Planning for future with prospects new
Plugging youth into team returns to organization's philsophy
TRENTON, N.J. -- Asked when the last time he could think of an "untouchable" Yankees prospect, Double-A Trenton manager Bill Masse reached for his chin and looked up as if to search the depths of his memory.
He really had to think about this one.
"To be honest, I can't name you one," he said. "And I've been with this organization for 14 years as a player and a coach."
Masse was the caretaker of such a player leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. His name is Philip Hughes, the phenom partly responsible for making the usual trigger-happy Yankees a bit more gun-shy this season.
Yes, the Yankees gave up four prospects to acquire perhaps the biggest name, Bobby Abreu, on the market. That's nothing new.
But this year the Yankees weren't going to part with their most talented young players or prospects, something they have done in the past. By all indications, Yankees senior vice president and general manager Brian Cashman would have done nothing before he did that.
"The Phillies got prospects in this deal, but there were certain guys that, at this point in time, I was unwilling to give up," Cashman said after acquiring Abreu. "[Players such as] Phil Hughes and [Jose] Tabata. There are a lot of guys I was looking to protect."
Even considering the trade there is a new approach -- one in which the Yankees aren't going to sell the farm just to get the next big name.
It's been part an overall commitment to youth that has made this season's Yankees look like it got a facelift.
"This is the first time in a long time that the Yankee consideration is, 'We have players in the Minor Leagues that we have to make room for down the road and we're not going to move those pieces,'" Yankees manager Joe Torre said before the deadline. "I think that makes sense."
A Cash approach
There are two ways to use a Minor League system, said white-haired, 25-year Major League scout Ben McLure. You can either bring players up to play for your ball club or you can develop players to trade to other clubs.
"The Yankees have done well trading their prospects to get immediate help," the Royals scout said. "Now they're trying to go the other way."
While Cashman has been the Yankees' general manager since 1998, he has sounded like a somewhat different man this season.
"I'm really looking to improve the club any way I can, and at the same time, I'm looking to win in the short term and continue what we started last year as we transition and protect certain players in our system -- allow our system to grow back to where it needs to be," Cashman said before the deadline.
Cashman considered leaving the Yankees last season because of conflicts with principle owner George Steinbrenner. There was a divide between the Yankees' Tampa and New York front offices. But in signing a new contract this past offseason, Cashman gained more input in personnel matters, something Torre has supported.
Second baseman Robinson Cano and starter Chien-Ming Wang began the organizational shift toward youth in their rookie seasons last year. Cano, 21, was voted onto the All-Star team this year, and Wang, 26, has turned into one of the Yankees' most dependable arms in the rotation.
Melky Cabrera, 21, has been an adequate replacement for the injured Hideki Matsui in left field. Cabrera is hitting .278 and has turned himself into an above-average fielder.
Reliever T.J. Beam has impressed notably Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry during his time in the Bronx. Fellow reliever Matt Smith, who was one of the prospects dealt for Abreu, has a 0.00 ERA in 12 Major League appearances. Outfielder Kevin Thompson had a rabid Yankees fan following during his short stay and Kevin Reese hit .417 in 12 Yankees at-bats.
Most of the organization's top pitching prospects (Hughes, Steven White, Brent Cox, Tyler Clippard, Matt DeSalvo) are in Triple and Double-A. The premier position players (Tabata, Austin Jackson, Eduardo Nunez, Marcus Vechionacci) remain in Class A.
C.J. Henry, the Yankees' 2005 first-round choice, was the only top 10 Baseball America prospect dealt to the Phillies. He was hitting .237 with Class A Charleston.
McLure said the perception of the Yankees' Minor League system has changed among scouts. Once seen as somewhat barren, he said the Yankees aren't viewed that way at all anymore. The organization's Minor League system is ranked No. 17 by Baseball America.
"I think we're proving to everybody that we have something down here," said Trenton first baseman Eric Duncan, who is ranked as the Yankees' second-best prospect.
Beam began his season at Trenton and didn't expect to make it to the Majors this season. But when he saw Smith get called up in late April and again in early June, something changed in his mind.
"You can see the light at the end of the tunnel for most players now, whereas a couple years ago it was a little dimmer," Beam said with a laugh.
As Hughes explained, there has historically been a bit of a catch-22 for those playing in the Yankees' Minor League system. You play well in hopes of the odd chance that you'll work your way into a spot among the Yankees' All-Star Major League team. But at the same time, the better you play, the more likely you're on the next flight out.
In years past the Yankees have shipped out young talent such as Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly, Alfonso Soriano, Nick Johnson and Dioner Navarro in order to secure big-name veteran players.
But with Cashman's recent focus on restocking the pond, some players on Trenton feel more secure and confident about being able to fulfill their dream of playing in the Big Apple.
"Any time somebody like Brian Cashman shows confidence in his Minor League system, that encourages us all," Duncan said. "[He] is trusting us, and we're giving it back to him. I think it's a pretty special relationship we've had this year."
It's a relationship that the Yankees have had before. And they've liked the results.
In 1995, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada all made their Major League debuts. They became an integral force in 1996, leading the Yankees to their first World Series since 1978. But like the current group of youngsters, even they had some doubts as to whether they would break through with the Yankees or somebody else.
"Before our group came up it was the same thing," Jeter said. "They didn't really give young players a chance. They basically traded us. All of a sudden they started giving us a chance, and it looks like they're doing it again. It's good."
Jeter said the Yankees' young players have been a breath of fresh air for the team. However, Jeter also said he doesn't feel the Yankees absolutely needed youth in the clubhouse. Despite not winning a World Series title since 2001, the Yankees have still done quite well without it during the past several years.
Although some of the younger players likely wouldn't have been with the Yankees this season had it not been for injuries, their success will now make their departure more difficult.
But while trading young talent may be less a part of New York now than five years ago, expecting Cashman or any of the Yankees to accept losing at the expense of getting younger would be a rookie mistake.
The Yankees have had "untouchable" prospects during Cashman's reign. But a complete youth makeover would truly be a first.
Ryan Mink is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.