In a span of several days in late July, the New York Yankees traded their closer, were swept by the last-place Tampa Bay Rays and then traded their replacement closer and best hitter to that point in the season.
It was the correct approach, but one that typically signals that focus has shifted to next season. A month later, the Yankees might be a serious playoff contender.
The Yankees did exactly what a .500 team with little going its way should do at the trade deadline. They filled the organization with top-tier prospects, revamping their farm system and putting to rest the notion that they do not care about growing from within. The difference from other rebuilding processes: the Yankees refused to keep losing and look for a high draft pick.
Ownership, general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi said the team was not waving the white towel and the remaining Yankees in the clubhouse had no intention of packing it in. Even so, thinking one way and performing as such is another.
"We never felt that our season was over when all those [deadline] moves were made," Yankees' third baseman Chase Headley told ESPN. "But to say that you believed that you have a chance to make the playoffs a month ago, that's all fine and good. Until you start playing better and giving yourself a chance, it's a little harder to really believe it."
The Yankees began to believe once management decided to abandon -- or limit -- some offensive inconsistencies by calling up catcher Gary Sanchez in early August, and then Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin close to the midpoint of the month.
Veteran Brian McCann has been reduced to the backup catcher and designated hitter with Sanchez being declared the primary backstop within a week of his call-up -- combined with Alex Rodriguez being pushed out the door. Mark Teixeira, who announced that he'll be retiring at season's end, is sharing time at first base with Austin. The Yankees named Judge the club's starting right fielder upon his call-up.
The youth infusion inspired fine August performances from others on offense. Starlin Castro put together his best month of the season, hitting .313 with eight home runs and a team-leading 24 RBI. Didi Gregorius continued his finest major league season with a .791 OPS, including eight doubles, six home runs and 18 RBI.
Castro and Gregorius' contributions are significant in that they are a big part of the Yankees future (they are each 26-year-old controllable players), and have shown they can be relied on when the stage grows.
The Yankees also received impactful efforts from players who were not getting significant playing time before the trade deadline.
Aaron Hicks has been the fans' favorite punching bag this season. He arrived in New York with lofty expectations, but his playing time never increased with the mostly healthy outfield. In August, Hicks showed why the Yankees remain high on his abilities, as he hit four home runs and generated a .769 OPS. That mark is more than 130 points higher than any other month this season.
Utility infielder Ronald Torreyes has managed to stay on the roster since Opening Day mainly because he is a fine defender at every infield position besides first base. But, Torreyes showed that if he gets some regular time at the plate, he can hold his own.
Torreyes slashed .434/.471/.719 in 34 plate appearances in August. Surely a small sample size, but knowing he can take a couple of days from switch-hitter Chase Headley when there is a left-hander on the mound (Headley's OPS is nearly 40 points higher hitting against right-handers) gives Girardi a strong option rather than a placeholder.
Girardi takes his lumps where it concerns his love for veterans, but August showed he is willing to ride hot hands and stick with rookies who might struggle along the way. Girardi's ability to juggle and see the big picture is a good sign, and with some reinforcements coming in the form of Rob Refsnyder and possibly Mason Williams, the Yankees' skipper will have more options at his disposal for mixing and matching late in games.
The Yankees' impressive August record (17-11) was also aided by quality pitching, especially over the last 14 days. Yankees hurlers registered a 3.19 ERA during the span, led by Masahiro Tanaka, who made three starts (19 1/3 innings) and sported a 0.92 ERA with two wins. CC Sabathia (2.63 ERA in 13 2/3 innings) and Luis Cessa (3.00 ERA in 18 innings) have answered the call as well.
Chad Green was up and down in his starts (4.22 ERA in 10 2/3 innings), while Michael Pineda's final line (7.94 ERA in 11 1/3 innings) was disappointing, yet there were stretches where he threw up a lot of zeroes.
The results have been uneven in the bullpen. Tommy Layne is the only middle reliever who recorded an ERA under 4.50 during the month (0.00 ERA in 8 1/3 innings). Tyler Clippard (0.00 ERA in 4 1/3 innings) and Dellin Betances (1.42 ERA in 6 1/3 innings) have pitched well at the end of games, while Adam Warren (4.91 ERA, 2.18 WHIP in 3 2/3 innings) struggled.
The good news for the Yankees is that September could bring a bevy of talented arms from the minors. It is expected that former top prospect Luis Severino will get some innings in the bullpen, where his fastball/slider combination plays well. Severino has pitched well at Triple-A this season, but not so well as a starter for New York. He was productive in a small sample as a reliever in July.
The Yankees should also find space for right-hander Bryan Mitchell, who was supposed to be a key piece to the bullpen until suffering a toe injury in spring training.
Additionally, there is a chance the Yankees bring up Jonathan Holder, who has flat-out dominated at three levels this season, but in no space more than Triple-A (0.89 ERA in 20 1/3 innings). Possessing additional arms is all well and good, but it becomes incumbent on Girardi to put them in the right situations. I cannot say he has done a good job of that at various points this season.
One good month does not necessarily portend to a follow-up. The Yankees have a brutal schedule ahead of them, facing four teams currently holding a playoff spot (23 of their final 30 games).
But, and this is a big but, the Yankees are playing with confidence, likely for the first time all season. Winning seven out of their last eight series will do that for any team, especially when five of them are against teams with winning records and three currently holding playoff positions.
Also significant for the Yankees is that they have played the last month with a sense of urgency. They have faced each opponent with a feeling that this is their postseason.
They have played well in tight games all season (22-9 in one-run games) and there is something to be said for a team playing without expectations. Winning loosens up a clubhouse and they have done enough of that to get within a couple of games of a playoff spot.
In my view, the Yankees are equipped to continue a run which truly began well before they looked toward the future at the trade deadline.
New York is 61-47 since their 8-16 start, in part from contributions from players currently on the squad. The team's only offensive loss was Carlos Beltran, and the club has figured out a way to get production elsewhere and across the roster since.
On the mound, the pitchers are fully capable of continuing to do more than simply keep the team in games and allow the offense to finish opponents off.
The Yankees believe there is a spot for them in the postseason and it might be time for others to consider the chance as well.