Baby Bombers: Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez giving Yankees reason for optimism
- A-Rod who? New York's faster-than-anticipated youth movement is keeping the club's postseason hopes alive for 2016 and positioning it for even more success next season and beyond.
NEW YORK—It appeared, on Tuesday, as if the occupant of the locker in the back left corner of the Yankees’ home clubhouse would return at any moment. His jock strap hung from a hook, and his batting gloves, turned halfway inside out as if they had only just been peeled from his hands, rested on a shelf. A newly delivered box of his bats stood upright, ready to be sliced open. Five photos of his daughters were tacked to the frosted glass that served as a partition. A pile of mail had begun to accumulate. MR. ALEX RODRIGUEZ, C/O YANKEE STADIUM, read the address on the top package. PLEASE DO NOT BEND.
Rodriguez wouldn’t be in that day. The Yankees had feted the polarizing, 41-year-old legend during a rain-soaked ceremony on Friday, then cut him on Saturday, with one year and $27 million left on his contract. Weirdly, though, his locker remained intact. “I don’t know what that’s about,” said first baseman Mark Teixeira, “but that’s not my area.” Though it had only been four days, A-Rod’s locker might have already been encased in glass, a dusty relic from an ancient era. For an organization that celebrates and fetishizes its past like no other, never before had the future arrived so quickly.
Generations are usually defined retroactively. We generally need the perspective of history to pinpoint when one ended and another began. For the Yankees, though, you could identify their generational shift in real time, as it happened last weekend. On Saturday, the same day they released Rodriguez, they simultaneously promoted outfield prospects Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, reuniting them with fellow prospect Gary Sanchez, the 23-year-old catcher who had been their teammate at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and who had beaten them to the Bronx, arriving in early August after having played two games last year and one in May. All of a sudden, the vanguard was in place.
It didn't take long for the new group to make an impact. In the second inning against the Rays, Austin lined a home run to right in his first at-bat; Judge followed by crushing a 457-foot homer to dead centerfield in his first time up in the majors. It was the first time in MLB history that two teammates had hit back-to-back home runs in their first plate appearances, and it spurred an 8–4 New York win. Sanchez, for good measure, hit his second career home run the next day, the first of four he would hit in a four-game stretch.
Judge, a 24-year-old Californian, has drawn the most early attention of that trio, for a few reasons: his immense size (6’7”, 275 pounds); his friendly, open face; and the fact that he followed his monstrous homer in his debut by hitting another home run in his second game, then drove in the lone run in a 1–0 victory in his third. On Tuesday, standing in his locker on the far side of the clubhouse from Rodriguez’s, he showed that he was also a rookie as far as his handling of the New York media, in that he wasn’t yet jaded by it or wary of it. Even as he slowly strapped on his batting gloves, attempting to signal that he should probably get to the cage for BP, he patiently answered the questions of reporters who approached him one by one.
While Judge and Rodriguez would never officially be teammates, they did share a clubhouse during the past two spring trainings. And though Judge said that all of the Yankees veterans—like the recently traded Carlos Beltran, or holdovers Brett Gardner and Brian McCann—were great to him, one stood out. “I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Judge says, “but [Rodriguez] actually came out of his way. ‘Hey, if you ever have any questions, or if you want to hit or do anything, let me know. I’m here for you.’” Judge has a tendency to strike out a lot, due to his height and his big swing, and while he had made mechanical adjustments, such as lowering his hands, to cut down on his whiffs, Rodriguez was more interested in talking with him about the intricacies of a big leaguer’s routine and approach than fiddling with his swing. “He loves the game of baseball, man,” says Judge. “He’s one of the greatest baseball minds I’ve ever been around, and I got the pleasure of working with him.”
Judge was still living in a hotel and said that his four-day stretch was the longest period of time he’d ever spent in New York. Still, the impact he and his fellow rookies had made on the club was already strong. The Yankees’ lineup had, until very recently, been known a collection of decorated but aging sluggers—the world’s best-paid beer league team—but, as WFAN’s Sweeny Murti began pointing out on Twitter, this was suddenly no longer true. Between Sanchez's arrival on Aug. 3 and their most recent game on Aug. 17, 20 consecutive Yankees home runs were struck by players who were younger than 30. Besides Sanchez's five, Judge's two and Austin's one, homers came from 26-year-old second baseman Starlin Castro (four); 26-year-old shortstop Didi Gregorius (four); 26-year-old outfielder Aaron Hicks (three); and 27-year-old catcher Austin Romine (one).
Youth, now, definitively reigns in the Yankees' clubhouse. Teixeira, who at 36 will join Rodriguez in retirement after the season, correctly noted that after he leaves, only Gardner and pitcher CC Sabathia will remain from New York's most recent World Series title team, in 2009. “That’s only two guys," Teixeira said. "That proves right there that it is a new era here for the Yankees.”
It is early, but the quick transitioning between eras might one day prove to be the greatest accomplishment of Brian Cashman’s sometimes maligned 19-year run as the club’s general manager. Many had long called for Cashman to blow up a team that has not won a playoff game since 2012 and to suffer through an extended period of rebuilding, such as the Cubs and Astros endured, for the sake of future success. Not all of the Yankees' young players will ultimately pan out, but still Cashman seems to have significantly compressed that rebuilding project so much that it has appeared nearly painless.
At the deadline, he traded away three assets with expiring or soon-to-expire contracts—Beltran (to the Rangers) and relievers Aroldis Chapman (Cubs) and Andrew Miller (Indians)—and came away with a farm system that is now more or less the game’s best; no fewer than eight Yankees prospects, five of them newly acquired, currently reside on one of the game’s three leading top-100 lists. Cashman managed to wait to make the deals until the market price for premium relief arms like Chapman and Miller had never been higher, and he waited until his big league team wouldn’t be embarrassed due to the losses it sustained, because reinforcements like Austin, Judge and Sanchez seemed ready to step in.
In fact, the Yankees reached four games above .500 for the first time this season on Monday, and they are still just six games out of a wild card spot. “To still be able to actively pursue a playoff spot—that’s the biggest thing,” says Sabathia.
While reaching the postseason remains a long shot for New York this year, it shouldn’t be in 2017, and certainly not the year after that. That is when virtually all of the Yankees’ top prospects will have matured, and when they will be undoubtedly have been bolstered by several members of what promises to be the greatest free agent class in the game’s history in the winter of 2017–18—one that could include Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez, Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado.
Essentially, here is what has happened, in no time at all: The Yankees are likeable again, and they are promising again. “You get the same kind of characters, just in younger bodies, I guess,” says Sabathia, who at 36 now ties Teixeira for oldest body.
The new Yankees departed for a six-game West Coast road trip on Wednesday, and they left behind Rodriguez’s old locker, intact. A team employee said that there was no particular reason why the locker was still untouched, and nothing symbolic about it. Rob Cucuzza, the club’s longtime equipment manager, was simply waiting to hear from Rodriguez as to where the contents should be shipped. By the time the club returned from its trip next Friday, the employee said, “It’s gonna be gone.”