The Yankees and the First Round

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Before beginning, a big thanks to Twitter pal and friend of the blog, @AndyinSunnyDB for inspiring this piece with a thread about the Yankees’ drafts.

In 1965, the Yankees made their first ever pick in a June Major League Baseball draft. With the 19th overall pick, they selected Bill Burbach, a right handed pitcher from Wahlert High School in Dickeyville, Wisconsin. A little less than four years later on April 11, 1969, Burbach made his MLB debut against the Tigers. He threw six innings, allowing just one earned run on five hits; he struck out three and walked four. All told, Burbach threw 37 games for the Yankees and totaled 160.2 innings from 1969-1971. He never again pitched in the Majors after 1971 and tallied just -0.9 bWAR in his career. It was an inauspicious career that marked an inauspicious beginning to the Yankees’ success–or lack thereof–in the first round of the draft.

Including Burbach, the Yankees have made 58 picks in the first round, including the supplemental round, up through the 2019 draft when they selected Anthony Volpe, a shortstop from New Jersey. Of those 58 picks, only ten have produced 10 or more bWAR at the Major League level. Of those ten, only three–Thurman Munson, Derek Jeter, and Aaron Judge–have produced that double-digit WAR for the Yankees. 

Primarily, this a reminder–as if we needed one–that evaluating, acquiring, and developing talent is the hardest thing to do in baseball on a team/organizational level. That alone is reason enough for why the Yankees have struggled to be successful in the draft and could apply to any other team. If we add in other reasons, the picture of their draft struggles becomes more complete. 

For most of the draft’s existence, the Yankees have been a good, often great, often elite team. This means lots of drafting in the back end of the first round. Indeed, of their 58 picks, the Yankees have only made five in the top ten and 27 have been at pick number 25 or lower, which gives the Yankees few opportunities to access elite talent. This has become exacerbated with the hard-slotting and spending limits in recent drafts, which have prevented big time talent to slide due to signability concerns. 

Additionally, for a long time, the Yankees eschewed player development in favor of signing big time free agents to long-term deals. They didn’t need to hit big in the draft’s first round because they already had Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Paul O’Neill, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, all of whom–except Jeter–were acquired some other way than the first round of the draft. For the most part, it worked well. The Yankees won lots of games and were successful in trading and developing players from the International Free Agent market. 

But as the dynasty years began to fade, the Yankees shifted their focus and attempted to get better at the draft. Regardless of that intent, however, not much has come to fruition. Aaron Judge has been a runaway success, but no one else has. This comes down to two issues.

The first is making bad picks. Picking Cito Culver and Dante Bichette, Jr. in back-to-back first rounds was a terrible decision. Even at the time, they were considered reaches. Not surprisingly, they didn’t pan out. In hindsight, picks like Slade Heathcott and Ty Hensley were ‘bad,’ but only because neither player could overcome injuries. Still, when the decision making is in a space to pick the likes of Culver and Bichette in the first round, it loses the benefit of the doubt. 

Second, and arguably more egregious, is failure to develop. From a presumably ‘Major League ready” arm like Jacob Lindgren to the massive developmental failures of Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, the Yankees did, have done, a horrible job at developing their top picks. 

The Yankees are an intelligent, analytical, and wealthy organization. However, draft success still eludes them and more or less has for the entirety of its existence. While you can be wildly successful when you hit–see Munson, Jeter, and Judge–a hit rate as low as the Yankees’–especially in the 21st century–is not sustainable. They’ve made steps to overhaul or fix or improve or fine tune the organization in myriad other ways, yet this remains a stumbling block. 

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2 Comments

  1. MikeD

    I think Hensley was a good pick, meaning the high-end potential he offered. Heathcott less so.

    Culver and Bichette were not defensible then or now.

    They do seem to be putting much more focus on both drafting and development, so I suspect the positive results we’ve seen from the farm the last few years should continue.

  2. Mungo

    It seems that the Yankees do pretty well, if not better, than many teams in the later rounds and also are strong internationally. IIRC, Robert Pimpsner at Pinstripe Prospects tweeted a number showing the Yankees have produced the 6th highest WAR among all teams from prospects dating back 10 years. I might be off on that, but it showed a slightly different story when looking at the totality of Yankees development. I think he’s a friend of the blog, so maybe he can pop in and let us know. Regardless, even if the Yankees have done better in the later rounds, it still doesn’t excuse the many whiffs with their first picks. They need to do better there. Judge certainly helps, and think how close they came to getting Trout. That could have changed the entire narrative! They do seemed focused on improving this one area since it’s now more important than ever with the luxury tax spending restrictions.

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