- As the Yankees honored Derek Jeter on a festive Sunday night, the up-and-coming Yankees showed how much promise they have.
NEW YORK—The stands at Yankee Stadium were once again a sea of No. 2 jerseys. Home pinstripes and road greys, replica or authentic—all had been dug out of closets or unearthed from drawers and put on one more time, perhaps one last time, for a ceremony for the man who made it famous: Derek Jeter.
Sunday night in the Bronx was his night once again, as the Yankees took their longtime captain, who had hung up his spikes at the end of the 2014 season, and formally committed him to their roster of legends by retiring his number and adding his likeness in bronze to Monument Park.
But amid the rows of JETER jerseys, there were plenty of other names adorning the backs of the fans in the stands: SANCHEZ, JUDGE, CASTRO, GREGORIUS, PINEDA, SEVERINO. As the Yankees toasted their past, with Jeter joined on the field by his former teammates and fellow franchise greats, those names waited patiently in the dugout, owners of first place in the American League East. New York’s bright future had arrived, sooner than anyone could have predicted. “I don’t even know if they were expecting this,” said Astros DH Carlos Beltran.
Beltran has been teammates with Jeter in his farewell season and spent two and a half years in the Bronx before being traded at last year’s deadline as part of the Yankees’ shorter than expected rebuild. Indeed, as surprising as the success of the Baby Bombers has been, what’s more impressive is how quickly it has come together. Just 18 months ago, most of those players would have been total unknowns to most fans. That they have become the new core of the post-Jeter era says as much about their ascent as it does about where New York was when its Hall of Fame shortstop walked away.
The future of the Yankees without Jeter was, if not dim, then at least murky. At the end of the 2014 season, there were no regulars under 30 in the lineup, and the team’s most productive hitters—outfielders Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury—had both turned 30 that year. The rotation boasted 25-year-old ace Masahiro Tanaka, and the bullpen had All-Star Dellin Betances, 26, as a high-leverage weapon, but they were just about the only young players with potential on a roster full of declining veterans.
Worse, there seemed to be no help coming from the minors. Before the 2015 season, Baseball America ranked the Yankees' farm system 18th-best in the majors for the second straight year. Baseball Prospectus had them at No. 21. A bevy of international signings the summer prior had restocked the lower levels with potential future stars, but as BP noted, “there [wasn’t] a ton of impact talent near the majors.”
The state of the Yankees, then, was perilous in a way it hadn’t been since Jeter and the rest of the Core Four—catcher Jorge Posada and pitchers Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera—were in the minor leagues in the early 1990s. New York had a bad offense and a mediocre rotation, and the 2014 season had been a moribund 84-win affair in which the only real highlights were provided by Jeter. There didn’t look to be a long-term plan in place: The spending spree from the previous off-season that had included Ellsbury, Beltran and catcher Brian McCann seemed more about propping up an aging roster than about revitalizing a tired team. As Jeter packed up his Yankee Stadium locker for the final time, the championship window that had been open to varying degrees over the last two decades finally seemed to have slammed shut.
Though New York reached the AL wild-card game in 2015, its 87-win season ultimately proved empty. Still, the team was already showing signs of shifting from its usual pursuit of high-priced stars to a focus on young, cost-controlled players. An off-season trade had brought Didi Gregorius, then 24, to New York to replace Jeter at shortstop; righthander Luis Severino, 21, gave the rotation a huge boost after his mid-season promotion; and rookies Greg Bird (first base) and Rob Refsnyder (second base) started the wild-card game loss to the Astros. That off-season the Yankees continued their youth movement with trades to land a pair of players entering their age-26 seasons—infielder Starlin Castro, a three-time All-Star who was acquired from the Cubs, and outfielder Aaron Hicks, who came over from Minnesota.
That motley collection of young talent offered more potential than production, as the forgettable first half of the 2016 season proved. But that sluggish performance ended up being the final key, as for the first time in decades, New York turned seller at the trade deadline and unloaded its most productive veterans, bringing back a bonanza of blue-chip prospects. At the same time, the Yankees brought up or went with the high-level prospects and young players they already had—namely Severino, catcher Gary Sanchez, rightfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Tyler Austin—and gave them free rein.
The results were spotty: Sanchez bashed 20 homers in half a season, and Gregorius looked like a potential building block, but Judge was lost at the plate and Severino was persistently battered. For once, though, there was no pressure from on high to deliver results or face the consequences. There was no going back on the rebuild in progress—a move that may have helped set up New York’s 2017 success.
“When you know that you’re going to come to the ballpark with that mentality of no matter what, you’re going to be in the lineup, I think that gives a sense of comfort to those guys,” Beltran says. “It was about time to give an opportunity to those guys to play every day.”
The hope was that these players would one day help be a part of the next great Yankees team; now, it looks like that day is already here. A franchise that seemed to have no clear future after Jeter is now seeing results nearly every day. In the first game of Sunday’s unexpected doubleheader—rain forced the postponement of Saturday’s planned matinee—the new-look Yankees clubbed their way to an 11–6 win over the Astros, with Judge and Castro each homering and the latter driving in the tying run in a six-run seventh inning. The kids are the new faces of the franchise: Sanchez finished second in last year’s AL Rookie of the Year race, and Judge is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Core Four is gone, but the Yankees appear to be on a better track than anyone could have imagined two years ago—and with a loaded farm system now ranked second overall by Baseball America, the best may still be yet to come.
As Jeter and his friends took to the field to standing ovation after standing ovation, it was hard not to be impressed with the guest list: Hall of Famers, franchise icons, players with hundreds of career homers and thousands of strikeouts and more records than could be counted, all smiling and waving and cheering for the captain. Behind them, the current Yankees players smiled and clapped too. Soon, the field was cleared, and the old-timers walked off and on came the new guys. The stage was all theirs.