Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Books: Yankees Bound For Glory With "The Baby Bombers"

The Baby Bombers: The Inside Story of the Next Yankees Dynasty

By Bryan Hoch

Diversion Books

The New York Yankees dynasty in the 1990s, which saw them win four World Series championships, revolved around homegrown players Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera.

The last championship for The Core Four, as they came to be known, came in 2009, and the feeling of that era lasted until Jeter retired at the end of the 2014 season.

In The Baby Bombers, Bryan Hoch, who has covered the Yankees as a beat writer since 2007, chronicles how the team rebuilt over the past few years, and came within one win of reaching the World Series last season.

With Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, and Greg Bird, the Yankees have a homegrown core of talent again.

This offseason saw them add National League Most Valuable Player Giancarlo Stanton to their loaded lineup, giving the Yankees the potential to have their greatest team ever. 

The Yankees also have a new manager in Aaron Boone, who hit the game winning-homer in the 2003 American League Championship Series. He replaces Joe Girardi, who led the team for the last 10 years, which included the 2009 championship. Girardi's departure in the days after they lost the American League Championship series to Houston is examined here.

The 1998 team, which was anchored by Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Pettitte, along with another homegrown talent in Bernie Williams, won 114 games in the regular season, and 20 years later, this team could challenge that mark.

Hoch starts at the end of the 2014 season, when Jeter retired, and he wrote of that, "The Yankees faced an identity crisis as they headed into the 2014-15 offseason. For two decades, they had been synonymous with Jeter, a marriage that began in a more innocent time when Jeter could still comfortable ride on a New York City subway without being noticed. Their impressive string of winning seasons dating to 1993 remained intact, and (Brett) Gardner, (David) Robertson, (CC) Sabathia, and (Mark) Teixeira were still around to represent the last World Series-winning club. Alex Rodriguez was also set to return to the lineup after serving a historic 162-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use.

"The Steinbrenner family had authorized the expenditure of nearly a half-billion dollars on star power, pursuing right fielder Carlos Beltran, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, catcher Brian McCann, and right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. Those fresh faces had the potential to add sizzle and help the turnstiles click, but who were the Yankees without Derek Jeter? They were about to figure that out.

"'Who's going to become the next great Yankee that people really latch onto?' Girardi said then. 'I'm curious to see how it develops.'

In addition to signing those free agents heading into 2015, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman set about getting shortstop Didi Gregorius out of Arizona. The key was getting the Tigers involved, but they wanted young right-handed pitcher Shane Greene.

Hoch writes of those dealings, "Though the Yankees were reluctant to part with Greene, cognizant of the inflated value of starting pitching in the open market, Cashman decided that Gregorius was worth the gamble. During his days as the team's assistant farm director, Cashman had absorbed the advice of front office mentors like Gene Michael, Bill Livesey, and Brian Sabean, all of whom stressed that championship teams needed to have a 'strong spine' up the middle. That phrase kept running through Cashman's mind while he pursued the Gregorius deal.

"'Everything needs to be working - from the catcher to the middle of the infield and center field,' Cashman said. 'With Jeter, toward the back end of his career, he wasn't the same player. No one is. So now we had a void at shortstop to fill. I didn't have a shortstop, bottom line. Unfortunately, it wasn't going to come from within; we didn't have somebody waiting in the wings ready to go. It's not like we hadn't tried - we failed in that category, so now we were forced to go to the market and trade for somebody if we could.'

"The Tigers accepted Greene from the Yankees, then flipped left-handed pitcher Robbie Ray and infielder Domingo Lebya to Arizona, a sequence that delivered Gregorius to New York. (Arizona General Manager Dave) Stewart said at the time that Gregorius had been one of the D-backs' most requested trade chips, but Arizona was comfortable drawing from their middle infield depth in exchange for Ray, who would struggle in his first two seasons in the desert before going 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA as a National League All-Star in 2017.

"Baseball executives say that trades cane only be properly evaluated in years, not days or months, and Greene's introduction to Detroit served as a perfect example of that axiom. Greene won his first three starts in a Tigers uniform, compiling a 0.39 ERA which invited suggests that the Yankees might have made a costly mistake. When hitters adjusted, Greene tumbled hard. He finished 2015 with a 4-8 record and 6.88 ERA, and Detroit moved him to  the bullpen for the following season. He remained there in 2017, finishing 71 games with a solid 2.66 ERA and nine saves for the last place Tigers.

