Last July, the Yankees dove headfirst into an unprecedented rebuild. GM Brian Cashman had never before been given the green light to—gasp—trade away productive players at the deadline, but he handled his first opportunity with aplomb. Out were veterans Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran, and in came a host of prospects.
It has been a full year since the organization’s retooling went full rebuild. Now, the Yankees are no longer engaged in a true rebuild, instead investing some future resources to solidify the current roster. So it’s as good a time as any to reflect on the rebuild, one year out. Is the team in a better position now than it was in 2016?
To answer that question, we need to be realistic about where this team was after Cashman commenced his teardown. The Yankees were in the midst of their third lackluster season in four years. After completing their final deadline deals, sending Beltran to the Rangers and Ivan Nova to the Pirates, the Yankees were 52-52. Baseball Prospectus pegged their odds of reaching a playoff series at 1.8%. The team’s present outlook was poor, and the major league team looked unimpressive.
Of course, that uninspiring roster could be overlooked because of the newly excellent farm system. Cashmam acquired elite hitting prospects in Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier. He also procured promising pitching prospect Justus Sheffield, former top-100 outfield prospect Billy McKinney, the live-armed Dillon Tate, and old friend Adam Warren, to go along with a handful of longer shot prospects like Tito Polo, Rashad Crawford, and Ben Heller, among others.
It was a massive shot in the arm to what had been a middling farm system. Prior to 2016, BP ranked the Yankees 16th in the game in terms of prospect talent. At the trade deadline the Yankees vaulted themselves among the most enviable organizations in the game, along with long-rebuilding teams like the Braves and Brewers.
So, as the Yankees entered last year’s home stretch, the outlook seemed pretty straightforward. They had a great farm system with talent at nearly every level and position. They also had hardly a prayer at the playoffs in 2016, and didn’t have a roster that looked particularly likely to contend in 2017.
What’s changed since then? For one, the farm system is, strictly speaking, worse. The Yankees added one solid prospect in the form of Albert Abreu when they flipped Brian McCann to the Astros, but they also traded their first round pick from 2016, Blake Rutherford, for current reinforcements. Their top hitting prospect, Torres, and their top pitching prospect, James Kaprelian, each underwent Tommy John surgery. Top talents like Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez have graduated from prospect lists, with Frazier close behind.
A handful of other prospects have also seen their fortunes shift. Jorge Mateo has lost some of his sheen, while teenage outfielder Estevan Florial is on the rise. Dustin Fowler made the majors and suffered a devastating injury, while Tyler Wade made the majors and is still trying to stick.
Due to graduations and injuries, the Yankees probably would appear lower in a farm system ranking now than they did a year ago. However, it would obviously be disingenuous to posit that because of that lower ranking the team is in worse position. For the most part, the (still great) farm system is slightly thinner because the major league roster is that much better.
It’s one thing to graduate top prospects, and another to totally hit on them. Judge and Sanchez have been home runs. They have each only recorded about 500 plate appearances, but Sanchez has posted a 134 OPS+ from behind the plate, while Judge has a 156 OPS+. They both made what looks like the first of multiple All-Star teams this year. Frazier has an even shorter track record, but has at least flashed prodigious tools at the big league level and already passed Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield pecking order.
Still, just as important as the graduation and maturation of top prospects has been the development of some established veterans. Several players that were part of the mediocre roster that looked so unlikely to contend a year ago have flourished, improving their stock and the team’s outlook.
Starlin Castro has dealt with injuries this year but has had his best offensive season ever. Aaron Hicks has also been banged up but posted a 138 OPS+ when on the field. Perhaps most importantly, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery have emerged as vital pieces of the Yankees’ future rotation.
Montgomery has emerged quickly to post a 118 ERA+ as a rookie, and Severino’s stock has skyrocketed. FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron argued that Severino was the 35th most valuable asset in the game based on his contract status, an incredible place for Severino to be after a sophomore season that saw him post a 75 ERA+.
Moreover, Didi Gregorius has continued to cement himself as a first-division starter at shortstop, and even the longest-tenured Yankee, Brett Gardner, has found a way to reinvent himself as something of a power hitter and boost his stock. The list of Yankees that may have brighter futures based on their 2017 performance simply far outstrips the Yankees who have dampened their outlooks this year.
On the whole, the Yankees’ farm has moved laterally at best in the past year. A handful of prospects have taken steps forward, while some have moved backward or gotten injured or traded. Yet the retooling process has been a major success over the past year because of the play the Yankees have seen at the highest level.
Breakouts from young players like Judge, Sanchez, and Severino, and new levels of play from veterans like Hicks, Castro, and Gardner, have the Yankees in the best position they’ve been in at least a half-decade. A year ago, the Yankees looked set up to be major threats in 2019 and beyond. Now, they look like contenders from this moment forward.