With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Gleyber Torres and the Yankees were down to their last strike. A base hit past the infield in this fourth game of the 2018 American League Division Series would likely drive in the tying run. A home run would send the Yankees back to Fenway Park for a winner-take-all Game 5 matchup with the Boston Red Sox. But after hitting a slow roller to third, busting it down the line and then waiting on the field for the completion of a replay review, Torres and company learned that their time had not arrived yet. The groundout sent the Yankees home after a 100-win regular season, a thrilling victory in the American League Wild Card Game and a difficult series against the eventual world champions.
While the Yankees’ goal was not reached in 2018, the team that took the field in Tampa, Florida, at the start of this year’s Spring Training was filled with talented, young players who have already proven that they can succeed in the bigs but whose best days may still be ahead of them.
Save for right field, where 2017 AL Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge mans his position, that fact is most apparent in two places on the infield -- second base and third base. And to appreciate how significant Torres and Miguel Andújar are to the Yankees, you need only to look back to the beginning of the 2018 season.
Despite coming into the season with the excitement that a trip to the 2017 ALCS had produced, there was uncertainty at second and third base. Although Andujar had the look of a rising star and had a great spring, the third baseman was sent to Triple-A to start the season, and newly acquired Brandon Drury was slotted in at the hot corner. At second, Gleyber Torres, the Yankees’ most highly touted prospect, was coming off Tommy John surgery, and long before Spring Training came to a close, the team realized that the layoff cost the 21-year-old too much time. It didn’t seem that he was ready to contribute on the big league level every day.
Fast forward one year. As the 2019 season opened, the Yankees possessed one of the best third basemen in the game in Andujar and one of the best players at the keystone corner in Torres.
How did we get here so quickly?
It may seem like Torres, the once-untouchable Chicago Cubs prospect, was acquired for Aroldis Chapman a decade ago, but in reality, the now 22-year-old has only been in the Yankees organization for two-and-a-half years.
Torres arrived in the Majors in late April of 2018, and what he did from that point forward certainly validated all the hype. Without any prior big league experience, Torres batted .271 in 123 games, while also hitting 24 home runs and driving in 77 runs.
Finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, he was at his best when it mattered most. Of his 24 longballs, more than half of them either tied games or gave the Yankees a lead, and 13 of his homers came with runners on base. Torres’ first-half accomplishments earned him a spot on the American League All-Star roster. Although he was unable to compete in the game because of a hip flexor injury that shelved him for three weeks, the honor of being named an All-Star at 21 years old was not lost on Torres.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Torres said, assisted by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu, over dinner at Charley’s Steak House in Tampa. “My wife told me that I had a good chance, but I didn’t feel like it was going to happen. I thought it would happen in the future, but I didn’t think I was a guy like Aaron Judge, Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, who would make it as a rookie. I was excited for the opportunity but sad that I wouldn’t be able to play in the game.
“Just being part of the whole thing brought me a lot of joy. Getting the opportunity to be around so many stars -- Mike Trout being one of them -- I got to be around guys I grew up watching. I will always remember the meeting we had before the game. I was just looking around the room at all of the stars. Being able to share that week with my family was special.”
While Torres’ first half was better statistically than his performance during the last two-and-a-half months of the season, his ability to rebound from the three-week hiatus and also make the adjustments needed to counter those made by opposing pitchers spoke volumes about his maturity and potential.
“The two weeks after I came back from that injury were tough,” he said. “My timing was off, and unlike at the beginning of the season, when I was able to produce with consistency, I noticed that the league had already adjusted to me and to the success I was having. So, the combination of my timing being off and the adjustments that pitchers around the league had made were beating me. But it was a good teaching moment. I learned that I had to make my own adjustments. I started watching more video and working more closely with my coaches, and I got a much better understanding of what pitchers were doing to get me out. That whole process made me a better major league player, and it was something that I could only learn from experience.”
