In a classic Seinfeld moment from 1996, George Steinbrenner visits the parents of George Costanza with the news that their son is missing and feared dead. Frank Costanza responds by barking at Steinbrenner, "What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?"
Ah, yes, those were the days, when the Yankees traded prospects such as Buhner, Fred McGriff, Doug Drabek and others, enabling them to become stars for other teams. At least New York had prospects to trade back then.
This week Hal Steinbrenner summoned his baseball executives to a summit meeting to talk about the state of the team's player development. The Yankees have few impact bats on the immediate horizon. Among their top drafted prospects, as rated by Baseball America: outfielder Mason Williams, 21, has four home runs, a .349 slugging percentage and just reached Double A; Slade Heathcott, 22, has eight home runs in Double A; and Tyler Austin, 21, has six home runs in Double A.
How much has New York struggled at drafting and developing talent? This much: The best home run hitter drafted by the Yankees since 1997 is . . . Shelley Duncan, who has hit 43 homers. That's not just for the Yankees -- that's career home runs in the majors.
New York's entire 1997-2013 draft portfolio has been outhomered by Ty Wigginton, a journeyman most recently with the Cardinals who has hit 169 home runs in 12 big league seasons. Here's a look at the most home runs by hitters drafted and developed in the Yankees' system since 1997:
1. Shelly Duncan: 43
2. Austin Jackson: 39
3. Brett Gardner: 23
4. Andy Phillips: 14
5. Omir Santos: 7
If you limit the sample to drafted players who actually produced for the Yankees, and take it back 20 years, the impact is even more negligible. The team hasn't benefited from an impact bat out of the draft since New York took Derek Jeter in the first round in 1992. Here's a look at the most home runs hit for the Yankees by players they drafted since '93:
1. Nick Johnson: 33
2. Brett Gardner: 23
3. Marcus Thames: 13
4. Andy Phillips: 11
5. Shelly Duncan: 8
6. Brandon Laird: 3
7. David Adams: 2
8. Austin Romine, Colin Curtis, Kevin Thompson, Andy Cannizaro: 1 each
New York has had better success over the past two decades with international free agents, if only because of Robinson Cano and Alfonso Soriano. (It drops off after that among active players: Eduardo Nunez, Dioner Navarro, Jose Tabata, Melky Cabrera, Johnny Paredes, Jesus Montero, Francisco Cervelli).
The draft figures to be especially important to the Yankees now that their roster is aging and free agency has become more inefficient than ever because of increased revenues (especially local TV money) that allow even small-market teams to lock up their stars through their prime years.
The picture for drafted, homegrown starting pitchers over the past two decades isn't much better. There are only four active starting pitchers in the big leagues who were drafted by New York: Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Zach McAllister. There are two others on the DL: Jeff Karstens and David Phelps.
2. No such problems in St. Louis
Joe Kelly broke into the Cardinals' rotation in old-school fashion: by working his way through the bullpen, just as Curt Schilling, Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez and many other front-of-the-rotation starters used to do. Since St. Louis made Kelly a starter on July 6, the righthander has become one of the more reliable pitchers in the league, posting a 5-0 record and a 2.33 ERA. The Cardinals are 7-1 in games he has started since July 6, including another win on Thursday night. Kelly has premium velocity, a wicked changeup that makes him tougher on lefthanded hitters than on righthanded hitters, and a knack for dialing up his stuff with runners on base.
Kelly was a high school outfielder who converted to closing while in college at UC-Riverside. St. Louis took a chance on him because he had a live arm and was very good athlete, selecting him in the third round of the 2009 draft -- a draft that has produced 20 percent of the team's current roster. Check out the Cardinals' draft haul that year:
That draft followed on the heels of strong drafts in 2008 (Lance Lynn, Kevin Siegrist, Shane Peterson), '07 (Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso) and '06 (John Jay, Allen Craig). The '06-09 drafts, under scouting director Jeff Luhnow, produced 12 of the current 25 Cardinals, as well as Brett Wallace, Luke Gregerson, Chris Perez and Adam Ottavino, now with other teams.
3. A hidden impact of strikeouts
Most every team has by now adopted extreme defensive shifts based on the kind of data that didn't exist a generation ago. If teams are getting smarter, it should follow that they are getting better at turning batted balls into outs. That is not the case.
This year teams have a defensive efficiency of .693, representing the percentage of balls put into play that are turned into outs, an estimate based on pitching and defensive statistics. Thirty years ago it was .700. And going back 60 years ago, to 1953, when the fields were in far worse condition and no spray charts for hitters existed, the defensive efficiency was .704.
So why are teams worse at turning batted balls into outs despite advances in information, coaching and field conditions? Strikeouts. Cubs president Theo Epstein said the unabated rise in strikeouts has led to fewer weakly-hit balls being put into play. When the strikeout was taboo, and hitters would adopt a defensive two-strike approach, they might roll over weakly on a pitch just to "put it in play." Today's hitter would rather take three healthy cuts and accept the strikeout as the cost of doing business. With that approach, Epstein said, you get fewer weakly hit balls. And with fewer weakly hit balls -- the ones virtually guaranteed to be turned into outs -- you get a lower rate of defensive efficiency.