WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Joe Girardi knows what it has been like these past few years the way Yankee fans know. Girardi knows what a grind it has been, all season long, grinding to get to 84 and 85 wins, living on the margins with so many aging players and so little starting pitching. He wears No. 28, Girardi does, because he has been chasing World Series championship No. 28 since 2009, when the Yankees won No. 27. But really, all the Yankees have done is chase a Wild Card in the American League. You started to think he should put "WC" on the back of his jersey.
The last time the Yankees were supposed to do anything or be anything in the postseason was back in 2012, when they won the American League East and beat the Orioles in the AL Division Series before getting swept by the Tigers in the AL Championship Series. Since then they have won 85 games and 84 and 87 and 84 and made the playoffs once, an AL Wild Card Game at the new Yankee Stadium in '15, in which they were shut out by Dallas Keuchel and the Astros, a 3-0 game at home, goodbye.
But a lot has changed around this spring, as the Yankees, who have always been in the business of selling the past, now sell the future because of all the Trade Deadline deals that Brian Cashman made last season. Suddenly, after all these dreary seasons, when the best the Yankees had to offer their fans were farewell tours for Mariano Rivera and then Derek Jeter, when they were selling the past as hard as they could one last time, suddenly they are talking about young guys again.
And it has made the manager a different guy.
Now Girardi is sitting in the visitors' dugout on the third-base side of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Monday morning, two weeks from the start of the regular season, talking about a dozen or more kids in this Yankee Spring Training whom Girardi thinks will someday end up in the big leagues.
Joe Girardi holds his hands about two feet apart and says, "We are talking about a large group of players who are really close."
Then he smiles, because Girardi has done a lot of smiling this spring as he has watched so many of the young guys hit balls all over the state of Florida, and says, "This is the biggest [talent pool] of young players we've had since I have been here."
He has been here since the 2008 season, when he succeeded Joe Torre, for whom he had been a champion catcher when Torre's Yankees won their first World Series back in 1996, the start of the last real Yankee dynasty, one that would see them win four Series in five years and take a lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 in 2001 before they lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
So now Cashman has hit the reset button. So now the Yankees don't just have a farm system again, they have a bunch of young guys knocking on the door. Not only does Cashman get an exciting shortstop named Gleyber Torres in a deal for Aroldis Chapman -- this was before Cashman threw the kind of free-agent money at Chapman he used to throw at everybody, and brought Chapman back -- he gets a former top pick named Billy McKinney, whom Girardi says has swung the bat this spring as well as anybody has. If you have been following the way the Yankees have been banging the ball around, that is saying plenty.
"The problem," Girardi says, "is that we're sort of not allowed to carry 45 guys."
He talks about Torres and how much talent he has, and what a good situational hitter he is already. He talks about 22-year old Tyler Wade, who can play six different positions. If you think that sounds like Ben Zobrist, go ahead, because it is a frame of reference the Yankees themselves have used. Girardi talks about the progress he has seen from a fun, exciting kid named Clint Frazier, whom the Yankees got from Cleveland for Andrew Miller, in that time when the Yankees were dealing two star left-handed late-inning guys who would pitch their new teams -- the Cubs and Indians -- all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
"There has just been this tremendous energy and excitement," Girardi says. "There is no question that things are different here than they've been. I'm not saying that all of them are ready to help us this season. But some of them are. And the ones who aren't? They're close."
About Gary Sanchez, who became one of the great young August-September home run hitters the Yankees have ever had, Girardi simply says, "Of course Sanchez is Sanchez," as if the kid's hitting and his skill set behind the plate have become that much of a given, this fast.
Sanchez will be there for Girardi. Greg Bird, back after shoulder surgery and back at first base, is hitting .421 this spring after getting two more hits against the Nationals. All Yankee fans would very much like to see Aaron Judge, who could be a body double for Giancarlo Stanton, start the season in right field. Other than that, Girardi has veterans like Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield, Chase Headley at third, and young veterans like Starlin Castro.
"And listen," Girardi says. "This isn't just about the future. We're gonna be a good team this year if the veterans on this team do what they're supposed to. But what all these kids have done is put everybody on notice. Everybody can see what I'm seeing, that some of these kids could very well help us this season."
Girardi smiles again. Again: Different guy this spring, because of all the young guys. "Competition brings out the best in everybody," he says. "Especially when you've got a bunch of young guys doing what young guys do, which means running around like their hair is on fire."
Girardi, old catcher, smart baseball man, one who has played the cards he has been dealt for years as well as you can play them, knows that for all the energy and excitement, for all the young talent on the field and the new depth to the farm system, he has no chance if the Yankees don't pitch. Michael Pineda, who has a world of talent, didn't make it through the second inning after the Yankees got ahead, 4-0, Monday, and Girardi finally went out to get him as Pineda was moving up on 50 pitches. This is the kind of disinterested slog Yankee fans know all too well from Pineda. And CC Sabathia has been hit this spring even as Masahiro Tanaka, Girardi's ace, has been almost unhittable at the same time. We know that Dellin Betances and Chapman are waiting in the late innings. It is how the Yankees get there that will tell you if they can make a run at the top of the AL East again. I think they can. Think they have a chance to be really good.
"You know what the best part of this season is for me?" a 25-year old Yankee fan named Matthew Fitzpatrick, originally out of Seaford, Long Island, is saying behind home plate on Monday. "If you're a Yankee fan, you're not spending all your time talking about a bunch of free agents past their primes."
They tried it that way for a long time. They out-spent the world for a decade-and-a-half, and even now, as they've reeled themselves in on the spending, people are already wondering how much they might spend on Bryce Harper or Manny Machado when they become free agents the year after next. But over that decade-and-a-half, the Yankees have won only one World Series. So they try it a different way, at long last. And try to light a fire under their fans, for the first time in a long time.