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Inside the demise of a young Yankees core around Aaron Judge

And then there were two.

If you think of this current Yankees period as the Aaron Judge Era — circa 2017-present — then his Rookie of the Year season felt like the start of a dynamic young offensive core forming to bring championship(s).

Judge won the award in 2017. Gary Sanchez had nearly won it the year before via a two-month cameo. Greg Bird, after his own revelatory cameo in 2015, missed the 2016 season following shoulder surgery, then battled an ankle injury during most of the 2017 campaign, but ended it as the player (not Judge) that Astros manager A.J. Hinch decided he would not let beat him in the ALCS.

Miguel Andujar and Jackson (then Clint) Frazier made their debuts in 2017, and Gleyber Torres almost certainly would have as well had he not needed Tommy John surgery in June after tearing an elbow ligament on a head-first slide while playing at Triple-A.

The Yankees had dealt Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller for, most notably, Frazier and Torres at the 2016 trade deadline. It was the only midseason sell-off in the history of Steinbrenner ownership and signaled a reset. But the Yankees shockingly went to the ALCS in 2017 after Bird’s breakout in 2015, Sanchez’s in 2016 and Judge’s in 2017. Had Shohei Ohtani not come over from Japan, Andujar would have won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2018, when Torres made his debut and finished third in the voting behind Ohtani and Andujar.

For the second straight year, the Yankees lost to the eventual champion (this time the Red Sox) in the playoffs. And what couldn’t be known then was the dynamic offensive core was never to be.

New York Yankees' Greg Bird reacts after hitting a home run against the Kansas City Royals in the eighth inning during the second baseball game of a doubleheader Saturday, July 28, 2018, at Yankee Stadium in New York
After a promising 46-game debut in 2015, Greg Bird never hit better than .199 in any of three subsequent seasons.

Bird could never stay healthy or recapture his early glow. He was a combination, in that way, of Kevin Maas (early success that went unmatched later) and Nick Johnson (inability to avoid injury). Bird was designated for assignment after the 2019 season and has logged zero major league at-bats since. He tried to make it back with the Rangers, Phillies, Rockies and Blue Jays before hooking on with the Yankees again on a minor league deal in April. Released on July 13 after hitting .218 with six homers in 59 Triple-A games, he has not played affiliated ball afterward. He turns 30 in November.

His devolution had a specific impact on the Yankees. He was the one lefty in the hoped-for six-man core, and as he faded from their plans, the Yankees became way too right-handed.

Frazier was a Lego set of beautiful pieces that did not fit together. In a pair of shorts at a tryout camp, Frazier could wow with five tools — that is how you get to be the fifth overall pick in 2013. But he couldn’t assemble those tools in real time in games. He dealt with concussion issues, and admitted after parting with the Yankees that he was coping with mental health matters as well.

The Yankees released him after last season. The Cubs signed him for $1.5 million, hoping they could tap into his talents outside of New York. But he needed an appendectomy early in the season, never played well for the Cubs, was designated for assignment in June and accepted a minor league assignment. But at Triple-A, he hit just .190 with six homers in 66 games, managing one homer and a .139 average in his final 36 games. Frazier turned 28 earlier this month.

Still, this group had a chance. With all the historic implications of the Astros’ sign-stealing in 2017, if Bird were better at taking secondary leads or a drop faster after ankle surgery (he was thrown out at the plate in both Games 1 and 7) or if Sanchez hit and/or fielded better, the Yankees might have won the 2017 ALCS and gone to the World Series.

Instead, the 2017 regular season and postseason intensified the questions about Sanchez’s defense, particularly his inability to block pitches well. It only got worse in 2018. But the more the Yankees (and Sanchez) concentrated on improving his defense, the more his offense suffered. The game modernized and put an even greater mental burden on catchers with varied signs for each pitcher and more individualized attack plans than ever based on the pitcher-hitter confrontation.

Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees hits a two run homer during the first inning in a baseball game at Yankee Stadium on September 27, 2016.
The more Gary Sanchez worked to improve his defense behind the plate, the more his hitting suffered.
Paul J. Bereswill

Sanchez’s hangdog body language also made him an easy target for disillusioned fans. But there was no doubt within the Yankees universe that Sanchez was trying and did greatly improve in all facets of his defense. Still, no matter how much work he did, he was never going to be an overall strong defensive catcher, and he could lose confidence with failure. His calling card would always have to be his bat.

