mlb

For The First Time In Generations, Youth Is Being Served In The Bronx

Under the Steinbrenners, the Yankees have made a policy of burying young players and buying expensive older ones. At the trading deadline, that all changed.

by Steven Goldman
Aug 3 2016, 6:22pm

Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

To get a sense of how impossibly unlikely the series of trades consummated by the New York Yankees around the trading deadline was, try to guess the last time the average age of Yankees' position players was not 30 or older. Or, I can just tell you: it was 1992.

This is a franchise that has hated—that word is not an exaggeration—young players for so long that some of the first kids it suppressed and dealt away for other teams' veterans are now old enough to be grandfathers. The few times New York did surrender to the inevitable and played someone who hadn't already spent five or ten years proving themselves in Cleveland or Milwaukee or some other city where they apparently knew their baseball better than anyone the Yankees employed, they played the wrong guys: the Oscar Azocar types, Eduardo Nunez, Aaron Hicks.

To paraphrase John Lennon, this year's Yankees spent months treating Alex Rodriguez as a concept by which we measure our pain. In the aftermath of the team's frenetic and nearly unprecedented activity around the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, it became clear that, despite the longstanding organizational fixation on him, A-Rod was never the problem. That's not to say that Rodriguez isn't a scourge upon the team—he could hit .350 the rest of the way and he'd still be wasting the Yankees' time in terms of getting their next pennant-winner organized. No, the real symbol of futility here, through no fault of his own except circumstance, is a much younger and cheaper player, the outfielder Hicks.

Read More: The Best May Be Yet To Come For The Quietly Brilliant Carlos Beltran

And maybe it's Ronald Torreyes, too, an even younger and cheaper player. Not only is his surname pronounced "Tore-AY-ez" when in a more beautiful and accurate world it would be the more Yankees-appropriate "Torre-Eyes"—as in, "We would have called up that 23-year-old pitcher instead of signing Ron Villone, but you know how Joe is with rookies—he looked at the kid with Torre Eyes." By any name, Torreyes is pungently awful. He's played a lot less than Hicks, but that's the point: like Hicks, he's in the majors, he's young, and there's no reason to play him.

But, on this washed out/burnt over Yankees team, there's no real reason why not, either. Given that Starlin Castro has hit .241/.277/.367 in 82 games since April—and since his overall averages of .254/.291/.392 are virtually identical to what he's hit in three of the last four seasons—perhaps the Yankees could give Yung Torre-Eyes a try. Over the course of his minor league career, he struck out only 35 times per 500 at-bats. A player who puts the ball in play that often might someday hit .300 by accident. Or ground into 40 double plays. Possibly both. It's an option, but that's about all it is.

Torre Eyes, the new Buscemi Eyes. Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Hicks, like Torre-Eyes, is a young player who wastes your time. The Yankees traded 25-year-old catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins last November because Hicks, a former first-round pick, had seemed to gain some mild purchase on his talent last year, hitting an average-ish .256/.323/.398—those figures were mostly comprised of good results against left-handed pitching—and playing well in center field. Never mind that Murphy, given a chance to become the Twins' starting catcher in April, luminously imploded by going 3-for-40 and has followed up with a Triple-A campaign that has been, in its own way, even more damaging. What matters is that Hicks has hit .187/.250/.285 in 237 plate appearances, which is, give or take, the worst offensive performance by an outfielder in the history of the Yankees. You might have thought the title belonged to Gary Ward 1987 (.248/.291/.384 in full-time play) or Rondell White 2002 (.240/.288/.378, the guy's only bad season between 1993 and 2005). But no, it's Hicks. By a lot.

More significant than the trivia is the fact that the Yankees have just kept letting Hicks do his thing. Until Monday, Hicks was the closest thing New York had to ready youth, and he killed them. Hicks has started 59 games out of 105 games, and though there is a great deal wrong with the Yankees this year, their record could actually have been even better if those 200-plus PAs had been given to a functional big league player. To show you just how thin the margin in baseball is between success and failure, and how just damaging one miserable player can be, in Hicks' starts, the Yankees have gone 27-33. In all other games they've gone 26-20. That's a .565 winning percentage and a 92-win pace. It's also a slightly better record than the current wild-card leaders possess.

Given the Yankees are still The Team From AARP, it's probably an exaggeration to say that they were ONE good young player away from being a contender in 2016. But it is entirely fair to say that tolerating a player as bad as Hicks for this many plate appearances has had a disproportionate impact on a team's record. When a major league team has a regular or semi-regular who is replacement-level or lower, it's like it has a massive weight on its back.