Torres’ penchant for clearing the fences at such a young age also put him in a prestigious fraternity of Yankees, as only Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio hit more home runs in pinstripes before their 22nd birthdays.
In any other decade, Torres’ accomplishments would trump those of other Yankees rookies, but thanks to Judge’s 52 home runs in 2017 and the play of Andujar in 2018, the second baseman’s gaudy statistics do not stand alone on the Yankees’ modern-day pedestal. They’re still pretty impressive, though, to say the least.
“Last season was an incredible time for me,” Torres said. “It’s hard to describe how I felt every day when I woke up. I enjoyed everything that was going on. I even enjoyed the drive to the Stadium every day. Just knowing that I was going to Yankee Stadium to play for the Yankees made me happy. I was getting great results, and that made it a really special time in my life. It’s a time that I will never forget in my career.”
Like Torres, Andujar didn’t even make the big league club out of Spring Training last season. Following a fierce battle for the starting third base position, Yankees brass elected to initially give the nod to Drury, a young player who had shown some pop with the Arizona Diamondbacks. But by April 1, Andujar was in New York, and a few days later, Drury was sidelined with migraine headaches. Anxious to prove himself at the highest level, the 23-year-old Andujar did more than just about anyone inside or outside of the organization could have expected.
Among the phalanx of stars that tallied a major league–record 267 home runs, Andujar was the Yankees’ most consistent hitter. Once he found his groove a few weeks into April, the third baseman never slumped during a rookie campaign in which he batted .297 with 27 home runs, 92 RBI and 47 doubles, placing second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. The Yankees knew that they had a star in Andujar by midsummer, compelling general manager Brian Cashman to trade Drury and a prospect to the Toronto Blue Jays in a deal that brought starting pitcher J.A. Happ to the Bronx.
While Andujar’s play was impacting moves in the American League East, Los Angeles Angels DH and pitcher Shohei Ohtani, whose every move seemed to capture international attention, took home the AL Rookie of the Year Award. The Japan-born player batted .285 with 22 home runs, while also recording a 4-2 record with a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts.
Garnering much less media attention -- and, in comparison to Ohtani, having virtually come out of nowhere -- Andujar led all major league rookies in hits, doubles, extra-base hits and multi-hit games. He finished tied for first in home runs and ranked third among all major league rookies in batting average. Although those numbers earned the third baseman just five first-place votes from the baseball writers, Andujar was named the Sporting News AL Rookie of the Year, an honor voted on by fellow major league players.
“When I first came up, I didn’t think about winning any awards or getting recognized for doing my job,” Andujar said at George M. Steinbrenner Field in March, with Abreu interpreting. “But winning the Sporting News award and being considered for the [BBWAA] Rookie of the Year Award represent so much to me now. They represent getting to the big leagues and making it at this level. The journey to get here was long, but these honors really validate all of the work I put in along the way.”
Comparing Andujar with other first-year players from last season only paints a partial picture of how special his 2018 accomplishments were. What the third baseman did in his first season measures up against the greatest rookie seasons in Yankees history, and in a few categories, his numbers stack up favorably with some of the best inaugural performances in all of baseball.
When Andujar made it to second base in the fifth inning of the Yankees’ Sept. 29 game, he climbed ahead of DiMaggio for the most doubles ever hit by a rookie in pinstripes. Andujar also joined the Yankee Clipper, who tallied 44 doubles and 29 homers in 1936, as one of only two Yankees to hit more than 20 home runs and 40 doubles as a rookie. Andujar’s 76 extra-base hits as a rookie rank third in team history behind DiMaggio’s 88 in 1936 and Judge’s 79 in 2017.
“It was an amazing season for me,” Andujar said. “Any time your name is talked about with a legendary player like Joe DiMaggio, it means the world to you. My goal was to be productive, and doing something that he did makes me feel like I accomplished that goal.”
Additionally, Andujar set a new standard for power-hitting third basemen, becoming the first rookie in baseball history to amass 40 doubles and 25 home runs while manning the hot corner.
