For a team with expectations as high as the 2018 New York Yankees', it's unusual when Spring Training arrives and 50 percent of the starting infield has yet to be determined. But that was the situation this past February after a series of offseason trades sent the Yankees' 2017 Opening Day starters at second base (Starlin Castro) and third (Chase Headley) to Miami and San Diego, respectively; the team also signaled that free agent Todd Frazier, who supplanted Headley at third following a July trade with the White Sox, was unlikely to be re-signed.
A good old-fashioned competition would take place in Spring Training with the winner earning a starting job on a World Series hopeful. The contenders arrived in Tampa, Florida, one by one: Danny Espinosa, Jace Peterson, Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes. But the spotlight was on the phenoms: Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, two of the Yankees' top prospects, and, in the case of Torres, one of the top five prospects in baseball.
But there were late entries into the race, spoilers who would eventually snag both gigs. When the Yankees acquired Brandon Drury, a longtime target of the front office, in a three-way trade on Feb. 20, and then signed free agent Neil Walker, a veteran second baseman with pop, on March 12, it effectively ended the competition; the Yankees optioned Andujar and Torres to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, halting their Major League dreams just as they were within reach.
It's a funny thing, that last rung on the ladder. Once you've gotten that high, what's one more step? But the higher the climb, the more precarious the balance. It's understandable why many prospects find that last step to be the toughest. Triple-A has been conquered. Developmental time is over. With nothing left to prove, the wait can be maddening.
Torres and Andujar, who have accomplished so much, overcome so much, and reached such great heights already, have spent years learning baseball's most frustrating lesson: You can't control when your moment comes, but you'd better be ready to seize it when it does.
Torres has been earmarked for stardom since even before he signed with the Chicago Cubs for $1.7 million as a 16-year-old free agent in 2013. A sure-handed infielder who hits for power and average, he joined the Yankees organization in July 2016 as the centerpiece of a trade deadline deal that sent closer Albertin Chapman to the Cubs, and he started his climb up the organizational ranks from the moment he was assigned to High-A Tampa.
A trip to the Arizona Fall League ended with Torres, the youngest prospect on the circuit, winning MVP honors. He was then invited to Big League Spring Training with the Yankees in 2017, where, once again, he was the youngest player in camp, and, once again, he dominated, hitting .448 (13-for-29) with nine extra-base hits. And when Didi Gregorius injured his shoulder while playing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Torres was the choice of then-Yankees manager Joe Girardi to replace the starting shortstop on Opening Day. But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman overruled that decision and optioned Torres to the Minors.
Playing at times alongside Andujar, the hard-hitting third base prospect who figured to join Torres in the Bronx infield before too long, the young Venezuelan shortstop clobbered Double-A and Triple-A pitching last spring and by mid-June appeared headed for the Majors until an awkward slide left him on Dr. David Altchek's operating table.
Torres was attempting to score from second on a scorcher into right field. Curving toward home, he schemed out a route past the catcher's tag. He attempted an unorthodox slide -- not truly headfirst, more like a hook slide with his left arm extending for the plate -- and was ruled out.
He writhed around on the dirt afterward, clutching his left arm before being helped into the RailRiders' dugout. The initial diagnosis was a hyperextended elbow. Two days later, he visited the Yankees' team doctor and received the bad news: a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his non-throwing elbow that would require season-ending Tommy John surgery.
"I felt like it almost took [away] my dream," Torres says, nearly 10 months later. "I cried for a couple of days."
He shunned baseball following the surgery, preferring to rest his mind along with his ailing body. He was then cleared to work out his legs in the weight room. Then he started running. Playing catch followed. The Yankees' postseason run dovetailed with his recovery, and Torres was soon watching October baseball while he rehabbed. Instead of fixating on hypotheticals -- the possibility that he might have tasted playoff baseball if not for his injury -- he focused on his health, and he was hitting off a tee before he knew it.
Now, he's finally healthy. But along with that license to play ball comes the hard part: reaching his potential. "I don't think anyone has higher expectations than he does," says Scranton/Wilkes-Barre skipper Bobby Mitchell, who nonetheless added a few words of caution for his shooting-star talent. "If he rushes, though, then those expectations can cause problems."
