FORT MYERS, Fla. — Seeing the rapid proliferation of Baby Bombers prompted Red Sox manager John Farrell to offer this assessment before Tuesday’s split-squad game between the ancient rivals at JetBlue Park.
“There’s a growing list of young players,” Farrell said. “Maybe similar to where we were two or three years ago.”
Sure, the Sox are in good place now, with a 20-something core that should help them stay among the upper rungs of the American League East for much of the next decade. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., to name the most prominent trio. But the time frame Farrell mentioned also involved a slow, frustrating climb up the learning curve.
Did Farrell mean the 78-win Sox of 2015? Or the club that won 71 the previous season?
Those numbers are tough to picture in the Bronx. The last time the Yankees finished with fewer than 80 wins was 1995, when they had 79 in the strike-shortened, 145-game season. That still earned them MLB’s inaugural wild-card berth.
All these years later, Brian Cashman finally is willing to cop to a rebuild, but he doesn’t want anyone to confuse that with a surrender. It’s probably not realistic, however, to think the Yankees can avoid those steps altogether. The one advantage they do seem to have is the staggering of their position prospects, with Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Aaron Judge poised to make a significant impact this year — then more to follow in Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and Jorge Mateo.
“Sometimes things seem to come in waves,” Joe Girardi said. “I don’t know why. You might be strong at one position for a while and then you’re strong at another position.”
The least of the Yankees’ youthful concerns appears to be Sanchez, who smacked his first Grapefruit home run Tuesday in a 9-5 win over the Tigers at Steinbrenner Field. More encouraging was the show Bird put on about 100 miles down I-75 at Fenway South.
Bird homered twice, wrapping the first around the imitation Pesky Pole in rightfield and then airmailing the second completely over the ersatz Monster in left. After missing the entire 2016 season because of a shoulder surgery, Bird is penciled in to replace the retired Mark Teixeira, but Cashman applied some pressure by signing Chris Carter days before the start of spring training.
The Yankees want Bird anchored at first base for years to come, but they don’t have a history of showing unconditional love to unproven youngsters. Bird hit 11 homers with 31 RBIs in 46 games for the Yankees in 2015, then got derailed by the labrum tear. Over the past two days, Bird now has two doubles and a pair of homers, a nice jolt of confidence for both him and the team.
“I feel really good,” Bird said. “I put in a lot of work to get where I am right now. It just was a long time coming. It’s special for me because of that.”
Bird is only 24, but like many of the NextGen Yankees, he carries himself with a maturity beyond his experience level. In 2015, Bird began the year at Double-A Trenton, then played only 34 games at Triple-A Scranton before the Yankees rushed him to the bigs. As long as he keeps raking in spring training, the Yankees figure he’ll just pick up where he left off.
“It’s what you want to see,” Girardi said. “We understand he’s had a year off, but his at-bats the last two days have been good. He can hit.”
Girardi’s presence at JetBlue Park, in itself, was a testament to the team’s faith in the developing kiddie corps. Rarely, if ever, does a manager enlist for a two-hour bus ride when there’s another split-squad game happening at Steinbrenner. But Girardi was there running a lineup card filled with double-digit numbers better suited for defensive linemen. Among them, No. 85 Luis Cessa continued his audition for the rotation and No. 98 Justus Sheffield, a huge pull from the Andrew Miller trade, got his first taste of major-league combat, staring back at Hanley Ramirez.
“It went through my head,” Sheffield said. “But when I stepped on the rubber, it was go-time. I can’t be wowed by who’s at the plate. I still got to get them out.”
Pretty impressive for a 20-year-old. Maybe the Yankees won’t be as far behind as Farrell would like.