One thing we know, no matter how this season turns out — the Yankees need to get younger.
Actually, we’ve known that for some quite time. But come June, the Yankees will hold the 26th, 32nd and 33rd picks in the amateur draft. And come July, depending upon how the season is going, they can trade potential free agents such as center fielder Curtis Granderson and right-hander Phil Hughes for additional young parts. Or they can hold those players, make them qualifying offers and perhaps collect additional draft picks that way.
Free agency is all but dead, with star player after star player signing contract extensions with their current clubs. The Yankees plan to refrain from major spending for another year anyway as they try to get under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold in 2014. For the team with the game’s highest payroll, developing young talent never has been more important.
The Yankees, who visit the Tigers this weekend (Saturday, MLB on Fox, 3:30 p.m. ET), reached their current predicament in part because many of their major leaguers are too old and most of their prospects are too young. But a year from now, the team could be in a much better place, a place similar to where it was a little more than a year ago.
“If you went to March 1 or Feb. 1 of last year and asked, ‘Who has the best young pitching coming?’ the Yankees would have been on that list,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Thursday.
“We had just acquired (Michael) Pineda. You had Phil Hughes, you had (Ivan) Nova, you had (David) Phelps, (Manny) Banuelos and (Dellin) Betances. But look at what happened in a year.
“Pineda blew his shoulder out. Banuelos had Tommy John surgery. Betances took a step backwards in terms of performance. All of a sudden, everything looks different.”
And oh, how it shows.
The Yankees’ starting-pitching depth is diminished. Their lack of depth limits their ability to make trades. And the overall effect contributes to the pessimism surrounding the franchise, even though the Yankees rank a respectable 11th in Baseball America’s minor-league talent rankings.
A couple of high picks wouldn’t hurt — the Tigers, remember, grabbed Justin Verlander with the second overall choice in 2004. But for more than two decades, the Yankees have been at a disadvantage in the draft, victims of both their own success and their free-agent signings, which forced them to sacrifice picks.
Their last top 10 selection was shortstop Derek Jeter, who went sixth overall in 1992. In fact, the Yankees have had only one top 20 pick since then, shortstop C.J. Henry, the 17th overall choice in 2005. And Henry never made it out of A-ball.
The Yankees, like all clubs, have had other big misses as well. Their current club is not devoid of recent homegrown talent — Hughes, Nova, Phelps and fellow right-handers Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson, outfielder Brett Gardner, infielder Eduardo Nunez and catcher Francisco Cervelli. This year’s draft, though, represents a unique opportunity for the amateur scouting department, a veritable windfall.
Not only do the Yankees hold their own pick at No. 26, but they also received the No. 32 pick for losing free-agent first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher and No. 33 pick for losing free-agent reliever Rafael Soriano.
The last time the Yankees had three picks in the first and supplemental rounds didn’t turn out so well. The year was 2001, and the team’s choices — outfielder John-Ford Griffin, shortstop Bronson Sardinha and right-hander Jon Skaggs — appeared in a combined 23 games in the majors. Griffin, at least, was part of a trade that brought the Yankees right-hander Jeff Weaver.
The Red Sox, in recent years, have done a better job with compensation picks. Four of the team’s top 14 prospects, according to Baseball America, were comp picks. One of them was outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., the 40th overall choice in 2011 — and the Sox’s compensation for losing free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre.
The Yankees, if they add the equivalent of a Bradley (or two) and trade for other prospects, can gain strength quickly. They refrained from signing any of the top recent Cuban imports — outfielders Yoenis Cespedes, Jorge Soler and Yasiel Puig — believing the prices were too high for such unproven talents. But the team still boasts an impressive group of young position players — outfielders Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin, catcher Gary Sanchez, second baseman Angelo Gumbs.
The pitching, as Cashman noted, is in a more fragile state. Banuelos is out until next season. Pineda, acquired in the Jesus Montero trade, could be throwing in rehab games by May 1. Right-hander Jose Campos, the other pitcher in the Montero deal, missed most of last season with an elbow injury.
“We’ve got some high-end stuff,” Cashman said. “But it’s younger. The last time I was saying we had high-end stuff coming, it was Austin Jackson, Montero, (Chien-Ming) Wang, (Robinson) Cano. Those guys were all high-end.”
Cashman then rattled off the names of some of the Yankees’ top prospects, adding, “If they take the next step, a year from now, people will be saying a lot different things than what they are saying now, and understandably so.”
A good draft will help. A strategic trade or two would as well.
Bleak as things may appear, the Yankees are far from lost.