clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How the Yankees Are Rebuilding and Contending at the Same Time

Despite the baggage of the name and the pinstripes, Aaron Judge and Co. are a new version of the Bronx Bombers: an exciting young core and plenty of fun pitchers, all gathered by smart trades and creative scouting techniques

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

1. Wow! The Yankees Are Good

Last year, three teams from the AL East made the postseason. The Yankees, who finished 84–78, nine games back of first place, weren’t one of them. In fact, as New York entered the stretch run, Brian Cashman did something he hadn’t done in almost 20 years as general manager: sell.

Off went pitchers Iván Nova, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman and outfielder Carlos Beltrán. In the offseason, catcher Brian McCann followed, as did pitcher James Pazos, a bit player in New York who went on to occupy a key bullpen role in Seattle. While the 93-win Red Sox traded for Chris Sale over the offseason, the Yankees, once the default destination for premier free agents, acquired the now-37-year-old Matt Holliday, whose Hall of Very Good career is on its last legs, and Chris Carter, who was non-tendered by the Brewers in favor of a quad-A guy who last played in Korea. Cashman’s biggest move was to bring back Chapman, who wasn’t good enough to lead them to the playoffs last year, anyway.

Despite running up the "rebuilding" flag, the Yankees own the best run differential (plus-56) and the second-best record (21–10) in baseball. They’ve scored the most runs in the American League and allowed the fourth-fewest. After underperforming the league-average OPS+ at seven positions last year, they’re beating it at six positions this year. The three exceptions are catcher, first base, and shortstop, which just so happen to be the three positions where the Yankees have had their starters miss significant time through injury. Gary Sanchez (biceps) and Didi Gregorius (shoulder) are already back, while first baseman Greg Bird (ankle) remains on the shelf.

The Yankees’ most productive position has been right field, where the team’s posted a collective 191 OPS+. The source of that august number, of course, is Aaron Judge, the 6-foot-7, 282-pound 25-year-old who plays baseball more or less the way you’d expect someone that big to play baseball: like that scene in Pacific Rim where the Jaeger picks up a ship and hits the Kaiju in the head with it.

Throughout his collegiate and minor league career, Judge struggled to access his raw power in games. No longer. He’s tied for the MLB lead with 13 home runs in 28 starts and leads the American League with a .760 slugging percentage. He owns the hardest-hit ball in the league this year, a 435-foot home run off Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman that left the bat at 119.4 miles an hour. Both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs have him in the lead in AL WAR, with Judge edging out Mike Trout by a fraction of a win in the latter.

While Judge has been the biggest surprise, so to speak, he’s not the only one. Chase Headley, 33 years old and two years removed from his last league-average offensive season, is hitting .258/.359/.429. Jacoby Ellsbury is hitting .281/.373/.427, and Brett Gardner is one home run away from matching his full-season total from last year. Holliday’s 158 OPS+ will be the highest of his career if he keeps it up.

In December 2015, the Cubs — who had brought up Addison Russell, Javy Báez, and Kris Bryant in the previous 16 months and who had just agreed to sign Ben Zobrist — traded infielder Starlin Castro to the Yankees, marking him as the one guy who couldn’t hack it right as the team was growing into its final World Champion form. Castro struggled to a 92 OPS+ in 2016, but this year he’s third in the AL in batting average and slugging .543.

The most puzzling hot start, though, belongs to Aaron Hicks, a former Twins first-rounder who came to New York after the 2015 season in exchange for catcher John Ryan Murphy. The switch-hitting Hicks was always a great defender, but he’d never hit in the big leagues: .223/.299/.346 over parts of four seasons coming into 2017. He’d struggled so mightily at the plate that at various times it’s been suggested that he give up hitting left-handed, or, since he touched 98 mph off the mound as a high schooler, give up hitting altogether. In 94 plate appearances, including 16 starts across all three outfield spots, Hicks is hitting .338/.462/.635 this year.

Want to know how you can lose three starting position players in the first month of the season and still lead the AL in runs scored? That’s how.

The pitching’s grabbed fewer headlines than Judge, but the Yankees have the second-best team ERA+ in the AL: 119. Chapman, his blown save Sunday night against the Cubs notwithstanding, has been excellent (15.0 K/9), as have fellow back-end guys Dellin Betances (560 ERA+, 17.0 K/9) and Tyler Clippard (342 ERA+, 11.3 K/9). Long man Adam Warren, traded away for Castro and reacquired for Chapman, has allowed a solitary earned run in 17.2 innings. Michael Pineda and Luis Severino have been the Yankees’ two best starters, while nominal ace Masahiro Tanaka’s bounced back from a disastrous Opening Day in Tampa and posted a 3.10 ERA in his past six starts.

