By Ernie Palladino
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Youth movements like the one the Yankees are currently working through often come at the expense of veteran leadership.
Those are the wise old sages who get traded off for the young fruit executives hope will ripen quickly. The danger, of course, is that shipping off all the on-field and locker room leaders can leave a young team directionless, to flounder and flap when adversity hits.
Luckily for the Yanks, they found a couple of leaders in the last few weeks. Matt Holliday, the veteran Cardinals outfielder slated for the DH role, came through free agency.
The other, Dellin Betances, already worked for them.
While answering questions last week about the free agent acquisition of fireballing Aroldis Chapman, the 28-year-old Betances showed exactly the kind of intangibles it will take to get this team back to the playoffs. He not only welcomed the addition of the left-handed, World Series-winning reliever, but like a true leader he willingly gave up claim to the closer role he once owned, but had relinquished to Andrew Miller and Chapman the past two seasons.
While signing Chapman to a closer-record five-year, $86 million deal was a no-brainer, Betances easily could have whined about the organization swiping his return chance at his real ambition — finishing games.
Instead, Betances welcomed his friend and willingly — and publicly — stepped back into the less glamorous setup role. Not that he hasn’t reaped some benefits from working the seventh and eighth innings, having been named to the All-Star team the last three years. But the real glory, as anyone who follows baseball knows, belongs to the closer.
“My mentality is, whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I want,” Betances said.
That, in a sense, sounds exactly like what a couple of the old leaders did as their time in pinstripes wound down. Mark Teixeira stepped away from first base in the final weeks before his retirement. And when Gary Sanchez’ late-season call-up triggered a magical home run spree, the since-traded clubhouse wrangler Brian McCann accepted a lesser role as designated hitter.
Losing those two along with Miller and Alex Rodriguez left some huge holes in the leadership chain. But Betances has put himself in position to show the youngsters an example of the unselfishness it takes to turn a non-contender into a playoff qualifier.
And he’s a lot more plausible than Chapman would be, especially after his display of sour grapes in calling out Joe Maddon on how the Cubs manager over-used him in the postseason. As much evidence that exists to support Chapman’s claims, with his numerous four-, five-, and six-out appearances, criticizing a manager after a World Series win hardly shows great leadership potential.
The 37-year-old Holliday had shown his leadership the past eight seasons in St. Louis. Four of his seven All-Star appearances came as the Cardinals’ left fielder. He won a Silver Slugger Award in 2010 with a .312 average, 28 homers, and 103 RBIs.
He’ll be relied on to replace McCann as one of the major clubhouse voices during his one-year, $13 million stint. His experience will come in particularly handy as he whispers in the ears of Aaron Judge and Greg Bird, much as he did with the youngsters in St. Louis.
Holliday will have to stay healthy to do that effectively. He finished last season with a broken thumb, but still homered dramatically on Sept. 30 in one of his final at-bats, his first since his Aug. 11 disabling.
The DH spot should help him in that endeavor.
The Yanks still have some holes. An additional left-hander to come in before Betances would serve them well.
But they have the leadership covered.
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