A look back at the best Yankees farm system in decades

Despite being just over two weeks into the baseball season, there’s plenty of buzz about the Yankees’ Baby Bombers. As volatile as prospects can be, the past couple seasons have seen more good than bad news for Yankee farmhands. As a result, a farm system once stuck in a rut of mediocrity has turned into one of the league’s best. Even with the graduations of Luis Severino and Greg Bird, and the departure of Rookie Davis and Eric Jagielo via trade, this year’s crop of prospects is shaping up to be a very good one. With the influx of talent from the organization’s Latin American signings beginning to ripen, there could be plenty of top prospects on the horizon in the near future.

With things looking up for the Yankees’ farm system, let’s take a look back at what was likely the Yankees’ most promising group of prospects in 1999. That year the Yankees were the best team in baseball, going 98-64 in the regular season and losing just one postseason game en route to a World Series win. Almost as exciting was their minor league system, which was ranked as the third best in baseball that season. Here’s what happened to the best 10 prospects in the Yankees’ most talented farm system in decades.

  1. Nick Johnson

Baseball America considered Johnson “a player with 40-homer potential” featuring “Gold Glove hands and actions around first base,” so it’s no wonder that Johnson was such a highly touted player. The 18th best prospect in baseball that year, Johnson hit .345 as a 20-year-old in Double-A and he was ranked 5th the following year. Unfortunately, Johnson never lived up to lofty expectations—unable to become a 40 home run bat (his career high was 23) or a gold glover, in part due to injuries. Johnson was worth just 14.6 WAR over his career, and a mere 3.2 of that came in New York.

  1. Ryan Bradley

Despite being the 25th prospect in baseball that year, you may have never heard of “the next Roger Clemens.” That’s probably because Bradley’s thrown just 12 2/3 career major league innings—giving up nine runs over those frames. Those innings came in 1998, before Bradley got hit with an extreme case of the yips. Bradley was a rotation hopeful going into 1999, but lost any semblance of control and had a 6.95 ERA in Triple-A. He had lost the strike zone permanently, as his ERA above Single-A never dipped below 5.50 for the rest of his career. His 2.9 BB/9 leapt to 7.3 and never fell back down.

  1. Alfonso Soriano

Finally, some good news! Soriano was a seven-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger, hitting 412 home runs and stealing 289 bases. The only ‘clean’ player to go 40-40 in a season, Soriano was traded by the Yankees for Alex Rodriguez in 2003 before returning to New York for his final two seasons. Soriano more than lived up to expectations as the 39th prospect in baseball that season, though he ended up spending just five seasons with the team.

  1. Jackson Melian

Melian certainly won’t be the last player to be coined “the next Derek Jeter,” but he may have been the first. Considered to have loud tools in his speed and power combination, many hoped Melian could be a star. Unfortunately, the 72nd overall prospect was never able to turn his immense tools into numbers in the minor leagues and Melian failed to reached the big leagues. Melian dealt with a personal tragedy when both his parents were killed in a car accident while following his team bus in 1998, and that understandably affected his performance.

  1. Mike Lowell

You know Lowell from his days as a Marlin and Red Sox, but he started his career as a 20th round pick with the Yankees. Lowell was traded soon after Baseball America published their Yankees’ prospect rankings, blocked by Scott Brosius at third base (who also happened to be his best big league comparison). Lowell, the 58th best prospect in baseball that season, went on to be a four-time All-Star, also winning a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger. Alas, Lowell played just 8 games with the Yankees over his career as a result of the aforementioned trade. To add salt to the wound, he was traded for Mark Johnson and Ed Yarnall…who combined for 0.6 WAR in the big leagues.

  1. Ricky Ledee

Ledee, the 70th prospect in baseball, never turned into the 30 home run bat that some expected (his career high was 13), although that didn’t stop him from playing 10 big league seasons, mostly as a backup. Ledee is probably more recognized for having a spectacular Twitter account (https://twitter.com/ricky_ledee) than he is for his baseball career, which amounted to just 2.8 WAR, though there were bigger busts in the Yankees’ system than Ledee.

  1. Drew Henson

Henson has seen more time on the gridiron than the baseball diamond, which should give you an idea of how much success he had with the Yankees. Henson was the final top-100 prospect in the Yankees system, coming in at 100 overall. He had a couple exciting minor league seasons, vaulting him to the 9th best prospect in baseball at one point. Oddly enough, a year after that lofty ranking Henson retired from baseball to pursue a career in football. Henson ended up with a single major league hit, but did spend six seasons as a backup quarterback.

  1. Juan Rivera

Rivera, an international phenom not unlike many in the Yankees’ system today, never reached his upside but still carved out a 12-year career. He ended up with a couple 3+ WAR seasons, and retired in 2012 with 132 career home runs to his name. Rivera wasn’t exactly a disappointment, but ended up being worth just 0.8 WAR as a Yankee.

  1. Shane Spencer

Spencer became a Yankee legend in 1998 when he was called up in September and hit 10 home runs (including three grand slams). Soon called Roy Hobbs by fans, Spencer wasn’t able to extend his hot September into future seasons. He was held back by injuries and off the field questions, keeping him under the 100 game plateau for all but one season. His most successful year came in 2001, when he earned 2.1 WAR in 80 games with the Yankees.

  1. D’Angelo Jimenez

Jimenez didn’t have a skillset unlike Gleyber Torres as a prospect, and began to generate significant hype after a 15 home run, 26 stolen base, .327 batting average performance in Triple-A as a 21-year old in 1999. But like many of the prospects on this list, his career took an unexpected and unfortunate turn for the worse after a car crash in 2000, which broke his neck. Luckily Jimenez was able to recover, but the injury prevented him from becoming the player many hoped for. Jimenez was actually worth more WAR over his career than a number of players on this list, though just 0.2 of it came with the Yankees.


Lead photo: majorvols/Flickr

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