This is, at least according to early returns, a team with depth to spare in the lineup and a bullpen that can shorten games to six or even five innings if need be. Whatever the preseason expectations, and however early-season surprises like Judge and Hicks finish the season, the Yankees look like a contender right now, and with a 5.5-game lead on the second wild-card spot, they don’t even have to keep playing like this to make it back to the playoffs.

2. Huh. The Yankees Are Good?

Few teardowns in recent big league memory have been executed so quickly and effectively. For two relievers, a 32-year-old catcher, and a 39-year-old free agent–to-be, the Yankees acquired a set of prospects that included four guys who’d end up in the Baseball Prospectus offseason top 101 — shortstop Gleyber Torres, outfielder Clint Frazier, and pitchers Justus Sheffield and Albert Abreu — including two, Torres (no. 15) and Frazier (no. 16), who ranked in the top 20. That also doesn’t include former no. 4 overall pick Dillon Tate, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher who came to the Yankees from Texas in the Beltrán deal. All told, nine Yankees minor leaguers ended up on the list, and BP ranked New York’s farm system second, behind only Atlanta’s.

When a team with a farm system that good jumps out to a surprising early start, Occam’s razor says it’s the result of that bumper crop of young talent breaking through in the majors. That’s what happened to the Cubs and Astros in 2015.

Except, that’s not even remotely what’s happened in New York. The only player from BP’s Yankees top 10 list to play for the team so far in 2017 is Judge. FanGraphs’ Yankees prospect list runs 33 deep, and of those only Judge, left-hander Jordan Montgomery, and backup catcher Kyle Higashioka have appeared for the big club. This hot start is the result of veterans, like Gardner, Ellsbury, Holliday, and Headley, playing like their old selves; and younger players with big league experience, like Castro, Hicks, Pineda, and Severino, putting it all together. Plus Judge is hitting like Barry Bonds, which should count as two rookies breaking out.

The Yankees’ return to contention wasn’t supposed to happen this season, because the meat of this farm system is still a ways off. On that FanGraphs list, Judge is one of only two prospects in the top 12 (Frazier is the other) who were projected to debut anytime this year. The big names are Torres and Frazier, both of whom possess a good feel to hit and outrageous bat speed. Frazier has All-Star potential, and Torres might not ever get to be Francisco Lindor good, but he could easily be Dansby Swanson (if Swanson ever starts hitting again) good.

The other headline crop of Yankees prospects comes from a record-breaking 52-person, $17 million (more than $30 million after penalties) 2014 international amateur class. One of the big names from that class, outfielder Estevan Florial, could become the first Haitian to play in the big leagues, but he and his cohort are all still teenagers, some yet to debut in full-season ball, so while their upside is tantalizing, by and large, their floor is nonexistent. For that reason, none of them appeared on the 10-man BP list, though several were listed on the deeper FanGraphs list.

Then there’s the most interesting thing about this farm system: what they’ve been able to do with college pitchers.

Montgomery, at this moment, has a 3.81 ERA through five major league starts. FanGraphs rated the 24-year-old the no. 14 prospect in the Yankees system, a more bullish rating than it looks because New York’s system is so good. Here’s what Montgomery looked like when the Yankees took him in the fourth round out of South Carolina in 2014.

Montgomery showed up in Columbia when the Gamecocks were up to their necks in big, awkward lefties with good command and good changeups. As a freshman, he drew comparisons to the team’s senior ace, Michael Roth, who was a superb college pitcher but allowed 34 runs in 36 big league innings with the Angels and Rangers, and frankly did well to even get that far. Montgomery’s fastball sat at 88–91 mph with a low three-quarters arm slot and a herky-jerky delivery that made him tough to time.

Here’s what Montgomery looks like now.

The delivery’s smoother, the arm angle’s different, and he looks slimmer than he did as a teenager. Montgomery’s fastball now sits at 92 and touches 94, and for a lefty starter with a good changeup and two playable breaking balls, that’s more than enough velocity to carve out a spot in a big league rotation.

In 2015 the Yankees selected UCLA right-hander James Kaprielian with the 16th overall pick. As a freshman, Kaprielian had been a reliever on the Bruins’ national championship team in 2013, then transitioned to the rotation, where he struck out 108 in 106 innings as a sophomore and 114 in 106.2 innings as a junior. In the rotation Kaprielian threw in the low 90s, and against college hitters that was good enough to make it so you needed to know how to spell "Kaprielian" but not so good he was viewed as a potential no. 1 pick. Here he is in college.

Once the Yankees got ahold of him, his velocity spiked to 99 in this past year’s Arizona Fall League. He’s struggled to stay healthy (he’s made only six minor league starts, plus seven more in the Fall League), and is currently on the shelf after Tommy John surgery last month. Kaprielian went from a fast-moving innings eater to, when he’s healthy, a top-100 prospect. Here he is this spring.

