There’s only one word to describe the New York Yankees in 2017: success.
The organization’s old mantra of championship or bust didn’t come to fruition — but that really wasn’t the plan. Instead, the front office pivoted to a full-scale rebuild when they sold assets at the 2016 trade deadline for the first time since 1989, hoping they could simultaneously dip below the $189 million luxury tax number while also restocking and replenishing their farm system.
But this is New York. These are the Yankees. This was never going to be a typical rebuild.
Instead, the Yankees won 91 games, made it to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and created their new version of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams with Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Didi Gregorius. Before the ball dropped on December 31, 2017, general manager Brian Cashman acquired reigning National League Most Valuable Player Giancarlo Stanton.
That old mantra that was put to the side a year ago is now the rallying cry in the Bronx. Regardless of the Houston Astros trading for Gerrit Cole and the Boston Red Sox signing J.D. Martinez, all eyes are on the Yankees.
Which brings us to the question that was asked frequently when Spring Training began: despite the expectations, will the team be comfortable with rookies starting at both second and third base?
To preface this, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill first-year players.
Gleyber Torres — who, if it wasn’t for service time, would’ve already been named the Opening Day starter at second base — was the second-best prospect in all of baseball a year ago, according to MLB Pipeline. Despite reaching Double-A for the first time in 2017, he was fast-tracked for pinstripes. If it wasn’t for season-ending Tommy John surgery in his non-throwing arm last June, all signs pointed to Torres taking over for Chase Headley at the hot corner last summer.
Then there is Miguel Andujar.
No matter the level, the third baseman has consistently impressed at the dish. That was no different last season, as the 22-year-old hit .312 with an OPS of .836 in 67 games with the Trenton Thunder and followed that up with a 58-game stint in Triple-A where he slashed .317/.364/.502. When Andujar was promoted for one game in late June, he made Yankee history when he was the first rookie to have three hits and at least three RBI in his debut. Despite the presence of Torres, one NL executive went on to say, “[Andujar is] the most mature prospect in the system. I truly believe he’s the most ready player they have in the system.”
On one hand, there wouldn’t be much pressure on either Torres or Andujar, as they’d be positioned at the bottom of a stacked lineup card. But when growing pains are expected to happen, the case could be made for the Yankees to acquire a stop-gap veteran to ease their transitions.
That seemed to be the plan — but at Cashman’s price.
Veterans Danny Espinosa and Jace Peterson were signed to minor league deals to provide some Spring Training competition. Todd Frazier, a fan-favorite from last season, was in discussions with the organization all winter; but when the two sides couldn’t agree on years (the Yankees offered only one, Frazier wanted at least two), the former Little League World Series winner took his talents across town.
As of Monday afternoon, ESPN’s Buster Olney said the Yankees were still in on Mike Moustakas — or as he put it, “circling him like a shark in the water” — due to the weak free agent market. But because of Scott Boras’ presence and Moustakas coming off a career year, it was hard to see the lifetime Kansas City Royal settling for a one-year, prove-it-or-move-it deal.
Despite signings and talks, Andujar remained the odds-on favorite.
That is, until Tuesday evening, when Cashman traded for his latest diamond in the rough.
In a three-team deal with the Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks, the Yankees acquired utility man Brandon Drury. The front office sent second base prospect Nick Solak down south, while pitching prospect Taylor Widener and Rays outfielder Steven Souza Jr. left for the desert.
Drury, 25, fits in the mold of Gregorius and Aaron Hicks and Nathan Eovaldi: young, enigmatic players that didn’t play to their potential in their former homes. He’s a lifetime .271 hitter who has shown extra-base hit and home run power while playing with grit and passion in his three big league seasons. More importantly, he’s cost-controlled, has options and is making the league-minimum — all things the organization loves.
On Wednesday morning, the same NL executive told me this was a positive for Andujar. “I think the Yankees open the season with Drury at second and Andujar at third,” he stated. “He’s more than ready for the big leagues. He’s gotten better at every single level he’s played at. Word is Boone loves him, too.”
But that all changed just hours later when Cashman was a guest on ESPN Radio’s The Michael Kay Show. During his time on air, he stated that Drury — who was largely used as a super-utility player in Arizona but spent most of his time at second base — is viewed by his new team as an everyday third baseman. While Cashman said Andujar will be his main competition, Drury has “a leg up” due to his experience both in the regular season and playoffs.
When Cashman has a passion project, the leash is long (see Hicks, Aaron). Based on comments to the media on Wednesday, it seems as if Drury fits the mold. All signs point to the new Yankee as the Opening Day third baseman, regardless of what happens in Tampa over these next six weeks.
Where does that leave Andujar?
The youngster has the right mindset. He told NorthJersey.com‘s Pete Caldera, “We’ve got to welcome him here in the clubhouse. And I’ve got to keep working hard, that’s my focus. The addition of another player, another teammate, doesn’t change my plans. The bottom line is I have to do my job, I have to stay focused.’’
Saying — and even meaning — the right things notwithstanding, it isn’t farfetched to think his future in pinstripes is now more than ever in question.
Despite a rotation featuring Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia and Jordan Montgomery, the Yankees wouldn’t mind an upgrade, as evidenced by their months-long flirtation with Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates. If Andujar is now on the trading block, he could become a centerpiece for someone like Chris Archer or one of the Atlanta Braves’ young hurlers.
One would think Cashman would retain Andujar. After all, if he continues his torrid pace at the plate while improving on defense, he could slide into the hot corner while Drury returns to a super-utility role. Plus, injuries do happen — and when there are World Series expectations, a mere replacement-level player can’t be the next man up.
It’s an interesting dilemma: Andujar is too talented to stay in the minors much longer, and now it appears his path to the Majors has been blocked.
Something has to give.
Dan Federico is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.