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Yankees Magazine: Ring Leaders

In Matt Holliday and Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees signed a pair of highly talented, championship-winning veterans willing to share their knowledge
Yankees Magazine

The Twitter universe seemed unanimous in its belief that 2016 had a case for "Worst Year Ever." And that was true even before the Yankees didn't win the World Series.

In the Bronx, the threshold for success is still sky-high. Win or else. The 2016 Yankees didn't win it all. Worst Year Ever? Not quite.

The Twitter universe seemed unanimous in its belief that 2016 had a case for "Worst Year Ever." And that was true even before the Yankees didn't win the World Series.

In the Bronx, the threshold for success is still sky-high. Win or else. The 2016 Yankees didn't win it all. Worst Year Ever? Not quite.

The Yanks had a streaky year that included All-Star seasons, retirement announcements, big trades, even bigger debuts and a frantic chase for the Wild Card toward the end of the season. But when 2016 ended with a different team celebrating a World Series victory, the Yankees and their fans were forced to look toward the future.

Luckily, that picture is pretty appealing.

As a new baseball season dawns, anticipation is high. Why? Because the Yankees are riding a youth wave they hope can crest into a new dynasty. At the end of last season, homegrown studs Gary Sanchez, Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge burst onto the scene and infused some energy into Yankee Stadium. A full season with those guys, plus veterans such as Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia, and the additions of some new and some familiar faces to the roster, add up to a recipe for an exciting 2017.

This offseason, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and ownership had a few goals in mind to help improve their team. First, they wanted to plug a hole in the designated hitter spot. To achieve this end, Cashman turned to free agent Matt Holliday, a seven-time All-Star who spent the previous eight years in St. Louis, winning a World Series in 2011.

An outfielder by trade, Holliday has played nearly his entire career -- other than 93 games with Oakland in 2009 -- in the National League. He has been a DH in just 32 of his 1,773 career games and has played only 10 at first base, the two positions Cashman envisions him filling in 2017.

Although Holliday is plenty confident in his abilities away from the plate, he understands that his on-field use will ultimately be up to manager Joe Girardi. Regardless, he's ready for whatever it says on the lineup card. The biggest adjustment, Holliday said, will be learning all the American League pitchers. But Holliday is a pure hitter and a gifted athlete, so he expects to adapt nicely to his new roles, his new team and his new home ballpark, where he believes he'll have success.

"Traditionally I've been a guy that's hit the ball to right-center and to right field pretty well for a right-handed hitter," he said. "I think there are some home runs and some extra-base hits to be had in that right-center-field gap, over that short porch in right field, and even down the left-field line. I think the field matches up with my approach pretty well, and I'm excited about that."

Video: Yankees add Holliday on one-year deal

Now entering his 14th season, the Oklahoma native is a lifetime .303 hitter. His 295 home runs rank ninth among active players, and his .897 career OPS ranks seventh. From 2006 through 2014, he was the only player in all of Major League Baseball to collect at least 20 home runs, 30 doubles and 75 RBI each season.

Besides his bat, though, one of the most valuable assets Holliday provides is his experience. In a clubhouse increasingly filled with guys who might not know that the upcoming Baywatch movie is actually a reboot of a TV show that premiered in 1989, Holliday's presence will be important in helping the younger members of the roster grow into mature professionals.

"He's got great makeup and leadership skills," Cashman said. "He's a mentor, so I think he'll be good with our kids."

Stepping into the role of teacher excites Holliday, and he believes he'll be able to do well thanks to the lessons he has learned throughout his years in the business.

"I've had veteran guys help me in my career, so you turn around and pass those lessons down," Holliday said. "That's something that I really enjoy, building those relationships, helping guys and coming together.

"The one thing that all of the elite players that I've played with had in common was their work ethic," he continued. "They put in the work mentally and physically to do what it takes to be successful on the field, including all the things that it takes off the field. You have to take your job very seriously and understand how important team chemistry is. You have to root for, encourage and support your teammates. Those are the things I think are important to learn and have helped me in my career, and I think that's something that I can help young guys understand how to do."

Two of the kids likely to benefit from Holliday's tutelage will be Greg Bird -- who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury -- and Tyler Austin. The duo is expected to battle over a full-time job at first base for 2017.

In 46 games with the Yankees in 2015, Bird had the Bronx buzzing about his potential. The left-handed batter made easy work of the short porch in right field, blasting 11 home runs in his short stint in pinstripes. Who knows what a full year might mean for the 24-year-old? Meanwhile, Austin thrilled fans with some big-time home runs last season, including one in his first major league at-bat and a walk-off blast in early September.

Offering additional protection in the lineup will be catcher Gary Sanchez, who, like his fellow young guns, will be playing his first full year in the Bronx.

