TAMPA, Fla. -- The renaissance of the Yankees' farm system, as general manager Brian Cashman remembers it, was rooted in the summer of 2005, when the club's brain trust was summoned here to explain why their $200 million payroll was staggering out of the gate.
As Cashman and others flew to Tampa, hearing owner George Steinbrenner demand answers and a solution in one fell swoop, Cashman was informed that the responsibility for the underwhelming roster now rested solely upon his shoulders.
"I said, 'If it's up to me to fix it, then I'm going to be the one that puts it all together,'" Cashman recalls. "At that point, we had a kitchen cabinet of people putting it together. From that point on, I announced to the fans that this would not be a quick fix. We were going to use our system."
Flash forward three seasons, and the architecture of the organization has been completely revamped. No longer do the Yankees breed chips for potential trades; instead, as evidenced by the progression of the so-called "Big Three" -- Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy -- the club would prefer to keep young talent for its own purposes.
"We have guys who are hungry for careers," Cashman said. "They're waiting for the opportunity, but they have the ability and they're doing it. I know if you ask our young players, they'll tell you it's different. They now have an opportunity to make the New York Yankees."
The mindset sparked back in '05, as Cashman looked around the league and spotted prospects -- including former Yankees farmhands -- producing at reasonable prices. The Yankees, meanwhile, were saddled with highly paid and sometimes indifferent veterans.
Not that the Yankees have ever shied away from cutting the big checks, but the promotions of Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang proved that there were hungry choices from within, and better ways to spend money, including the international market.
That process of cultivation has continued, making every Yankees affiliate an important part of the system pipeline, all the way down to Boca Chica in the Dominican Republic.
They've come a long way. In 2005, Cashman said, the club's media guide completely omitted the Dominican Summer League -- which has produced Cano and Melky Cabrera, notably -- as an afterthought. That error has since been remedied.
"The message that I've tried to put together is that the New York Yankees are not just about the Major League team," Cashman said. "For me, there seemed to be a fear of waiting on anyone. It had to be instant. The biggest thing I'd like to think that's changed is that we start looking from within before we step out."
That brings the Yankees to spring '08, when ushers roamed Legends Field this week at workouts, hawking scorecards for a dollar. For spectators watching the many young pitchers stretch and throw, you really could not tell the players without a program.
Those sun-baked brethren still might not be able to pick Alan Horne, Jeff Marquez, Mark Melancon or Dan McCutchen out of a lineup, but the Yankees know who they are. What's more, they're among the leading candidates to significantly impact this year's Yankees.
"The door is open for every single one of us," said Horne, last year's Eastern League Pitcher of the Year at Double-A Trenton. "The great thing about it is that there's not a single bit of jealousy. We all want each other to succeed. We're all very talented and can pitch for any team in the big leagues, and it's an honor to be with these guys."
Especially when only three bullpen jobs are locked down in February, New York's relief corps is prime for revamping. It's important to note that the Yankees were in on free agents Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink and Troy Percival before they landed elsewhere, but as in recent years, scouts and executives believe roles can be filled cheaper and better from within.
McCutchen was 14-4 with a 2.47 ERA last year, showcasing three plus-pitches that he can throw for strikes. Marquez had his best season yet in '07, winning 15 games, and would have been even better had he not gone 0-5 against the Double-A Binghamton Mets. The Twins certainly noticed; Marquez was widely reported as a chip in a potential Johan Santana deal.
And coming off Tommy John surgery, Melancon may also be ready for a big league impact. After socking away more innings in the instructional league and the Dominican, Melancon is expected to challenge the Yankees for a promotion with his fastball, curve and changeup combo.
"These kids that we're bringing in, these are special kids," said Nardi Contreras, the Yankees' Minor League pitching coordinator. "There's a lot of arms, and of course you can't put everybody on the roster. But there are a couple of names who can help the Major League club this year, and they love it. They know there's a chance."
Cashman says that he cannot score his efforts as a "win" yet, since the ultimate prize -- a World Series -- still eludes the Yankees. But the system's stability is better, thanks to successful moves like one in last July, when he swapped reliever Scott Proctor to the Dodgers for infielder Wilson Betemit.
Trusted voices within the Yankees hierarchy insisted that there were capable arms at the Minor League levels who could perform just as effectively as the oft-used Proctor, if not better. Cashman listened, which opened the door for Chamberlain, Ross Ohlendorf, Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras to help down the stretch, while adding an extra bat to the bench.
"Our people were right," Cashman said. "We had Proctor in other forms. It was just that [fans] didn't know the names yet."
Not that it has been all sunshine and rainbows. Storm clouds gathered heavily around E. 161st Street and River Avenue early last summer, when the Yankees were again stumbling early and fans voiced their impatience on both of New York's 24-hour sports-talk stations.
Cashman heard those cries for his job and unending criticism. It gave him even more reason to be pleased when Chamberlain came up and posted a 0.38 ERA down the stretch, Hughes came back from injury to earn a postseason win, and Kennedy got his feet wet with three successful September starts.
"It was like, 'ta-da
,'" Cashman said, smiling. "And they said, 'Oh, I get it. I see what they're talking about.' But there was a period of time where it was getting ugly.
"I just think there's been a lot of heavy lifting and that's got to continue. I won't sacrifice high-end talent that could be useful to us, just so I can take a shot. There's a championship that's forming in there. When it can be, I just don't know."