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Mudville: February 8, 2023 4:46 am PDT
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Deeds, Not Words

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Pay little attention to the words coming out of  the mouths of Yankees management, especially owner Hal Steinbrenner.

Pay attention to the deeds of the people in charge.

The Yankees are great at mixed-messaging, not only to the fans but to their players as well.

As we head into the Winter Meetings in my old stomping grounds of San Diego, Hal Steinbrenner let it be known that top prospects Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe will both be given “a shot’’ in spring training.

Isn’t that great?

Hal is only a year behind. That’s what should have been said heading into spring training of 2022, not 2023 for shortstop. That lack of true faith in young players cost the Yankees dearly this past season.

All you had to do was look at the two World Series opponents.

The Astros rolled the dice with their young shortstop Jeremy Pena allowing Carlos Correa to walk away from the Astros and all Jeremy did was hit the home run that won the ALDS for the Astros over the Mariners, then won ALCS MVP honors against the Yankees in the Astros sweep of the Yankees and then won World Series MVP in the win over the Phillies.

The Phillies had their own rookie shortstop in Bryson Stott. It’s a young man’s game. This marked the first time in World Series history that both teams started a rookie at shortstop.

Dusty Baker was key to Pena’s development and when Rob Thomson took over as Phillies manager, he put his trust in Stott. Add to that the coaching of Bobby Dickerson that helped develop Stott on the run and you have the tale of two rookie World Series shortstops.

It is really quite incredible when you think about that.

Gee, maybe Hal watched the World Series and figured something out. Maybe my two young middle infield prospects deserve a chance to wear Pinstripes.

Yes, rookies are allowed to play shortstop.

You don’t have to acquire a mediocre veteran or like two years ago take your second baseman Gleyber Torres and screw up his development by moving him to shortstop. You mean there is a more traditional way to build a middle infield with your own young players you develop?

Wow, what a concept.

Now more than ever in the major leagues you have to show faith in young players and the Yankees do not always show that faith, preferring to go the veteran route or re-inventing the wheel by changing a player’s position. Defense matters.

I talked to several top scouts and the word I got was both Peraza and Volpe should have both been up last season at some point in the year. Volpe never got higher than AAA while Peraza got 18 games and 49 at-bats in the majors, hitting .306. Peraza also got three at-bats in the postseason.

Better late than never, but once again the Yankees have shown their Fear of Commitment to young players and that’s on Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman – and that is the subject of The Story this week.

What I really like is scouts say both players have natural winning instincts and they are extremely smart players. I like smart players and with the new law of the land being that infielders have to have their feet on the dirt and a second baseman has to play second base and a shortstop has to play shortstop, it’s more important now to have true athletes who can think for themselves. Being good baserunners with the new rules help too.

Nothing speaks more highly of your young prospects than giving $6 million to a veteran shortstop who struggled so badly at the position. That’s a real boost of confidence for those kids and another $6 million that could have been used in a different manner.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 20: Oswald Peraza #91 of the New York Yankees throws to first base to record the first out against the Houston Astros during the seventh inning in game two of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 20, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Middle infield is a position of grace and it will be a thinking man’s position once again, not just a spot where you read the notes of some Nerd on a card that you have stuck in your back pocket.

Talk about taking the romance out of the game.

The Nerds have done so many things to destroy baseball but taking away the romance from the game, the grace of the game, those things are at the top of the list.

Former Yankee Mike Gallego, who played 13 years and 1,111 Major League games once said: “They talk about hitting and pitching being contagious, but the most contagious part of baseball is defense.’’

That goes for bad defense too – that can become contagious – you have to be solid up the middle and for all the Nerds who say strikeouts don’t matter, all you have to do is go back to Game 4 against the Astros in the seventh inning when Pena hit a grounder to second. Jose Altuve was running and Torres rushed the toss to shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who did not plant himself at second. IKF scurried across the bag trying for two instead of standing square and getting the sure out.

There was no way the Yankees were going to turn two with Pena running so this was a combined bad play by both middle infielders.

And strikeouts do matter, Nerds.

I know he has fallen out of favor now but there is no denying that Tony La Russa analyzes the game in a precise manner and he once said: “If the out is there to be taken and you don’t get it, that can make your ballclub droop. Then the mistakes multiply.’’

Ironically, the mistake does not happen if the ball is not put in play.

Pena put the ball in play. If that is a strikeout in that situation, there is no rally there for the Astros; putting the ball in play matters and next season with all the new infield rules, it is going to matter even more. In a future column here I will look at what will be different and the repercussions of those changes. The game will change. Middle infield play is something vital again.