When Sanchez first arrived, he was perceived to be a terrific hitter with power. But the sell-out for power divorced Sanchez from elite hitting skills. From 2018-21, he launched 85 homers — tied with Anthony Rizzo for the 46th-most in the majors. But he hit .201 (third-worst of anyone with at least 1,000 plate appearances) and struck out 28.1 percent of the time (26th-worst).

The Yankees traded him before this season with Gio Urshela to the Twins for Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt.

Like Judge, Sanchez will be a free agent after this season. But the comparisons stop there. Sanchez entered the final week of the season hitting .210 with 15 homers. His defensive metrics are fine, but his defensive reputation is still iffy. He turns 30 in December. Does any team sign him still seeing Sanchez as a No. 1 catcher?

In his absence, it is hard to ignore that the Yankees’ overall run prevention is much better this season — and that has to do with improvements in a variety of areas. But none is more important than catcher, where Jose Trevino, in particular, along with glove-first Kyle Higashioka have piloted the Yankees pitching staff so well. Rortvedt was supposed to be central to that, but his oblique injury in the spring led to the trade for Trevino while Rortvedt never played for the 2022 Yankees.

The trade with the Twins also had a trickle-down effect on Andujar and Torres.

Andujar always was going to have difficulty holding on defensively at third base, but the end came quicker than anticipated. He tore his labrum diving into a base early in the 2019 season, needed surgery and Urshela replaced him at a high level on both sides of the ball. Andujar never got his job back.

Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Miguel Andujar (26) hits an RBI double against the Cincinnati Reds during the first inning at PNC Park.
Let go by the Yankees last week, Miguel Andujar has shown in his first few games in Pittsburgh that he might thrive away from New York.

Andujar transitioned to the outfield, and worked hard enough to make himself capable. But every time he came to the majors, he seemed to press at the plate to try to prove he was still the impact hitter of 2018. From 2020-22, Andujar received just 324 sporadic plate appearances for the Yankees and hit .244 with a .618 OPS.

The Yankees for years had held tight to Andujar and Frazier in hopes of rebuilding their trade values. There was a joke around the team that when that duo was well-regarded (and even when they had faded some) that they were going to be key pieces in trades for difference-makers. In the end, as with Frazier, the Yankees just designated Andujar for assignment on Sept. 22, believing there were better ways to use his 40-man roster spot.

The Pirates claimed Andujar, and in his first three games with Pittsburgh, Andujar went 4-for-11 with two doubles and five RBIs. As opposed to Bird or Frazier, there seems to be a pathway — outside of New York — for Andujar (who turns 28 in March) to still prove he can be, say, a 15-homer, 35-double complementary hitter in a lineup.

For Torres, the acquisition of Kiner-Falefa was finally an acknowledgment by the Yankees that Torres was not a shortstop. Kiner-Falefa is better than Torres at the position. The defensive metrics like Kiner-Falefa and, in the case of defensive runs saved, love him. I’m not sure the eye test provides the same grades. Kiner-Falefa, every once in a while, has bouts with edgy hands, which has me wondering what that means for playing behind a groundball-inducing pitching staff amid the pressure of the playoffs.

Still, the move upgraded the Yankees overall because it moved Torres to second base, where he is much more confident and better. Also, his offense has improved from when he was the primary shortstop in 2020-21. Overall, however, his work at the plate has been a roller coaster of good and bad. When Torres commits to using the whole field — especially in RBI situations — his bat is much more effective.

New York Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres #25, singles in a run in the 6th inning.
Gleyber Torres has seen an uptick in his play on defense and at the plate since he was shifted to second base, but the Yankees’ growing depth of young infielders may make him expendable in the offseason.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

But the Yankees are going to have both short- and long-term questions about what to do with Torres. First, let’s note that he was in play at the trade deadline, particularly in regards to conversations with the Marlins about starter Pablo Lopez. So he could be in play again this offseason. His 4.0 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference) ranks second on the Yankees behind Judge. He is not a free agent until after the 2024 season, and he doesn’t turn 26 until December.

Do the Yankees believe that with Kiner-Falefa, Oswaldo Cabrera, DJ LeMahieu, Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe, they have enough middle infield/second base coverage to trade Torres?

And what if LeMahieu is able to come back in full from his toe injury (he is due to return Friday)? How will Aaron Boone align in the playoffs? Torres is having his best month in September. Cabrera has shown poise and impact, but would he lose the starting left field job and be in play for second base if Andrew Benintendi came back from his hamate injury? LeMahieu could move to third, but while Josh Donaldson’s offense has been inconsistent and strikeout-laden, his defense has been central to the club’s improvement on that side of the ball (though LeMahieu is very good there, too). It also should not be ignored that LeMahieu is in Boone’s circle of trust, in part, because his unflappable nature serves him well against the best pitchers in the biggest spots (he has hit .306 with three homers in 16 playoff games with the Yankees).

