The Bottom Line: Minor Catch 22

Once upon a time, the Yankee farm system was the talk of the town. Players like Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano and Ted Lilly were labeled as potential stars, while other promising players like Ricky Ledee and D'Angelo Jimenez turned into good trade bait. These days, things are different. The media consistently bashes the Yankee minor leagues, and with good reason. The problem is that the very concept that the Yankees use to win, is what might be killing their future.

Free agency is a wonderful thing, meant to help players get the full amount that they're worth.  But MLB has this fun little rule about compensation for free agent signings where, under most circumstances, the free agent's former team gets a compensatory draft pick from the new team.  There's all sorts of twists and turns, and you can read about them here (Insiders only), but the main thing is, the more free agents that the Yankees sign, the fewer draft picks they get and the fewer opportunities they have for really rebuilding their farm system.

New York didn't have a first-round draft pick in 2002, in fact they didn't get to pick until the 72nd spot when they took Brandon Weeden, a starting pitcher that is enjoying reasonable success in the low minors.  In 2003, the Yankees had their first-round draft pick and they took Eric Duncan.  Here's what Duncan's numbers looked like this season:















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Not a huge sample size by any means, but Duncan has been showing promise and some are comparing him to a young Chipper Jones.

My point is that the Yankees need to rebuild their farm system, but they're stuck in a vicious cycle of depleting it.  Every year they trade their top prospects for players that can "help now".  Just this season, they dealt Marcus Thames for Ruben Sierra and they dealt Brandon Claussen and Charlie Manning for Aaron Boone.  The trades deplete the farm system, so that when a player eventually leaves the team, the Yankees need to look outside the organization for help.  This leads to free agents who, in return, cost them draft picks further depriving the Yanks of a chance to rebuild their minor leaguers.

Then it all starts again.  What's left in the minors is traded mid-season for immediate help, and when those half-season rentals leave town, a free agent is brought in to fill the gap.

Now, I'm not knocking free agency.  Free agency is what has made the Yankees what they are today.  But someone within the organization is going to have to realize that for every Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi on the team, there's a Mariano Rivera and a Derek Jeter also.  The Yankees always prided themselves on being homegrown up the middle.  But Bernie Williams, Jeter and Mariano Rivera are aging and Andy Pettitte is a free agent, so unless something is done soon, the Yanks will be almost entirely an imported product.

Obviously, as long as George Steinbrenner is involved, this isn't going to be a huge problem.  People are just going to have to accept the fact that the Yankees are going to be perpetually old because this situation makes it impossible for them to infuse youth into the club. But since Steinbrenner is perfectly willing, and apparently able, to spend $35 million on Gary Sheffield instead of letting Juan Rivera have a crack at a full-time job then the Yankees will almost always have a competitive team on the field.

That is, until a free agent signed to a seven-year deal comes down with a debilitating injury that the Yankees can't avoid, and they're on the hook to pay him for those seven years.  Something like that could affect even the Yankees financially and on the field.  Then the Yankees will be forced to look to their own minor-league system, and they'll be sad to find that there isn't really anything there that can be put to good use.

So please, let's just hope the Yankees see the light and find some kind of happy medium between signing the important free agents and knowing when to say "that's enough."  Let's have less Aaron Boones and Jeff Weavers and more Derek Jeters and Eric Duncans.

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