The Yankees will select 20th on Sunday in the first round of the MLB draft. That ties for their fifth highest pick in the past 28 drafts.
In that time, their initial pick has never been higher than 16th, reflecting their winning records for more than a quarter of a century and the signing of free agents that have led to forfeiting picks as compensation. Their first pick has been 30th or later eight times in that period — and on three occasions, 51st or later.
So, though the Yankees have found too little production (even average production), much less impact, in the draft, there are mitigating factors, none more pertinent than where they draft. Keep in mind that the draft involves mainly domestic players — so not international amateurs from, say, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the Asian countries who fill about 25 percent of rosters. Players such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Shohei Ohtani were not drafted.
Also, with other sports growing in popularity, athletic talent has been drained from the draft. So not having access regularly to the top five or 10 picks, where the difference-making skill remains, complicates drafting.
At the completion of the July 4 holiday weekend, there had been 955 drafted players in the majors this year. Of those, 173 — or 18.1 percent — were selected before the Yankees had their first pick.
Through Wednesday, no organization had drafted more position players who were in the top 50 in combined Wins Above Replacement from 2019-21 than the Astros’ four. But three of them — Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and George Springer — all were drafted before the Yankees had a pick (Ramon Laureano, taken in the 16th round was the fourth).
Having a lefty hitter, such as the Mets’ Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith would benefit the Yankees. But they were taken 10th, 11th and 13th overall.
Perhaps most famously, the Angels used a compensation pick received when the Yankees signed Mark Teixeira as a free agent to take Mike Trout 25th overall (one pick after they had already grabbed Randall Grichuk). I do believe the stories that the Yankees valued Trout much higher than most of the industry and had him second on their board overall to Stephen Strasburg. Instead, they didn’t pick until 29th and took Slade Heathcott.
Trout was among 44 of 65 All-Stars announced last weekend who were drafted. The Yankees picked two — Aaron Judge and Mark Melancon. But of the other 42, one-third (14) were drafted before the Yankees had a turn.
“American baseball is good,” said Damon Oppenheimer, who has run the Yankees’ drafts as scouting director since 2005. “But the impact in those [later first-round] areas are slim. It is really slim. The difference-makers are the top picks, and picking 20-50, that is a totally different type of player and ceiling. Everything is different on it. It is not the same opportunity to get high-end impact guys.”
To try to compensate, the Yankees have often gambled on big talent that had slipped for a variety of reasons. Heathcott fell into that category as a lefty-swinging, athletic center fielder. So did Andrew Brackman, who was a 6-foot-10 dual-sport athlete (basketball) at North Carolina State, who went 30th to the Yankees in 2007. So did Gerrit Cole, whom the Yankees took 28th in 2008 despite strong insistence he was going to UCLA (which he did).
But what did the Yankees miss? I don’t think it is fair, for example, to ask: Why didn’t the Yankees take J.D. Martinez rather than Heathcott? Martinez was taken in the 20th round in 2009 by the Astros — which means even Houston ignored him for 19 rounds. It is fairer to look at who was taken within 10 picks after the Yankees’ first selections as the general pool of who could have been taken instead. Often there was a better choice or two, but there also was generally a lack of greatness and many who never made the majors.
So just a snapshot from, say, 2010-17 — the drafts that most populate current rosters: In 2010, when the Yankees took Cito Culver 32nd, five of the next 10 never made the majors and the best in that range was Noah Syndergaard. In 2011, the Yankees took Dante Bichette Jr. 51st. Blake Snell went next to the Rays. But he was actually Tampa Bay’s seventh of 10 first-round picks, of which five never reached the majors and the next best after Snell was Mikie Mahtook.
In 2012, with the 30th pick, the Yankees again tried boom-or-bust with high-ceiling high-school pitcher Ty Hensley — who, like Bichette and Culver, never made the majors — and the next 10 picks included Jose Berrios, Mitch Haniger and Joey Gallo. In 2013, the Yankees had the 26th, 32nd and 33rd picks. Two — Eric Jagielo and Ian Clarkin — never played in the majors, but the Yankees had by far the best pick in that area in Judge. In 2014, the Yankees’ first pick was not until Jacob Lindgren at 55, and Alex Verdugo was in the next 10.
In 2015, the Yankees took James Kaprielian 16th. He helped them land Sonny Gray, who finally this year is healthy and pitching well. Walker Buehler was the only quality player in the next 10.
In 2016, the Yankees selected Blake Rutherford 16th. He has yet to play in the majors, but was the key piece in helping the Yankees land Todd Frazier, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson from the White Sox. Kahnle and Robertson were originally Yankees draft picks; Robertson was part of Oppenheimer’s best draft, in 2006, when the Yankees also landed Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Dellin Betances and Melancon.
But 2016 also was when the Yankees’ West Coast doppelganger, the Dodgers, had a brilliant draft, taking Gavin Lux and catcher Will Smith after the Yankees selected Rutherford. So in consecutive years, the Yankees could have had Buehler and either Lux or Smith rather than Kaprielian and Rutherford, accentuating a reason why the Dodgers have risen while the Yankees are reeling.
In 2017, the Yanks took Clarke Schmidt first. The best currently from the next 10 is David Peterson by the Mets.
Where have the Yankees done well? Attendance. Annually they have among the most drafted players in the majors. They had 38 last year — only the Cardinals (43), Royals (43) and Astros (39) had more. They were tied for second in 2019 with 42 and 2018 with 45. But what has generally been missing is high-end excellence.
Not that Baseball America is infallible, but it gives a picture in the moment. And the Yankees have not had a drafted pitcher in their preseason top-30 rankings since Chamberlain was third in 2008, and no position player since 2002, when Drew Henson was ninth and Nick Johnson 13th.
The Yankees have had just 13 drafted position players in the majors this year: Judge, Jake Cave, Dustin Fowler, Ben Gamel, Brett Gardner, Chris Gittens, Kyle Higashioka, Mark Payton, Rob Refsnyder, Austin Romine, Nick Solak, Tyler Wade and Mason Williams. Judge, Gardner Johnson and Austin Jackson have been by far the best drafted Yankees position players this century. You could say the Yankees have used a general amateur philosophy of finding position players internationally, like Robinson Cano and Gary Sanchez, and drafting pitchers. But they have not exactly excelled with starting pitching either.
Some of this is explained by not having high picks. The Yankees’ development program also is not lauded around the sport. Still, it isn’t as if players such as Cave, Gamel or Solak are leaving the Yankees’ teaching and excelling elsewhere.
Also, it is difficult to draft well. There is a perception, for example, that the Rays and Athletics build through the draft. But they are way more expert at finding underappreciated talent in trades — Tampa Bay had the fewest drafted players in the majors last year, when it won the AL pennant. Few organizations are particularly good at consistently finding talent in the draft. The Cardinals stand out for doing so.
The Yankees are not the best, they are not the worst. But as they try to sustain excellence, they need more from their drafts, regardless of how late they pick.