(Not a success story. Courtesy of the AP)
It was almost a throw-away part of Thursday's story in The Post about Rafael Soriano opting out of the final year of his contract, but the report on MiL pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras being reassigned and Gil Patterson being hired away from the Oakland A's to fill the position is actually a much more significant and newsworthy story. This move comes on the heels of longtime VP of Player Personnel and former pitching coach Billy Connors being fired, and signifies that the Yankee brass has had enough of the team's inability to develop quality starting pitching. The team hasn't been short on young pitchers with the potential to make an impact over the last couple years, but they've been woefully short on guys actually making that impact. Too often, we've seen the organization's top pitching prospects fail to reach their ceiling or even reach the Majors, and it's clear that a change was needed.
Since Contreras took over as MiL pitching coordinator in 2005, the Yankees have developed just 3 starting pitching prospects who have made it to the show in pinstripes. And none of those 3 have made what I would call a "big-time" impact. Phil Hughes has gone from a can't-miss future ace prospect to a middle-of-the-pack starter plagued by command issues and a tendency to give up the long ball, and has been shuttled between the rotation and the bullpen. Ivan Nova has had 2 up-and-down seasons defined by a continuing change in his approach that has left him without a guaranteed spot in the 2013 rotation. And David Phelps lucked into a roster spot because of injuries this season, and despite exceeding expectations in a handful of spot starts, he is more than likely ticketed for the bullpen or part of a trade package for next year.
That's a list short on members and short on Major League success, but it is the list of those who have failed to make it or have yet to make it that is much longer and much more concerning. The overall theme of the Yankee pitching development program over the last couple seasons has been a consistent plateauing of production and skills as a pitcher advances to the upper levels of the Minors. Zach McAllister saw his strikeouts go down and his runs allowed go up as he made his way to Double and Triple-A before eventually being traded away. Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, and even Phelps experienced similar trends in their numbers, with Noesi bombing in his Major League debut as a starter this season and Warren ticketed for his 3 straight year in SWB. Injuries certainly contributed, but the seismic shift in Manny Banuelos' K and BB rates upon reaching Triple-A cast some doubt on just where his ceiling actually sits now.
In some cases, it's been even worse than just a failure to continue to develop as a pitcher. Some guys have seen their skills flat out erode away and deteriorate. Former first-round pick Andrew Brackman was hardly able to throw a strike last year, and is now a few more bad outings from flaming out in spectacular fashion in the Reds' MiL system. Dellin Betances has gone from possible future starter to Double-A reliever reclamation project in just a little over 2 years. Sure, there are things in each of those players' individual physical and mental make-ups that likely contributed to their downfall, but some blame should also fall on those in charge of helping them overcome these obstacles and correcting their mistakes.
Even amongst the current group of pitching prospects that has yet to graduate to the Majors, get traded away, or get injured, there are signs of this developmental wall being hit. Brett Marshall has seen his strikeout numbers decline over the past few years, hardly an encouraging sign when he's looking to make the jump to Triple-A. Bryan Mitchell has yet to harness any kind of control over his stuff after 3 years in A-ball. And Jose Campos went down with elbow problems that nobody in the organization ever clearly defined, which makes me very nervous about how he'll end up performing in 2013. This isn't just a few isolated incidents here; this is a long-standing trend of the same problems occurring in the same fashion with new groups of players.
The bottom line is that the Yankee organizational model for starting pitching development seems to be doing more to help pitchers regress or stagnate than improve, and as the man in charge of that development, Contreras had to fall on the sword. The best pitcher the Yankees have developed in my lifetime is still Andy Pettitte, and that's not good. The Yankees bring in a lot of talent through the draft and international free agency, and they just aren't consistently turning that talent into anything that can help the Major League club. With the payroll goals for 2014 looming, that has to change and Gil Patterson is the perfect guy to help bring about that change. He's helped find and develop a ton of capable Major League starters as part of the A's organization, and should bring a fresh new approach to the Yankees' system to help change the developmental culture and unlock more potential in these prospects rather than hold it back.
It's a huge bummer to continue to have to talk about the Yankees' organizational problems in this area, but at least this is a sign that they have noticed it and are taking actions to correct it. This is a step in the right direction, and hopefully we see some positive early returns from this change next season.