Yankees manager Joe Girardi begins his 10th season as the club's skipper with arguably his toughest test ahead of him. Until the 2016 trade deadline passed, Girardi consistently managed a roster filled with star-studded, high-salaried, yet older players. When the dust settled, Girardi was in the midst of a full-blown transition, with a roster teeming with young talent. In the final year of his contract, can Girardi get the most out of the youngest team the Yankees have fielded since the 1990s, and thus earn another contract?
How did Girardi fare in 2016?
Coming off a Wild Card appearance in 2015, the Yankees returned a bulk of the same roster for 2016 with renewed expectations. Unfortunately, not all the veterans were able to replicate their inspired play from 2015. The Yankees got off to a 9-17 start and found themselves at the .500 mark as they reached the trade deadline.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was given approval to hold a firesale of their most coveted players, and in the process vaulted the organization's farm system into one of the top groups in baseball. The other consequence was the ability to bring up some players from Triple-A to give them a chance to earn some experience as the team demonstrated it was finally ready to buy in to a transition.
Girardi stated from the moment the trades went down, that the club was not going to wave the white towel, but rather continue to compete. To Girardi's credit, the Yankees came to the ballpark to win. Within 37 games, they moved themselves into talk for a wild card spot, and even better, got as close as three games back of the Boston Red Sox for the division lead on Sept. 10.
The Yankees faded quickly, though, finishing 84-76. However, they once again finished ahead of pythagorean estimates based on run differential, which tends to get attributed to the work of the manager.
How will Girardi fare in 2017?
Girardi deserves some credit for the 2016 results, and now it is time to see if he can handle a roster built conversely to what he is used to -- one centered on younger players with a smattering of veterans for an entire season. In my opinion, Girardi's chance to return as Yankees manager depends on it.
It seems to me that this season is one in which the Yankees would be wise to evaluate their top young players -- Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino among them -- in the major league setting as much as possible. As the season wears on, it is conceivable that the club could also call up more talent from the Triple-A club, including one of the team's top prospects, Clint Frazier.
Girardi will observe and rely on more young players than he has ever had to, while trying to remain competitive in the strong American League East. Girardi's role this season will be defined by his ability to provide the young players as much rope as required to acclimate and succeed, as well as meshing them with the veterans whose production will be important to the club's efforts. Girardi will need to be a teacher as much as the manager.
Girardi has long been reliant on his veteran players in deference to younger options, and my concern with Girardi revolves around this habit. In years past, it was difficult to watch Girardi stick with older and declining players (think Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew), while he had younger options to turn to which could have allowed for early development.
Despite the club's mantra to try to win a world championship, this season should be about getting as many young players as many reps as possible. In my view, the development of youth depends on significant playing time and will go a long way toward future success when the organization is ready to add young and experienced star power from the free agent market in the next couple of offseasons. Girardi's roster deployment in 2017 will be key to the future of the club.
This season will be a test for Girardi, potentially the most difficult of his Yankees tenure. The front office seems determined to stay on the current path, which will require some change in Girardi's thought process. Delivering a postseason berth is not necessarily important to Girardi's chances to remain at the helm of the club. Rather, Girardi must prove he is the man to help develop players while embracing the ups and downs inherent in watching them grow as MLB players.