What separates these Yankees from the ones who came up just short

We are conditioned to change. We expect it. Baseball is a transient business, and the characters are ever-evolving. The Yankees were last in the American League Championship Series two years ago, and they came damn close to making it through. They were up 3-2 in games heading back to Houston, and the Astros were good enough to win the World Series two weeks later.

So logic says: Those Yankees might’ve been good enough, too.

And yet when you look back 103 weeks, it is difficult to believe just how different things are for the Yankees – better, in many areas, at least on paper. The first four names in the lineup on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017 — Game 7 of that ALCS — are still familiar and all played a part in the Yankees’ sweep of the Twins in the ALDS that feels like it was clinched sometime in the Reagan administration, though it was only Monday:

1. Brett Gardner, LF

2. Aaron Judge, RF

3. Didi Gregorius, SS

4. Gary Sanchez, C

Only Judge retained his spot in the order against the Twins. Gardner hit third all three games (and that would’ve probably surprised just about everyone back on Oct. 21, 2017, since it seemed that might be Gardner’s farewell game as a Yankee). Gregorius, who had a fine series against the Twins (.400/.500/.700), did so from the 8-hole after scuffling badly in September. Sanchez hit seventh against Minnesota, which might tell you the most about what’s become of the Yankees from then until now.

The other five? They all tell a huge story in the evolution of who the Yankees have become, and what they’ve become, since Game 7 103 weeks ago. Remember: Those Yankees had crashed the ALCS; they’d won 91 games in the regular season, smashed the Twins (naturally) in the wild-card game, and fell behind 0-2 to the Indians in the ALDS – not at all surprising after the Indians had won 102 games that year.

And then …

5. Greg Bird, 1B

Yes, it may be hard to remember this, but the great Yankees renaissance that was capped with this season’s 103 wins (backing up last year’s 100 wins) was ignited by the bat of Bird, the onetime phenom, for whom so much was expected and who has suffered through two full years of injury and underachievement.

But in ’17, it was Bird who in Game 3 of the ALDS hit a towering home run leading off the bottom of the seventh inning against lefty killer Andrew Miller that completely turned that series around. He backed that up with another homer against the Astros. Of all the heavy hitters in the Yankees arsenal, it was thought his might be the most dangerous bat. Now, if the Yankees had a depth chart like a football team, he’d be, at best, the fifth-string first baseman, behind D.J. LeMahieu (who had the Yankees’ strongest case for an MVP vote this season), Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Ford.

It gets more interesting from there.

6. Starlin Castro, 2B

7. Aaron Hicks, LF

Even then, of course, Castro was viewed as a mere place-holder for Gleyber Torres, who sat out most of the ’17 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Castro also became the one major-league asset the Yankees were required to ship a few months later to Florida in order to make Giancarlo Stanton a Yankee.

Stanton is a mainstay now in left field, where Hicks used to roam. Hicks’ potential return to the ALCS roster certainly deepens the Yankees’ attack (though Cameron Maybin, the likely victim if Hicks is added, had a fine season, too, and hit a home run in Game 3 against the Twins). Hicks had a difficult ALCS in ’17 (.083/.154/.125), and when the Yankees’ offense disappeared the last two games in Houston, much of it was the result of the absence of any firepower from the final four slots in the order, which included:

8. Todd Frazier, 3B

9. Chase Headley, DH

And that might tell you as much as anything the difference between then and now. Headley actually raked against the Astros, hitting .389 for the series, but he couldn’t have been escorted out of town fast enough, and the man who DHs now, Encarnacion, is about as popular as any player on the team if you believe the preponderance of parrots at Yankee Stadium during the ALDS. And when Frazier quietly slipped across town the last two years, third base has been manned by a should’ve-been Rookie of the Year (Miguel Andujar) and a genuine folk hero (Gio Urshela).

Also: CC Sabathia started Game 7. He, of course, will still be mostly a cheerleader in 2019, even if he is added to the active roster.

Also, part 2: Joe Girardi didn’t know that Oct. 21, 2017, would be his final day on the job as Yankees skipper (and couldn’t know that 103 weeks later, a vocal majority of Mets fans would be pining for him to manage in Queens), and nobody besides Brian Cashman likely knew that Aaron Boone was even a possibility to replace him. That one worked out just fine so far, too.

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