“Rebuild” is a word commonly used in sports. It signifies the start of the end for a team. A franchise arrives at a point where it does not make sense to go forward with their current team, so they “tear it down” only to attempt to build it back into a contender. Unfortunately for some cities, their teams go through multiple rebuilds, or seem like they never stop rebuilding. For others, rebuilding is not something that is accepted by the fanbases and never seems like an option to upper management. The New York Yankees are one of those franchises, as they constantly have the money and resources to maintain success and replace departed players with new and improved stars.
There is was time, not too long ago, where the Yankees fell into a cycle of replacing patching holes with veterans through cash or trading away young, potentially valuable minor leaguers. For years, this had been a successful strategy that helped the Yankees make the playoffs year after year. Driven by the “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte, Brian Cashman filled out the rest of the roster with all-star players and generational talent (Alex Rodriguez). But after their 2012 postseason loss to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series (ALCS), success would be harder to come by in the Bronx.
To define the word “success” for the Yankees compared to other teams, which may come off arrogant but true, is to win championships. Making the playoffs is the expectation every year and to compete for a championship is always the though process. They have built this mentality through constant years of winning and the many World Series titles the franchises has delivered, especially since the beginning of the “Core Four” era. So what the Yankees did over the next five seasons may seem successful to some, but falls short of expectations to the Yankees.
2013: Past Their Prime
The previous season ended in a trip to the ALCS, where the team was swept by a strong Detroit Tigers squad. The Yankees were a veteran team with aging stars. Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera resigned one-year deals, seasoned Japanese pitcher Huroki Kuroda was added to the rotation, and Cashman was able to plug some holes with Kevin Youkilis and Ichiro Suzuki. All free agents who were on the wrong side of 30, the youngest being Youkilis at 34. At the beginning of spring training, the legendary Rivera announced that he would be retiring after the season, leading to a season-long farewell tour for the Sandman. The rest of the year consisted of injuries to Mark Teixeira Curtis Grandson and Alex Rodriguez.
The 2013 season was focused on Mariano Rivera, with a late-season surge that fell short of the post-season. The team made an “upgrade” in July by adding Alfonso Soriano, not realizing that a team starting Lyle Overbay and a washed-up Vernon Wells wouldn’t get the job done. What didn’t help was that the Boston Red Sox took home their third World Series title in 10 years, making the organization anxious to match their arch-rival’s success.
Some positives from the season that would have future implications was all the draft selections from the Amateur Draft. Aaron Judge, Tyler Wade, and Dustin Fowler and just a few of the names that would be added to the farm system.
Record: 85-77 (3rd in AL East)
2014: Breaking the Bank
Cashman was dealt a difficult hand the off-season leading into the next season. Robinson Cano, an unrestricted free-agent that summer, signed a lucrative 10-year, $300 million deal with the Seattle Mariners. The best positional player for the Yankees over the last three years, this was a huge blow to the organization. As a reactionary move, as seen by some, Cashman shelled out $153 million over seven years to former Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Though Ellsbury had been productive and had just helped their division rival to a World Series championship, he had an extensive injury history and played the same style as left fielder Brett Gardner. It was another way the Yankees used their money to improve their team with “proven” veterans, which would include Carlos Beltran (37 years old) and Brian McCann. However, Cashman was able to win the Masahiro Tanaka Sweepstakes that winter, a Japanese pitcher who was coming to the MLB with a lot of hype and high expectations.
Similar to the 2013, Derek Jeter announced that it was his last season, which would result in yet another season-long retirement tour. Well-deserving for the Captain, but another distraction attached to a team that just missed the playoffs for only the second time since 1995. The players the Yankees signed did not live up to their perceived expectations and the team missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. Money in the off-season and minor mid-season acquisitions were not able to save their season, as the team became older and more expensive heading into the next season.
P.S.: A-Rod missed the entire season due to suspension for steroid use.
