As Derek Jeter exited the field in Fenway Park following the final at bat of his career, I, along with scores of other baseball fans, felt pangs of sadness. It seemed obvious why we felt this way—the legend we had the pleasure of watching for 20 years was finally ending his career. But there was something else, deep down, that was tugging at me. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but another thought was making Jeter’s retirement even more painful. It took over a season, but I finally recognized what it was during the Yankees’ Wild Card Game loss in October.
As Yankees fans shook their heads at the laboring Masahiro Tanaka, booed Brett Gardner off the field, felt utter disappointment as Dellin Betances surrendered a rare run to put the nail in the coffin, and declared that Alex Rodriguez was ‘done’ when he struck out to bring the Yankees within one out of the end of the season, I came to the realization that there was no face of the Yankees.
Throughout all the struggles that Jeter experienced, Yankees fans stuck by him. When he could only muster -0.3 WARP in 2013, fans encouraged and expected a bounce back year. In his final season, Jeter’s production dropped to -2.0 WARP, yet fans still wouldn’t dare to boo of their captain. The respect that New Yorkers, and baseball fans across America, had for Derek was unparalleled and was part of what made him such a special player. He was the face of the Yankees since debuting in 1995, and was revered by fans.
Today the Yankees don’t have a face. They don’t have a player that they can trust and respect on and off the field, while also count on for production. It’s not that the Yankees don’t have deserving candidates on the roster, but it takes a lot for fans to find that “special” player. Although the Yankees aren’t empty without the irreplaceable Jeter, they don’t feel whole without a new ‘face,’ either.
Looking at vaunted “Core four” of Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Derek Jeter gives us some criteria for the new Yankees’ headliner. We know that this person can come from any position, from catcher to shortstop to starter to closer, and they also don’t need to be the best player on the team. It’s not always what players do, it’s how they handle themselves—take Andy Pettitte’s steroid admission, for example. Although his place in baseball history will be long disputed for cheating, Pettitte went through the allegations and evidence with transparency, allowing fans to forgive him. These are high standards, but it’s not impossible to pinpoint a few players that may fit. Here’s where it gets tough: not only should this player be of the ‘homegrown variety,’ they have to be someone that Yankees fans will always stand by.
That last part is why fans haven’t accepted a new face. Yankees fans love Alex Rodriguez…well, right now they do. Let’s not forget when A-Rod was booed in his first at bat of the season at Yankee Stadium in 2013, or how many fans begged for his release last winter. Brett Gardner is a quiet player off the field, an all-out player on the field, and a homegrown product—yet he was inexplicably booed off the field in the eighth inning of last year’s Wild Card Game. To add insult to injury, the majority of the fan base rooted for him to be traded this offseason.
Fans are quite fond of the super bullpen, which features Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, but one is a recent free agent signing and the other is the third reliever on the depth chart. It may not be fair, but Yankee fans can’t adopt a new “captain” from a free agent pickup or or from their second setup man. We’re not going to cross Betances off the list, but for now he’s not the right man for the job. Didi Gregorious isn’t a bad choice, but he’s only been on the Yankees for a season now and was the most hated man in New York before a strong second half.
So who’s left? Who can the Yankees call their new captain? There really aren’t any other candidates left. Trust is important here, and it’s impossible to trust a prospect or second-year player. Otherwise, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Jorge Mateo, and Gary Sanchez would be interesting fits. Regardless of this, the front runners have to be either Luis Severino, Dellin Betances, or Greg Bird. They may not be all that trustworthy yet, but eventually they could become steady presences on the roster.
Unlike a lot of things in baseball, picking a new face for the Yankees is more about how it ‘feels,’ not about extremely specific and concise rules and numbers. That’s why I think Greg Bird best fits the role, despite him not seeming to be the most obvious choice. Yes, he’s only played for half a season. Yes, he’s not even a starter for the team yet. Yes, he was scheduled to start next season in the minors. And yes, he is out for the whole season with a torn labrum. Still, it feels right. The way that the whole fan base went into mourning and practically called 2016 a “lost season” after news of Bird’s injury broke struck a chord with me. For a player that was going to start as a backup infielder (at best), the reaction from fans was enormous. Bird certainly doesn’t have the highest upside of the Yankees’ young crop, and there’s a good chance he’ll never be the best player on the team…then again, Jeter was the Yankees’ best player by WAR just three times over his career.
Dellin Betances may upstage Bird with his downright dominance out of the bullpen, Luis Severino might overshadow Bird with his electric stuff, and the Yankees’ other best prospects—Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Jorge Mateo—might infatuate fans while on their rise to prominence. But, contrary to what I originally thought, Bird seems like the next best candidate to be the face of the Yankees. From his rapid ascension to prominence to his top notch tweeting skills, Bird fits the part as the Yankees’ new leader. Maybe he won’t officially be named the captain, but the player we affectionately refer to as #GREGBIRD seems like the best fit.
Lead photo: Kim Klement / USA Today Sports