Inside The Draft Room: The 2006 Yankees

Posted: May 5, 2017 in Uncategorized
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It’s unrealistic to think that 10-plus years after a draft, a large group of players from one team’s draft class would still be intact and together with their original organization.

Face the reality … it’s rare for a group of pitchers to have sustained health and sustained success, period – let alone with one club.

But in a landscape when fantasy drafts rule the baseball world, it’s OK to dream. So imagine having the following relievers in the same big league bullpen – and don’t worry about their roles; this is only a dream (statistics are for the 2016 season) …

  • Mark Melancon, who had 47 saves and a 5.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio as part of an All-Star campaign in 2016.
  • David Robertson, who had 37 saves and a 3.47 ERA while fanning nearly 11 batters per nine innings pitched.
  • Dellin Betances, with his high-90s fastball and 85 mph curveball, who struck out 126 batters in 73 innings while recording 12 saves and 28 holds.
  • Zach McAllister, who had a 3.44 ERA and averaged a strikeout per inning – and pitched in the World Series.
  • George Kontos, who had a 2.53 ERA in 57 appearances.

And to think … all were members of the New York Yankees’ draft class of 2006 – AFTER the team had already selected Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain.

– – –

Every scouting director has a different story of how he arrived in a position to run a draft.

But it’s not every day when you can say a scout learned first-hand by following in his mother’s footsteps.

Growing up in San Diego, Damon Oppenheimer was a Padres fan at an early age. He lived a couple miles from San Diego Stadium (later known as Jack Murphy Stadium and Qualcomm Stadium); he could actually ride his bicycle there if he wanted to.

Oppenheimer’s affinity for the Padres and the sport grew leaps-and-bounds when his mother, Priscilla, was hired to work as a secretary in the scouting department. Priscilla Oppenheimer went on to a long and distinguished 24-year career with the Padres, rising to director of minor league operations – a position she held at the time of her retirement in 2006.

“When my mom was afforded the opportunity to get that job, it was really nice,” said Damon Oppenheimer, who is now the Yankees’ vice president of domestic amateur scouting – and in his 25th year in that organization. “We were baseball fans, I was into it, and it was neat to be able to talk to her boss. Sandy Johnson was a heck of a scout and a productive scouting director. That was her first boss there, so I learned a lot from just listening to him.”

In what had to be interesting dinner table conversation, the son – an aspiring baseball player – was educated about the inner workings of a baseball front office from his mom.

“I think a lot of the stuff I learned from her was how competitive it was … how many kids there were in a system … how you have to constantly perform while you’re being developed,” he said. “She was always talking about the amount of kids there are – and the amount of kids who didn’t see the window of opportunity closing on them and let it get away. She talked about these talented kids out there who didn’t handle their situations right and didn’t max out their potential.

“On top of the player stuff, she was great at reminding me to make sure you were always good to everybody in the organization. It wasn’t just about the people above you; it was more about the people that were working with you or were working around the game. You know what … that made a big impression on me. I think I’ve probably taken that as a leader and used a lot of her information that she was able to give me. I believe you need to include everybody and make everybody feel like they’re an important part of the process.”

When his playing career ended, Oppenheimer began working as a part-time scout with the Padres while finishing his college degree – and was hired on a full-time basis in 1988. He joined the Yankees as a Midwest cross-checker in 1993 and has been with that organization ever since (except for a nine-month stint in Texas’ scouting department from November 1995-July 1996). In 2005, after stints as the Yankees’ farm director and as the head of pro scouting, Oppenheimer took over the reins of running the team’s amateur draft.

– – –

Every scouting director has a different story of how he arrived in a position to run a draft.

But not every scout cut his teeth at evaluating pitching by squatting behind the plate to catch a Randy Johnson fastball.

Oppenheimer was a two-year letterwinner at USC en route to a brief professional career (he was selected by Milwaukee in the 18th round of the 1985 draft and played in 12 Class-A games before suffering a career-ending injury).

Along with earning honorable mention Pac 10 all-conference honors in 1985, he had the opportunity to catch both Johnson – the future Hall-of-Fame southpaw who was chosen in the second round of that year’s draft by Montreal – and Brad Brink, selected with the seventh overall pick by Philadelphia in the 1986 draft.

Being a catcher helped Oppenheimer in his future roles as a talent evaluator and scouting director.

“Catching is one of the jobs in baseball where, if you don’t really want to be back there, you’re going to fail,” he said. “I really wanted to catch. You had to want to be back there. You had to want to lead. You had to want to think the game through. The ‘thinking it through’ part – planning, how to read advance reports, how to figure out what you’re going to do – that was a big step in my own development as a planner for the scouting department.

“You were always critiquing pitchers as a catcher on how they were doing, where their arm was, what could be fixed, if they have their stuff that day or if they didn’t, and how they competed. I think as a catcher you were able to sit there and incorporate the mental side of a guy’s ability to pitch – along with his tools, his stuff for that day, and then his mechanical portion of pitching. For me at least, it turned me into an evaluator at a young age.”

