You have to go back to 1992 to find the last New York Yankees team that finished under .500. They have been a legitimate playoff contender every single year since I started watching baseball regularly in 1996. Even disappointing seasons like 2008, 2013, and 2014 saw them playing meaningful baseball in September. The fact remains, however, that it hasn’t been very fun to be a Yankees fan in recent years. A parade of other team’s stars, well past their prime by the time they arrive in the Bronx, have taken the field for the club each season. Free agency was used as a band-aid to keep the husk of the late 90’s dynasty together until everything finally fell apart in 2013.
That was perhaps the most unwatchable Yankees team in my lifetime, cobbled together from spare parts like Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, and Travis Hafner. They somehow managed to win 85 games, but were much worse than that number suggests. One final spending spree to add Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Masahiro Tanaka that winter resulted in mediocrity, finally forcing the team’s decision makers to rethink their approach to team building. They are still locked into a number of unwieldy contracts to declining veterans, but since the winter of 2014, Brian Cashman and Co. have been making strides towards putting an interesting product on the field once again. One of the most striking things about the start of the 2016 for most Yankees fans is just how much more fun this year feels. Here are four reasons why that is:
1. They have a plan.
The Yankees have taken a consistent approach to acquiring talent since the winter of 2014. First, they have committed to building from within. Homegrown players who succeed in the upper minors have been rewarded with extended opportunities at the big league level. A total of 27 different rookies have suited up for the team between 2015 and 2016. Greg Bird and Luis Severino began the year in Double-A Trenton last season and were among the big league club’s top contributors in the final months. Top prospects like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Jorge Mateo, and James Kaprielian are no longer just inevitable trade chips. Fans can get excited about watching their guys develop, knowing that if they produce, they’ll have the opportunity to stick around for a long time.
The other major part of their strategy has been scouring the trade market for undervalued young talent. Nathan Eovaldi, Didi Gregorius, Dustin Ackley, Aaron Hicks, Aroldis Chapman, and Starlin Castro are all players acquired in the past two years who fall into this category. For one reason or another these players fell out of favor with their original clubs and Cashman was able to swoop in and grab them at a discount. Not only are most of these guys controllable and talented assets, but they were acquired in many cases for pennies on the dollar. For years, every trade the Yankees made was dealing their top prospects for premium proven veterans. Recently, they have become smart about adding big league talent without emptying the farm.
Even if they are not among the most dominant clubs in the American League this season, they feel like they have a definitive direction for the first time in recent memory. Teams like the Astros and Cubs are showing what a little patience from the fan base can accomplish. The commitment to this youth movement is an encouraging sign for those hoping for another dynasty.
2. They’ve loosened up.
The Yankees have always held themselves to a higher professional standard than the rest of the league. Their facial hair ban is the most visible element of this, but it can also be seen in the face most of their players present to the world. Most baseball players give boring interviews, but the Yankees seem to take it to a whole new level. That stance has softened a little since 2014. The trend of mustaches started by Brett Gardner in Mid-April of 2015 was one of those quirky movements not often seen in pinstripes. The team has also been releasing a steady stream of videos on social media, giving fans a chance to see a lighter side of the guys they watch on the field.
One of my favorites since the end of Mark Teixeira’s “Foul Territory” is this recreation of a scene from Step Brothers by Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro.
While no one’s going to claim it’s a comedic masterpiece, it’s undeniably fun. Didi has brought a lot of energy both on and off the field since coming over from Arizona, and is a big part of the new atmosphere around the team.
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) April 10, 2016
3. A new identity.
The departure of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte between the 2013 and 2014 seasons marked the end of an era that stretched back to the first World Series of the dynasty years back in 1996. The Yankees have been in an awkward transition phase since then as they wait out the clock on some of their aging veterans, not having yet developed their new generation of stars.
The arrival of Bird and Severino in 2015 marked the beginning of the newest wave of talent for Yankee fans to get excited about. Aaron Judge and Jorge Mateo also made headlines this spring because of their eye-popping tools in spring training. The old guard still hasn’t quite given way to the new, but this uncertainty brings with a great deal of promise. The organization hasn’t had this much young talent to get excited about in twenty years.
Hands down, my favorite story of the past year has been the redemption of Alex Rodriguez. Al from Miami accumulated 48.6 WARP in his first decade in pinstripes, but most Yankees fans barely tolerated him. He was seen as an arrogant cheater who cared more about himself than the team. He was constantly in the tabloids and put his foot in his mouth whenever possible. However, it seems as if his year long suspension for steroids truly humbled him.
Upon his return, he began acting like a human being for the first time in a Yankee uniform. He’s become one of the most respected leaders on the team, an active and enthusiastic mentor to New York’s youth movement, and an unexpected fan favorite. His production on the field is a nice side benefit, but the human story here is the main draw. It’s a feel-good ending for a guy who had been completely written off by almost everyone in baseball. While he says that he’ll retire after his current contract ends in 2017, I’m personally hoping he sticks around long enough to not only break the all-time home run record, but to do it as the first player-manager in baseball since Pete Rose. At this point, nothing would shock me when it comes to Alex.