"'The tough decision-making in that process was that we were pitching deficient, especially starting pitching,' Cashman said. 'It was going to cost us a guy we did like in Shane Greene, who was a young, under-control starter. You're robbing Peter to pay Paul, but it speaks to how important the shortstop position is. We held our breath and made the decision to do so.'"

Gregorius made the transition to New York seamlessly and his energetic personality made him an instant fan favorite, as well as being a solid performer in his first few seasons here.

As much as Judge, Sanchez, Bird, and new addition Stanton will be regarded as the sluggers in the Yankee lineup, Gregorius had 25 home runs and 87 RBI last season.

The Yankees accelerated their rebuild in the middle of the 2016 season, as Cashman traded aging slugger Carlos Beltran, free agent-to-be closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs for prospects including Gleyber Torres, and another solid reliever Andrew Miller to the Indians for four top prospects including Clint Frazier.

In early August 2016, first baseman Mark Teixeira announced that he would retire at the end of that season, and there was another player with a year left on his massive contract that was set to depart too, Alex Rodriguez.

Hoch writes of the end of Rodriguez, "On the evening of August 12, a crowd of 46,459 witnessed the end of Rodriguez's eventful career, concluding a bizarre week in which he and the organization had jointly announced that the fourteen-time All-Star would be released from his contract following that game. As part of the agreement, Rodriguez would stay on to serve as a special advisor and instructor the Yankees through the final day of 2017.

"Threatening skies had cleared for Jeter's farewell on the captain's final day at the Stadium in 2014, but they did the opposite for Rodriguez. Loud thunder-cracks and a torrential downpour seemingly appeared out of nowhere to interrupt an on-field ceremony, forcing all involved to scurry into the dugout for cover. Rodriguez quipped that it had been a 'biblical' storm, but it passed quickly. In what was the 2,784th game of Rodriguez's career and his 1.509th as a Yankee, he laced a run-scoring double off Chris Archer in the first of four at-bats before giddily returning to his locker, retrieving a glove to play third base for one batter in the ninth inning...

"Rodriguez's departure, followed by Teixeira's upcoming retirement, would leave two players in uniform from the last group of Yankees to claim as much as a single postseason victory. Though Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia were the only men remaining from that 2012 roster, the next generation of winners was about to enter the building."

2012 was the last time the Yankees played in a playoff series before this past season, as they made the American League Championship Series and got swept by Detroit. They missed the playoffs in 2013 and 2014, made the Wild Card game in 2015 and lost to Houston, and missed the playoffs in 2016 despite a spirited run at the end with young players like Sanchez, Judge, and Tyler Austin up for the final two months.

Cashman had to sell Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner on the rebuild, and Hal is a different kind of boss than his father, George, who wanted to win every year at all costs.

Hoch writes of how the rebuild in 2016 had to be conducted differently than in the past, "Though the Yankees often seemed to address their on-field issues by waving a checkbook rather than developing the answers in-house, Brian Cashman continually stressed the importance of making the roster younger and more flexible. Cashman said that the talent-rich dynasty of the mid-to-late 1990s had been created partially as a result of walking through fire with losing, frustrating teams in the late 1980s.

"'Who knew we were actually sitting on a dynasty waiting to happen? None of us,' Cashman said. 'All of that talent at the time, it grew into something special. But while that was going on, we were taking hits at the major league level and not making the playoffs on a consistent basis, getting dirt kicked in our face by the 'Bash Brothers' and the Oakland A's dynasty. So I don't forget those times. From adversity and difficult times, you can grow some great things.'

"The Yankees had not endured a losing season since their 76-win 1992 campaign, and as Cashman considered his roster near the midpoint of the 2016 season, he understood that they couldn't return to the malaise of an era in which pitcher Melido Perez and shortstop Andy Stankiewicz were among the team's most valuable players. Still, Cashman sensed that many in an underwhelmed fan base seemed to be growing open to the idea of embracing a new direction, urging the club to nudge out a stable of aging veterans who were producing diminishing returns...

