When the New York Yankees began trading away their best players before the non-waiver deadline, a postseason berth seemed years away. That sentiment seemed crystal clear when the Yankees handed starting jobs to Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, two of the teams vaunted prospects.
The moves made (and still make) sense. Carlos Beltran was gone and the Yankees were getting limited production from veteran Brian McCann behind the plate. The Yankees also brought up Tyler Austin to split time with a struggling Mark Teixeira at first base and rookie utility man Ronald Torreyes also began to get more playing time.
Sanchez, 22, got acclimated very quickly, resulting in American League Rookie of the Month and AL Player of the Month honors for August, after blasting 11 home runs and driving in 21 runs. While Sanchez has cooled down some in the last week, he has maintained great poise and has done some very good work behind the plate throughout his very brief MLB career.
Torreyes went on a tear, going 14-for-26 over an eight-game (seven starts) span in August. He is hitting .287 on the season with a .777 OPS in 118 plate appearances. Torreyes plays steady defense all over the infield, providing the Yanks with a key piece in case of days off or injury.
Sanchez was certainly at the heart of the Yankees resurgence in August which got them to within three games in the loss column for the AL's second wild card spot. But, for Judge and Austin, the results have gone downhill since their first appearance in which they hit back-to-back home runs in their first MLB at-bats.
Austin's struggles might be explained in part to a shift in playing time. While Austin was playing everyday at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, posting a 1.051 OPS in 234 plate appearances along the way, he has been a part-time player with New York. Austin is currently hitting .205, with a .222 on-base percentage and a .318 slugging percentage in 45 plate appearances.
Austin, 24, has expressed he had to work through his struggles, which he claims to be about his mindset, and his two doubles in Monday's win might show he is ready to pull out of the slump.
"I'm not intimidated by these guys, I don't think, anymore," Austin told The New York Times. "So I think that's the big thing."
Judge's performance has been exceptionally poor since his first two games with the Yanks. In his last 65 plate appearances after clubbing two homers in his first eight times to the plate, Judge is slashing .138/.215/.224 with one home run, seven RBIs and a whopping 34 strikeouts. Judge has been exposed as a batter who has trouble with off-speed pitches, something he exhibited in spring training and through parts of his minor league climb. Judge was able to succeed this season prompting the call-up, in part, because he seemed to be having better at-bats with fewer prolonged slumps throughout the season.
Judge, 24, has been unable to put together quality at-bats on a consistent basis and as each day passes, the questions about his readiness increase. Yankees manager Joe Girardi has a tough dilemma in front of him; getting MLB playing time for Judge to both assess and aid the Yankees prospect, but also writing a lineup that has the best chance to win ballgames.
"He's our most natural right fielder,'' Girardi told the New York Daily News. "He made a pretty big play today. It's a balance. I'm going to look and see when he needs a day off, and I'll give him a day, but without [Aaron] Hicks, it becomes a little more difficult.''
It would not be surprising is Girardi decides to give Judge a day or even two off in order to shake off the bad vibes. The issue? The Yankees have to turn to either Austin or fellow rookie Rob Refsnyder to fill the role in right field with former fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks out with a strained hamstring.
The Yankees outwardly claimed to not waiving the white flag when they made the trades in late July, but considering how the club played through the season to that point, it is not hard to believe that might have been lip service. Give the Yankees credit, the team buckled down and played very good baseball across August and now they are playing "must-win" games on a daily basis.
The quandary of winning games, but having to use inexperienced rookies doesn't pertain to only position players. The Yankees pitching staff is littered with pitchers who have spent most of the season at Triple-A or even lower levels of the minor leagues.
Luis Cessa finds himself in the rotation due to the trade of Ivan Nova and the season-ending injury to Nathan Eovaldi. He was sharing the back-end of the rotation with another rookie, Chad Green, who is now also likely out for the season with an elbow injury.
Cessa, 24, has been quite good in his three starts, going 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 18 innings. But, how much can the Yankees expect from Cessa who has thrown just 36 2/3 MLB innings? Cessa faces a tough matchup Tuesday night, in the second game of a three-game series against division-leading Toronto.
Whoever fills Green's slot will also be an inexperienced player or rookie with Bryan Mitchell (40 2/3 MLB innings) as the lead candidate, while the Yanks could turn to 23-year-old Jordan Montgomery (2.13 ERA in 139 1/3 combined innings at Double-A and Triple-A in 2016). Mitchell, 25, is the likely choice since he was on turn for Wednesday's spot and he is already on the 40-man roster. The potential problem with Mitchell is that he has thrown just 21 innings this season (all in the minors) and could still be shaking off rust from a four-month plus absence from the mound.
Finally, the Yankees have thrown some rookies into the bullpen fire of late as well. The Yankees middle relief core the last two seasons has been smattered with rookies as the club searched for players to take the role and run with it. Unfortunately, the shuttle to Scranton ran too often due to inconsistent performances.
The Yankees brought in some "experienced" arms this season to try to bridge the gap, lessening the need for extreme youth from the shuttle, but that route has failed as well. Due to the struggles, the Yankees have turned to young pitchers Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder and Luis Severino to provide high-leverage outs in the midst of a playoff hunt.
Severino, who was expected to be a cornerstone to the Yankees rotation this season, finds himself in a new role for the time being after his demotion for poor performances as a starter. Heller has been up twice now and his power arm is a big reason why. Holder was called up on Sept. 2, a day after rosters could be expanded to 40. The Yankees felt so strongly about Holder, they added him to the 40-man roster despite not having to protect him from the next Rule-5 Draft.
Severino, 22, has been exceptional in the relief role, while Heller, 24, and Holder, 23, each got a taste of high-impact spots in Monday's contest. Holder got just one out, while allowing two walks to load the bases and Heller allowed a two-run single for his only batter. But with right-handers like Kirby Yates and Nick Goody, both with more experience available, Girardi made the right choice in my view. Heller and Holder have immense potential and while Monday's results didn't pan out, they need to get the next opportunity as well.
With 26 games left in the season, the Yankees, once left for dead, are in a position in which they can grab a playoff spot. They have to do it with a collection of rookies and the team has to exhibit patience and wisdom at the same time.
Each at-bat that the club gives to Sanchez, Judge, Austin, Refsnyder, etc., is a tribute to the trust they have in the players and to the situation in front of them. Plus, who else do they turn to? The same goes for Cessa, Heller, Holder and Severino; plenty of high-leverage innings remaining in the season will fall into their arms.
The Yankees might come up short in the playoff pursuit, but the experience of the chase is invaluable to these players, each of whom figures to be a big piece to the future of the ball club.