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Yankees rebuild working like Astros without the losing

Often last season, and even on what turned out to be his final night as Yankee manager, Joe Girardi talked about the organization’s bright future and made a point of saying how much talent is in the pipeline beyond the likes of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, or even Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres.

“There’s more coming that people don’t even know about yet,” Girardi said more than once.

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Clint Frazier

(Elsa/Getty Images)

There was already proof of the Yankees’ depth of minor league talent, as seven of their prospects were ranked in the Top 100 at midseason by multiple publications and websites, but on Friday Baseball America revealed an equally significant statistic.

That is, in 2017 the Yankees had the best overall won-loss record in the minors of any organization, and it wasn’t particularly close. In fact, the record posted by their eight minor-league affiliates of 491-325 (.602) represented the highest winning percentage for any organization “in at least 10 years,” according to Baseball America.

Seven of the eight teams qualified for the playoffs and four advanced to the league finals.

By contrast, the Mets’ overall record in the minors last season was 344-411, a .456 winning percentage that tied them for 26th among all organizations. Only one of their teams made their league playoffs.

And while you can make the case that individual player development is more important than winning in the minors, the Yankees believe in the philosophy that it’s important to instill a winning culture before players reach the big leagues.

GM Brian Cashman, who held organizational meetings in New York this week, in addition to being involved in a search for a new manager, didn’t return a call on Friday in regard to that philosophy. But another Yankee official, who wasn’t comfortable speaking publicly for the GM, said it’s a reflection of both the talent in the system and the teaching.

“That culture is drummed into our young players early and often,” the person said. “You want players to learn how to win.”

All of this speaks to the farm-system turnaround in recent years, which coincided largely with Hal Steinbrenner making changes in who was overseeing player development.

Chance Adams

Chance Adams

(Reinhold Matay/USA Today Sports)

And now it seems the Yankees are set up to challenge for championships for the next several years, after pushing the World Champion Astros to Game 7 of the ALCS in October.

Like the Astros, the Yankees have a nucleus of young, home-grown players, though it’s worth pointing out they didn’t tank for several years, as the ‘Stros did, to put that nucleus in place.

Starting in 2012, in fact, the Astros picked first in the amateur draft three straight years, the result of having the worst record in the majors, and then second in 2015.

So while the GM Jeff Luhnow and the Astros are being celebrated for winning the first-ever championship for the franchise, let’s not forget they tanked so completely that they were practically non-competitive for a few years.

And, remarkably, the ‘Stros essentially whiffed on two of those three No. 1 overall picks, taking pitchers Mark Appel and Brady Aiken, but did hit it big with Carlos Correa as the top pick in 2012, again with Alex Bregman as the No. 2 pick in ’15, and also with George Springer, the No. 11 pick in the 2011 draft, the year before Luhnow arrived.

It’s worth remembering the Cubs, too, tanked their way to getting Kris Bryant with the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, and Kyle Schwarber with the fourth pick in ’14.

The Yankees, meanwhile, haven’t had a Top 10 pick since selecting Derek Jeter sixth overall in 1992.

And in that 2012-15 span where the Astros had three No. 1s and a No. 2, the Yankees selected 30th, 26th, and 16th, and didn’t have a first-round pick in 2014 after they went on free-agent spending binge for the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran.

Only one first-rounder, No. 32 pick Judge in 2013, from those years has had an impact, but the Yankees have drafted well overall in recent years, getting Greg Bird in the fifth round, as one example.

Of course, their financial might did help them on the International market, in particular signing Sanchez out of the Dominican Republic for $ 3 million, and fellow Dominican Luis Severino for $ 225,000.

And Cashman’s sell-mode trades of Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, as well as the deal for McCann to the Astros, have added depth and quality. Besides Frazier and Torres, those trades brought pitchers Justus Sheffield and Albert Abreu, both of whom are earning raves in the Arizona Fall League.

Yep, there’s more talent coming. If all the winning in the minors this season is any indication, there’s a lot more.

TIPPING POINT

Was Yu Darvish tipping his pitches in Game 7?

That became a major topic after the Astros knocked out Darvish early for the second time in the World Series, and Beltran, known as one of the best at spotting such tells, was at the heart of the discussion led by Alex Rodriguez on the late-night FOX postgame show.

A-Rod, who played with Beltran in the Bronx, had interviewed Jose Altuve, Bregman, and Correa on the off-day before Game 7, and after the Series he said they had told him that Beltran had been calling pitches for them throughout the postseason.

“I would not be surprised if they knew every pitch that Darvish threw, because of Carlos Beltran,” A-Rod said.

Then Beltran joined the FOX crew on their set, and when A-Rod asked him if he saw something in Darvish’s delivery, the reaction was priceless. He hemmed and hawed, smiling sheepishly but not wanting to embarrass ex-teammate Darvish, to the point where A-Rod said he was changing the subject out of respect for Beltran.

A day later, ESPN analyst Eduardo Perez showed tape of how Darvish was flexing his forearm muscles ever so slightly when going into the glove to grip his slider, something he didn’t do when he was throwing his fastball, in time for hitters to know what was coming.

And as A-Rod had said, “When hitters know, it makes a huge difference.”

Odd as it sounds, Darvish may use such information as a selling point as he heads for free agency. Better to get lit up because he was tipping pitches than simply pitching terribly on such a big stage.

SPIN IS IN

Do analytics matter?

The world-champion Astros swear by them, case in point being Charlie Morton. That is, the data convinced them to sign a 33-year old, oft-injured journeyman to a two-year, $ 14 million contract last winter, even as Morton was coming off a season when he made only four starts due to a hamstring injury — for which he needed surgery.

And we know how that worked out. Morton had a surprisingly effective season and then played a huge role in helping the Astros win a championship, becoming the first pitcher ever to earn wins in Game 7 of both the LCS and the World Series.

What did the numbers tell the Astros? Increased fastball velocity in Morton’s brief ’16 season, due to weight loss that sped up his arm, and more significantly, that his curveball that had one of the highest spin rates in the majors.

So they signed Morton and convinced him to throw his curve more, which he did, and left-handed hitters hit .064 against it, which at least partly explained his postseason success.

Astros’ pitching coach Brent Strom summed it up with a telling quote he gave Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci:

“Credit the front office for recognizing his spin rate and his ability to throw his fastball for strikes. I hesitate to bring it up because people like to make fun of what we do with spin rates. The heartbeat still matters, but the numbers don’t lie.”

THE LONG NIGHTMARE TO COME

So Kevin Long is being reunited with Daniel Murphy as hitting coach for the Nationals. It was Long, of course, who helped turn Murphy into a monster, going back to the 2015 postseason, by getting him to move closer to the plate and drive balls in the air rather than simply slap them through the infield.

And Murphy has terrorized the Mets since they let him leave as a free agent.

Now, well, as a National League scout said:

“Murphy was already spreading the gospel there about launch angles, and it seemed to help (Ryan) Zimmerman, so you know they’ll buy in to whatever Long is teaching. Their offense is already one of the best in the game – I don’t know how much better it can get. But I have a feeling the Mets are going to regret this move too.”

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