The changes aren’t as obvious as Montgomery’s, but they’re still noticeable. Clayton Kershaw has a pronounced drop in his drop-and-drive delivery — his ass bottoms out mid-windup like an overloaded car going over a speed hump — and Kaprielian did something similar at UCLA, but it’s less pronounced. His head is also more stable, with less violent back-and-forth action in the delivery, which just looks smoother overall. The cumulative effect, when his ligaments are all still where they’re supposed to be, is a safe, polished, mature starting pitcher who just showed up one day with an extra 5 or 6 miles an hour on his fastball.

A third pitcher who’s transformed is Chance Adams, a 2015 fifth-rounder out of Dallas Baptist. DBU’s most famous big league alum by far is Zobrist, but in recent years, the Patriots, an early adopter of the TrackMan radar system in the college ranks, have become a finishing school for big guys who throw hard. Between transfers and native Texans, those are not in short supply.

Which is why I have no recollection of seeing Adams pitch when I covered a Dallas Baptist series his junior year. As an anonymous middle reliever on a good mid-major team, he blended in with higher-profile names like closer Brandon Koch and ace Joe Shaw, neither of whom has been able to replicate Adams’s success in the pros. Here’s what Adams looked like at DBU.

Here’s Adams now.

The delivery, which was compact at DBU, isn’t much different now — he’s reaching down farther behind him at the start of the windup in the pros — but there’s no significant change in arm angle. Yet, the stuff looks great. The fastball is mid-90s with arm-side run, the slider is knee-buckling, and for the first time since junior college (Adams transferred to DBU from Yavapai College, alma mater of Curt Schilling and Ken Giles), he’s pitching out of the rotation. Adams made the Yankees’ top 10 on both the FanGraphs and BP lists, and a best-case scenario puts him in the Yankees rotation as early as the end of this year.

Take these three cases together, and there’s a nontrivial possibility that the Yankees can just take a decent college pitcher and crank his fastball up a grade whenever they want to. If that’s true, that’s a player development coup on the order of the slider Mets pitchers get taught across town.

To recap: The Yankees are 21–10 less than a year after they hit the hard sell button, they have the second-best farm system in the game, and most of those minor leaguers aren’t even close to contributing in the Bronx. Meanwhile, their college draftees are adding velocity in a fashion that makes it look like it’s the result of a coherent organizational approach. I’m not even close to convinced that New York’s old guys are going to stay this good in years to come, but, looking at what the farm system could produce, they won’t have to.

3. Ugh. The Yankees Are Good.

Imagine a team with no geographic or name markers and no history. This team is five years removed from its last serious title challenge, but thanks to some creative scouting and innovative player development techniques, it’s got a lot of fun pitchers, and it’s turning a tired veteran core over to an exciting group of youngsters. Not only that, those youngsters invite fans to have some fun with Photoshop.

That team would be the favorite of neutral fans across the country. But this is the Yankees, who, iffy performance this decade notwithstanding, are still the Yankees. There’s historical domination, then there’s historical domination on a scale so great that you become a cross-cultural metaphor for wealth, success, and hegemony to people who don’t even like baseball.

Apart from the logo on the jerseys, the only really odious thing about this Yankees team is Chapman — not only his domestic violence allegations, but how Cashman finessed those allegations in 2016 to first acquire him while his value was low, sell high on him last July, then turn around and re-sign him in the offseason. The Yankees aren’t the only team to attempt to profit from personal depravity — they aren’t even the only team to profit from Chapman’s — but it’s a stain on a team that would otherwise be easy to like.

Considering all that, are the Yankees really still the Yankees? George Steinbrenner is long dead, and so is his habit of buying up his competitors’ best players in free agency — though the way the game’s dominated by young players now, and considering how many of those young players never even make it to free agency during their primes, that wouldn’t be a smart strategy even if the Yankees wanted to pull it off. Besides, with record revenues, and player salaries taking up a smaller chunk of those revenues than they have in decades, every team is rich now. Cleveland just signed the best free-agent hitter this offseason, for crying out loud. The Yankees’ payroll is second-highest in baseball, essentially tied with the Tigers and Red Sox, and almost $45 million behind the first-place Dodgers.

In the past few years, the Yankess have been surpassed by the Cubs in terms of on-field success and media oversaturation, the Mets in palace intrigue, the Dodgers in financial might, and the Red Sox and Cardinals in negative fan stereotypes. A specific set of characteristics made the Yankees so detestable for nearly a century, and at the moment, those superlatives are spread across as many as half a dozen different franchises.

So it might be OK for neutrals to cheer on this emerging power, in spite of the century of history that comes with the name. But only if you’re convinced Aaron Judge’s gleeful home run binge isn’t the first step (and a big one at that) toward a return to a baseball world dominated by the team with the most built-in advantages. With the New York–dominated media already chittering about a 2018–19 free-agent class that could include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and Clayton Kershaw, how sure can you really be that the Evil Empire won’t rise again?