The House That Cash Built
There are certain truisms all Yankees must live by.
You will never wear your name on your back.
You will play clean shaven.
And every decision you make will be in pursuit of a World Series.
Anything else, as so often decreed by George Steinbrenner, the longtime owner and patriarch of the franchise, is tantamount to failure. But that attitude is not always practical in today’s game.
That’s why, when the Yankees hovered near .500 for four seasons from 2013-16, and the game’s new rules made mediocrity impractical, general manager Brian Cashman suggested to owner Hal Steinbrenner that it might be time to go against every pinstriped instinct and tear it all down.
"I could tell you honestly, given the way the chessboard is set up, I recommended to ownership a complete teardown,” Cashman said. "They were unwilling to do that. They said, ‘No, you’re not going to do it that way. Find a different way’ . . .
"The easier play would have been to allow us to drop off a cliff, but ownership, that’s not their way. So basically you engage ownership, give them a couple different ideas. They plot the course.”
Tanking would have left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths and gotten the team roasted on the back pages of the New York tabloids, but the end result might have been worth the headache. Not only have the last two World Series champions come off extended, intentional failure, but both the 2016 Cubs and 2017 Astros appear poised for long-term dominance thanks to young, talented, inexpensive players.
With a complete rebuild out of the question for the Yankees, Cashman and his lieutenants had to find another way to return to the dominance of the late 1990s and early 2000s without completely falling out of playoff contention.
And so they built and traded, making enough moves and free agent signings to stay above water at the major league level, but at the same time amassing six first-round draft picks from 2013-16 and holding onto precious top prospects Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino.
The fruits of Cashman’s plan ripened last season when, led by those same players, they finished one win shy of the World Series.
More than that, they did so while maintaining a farm system that jumped from 19th in the organizational talent rankings in 2015 to No. 2 this year. They made that leap even while graduating impact rookies Judge and Jordan Montgomery and trading four of the team’s top 10 prospects from 2017 to acquire pitching help down the stretch.
So how did the Yankees turn it around so quickly, and without tearing down? Smart trades and signings, exponentially beefing up their analytics department and becoming increasingly rigorous in how they evaluate their own players.
Accurately evaluating your own prospects is crucial to developing and maintaining a top-flight farm system. That is universal. The better you know your own players, the easier it is to properly instruct them as they progress.
More than that, an encyclopedic knowledge of your own inventory helps you rank which players you’re willing to surrender in the right trades, and, as critically, properly identify which players shouldn’t be moved in the first place. And when it comes time to form the final analysis of a player, more opinions and data help solidify the process and add a measure of certainty.
"You can’t underestimate the fact that when we make some of those trades, it’s not like it’s only the information that we had from our pro scouting report that we had in that season,” said Kevin Reese, the Yankees’ first-year farm director. Those evaluations are made by "a collaboration of guys who came from another organization and maybe spent time with that player in the past.
"It’s a collaboration of the amateur scouting reports that we had on the guy—if it’s a (Justus) Sheffield with some of the makeup stuff—and then the same thing on the international side. It’s not just one department or one group that’s doing it, and I think it helps build a sense of team.”
An example of how deeply New York has begun evaluating its own system was on display last year at a minor league game near the trade deadline. The Yankees had a half-dozen scouts in the house, including area scouts, crosscheckers and pro scouts on hand solely watching their own players.
One scout was bearing down so hard that he was grading each and every pitch on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. Once that scouting contingent finished with that club, they moved as a group to the next Yankees affiliate and continued their evaluations.
That level of detail is part of a renewed sense of collaboration in the organization. Similarly, the Yankees also employ two roving pitching coordinators—Scott Aldred and Danny Borrell—and two roving hitting coordinators—Greg Colbrunn and Edwar Gonzalez—to get double the opinions on their players.
