CHICAGO — Five days before the July 31 trade deadline, CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported that the Yankees had four “untouchable” prospects. Not only was Brian Cashman unwilling to part with blue-chippers Luis Severino and Aaron Judge, he was apparently holding firm on Greg Bird and Jorge Mateo as well.
So instead of reining in a big-name starter or even a back-of-the-rotation arm to shore up the pitching staff, the Yankees called up 24-year-old Bryan Mitchell to start Saturday and announced they would send 21-year-old Luis Severino to the mound Wednesday.
Whether or not the Yankees’ commitment to their top prospects at the deadline was wise, it sent an undeniable signal: The team with baseball’s fifth-oldest roster plans to get young again.
Manager Joe Girardi considers that process underway.
“I think we have gotten younger this year,” Girardi said Sunday. “We have a 25-year-old, we’ve had some players who have come up and really helped. Severino will be our 14th player this season to make his Major-League debut. So we have gotten younger, and we’ll continue to get younger as these kids continue to mature.”
The first signs of the Yankees’ desire to decrease the grey hair on their roster came in December. With prominent holes at shortstop and the back end of the rotation, Cashman could have bid with the high-rollers during free agency or pursued a big name via trade. Instead, he traded for a pair of then-24-year-olds: Didi Gregorius to man shortstop and Nathan Eovaldi to boost the pitching staff.
While Gregorius became the team’s only regular under-30 position player, Eovaldi added to a rotation that has quietly become quite youthful. Five of the six Yankees to make more than five starts this season are aged 28 or under.
But what the Yankees have largely failed to do recently is produce young talent on the farm. Of the 16 players on the team who have produced at least one win above replacement, per Baseball-Reference, only four — Brett Gardner, Adam Warren, Ivan Nova and Dellin Betances — came up through the organization, and none of that quartet is under 27 years old.
That’s why Mitchell’s start Saturday, his first of the year after one last September, felt important. The righty didn’t pitch particularly well, often falling behind in counts and allowing seven hits and four runs through four innings in an 8-2 loss, but the mere fact of his outing was important. And, for what it’s worth, Mitchell afterward said he felt “a lot more comfortable” than he did in last year’s start.
Of course, Mitchell’s first start of the season means nothing next to the upcoming debut of Severino, arguably the team’s top prospect. The right-handed pitcher is the first Yankees call-up in years the team can expect to make an immediate difference. Girardi said he’s not sure he’s witnessed a more awaited prospect debut as manager and that to come close to Severino’s level of hype you’d have to go back to Joba Chamberlain eight years ago. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild seemed to speak for the entire Yankees fan-base Sunday, saying, “I look forward to seeing him. I’ve heard a lot about him, I got to see him a little in the spring, I’ve watched tape on him, so it’ll be nice to see him here.”
On the position player side, 2015 has seen Yankee debuts by Rob Refsnyder, Mason Williams, Ramon Flores and Slade Heathcott, none of whom currently rates as a top prospect but all of whom have shown flashes at one point or another in the minor leagues. It’s possible none of those four will ever prove a productive MLB regular, but as far as fill-ins go, 24-year-old second-tier prospects offer more potential than scrap-heap journeymen.
Put another way: You’d rather see a team rounding out its roster with youngsters like Refsnyder, Williams, Flores and Heathcott than with older 2014 stopgaps Scott Sizemore, Antoan Richardson, Dean Anna and Zelous Wheeler or 2013 replacements Alberto Gonzalez, Chris Nelson, Brent Lillibridge and Reid Brignac.
Between hanging onto prospects at the deadline and aggressively promoting young minor leaguers to fill holes, the Yankees are displaying an undeniable commitment to their young talent.
And the results haven’t been bad. Betances has continued to dominate the eighth inning, Eovaldi and Gregorius have met expectations, Heathcott and Williams excelled in very brief stints, and relievers Nick Rumbelow, 23, and Branden Pinder, 26, have performed well in cameos as well. “I’m very excited about what our young kids have done,” Girardi said. “The way that you build long runs for clubs is younger players maturing and playing an important role, and we’ve seen a lot of our young players play a pretty important role this year.”
Backup catcher John Ryan Murphy, himself a 24-year-old having a nice year, caught Mitchell on Saturday and said he generally liked what he saw and recalls being impressed by Severino’s “big arm” back in Spring Training. But ask Murphy which youngster strikes him as most likely to last in the Majors a while, and it’s not either of those pitchers nor any of the hitters who have debuted in 2015. He, like many Yankee observers, anxiously awaits the debut of mighty outfield prospect Aaron Judge, which could come as soon as September. “Judge sticks out,” said Murphy, who was first exposed to Judge in Spring Training. “If you ask me somebody who stands out, it’s hard to not say he stands out.”
Judge’s eventual promotion will be the next step in a fast-accelerating Yankees youth movement. It’s not too hard to imagine a 2016 team with five under-30 starting pitchers, a young stud anchoring a relatively youthful bullpen, three starting position players under 25 and a bench stocked with mid-20s potential.
The current season could be just the beginning.
“This year has proven that we’ve had a lot of talent in our minor-league system, a lot of young guys who are going to play in the big leagues,” Murphy said. “I think it’s exciting.”
(Photo: Caylor Arnold-USA Today Sports)