Still kind of thinking about this morning’s Pinch Hitters post. For a team with the Yankees’ extensive history, becoming a true franchise icon is tough. It’s an awfully high standard to meet. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have certainly played their way into that sort of status. Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada might be a step below, but they’re iconic in their own way. Alex Rodriguez, for better and for worse, will be forever remembered as a member of the Yankees.
But as one era of Yankees baseball begins to fade away, who’s the next player — after Jeter — who will retire as a legitimately iconic part of the Yankees history? Here are a few possibilities. Oh, and it’s worth acknowledging that in every case mentioned here, we’re talking about an extreme best-case scenario, but that’s inevitable when we’re talking about a player becoming an iconic Yankee. That won’t happen for anyone who’s career only plays out pretty well.
Obviously. With a seven-year deal and $155-million worth of hype and expectation, it’s impossible to ignore Tanaka in a discussion like this. At 25 years old, it’s not out of the question that he could be a legitimate big league starter for another 10 years, maybe more. If he plays out his entire career with the Yankees and lives up to his potential, Tanaka could absolutely be an iconic part of franchise history. Hideki Matsui was 29 when he came over from Japan, and he spent seven years in pinstripes. He left a pretty substantial legacy. Could Tanaka exceed it?
He turns 30 in February. It’s worth noting, that Paul O’Neill also turned 30 in February the year he came to the Yankees.* O’Neill’s nine seasons in the Bronx might have been just short of iconic, but he is still incredibly popular, and he’s certainly an unmistakable part of that late-90s dynasty. If McCann plays out his current contract, with maybe another two years when this deal is over, could he create a similar place in franchise history? What if he’s a Hall of Famer, with five to eight years as the next in a long line of great Yankees catchers? Would that be enough to overshadow the nine years he’s already played in Atlanta? He could be a kind of less-controversial (presumably) version of Reggie Jackson.
His current contract includes a vesting option for 2017. If that option year kicks in, Sabathia will have spent nine seasons with the Yankees (he spent seven and a half with Cleveland). He’s already finished top five in Cy Young voting three times with the Yankees, and he’s 12 wins away from his 100th as a Yankee. If he’s able to transition into this later phase of his career — if he’s able to adjust to his diminished fastball and find away to be an elite pitcher again for two or three years — would that make him one of the elite pitchers in franchise history? He’s already 12th in strikeouts, and he’s three away from being top 20 in wins.
He’s not much older than McCann, and he’s signed to a longer contract. He’s also playing a position that’s well rooted in Yankees history. Ellsbury really only had four full seasons with the Red Sox. He was in Boston for seven years, but in three of those seasons he played a total of just 125 games. With a seven-year contract — plus a team options — Ellsbury has a chance to easily eclipse his Red Sox background and become known primarily as a member of the Yankees. Question is whether he can be healthy enough and productive enough to become a truly iconic kind of player.
Here’s the problem with Nova: He’s already 27 years old. He might still have 10 years of being a Major League starter, but at this point in his career, is he really going to develop the sort of dominance that makes a player iconic? Seems hard to bet on that (then again, I suppose it’s hard to bet on that with any player). If the second half of last season is a sign of things to come — if he really is on the verge of becoming an elite starting pitcher — then maybe, just maybe, Nova could have an iconic career. To some extent, the same is true for Dave Robertson, who turns 29 in April and could have 10 years as a big league closer.
Kind of a stand in for guys like Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Eric Jagielo, etc. At some point — surely — the Yankees will develop another everyday player from within their own farm system. Or maybe it’s a top-of-the-rotation starter. Whatever the position, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees going 50 years without developing their own superstar who signs with the Yankees, breaks into the big leagues with the Yankees, becomes an All-Star with the Yankees, and retires as one of the Yankees all-time icons. Maybe it’s Sanchez. Maybe it’s Heathcott. Maybe it’s some kid playing in a sandlot down the street from my apartment.
Let’s say Cano retires in 10 years, and he’s a Hall of Fame player. But during his entire time in Seattle, the Mariners never got things turned around. Maybe a playoff appearance or two, but for the most part, Cano was just a great player for a forgotten franchise. He could reach 3,000 hits and still have more than half of them with the Yankees. If Cano becomes one of the all-time elite second basemen in baseball history, wouldn’t he still be remembered as a significant part of Yankees history? Maybe not the all-time icon that he could have been had he stayed in the Bronx, but he could still be iconic in his own way.
* In comparing McCann to O’Neill, it can’t be overlooked that O’Neill came to New York having well under 3,000 at-bats in Cincinnati. McCann had nearly 4,000 at-bats with the Braves. Makes it a little harder to forget about his previous team when he had such a lasting impact there.
Associated Press photo