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The Yankees’ upcoming exhibitions are a glimpse into the past and the future

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Former Bombers on the Mets and Phillies help reinforce how the team has changed direction.

Philadelphia Phillies v Minnesota Twins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

128 days. When the Yankees begin their stretch of three exhibition games next week — two against the Mets and one against the Phillies — 128 days will have come and gone since they last took the field against an opposing team back in March.

And when they finally return, they’ll face guys who have played key roles in Yankees’ seasons past, from the Mets’ Robinson Cano and Dellin Betances, to the Phillies’ Didi Gregorius, David Robertson, and Joe Girardi.

Much like those spring training games in March, the days of these former Yankees are starting to feel like ancient history. But examining their time in the Bronx — and the strengths of the men who eventually replaced them — begins to establish a clear picture of the team’s recent direction.

First and foremost, the roster has gotten younger, starting at the shortstop position. Gregorius was a slick defender whose lefty swing produced some timely, stadium-rocking hits.

But he turned 30 in February, and his replacement Gleyber Torres is — as fans often like to celebrate — just 23 years young.

And while he’s not yet the defensive shortstop Didi was in pinstripes, Torres’ bat is fast becoming elite, and fits the kind of hard-hitting profile the Yankees have come to prize. Torres doesn’t obliterate the ball like Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton, but he creates great contact that makes him a bopper in his own right. In 2019 he barreled 10.1% of his batted balls, meaning his swing often produced a combination of launch angle and exit velocity that made for more dangerous contact.

Gregorius, on the other hand, had a barrel rate of 5.9% last season, in just the 29th percentile in MLB. And the poor result can’t be blamed on his recovery from injury — that was actually the highest percentage of his career.

What’s more, Torres’ move to shortstop enabled DJ LeMahieu to stake his claim at second base, the position Cano once occupied for the Bombers. While Gleyber might be a defensive downgrade from his predecessor at short, LeMahieu provides excellent glovework as a pivot man.

Cano did win two Gold Gloves in his prime in 2010 and 2012, but LeMahieu provides an asset Cano never offered: positional versatility. DJ logged games across the diamond last season, and held his own in every position he manned.

In 579.2 innings at second base, the station at which he earned three Gold Gloves of his own, he posted a +3 DRS. And in 262 innings at first, he produced an identical +3 DRS. Even at third, where he spent 400 innings last season after just 38.1 innings the year before, he managed to break even with zero defensive runs saved. His diversity of skills helped stabilize a 2019 roster rife with injuries, and is illustrative of a broader emphasis for the team. This year, players like Miguel Andujar and Tyler Wade will be counted on to fill varying defensive roles.

When it comes to roles in the bullpen, however, the Yankees didn’t lean on their youth movement to replace Betances and Robertson. They turned instead to veterans like Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton.

But their ascending pitching prospects could soon land in high-leverage relief situations, especially if the 60-game schedule taxes the staff. At 25-years-old — a decade younger than Robertson is now — Jonathan Loaisiga is a prime candidate.

Like Robertson, Loaisiga is a righty who stands under six feet tall, but boasts a live arm in spite of his size. In 2018, Robertson’s last full season, his cutter had a wicked spin rate of 2,566 rpm, and had more vertical movement than all but those of two other pitchers. His curveball was similarly dizzying at 2772 rpm.

In 2019, Loaisiga’s curve checked in at 2805 rpm. And while his four-seamer spun at 2422 rpm, he hurled it an average of 96.8 mph, which put him in the 95th percentile in all of baseball. He’s far from guaranteed to follow Robertson’s career path and land in the ‘pen this year, but that uncertainty only speaks to the flexibility of his talents.

And the man who’ll be making the call about how to deploy Loaisiga, Aaron Boone, is another example of the evolving approach of the Yankees’ organization. Girardi was in some ways a forward-thinking manager, but Boone has doubled down on a modern baseball strategy. He has abandoned old-school tactics like stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, and intentional walks to a greater degree than Girardi did, and he employs defensive shifts nearly twice as often.

And at age 47, with recent careers both on the field and in the broadcast booth, Boone has carved out a reputation as a players’ manager. He is known for a fluid communication style and a deft interpersonal touch — qualities that were cited by Brian Cashman as vital to the team’s coaching search in the wake of Girardi’s departure.

Of course, some things never change. The Yankees are still trying to field the most talented roster they can build. After all, great players can win you a lot of ballgames.

But as the title drought in the Bronx has deepened over the last decade, the profiles of those players have evolved. Next week, as the Yankees take the field against some old friends on two new division rivals, we’ll get a chance to see that evolution play out in real time.