Hal Steinbrenner had seen enough.
After watching his team lose to the lowly Tampa Bay Rays on Friday, the son of George did what no Yankee owner has done since at least 1989: he waived the white flag.
The odds of reaching the postseason were too miniscule. The chances of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez enjoying another renaissance were practically non-existent. The overall play of a dreary ballclub spoke volumes. For the first time in a generation, the Yankees actually sucked, so it was time to swallow some pride and make a monumental decision. It was time to grant permission for general manager Brian Cashman to plan for the future.
Once it became evident that the Yankees were too old and too inept, the front office yearned for this opportunity. When Teixeira and Rodriguez crumbled in a heap, so too did the 2016 Yankees. Yes, they harboured one of the greatest bullpens in history, but it lay dormant for large swathes of the season as an awful offensive club failed to pass the baton. New York recovered from a dismal start to jump within shouting distance of a Wildcard berth, but a negative run differential spoke more clearly to a doomed season. Cashman knew it weeks ago, but Steinbrenner wasn’t so sure. Until another horror show at Tropicana Field.
Within hours of the 5-1 loss, Hal told Cashman to press ahead with dealing away established veterans for minor league prospects. In that process, the old Yankee doctrine of fielding a championship-calibre team for every single game was finally placed on hiatus. It was a philosophy pioneered by Colonel Jacob Ruppert in the 1920s, and one honed masterfully by Hal’s father decades later. Many feel the ethos died years ago, when the Yankees failed to extend Robinson Cano, but the team has never made such a public declaration of surrender in modern times.
A Paradigm Shift
The Yankees traded away Aroldis Chapman a few days before Steinbrenner gave Cashman the green light to explore bigger moves. Yet, while unusual, that deal carried a great amount of logic. Chapman is a free agent this winter, and the marketplace for relievers presented the Yankees with a very valuable asset. The return from Chicago, headlined by stud shortstop Gleyber Torres, made it a terrific deal for the Yanks, who didn’t necessarily give up on 2016 with that one move. With Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller still in the bullpen, they dealt from a position of strength. Steinbrenner was keen to wait a while longer as the team flirted with contention, only for the Tampa loss to deal a harsh reality check.
You see, Hal is a shrewd economist at heart. He’s obsessed with numbers and spreadsheets and extracting value from commodities. The stunning return for three months of Chapman piqued his interest and opened his eyes to a brighter future for the New York Yankees. The decision included a lot of soul-searching, with the win-at-all-costs legacy of his father casting a shadow over the debate, but Steinbrenner pulled the trigger, allowing Cashman to execute deals he already had lined up.
On the morning of Sunday 31st July 2016, a seismic shift occurred in Major League Baseball. At 13.36 GMT, Ken Rosenthal delivered the news of a changing landscape with one concise tweet. “BREAKING: Andrew Miller to Indians,” it read. And with that, a whole era flashed before our eyes then slowly faded away. By trading the most effective reliever in baseball, the Yankees’ gluttonous run of constant contention ended after twenty-five years. It was time to change. Time to catch up with a changing industry. Time to rebuild.
A New Future
In return for Miller, the Yankees received a huge package of highly regarded prospects. Clint Frazier, the headliner, is a potential five-tool stud with enormous potential. Just like Torres with the Cubs, he was Cleveland’s top prospect. The Yankees love Frazier’s bat speed and work ethic, and they’re excited to see him enjoy a long career in the Bronx. He was joined in a package by Justus Sheffield, a solid starter; and Ben Heller and JP Feyereisen, two big minor league arms.
With one deal, the Yankees improved their farm system to a sensational degree. For the second time in six days, the top prospect in that system changed, as Frazier usurped Torres. According to MLB.com, the Yankees had seven of the top one hundred prospects in baseball after the Miller deal: Frazier (ranked 24th), Torres (26), Jorge Mateo (27), Aaron Judge (32), Gary Sanchez (39), Blake Rutherford (64) and Sheffield (95). That list doesn’t even include young players who have made an impact in the big leagues, such as Greg Bird, Luis Severino and Rob Refsnyder. Nor does it include promising guys in the lower levels of a stacked minor league system.
This is baseball in 2016. This is how rosters are constructed in the modern epoch. Gone are the days when George Steinbrenner could have any player he wanted for any salary he deemed appropriate. Now, baseball has much tougher rules on revenue sharing, with the luxury tax hampering big market juggernauts such as the Yankees. With the league thriving commercially, almost every team can afford to keep their star players, diluting the quality of free agent pools. Tougher drugs testing also makes long-term contracts for ageing players a far more risky proposition, while strict regulations limit spending in the amateur draft and international markets. In order to achieve sustained success, teams must find and develop their own young talent organically. That’s the only way to control spending and benefit from the prime years of a player.
“The chessboard has changed since I began,” said Cashman. “We’re trying to get back to a situation where we can build an uber team, and a sustainable one.”
In that quest, the general manager wasn’t done. As the calendar flipped to trade deadline day, he still had assets to deal. For most of the day, Cashman lurked under the radar, waiting to take advantage of panicked rivals in the final moments of a hectic period. Inside the final few hours, he pounced, sending slugger Carlos Beltran to Texas for a three-player package centred around electric pitcher Dillon Tate, the Rangers’ first round draft pick in 2015.
Although he’s regressed considerably this season, Tate was considered the best pitching talent in the draft last year, and Cashman bought low on a precocious arm. Beltran was the beating heart of an otherwise lifeless Yankee lineup this season, with 22 home runs and a .890 OPS. However, he is also a free agent in a few months, so this was another very good trade for the Yankees’ future.
In the space of a week, Cashman did more to enhance his reputation than in the previous half-decade. Finally unleashed to build the team he wants, without misguided input from Randy Levine and Steinbrenner, Cashman showed the subtle touch of a genius. Before the deadline passed, he even managed to dump Ivan Nova on Pittsburgh for two players to be named later, which almost defies belief. In total, Cashman moved five players and welcomed fourteen in return, a great infusion of talent that remodels the Yankee farm system as one of the very best in baseball.
Of course, this kind of aggressive reload does have real world consequences. For instance, as the Yankees played the Mets on Monday night, a melancholic mood pervaded. For perhaps the first time since Bucky Dent was manager, the New York Yankees played a meaningless game by design. And in the weeks and months ahead, there will be plenty more, which will be strange for people of the Jeter generation who have only ever known winning in the Bronx. Indeed, the Yankees’ incredible run of consecutive winning seasons, dating back to 1992, is now under serious threat. Peculiar times are upon us.
But this is all about the future. The next step will be to develop and graduate this mass of young talent to the Major League level. That process begins today, as Sanchez is promoted to the big club. It may continue with Rodriguez and Teixeira being released, if industry whispers hold any substance.
In the offseason, who knows what the plan is? These are still the New York Yankees, rich beyond comprehension, and they now have even more financial flexibility. Cashman could trade a couple of his minor league chips for Major League gains and still have a brilliant core matriculating nicely. The road can lead to many directions from here.
For the Yankees, this was a most unusual fortnight. In many ways, it was a period unlike any other in the team’s illustrious history. Yet, amid a necessary recalibration, we learned that, in Brian Cashman, this team is operated by a tremendous executive who deserves greater praise and more autonomy. The Yankees have a sacred past, and that can never be changed. But with four trades in the space of seven days, Cashman positioned his franchise to have an equally bright future; a future fit for the changing landscape of Major League Baseball.