TAMPA, Fla. — The verdict on the Yankees’ much-discussed youth movement, finally and fully committed to late last July at the trade deadline, won’t come in for some time.
Certainly not in 2017.
Still, the upcoming season, which gets its unofficial start for the Yankees on Tuesday when pitchers and catchers report to Steinbrenner Field, will provide some clues.
And their typically reticent owner could not be more stoked to see it unfold.
“Nobody knows if we’ll ever see another Core Four,” managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said at the owners’ meetings last month, invoking what amounts to a modern-day Mount Rushmore for his club — Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. “What a rarity. What a special thing . . . It’s just, there’s a lot of excitement already going on in Tampa. We know from our fans that this is as excited as they’ve been in a while. Every spring training brings new hope, and it’s a great thing, it’s exciting. But this one feels different. And there’s no doubt the kids are a part of it.”
Those kids are spread far and wide throughout a farm system many believe is among the best in the game.
That system, already highly regarded, suddenly improved markedly at last year’s trade deadline when Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran were dealt to contenders for highly ranked prospects.
Much of what is in the system isn’t expected to be heard from for several years, but the Yankees are counting on some of those youngsters to surprise either during spring training or at some point in the regular season and contribute this year. Then there are those who already have gotten a taste of the majors — the ones who absolutely need to contribute for the Yankees to have any chance to compete for a playoff spot.
That group starts with Gary Sanchez, who terrorized pitchers after his call-up in early August, finishing with 20 homers in 53 games. That included a 37-game stretch in which the 24-year-old hit 19 homers and drove in 35 runs while producing a .357/.433/.811 slash line.
The performance allowed Sanchez to quickly take catcher Brian McCann’s job, and McCann was traded to the Astros in November. There’s no reason to expect a drop-off by Sanchez, but two terrific months does not guarantee long-term success, and a severe backslide would present a significant problem for the Yankees.
There is Greg Bird, a lefthanded-hitting first baseman who tantalized with 11 homers in 46 games in 2015 but missed 2016 because of shoulder surgery. The first-base job is his to win, but a brawny and motivated Tyler Austin, a rookie last year who has been working out nearly every day at the club’s minor-league complex for the better part of a month, has his sights set on making it a horse race (power-hitting first baseman Chris Carter recently was signed, too).
Aaron Judge, dubbed “untouchable” as trade bait along with Bird and Luis Severino by general manager Brian Cashman before the 2015 trade deadline, debuted last August and flopped after homering in his first career at-bat (and the next day as well). Judge struck out in 42 of his 84 at-bats, many of them non-competitive, which concerned some in the organization. Though Steinbrenner anticipates that Judge will be the starting rightfielder, a poor spring training by the 24-year-old could send him back to Triple-A, with Aaron Hicks getting the nod in right.
The Yankees hope the 22-year-old Severino, who dazzled in 2015 but performed poorly as a starter in 2016, can win a rotation spot. Only Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda are assured spots, with the remaining two to be filled from a pool that includes Severino, Chad Green (25), Luis Cessa (24), Bryan Mitchell (25) and Adam Warren (29).
It appeared as though Mitchell would make a breakthrough last year, but a freak injury (he broke a toe while covering first base in his last spring training game) cost him much of the season.
Fast-charging pitchers in the organization such as James Kaprielian (22), Chance Adams (22), Justus Sheffield (20) and Jordan Montgomery (24) hope to create an impression in camp. So do top position prospects Gleyber Torres (20), Clint Frazier (22), Jorge Mateo (21), Dustin Fowler (22), Miguel Andujar (21) and Tyler Wade (22).
“Clearly there’s excitement,” Steinbrenner said at the owners’ meetings. “Fans want to get to know these guys and we have made an effort the last two to three years really in the stadium during games, before games, to show more minor-league highlights, to get these names out there because we really had high hopes for all these kids and fully expected to see them at the varsity at some point, and now it’s coming to fruition.”