Rebuild. Transition. Whatever we call it, the Yankees are operating the organization differently than they have in recent memory. What remains to be seen is whether the Yankees will stay the course regardless of whether they are winning or losing. I suggest it is imperative they do.
How the Yankees handled 2016 and the offseason
The Yankees felt comfortable entering 2016 as a few veterans experienced comeback efforts in 2015. However, a slow start and poor production through the middle of the season for some of those same players, pushed the Yankees into a direction unseen in decades.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman convinced ownership that the wealthiest organization in baseball was in a better position to sell assets at the trade deadline instead of buying for a potential postseason run. Carlos Beltran, Aroldis Chapman, and Andrew Miller were all sent to other clubs. In came Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Gleyber Torres, and a host of others.
After the trades, the Yankees brought up a few of their top prospects. First was Gary Sanchez, then Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. Alex Rodriguez was forced out the door (or he retired, if you prefer that way of thinking), Mark Teixeira decided to hang up his cleats, and Brian McCann was relegated to backup catcher and designated hitter duties.
The Yankees witnessed explosive production (Sanchez), mildly disappointing readiness (Judge), and resiliency (Austin). Amid it all, the direction was evident. Young players were going to get a shot, and that played a part in the Yankees' measured moves in the offseason.
The Yankees re-signed Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract to be the club's closer, understanding that his prime seasons are still in front of him and his star power would help put fans in seats. The Yankees also signed two veteran sluggers -- Matt Holliday and Chris Carter. Holliday is a short-term solution at designated hitter, while Carter is an insurance policy at first base for another youngster, Greg Bird, who is coming back a lost season due to shoulder surgery.
The Yankees set up the roster with the mindset that young players would be provided first crack in right field, first base, and on the mound (two rotation spots, as well as bullpen roles).
How will the Yankees handle 2017?
Despite the youthful influx on the diamond, the Yankees intend to compete with their notably "stronger on paper" American League East foes. I'll contend that wherever the Yankees find themselves in the standings, they must remain on the path they chose last July.
If they get off to another poor start and the young players are part of the problem, the instinct to shift gears and insert veterans into roles (think Carter replacing Bird) has to be averted. Similarly, if the Yankees surprise and begin to thrive, Cashman and company need to measure the chance it lasts through September with the notion the club could hit a wall.
A deadline rental deal is not something the Yankees should jump at as they might have in the past. My stance is that they need to approach the season from the vantage point that it is about evaluation of the young players and not about trying to reach a one-game playoff.
Further, if a young player excels in Triple-A and thrusts himself into consideration for the major league roster, an underperforming veteran should not be allowed to block him. Moreover, if a veteran is sidelined by injuries, or is suffering through performance issues, the Yankees should look no further than within the system for a replacement.
The Yankees will drop just under $76 million from the payroll with the contracts of six players coming to an end this season -- Carter, Holliday Tyler Clippard, Michael Pineda, Alex Rodriguez, and CC Sabathia. If they are well out of the race as the trade deadline approaches, they should not hesitate to shed more payroll. Similarly, if such an opportunity arises, the Yankees might be wise to trade assets in the system to acquire young, controllable players who fit the future mold.
Finally, Yankees ownership will need to determine whether they will renew GM Brian Cashman's contract. In my view, the Yankees need a stabilizing force that is fully invested in the current methodology. Cashman's fingerprints are all over much of the organization's long-term plan, making him the man to see the process through to the end result.
The Yankees have come a long way by unloading older, declining players with high salaries and revamping a farm system now ripe with talent close to knocking on the big league door. Straying from the course regardless of the team's place in the standings would be a mistake -- one the organization can ill afford to make at this stage.