We have witnessed dramatic changes to the New York Yankees roster over the last several years.
Jorge Posada became the first member of the Core Four to hang up his spikes when he retired following the 2011 season. Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte said farewell in 2013. Derek Jeter's retirement in 2014 saw the departure of the last link to the dynasty teams of the 1990's and early 2000's. Four Yankee legends who had come up through the organization, winning five World Series Championships and giving fans endless thrills along the way, were gone. Gone too, was the veteran leadership that they provided.
Four veteran leaders who were on the 2016 Opening Day roster are also no longer with the team. Alex Rodriguez was benched after a slow start and was released in August. Mark Teixeira was benched in favor of Tyler Austin and subsequently announced his retirement. Brian McCann was benched in favor of Gary Sanchez and was traded in the offseason. Carlos Beltran was traded mid-season and did not return to the Yankees via free agency, opting instead to sign with the Houston Astros.
In all, nine players from the 2016 Opening Day roster are no longer with the organization. Only CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner remain from the most recent Yankees World Series Championship team of 2009. Now in 2017, what is the team’s chemistry like so far this year?
Matt Holliday was signed on a one-year deal to be a big bat in the middle of the lineup and to help provide veteran leadership to a mostly young group of hitters.
The 37-year-old Holliday carried an impressive resume into the 2017 season. He had amassed 1,995 hits, 295 home runs, and 1,153 runs batted in, while hitting .303/.382/.515 over 13 MLB seasons. He received MVP votes in eight seasons, was an All-Star seven times, and won the Silver Slugger Award four times.
Holliday won the National League batting title in 2007 as he led the Colorado Rockies to their first-ever World Series appearance. He was named Player of the Month in September as the Rockies won 21 of their final 22 games to make the playoffs. He followed that up by earning NLCS MVP honors. Beginning in 2011, Holliday helped lead the St. Louis Cardinals to four straight NLCS appearances, two NL pennants, and one World Series Championship.
In addition to being a leader on the diamond and in the clubhouse, Holliday has been a pillar of the community off the field. Among his many charitable works, he started a pledge program called "Homers for Health" which raised over $3.7 million in its first five years for a St. Louis children's hospital. He has been awarded the Darryl Kile Good Guy Award by the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Upon joining the Yankees, Holliday wasted no time in reaching out to the club's younger players. Early in spring training, he shared a 20-minute breakfast with outfield prospect Clint Frazier in the Steinbrenner Field cafeteria. They talked about baseball, as well as other, more personal things.
"We talked about some things that can help me grow as a man," Frazier told Randy Miller of NJ Advance Media. "For him to kind of put his arm around me and put me under his wing... he gave me some help that I needed this morning. It was a real good conversation to have. He's awesome. He's really good for me."
"I think there is stuff that you learn about being a professional and being able to deal with things in your life and to be able to get your work in," Holliday told Miller. "That's part of being a pro. This is a job and this is learning how to live your life and what's important to you."
Aaron Judge lockered next to Holliday during spring training, and the young right fielder has come to appreciate his elder teammate's friendship and wisdom.
"It's been great. That's the great thing about Matty, about any great leader, is that they get to know their teammates and who they're with," Judge told Mike Nabors of MLB.com. "He's out there challenging us young guys to compete and play harder every day, so it's been great so far."
"I think there's plenty of leadership in place. I just try to come in and do my part and get to know the guys," Holliday told Nabors. "Leadership is best had when you build relationships with guys. I've really tried to take these first few weeks and get to know some guys and really kind of build relationships. If some sort of leadership is necessary, guys are much more willing to listen and interact when they know you."
It's only April, so it's going to be interesting to see how Matt Holliday's influence on the team grows as the season progresses. He is certainly off to a good start.
Gardner Leads Off
Leadership of the 2017 Yankees will not rest entirely on Matt Holliday's shoulders. With the retirement of Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner is now the longest tenured Yankee. Selected by the club in the 3rd round of the 2005 Amateur Draft, the 33-year-old is also the elder statesman among the homegrown players. This is Gardner's 13th year with the New York Yankees organization.
"For me, I feel like I need to be a leader, yeah," Gardner told Mike Mazzeo of the New York Daily News. "It’s up to me and some veteran guys to help these young guys feel comfortable and help them be successful, and I think we can have a really good year."
