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Pinch hitter: Lucas Vanderwarker

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Today’s Pinch Hitter has the Yankees in his blood. Lucas Vanderwarker wrote that he has a grandfather who played some minor league ball for the Yankees, and although Lucas was raised in Vermont and most of his family is from upstate New York, he’s spent the past six and a half years serving as a youth pastor in Indiana, Pennsylvania. In a way, it’s his move west that sparked the idea for his post.

“Though I haven’t been converted to a Steelers fan (I bleed Giants blue),” Lucas wrote. “I readily admit that I am becoming an avid Pirates fan, though my true loyalties still lie with the Pinstripes. Subsequently, I’m quickly learning the frustrations Pirates fans have endured the last 20 years.”

For his post, Lucas wrote about the things the Yankees might be able to learn from small market teams like the Pirates.

[2]Ever since Hal Steinbrenner opened the proverbial can of worms last year concerning the team’s financial goals, Yankee fans — myself included — have been pretty apprehensive about each and every decision the front office has made. From the rumors about the possibility of selling the team to the team’s underwhelming performance this past October, there certainly has been plenty to discuss and argue over. I believe Chad and the other guys here at LoHud have really been extremely fair and balanced in providing us with as many possible angles with which to process the events and decisions of the past year or so.

Having lived near Pittsburgh for the last six and a half years, I have really enjoyed the new perspective of following a small-market team. I’ve been accustomed to following the Yankees and watching them flex their financial muscles each offseason as they address the team’s needs. However, it has been frustrating to watch teams like the Pirates struggle to attract free agents. No matter what you may think about the Pirates and their willingness to spend money, the truth is that, until they prove they can win, they will have to continue to overpay for even the high risk/reward “veteran” free agents they are known for signing.

As I’ve observed and followed the Pirates and other small-market teams (e.g. Rays), I have come to a very simple, profound conclusion: Our big-market strategy isn’t working.

If the stated measure of success for our franchise is a championship, then I would say we are failing with only one championship in the last 12 seasons. It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Below I have listed just a few important lessons I believe the Yankees front office should learn in order to return to the success the fan base has come to expect — a perennial winner.

Player development is the key to building a perennial winner

Looking back on the success of the late-90’s teams, our success was built around guys like Pettitte, Jeter, Posada, and Rivera. Why do we still refer to these guys as “The Core Four?” They are the guys we watched come up and mature through our system. What has led to the recent success of teams like the Cardinals, Giants, Reds, and Rays (yes, I realize the Cards & Giants aren’t small market teams)? While each has made important free agent signings, ultimately, their perennial success has been centered in their player development.

It was player development that allowed the Cardinals to walk away from an extension for Albert Pujols. It is player development that will ultimately allow the Rays to trade David Price or lose him to free agency. It is player development that has led to the Giants piece together one of the greatest rotations in baseball; a rotation that has out-performed the supposed dream rotation of Halladay, Hamels, Lee, and Oswalt in Philly.

Despite the epic collapses the Pirates have endured the last two seasons (not to mention the futility of the last 20 seasons), it is player development which will bring winning baseball back to Pittsburgh. Thus, I firmly believe that for the Yankees to reestablish themselves as the standard by which the rest of baseball measures itself, the Yankees must start with more effective player development.

Holding onto all of your prospects won’t build a perennial winner

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking out of both sides of my mouth here. For six and a half years I have been asking people from the Burg, how? How in the world can a team fail so miserably for so long? Of course, the blame must rest squarely on the shoulders of ownership and the front office.

For years, Pirates fans have been frustrated with leadership’s willingness to trade away home-grown prospects for aging veterans. The backlash from such trades led PNC Park from one of the best places to watch a game to one of the least attended parks in baseball despite such an accolade. Five years into present GM Neal Huntingdon’s tenure, the farm system is rated in the top 10 in baseball, and the team is loaded with young home grown talent. However, this won’t guarantee anything. Take the Royals as another example. While the jury may still be out, it’s clear that holding onto all of their prospects isn’t going to get them over the hump.

I stated that player development was the key to winning, and more importantly, winning each year. However, as we’ve discussed before on this blog, a prospect is an unknown. The one wild card in player development is knowing when to trade a “prospect.” Obviously, you need players developed to a point where they are desired by another team. Justin Upton and Giancarlo Stanton have been discussed multiple times the last few months. Every team wants to know what it will take to land those guys. For teams like Pittsburgh and Kansas City, there comes a time where you have to “know when to hold ‘em” and “know when to fold ‘em.”

Sometimes you have to trade the Roberto Kelly’s to get the Paul O’Neill’s. Sometimes you have to trade Marty Janzen, Jason Jarvis and Mike Gordon to get David Cone. The problem with the Yankees seems to be they seem to be too willing to trade the guys who should be the next pieces of the next great Yankees team. Balance is the key. I believe for too long, the pendulum has rested too heavily on free agent acquisitions and trading for veteran players.

Financially responsible
Don’t mortgage the future

A well-known preacher of the early 20th century once said, “Don’t sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate.” Obviously, he was making a spiritual application. However, I believe it really sums up when they Yankees are in the position they are in 2013. Because of bad contracts, trades, and other poor decisions, the present and future success of the franchise is in question. We have sacrificed the future for immediate, short-term success.

Why are free agent acquisitions not the key, you ask? Because typically when you sign a free agent, you are getting a player at the peak of his career. Instead of getting 5-10 years of a player’s best years, you may get 2-3. The discussions the small market teams like the Rays and the Pirates are forced to have is all about control. They understand they can only afford these guys for a certain time. The Pirates were careful to lock up Andrew McCutchen while they could still afford him. The Rays recently had to basically draw a line in the sand with regards to David Price. The Yankees (along with many other teams) have the distinct advantage of having more flexibility to spend. They can afford to be more frivolous then the Pirates or A’s. However, this doesn’t excuse being irresponsible with our assets. Recently, we learned that we have spent the more than the equivalent to a full year’s worth of payroll in luxury tax ($224,558,161 total luxury tax spent 2003-2012 vs. 2012 payroll which was $223,439,158). We have put ourselves in this position.

As much as I miss the “good ol’ days” of the Boss writing big checks no matter what, I think my time observing teams like the Pirates has given me a better perspective on what it takes to be a winner every year. I’m starting to believe that maybe Hal and the rest of the front office might be onto something. The next great Yankees dynasty is only going to come from a more patient, balanced, and fiscally responsible approach.

Associated Press photos