Thursday, February 17, 2011

How They Got Here: The State of the Yankees

The whole off-season drama with the Yankees is; "Who's going to pitch for us?" The Yankees have a talented minor league pitching prospects, but they aren't ready to pitch by Opening Day. And they have free agents on their staff, with decidedly mixed results. Where that leaves the Yankees as Spring Training 2011 begins, is with a staring rotation with holes the size of fishing nets. Just how did the richest organization in sports get into this mess?

Short answer; they don't develop pitchers.

Since the Core 4 came up together in 1996, the Yankees have developed exactly 1 starting pitcher: Phil Hughes. For years, the Yankees relied on Andy Pettitte and a bevy of free agents. Clemens, Mussina, Wells, Pavano, Wright, Irabu, etc. During that time—from 1996 until 2010, there were 2 pitchers the Yankees bought up that could have worked, but A: They traded Ted Lilly for a headcase, and B: they mishandled Chien-Ming Wang's injury and he is busted for the foreseeable future.

It's interesting to note that, the Yankees were initially reluctant to bring Wang up and showed little faith in him despite his domination of the minor leagues. Wang only was in the rotation, because free agents Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano and Jared Wright all had catastrophic performances throughout 2005. Wang was never supposed to have been given a chance—circumstances and desperation afforded him his opportunity.

In any event, the point is the Yankees have had no real success in developing young pitchers since 1996. Their faith has always been placed—despite much evidence to the contrary—in free agency. Whether it was due to lack of interest, or just plain old incompetence, the Yankees haven't been able to develop a young pitcher and haven't shown any confidence in giving one a chance.

"We're gonna be in it every year," says Hank Steinbrenner. "Every single year." Which is great news for Yankee fans—having an ownership that puts their profit back onto the field is a wonderful thing. Ask the Pirates.

But it also means that trusting rookies to develop is going to usually be a non-starter, especially pitchers. Rookies make mistakes, need time to grow. Check out Randy Johnson's first couple of years, or Johan Santana's, or Tom Glavine's. It takes a bit of time before pitchers find their groove. The Yankees do not have a bit of time.

So here come the free agents. The Kei Igawas, the Kevin Browns, the Jared Wrights. The A.J. Burnetts.

Which brings us to 2011 Spring Training. And a ball club that has a 200 million dollar price tag and roughly 2.5 to 3.5 starting pitchers. Ivan Nova will probably have a starting job, but will also have the added pressure that he has to produce immediately as a starter in the rotation. He wont be afforded the luxury of developing in the bullpen and working his way onto the staff. His growth as a pitcher is borne of panicked desperation instead of prudent development.

Our rivals to the north have in 2 slots of their rotation, potential aces that were home-grown. Both Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz came up young, were allowed to make mistakes (Jon Lester's WHIP his first 2 years was 1.648 and 1.460; Buchholz went 2-9, 6.75 ERA, 1.763 WHIP in 2008), were allowed to get sent back down to AAA to work on their stuff, and generally learn and grow. There is very little chance that the Yankees would have allowed a 2-9 performance or a 1.648 WHIP rookie on their staff. A call would have been made to Sidney Ponson or Shawn Chacon to try to save the season. Development over.

So that is where the Yankees are in 2011. 2 quality starters, 1 recovering starter, 1 journeyman starter and a rushed rookie. And a 200 million dollar price tag.

And tons of hope in the minors but most of them at least a year away. Going forward, the prayers of Yankees fans regarding those talented minor league pitchers are A: don't rush them (remember 19-year-old Jose Rijo?) and B: don't trade them for someone like Derek Lowe or Bronson Arroyo in an attempt to catch the Red Sox in July.

I do appreciate the Yankees spending beau-coup bucks to try to win. But that mindset—of winning every single season no matter what—has placed pitcher development on the back burner and has created a culture of distrust of young pitchers. Win now! has meant "No Growing Pains". Either perform like an All-Star immediately or you're out. Which is a short-sighted philosophy. Overpaying a older, fading pitcher who may not fit your team and who will plug your payroll for years (Brown, Johnson, Wright) instead of taking a chance to develop a younger cheaper pitcher makes no sense over the long haul. Yet the Yankees continue to do it.

Which is how we got here.


blmeanie said...

Nice read. Would be interested in the ones that got away and flourished somewhere else (besides Lilly), there has to be more than 2.

Pete S said...

Ian Kennedy? He had a pretty good year.

blmeanie said...

are there others over the years? Every team has theirs, Jeff Bagwell is the best RedSox example of nothing in return for a young stud (including position players) that went bad. At least for Hanley Ramirez they got value back.

Who are some of the all-time hindsight dumb trades by the Yankees?