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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Speed of Yankees’ resurgence has surprised many around baseball

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees fields

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees fields the ball in the fifth inning against the Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium on Friday, May 12, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Derek Jeter, you may have heard, is getting his No. 2 retired by the Yankees on Sunday between games of the hastily arranged doubleheader with the Astros.

But now that these two teams currently are considered among the American League’s elite, and Brian Cashman’s rebuild-on-the-fly already has yielded a potential contender, it’s worth mentioning another number Jeter is notable for — at least in regard to the Yankees’ renewed vision of constructing the next Bronx dynasty.

Jeter was the franchise’s last top 10 pick, selected No. 6 overall in the 1992 draft. For some perspective, Aaron Judge was born that same spring. And in the quarter-century since then, only four times have the Yankees cracked the top 20, including twice during the past two years. Since 1993, the franchise hasn’t had a losing record and has failed to reach the playoffs in six seasons out of 23 (not counting the ’94 strike year).

We bring this up during the Astros’ visit to show just how rare it can be to avoid the type of scorched-earth rebuild that Houston embarked on six years ago. The Astros hired general manager Jeff Luhnow after a 56-win season in 2011, then took a further calculated plunge, losing 107 games in ’12 and 111 in ’13. During that process, Luhnow slashed the payroll down to $26 million while grabbing George Springer at No. 11 in the 2011 draft and Carlos Correa first overall the following year.

It’s a true phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes story, especially now that the Astros, considered among the World Series favorites on Opening Day, have baseball’s best record (25-11) heading into Derek Jeter Day at the Stadium.

And while that’s great for a team such as the Astros, a franchise that could afford to be painstakingly deliberate in its restoration, the Yankees felt they were compelled to take a much different and considerably quicker track in the hope of returning to the American League’s upper class.

For now, Cashman has gotten this group back to the top rungs. There’s still a long way to go. But the speed of this Yankees resurgence has surprised everyone around the sport, including those who were part of the tearing-down project that began last July.

“I didn’t even know if they were expecting this,” said Carlos Beltran, who was dealt to the Rangers at the trade deadline before signing with the Astros in the offseason. “But I believe in talent, man. I believe in opportunities.”

Beltran was among the headliners in the Yankees’ 2016 fire sale, an unprecedented overhaul under the Cashman administration. And just as shocking, an admission of defeat, something that Hal Steinbrenner had no intention of ever agreeing to while staying true to his dad’s mission statement. But even after gutting the ’16 roster, the Yankees avoided a complete nosedive, and the biggest treasures from those trades still aren’t expected until later this season, at the earliest.

Obviously, the Yankees always will have huge financial advantages, and they’re still paying close to $200 million for this year’s team no matter how much of an underdog image they projected in spring training. But Steinbrenner insists that shedding cash remains a priority. And with $65 million coming off the books after this season — in expiring contracts to Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Matt Holliday — the Yankees will have more flexibility as their top prospects look to solidify starting jobs in 2018.

Those accounting figures could change, however, should Cashman get the green light to add a significant piece or two at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The expectation is that these Yankees, as presently constructed, are going to require another front-line starting pitcher to make a serious playoff push. And if that’s the case, this Yankees’ retooling effort — the front office doesn’t like the word “rebuild” — will have taken all of 11 months.

As for the aforementioned draft picks, Judge is the only first-rounder from the past decade to actually make a significant contribution, and he’s only 58 games into his major-league career. The Yankees went the international route to secure Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino and of course spent big for some of the ’17 pillars in Masahiro Tanaka ($175 million), Jacoby Ellsbury ($153M) and Aroldis Chapman ($84M), to name a few.

Watching these two teams slug it out this weekend, you have to figure the Astros still have the edge and are a few steps closer to the ultimate October prize. But the fact that the Yankees already have crashed the conversation is a feat in itself. And for a storied franchise that will indulge one more adoring glance backward on Derek Jeter Day, the future can’t wait.

New York Sports