Youth movement: On day celebrating past, Yankees’ future arrives with a bang
- On the same day the Yankees honored their ’96 team, the current squad’s future stole the spotlight as rookies Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin made history.
In the perpetual win-now philosophy of the Steinbrenner-era New York Yankees, the future has almost always come a distant second to the present and at times has even seemed to slip behind the past in terms of organizational priorities. On Saturday, however, the past, present and future all collided in spectacular fashion. On the day the organization celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 1996 world championship team that launched the most recent Yankee dynasty, two of the team’s top prospects, one of whom took the roster spot vacated by the release of Alex Rodriguez Saturday morning, made a historically unprecedented debut that helped New York to its fourth straight win.
Called up on Saturday and immediately installed in the starting lineup, 24-year-old righties Tyler Austin, batting seventh and playing first base, and Aaron Judge, batting eighth and playing rightfield, became the first pair of players in major league history to hit consecutive home runs in their first major league plate appearances, doing so in the bottom of the second inning of the Yankees’ 8–4 win over the Rays at the new Yankee Stadium. Only once before had two players turned the trick in the same game. In that case, they did it for different teams. That was 78 years ago, on Opening Day in 1938, when Dodgers leftfielder Ernie Koy and Phillies second baseman Heinie Mueller went deep in their first major league plate appearances in the first inning of a 12–5 Dodgers win.
For the Yankees, this was the first time they had even had two players make their major league debut in the same starting lineup since May 17, 1969, when centerfielder Jim Lyttle and catcher John Ellis also batted seventh and eighth in a 6–0 win over the Angels at the original Yankee Stadium. Both picked up their first major league hit in that game, Ellis’s an inside-the-park home run in the eighth, but the hits were non-consecutive and Lyttle’s was a mere infield single.
The celebration of the 1996 team on Saturday and the historical connection to the 1969 team serve as reminders that the Yankees, who were sellers at the deadline this year for the first time since the late 1980s, have indeed had rebuilding periods before. The team’s World Series victory in ’96 was the culmination of a six-year rebuilding period that dated to late owner George Steinbrenner’s suspension from baseball and the near-simultaneous hiring of former shortstop and manager Gene Michael as general manager in August 1990. The 1969 Yankees, meanwhile, were in the midst of an 11-year playoff drought in the Bronx that wouldn’t be broken until 1976, when the team general manager Gabe Paul built around another 1969 rookie, 1976 AL MVP Thurman Munson, and delivered the organization its first pennant since the days of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
With Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Joe Torre’s numbers retired, Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez honored by plaques in Monument Park, and Derek Jeter donning a Yankee jersey on the field for the first time as a retired player on Saturday, the 1996 Yankees, and the entire Joe Torre-era dynasty, are now similarly distant memories. Austin and Judge’s performance on Saturday, however, fed the hope that the next great Yankee team isn’t nearly as far away.
Of the two Yankees to make their debuts on Saturday, Judge arrives with the greater expectations. Drafted out of Fresno State in 2013 with the free-agent compensation pick received from Cleveland for Nick Swisher, Judge has been rated the Yankees’ top prospect each of the last two seasons by Baseball Prospectus, which ranked Judge the 18th-best prospect in baseball prior to this season. A strapping 6'7" stud, Judge is an athletic rightfielder with monstrous power, which he displayed immediately on Saturday, hitting the fourth pitch he saw in the major leagues, an 87 mile per hour changeup from Rays starter Matt Andriese, off the top of the restaurant in dead centerfield in Yankee Stadium. That shot was measured by Statcast at a projected 446 feet, making it one of the longest home runs in the eight-year history of the new ballpark, just the third to hit off or above the windows of the restaurant and the third-longest measured by Statcast at the new stadium.
A .278/.373/.473 hitter in his career prior to Saturday, Judge’s minor league numbers aren’t as impressive as his physical presence. Despite his light-tower power, he has averaged just 26 home runs per 162 games while striking out in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances. Still, he is in just his third professional season and his potential is obvious. Perhaps best of all, his home run wasn’t the only impressive thing he did in Saturday’s game. Even before that home run, he made a nice running catch at the wall in right field to end the top of the first. He then singled in his second at-bat, both of his hits coming with two strikes, made another nice play coming in on a ball later in the game and hit 99 miles per hour according to Statcast on a throw from rightfield. According to general manager Brian Cashman, the rightfield job is now Judge’s to lose, and the Yankees hope he will keep it for the remainder of the decade.