"It’s most important that we know our own players and try to get different viewpoints, whether it’s from inside player development or from the amateur scouts continuing to watch these guys grow who they had their hands on before or that came from an outside opinion,” Reese said. "I think Cashman does a really a good job. It’s one of the things that impressed me the most working with him over the years. He’s taking all those opinions and valuing them all and putting different weights on what’s said and trying to paint that final picture.”
Without question, one of the biggest advances in the game over the last decade has come in the analytics department. What was once brushed off by some as a fad is now a vital part of every front office, and teams are continuing to mine Ivy League schools for personnel who can help them better understand the new forms of data being produced every day.
From exit velocity to launch angle to spin rate, a well-oiled analytics department filled with people who can understand the data and, perhaps most importantly, communicate their findings to a broad range of people, is no longer an X-factor; it’s a mandatory part of a winning franchise.
"From where we started, basically just using cameras to go around and have the scouts film guys, that seemed to be cutting edge,” scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said. "Now, we (on the amateur side) have our own analytics guy in Scott Benecke, and he’s really good at communicating with the guys, and the guys really like his input. He understands how to deliver a message that’s going to get the scouts to want to understand it and use the analytics to help us acquire talent.
"And that’s all it is. We don’t get any more points in scouting for using or not using analytics . . . Use what you think works and go get it. We combine . . . the eyes of scouts and then the analytics side of it, and we’re combining it pretty well.”
That last element is key. It’s not analytics at the expense of scouts, but analytics as a complement to what scouts see.
It’s easier today to get everybody in one department on board with that type of philosophy than it was last decade. It’s generally understood within all scouting departments now that you need to be on board with the rising wave of data, or you’re going to find yourself unemployed.
"(The analytics) is amazing,” Reese said. "I started scouting in 2008 . . . and when I used to go out and scout on the road, I’d get the stat sheet from the press box and I’d go to Baseball-Reference.com or The Baseball Cube and I’d look at some statistics and that was the extent of it. But now there’s so much more even in the public realm . . .
"There’s a lot of information out there, and I think it’s extremely important to educate our players and everyone around. As to what this stuff means, I think people are still trying to figure out how to use it in some regard, so just making people aware of what’s available, what we can do, where it can go, I think it’s hugely important in getting everybody to speak the same language.”
When you combine the extra layers of personnel on the scouting and player development fronts with the increased analytical presence, the end result is a much deeper, more detailed level of evaluation than you had in years past. Deeper evaluations lead to deeper understanding of players, which leads to better decisions.
That’s true on all three prongs of player acquisition—domestic amateur, international amateur and professional—as well as in the world of player development, and that’s what Cashman has increasingly stressed.
"We send several people throughout the system to crosscheck who have no bias involved because they weren’t part of their signing process,” Cashman said. "The analytics department . . . they obviously are assessing what the numbers really do mean and continuing to allow us laser focus on areas that need to continue to be reinforced or added to in terms of their development programs.”
"We do a deep dive both ways, from pro analysis to statistical analysis.”
That improved, all-encompassing process can be seen up and down the Yankees’ roster of regulars.
• The most prominent big-money free agent imports are closer Aroldis Chapman and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury.And of the players on the major league roster brought in through trades, so far none has cost the Yankees a player they’d like to have back—though shortstop Jorge Mateo and outfielder Dustin Fowler, from the Gray trade with the Athletics, are nearly big league ready. To pull off that level of success, you have to know your players before you pull the trigger.A similar trend can be seen in the Yankees’ farm system. Of their top 15 prospects, six came from the international market, including No. 2 Estevan Florial, No. 5 Miguel Andujar and No. 7 Luis Medina. Another five came via trades, including No. 1 Gleyber Torres and No. 3 Justus Sheffield, and four were selected through the draft, led by No. 4 Chance Adams.
"We crosscheck the hell out of our system with our pro scouting department, and we try to determine who’s best to hold on to at all costs,” Cashman said, "and who we’d be more willing to utilize in trade discussions. So it involves so many different concepts and personnel and strategies.”
