Thursday, January 19, 2012

Searching For The Next Great Yankee Bat

While the Yankees' shoddy track record of developing young pitching is well-documented, taking a look through the recent history books also shows that they're not exactly churning out Silver Slugger Award winners at the plate either.  The last Yankee position player to come through the system and establish himself as an impact bat at the Major League level was Robinson Cano in 2006.  Before Cano, you have to head back to the mid-90s and the days of Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada to find a homegrown position player who stayed in the organization and became an above-average hitter.  This theme hasn't been as easy a target to criticize the way the young pitching has thanks to the team's deep pockets.  When you're getting major offensive production from the prime years of guys like Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira, it's easy to forget about your young position players.

Jesus Montero was the next in line to become an All Star-caliber homegrown hitter, and had been for some time.  With the immediate impact he made in his cup of coffee last September, the torch was all but dosed with lighter fluid and lit, ready to be passed to him.  Montero was the rare type of hitting prospect who combines great bat speed with tremendous power and a disciplined approach at the plate, a combination that has earned him high praise and comparisons to guys like Manny Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera.  The accuracy of those comparisons can be argued, and it remains to be seen if Montero can live up to those lofty standards, but there is no denying that as a prospect, Montero trumped guys like Cano and Jeter, who were both recognized as good hitters when they were in the Minors, but not to the degree that Montero has been.  I certainly can't recall any comparisons being made between Cano and Rod Carew until he had already been in the Majors for a season or two.

Anybody with half a clue knows that prospects like Montero don't come around every year.  Like an effective John Lackey outing, they are very rare and that rarity is the foundation of their value to a franchise.  In Montero's case, he was even more valuable to the Yankees in that he gave them the potential to fill what could quickly become a need again for them in the form of a productive power bat in the middle of the lineup.  With some of the key core members of the Yankee offense getting older, to be able to inject that kind of production potential into the lineup from within the organization is a huge advantage.

That advantage is magnified even more when you take into account the Yankees' apparent new goal of cutting payroll for 2014.  Accomplishing that goal would mean not only NOT going out and spending lavishly on big time hitters as they have over the past 15-20 years, but also possibly not re-signing some of the impending position player free agents like Swish and C-Grand who already provide major production.  Those at-bats have to be replaced somehow, and the likely method would have been through cheap, team-controlled young players like Montero.  Losing Jesus, the obvious key piece in that cost-controlled replacement plan, in the Pineda trade is more than just a bummer because we wanted to see him play.  It could have a big impact on the Yankees' organizational plans both in the short term and the more distant future. 

With Montero out of the picture, the Yankees must now look to the rest of the system to find the one who will step up and assume Jesus' vacated throne as King of the Position Prospects.  If you check any Yankee top prospects list, like this one for example, you can see that there are plenty of position players scattered through the system who could develop into productive Major League hitters.  The problem is that most of these players reside in the lower levels of the Yankee system and are at least two years away from being able to make any kind of impact at the Major League level.  The upper levels, especially Triple-A, are stacked with lower-ceiling guys like Brandon Laird and Austin Romine, or guys who project as nothing more than organizational players like Jorge Vazquez, a powerful hacker straight out of the Pedro Cerrano handbook.  As it stands, none of these players are capable of filling Montero's shoes and providing a cheap outlet to replace at-bats and production, at least not at the level the Yankees would be looking for.

Further down in the system, the options start to become more intriguing, albeit not without question marks attached to all of them.  Ramon Flores has shown patience and plate discipline well beyond his years, but his size and lack of power raise doubts as to what type of hitter he will be at the higher levels.  Same goes for Zoilo Almonte, who experienced growing pains last season when he made the jump to Double-A ball.  J.R. Murphy really only had his first big year in 2011 and had it cut short by injury.  Slade Heathcott was also shelved by injury and faces questions both about his long-term health and his mental and emotional makeup, and neither he nor Murphy have ever had an AB above High-A Tampa.  And Mason Williams, Ravel Santana, Tyler Austin, and Dante Bichette Jr., while all exhibiting tremendous tools so far, have done it only at the lowest levels and do not have the experience yet to accurately predict how their development will play out.  Williams could be the next coming of Bernie Williams or he could become the next Brett Gardner.  That's not meant to be a knock on Gardner, but would you rather have him in his prime over Bernie?

In looking for Jesus' replacement as the next great hitting prospect, we (and the Yankees) first have to realize and accept that he is not coming any time soon and then focus our gaze on Gary Sanchez.  Sanchez, like Montero, has already made a big splash in his first few years in the system, and has developed somewhat of a "Jesus Jr." reputation amongst scouts/writers/bloggers/fans familiar with him.  Like Montero, Sanchez is a catcher.  And like Montero, he possesses the deadly power bat/patient approach combination that few players have at age 19.  Also like Montero, Sanchez is facing questions about his ability to stay behind the plate long term.  He is big for a catcher, but so far the questions following Sanchez seem more tied to his work ethic rather than his physical skills.  He's just as young as guys like Williams and Bichette, but when you're a catcher putting up a .364 wOBA in your first full season, that tends to elevate your status a bit.  Sanchez is already a consensus top 5 prospect in the Yankee system and the logical favorite to replace Jesus as the premiere hitting prospect in the organization, even if his impact will not be felt for 3 years.

The good news for the Yankees is that their strong organizational depth allowed them to move their #1 prospect for pitching and not leave their farm system a desolate wasteland.  The bad news is that they do not have the heir apparent to Jesus' throne readily available at the higher levels of their system, and may have to get creative with the prospects they do have at those levels as part of their cost-cutting campaign over the next few seasons.  The last time they did something like that with Robbie Cano, it worked out for the best.  But those instances have been the exception rather than the rule for the Bombers over the last 20 years, and as certain players in their everyday lineup continue to age and decline, the greater the need for cheap, homegrown, high-ceiling hitters will become.  There is a vision in the distance in Gary Sanchez, and he will be the one looked to most over the next couple years as the new potential filler of that need.  Here's hoping some of his fellow young'ns live up to their potential and join him.  It'd be nice to have more than one great homegrown hitter come up every 5-10 years.

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