Ask most anyone around baseball, and they'll say the Yankees should soon re-establish themselves as the Evil Empire. A deadline firesale has helped give New York an outstanding farm system. Expensive commitments to CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez will expire, leaving the team with financial flexibility in the face of an unprecedented free agent class.
Yet the team is still a year away, the conventional wisdom goes. Uber prospects like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier haven't made MLB debuts, while other young talents like Aaron Judge and Greg Bird have strikeout and injury concerns to iron out, respectively. The 2018 and 2019 campaigns are when the sleeping giant that is the Yankee organization will truly re-awaken.
However, recent big-market rebuilds have shown this doesn't have to be the case. Look no further than Queens at the Mets. Two years ago, the Mets had an impressive cache of young pitching talent in Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and others. The smart money said the Mets were still long shots to emerge in 2015, but their young pitching coalesced in a way that sent them to the NL Pennant before anyone expected.
The Yankees don't quite have the pitching prospects that the Mets had back then. A better blueprint for the Yankees' rebuild might exist with the Cubs and Astros. Both underwent high-profile rebuilds that yielded excellent young cores that propelled them to success ahead of schedule in 2015. PECOTA projected Chicago and Houston for 82 and 77 wins, respectively, but both easily surpassed their projections en route to premature contention.
Likewise, the 2017 Yankees were forecast for 82 wins by PECOTA. Could they follow a blueprint similar to the Astros and Cubs? What would it take for the Yankees to arrive a year early?
The youngsters must perform
The Cubs and Astros beat their projections in large part because their elite young talent produced at the major league level right away. In Houston, Carlos Correa amazed at age-20, while George Springer was a four-win player in his second season. In Chicago, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Javier Baez combined for over 10 rWAR, despite all being 23 or younger.
If the Yankees are to follow this blueprint, their top prospects will also have to perform immediately. That means players like Gary Sanchez, Bird, Judge, and maybe even Frazier would need to provide quality production in 2017.
That quartet eclipsing 10-WAR like the Cubs' youth might seem aggressive, but it's not particularly outlandish. ZiPS projections, for instance, peg them for 8.9 WAR in about 1900 combined plate appearances. They probably won’t be as good as the Cubs’ prospects, but the Yankees’ best young players could feasibly contribute big time in 2017.
Veterans must do their part
Youth is what the Cubs and Astros based their rebuilds on, but it would have meant nothing if they didn't have fleshed out rosters dotted with competent veterans. Both clubs progressed to the point they did in part due to young veterans making mid-career leaps.
For the Cubs, that meant Anthony Rizzo making the leap from decent first baseman with some pop to legitimate star. For the Astros, that meant Jose Altuve transforming from a little guy with a great hit-tool to an all-around stud at second base.
For the Yankees to emulate that, they would probably need guys like Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro to step up. Gregorius has made strides in recent years, and while his offensive gains are of questionable sustainability, he does seem to possess further upside. Castro is a longer-shot. He’s still fairly young, but has mostly settled in as a mediocre regular at best.
However, the Cubs and Astros also benefited from the steadying presence of older veterans. The Cubs had the likes of Dexter Fowler, Jason Hammel, and Miguel Montero providing unspectacular but solid production. In Houston, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus, and Collin McHugh chipped in quality seasons.
This part of the blueprint the Yankees can surely manage. Players like Chase Headley, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury are nothing if not pretty average veterans. There’s nothing exciting about the Yankees’ older vets, but they provide dependable, if middling, value.
An unexpected star must emerge
Up until this point, following the Cubs' and Astros' blueprint to early contention has been plausible. Here is where the tales of these three teams are most likely to diverge. The Cubs and Astros thrust themselves into contention thanks to precocious young talent combined with a number of solid veterans. What pushed them over the top was the shocking emergence of a star pitcher.
Jake Arrieta, at age-29 and six seasons into a middling career, posted a 1.77 ERA in 229 innings. Dallas Keuchel, at age-27 and four seasons into a quiet career, posted a 2.48 ERA in 232 innings. Each won a Cy Young. The Yankees could certainly field young talent as good as Chicago’s and Houston’s, and their veterans could prove to be as solid as Chicago's and Houston's. Finding a Keuchel or Arreita? That might be a bridge too far.
The Yankees simply don't have anyone that could shock fans and projections alike with a star-caliber season. Masahiro Tanaka is an established star, CC Sabathia a faded star. Luis Severino and Luis Cessa are too young. That leaves Michael Pineda, who is rather difficult to imagine as a surprise mid-career Cy Young candidate.
Still, the ascensions of Keuchel and Arrieta were the icing on the cake for teams that progressed further than anyone expected. Outside of the surprise star, the Yankees do appear to have the necessary ingredients to follow the blueprint laid out by these teams. It seems unlikely the Yankees will win 97 games like the 2015 Cubs, or post a +111 run differential like the 2015 Astros. What is still possible, though, is a 2017 Yankees team that arrives a year early, and contends for a playoff spot before it is truly expected.