Spring Training arrived full of promise, as Torres was given the opportunity to win an everyday job this season. With the open competitions at both second and third base, a repeat of his 2017 performance might likely have been enough to propel the now-21-year-old into the Yankees' Opening Day starting lineup.
But the Feb. 28 matinee against the Detroit Tigers best illustrates Torres' spring, both the highs and the lows. In the top of the third inning, with runners on first and third and no outs, Torres made a diving stop of a line drive up the middle. He then glove-flipped the ball from his stomach, and the toss scuttled past Gregorius, who was covering second. The E4 turned costly when the next batter bashed a three-run home run, the margin of defeat in the Yankees' 9-6 loss.
"I remember that play," says Carlos Mendoza, the Yankees' infield coach. "As a coach, you go up to him and remind him. He knew. He saw me walking toward him, and he was like, 'I got it. I tried to be too quick.' What I liked about it was the way he responded afterward. And the way he responded was that he made two great plays the following inning."
There was little silver lining to be found in Torres' struggles at the plate, though, as he batted just .219 (7 for 32) in Grapefruit League play. Once Walker signed, the youngster's fate became clear. He was optioned to Triple-A the following day.
A month removed from his frustrating Spring Training, Torres offers a mature postmortem. "A little rust for sure," he says. "It's not that easy to come back after nine months and play baseball very well. I am human" (This is the point where we remind fans that Gary Sanchez was essentially gifted the backup catcher job prior to Spring Training in 2016, but hit just 2-for-22. Promoted for good in August, he hit 20 home runs in 52 games).
Shortly after taking a mid-April round of batting practice, Torres sits in an area adjacent to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre home locker room inside PNC Field where coaches are crunching game film. For the next 30 minutes, Torres tells his story, from academies and showcases in his hometown of Caracas to his rise through both the Cubs' and Yankees' organizations. Like many Venezuela-born players, he deflects questions about the political and humanitarian crisis engulfing his country.
He speaks without the aid of an interpreter, a remarkable feat for someone who first started taking English classes in April 2015. "The motivation is that I like to explain myself. I like to explain how I feel or why I feel it," he says. "My English right now is not perfect, for sure, but I am working on it."
Upon request, he rolls up his sleeve to reveal the scar from his Tommy John surgery. "Right on my tattoo," he says. Torres sports a sleeve of ink on his left arm. "Believe" is inscribed on the outside of his left hand. He demurs when asked to explain the significance of each marking. "Sorry, every tattoo is personal."
Torres flourished at Triple-A this season. In 14 games for Scranton/Wilkes- Barre, the phenom hit .347 (17 for 49) and was named International League Player of the Week on April 16. And with the Yankees needing a spark in the lineup, Torres was called up to the Big Leagues on April 22.
A few hours prior to his Major League debut, Torres stood in front of his locker in the Yankees clubhouse -- situated between Sanchez's and Aaron Judge's lockers -- and fielded questions from reporters for 15 minutes. He said that the promotion surprised him and admitted that a combination of nerves and excitement limited him to three hours of sleep the night before. But when asked if he was ready, Torres smiled and said, "Yeah, I'm here, for sure. I just try to do my job and help my team."
"He was always a kid that had a smile on his face," Mendoza says when asked about his first impressions upon seeing Andujar -- the Yankees' starting third baseman as of mid-April -- when both were in the Minors. But something else stood out about the Dominican slugger when he was just a teenager playing Rookie Ball. "The way he prepared and the way he went about his business for a 17, 18 year old was really, really impressive. His work ethic was off the charts."
He steadily rose through the organization due to his bat. Andujar has a hard, violent swing, a vicious thwack reminiscent, in a way, of Gary Sheffield's, and he utilizes it effectively. A midseason Big League promotion in June of 2017 led to a record-setting debut, as Andujar collected three hits and four RBI in a win over the Chicago White Sox. Even still, Andujar was sent back down to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after the game, but he took the disappointment in stride. "An experience like last year makes you want to work harder," he says, assisted by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu, "because there are always things you want to improve."
