Why the Yankees had a good year in 2016 despite falling short of the playoffs
For the first time in a long time, the Yankees started looking towards the future
For the third time in the last four years, the New York Yankees are not going to the postseason. The one year they did go to the playoffs, 2015, they were shut out by Dallas Keuchel and the Astros in the wholly unsatisfying AL Wild Card Game. New York has not won a postseason game since 2012.
Given the team's history and expectations, missing the postseason is a disappointment at best and an outright failure at worst. "I hear people talk about some things (as successes this season) and I'm like, 'no, we didn't do what we were supposed to do,'" said manager Joe Girardi after the Yankees were eliminated Thursday.
Girardi and the Yankees won't admit it, but in many ways this 2016 season was indeed a success for the Yankees, at least from a big picture point of view. For the first time in a very long time, the team focused on the future when it was apparent the present wasn't too exciting. The team sold at the deadline and went young in the second half, which led to a surprise late season surge.
In reality, the youth movement started last season, when the Yankees -- who were in first place at time -- declined to make a major move at the trade deadline and instead called up top prospects Luis Severino and Greg Bird to help in the second half. It continued in the offseason when, for the first time ever, the Yankees did not sign a single major league free agent.
This season the Yankees were very active at the trade deadline, though not in the way we're used to seeing. They were the sellers this year, not the buyers. The Yankees traded three impending free agents (Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Beltran, Ivan Nova) plus one very valuable asset (Andrew Miller) for a total of 12 prospects. Three of those 12 rank among MLB.com's top 100 prospects:
They also acquired RHP Dillon Tate, the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft, in the Beltran deal. RHP Ben Heller, who also came over in the Miller trade, is already in New York's bullpen. MLB.com prospect Jim Callis called New York's farm system the "deepest system in the game" following their trade deadline sell-off.
A few years ago the Yankees did not recognize -- or were unwilling to admit -- the team was not a contender, which is why Robinson Cano and David Robertson were not traded prior to their free agencies. How much did that set the team back? It's hard to say. But the Yankees learned from their mistakes and owner Hal Steinbrenner gave GM Brian Cashman the thumbs up to sell this summer.
Rather than crater in the second half and fall into irrelevancy, the Yankees remained mathematically alive in the postseason race until Game 159, thanks largely to the young players they called up. First baseman Tyler Austin and outfielder Aaron Judge became the first teammates in history to hit their first MLB home run in the same game, and they did it back-to-back:
Catcher Gary Sanchez has played so well -- he's hitting .303/.378/.672 and became the fastest in history to hit 20 home runs -- that he's generating serious Rookie of the Year discussion after only 51 games. Rookie righties Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell have combined for a 3.55 ERA in 13 starts and 71 innings down the stretch as well.
To make this late-season youth movement happen, the Yankees scaled back the playing time of several well-paid veterans. First and foremost, Alex Rodriguez was released in August, after it became clear he had nothing else to offer at the plate. Mark Teixeira became a part-time player -- he's started only 31 of 55 games since the trade deadline -- and Brian McCann became a full-time DH.
Sanchez & Co. have led the Yankees to a 31-24 record since the trade deadline, fifth best in the AL. After sitting 5 1/2 games out on the day of the deadline, the Yankees were able to climb to within one game of the second wild card spot on September 10. The team has already clinched their 24th consecutive winning season too.
For the first time in a very long time, we can see the future core of the Yankees. Or at least what the Yankees hope will form their next core. That's Sanchez behind the plate, Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius up the middle, Frazier and Judge in the outfield, and Bird at first base. That's the plan, and not two or three years down the line. Sometime in 2017.
Of course, prospects are suspects until they prove otherwise, so it's hardly a guarantee things will work out the way the Yankees hope. After all, Bird missed the entire 2016 season following shoulder surgery. Severino's follow-up to his strong 2015 debut was pretty miserable. Judge struck out in 44.2 percent of his plate appearances against big league pitching.
Young players can be risky, no doubt, but the Yankees were not going anywhere with the roster they ran out there on Opening Day. They desperately needed to add youth, and they did that at the deadline. That some young players came up in the second half and helped the team remain relevant for a few extra weeks is gravy. They sold and stayed in the race. Best of both worlds.
The George Steinbrenner mentality says missing the postseason again is a total failure. In the big picture sense, the 2016 season was a success for the Yankees because they brought in young talent and started to transition toward what could be the next great Yankees team. This is something that probably should have happened a year or two ago, really.
Between all the new young players and all the big contracts set to expire within the next two years, the Yankees will soon have a cheap core in place and a ton of money to spend in free agency. They'd reached the point where a rebuild was necessary, and given their new look roster and payroll, the rebuild might not take long at all.
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