The Yankees may be widely criticized as a high-spending operation, but when it comes to player development and Draft results, the club has been one of the more successful organizations in cultivating homegrown talent.
Don't believe that? Many fans point to the likes of CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira -- free agent signees who led the Yanks to the 2009 World Series -- as an argument. But in 2011, much of the team's lineup and roster came up through the system or were acquired via trade. Home Run Derby king Robinson Cano worked his way up over six seasons from Class A Staten Island to the Majors, emerging as arguably the team's best hitter last summer.
Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations, has had a hand in helping build the Yankees' next core of young talent. He hopes infielders like Dante Bichette Jr. and Jose Rosario will follow similar paths to the Bronx.
"Bichette has tools, he has a feel for how to use those tools and he works every day to get better," said Newman, who oversees the organization's player development office. "He's a special player and person."
Bichette was the Yankees' top pick in the 2011 Draft, although he wasn't a true first-round selection -- New York lost that pick when it signed reliever Rafael Soriano last winter but gained the No. 51 spot when Javier Vazquez left for the Marlins. Either way, Bichette emerged as a promising slugger at the organization's lowest levels and enters 2011 as a 19-year-old with power. He hit .335 with four homers and 48 RBIs in 54 regular season games, helping both the Gulf Coast Yankees and Staten Island to league championships.
AOL News ranked the Yankees as having the No. 4 best system in the Minors entering 2011 and Baseball America rated New York at No. 5 this past spring. The team's top prospect, catcher Jesus Montero, helped bolster those positions.
Montero's future in the Majors is still to be decided, with some seeing him as more of a designated hitter rather than splitting time with Russell Martin behind the plate. Newman is still optimistic, though, after Montero posted a .997 fielding percentage and made just two errors at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2011. He threw out about 25 percent of would-be base-stealers while batting .288 with 18 homers and 67 RBIs.
"Montero showed substantial growth defensively," said Newman. "Enhanced defense due in part to his improved quickness and flexibility."
Newman also likes a pair of infielders in Rosario, who split time between second and shortstop, and Walter Ibarra, who hit .297 with six homers, 52 RBIs and 10 steals in 100 games.
Rosario, who turned 20 in November, reached Class A Charleston in his third season with the organization after signing as a non-drafted free agent in 2009 out of the Dominican Republic. He hit .331 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, with 57 hits and 11 steals in 43 games.
"He can run and throw," said Newman. "He hit six home runs, so he has some ability to impact the ball. By diligence, he's turning himself into a quality prospect."
Ibarra is a switch-hitter the Yankees signed out of Mexico in 2005. He's 24 now but showed decent pop and speed at Class A Advanced Tampa in 2011.
"He's emerging as a prospect," Newman said. "He's a steady performer."
Other notable infielders include catchers Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine, the team's 2009 first-round pick Slade Heathcott and another shortstop in Cito Culver, a New Yorker who was drafted in the first round in 2010.
One name that swirled through the Winter Meetings briefly was Mason Williams, an outfielder who the Yankees (and other scouts) are especially high on. A story in the New York Post claimed the Yankees now view Williams as the organization's top prospect (considering Montero reached the Majors in September) and anticipate the 2010 fourth-round pick will progress quickly.
"He's really a quality offensive player," said Newman. "A spectacular defensive player -- he impacts the game in many ways."
Williams has yet to play full-season ball but showed serious talent in the New York-Penn League in 2011, when he hit .349 with 31 RBIs and 28 steals in 68 games at Staten Island. He was an NYPL All-Star and was recognized by Topps/Minor League Baseball and Baseball America as a Short-Season All-Star.
Zoilo Almonte, who hit .275 with 15 homers, 18 steals and 77 RBIs at two levels, is another outfielder the Yankees have taken notice of.
"He's a good hitter with developing power," Newman said. "A good outfielder. [Being a] switch-hitter is a nice attribute."
Much of the attention on the Yankees system remains in its pitching after the organization produced talents such as Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Ivan Nova, Hector Noesi, David Robertson and Dellin Betances. David Phelps, a right-hander, and Manny Banuelos, a lefty, are both expected to reach the Majors sometime in 2012.
"He's solid, he knows how to pitch," Newman said of Phelps, who went 7-7 with an organization-best 2.99 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 114 1/3 innings at Triple-A last season. "He could help New York this year."
Banuelos' name has surfaced whenever the Yankees have needed a spot starter or bullpen help, although general manager Brian Cashman held to his promise of letting the southpaw iron out his command in the Minors in 2011. A strong Spring Training camp could put him in consideration for a bullpen job next year.
"He has good stuff, young, great potential," said Newman, "but he has to keep working."