HOUSTON -- In the end, the Yankees were beaten by a better team.
And while the sting of Saturday night's 4-0 loss in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series presented by Camping World is certain to stick with them for a while, it's impossible to look at this team and not believe the future is brighter for the Yankees than it's been in nearly a decade.
Following the 2008 season, the Yanks opened up their checkbook and shelled out more than $400 million to sign Carsten Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, reloading a Core Four-based roster that would win the World Series in '09.
Seven years and zero titles later, general manager Brian Cashman knew something had to change. He unloaded three star players before the 2016 non-waiver Trade Deadline (Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran and Albertin Chapman), beginning a long, arduous rebuilding process that he believed would get the Yankees back to the top of the mountain at some point.
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That grueling, onerous process took less than one year.
No, the Yanks won't reach that peak in 2017, but they fell only one win short of advancing to the World Series presented by YouTube TV despite rolling out a lineup filled with twentysomethings going through this pressure cooker for the first time.
The Yankees will watch either the Astros or Dodgers hoist the World Series trophy sometime in the next week or two, but unlike most teams only one year into a rebuild, they will know in their hearts and minds just how close they came to being that last team standing.
"It's been a wild and fun ride," Cashman said. "But tonight it hurts, because the ride is over. We'll all get back to New York and deal with whatever is next."
The first things that need to be sorted out are the futures of Cashman and manager Joe Girardi, whose contracts are expiring. The pair is widely expected to return, ready to finish the rebuild that moved faster than anybody could have expected.
Cashman likes to take the "Hope for the best, plan for the worst" approach to things, but even his best hopes couldn't have envisioned the season some of his kids posted.
Aaron Judge became an AL MVP Award candidate (and a lock to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award) with a league-high 52 home runs, also pacing the AL in both runs scored and walks.
Luis Severino bounced back from a tough 2016 to become an AL Cy Young Award contender, while Gary Sanchez followed up his red-hot rookie debut with a 33-homer, .876-OPS campaign.
Didi Gregorius became one of the best all-around shortstops in the Majors, Aaron Hicks began to show the potential that once made him a first-round Draft pick, Greg Bird played well after returning from injury, Chad Green emerged as a lethal bullpen weapon, Sonny Gray and Tommy Kahnle joined the party at the non-waiver Trade Deadline and Jordan Montgomery was impressive after seizing a rotation spot in April.
What do all of these players have in common? Not one of them is older than 27. Oh, and they're all under team control for at least the next two seasons.
Did we mention that blue-chip prospects including Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield and Chance Adams are still on their way? To say the Yanks are trending upward would be understating the situation.
"It makes it hopeful, but you have to respect the process and know there are no guarantees," Cashman said. "It doesn't matter how optimistic we can be; hopefully the next wave, whoever they are, can step up and do the job when called upon."
At some point during the season, the rebuilding plan began to speed up. A season that was supposed to be filled with growing pains was much more than that, and with a postseason berth well within the Yankees' grasp, Cashman pulled the trigger on deals for Gray, Kahnle, Todd Frazier and Player Page for David Robertson, bolstering a roster that had already held its own for four months.
"We identified that we had a chance to do something special, so that's why we did as many deals as we did to put us in a position to take a run, even though we knew the competition would be stiff," Cashman said. "You never can forecast how far or how soon; you're just trying to build one good decision on top of another, and hopefully at some point it takes off for you."
For Judge, Sanchez and the rest of the players that helped orchestrate the memorable comeback against the Twins in the AL Wild Card Game, climbed out of an 0-2 hole against Indians in the AL Division Series presented by Doosan, then took three straight games against the Astros at home before ultimately losing these last two games, the experience will stick with them through the offseason.
Yes, they'll think about what might have been had they scored just a few more runs in Houston, but Girardi reminded them after Game 7 that the bittersweet taste from this unexpected October run will serve as a driving force when they gather in Tampa, Fla., for Spring Training four months from now.
"I've been through it as a player, I've been through it as a manager; it really needs to be the motivating factor during the winter and Spring Training to get better," Girardi said. "Because I believe this club can even get better. That was basically the message."
As this chapter, one filled with several unforeseen twists and turns, comes to an end, one thing is certain. Unlike this season, the Yanks won't be sneaking up on anybody in 2018.
The rebuilding phase is over. The Yankees are the Yankees once again.
"The current narrative is we're a surprise team, but the way we assess ourselves, we're not," Cashman said. "Going forward, we're no longer going to be surprising outside the organization. We will be one of the hunted, not one of the hunters."