The Yankees placed 12 players who signed internationally on this year’s Top 30 Prospects list. Sanchez and Severino are two of the franchise’s bright young stars. All were signed by international director Donny Rowland and his team of scouts.
In his second full season in the majors, Severino went 14-6, 2.98 and finished third in the American League Cy Young Award balloting. Sanchez hit 33 home runs, a record for a Yankees catcher.
Severino is 24 years old. Sanchez is 25.
"One of the biggest improvements I think has been their Latin American program,” said a scout who has covered the Yankees system for several years. "They’re getting these young guys like Andujar and (Thairo) Estrada . . . coupled with what they’ve traded to get, it’s been a big improvement.”
How did the Yankees make the international portion of their system so strong? It goes back to depth of evaluation.
"I would say probably five-plus years ago, we started to see a bit less failures on high-tooled players who sometimes in the past had been poor performers,” one Yankees official said. "We refocused our plan and improved our processes to allow us to pay much more attention to the whole player, not solely at the high tools, but to dive much deeper as compared to say 10-15 years ago here in Latin America, where a player would get signed out of a workout for big money simply because of big tools. We dove much deeper into multiple looks by multiple scouts over a long period of time, really getting a history with each player that is in-depth and detailed.
"We started to pay a heck of a lot of attention to their performances in games, or sim games or whatever we could create to put them in a game situation, not just from an offensive standpoint or a strike-throwing standpoint as a pitcher, but in all aspects: on the bases, in the infield or outfield, body movement, instincts.”
That attitude has led the Yankees to players like Andjuar, a Dominican third baseman, and Florial, a Haitian outfielder, both of whom the team refused to surrender in trades last season and over the winter.
MiLB Top 10 Prospects Flashback: 2015 International League
Future impact big leaguers Francisco Lindor, Trea Turner and Aaron Judge shine in a deep International League class.
In the 2017 Prospect Handbook, BA ranked the Yankees’ system No. 3 in the game behind only the Braves and Dodgers. A year later, after trading or graduating 14 of the players from that top 30, the system ranks No. 2, behind only the Braves.
There are players who didn’t make this year’s Top 30 Prospects who are still of interest to other clubs. The Yankees had six players picked in the most recent Rule 5 draft, including four in the major league phase. In 2016, that total was seven, including four more in the major league phase.
That depth hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Yankees either. They see it on the field and they hear it from other scouts when they’re out on the road.
"You started hearing it from other organizations’ scouts,” Oppenheimer said. "‘I saw your (low Class A) Charleston team. Man, it was fun to watch. I saw your Double-A team. It was fun to watch. It was loaded.’”
And that depth provides flexibility. Cashman and his staff know not all of their touted prospects will ultimately make an impact in New York.
"It’s kind of like the Discovery Channel and the sea turtles,” Cashman said. "A whole bunch hatch off the beach, but only so many make it to the ocean. The rest of them are getting eaten by crabs and seagulls and dying on the beach. Only a select few actually make it across into the water and wind up surviving for an extended period of time, and that’s kind of the way the system works, too.
"So although we have a ton of talent, and we see that and recognize that it’s a tool-laden system, we still appreciate how difficult this sport is at the highest level to compete and stay healthy and perform, and that only a select few are going to be able to do that, regardless of how deep you are.”
Once the Yankees decide which prospects will be part of their long-term plan for success, they can then set about figuring out how to maximize the trade value of the ones they are content to let go. They’ve already started, shipping promising prospects to the Marlins to get National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton in a blockbuster trade in December.
"They built this club how they wanted,” the first scout said. "Now, you look and they have pieces . . . If they wanted to go out and get something big, they have something to offer.”
It was made clear last summer that the Yankees are ready to start contending for the World Series again, and they did it without tanking and while maintaining one of the game’s top farm systems. It’s been shorter, and much more pleasant, than a full teardown.