"Revenue sharing had been a major factor in the strategy shift, as teams found it more cost-effective to turn to homegrown talent in hopes of reaching the World Series, as the Royals did in 2014 and 2015. The Cubs, the Dodgers,and the Red Sox similarly all built rosters around young cores, supplementing with established veterans rather than relying solely upon them. That was the vision that Cashman held for the future, planting the seeds of a sustainable dynasty by maxing out efforts in the domestic and international player pools.

"He had an enthusiastic supporter in managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, who repeatedly stated his belief that clubs should not have to shoulder payrolls in excess of $200 million to have a chance of winning a championship. The 2009 Yankees are the last World-Series winning club to have spent so lavishly for a title; Kansas City won their 2015 championship with a payroll of $112.9 million, which ranked seventeenth among the thirty big league clubs that year.

"To build a winner in that fashion, however, New York would need to improve its ability to discover, obtain, and develop elite talent - something they had lagged behind their competition in doing. Cashman said that incremental adjustments were made along the way, a combination of hiring more experienced scouts, improving the team's existing personnel. and tweaking the process that the team used. The Yankees also invested heavily in advanced analytics, which they believed would help those in command make safer bets on players."

2017 was the year of Aaron Judge, who launched 52 home runs and had 114 RBI in his first full year in pinstripes. He got off to a fast start, captivating the fans, and by May, the team created the "Judge's Chambers" in right field, with selected fans decked out in judges' wigs and robes.

Hoch writes of how the Yankees discovered the 6'7" dynamo, "As it turned out, the Yanks' biggest find - literally - came in the person of Aaron James Judge, though landing the future unanimous American League Rookie of the Year and runner-up for AL MVP had taken a fair amount of luck. They first spotted Judge in tiny Linden, California, population 1,784, a pinprick of a community about 100 miles northeast of San Francisco that does not have a single stoplight. Linden had made its mark as the self-anointed 'Cherry Capital of the World' before a barrage of big league homers in 2017 changed that slogan to 'The Home of Aaron Judge.'

"The Athletics had been the first organization to take a swing at Judge, calling his name as a high school player in the thirty-first round of the 2010 draft, but Judge had not been convinced that he was ready for the commitment of playing professionally. Though Judge didn't know it at the time, the Yankees had agreed with that assessment. Kendall Carter, then a national cross-checker for the organization, saw some of Judge's games at Linden High and reported that he'd seen an athletic specimen who still needed to grow into his body and improve his coordination.

"Carter recommended that the Yankees keep tabs on Judge, telling (David) Oppenheimer that the prospect might be something special three years down the line. Judge had played first base and pitched in high school, but when he arrived on campus at Fresno State University, that would have to change. Then the nation's leading college home run hitter, Jordan Ribera was manning first base for the Bulldogs, so Judge's choices were the outfield or the bench. Judge had been a three-sport athlete in high school, playing basebal, football, and basketball. Head baseball coach Mike Batesole told Judge that if he could run routes to catch footballs, there was no reason he couldn't do the same with a baseball.

"It didn't take long for Batesole to recognize that Fresno State had a special talent in Judge, who was named a Louisville Slugger All-American and the Western Athletic Conference's Freshman of the Year. Each fall, Batesole organizes a touch football league to help his baseball players maintain their conditioning, with the gridiron running from the right field foul pole across the outfield grass. Then weighing about 230 pounds, Judge dominated from the first snap of his freshman year...

"Fresno State eventually had to keep Judge out of the flag football games, as Batesole feared that one of his players might injure a knee trying to keep up with him. Though he had the physcial attributes to patrol the outfield with grace, questions remained about how a player with Judge's build would adjust to professional pitching."

Judge had his growing pains when he first came up, as he hit just .179 in the final two months of the 2016 season, before putting it together last last year.

This book is a tremendous resource for Yankees fans that want to trace the origins of how they changed their philosophy to not just stay in the playoff chase every year, but be truly great.

It all has been building to this season, and a group that could take its place among some of the the greatest Yankees teams ever.

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