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?

Cash "Has A.J.'s Back"

"I am comfortable with A.J.  He's extremely talented and has been inconsistent, but I can tell you I'm comfortable with the effort he's giving, I'm comfortable with everything that he does, the accountability that comes with him. Obviously, we signed him to have more success than he's having, but it's a competitive industry and as long as he's not going to give up on himself, then I'm going to have his back the entire way."

Wait, I think I've seen this before.  I know what happens next.  Billy Eppler and A.J. get on a boat and go out to fish in the middle of the lake.  Then there's a gun shot, A.J. is never heard from again, and the camera slowly pans back to show Cash sitting in his office looking out the window as the "Godfather" theme starts to play in the background.

(Quote courtesy of ESPNNY)