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The 2016 season and the lesson of patience

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One of the key takeaways from the 2016 season was the importance of patience.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Yankees had a pretty interesting season in 2016. It was filled with highs and lows, emotional farewells and greetings. There were deadline sales, retirements, and historic home run binges. The more time passes from it, however, the easier it becomes to analyze. The Yankees learned a lot about themselves as an organization, and we learned a lot about ourselves as Yankees fans, too. That said, perhaps the biggest takeaway from the 2016 season is the lesson of patience, on both a macro and a micro level.

Looking at the big picture can be difficult for the Yankees fan. There’s a history of prioritizing immediate benefits at the expense of a sustainable future. Trade all the prospects, spend all the money; that’s been the modus operandi for the better part of three decades. That started to change in 2015 when the Yankees essentially abstained from the trade deadline - sorry, Dustin Ackley.

This year’s trade deadline took a remarkably different turn. The Yankees traded away several key players in what was perceived as a full-blown rebuild. They exchanged big league assets for prospects. There’s no better example to describe the long game than being deadline sellers. Brian Cashman was the equivalent of a chess player, thinking several moves ahead. He sacrificed current pieces in order to best set up future moves.

Some of those decisions have come under popular scrutiny now, particularly the Andrew Miller trade. The Yankees sent Miller to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for top prospects Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield, plus relievers Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. Heller has thrown a few token innings in the majors, but the rest remain to be seen. Frazier didn’t exactly hit the cover off of the ball either, batting .227 with just three home runs for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, albeit in just 25 games.

Meanwhile, Miller had an immediate and highly visible impact on the Indians. He’s been his usual dominant self. In fact, he was just named the ALCS MVP. That said, it’s presumptuous to say that the Yankees made a mistake in trading their erstwhile relief ace. It’s far too early to make any judgement on that. The best take that I’ve seen on the situation comes from the very smart Jared Diamond:

The key is that the organization grew stronger and deeper. At the macro level, this is the long game at work. The Yankees have decided to be patient and focus on a sustainable future, one that will hopefully produce another extended run of success.

At the individual level, the lesson of patience is exemplified in a pair of rookie sluggers: Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin. After a historic start to their big league careers, both cooled down considerably. Judge hit just .179/.263/.345 with a 44.2 K% before being sidelined by an oblique strain. Austin fared just a little better, posting a .241/.300/.458 line. He also struck out 40% of the time and often rode the bench in deference to Mark Teixeira and Billy Butler.

Where does patience factor in here? The Yankees ran Judge out in right field every day, despite his struggles at the plate. The organization knows he has the talent to be an impact bat. While the fans took to Twitter to lament his strike outs, the club knew the future proved more important.

The Austin case is a little trickier, considering he was benched in favor of two veterans who don’t figure to be in the Yankees future plans. That said, the fact that he received a call-up in the first place is a testament to the Yankees’ patience. They believed in his ability after his years of upper-level struggles, even after designating him for assignment! It took six years, but a 2010 draft pick found success on the big league roster. That’s almost the textbook definition of patience.

If someone isn’t sold on the notion of patience in constructing a successful baseball team, then all they have to do is look at the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs. The Indians are going to the World Series and the Cubs are in the midst of their second NLCS in as many years. Both teams went through deliberate rebuild stages, Chicago’s effort under Theo Epstein being the more dramatic example. Regardless of the varying depths in the rebuilding pool, the key lesson is that they understood the future to be worth building towards. The Cubs and the Indians exhibited great patience in their roster construction.

Both teams also demonstrated patience at the micro level with individual players. Javier Baez, the hero of the Cubs postseason run, famously struggled when he broke into the majors. He hit .169/.227/.324 in limited time during the 2014 season. He also has been known to have a propensity to strike out, a lot. He had a 41.5 K% during his rookie campaign. That said, Baez has adjusted and the Cubs are being rewarded for their patience. It’s not too difficult to envision Judge following a similar path.

All fans want to see the Yankees succeed. After all, who doesn’t want instant gratification? Unfortunately, that’s not a sustainable model in the 21st century. Teams must exhibit restraint and patience in order to construct longstanding competitive rosters. The Yankees appear to be doing just that, and while it’s not overtly splashy, fans should be excited.