PORTLAND, ME - MAY 24: Portlands David Hamilton slides under the tag of Somersets Anthony Volpe for a stolen base Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Of course while Hal was telling Bryan Hoch of MLB.com: “In my opinion, they’re going to get a shot … They both progressed really well this year. I think we’re all looking forward to seeing what these kids can do, competing for a spot in the spring,’’ and other such platitudes about Peraza and Volpe there was something else going on here, there is always something else going on with the Yankees.

In fact, the Yankees are so looking forward to seeing what the latest batch of Baby Bombers can bring to the table, Big Hal and Cashman decided to hand over $6 million to Isiah Kiner-Falefa to prove their point as they avoided arbitration with IKF after a most shaky season and postseason.

Nothing speaks more highly of your young prospects than giving $6 million to a veteran shortstop who struggled so badly at the position. That’s a real boost of confidence for those kids and another $6 million that could have been used in a different manner.

“Hey, we believe in you guys and just to prove it we are going to give $6 million to a player who struggled at shortstop.’’

See what I mean when I say pay little attention to the words?

A year ago, the Astros did not take the safe route, they let Carlos Correa walk, a great move – and handed over the shortstop duties to Pena at the start of the 2022 season.

That’s true leadership, that’s a plan with vision and Dusty Baker was a huge Pena backer.

That’s what World Champions do.

Teams like the Yankees who get constantly embarrassed by the Astros, come up with excuses and talk about next year and giving the kids a shot in the next spring training.

I’m guessing that one of the reasons that Big Hal is saying what he is saying now is a way of telling Aaron Judge, “Hey, we are not afraid to bring youth into our lineup.’’

I’m sure Judge would not mind the Yankees being a bit younger and bit more enthusiastic. Judge is weighing money, of course, but he also is seeing what teams get him to the postseason. What’s the plan? That is a part of the puzzle.

New York Yankees joint owner Hal Steinbrenner during a press conference at Regent Street Cinema, London. (Photo by Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images via Getty Images)

The irony here, if you are looking for it – and even if you are not I’m going to find it for you – if the Yankees had shown such a commitment to Judge two or three years ago they would have signed Judge long term but again that fear of commitment to young players is a Yankee thing.

They would not be in this position now with Judge. He would have been locked up to a long-term deal and they would have looked like geniuses but it wasn’t until the last minute they made their offer, an offer that should have come years ago.

But that’s the way the Yankees do business. Maybe that has something to do with why they have won only one World Championship after the 2000 season.

The Giants by the way have won three World Championships since the Yankees last won in 2009, but I am well aware this is not the Brian Sabean (Baseball First) crew that is running these Giants. The jury is still out on whether these people know what the heck they are doing after a terrible disappointing season where the 81-81 Giants finished in third place in the NL West, a stunning 30 games back of the Dodgers while the 99-63 Yankees finished first in the AL East, seven games in front.

The Judge situation will play out soon and the Yankees will have a better grasp on what their future actually looks like going forward, but for now they need to not be afraid to show their young players they believe in them, and more than show it, continue to develop them with excellent coaching and player development.

The original Baby Bombers were going to change the Yankees for the better. That didn’t work out too well, so here we are with Baby Bombers II. The Yankees seem to have true players with these infielders and only they can mess it up. From everything I’ve heard from scouts from other organizations, both Peraza and Volpe are can’t miss prospects. They play the game right, and have leadership skills as well. I expect them to make the most of their shot next spring training but it is a shot that should have come earlier.

Baseball is an art in so many ways. It’s also a game built on timing. Not only the pitcher and batter being in their respective rhythm and having perfect timing, but the timing of when to bring up a young player, especially shortstops.

That timing has to be perfect so that the young player builds confidence, understands he belongs and makes the most of the opportunity. Sometimes it doesn’t work out for the young player and they may need a trip back to the minors to get it right.

Both the Astros and Phillies got it right last year. They also had the right people in place to guide the young shortstops. Those organizations scouted themselves well and were not afraid to make the switch. That they both wound up in the World Series speaks volumes.

No one could have predicted how well Pena would play and what a difference maker he would become at shortstop and in the lineup as Baker stuck with him in the No. 2 spot in the order. Baker’s lifetime of baseball wisdom helped smooth the transition for Jeremy Pena. By taking that chance with his young shortstop he gave the Astros the chance to become World Champions. The Astros could have taken the path the Yankees did in acquiring a veteran shortstop to make it a transition year.

They went for the gold instead and that made all the difference in the world.

The Yankees could learn a lesson here. There is a big difference between taking a shot and taking your best shot.

Have a plan with a vision and happy hunting at the Winter Meetings.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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