuts. The Yankees pitching squirrel has got to be one emaciated rodent. All he finds are rocks.

The inefficiency of that squirrel has the Yankees spinning in a vicious circle. The lack of pitching from the farm sys tem consistently forces the Yankees to the free agent market to fill out both the rotation and the bullpen. This takes away more draft choices, limiting the number of pitchers the Yankees can sign – and who they probably couldn’t develop even if they did sign – so it’s back to the free agent market for more pitching.

This condition of hopelessness led directly to the regrettable decision to sign Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano prior to the 2005 season, and will probably force the Yankees into the desperate pursuit of Barry Zito and lesser talents after this season is over. Lesser talents may be a misstatement; after Zito are potential free agents like John Smoltz and Roger Clemens, greater talents, but quite old, and who no contender would choose to rely on.

The problem with the free agents-only approach to team construction is that you’re limited to what the market has on hand. It’s like shopping at a supermarket that sometimes has nothing in stock but lemons. You go wanting to buy a steak for dinner, but it’s lemons or nothing. Similarly, the Yankees may visit the winter meat market looking for a staff leader, a pitcher who is durable, resilient, dominating, but all they have is Carl Pavano, so you take him instead.

The Red Sox are putting a lot of pressure on the Yankees. Boston has won nine straight games, while the Yankees have been alternating small winning and losing streaks, failing to build momentum. That the outfield needs help is obvious. The starting rotation, which is two-fifths effective (Mike Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang), and three fifths take-your-guess, needs help as well. If these conditions persist, the Yankees will be moved to make a trade. Ironically, their best trading chip is a pitcher, the 20-year-old right-hander Philip Hughes.

Hughes, the 2004 first-round pick, is now pitching quite well for Double-A Trenton. Unlike past Yankees pitching prospects, for whom excuses had to be made (“He doesn’t throw hard, but he has good control, so…”), Hughes appears to have the whole package. He is, undoubtedly, more talented than anyone the Yankees will trade for, and he may be ready now. Even if he doesn’t make the Bronx this year, the team will need him next year, when pitchers like Wright, Pavano, and Randy Johnson will be another year older and probably no healthier or more effective.

When a team trades tomorrow’s talent for today’s race, it’s sometimes called “mortgaging the future.” That’s incorrect; you can always pay off a mortgage. Once he’s gone, the Yankees can’t recapture Hughes. Trading him would be selling the future and maintaining the cycle of futility. It’s too high a price to pay.

Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for www.yesnetwork.com and is the author of “Forging Genius,” a biography of Casey Stengel.

The New York Sun

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