Together, Andujar and Torres also entered the record books, becoming the first pair of Yankees rookies to each hit more than 20 home runs.
“Our goal from the time we first got to know each other in the Minors was to make history together,” Torres said. “I believed in him, and he believed in me. I’m glad that we were able to create some history together last season.”
The 2018 season -- and possibly future seasons -- linked Torres and Andujar together for good, and from the time they left their respective home countries, their paths have been quite similar.
Both players were signed as non-drafted free agents when they were 16 years old, Andujar in 2011 by the Yankees and Torres in 2013 by the Cubs. Torres, a native of Venezuela, was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in the international free-agent class, while Andujar was less known coming out of the Dominican Republic.
Torres benefited from parents who helped keep his expectations in check. “They guided me through the whole process,” Torres said. “As I was getting noticed and getting ranked, and people were talking highly of my baseball skills, my parents consistently told me that humility was going to be the key to the whole thing. It was going to be the vehicle that was going to allow me to travel up all of the steps to make it to the big leagues.
“I remember being ranked as the 20th-best prospect and then the 10th-best prospect and eventually one of the very best prospects in the game,” he continued. “I remember how good that felt. My family was always there for me, and they always made sure that I understood why being humble was so important. They didn’t want me to be someone who wasn’t humble, who got a reputation for not being humble. They made me understand how essential it is to be respected, and to not just be a good player on the field.”
Both players climbed through their respective Minor League systems at a fast and steady pace, and after the 2016 trade that brought Torres to the Yankees, the two prospects became teammates for the first time that summer with Single-A Tampa. Upon their initial meeting, they quickly hit it off.
“From the first time I met him, I realized that he had a great personality,” Torres said. “He was a guy who you could joke around with. He didn’t take himself too seriously. You could talk to him about anything, and we had a lot of fun together. We were roommates in Tampa, and then we played in the Arizona Fall League together. We lived close to each other out there, and we became close friends. We stayed in touch after that season, and then we were teammates again in Double-A. We found a way to make it a priority to support each other, when we were struggling or when we were playing well.”
Andujar’s feelings about Torres -- and his supportive nature -- are similar.
“He’s a great teammate,” the third baseman said. “He’s young but very mature. He’s always looking to help his teammates. He and I are always talking about the game and ways that we can get better. Even though he has only been in the Majors for a short time, he’s already the type of player you can learn from. He’s friendly and relatable. He’s a good guy who also likes to have fun.”
During their six weeks together in Arizona, Torres took home MVP honors, and Andujar began to understand why there was so much hype surrounding his teammate at second base.
“That fall, I could really see how good of a baseball player he could be,” Andujar said. “He has a lot of qualities and so many different tools. I knew that he had the potential to be great, and I think he’s going to be even better than he was last season. I think that’s going to happen right away.”
For both players, that’s the goal for 2019, and they have worked hard this offseason to achieve it.
“My main focus this offseason was working on my body,” said Andujar, who turned 24 in early March. “I wanted to come into Spring Training in better physical shape than I was in last year. I believe that will help me to stay healthy. Overall, there are plenty of other things I plan to work on. I want to improve on all aspects of my game and become a better overall player this season.”
Torres was one of the first players to arrive in Tampa this winter, working out at the team’s Minor League facility for the first time on Jan. 30. Like Andujar, he was intent on hitting the ground running on Opening Day.
“My goal before I arrived was to get stronger and build up my stamina,” Torres said. “A big reason I got to Tampa early was to work with [infield coach] Carlos Mendoza on my defense and go over several things we had talked about in the offseason. It was a way for me to get ahead of Spring Training, so that once it started, I would be where I wanted to be. It also allowed me to prepare myself mentally for Spring Training and for the season.”
With two of the best rookie performances in Yankees history already to their credit, Torres and Andujar have their sights set on even bigger goals. Hopefully, another year in the big leagues will bring them that much closer to attaining them.