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Systematically, Yankees gain ground

By Tony Massarotti
Globe Staff / August 21, 2009

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Tonight, when the New York Yankees rumble into Fenway Park, perception and reality will clash. The team known for its multimillion-dollar superstars will have more than its share of budding youngsters, much to the chagrin of Red Sox supporters who would prefer to paint a far different picture.

Take a good look at the first-place Yankees this weekend. From Robinson Cano to Phil Hughes to Joba Chamberlain to Melky Cabrera, they have the kind of home-grown talent that makes them far more competitive with the Red Sox in that area than most anyone ever acknowledges.

“Being honest with you, I just can’t get bogged down with that and concerned with that, because if something special is going to happen, you have to have a little bit of everything,’’ general manager Brian Cashman said when asked if the Yankees get enough credit for their player development. “I just don’t pay attention to it.

“I do know that we have a lot of good young talent. I don’t think we have the best farm system in baseball, but I do think we have one of the better ones.’’

Indeed, as much as people talk about the talent pool in the Boston system, the player development operations of the Red Sox and Yankees right now pair off like a word-association game. You say Dustin Pedroia, they say Cano. You say Daniel Bard, they say Hughes. You say Jon Lester, they say Chamberlain. For every home-grown player 28 or younger on the Boston roster, New York essentially has one to match.

You say Jacoby Ellsbury, they say Cabrera or Brett Gardner, the latter of whom is on the disabled list with a .275 average and 20 stolen bases.

Said a major league executive when asked to compare the farm systems, “The only difference is that the Yankees are a little behind.’’

But they’re closing fast.

The Yankees drew much attention over the winter when they committed nearly a half-billion dollars in long-term contracts to free agents CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira, each of whom has made a significant contribution to a team that has the best record in baseball. But while some Red Sox supporters are quick to suggest that the Yankees have earned their success the old-fashioned way - i.e. they bought it - the reality is that the teams may be far more alike than either Sox administrators or the most ardent Sox fans would care to acknowledge.

In the case of Teixeira, after all, the Sox offered him the biggest contract in team history - an eight-year package worth a guaranteed $170 million. Only when the Sox refused to go higher did the Yankees sign him for $180 million. The Sox’ negotiations with Teixeira came two winters after they committed more than $200 million to Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, and Julio Lugo, helping to rebuild a team that crumbled during the second half of the 2006 season and missed the playoffs for the first time during Theo Epstein’s tenure as GM.

The next season, with their payroll at an all-time high, the Sox effectively led wire to wire en route to their second World Series championship in four years.

Back then, there was no outrage - at least in New England - about excessive spending and the ability to buy championships, especially while the Sox were simultaneously building a farm system that is now regarded as one of the best in the game. Not only had the Sox caught the Yankees, but Boston’s ability to draft and cultivate talent allowed the Sox to run right past New York, leaving them with a foundation for continued success entering the 2008 season.

Since then, a funny thing has happened on the road to a dynasty: The Yankees have caught - and perhaps blown past - the Sox. If the Red Sox have built their future on their farm system while complementing that core with free agent signings, the Yankees have done the opposite. Teixeira and Sabathia may very well be the centerpieces of the Yankees, but New York has surrounded the duo with home-grown players who should be valuable contributors for years to come.

In the end, even if the teams are using different measurements, they’re cooking with the same ingredients.

“There are a lot of guys we like and that the industry likes as well,’’ Cashman said of his young talent. “It can’t be that you just go out and get the best players and it works. There has to be an element of how they get along - and winning does breed that - but that’s where the manager and the better players can help build things.’’

Yet, despite the unheralded performance this season of Yankees manager Joe Girardi - “I hope people are paying attention,’’ Cashman said when asked about his manager’s growth - much of this comes back to Cashman and an organizational philosophy that was, in some ways, forged by the progressive thinkers who run the Red Sox.

As a result of what the Sox have built, the Yankees are much more careful with their prospects now. Like Epstein, Cashman might have traded for Johan Santana prior to the 2008 season; he chose not to. Cashman might have traded for Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay this year, but chose not to. And though the Yankees have sacrificed draft picks to sign free agents such as Sabathia and Burnett, the compensatory cost decreased with each major signing last offseason.

At the moment, the only area in which the Yankees trail the Sox is in minor league depth, something the Sox used to their advantage this season when they acquired Victor Martinez. The Sox had so many pitching prospects in their system that they could afford to sacrifice some.

While the Yankees are not quite to that point yet, they have prospects, such as outfielder Austin Jackson and catcher Jesus Montero, who could fill needs at the major league level. That led the aforementioned executive to suggest that New York’s farm system ranks in the top half of the 30 major league organizations.

Today, as the Red Sox continue their pursuit of the Yankees, you cannot help but wonder:

Have the Yankees caught up?

And are the Red Sox falling even farther behind?

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti.

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