Austin is a former top-100 prospect himself, ranked number 77 by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season, but he arrives with lower expectations and more to prove. A 13th-round pick out of his Georgia high school in 2010, Austin raked in the low minors, prompting his elite prospect ranking, but struggled with a wrist injury in 2013 and ’14 that gutted his prospect status and prompted the Yankees to drop him from the 40-man roster last September. This season, however, he has rediscovered his impressive opposite-field stroke and was tearing up Triple A to the tune of a .323/.415/.637 line in 234 plate appearances between his early June promotion to that level and Saturday’s call-up.
Drafted as a catcher, Austin was a corner infielder as a teenager and moved to the outfield in his age-20 season. He thus gives the Yankees some flexibility as a four-corner man, which is likely to be his role over the remainder of the season. Drawing starts against lefties, spotting at first base and in the outfield corners and even making emergency appearances at third base, Austin will battle for playing time. However, there’s reason to believe that he should be given priority over the retiring Mark Teixeira at first base, potential off-season trade bait and fellow 32-year-olds Brett Gardner and Brian McCann, the latter of whom has been seeing increased playing time at first base and designated hitter with the arrival of 23-year-old catching prospect Gary Sanchez, and 26-year-old outfielder Aaron Hicks, who entered Saturday with a career OPS+ of 75 after 1,195 major league plate appearances.
Performances such as Saturday’s could indeed push Austin up the Yankees’ depth chart. Not only did hit battle back from an 0–2 hole to poke an opposite-field home run just over the 314-foot sign in right field in his first at-bat, but he later delivered an opposite-field single and stole second base. Austin isn’t particularly fast, but he’s an extremely heady player and stole 65 bases at an 89% success rate in parts of seven minor league seasons.
Even if he does become a fixture in the Yankee lineup as the current season draws to a close, Austin will still have to battle for playing time next year as Teixeira’s heir apparent at first base, Greg Bird, is expected to return from the torn labrum that erased his 2016 season. Indeed, the Yankees are hoping that Bird, who hit .261/.343/.529 with 11 home runs in 178 plate appearances as a rookie last year, will be able to play in the Arizona Fall League in October and report to spring training in February without issue. A left-handed hitter, Bird seems likely to at least consume the strong side of a platoon with Austin if he is indeed back to full health by the spring. This, of course, is a good problem to have for the Yankees.
In addition to Austin and Judge, the Yankees hit three more home runs on Saturday, all of them coming off the bats of players 26 or younger. The other three were hit by Hicks, whose home run on Friday night enabled Alex Rodriguez to make his final appearance in the field, according to manager Joe Girardi, and the team’s 26-year-old double-play combination of Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro. Though there’s reason to be skeptical about the futures of Castro and especially Hicks, despite recent upticks at the plate from both, it’s still significant that Saturday marked the first time in Yankees history that the team had five players 26 or younger hit home runs in the same game.
What’s more, with Rodriguez gone and Teixeira, McCann and Gardner all on the bench, just two of the ten Yankees to start Saturday’s game, including starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, were over the age of 27. With 21-year-old centerfielder Clint Frazier, the top prospect received from Cleveland in the Andrew Miller deal, already in Triple A, and 22-year-old Luis Severino set to start against the Rays on Sunday, the Yankees much-anticipated youth movement has very quickly moved into its next phase. Perhaps most impressively, this is just the first wave. Thanks to Cashman’s wheeling and dealing at the deadline and the strong work of the organization as a whole in building up the farm system in recent years, the Yankees should be graduating high-level prospects for years to come.
Though their bullpen was clearly diminished by the trades of Miller and Aroldis Chapman, with dead weight such as Rodriguez and Ivan Nova gone and their depth and defense improved by the promotions of Sanchez, Judge and Austin, it no longer seems like a stretch to say that the Yankees could be a better team now than they were before the deadline. They’re still not likely to be a significant factor in the playoff races, but the Yankees are arguably more interesting now than they have been since they last won the AL East in 2012 and their future appears brighter than at any point since their last championship in 2009. It would be too much to suggest that we’re witnessing the birth of the next Yankee dynasty, but on the day they celebrated the birth of the last one, Judge and Austin gave the team’s fans reason to dream.