At the same time, even though he was in uniform, he was able to learn about the way scouts performed their jobs. It put the little voice in his head that scouting might be a direction for him to consider.

“Since my mom was in the game and some of the scouts knew me, they’d seek me out and ask me questions about some of the guys on the team,” Oppenheimer recalled. “It was never about them as people or their personalities; they didn’t cross that line. But they would talk about what I thought of their stuff and what I thought about the way they pitched. So I did think about (scouting) some. To be honest, if you would have told me that Randy Johnson would have been better than Brad Brink, I would have never guessed that. Brad had great stuff, he had a great body, and he threw really good strikes. Randy was still a developing guy; he didn’t throw very many good strikes. In that way, looking at it, I gained some experience in learning more about projecting with Randy vs. Brad – and about how pitchers might develop.

“I’m sure glad it worked out for Randy the way it did. And it was too bad for Brad. The injury thing is such an epidemic in baseball. It’s so hard to figure out who that guy is going to be. Brad had great stuff.”

While Oppenheimer earned his stripes as a catcher in handling Johnson, he had to wait his turn the year before. Although he did see a fair amount of action in 1984 for USC, Oppenheimer often found himself on the bench watching Jack Del Rio work behind the plate – the same Jack Del Rio who is now the head coach of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.

“It was pretty humbling, because he was quite a bit more athletic – and he was better,” Oppenheimer said. “Jack was really, really gifted. He probably could have been a longtime major league baseball player if that’s the route he wanted to go. But I think he was enamored with football; he liked playing in front of 60,000 to 100,000 people a lot more than he did thinking about playing in front of a couple thousand in minor league baseball to get there.

“From sitting there watching him and being around him – and now being in scouting – if he wanted to be a professional baseball player, he could have been a major league player. He was athletic. He was tough. He could hit. He could throw. He was a decent receiver … I think he’d probably agree with that. He could really run. He was really talented, and he had some kind of ability to compete. He was one of the better athletes that I’ve ever been around.”

– – –

Looking at it in its entirety, the 2006 draft can at best be labeled as average.

There were some big-name talents selected in the upper-half of the first round (Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Tim Lincecum) and a fair amount of lower-round finds (Doug Fister, Chris Archer, Daniel Murphy, Chris Davis and Jarrod Dyson come to mind), but overall, this wasn’t that strong of a draft class.

The Yankees, though, did really well. Despite not picking until No. 21 and being without a second-round selection (the choice went to Atlanta as compensation for the free agent signing of Kyle Farnsworth). The Yankees, in fact, picked only twice in the top 100, and yet they still selected 10 players that reached the majors – including eight pitchers who have combined to appear in more than 2,400 big league games.

“It wasn’t a direct strategy – ‘We’re just going after pitching’ – but off of the volume of what we saw, we thought it was going to be more of a pitching-heavy draft for us,” Oppenheimer said. “There was a little bit more of that to choose from. It was at a time when the organization really needed pitching, so that made it easier to go in that direction.”

The Yankees – as was often the case – did not have their own first-round pick. That selection (No. 28) went to Boston as compensation for the free-agent signing of Johnny Damon.

However, New York lost free agent reliever Tom Gordon to Philadelphia. As a result, the Yankees received the Phillies’ first-round selection (No. 21) and a supplemental first-round pick (No. 41).

Going into the year, USC starting pitcher Ian Kennedy was highly ranked by publications and highly rated on draft boards. The Yankees liked him quite a bit as a sophomore and watched him extensively when he pitched for Team USA.

Ian Kennedy, 2008 | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“It was one of those things … as the draft gets closer, you start to get a feel of who might get to you, and we thought there was a good chance he would get down to us,” Oppenheimer said. “We did our extra homework on him, and it turned out to be good. If he did get down to us at 21, we were prepared to take him. We had him higher on our board than his actual draft spot.”

In doing his homework on the right-hander, Oppenheimer reached out to some people at his old college campus.

“I was very close with (USC coach) Mike Gillespie, so I was able to get some pretty good information on what kind of person Ian was – and what kind of a competitor he was. That part of it was huge,” said Oppenheimer, who had played for Gillespie’s USC predecessor – the legendary Rod Dedeaux. “Watching what Ian had done for Team USA added to the comfort level of knowing what kind of a pitcher this kid was.

“I kind of had an idea that he was going to get to us. You’re always sweating it out a little bit when other teams are drafting, but with Ian … we just felt it was going to turn out our way.”

Twenty slots later, the Yankees stayed at the major-college level in selecting University of Nebraska right-hander Joba Chamberlain.

“Joba was a guy we had really close to 21,” Oppenheimer said. “A lot of teams had questionable medical on Joba, but our people were satisfied that his medical was fine, that he was going to be able to be durable, and that he’d be solid.

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