Thursday, February 2, 2012

Laying The Groundwork For The Next Core Four (Or Five, Or Three)

(You can't say watching a repeat of this at Yankee Stadium in 2017 wouldn't be awesome.)

If you haven't checked out Chad Jennings' interview with Mason Williams over at LoHud, then I feel very sorry for you because it was a great read.  If you have, then you probably came away from it with a good impression of young Mr. Williams based on what he had to say.  One thing that stood out to me in this interview was Chad and Mason's discussion about the "core" group of players that were a part of the championship-winning team in SS Staten Island last year and the possibility of keeping that core together as they advance through the MiL system.

That core (Williams, Cito Culver, Dante Bichette Jr., Branden Pinder, Tyler Austin, Angelo Gumbs, Ben Gamel) will be moving up to Low-A ball this year to form what could be a very formidable Charleston River Dogs squad along with pitchers like Evan DeLuca, Bryan Mitchell, and new acquisition Jose Campos. Depending on which prospect list you swear by, this Charleston team will include 3-4 of the Yankees' top 10 prospects, 4-6 of their top 20, and 7 of my personal Top 30, and as fun as it is to consider how good this squad can be in 2012, it could be even more fun and possibly more beneficial to the Yankee organization to look long term and consider the value of keeping these guys together and formulating the next homegrown core of Yankee talent.

Baseball is a relatively easy sport to measure and quantify value and performance through statistics.  Where it becomes more difficult to measure is in the intangible categories, specifically the concept of team chemistry.  While a successful play in football or basketball typically requires the cooperation and combined successful efforts of multiple players doing different things, most successful plays in baseball involve one individual player making one individual play.  If a batter swings and hits a home run, he really has nobody on his team to thank except himself.  If he swings and misses, he doesn't have a teammate hitting from the other side of the plate who can take a hack as well.  You get the idea.  Theoretically, the "chemistry" and team spirit, whatever it may be, should have very little influence on how well baseball players and a baseball team play.

But in thinking back to all that I've read about the Yankee dynasty of the late 90s-early 2000s, particularly the 1996 and 1998 teams, I can't help but recall all the anecdotes and stories from players and coaches alike about the type of chemistry and clubhouse environment those teams had, and the close-knit culture that was established.  Everybody knew their roles, every man played for his teammates, and there was very little concern given to ego or reputation, even when guys like Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were introduced to the mix.  Those teams were cohesive units, true sums of their parts, and Williams talking about fostering strong bonds with his teammates at these lower levels makes me think about how those bonds can be nurtured and strengthened over time, and whether or not there is value in the Yankees' front office making a conscious effort to keep this group together because of those bonds.

The standards for how members of the Yankees are expected to carry themselves since that last dynasty have been set and enforced primarily by the recent "Core Four" of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte, the constants on the roster through a time of high turnover.  With that group now down to two, and with Jeter and Mo seeing the lights at the end of their career tunnels, there will be a void left in carrying on the tradition of "The Yankee Way."  Guys like CC, Cano, D-Rob, and Teix can pick up the slack, but they all took different paths to get to the Yankees and would really only be continuing the precedent set by the Core Four rather than establishing their own identity.  And that precedent has been much more businesslike than the more familial atmosphere of the late-90s teams.  Guys like Williams, Bichette, Pinder, whoever, who establish relationships and a team culture amongst themselves at these lower levels, could perhaps be the next in line to carry the "True Yankee" torch and get back to that family version of "The Yankee Way" that harks back to the glory days of the 90s.  Would that help any?  It's hard to say.  But I certainly don't think it could hurt.  A group of players who are familiar with each other and enjoy being around each other can set the tone for the entire team's attitude.

Besides the hard-to-define team spirit/clubhouse culture benefits, there are obvious, easily quantifiable benefits in terms of payroll management that can also be reaped from this scenario.  The prevailing thought right now is that if the Yankees make a concerted effort to get to the $189 million payroll line for 2014, it would be to reset their luxury tax percentages and allow them to get back to their big-spending ways without being penalized as much for it.  But what if they didn't HAVE to go back to those ways?

If, over the next two seasons, this core group of young guys continues to improve and advance through the system together, the Yankees could be looking at the next wave of candidates to replace the current old guard, candidates that would be young, cheap, team-controlled for a bunch of years, and motivated to continue the team's winning ways.  Being able to fill roster holes like those created by the loss/decline of guys like Jeter, A-Rod, Swish, and Mo internally could allow the Yankees to maintain financial stability beyond 2014 and reap even more benefits of not having to pay through the nose on luxury tax.

In hypothesizing about all of this, the fact that all of these guys are a long way away from the show is not lost on me.  Nor is the fact that most prospects, no matter how good they are in Low-A ball, don't pan out.  The likelihood of everybody out of this core group of Charleston River Dogs becoming major contributors at the Major League level a la the "Core Four" is extremely low.  But given that we already know that, given the fact that there's no need to rush any of these guys because of the current roster depth and standby depth at the higher levels of the MiL system, and given the potential benefits, both measurable and immeasurable, that could come as a result, isn't it at least worth a try?  The Yankees were heavily criticized for picking Cito Culver and Dante Bichette Jr. in the first round.  Turning those guys into the heart of their future clubs would he a hell of a way to validate those drafts and the Yankees' player development strategy.

I've played on a bunch of bad teams in my amateur sports career, and I've played on some good ones.  I can say from experience that the good ones always had more of a sense of team spirit, team chemistry, and a certain sense of brotherhood, and I think any of us who have played organized sports can relate to that.  When I read this quote from Mason Williams:

"It’s like I said, not really growing up, but growing up as a Yankee with them. We’ve been together, and it’s all we know, and it’s all I know being with my guys. I want to be with them at all times and play with them as much as I can, because I feel comfortable with them."

I can't help but be reminded of feeling those same feelings back when I played on good teams, and I can't help but think about the potential for the next generation of core Yankees to already be establishing that kind of true "team" mentality and sense of togetherness.  There's no way to quantify that through sabermetrics, but that still doesn't mean it should be considered completely without value.  The "mystique and aura" of those late 90s Yankee teams has faded a bit over the past decade, and as nasty as this year's River Dogs team could be, it'd be even nastier to see some of these guys stay together, continue to bond, and re-ignite some of those faded feelings as the next great Yankee core.

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