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The Yankees are Winning and Rebuilding, But This Isn't a Preview of the Future

Somehow the Yankees still have a shot at the division.

by Steven Goldman
Sep 12 2016, 4:25pm

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever been to a wedding where the guests whisper to each other, "It won't last," and they're not joking? Some enjoy saying that, because they're sadists who enjoy watching other people fail at one of the hardest things human beings attempt: the lasting relationship. The rest, hopefully the majority, don't feel particularly good about it, it's just something they know, a vibe they feel having seen too many couples bust up.

Talking about the Yankees' unexpected push for a postseason berth feels a bit like being the regretfully doleful guest at one of those weddings. Though the seven-game winning streak that put them back in the picture (panoramic shot only for now) ended on Sunday, they're still just four back of the American League East-leading Boston Red Sox and, along with the Detroit Tigers, just two back of a spot in the wild-card play-in game. That's fun, but as the team losing with rookie righty Luis Cessa on Sunday suggests, what we're seeing now not only isn't the future, it isn't even a preview.

Cessa has been amazing in his short time in the majors in that in 47.2 innings, he's allowed 13 home runs. Given 200 innings, he'd give up enough bombs to obliterate Bert Blyleven's 1986 record of 50 allowed. Blyleven did that in 271.2 innings, and no pitcher gets that many innings anymore, but say Cessa did: He'd outdo Blyleven by about 25 souvenirs.

Cessa is a kid who has good stuff but lacks the secondary pitches to stop batters from sitting on his fastball and so is probably going to be a card-carrying member of Middle Relievers Anonymous. The Yankees had to try anyway. That's what rebuilding teams do. They sort through options even when they're by definition short of options (this is called pretending), and many of them don't work out.

If you've seen the Yankees' previous rebuilding efforts, this Cessa-tion should be familiar to you. In 1984, the Yankees started out 17-23 at the same time the Tigers were going 35-5, which meant their season was over by May 1. Giving up, they started giving regular time to kids like Don Mattingly (Yogi Berra had him as a reserve early on), Mike Pagliarulo, and Bobby Meacham. They tried some young pitchers, too, such worthies as Dennis Rasmussen, Joe Cowley, and Jose Rijo. Rijo was only 19 and would have his moment with other teams. The others had their moments, but there wasn't enough to make a pitching staff.

That the Yankees had to do it all again just six years later suggests what happens when you leave the pitching out of the rebuilding formula. Their 1990 collapse brought the "Baby Bombers," Kevin Maas, Oscar Azocar, and Jim Leyritz. Pitching remained a concept, though some may fondly remember 1991 rookie Jeff Johnson, whose 6.52 ERA in 38 career games is among the worst in the "Mercifully Short Careers: The Postwar Years" category. The rebuild would take a while, not only requiring better players than Maas et al (i.e. Bernie Williams and the rest) but a complete reimagining of a pitching staff that had zero keepers.

The 2016 Yankees aren't as far off from these predecessors as it might seem. As the 11 games in which Joe Girardi has listed Didi Gregorius as his cleanup hitter suggest, they can't hit, and while Gary Sanchez has knocked the ball around like peak Mike Piazza, Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin have yet to prove they belong. There are also some veterans who probably shouldn't stay but are signed through the end of time. As for the starting rotation, there's Masahiro Tanaka followed by shadowy figures obscured by a swirling mist.

Though it seems crazy to even mention they have an on-paper shot at the division lead, the Yankees have 20 games left to play and, in a sense, control their destiny. Their remaining schedule is very hard, but in a good way: They have seven games left with the Red Sox, and seven total with the wild-card leading Blue Jays and Orioles. They'll wrap up the season with three games against the latter at Camden Yards.

All of which is to say that the Yankees have a chance in 2016, which is more than you could say back before they deleted Alex Rodriguez, shored up the defense so Carlos Beltran wasn't hobbling around the outfield anymore (however well he was hitting), and showed a team could deal a couple of theoretically essential relievers and survive. They've reaped a reward for virtue, for facing up to the reality of their misery, but that misery is only in abeyance now, and the fact of it will come crashing down as soon as this season ends, however it ends.