Yankees' Youth Movement Could Lead to Shocking Playoff Push

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2016

Yankees rookie Aaron Judge.
Yankees rookie Aaron Judge.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The New York Yankees waved the white flag at the trade deadline. They shifted into sell mode, abandoned all hope of making the playoffs this season and trained their gaze squarely on the future.

Yeah...about that.

The future is indeed bright in the Bronx. After all their wheeling and dealing, the Yankees boast the No. 1 farm system in baseball, per Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter. And with a Brink's truck of expiring contracts coming off the books, they should have ample cash to burn in the potentially loaded 2018-19 free-agent class.

But reports of the Yankees' 2016 demise were, if not greatly, at least somewhat exaggerated. As wild as it sounds, they could still crash the postseason dance.

If they do, it'll be largely on the strength of the youth movement, which began in earnest Saturday.

One day after controversial slugger Alex Rodriguez took his curtain call, the Yankees called up youngsters Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin and inserted them into the lineup.

Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge became the first MLB rookies to hit back-to-back homers in their first at-bats.
Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge became the first MLB rookies to hit back-to-back homers in their first at-bats.Rich Schultz/Getty Images
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In a moment that would've been cut from a Hollywood script for being too unbelievable, the pair became the first rookies in MLB history to swat back-to-back home runs in their first big league at-bats.

New York went on to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday 8-4, and now it sits at 60-56, 3.5 games off the pace for the second wild-card spot.

We'll talk more about that in a moment, but let's pause to appreciate what Austin and Judge accomplished. There's the historic component of their homers, sure, and that unmistakable new-era smell, as Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball noted:

But there's also the fact that Austin took over at first base, a position previously held by veteran Mark Teixeira, who announced he'll retire at season's end. Judge, meanwhile, manned right field in place of Carlos Beltran, who was dealt to the Texas Rangers at the deadline.

Out with the old, in with the new.

The 24-year-old Judgethe Yankees' No. 4 prospect, per Reuter—was hitting .270 with 19 home runs in 93 games at Triple-A. Austin, also age 24, didn't even crack Reuter's top 10 in New York's newly loaded system. But he owned a .294 average with 17 homers in 107 games between Double-A and Triple-A.

Now, both have been introduced to a tough but instantly appreciative New York fanbase. There will be slumps and bumps in the road, as there always are, but it's impossible to conjure a better career kick-off.

Skipper Joe Girardi saw plenty to appreciate, per MLB.com's Nick Suss:

[The Judge home run] gets you excited. But you also look at the athleticism. The play he makes going back, the play he makes going forward, how he stayed on balls today. I think about Tyler's first at-bat where he gets down in the count two strikes and battles and battles and hits a home run. But besides the hit, I thought they were really good at-bats. And that's probably more important.

Add rookie catcher Gary Sanchez, who has gone 10-for-36 with three doubles and a homer since he donned the pinstripes, and there's a full-blown renewal going on at East 161st Street.

Surely more kids will follow, especially when rosters expand Sept. 1, though top names such as outfielder Clint Frazier and infielders Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo may be a year or more away.

Whatever happens this year, the Yankees are undoubtedly looking at what pieces can help them down the road, either on the field or as trade chips.

But let's return to that AL playoff chase, and New York's chances of staying in it. 

FanGraphs projects an 83-79 finish for the Yanks, good for fourth place in the AL East. Considering that they jettisoned two of the best relievers in baseball in left-handers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller along with Beltran, a proven October performer, that seems reasonable.

The East, though, is flush with flawed contenders. 

Rookie Gary Sanchez has shown serious flashes since his recent call-up.
Rookie Gary Sanchez has shown serious flashes since his recent call-up.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox have potent offenses but serious questions in their starting rotations. The Toronto Blue Jays just placed basher Jose Bautista on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained left knee. 

In fact, the Junior Circuit in general is a muddled mess.

Out West, the Texas Rangers added pieces—including Beltran and All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy—at the deadline, but their plus-six run differential is easily the worst of any playoff contender.

In the AL Central, the Cleveland Indians have come back to Earth, with their vaunted starting pitching wobbling and word that outfielder Michel Brantley will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com).

That's not to say the Yankees have an easy road to late October. They trail the first-place Jays by 5.5 games, and they'd have to leapfrog the Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers before they could challenge the Red Sox and Orioles for a wild-card berth.

It's a long(ish) shot, in other words. But with 46 games remaining, stranger things have happened.

The Yankees have a shutdown bullpen anchor in Dellin Betances, who has fanned an eye-popping 102 hitters in 56.1 innings. They still have a legitimate ace in Masahiro Tanaka. 

And now, they have an influx of fresh blood. 

Dellin Betances gives New York a shutdown bullpen arm even after the team traded Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller.
Dellin Betances gives New York a shutdown bullpen arm even after the team traded Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller.Elsa/Getty Images

It's way, way too early to anoint Austin, Judge, Sanchez and any other minor league whippersnappers as stretch-run saviors. They'll have to be, however, to rescue an offense that ranks in the bottom third in runs scored and OPS. Plus, there's ample uncertainty in the starting five behind Tanaka.

Suddenly, though, the Yankees have gone from an aging franchise struggling under the weight of albatross contracts and recent disappointment to a club with that certain something.

Call it hope, call it youth, call it je ne sais quoiBut it's tangible, if not quantifiable.

At the very least, the next month-plus will be interesting in Yankee land. At the most, it could spark one of the unlikeliest playoff pushes in team history.

The Yankees ostensibly waved the white flag at the deadline. Now, it might be time to stash it for a while.

All statistics current as of Aug. 13 and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.