During spring training, Gardner spent a lot of time with outfield prospects Clint Frazier, Dustin Fowler and Billy McKinney.
"I take pride in being able to help those guys," Gardner told Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media.
"(Gardner) is hardworking," Matt Holliday told Kuty. "He's not afraid to say something. He interacts with the guys. You can tell the guys respect him and like him and enjoy hanging out with him. In my short time here, he seems like one of the guys that people really look to."
Before spring training ended, manager Joe Girardi announced that Gardner would be the Bomber's leadoff hitter. Appropriate, not just because of Gardner's skillset, but because of his apparent new role as defacto team captain. Gardner will have an opportunity to set the tone in every game the Yankees play. Could this also lead to Gardner being more productive at the plate and more aggressive on the basepaths? We can only hope.
Carsten Charles in Charge
CC Sabathia has been the leader of the pitching staff since Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte retired. He is also the overall leader in the clubhouse.
"CC has been a winner for a long time. Whether it was Cleveland, Milwaukee, or here in New York and he's meant so much to all three organizations," Girardi recently told Meredith Marakovits of the Yes Network. "CC's a winner, but he's also the guy who's the glue in the clubhouse. And that means as much as him being a winner. CC's the one that's got the music. CC's the one that takes guys fishing on off-days. CC's the one that, when we go into a town and have an off-day, he kind of gets everyone together, and either gets a suite at a basketball game or does something. He's just really the glue. And he's a guy that loves the camaraderie and makes sure that everyone's involved."
Sabathia recently revived a tradition that began during spring training of the 2009 season. At AJ Burnett's suggestion, starting pitchers would all watch each other warm up in the bullpen before games, exchange fist-bumps at the conclusion of the session, and then walk in to the dugout together. CC has led members of the rotation in doing that this year. This is not fortuitous, with 2009 being the year of the Yankees' last championship.
Judge Holds Court
Aaron Judge has emerged as a leader among the Baby Bombers.
"It's about 25 guys pulling the same rope and getting the job done... if one guy doesn't get it done, we've got 24 guys behind them," Judge said after homering to help rookie lefty Jordan Montgomery secure his first career MLB win.
You'd expect to hear that from a veteran player. Coming from a 24-year-old with less than one season of MLB experience is impressive.
Could Judge be a future team captain in the making?
Toe Looms Large
Ronald Torreyes has become one of the most endearing and popular players in the Yankees Clubhouse.
"He’s a great teammate," Chase Headley told Billy Witz of the New York Times. "Toe is one of those guys that everybody loves to pull for because he works his butt off. He can play 17 different positions, and he never complains."
Images of Torreyes jumping to high-five Aaron Judge have been among the most gratifying for fans so far in this young season. Everyone loves a feel-good story, and Toe's success and popularity have given fans something to feel really good about.
The Kids Are Alright
The average age of the players on the Yankees 25-man Opening Day roster in 2017 was exactly the same as it was in 2016: 28-years-old. But somehow, this feels like a younger team. Maybe it's because three big veteran bats (Beltran, Teixeira, and McCann) have been replaced by three young players who each have less than 162 MLB games under their belts (Judge, Bird, and Sanchez). Turning over one-third of the lineup in favor of younger talent can give one the feeling that the team is much younger. Maybe it's because of the youthful energy and excitement that surrounds this team. Whatever the reason, this team feels younger, more vibrant, and more fun to watch than other pinstriped squads in recent years.
The talent, fun, excitement, and winning attitude extend beyond the players on the current 25-man roster. The Scranton-Wilkes Barre RailRiders won the Class AAA championship last season. They accomplished this despite having lost some of their best players to the parent club in early August. As well, Class AA Trenton made it the Eastern League Championship Series. So there is already a winning culture at the highest levels of the Yankees' system. Many of those winning players will be appearing for the big league club at some point this season.
The importance of team chemistry in sports has often been debated and has sometimes been dismissed as irrelevant. This is certain: The 2017 Yankees have chemistry, character, and an evolved team leadership that will continue to develop as the season progresses.
We may be witnessing the beginning of the next Yankees dynasty, and it's going to be fun to watch it unfold.