Cashman Learned A Valuable Lesson From Steinbrenner's Mistakes In The Late 1980s: Speed Is Not The Recipe

By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

The art of reloading has rarely if ever presented the Yankees with a problem. But there’s a difference between a reload and a rebuild.

What the Yanks have fielded in 2017 is a legitimate rebuild, something they have only really done twice since the mid-1990s, when Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada came up to form a four-man core of a team that ended up going to the playoffs 18 times in 21 years.

The current roster represents a second rebuild, and by all early indications it looks like it could turn into another successful one. It’s still early, of course, and there is plenty of time for age and inexperience to drag them down, but a lineup that will feature as many as six rookies or young veterans once catcher Gary Sanchez gets back from his injured biceps has messaged the rest of the league through the just-ended eight-game winning streak that they will not be trifled with.

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General manager Brian Cashman has this rebuilding thing down. But maybe that’s because he was around when another re-facing went terribly awry.

He was a lowly assistant in the baseball operations department in 1987 when late owner George Steinbrenner got the brilliant idea to buck the Yankees’ power-hitting tradition and retool his roster around speed. It sounded reasonable enough as they headed into Year 6 of a 13-year playoff drought. Despite the big bats of Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, and the combined speed and power of Rickey Henderson, the Yanks went no place. A switch in philosophy certainly seemed reasonable.

So in came base-stealer Claudell Washington from Atlanta at the end of 1986. Bobby Meacham, well into a maddening career of yo-yoing between the big club and the minors, finally saw regular work as a middle infielder who hit for zero power. Mike Pagliarulo was the regular third baseman who contributed 32 homers in 1987, but never reached that level again before he was traded to the Padres two years later.

The movement hit its peak in 1989 when Steve Sax came over from the Dodgers and Roberto Kelly came up for good from Triple-A. They truly became the “running” Yanks at that point, as Kelly, in a power spot in center field, contributed 35 steals but only nine homers. Sax finished with 43 steals and nine homers, and Henderson had 25 steals and three homers.

Steinbrenner had his vision. And boy, was it a bad one.

From 1987 to ’89, the Yankees finished in fourth, fifth, and fifth in the AL East. They won just 74 games in ‘89, and as many as 88 games only once between then and their return to the postseason in 1995, well after the emphasis returned permanently to the power game behind later additions like Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill.

This much was clear. If ever there was a franchise NOT meant for a roster full of speedsters, it was the Yankees. Power was, is, and always will be the pinstriped way.

Cashman must have learned that lesson. This rebuild has little regard for out and out speed.

But power?

Oh, yes.

Aaron Judge; Tyler Austin

The Yankees’ Tyler Austin, right, celebrates his two-run home run with teammate Aaron Judge during the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 6, 2016. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

They are 9-5 after Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the White Sox. Small sample, true. But the signs of growing success are there, despite what they hope is a temporary power outage.

Rookie Aaron Judge has four homers, none of which involved a single issue of wall clearance. Greg Bird, who is coming off a 2016 season lost to surgery, just hit his first homer Sunday in a 9-3 win over the Cardinals, a shot that promised that there is a lot more where that came from.

Old veteran pickup Matt Holliday hit his second blast Monday against the White Sox, a tidy 459-foot bullet that went as the majors’ second-longest shot of 2017, next to the 466-foot blast by Rangers’ Carlos Gomez. It also went as the longest hit by a Yankee at Yankee Stadium in the Statcast Era (started in 2015), breaking the 447-foot mark Judge set with his first career homer.
Aaron Hicks has three in a part-time role. Even Sanchez had one before his bicep problem sent him for a several-week vacation.

Can anyone wait for Clint Frazier to get up here from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre?

Only the Brewers, Mets, and Rangers have more than the Yankees’ 18 homers.

Cashman has obviously learned the lessons of the past. When the Yankees rebuild, it must be done through power, not speed. Boss Steinbrenner’s clouded vision of the late ‘80s taught that much.

Always a good student, Cashman did this latest, rare rebuild the right way.

At least it seems that way for now.

Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino

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