Jonah Keri's spring training tour: Yankees' Baby Bombers could be all grown up soon
Could the Baby Bombers develop quickly enough to build a contender this season?
TAMPA, Fla. -- These are not your father’s New York Yankees . Hell, they’re not even your slightly older brother’s New York Yankees.
The team that spent megabucks on Alex Rodriguez , Mark Teixeira , Brian McCann , CC Sabathia , and Jacoby Ellsbury is no more. A-Rod, Teixeira, and McCann are done, while Sabathia and Ellsbury are nine-figure bit players. In their stead, the era of the Baby Bombers is upon us.
The emergence of rookie planet-crusher Gary Sanchez after the All-Star break last season marked the start of the new phase of Yankees baseball. When Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge crushed back-to-back homers in their first major league at-bats on a sunny August afternoon in the Bronx, the possibilities seemed limitless.
Now, Sanchez slots in as the Yankees’ number-three hitter, the linchpin of the lineup despite having just 55 big league games under his belt (and despite the fact that teams shouldn’t bat their best hitters third). Greg Bird will be his left-swinging middle-of-the-order running mate. Judge starts the season as the everyday right fielder. Austin will miss the start of the season with a fracture in his foot, but figures to make an impact later this year. For Joe Girardi, the formula for handling all those kids is simple.
“Patience is important,” said the Yankees manager. “Probably the biggest reason is so they’re not looking over their shoulder wondering, ‘Is this my last at bat? If I don’t get a hit today, am I going down? If I don’t play good defense, am I not going to play for three or four days?’ So that’s where the patience comes in. It’s important that you build their confidence.”
The 24-year-old Sanchez was unstoppable last year, swatting 20 homers and batting .299/.376/.657 in 229 plate appearances. Pick just about any pitch location over the plate from last year, and Sanchez’s slugging average reached near-Ruthian levels. No one-trick pony, Sanchez’s defense looks strong enough to enable a full-time workload behind the plate.
“The one thing that when I look at with Gary Sanchez, is that he’s very instinctual,” said Girardi. “Whether he’s hitting or calling a game. He’s able to follow a game plan. He’s able to throw as well as anyone in the league. He blocks. There’s really nothing this kid can’t do. So to me, it’s just about managing the expectations.”
As high as those expectations are for Sanchez, the 24-year-old Bird’s upside might not be far behind. The sweet-swinging first baseman lit up the league in his own 46-game debut in 2015, batting .261/.343/.529, with 11 homers. Just as the path to the everyday first-base job seemed to be his, Bird suffered a brutal shoulder injury that knocked him out for all of 2016. Small sample sizes should always raise skepticism, even more so in spring training. Still, watching him rake in Florida, while using the entire field, hitting both fastballs and breaking balls, and making lots of contact, has the Yankees brass feeling optimistic.
Judge is the biggest enigma of the Yankees baby brigade ... and also just the biggest. One of the most imposing position players in baseball history at 6-foot-7, 255 pounds, the 24-year-old Judge can generate light-tower power when he connects. But contact is a major issue: In his 95-plate appearance MLB debut last year, Judge struck out a jarring 42 times. No hitter with as many times up swung and missed more often last year than Judge did. All those strikeouts netted a porous .179/.263/.345 batting line.
Girardi noted that very few players hit the ground running in the majors the way Sanchez and Bird did. So while Judge is probably always going to strike out a bunch, there’s hope for his future.
“It’s about him making adjustments,” Girardi said. “They’re not major adjustments, they’re minor adjustments that he needs to make. He started doing that last year. He continued over the winter, met with our hitting coaches over the winter. We’ve seen some of the dividends pay off in spring training already. His at-bats have been good. He’s walked a few times. He’s a guy who really, if he puts the barrel of the bat on the ball, he’s going to hit a home run. He can do damage. That’s the key from him. And for him, understanding it and really having that mindset. ‘I don’t have to do extra, I don’t. I just have to put the barrel of the bat on the ball.’”
As Girardi and I talked in the dugout, Gleyber Torres walked by. The manager’s eyes lit up. In addition to the team’s stable of homegrown prospects, the Yankees have collected a passel of seriously talented young players via the trade market. Baseball America’s No. 5 prospect in the game, Torres is the best of the bunch. Just 20 years old, Torres was the blue-chipper acquired from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Aroldis Chapman last summer. Girardi sees a player who’s mature beyond his years, controlling the strike zone, playing smooth defense, and excelling at the little nuances of the game.
“I’m extremely impressed with his awareness of what needs to be done during the course of a game,” Girardi said. “His at-bats. ‘I’ve got to get on, OK? I’ve got to drive a run, OK? I’ve got to get a guy over, OK? I need to get from first to second somehow.’ Ball in the dirt, he might score from second on a ball in the dirt. Goes from first to third on a tough read. I’m really impressed with his decision-making at such a young age. You don’t see that every day and I think that’s probably why he’s so far along at such a young age.”
There’s a lot more to come. Twenty-two-year-old outfielder Clint Frazier could be up by this summer, even though the Tampa contingent of Yankees management continued to show its cluelessness by foisting its wildly outdated hair policy on the formerly flowing redhead. Twenty-one-year-old Jorge Mateo isn’t far behind Torres on the organizational middle-infield depth chart, and could be up at some point next season. All told, the Yankees placed seven prospects in Baseball America’s top 100, a vast improvement for a franchise that relied on older major-league talent for many years, to the point that the minor-league cupboard became nearly empty.
Could the Baby Bombers develop quickly enough to build a contender this season? It’s a long shot. Still, Girardi has high hopes for both 23-year-old righty Luis Severino (reported to camp 10 pounds lighter and with a more refined changeup) and 28-year-old Michael Pineda (who’s been annihilating every batter in sight this spring, including a perfect five-inning, eight strikeout performance in his most recent start). If the Yanks can get tangible gains from those two starters, a refortified bullpen headed by the re-signed Chapman and preposterously filthy righty Dellin Betances could make things interesting in the wild-card race, if not the AL East race.
For a couple years now, the Yankees’ long-term approach has been obvious: Wait for the star-studded free-agent class of 2018-2019, and see how many players from the Manny Machado/Bryce Harper/Josh Donaldson group will choose pinstripes. But however well that recruiting goes, the Yankees have so many exciting young players in the Show or on their way, that free agency splurge might read more like the finishing touches than a major overhaul.
In New York, the greybeards are gone. And the kids are alright.