Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 8, 2018

Book Review: An Inside Look At The Yankees Rebuild

With Spring Training in full swing, hopes abound for the fans of all thirty major league teams. To be certain, with owners tightening their wallets preseason hope in the Great Game now comes on a sliding scale. With a team deep into the rebuilding process, at the point at which losing fewer than one hundred games would represent a welcome if unexpected surprise, faith in the unlikely ability of their heroes to do so is the touchstone to which fans cling. At the other end of the performance spectrum, Astros fans are dreaming of a dynasty, and those who bleed Dodger blue can’t wait for another chance at the longest season’s concluding confrontation.

But there is no location where hopes are higher than at the Spring Training complex on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa and, by extension, in the Bronx. That this should be the case, so soon after the New York Yankees shockingly became sellers at the 2016 trading deadline, tearing their roster apart by moves both then and in the following months, is the surprising story chronicled by Bryan Hoch in “The Baby Bombers,” out this week from Diversion Books.

The Yankees’ beat reporter for since 2008, Hoch won his plum assignment just in time to see the Bombers win a championship the George Steinbrenner way. After missing the postseason in ’08, the Yankees spent heavily over the ensuing winter, lavishing rich free agent deals on pitchers CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, as well as slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira. The trio joined Alex Rodriguez and New York’s “Core Four” of homegrown talent – Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada – and the Yankees rolled to a best in baseball 103 win season. The team then powered past the Twins and Angels in the first two rounds of the playoffs before dispatching the Phillies in the World Series, four games to two.

That team did not immediately fade away. New York won 95 or more games and appeared in the playoffs each of the next three seasons, twice advancing to the ALCS. But as the roster got older wins became more hard-earned. While the Yankees continued to finish above .500, starting in 2013 they did so only by a few games for four years straight. In that span New York’s entire postseason resume consisted of nine innings – a loss to Houston in the 2015 Wild Card Game.

Along the way the inevitable transition to a new generation of players was symbolized by the retirements of the Core Four. Posada was the first, in 2011. Rivera and Pettitte followed two years later, and the Captain called it quits in 2014, going out in typical Jeter fashion, with a game-winning walk off hit in his final Yankee Stadium at bat. Gone too was George Steinbrenner, who passed away the summer following his team’s most recent championship.

In his stead Hal Steinbrenner, the youngest of four siblings, eventually assumed control of the franchise. As the years since the 2009 title run lengthened and he saw other teams with far smaller payrolls making deep playoff runs, the second-generation Steinbrenner became convinced that the Yankees needed to pare their bloated salary budget, escape MLB’s onerous luxury tax, and rely more on developing talent through the Yankees’ farm system.

As recounted by Hoch, general manager Brian Cashman began moving in Steinbrenner’s desired direction even as the Core Four departed. Needing a new shortstop after Jeter retired, Cashman engineered a three team trade with Detroit and Arizona that brought then 24-year old Didi Gregorius to the Yankees from the Diamondbacks in December, 2014. Most teams saw Gregorius as a solid defensive player who couldn’t hit left-handed pitching. But New York’s analytics department, which was on its way to becoming the largest in baseball, believed he had untapped potential at the plate, and Cashman liked the fact he was under team control for five more years. While that was an important step, it also accentuated the team’s problem. When Gregorius took the field on Opening Day 2015, New York’s new shortstop was the only player in the starting lineup under the age of 30.

But the Yankees were busy rebuilding what had become a weak farm system, ravaged by the team’s long-time willingness to trade promising minor leaguers for aging stars. As far back as that championship 2009 season, they spent $3 million of international bonus pool money to secure the rights to a 16-year old Dominican catcher named Gary Sanchez. Two years later Yankee scouts were back in the Dominican Republic, and this time they needed just $225,000 to get right-hander Luis Severino under contract. In the fifth round of that same year’s MLB Draft, New York claimed 18-year old Greg Bird, then convinced him to forgo plans to attend the University of Arkansas with a $1.1 million signing bonus. Bird was a catcher in high school, but the Yankees saw him as a first baseman. Then in the 2013 Draft the Yankees had an extra pick at the end of the first round, compensation for losing right fielder Nick Swisher to Cleveland in free agency. With that pick they drafted an outfielder from northern California who looked more like an NFL tight end, 21-year old Aaron Judge.

By the summer of 2016 these players were among several promising prospects who, in Cashman’s opinion, were ready for the big stage in the Bronx. Some had already had cameos at The Stadium. As the July trade deadline arrived the Yankees were in Florida for a series against the Rays. Hoch tells the story of Hal Steinbrenner crossing the bridge from Tampa to St. Petersburg to watch his team put on a desultory performance, losing 6-3 at Tropicana Field. It was the team’s third straight defeat, and left New York just a game above .500. Shortly before midnight, Steinbrenner called Cashman to tell him he was free to deal.

New York had already sent closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs for four players, including top prospect Gleyber Torres. Now Cashman dealt reliever Andrew Miller to Cleveland for another four-player package, this one including highly touted youngsters Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield. Slugger Carlos Beltran went to Texas for three prospects, and starter Ivan Nova was shipped to Pittsburgh for two more. Then in August Steinbrenner swallowed more than $21 million and released Rodriguez. He and Teixeira, who had already announced plans to retire, were the heart of New York’s batting order. But after hitting a combined 64 home runs in 2015, the aging sluggers managed just 24, along with an anemic .203 batting average, in their final year in pinstripes. Shortly after the season ended catcher Brian McCann was traded to Houston. The roster had been swept clean for a new generation.

The 2017 Yankees were young, unproven and untested. The early consensus was that the team would finish a game or two on either side of .500. Instead New York won 91 games and pushed the eventual World Series champions to a seventh ALCS game in Houston. With his excellent access to players and management alike, Hoch fills in the details behind that improbable run.

Since last season ended the Yankees have continued to deal. Third baseman Chase Headley and second baseman Starlin Castro were traded in salary dumps that enabled New York to acquire slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s whopping contract while adhering to Steinbrenner’s edict to remain below the salary cap. Fans are once again giddy, hopeful that this new roster and the surfeit of prospects clamoring to join it mark the beginning of a new and glorious chapter for the Bronx Bombers.

As any fan knows, the Great Game offers no certainties, and hopes and expectations often come a cropper. But at a time when the popular route is to ask fans to tolerate years of losing while a roster is rebuilt, the Yankees appear to have broken the mold.  Whatever the longest season may hold, Bryan Hoch has given fans an in-depth and entertaining look at a franchise that somehow managed to rebuild itself on the fly.


  1. This story is fascinating to me, Mike. Aging stars at the end of their careers and untested youth with a wide open future. How to bridge that gap and remain competitive? If anyone can do it, my money’s on the Yanks.

    • Thanks Allan. The book is a great read. It will be very interesting to see how the Yankees do this year. Last season little was expected of the kids, so they were able to just have fun. This year the familiar demands of baseball in the Bronx are back. Will they wilt under that pressure, or come into full flower?


      Michael Cornelius

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