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The Yankees’ Challenge Mode approach to prospects is refreshing

As Jasson Domínguez and Austin Wells make their MLB debuts, the team keeps showing its commitment to playing the young guys in what is left of 2023.

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New York Yankees Spring Training Opening Day Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images

In modern Major League Baseball, teams usually won’t hesitate to call up a prospect when they consider him ready – except when they want to manipulate service time, but that’s a story for another day. We have seen several prospects who made the jump to the majors from Double-A or even in the same year they were drafted, like the Angels did with Nolan Schanuel. Atlanta’s Michael Harris II won the 2022 NL Rookie of the Year after just 43 games at Double-A Mississippi.

These teams aren’t afraid of permanently scaring a young player just because he couldn’t hit MLB pitching, adjust to velocity in The Show, or figure out a way to retire lefties. If they think these players can contribute, they made the call. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

In the last couple of seasons, the impression is that the Yankees have been scared of bringing up the young guys for some reason. Perhaps it’s because they are too loyal to struggling veterans, don’t have enough confidence in the prospects, or they really want to make sure they are ready. They don’t want to expose them; we get it.

Take catching prospect Austin Wells for example: he played 55 Double-A games last year and posted a 129 wRC+. An aggressive team would have had him open 2023 in Triple-A, but instead, the Yanks had him in Double-A again for 58 more games.

Oswald Peraza is another example. Triple-A hasn’t been a challenge for him for a while, yet it’s where he has spent the majority of 2023 while Josh Donaldson cluttered up the infield. We can say that the decision to have Anthony Volpe breaking camp with the team with just 22 games in Scranton was the exception, not the rule.

The status quo appears to be changing in the organization, though.

The Yankees recently called up outfielder Everson Pereira and recalled Peraza. Today, they will bring up the “Martian” Jasson Domínguez after only nine games in Triple-A; and also Wells after just 33 at the same level. Donaldson, Harrison Bader, and Greg Allen are gone, and the non-stars will see at least a dip in playing time. At long last, the Yankees are ready to let the kids struggle, learn, and adjust. All of them.

It’s nice to see the Yankees finally “rushing” prospects for a change. Perhaps “rushing” is not the right word. Instead, we would like to call it “taking calculated risks” with minimal potential harm for the future and a lot to gain by giving these young players a taste of the MLB experience and an early chance to get to know big league pitching/hitting.

All of this is being done with 2024 in mind. It seems like the Yankees had to fall out of the race to realize that the youngsters could inject some life into the roster. But at least they are doing this now so they can get a good look at who might position himself for an expanded role next year.

Although the Yankees famously did this with Gary Sánchez in 2016 to astonishing success, a positive outcome doesn’t have to include immediate results. Just a week after they recalled Sánchez, they promoted Aaron Judge. The ever-conservative Yanks needed Judge to play 154 Triple-A games between 2015 and 2016 to get a chance, but there he was regardless.

Judge and fellow rookie Tyler Austin might have made home run history in their MLB debuts, but the future captain definitely took his lumps. He often looked ugly in 27 games, batting .179/.263/.345 with a 62 wRC+ and a 44.2-percent strikeout rate in 95 plate appearances. Although the raw tools were impressive, it was mostly a tough watch.

Did those struggles ruin Judge’s career? All the opposite: As chronicled by Marc Carig of The Athletic a few years back, he entered the offseason with a clear idea of what he needed to work on, did it, and broke out big time in 2017.

We are not saying by any stretch that all of these prospects will turn out like Judge, or that they even have the same talents. Not everyone becomes an MVP, and far more often, young players will fall into the murky zone occupied by some of Judge’s old teammates, like Greg Bird and Clint Frazier. But the point is that the Yankees need to use these games as a practice for what could come in 2024 and beyond.

If the Yankees show this aggressiveness with pitchers currently thriving in Double-A such as Drew Thorpe, Chase Hampton, Richard Fitts, and Yoendrys Gómez, they might have some serious MLB rotation contenders before the summer of 2024. Even with Gerrit Cole possibly on his way to capturing the AL Cy Young Award, his fellow arms in the starting five have mostly fallen flat due to injury or underperformance. Cole can’t do it all on his own, so hopefully one or two of those Somerset Patriots can chip in soon.

In a weird way, September might turn out to be the most exciting part of the Yanks’ 2023 campaign. For months, the team looked sluggish, old, injury-prone and unathletic. Now, the Yankees are going young, and fans have something to watch as the 2023 season comes to an end.