HOUSTON — Perhaps the greatest losses in the history of the New York Yankees occurred at the end of July 2016. Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner had hemmed and hawed about putting up a white flag on the season and needed a little more convincing. General manager Brian Cashman’s insistence was not enough.
In this case, inaction was better than words.
The Yankees, with an older, going-nowhere roster, were swept by the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in front of their owner.
The owner was finally ready to take the vision laid out to him by his GM. The Yankees would never say they put up a white flag, but in dealing Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova, the team basically surrendered the 2016 season — and it is beyond obvious that this was the right decision.
“I think it [the series against the Rays] influenced the people above me more,” Cashman said shortly after the 2016 trade deadline. “The inconsistency of our club reared its ugly head. A true playoff contender wouldn’t have done that.”
Steinbrenner signed off, but he guided Cashman on the path that has led the Yankees to the 2017 American League Championship Series. Steinbrenner told Cashman to execute his plan and reload the farm system, but simultaneously keep the team competitive in an attempt to sneak into the playoffs.
Cashman brought back ex-Yankees relievers Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard, who could help, though they were not Miller and Chapman.
The Yankees did not make the playoffs, but the rebuild and reload game plan was fully hatched.
That is how the Yankees have arrived so quickly back in the playoffs, where they currently trail the Houston Astros 2-0 in the ALCS. But while the Astros completely tore their team down to rebuild, suffering through three straight seasons with 106 or more losses from 2011-2013, the Yankees never tanked. In fact, the Yankees haven’t even had a sub-.500 season since 1992, a truly remarkable string, high payroll or not.
For the rest of baseball, the scariest part of Cashman’s execution is that there is another wave in the farm system behind this current group. Plus, the Yankees are about to reduce payroll next year to drop under the luxury threshold, with the real possibility that they could be big free-agent players after 2018 when stars such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado could be available.
With the offseason trade of catcher Brian McCann to the Astros included, the Yankees received 14 prospects in their rebuild that began after Steinbrenner watched that Tropicana sweep and allowed Cashman to basically punt 2016.
The haul included three top prospects: outfielder Clint Frazier, infielder Gleyber Torres and starter Justus Sheffield, none of whom are on the playoff roster. Frazier is the only one who has made the majors.
In other words, this is just the start.
“We hope so,” Cashman said. “Sports can change things. Injuries. There are a lot of things, and that is why you have to grasp the moment when it comes. The Mets, going into the season, had a great team on paper, and then injuries hit. You see what is going on with my New York Giants [in the NFL].”
Cashman’s peers have long considered him one of the best GMs in the game. However, given the advantages of the Core Four dynasty and the money the Yankees can spend, he hasn’t received full marks from the media and fans. He has claimed that he doesn’t truly care, as long as the Yankees win. Now, he may receive his full due, because this is his plan, and he is pressing the gas pedal.
He has put together this team in a masterful way, especially how he has exhausted all means to put a young base around a solid, but not spectacular, group of veterans.
Behind the plate, Cashman signed Gary Sanchez out of the Dominican as a 16-year-old at the urging of former vice president of player development Mark Newman. At first base, Cashman took Greg Bird in the fifth round out of high school in the 2011 draft, after the GM’s amateur scouting department, led by Damon Oppenheimer, studied Bird’s sweet swing in the Colorado high school scene.
At second base, Cashman essentially acquired Starlin Castro for free, trading Warren for him. The Yankees then reacquired Warren as a throw-in when they dealt Chapman to the Cubs last July for prospects, which included Torres.
After last season, the Yankees re-signed Chapman as a free agent for five years and $ 86 million. Essentially, for 2017, Cashman picked up Castro, Chapman and Warren for only money.
In 2014, the Yankees were on a mission to find the retiring Derek Jeter’s replacement. Their super scout, Tim Naehring, gave Didi Gregorius a top rating, even though he wasn’t even playing every day for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Cashman desperately tried to deal for Gregorius but couldn’t find a match with his buddy Dave Stewart, who was Arizona’s GM at the time. Finally, Cashman brought then-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski into the picture and worked a three-team trade that sent pitcher Shane Greene to Detroit, while Gregorius went east from Phoenix to the Bronx. He has been the Yankees’ shortstop since 2015.
Aaron Judge was drafted after 31 picks went by in the 2013 draft, including the Yankees’ first selection. The Yankees chose Notre Dame third baseman Eric Jagielo seven picks before they snapped up Judge. Cashman used Jagielo, as part of a discounted price, to acquire Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds when Chapman was under investigation for domestic violence in the winter prior to the 2016 season.
In center field, Cashman essentially erased the $ 153 million mistake of a contract the team gave to Jacoby Ellsbury by stealing Aaron Hicks in November 2015 for a backup catcher named John Ryan Murphy. After struggling in his first year with the Yankees, Hicks, the 14th pick in the 2008 draft, has excelled to the point that he is starting playoff games in center over Ellsbury.
In 2014, the Yankees signed starter Luis Severino at the recommendation of international scouting director Donny Rowland. With Newman leading the charge, the Yankees had to pay Severino only a $ 225,000 bonus.
Last offseason, the Yankees could have set their sights on 2018 or 2019, but instead, using their two-pronged approach, they gave Chapman the big contract with the idea of winning now, while building for later.
“We are not going to assume the next three to five years are going to be perfect,” Cashman said. “We have to put the pedal to the metal every which way we can. Storm clouds are always brewing. You can’t guarantee anything.”
That is true, but the Yankees are built for this October, and many more to come.