What the Yankees do with Torres from here to the finish line of the season — and then this offseason — is among the most engrossing storylines for the club. And, of course, the biggest long-term matter involves Judge. If Judge were to leave in free agency and Torres were dealt, there would not even be two players left from what was supposed to be the positional core that the Yankees thought would bring them championship(s).

And now on to 3Up:

1. I noticed when looking where Torres stands among second basemen that while his versatility has been all but eliminated (he has started one game at shortstop this year), many of the other best second basemen are assisting their teams by being maneuverable.

Cleveland’s Andres Gimenez (6.9 WAR going into Thursday night) has started 14 games at shortstop. St. Louis’ Tommy Edman (6.0 WAR) actually had started more games at short (72) than at second (68), which will make his very strong case for a Gold Glove at second base intriguing. Texas’ Marcus Semien (5.7 WAR) has started 13 games at shortstop. Jeff McNeil (5.1 WAR) had started 41 games in the corner outfield for the Mets, including 33 in left.

Tommy Edman #19 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws to second base for an out against the Cincinnati Reds in the eighth inning in game one of a double header at Busch Stadium on September 17, 2022 in St Louis, Missouri.
Like many of the game’s best second basemen, the Cardinals’ Tommy Edman has proven to be a valuable asset at multiple positions.
Getty Images

One reason Edman can move to short is the Cardinals have wanted to get rookie Swiss Army knife Brendan Donovan (3.8 WAR) on the field at second, where he had 28 starts to go along with 20 at third, 16 each in left and right and six each at first and short. Minnesota’s Luis Arraez (3.8 WAR) has started 31 games at second, 58 at first and four at third.

LeMahieu (3.8 WAR) has 33 starts at second, 42 at third and 29 at first. San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth (3.8 WAR) has started 119 times at second, four at short and two at first.

All of those players were among the top 56 in position-player WAR in the majors.

Considering how the game is played now — with versatility and load management so highly valued — there really should be a Ben Zobrist Award for the player who excels at multiple positions. Then we could debate whether Shohei Ohtani would be eligible as both a pitcher and designated hitter.

2. From the category of “it likely only interests me”: Andujar’s move to Pittsburgh makes him the eighth player to have signed his first professional contract with the Yankees and to have played for the 2022 Pirates.

That includes three players acquired for Jameson Taillon: Roansy Contreras, Canaan Smith-Njigba and Miguel Yajure. It also includes both players obtained for Clay Holmes: Diego Castillo and Hoy Park. Manny Bañuelos and Ben Gamel are the others.

Pittsburgh apparently is where the teeter-totter off the back end of the Yankees’ 40-man roster goes to play.

3. Another from the “probably only I care” files: Donaldson and Anthony Rizzo each started the season with 251 homers.

Rizzo has a career-high-tying 32 homers. Donaldson has 15 homers, by far the fewest he has had in any season in which he has played at least 100 games. Donaldson had homered in 4.9 percent of his plate appearances before this year. It was 2.9 percent in 2022. Rizzo’s 6.1 percent homer rate is by far the best of his career.

New York Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo #48 reacts as he rounds the bases on his two-run home run during the 7th inning.
Anthony Rizzo has hit homers for the Yankees this season at a career-best rate.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Po

The two began 2021 tied for 240th all-time in homers along with Tony Armas, Tony Clark (the head of the Players Association), Cy Williams, Robin Yount and Manny Machado. Donaldson is now at 214th place with 266, tied with Vic Wertz. George Hendricks and Mike Napoli, tied at 267, were next. Rizzo is alone in 183rd place with 283 homers. Next up at 284 are Will Clark, Eric Karros and Ryan Zimmerman, though it should be noted Machado had 31 homers this year and was sitting at 282 for his career.

Among those who have played in the majors this year (that includes the currently not-in-the-majors Robinson Cano and Justin Upton), Rizzo ranks 13th and Donaldson 17th in career homers. And look who broke into the active top 20 — that would be Judge, whose 61st homer of the year gave him 219 for his career.

That ties Judge for 309th all-time with Jim Bottomley, Al Oliver and Joe Pepitone. One ahead of him is Tony Oliva and the active George Springer. Judge began the season with 158 career homers. That is currently 533rd place, which is now occupied by Chris Carter, Buster Posey and, after his two-run homer Wednesday, Eduardo Escobar.

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