Years of coming up empty in the June draft — either by forfeiting picks to sign free agents or by misfiring on picks made — are starting to catch up. Since the departed Robinson Cano broke in with the Yankees in 2005, Brett Gardner and the erratic Ivan Nova are the only impact homegrown players the franchise has produced.
The result is a roster advancing in age with little prospect of an infusion of youth.
The only under-30 New York position player with at least 20 plate appearances this season is Yangervis Solarte, a former minor-league utilityman. Kelly Johnson is 32. Brian Roberts is 32. Sabathia is 33. Teixeira is 34. Carlos Beltran is 37. Alfonso Soriano is 38. Hiroki Kuroda is 39. Derek Jeter is 40.
There was a time when that might have been OK. That time came to an abrupt end when baseball tightened its rules on amphetamines as well as steroids, greatly diminishing the ability of players to be productive beyond the age of 32 or so. Baseball is a young man’s game once again.
Ten years ago, 49 hitters who were at least 32 years old slugged over .400 in at least 400 plate appearances — an all-time high. Not once in the last three seasons have even 30 players age 32 or older met those same criteria — a drop-off of almost 50 percent in a decade.
The best way to acquire young players always has been through the June amateur draft. That’s how the Yankees landed Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada so long ago — three of the Core Four. But an entire generation’s worth of drafts has resulted mostly in whiffs for the Yankees.
Since Jeter in 1992, the Yankees’ best first-round picks might be Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy. Even if Kennedy gets credit for being a trade chip that helped snag Curtis Granderson, those three only count for three All-Star appearances among them.
Too many opportunities have been missed. In the first round of the 2005 draft — the historically deep draft in which the Red Sox added Clay Buchholz, Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie — the Yankees selected C.J. Henry, a shortstop who never even reached Double-A. They wound up snagging Gardner in the third round of that draft, then Doug Fister in the sixth round and Austin Jackson in the eighth. They failed to sign Fister, and they traded Jackson away in the deal that brought back Granderson.
In the similarly deep 2011 draft, the Yankees didn’t have a pick until No. 51 because they’d forfeited their No. 31 pick to sign reliever Rafael Soriano. Among the players who still were on the board when that forfeited No. 31 pick came around were Henry Owens and Jackie Bradley Jr., whom the Red Sox took at No. 36 and No. 40, respectively.
What the Yankees have always leveraged in their favor has been their enormous financial advantage. But every revision of the rules that govern team-building in recent years has restricted the ability of deep-pocketed teams to acquire young players — from draft-pick compensation, to allotments for bonuses in the draft and on the international market, and steep penalties for those who exceed their allotments.
Even worse for the Yankees, with every high-profile young player who signs an extension with his current team — from the Angels’ Mike Trout and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw to the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter and the Pirates’ Starling Marte — the pool of players at whom the Steinbrenners can throw their money is depleted. Players who once might have reached free agency at the age of 28 or 29 now are postponing free agency until their early 30s.
Stars in their prime years, like Adam Jones and Justin Upton, might have been top targets for the Yankees last winter, just like Kershaw, Elvis Andrus, Jay Bruce and Evan Longoria might have been top targets this winter. All are great players still a year or two away from 30, still at least several years away from their inevitable downturn. All have signed lengthy extensions with their current teams that will keep them out of the Yankees’ reach until that downturn.
Success in baseball always is cyclical. Teams that play to win now usually lose later. The Yankees spent years breaking that cycle through sheer power of finance, but even their money can’t save them anymore.
And, this is why, for the next five years or so, the Yankees are going to struggle to win 90+ games in a season…maybe longer if they keep Cashman around.