In the life of a Major League Baseball team, there comes a time when a club must undertake the difficult task of replacing the face of the franchise. Over the last five years, the New York Yankees found themselves with the unenviable task of replacing an icon. For roughly two decades, Derek Jeter stood out as not just the face of the Yankees, but of baseball itself. With every passing year, the team knew it drew closer to having to find Jeter’s replacement. What they likely didn’t know, however, was that the process would take close to five years to finish.
The story begins, oddly enough, with a renaissance season at the plate. For years, pundits speculated whether Jeter’s best days were behind him. Would he slip into an inevitable decline? Lackluster showings in 2010 and 2011 further exacerbated these claims. Was a third subpar season in the cards?
Naturally, Jeter defied the laws of aging in 2012. The Yankees captain hit .316/.362/.429 with 15 home runs, good for a 117 wRC+. These numbers were unheard of for a 38-year-old shortstop. He even led all of baseball in hits with 216. It was as good of a season as anyone could have imagined.
That all changed during Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on October 13th, 2012. In the top of the 12th inning, Jeter ranged to his left to field a Jhonny Peralta ground ball. It should have been a routine play. Instead, he collapsed to the ground, unable to put weight on his left leg. He exited the game with the assistance of Joe Girardi. Medical staff later revealed that Jeter suffered a broken ankle, a fracture so severe that it would require surgery.
Jeter didn’t fully recover in time for Opening Day 2013. He began the season on the disabled list before re-fracturing the ankle in May. It would be two months before the Captain appeared in a game. His campaign was short-lived as a series of other leg injuries limited Jeter to just 17 games, where he hit an anemic .190/.288/.254 worth 49 wRC+.
The injury-shortened season gave the Yankees a glimpse into what the club would look like without its face of the franchise. It wasn’t a pretty season overall, but an heir apparent waited in the wings to lead the team. That season, Robinson Cano hit .314/.383/.516 with 27 home runs, totaling a 143 wRC+. As a homegrown middle infielder with an elite bat, Cano made perfect sense to serve as the next team leader. He didn’t carry the same disposition as Jeter, but his easy swing was so sweet. The king of cool would replace the Captain in a relatively seamless transition.
That transition never happened, however, as Cano left for Seattle during the offseason. To make matters more difficult, Jeter announced on February 12th that he would retire following the 2014 season. He was leaving without a clear replacement and no in-house option on the horizon. The Yankees would have to move on without a clear leader.
It didn’t help that Jeter’s sendoff resulted in a lackluster 75 wRC+ season. The team’s lack of supporting firepower made the situation seem bleaker. The free agent crop of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran did little to inspire hope that they would fill the void created by Jeter’s departure.
It’s possible that 2014 was the lowest point in the Yankees’ search for a new face, and Jeter hadn’t even retired yet. The 2015 team featured no one key player, but instead a collection of above-average players. Resurgent years from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, combined with elite performances by Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller resulted in a surprise playoff berth. A team without a single franchise player found themselves in the American League Wild Card Game.
The goodwill collected in 2015 didn’t last long. Teixeira and Rodriguez couldn’t repeat their magic, and the latter was released before the season ended. The team stumbled out of the gate and was essentially forced to sell at the trade deadline for the first time in three decades. Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran, and Ivan Nova were all traded away for prospects.
In what would normally constitute a sign of defeat, a plan to look towards the future, the Yankees found unbridled success. The team called up Gary Sanchez on August 3rd, and he became a revelation. In 229 total plate appearances, Sanchez amassed 171 wRC+. He hit .299/.376/.657 with 20 home runs. He quickly became a fan favorite, whose #IAmGary trademark took the Yankees Universe by storm.
For the first time since 2014, the Yankees had a bonafide face of the franchise. Sanchez admirably filled the void left behind by Jeter. Replacing the Captain is an almost impossible task. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a player like him again. Sanchez, however, seems up for the task. He’s an electric talent with an exciting personality.
The road to finding a new franchise leader, was long and difficult for the Yankees. Yet after five years, it appears the journey is complete. The future is bright for this team, largely in part due to the emergence of Sanchez.
This piece runs as a part of SB Nation’s MLB Preview 2017: The Changing Face of Baseball. Data courtesy of Fangraphs.