Sanchez made a huge impact in 53 games last season, when he batted .299, clubbed 20 home runs and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting. He was also a force behind the plate, performing well beyond expectations defensively.

If the trio of Holliday, the victor of the first-base battle and Sanchez find their groove, the Yankees could have one of the more potent lineups in the majors. And Cashman made protecting the late-inning leads that group provides a priority this offseason.

Fresh off a World Series victory with the Cubs, closer Aroldis Chapman was ready for what came next -- free agency. And he had a pretty good idea of where he ultimately wanted to end up.

"In the end, it was my wish to come back to the Yankees," Chapman said during a Dec. 16 conference call with reporters the day after the signing was announced. He had pitched the first half of 2016 in pinstripes before moving to Chicago in a trade that netted top prospect Gleyber Torres, among other assets.

The feeling, it turned out, was mutual.

"We had a good experience with Aroldis when he was here," Cashman said. "He blended really well with our manager, our coaching staff, his teammates and our support staff. Our fans' experience in the ninth inning was something they'd never seen before, with him throwing 101 to 105 miles per hour. It was amazing to see somebody possess that type of ability. So if it could work, we wanted him back and we were very vocal about it. I think we're lucky to have him back."

Video: Chapman happy to return and join young Yankees' core

Chapman appeared in 31 games for the Yankees last year -- he missed the first month of the season serving a suspension for violating the league's domestic abuse policy -- posting 20 saves, a 2.01 ERA and averaging 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings. The Cuba native then flourished on the North Side of Chicago, appearing in 28 regular season games, saving 16 of them, and recording a 1.01 ERA.

Then, in his first trip to the postseason since a 2012 National League Division Series loss with Cincinnati, Chapman saw action in 13 games, saved four and won two, including Game 7 of the World Series, which clinched the Cubs' first championship in 108 years.

Chapman's use -- or overuse, depending on who's doing the talking -- this past postseason generated plenty of chatter. But for the reliever, the only thing that matters is how he'll use the lessons he learned to help lead the Yankees to, he hopes, the same heights.

"I learned a lot from playing in the World Series," Chapman said during a visit to the Stadium in December, his words translated by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator, Marlon Abreu. "It's a combination of so many different things that you learn from that experience, playing with other players - veterans, younger guys - you put all that together, and I take that with me. With the younger guys here, I believe that I can somehow channel a little bit of that experience toward the ultimate goal of winning it all."

Back with the Yankees, Chapman will be expected to anchor the back end of a bullpen that also includes three-time All-Star Dellin Betances, two-time NL All-Star Tyler Clippard and a bevy of talented young hurlers, such as Luis Cessa and Jonathan Holder. Chapman hopes that working together to finish games will be one of the best parts of returning to the Bronx.

"I think the key is communication, especially with the younger guys," he said. "If you can talk, and all have the same goal and work together, in the end, if you have a good line of communication, everything will work out."

What also helps is having a blazing fastball. According to MLB Statcast™, Chapman threw 49 of the 50 fastest pitches last season (Atlanta's Mauricio Cabrera was the only other name on the list), with his four-seamer topping out at 105.1 miles per hour. That heat has made Chapman one of the most talked-about pitchers in the game, as well as one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history.

Since he came into the league in 2010, Chapman has posted 15.18 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, the highest rate in baseball among relievers with at least 100 innings pitched. And his 636 strikeouts during that timeframe are second among relievers to Red Sox foe Craig Kimbrel.

But despite those numbers, his four All-Star selections, his new World Series ring and a contract that makes him the highest-paid closer in MLB history, the 29-year-old still believes there's work to be done. And his ambition dates back to a meeting he had in the Bronx prior to signing his first big-league contract.

"When I was looking to sign to play professional baseball back in '09, I came here to the Stadium and one of the questions they asked me was, 'What do you want?'" he said. "I told them, 'I want to be the best pitcher I can be, and I want to be a world champion.' Thank God, now I'm a world champion, but I don't think I'm the best pitcher in the league. I'm one of the better ones, but to have the opportunity to become the best is a great feeling." Becoming the best takes on a special meaning in the Bronx, where Chapman wears the same uniform that Mariano Rivera donned proudly for nearly two decades. It's a tall task, and one that's especially significant for Chapman.

"It means a lot to pitch here," Chapman said. "As a person, you want to get better every day; as a player you want to get better every day. To have the opportunity to do that here, to follow in the steps of Mariano Rivera - who I think is the best of all time - it's an amazing feeling, and I feel honored to have that opportunity."

Chapman and all his fellow Yankees are excited about the year ahead and the new variables added to the roster, which they hope lead to championship No. 28.

Optimism abounds for this new year, which has to be better than 2016, right?

Maybe in the Bronx, 2017 will be the Best Year Ever.

Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the 2017 New York Yankees Official Yearbook. The 2017 New York Yankees Official Yearbook is an official Yankees publication. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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