Record: 84-78 (2nd in AL East)
2015: Trying to Make it Work
The winter after the 2014 season had a weird feeling, with the “Core Four” era officially coming to a close. This lead to questions, specifically around the next shortstop of the New York Yankees. Derek Jeter had been cemented into the position since 1995 and set a high standard for the next infielder. There were options on the trade market with names like JJ Hardy and Elvus Andrus coming to mind. But Cashman, the man who had assembled playoff teams for years, took a different approach with a three-team trade that lead to the acquisition of Didi Gregorious, a unproven shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks known for his defensive abilities. A minor move that would later serve large for the future of the Yankees infield.
The rest of the off-season moves included extending Chase Headley, a mid-season acquisition of the previous season, and signing Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Andrew Miller, a hard throwing lefty who would slide into the closer position.
Playoffs! The Yankees were able to return to the post-season after a two year absence, which seemed like forever in the Bronx. With an All-Star season from Mark Teixeira (which was cut short) and a strong season A-Rod (hit over 33 home runs the year after he’s suspension), the team was able to host the Wild-Card game against a young Houston Astros. Though they lost and the season ended in yet another disappointment, it was a turning point for the organization.
What was most important about the 2015 season was the emergence of two young, up and coming farm system products in starting pitcher Luis Severino and Greg Bird. Sevy, the 21-year-old flame thrower, debuted against the Red Sox and August and never looked back. Some believed he should have been the starter for the one-game Wild Card, as he finished the season 5-3 with a 2.89 ERA. As for Bird, he stepped in for Teixeira, who suffered a season-ending leg fracture after leading the team the first half of the year. The rookie hit .261 and 11 homers in just 46 games, showing the Yankees what life would be like once Tex called it quits. The two budding stars showed Cashman that the farm system could not only contribute, but help the team contend in the future, as players like Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Jorge Mateo were waiting in the wings for their shot at the majors.
Record: 87-75 (2nd in AL East)
2016: Finally Pulling the Plug
After a quick trip to the post-season (one game exactly), Cashman used the winter to turn a strength into an even bigger strength without spending money. Aroldis Chapman, the Cincinnati Red’s closer who was under investigation for domestic violence, was acquired for four lower-level prospects. The Cuban Missile was available at a cheaper price due to the investigation, as there was a previous deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers set in place that was far more impressive than what Cashman gave up, but they backed out with the fear of a looming suspension. With two of the best relievers in baseball already in the bullpen, Cashman took the risk and added essential a third closer to shorten the game even further for the Yankees.
Other moves included acquiring shortstop Starlin Castro, who was recently converted by the Chicago Cubs to a second basemen, and center fielder Aaron Hicks, once a top prospect who had not produced much for the Minnesota Twins. The moves hoped to add stability to the infield and depth to an often injury-plagued outfield.
A year that began with high expectations, but ended with promise towards the future. The Yankees had a decent line-up going into the season, with veterans scattered, Teixeira back at first (with Greg Bird as a back up) and the best bull-pen on paper in the league. The expectation was to make the playoffs, as every year is, but with this team having little more to help them get there.
Well, those expectations were not met, as the team was in the race, but seen as a club that didn’t have quite enough to contend seriously. The big decision loomed of acquiring a big name at the deadline (the typical route for the Yankees) or do what they had not done in what seems like forever and sell veterans for young, minor league talent. Cashman pleaded with Hal Steinbrenner, looking for permission to restart the organization. After receiving the “OK”, Cashman went to work, trading away Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran. The two relievers brought back a haul of young prospects that included SS Gleyber, OF Clint Frazier, LHP Justus Sheffield, OF Billy McKinney, and other players who would be added to the now “stacked” minor league teams in Scranton, Trenton and Tampa. Beltran, who was having an All-Star season at 39 years of age, was able to bring back former 4th overall pick Dillon Tate, who had regressed but still had a strong arm.
