It is difficult to imagine any baseball team of any era playing better over a three-week stretch than the New York Yankees have since April 20. On that night, they lost at home to the Toronto Blue Jays, falling to 9-9 on the young season, and sat 7 1/2 games behind first-place Boston. Since then? All they have done is go 19-3 — with all 19 wins over teams that were .500 or better at the start of the series — and erase the entire deficit to the Red Sox.
The Yankees arrive at Nationals Park on Tuesday, their first visit to Washington since 2015, tied with the Red Sox for both the American League East lead and the majors' best record, at 28-12. Roughly a quarter of the way through the season, they are on pace for 113 wins and already evoking comparisons, fairly or not, to the 1998 Yankees — the ones who won 114 regular-season games, went 11-2 in the postseason and claimed the first of three straight World Series titles for the franchise.
"I can't even speak to that," said Brian Cashman, the general manager of both of those Yankees teams, when asked about the comparisons. "Those [1998-2000] teams finished the job. You not only have to run the [regular-season] marathon, but you have to finish it, and then run the [postseason] sprint — and finish it, too.
"We're one of the better teams. If we stay healthy, and the roster dynamic doesn't change, we have a chance to be one of the teams that can compete for a championship. But there's way too much race still to be run to compare ourselves to anyone except the competition in front of us."
All of that is certainly true, and Cashman's caution is to be expected, but the way the Yankees just plowed through basically every team they could potentially face in the AL half of the postseason bracket five months from now — sweeping the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland Indians, and taking three of four from the Houston Astros and two of three from the Red Sox — is enough to make you think last year's AL champs have reached their full and terrifying potential.
"We are a very talented and tenacious squad," Cashman said. The players "are definitely wired properly. That's going to serve us well in good times and bad."
It is instructive to view this Yankees era as year three of a three-year cycle. In 2016, mired around .500 and clearly incapable of a big second-half run, they suddenly and uncharacteristically went into downsizing mode, trading veteran relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller and designated hitter Carlos Beltran for a haul of young players and prospects. It was a massive departure for a franchise perpetually in win-now mode, and it left the impression the Yankees were targeting 2018 for a return to an elite level.
But then came the 2017 Yankees, the so-called Baby Bombers, who started fast (15-8 in April), stumbled through the summer (41-42 in June, July and August), caught fire again in the fall (20-8 in September) and pushed the Houston Astros to a Game 7 in the AL Championship Series before losing.
The trades of 2016 had very little to do with the glory of 2017. (The exception, in a roundabout way, was the re-signing of Chapman as a free agent after the 2016 season.) For the most part, the youngsters who impacted that 2017 team were homegrown products, drafted and/or developed by the organization: right fielder Aaron Judge, catcher Gary Sanchez and pitchers Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery, all of them 25 or younger.
It is only now, in the first months of 2018, that the trades of 2016 are beginning to pay major dividends for the Yankees — chiefly in the person of Gleyber Torres.
Of all the salesmanship Cashman had to perform in the summer of 2016 - both to a fan base and an ownership group that had never shown a tolerance for downsizing in the past - his toughest job was convincing everyone about Torres, the centerpiece of the Chapman deal with the Chicago Cubs. At the time, Torres was a highly regarded, 19-year-old shortstop barely holding his own in Class A.
But by that time, Cashman had already been pursuing Torres for three years, having targeted him as a 16-year-old amateur out of Venezuela in 2013 only to lose him to the Cubs. Despite Torres's relatively long development curve, Cashman immediately zeroed in on him — rather than someone closer to the majors — in the Chapman talks with Chicago.
Once a deal was struck, then came the sales job with principal owner Hal Steinbrenner, and what turned into a long weekend of waiting for an answer.
"We had the deal with the Cubs on the table for 72 hours," Cashman recalled, "and our ownership did not green-light it right away. They took the whole weekend. I was waiting and pushing had that this was something that needed to be done. But these aren't easy decisions. It's not just a baseball decision. [Steinbrenner] also wants to honor our sponsors, the season-ticket holders, the network that covers us."
Ultimately, though, the trade went through, and after missing the second half of 2017 following elbow surgery, Torres made it to the majors on April 22, at the age of 21, and probably will never see the minor leagues again. Entrenched as the Yankees' second baseman, he is hitting .319/.360/.493 and on May 6, he became the youngest player in franchise history to hit a walk-off homer, completing the sweep of the Indians with a three-run blast in the bottom of the ninth off reliever Dan Otero.
"I didn't have a timeline" for Torres's rise to the majors, Cashman said. "But if I did, he's probably exceeded it. … He's looking like a viable member of this club for quite some time."
Another piece of the July 2016 prospect haul, starting pitcher Justus Sheffield, acquired from the Indians in the Miller trade, is currently sporting a 2.25 ERA at Class AA, with 39 strikeouts in only 28 innings, and could be in the majors by the summer. And outfielder Clint Frazier, the biggest chip in the Miller deal, is hitting .333/.404/.643 at Class AAA and will almost certainly be returning very soon to the Bronx, where he appeared in 39 games last summer.
As scary as these Yankees are, the long-term trajectory is even scarier. Only two of their regular everyday starters (Neil Walker and Brett Gardner) are older than 28 years old, and only one member of their starting rotation (CC Sabathia) is older than 29.
And as they are still the Yankees, even when they are embracing youth and frugality, they are expected to be at the top of the list of the game's biggest spenders this winter, when the dazzling and deep Bryce Harper/Manny Machado free agent class arrives. A big part of the organization's shift in direction that began in 2016 was to get themselves under the 2017 luxury-tax threshold to reduce their tax bill from this winter's expected spending spree.