In the space of a few days, that all changed. The Yankees cut bait on vets and, in a shocking turn, went about collecting young players. Carlos Beltran, Ivan Nova, Aroldis Chapman, and Andrew Miller were gone, replaced by an entirely new farm system's-worth of prospects. Some of them are mere flyers, but others—shortstop Gleyber Torres and outfielder Clint Frazier in particular—are very promising. Combine them with the ready or nearly-ready players already in the system like catcher Gary Sanchez, outfielder Aaron Judge, and the revivified Tyler Austin, and the Yankees have a surfeit of young talent that tops anything the Yankees have possessed since, and this is not a joke, the 1950s.

Aaron Judge, large human. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If you squint, you can almost see the outlines of the next great Yankees team. You have to suspend your willing disbelief in about a half-dozen areas to do so: Hal Steinbrenner could reverse himself, once again suppress general manager Brian Cashman's best instincts, and decree that the Yankees package up all these kids and trade them for Prince Fielder, because that's what his old man would have done. They could block those same kids by signing every 33-year-old in the coming free-agent class because that's what his old man would have done, too. Finally, the future starting rotation remains more concept than anything else. Cashman acquired two tyro pitchers in the Miller deal, and the Yankees already had some promising candidates floating around, but there may not be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the bunch. Asking for an ace is setting a high bar, but an ace/aces is what they need.

Right now, though, these are mere quibbles. Cashman is to be applauded. For most of his career, he's been the temporizing organization man, someone who started with the Yankees as an intern and has done what he had to do to keep his job, even if it meant sacrificing sound baseball judgment. He presided over a string of World Series winners mostly built by other people, and the sole championship team for which he can take a true author's credit, the 2009 team, was less built than bought. That makes it no less legitimate, but a dogpile of mercenaries will never be as affecting as one comprised of kids that fans have dreamed on from the amateur draft on.

More practically, in making the kinds of contractual concessions necessary to bring players like Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and CC Sabathia to New York—or to keep them there, particularly via further capitulations when the latter two opted out of their agreements—the Yankees saddled themselves with players enjoying sinecures. When a player in his 30s unilaterally cancels the years of his contract covering his declining years, you don't pat him on the butt and extend his contract, you throw him a going-away party because he's just done you a favor so great that it should induce the kind of euphoria usually reserved for illegal drugs. Instead, either Cashman or his masters stuck New York with the last four years of expensive mediocrity.

It's difficult to overstate just how unlikely a change Cashman has just wrought. It's like he not only hijacked a giant cruise ship but K-turned it in an incredibly narrow space. When George Steinbrenner's low-OBP Dave LaPointmachine sputtered and died in 1990, not a player moved. The 2013 team was eight games out of the division lead at the deadline, but rather than de-accessioning anyone, they chose to chase the wild card and added Alfonso Soriano. In a similar position in 2014, they again added, bringing in Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, and Martin Prado. The Steinbrenners just don't know when to quit, arguing that they will fight it out all summer on this line, even when their fans are vocally begging them to retreat.

When you realize the organization has had a pathological fixation on you for years. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The last bridge to cross here, in terms of the psychological commitment the Steinbrenners, Cashman, and Joe Girardi must now make is actually playing these kids, assuming the younger ones actually manage to make it through a farm system that has not seen anything of their like since Derek Jeter, and then not panicking when they have their first 0-for-10. A little over a week ago, the Houston Astros promoted prized prospect Alex Bregman to the major leagues. In his first five games, he went 0-for-17, and is still only 1-for-32. The Yankees are going to see some sights that are just as painful, and they're going to have to deal with it, not only now, but this winter, when they'll have a chance to sign a 36-year-old Jose Bautista to a five-year contract. Most of these kids won't work out. That's the way the game works. It's not an indictment of kids in general.

It seems, at least in the short term, like the Yankees have finally got the right religion. On Tuesday, New York Post writer Joel Sherman reported the Yankees would soon call up Sanchez, Austin, Judge, and Ben Heller (the last a reliever acquired in the Miller deal), and indeed at this writing Sanchez is already on his way.

For decades, George Steinbrenner and his heirs have been so insecure in their own judgment and that of the supposedly brilliant baseball men they had hired that they have only trusted players from outside their own organization. They've assumed their fans would rather watch soldiers for hire than cultivate a family feeling around young players. To them, only the former allowed for a competitive ballclub. Far more often than not, they've been wrong.

This week, they finally learned something. It's like witnessing a miracle of comprehension—the Pope high-fiving Galileo, or an oil-country congressman admitting that global warming is real. We'll see if it sticks.

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