The 2016 season had a totally different outlook, as any rate of success or contribution towards the major league level was a bonus. And that bonus came in a big way with the emergence of prized catcher Gary Sanchez. The 22-year-old broke out during the second half of that season, hitting for .299 AVG with 20 home runs and 42 RBI in only 53 games. He nearly led them to the post-season, but regardless showed the organization they had they’re catcher for years to come.
Along with Sanchez, prospects Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin showed potential, as they both homered in their first major league at-bats. As the months of August and September carried on, both sluggers struck out more than they got on base, but it was still a promising outlook. Though the Yankees did not make the playoffs, this season felt like more of a success than the previous three.
Record: 84-78 (4th in AL East)
2017: The Year of the Baby Bombers
The Yankees finally had limited expectations. For years, the organization thought “World Series or Bust” and tried to plug in veterans to fill positions instead of saving money and using their own resources. They did sign back closer Aroldis Chapman to a lucrative deal (5 years, $86 million), but that was it for long-term contracts. Going into Spring Training, they had the mid-set up bringing up their young players, cementing them into the line-up, and seeing where they could take the team. Sanchez was their catcher, Bird their first baseman, and Judge was competing for right field with Aaron Hicks. Severino, who struggled the prior year and was moved into the bullpen, was given another shot at the starting rotation. The team obviously wanted to make the playoffs, but there was not as much pressure as there had been in the past. Well, the end result came as a shock to many.
Aaron Judge emerged as a perennial All-Star, MVP candidate, lock for Rookie of the Year, and winner of the Home Run Derby. Severino became the team’s ace mid-way through the year. Sanchez showed why he is the best hitter in the line-up, hitting 30+ home runs and learning to become a better catcher. Didi Gregorius hit more home runs than he ever had while being that replacement the Yankees were looking for when Jeter retired. And the veterans, who were once relied upon heavily, became fillers that contributed to a good locker room and solid, steady numbers. The only downside was the loss of Greg Bird for a majority of the year, who rejoined the team for their playoff run.
Because of their success, Cashman went from seller to heavy buyer in a matter of months, acquiring 3B Todd Frazier and relief pitchers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle from the Chicago White Sox, along with Sonny Gray (ace of the Oakland Athletics), all for prospects that were rated high, but seemingly did not have a future in the Bronx. Of the prospects, Blake Rutherford and Jorge Mateo were the two features that were hard to relinquish, but with the likes of Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier, they became expendable.
The Yankees finished with the top wild-card spot and were able to extend their season all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS against the soon-to-be World Series Champion Houston Astros. Judge, Severino, and Sanchez were the obvious stars to glamour at when looking at the Yankees future, but it was Didi Gregorius who helped bring this young team to new heights in the post season. Not flinching under pressure and showing leadership, especially in the ALDS against Cleveland, the Yankees shortstop showed that he belonged and was going to be part of the organization for years to come.
Record: 91-71 (2nd in AL East)
2018: The Evil Empire is Back
So after the long history lesson, the key theme presented is the adaptation to change and learning how to build a club without a large wallet. When looking back to 2013, it is hard to believe that we were still watching Derek Jeter bat second and play shortstop, as well as Andy Pettitte assume the role of the 4th starter in a major league rotation. In 2014, the Yankees did what they’ve done for years and “bought” former All-Stars, shelling out millions of dollars to players who had great season, but never reached the expectations of Yankees fans. To go from the old way of doing things and being in an endless cycle of fizzling veterans to having one of the youngest, most talented teams in baseball is astonishing for the timeline it had.
Now, especially with the addition of 2017 NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton (for Starlin Castro and two Class-A minor leaguers), there is a thought that this team will be feared for years to come and will enter it’s second dynasty in two decades, with completely different rosters. The type of overhaul this type of rebuild requires is usually years and years of losing records, while the Yankees never had one.
To the organizations and fans alike, this trip felt like forever. To other baseball fans, the Yankees are once again the team they love to hate, and that’s just the way we like it.