Back in Scranton, he worked on his footwork at third base, particularly his leftward movements, and offered to take reps at first. Hitting was never a concern; Andujar batted above .300 and had 54 extra-base hits last season between Double-A and Triple-A. So after the Yankees decided not to retain their veteran third basemen this offseason, Andujar became a contender for the starting job at the hot corner -- not that he was gunning for it, or so he says.
"I never put that in mind. I never set that as a goal," Andujar says. "To me it was just a matter of working hard, continuing to do my job, continuing to perform, and that's what I like to focus on."
Unlike Torres, Andujar nearly captured the position this spring, clubbing four home runs including a walk-off, but Drury was named the starter. Andujar, in turn, was assigned to Triple-A. But he was called back to the majors before even playing a single 2018 game for the RailRiders, following a rash of injuries during the Yankees' opening series in Toronto. Eventually, as the still-falling dominoes sent Drury to the disabled list, Andujar became the Yankees' starting third baseman in April. And after a 3-for-28 start, Andujar strung together a 13-for-25 streak, lifting his batting average from .107 to .308, and smacked his first Big League home run.
"He is a special player, man," says Christopher Austin, another young Yankees player who stepped into a role vacated by an injured teammate this spring. "Watching him go about his business and play the way he does every day, he's going to be a really good player in the Big Leagues for a long time."
The Gleyber Torres Watch was officially on last month, with the New York tabloids and people on social media breathlessly following his exploits. When his name is absent from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre lineup posted before the RailRiders' April 11 game against Lehigh Valley, Mitchell has to explain that his star infielder has a day off due to the brutally cold conditions. A former outfielder with the Dodgers and Twins, Mitchell has coached Minor Leaguers for more than 25 years, meaning he is not prone to hyperbole. He has seen top prospects both flourish and flame out. With that in mind, his scouting report on Torres comes across as particularly gushing.
"He can really hit," Mitchell begins. "He can play shortstop. He has really good hands. He can play second base and third base. I think the main thing is, for his age he is very mature in his preparation. He remembers pitchers really well. If he has faced them once, he can remember how they pitched him. He's very far advanced for his age in that area. He's unique in that way. He really is. It seems like he has been doing that for a long time. I don't think he writes anything down. He remembers it in his head, who he has faced and who he recognizes. It's going to be really beneficial when he gets to the Big League level."
Mitchell and Torres both know that a promotion is inevitable -- as long as he slides feet-first from now on. "He's very conscious of it," Mitchell says as he cracks a smile.
A few feet from Mitchell's office, Yankees special advisor Nick Swisher prepares to dive into more game film. This is his first time seeing Torres play competitively, and he is impressed. "He's 21 years old, and he's got game, bro," Swisher says. "The sky is the limit."
Swisher has unique perspective into what Torres, and Andujar to an extent, are experiencing at this stage of their careers. A first-round pick of the Oakland Athletics out of Ohio State, Swisher was one of the top prospects in baseball, landing at No. 24 in Baseball America's Top 100 prior to the 2005 season. And yet, he wasn't a household name to fans. "Back then, no one cared about prospects," he says. "Nowadays these prospects are on ESPN and Fox Sports, and sometimes you can get caught up in that hype."
Swisher finished sixth in the 2005 American League Rookie of the Year Award voting, but was traded to the White Sox following the 2007 season and then to the Yankees the following offseason. He departed the Bronx in 2012 as an All-Star and a World Series champion. He understands that a Big League promotion isn't the soft landing. It's the takeoff.
"Getting to the Big Leagues is not the ultimate goal -- getting to the Big Leagues and helping your team win a championship should be the ultimate goal," Swisher says. "Getting to the Big Leagues and sticking and making a name for yourself is the ultimate goal. It's not just getting there. Getting there? What? A lot of people just got there."
Miguel Andujar already got there. And Gleyber Torres has finally arrived, as well. But if they didn't know already, they will soon realize that just getting there is not enough.