The Yankees are rebuilding. This doesn't mean they can't be competitive soon, and it doesn't mean they can’t surprise and earn a playoff spot this year. Regardless, the team is retooling itself to focus more on its farm system and building a team that can win for years to come.
Teams like the Cubs and Dodgers have shown that this philosophy, of setting a foundation of young and
exploitable cost-controlled players, supplementing it with the financial might that comes with playing in a huge market, can lead to seemingly indefinite runs of success. Both of those teams have been largely successful in recent years and look set up to contend for titles for a long time.
Something along those lines is the end goal for these Yankees. Given what the team has done in the past year, it's tempting to ask: do the Yankees have to the stomach to see the plan through?
There’s no one action or statement that signals that the Yankees’ front office and ownership might not be fully committed to this rebuilding period. Rather, the quotes and attitudes that have permeated from the higher-ups over the past year, combined with a handful of roster moves and contortions, combine to paint a picture of a team that might not fully grasp its place in the success cycle.
Let’s start with the team’s commitment to pointless positional battles this spring. Throughout spring training, young players like Aaron Judge and Luis Severino have been thrust into fights for their spots in the Opening Day lineup. We’ve detailed these battles all spring, and while the statistics of the players involved indicate a close call, the decision to put the Yankees’ top young prospects into the lineup from day one should have been an easy one.
If the Yankees were a division favorite with its sights set on World Series contention right now, reticence to hand major roles to unproven players like Severino and Judge would be understandable. Yet with projections pegging the Yankees as a .500-team, and without quality veteran alternatives in place, the Yankees have every incentive to play their young talents in order to see what they can do and allow them to develop at the highest level.
Instead, Severino was left twisting in the wind, his role unclear as he was coming out of the bullpen at points this spring, and it’s not even apparent just how many at-bats Judge could lose to Aaron Hicks this season. That the Yankees were so hesitant to make the obvious choice to let their high-risk, higher-upside players gain experience indicates they could choose to cut their playing time at the first sign of trouble, in favor of uninspiring options like Hicks.
The spring training battles alone might not be enough to make it seem as though the Yankees’ brass hasn’t grasped the team’s position. Consider further, then, the team’s unwavering commitment to the idea that the Yankee organization is still different. That Pride, Power, Pinstripes means that the expectation is for championships every year in New York, and that a prolonged rebuild would be deemed unacceptable by big market fans.
Just a month ago, Hal Steinbrenner was quoted in a YES Network profile spouting the same cliche regarding the Yankees’ expectation “to win a championship every year.” Going back to last year, when the Yankees were below-.500 and clearly among the teams that should have been gearing up to sell at the trade deadline, ownership was making noise about buying at the deadline.
Of course, with the team at 52-52 and their playoff odds below 5% according to Baseball Prospectus at the deadline, GM Brian Cashman was finally given a full greenlight to sell for the first time during his tenure in New York. The result was a franchise-altering haul of prospects that has given the Yankees an outstanding mix of talent in the farm system.
However, that it took such a dire outlook regarding the playoffs to convince ownership to let their excellent GM do what was right for the team and sell, rather than buy, at the trade deadline does not bode well. If the Steinbrenners were unwilling to admit the team’s position as it sputtered throughout the first half last year, who’s to say they wouldn’t struggle to admit the team should not buy at the deadline this year, should the team stumble out of the gates?
Finally, the Yankees weren’t extremely active during the most recent hot stove season, but their biggest move was to commit $86 million over five years in order to bring back closer Aroldis Chapman. Setting aside Chapman’s off-field troubles, making a long-term investment in the short-term luxury that is an elite closer nearing age-30 is not the type of move typically made by a team focusing on the future.
Chapman is a dominant reliever, and the fact that his contract set records probably says more about the slow acceptance across baseball of the value of elite relievers than it does about how overpaid he could be. However, there isn’t much reason to believe Chapman will be a major part of the next great Yankee team. In 2019, Chapman will be 31 and PECOTA’s (admittedly imperfect) long-term forecasts peg Chapman as just a one-win player by then. And even if Chapman does age gracefully as the Yankees enter a new age of contention, he can opt out after three years.
Taken individually, none of these quotes, moves, or signings are enough to show that the Yankees haven’t accepted their status as a retooling team. Taken in concert, they are enough to cause concern. A front office/ownership group that isn’t fully committed to seeing this rebuild through could cause major damage to the entire endeavor.
Should the team cut at-bats and innings from Judge, Severino, Greg Bird, or current minor-leaguers like Clint Frazier, Tyler Wade, and others, they could jeopardize the development of their most important players. If ownership focuses on buying to upgrade a middling team at the deadline this year, they would risk wasting resources on a team not ready to win.
Teams like the Dodgers and Cubs have proven that fans can stomach a few lean years if the result is a great, fun team. Building a sustainable model of success like those in Chicago and LA has been the goal of Cashman and friends, and such a goal is now eminently attainable. The Yankees just have to keep their sights set, and rid themselves of the inane idea that the prestige of pinstripes means they must compete for a world championship at every moment of every day. The season starts today, and a new era of Yankees baseball could soon be upon us. Let’s hope those in charge have the stomach to see the rebuild through and let the new era begin when it’s ready.