In 2016, the Yankees rebuilt. In 2017, the Yankees emerged from their flash retool as a contender before anyone expected. That's been the storyline of the Yankees' recent years. They reached their nadir, they committed to rebuilding, and they came out on the other side not just unscathed, but in position to terrorize the league once again.
Tons of ink has been spilled regarding the Yankees' first sell-off in ages, and with good reason. The Yankees trading away the likes of Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Carlos Beltran midseason, during a season in which they were still above .500, felt jarring. Still, those moves were the right moves, as they took apart a team that was merely hanging on the fringes of contention and help set up the organization for a brighter future.
It has become abundantly clear that the Yankees have one of the league’s brightest outlooks going forward. Selling in 2016 brought along hauls of talent, and prospects like Gleyber Torres, Justus Sheffield, and others still highlight one of the best farm systems in baseball. Yet the most terrifying part of the Yankees' rebuild might be that, in spite of their status as contenders, they haven't even begun to reap the benefits.
The Yankees are a clear threat to win it all this year. Projections are not fail-safe, and it's very early, but FanGraphs currently ranks the Yankees fourth in MLB in projected WAR, and second in the AL. They could yet make more additions to their team, and are already among the league's elite in terms of raw talent.
This is no surprise. The only significant difference between the roster that won 91 games and nearly the AL pennant last season and the roster right now is the presence of Giancarlo Stanton. Some of their 2017 breakouts could regress (though maybe not by a whole lot), but any regression should be more than cancelled out by the acquisition of literally the National League MVP.
What's interesting about the Yankees' 2017 breakouts, as well as their additions via trade, is that none of them were the result of their rebuild of 2016. For the most part, the players involved all were with the organization well before. In theory, the Yankees could have fielded the major league team they have now without even having rebuilt.
Aaron Judge was drafted in 2013 and has figured to be part of the Yankees' plans for ages. Luis Severino signed in 2011. Gary Sanchez has been populating prospect lists for nearly a decade. The Yankees acquired the core of the team that finished second in baseball in run differential last year long before they ever decided to actually sell assets.
Moreover, the big trades they've executed since re-opening their window of contention could've also happened without a rebuild. Longtime farmhands like Jorge Mateo and Dustin Fowler headlined the deal for Sonny Gray at last year's trade deadline. The best prospect in the deal that brought Stanton, Jorge Guzman, was acquired in a rebuilding move (the one that sent Brian McCAnn to Houston). However, Guzman's value easily could have been replicated by any number of the Yankees power pitching prospects (Domingo Acevedo, Domingo German, the list goes on).
The Yankees haven't even begun to spend the way they are capable of, as they've mostly showed restraint on the free agent market in recent years as the team retooled. Now, there's nothing particularly admirable about the Steinbrenners saving money in the name of rebuilding, but as the Yankees’ payroll becomes less and less cluttered with free agent albatrosses, they become more and more likely to secure another superstar in next season's epic free agent class.
Now, it's certainly not perfect to say that the Yankees' major league roster would definitely be in the shape it is currently in regardless of if they rebuilt. The numerous trades they underwent in 2016 certainly cleared the path for the likes of Judge, Sanchez, and others to make their mark. There’s no way to exactly tell how things would have played out if the Yankees hadn’t sold at the deadline in 2016, or had even acted as buyers that year.
Even so, the fact that the Yankees very possibly could have assembled their current major league team, a team that well may enter 2018 as AL East favorites, without having done their partial tear-down, simply underscores the position of strength they are in. The Yankees reaped genuine benefits from rebuilding, securing elite prospects and clearing payroll room (hopefully) for future free agent escapades. They have essentially not even begun to cash in those benefits, and yet they are World Series contenders.
That the Yankees are already good, have hardly begun to feel the positive effects of their rebuild, and didn't even have to endure an actually painful rebuilding process to get there? That starts to sound a little unfair. The Yankees “bottomed out” at 84 wins, quickly retooled back towards the top of the league, and haven’t promoted the top prospects they gained from selling and haven’t re-entered the free agent waters. That’s a terrifying prospect for the rest of the league, but a mouth-watering one for the rest of us.