TAMPA, Fla. -- The New York Yankees are a ballclub that has relied on older, overpaid and mostly underperforming talent for so long that it always comes as a surprise to see players in their lineup whose best years are still ahead of them, not in the rear-view mirror.
And when those players actually perform up to expectations, well, you start to think that maybe owner Hal Steinbrenner is right when he says no ballclub needs a $240 million payroll to win.
Such a sight was on display Saturday, when Jorge Mateo and Aaron Judge, an exacta you can play in either order -- they generally run 1-2 atop lists of the Yankees' best prospects -- homered, impressively, in a 6-4 victory over a pseudo-Boston Red Sox squad at Steinbrenner Field (more on the pseudo part).
Mateo's home run was impressive because the young man who hit it is a 188-pound, 20-year-old shortstop known for speed, not power, who hit just two home runs in 365 at-bats last year in Class A ball. But in two big-league games this spring, Mateo has lined one shot off the wall that went for a triple in the spring opener, and on Saturday, he hit the base of the scoreboard in deep left-center. He jogged out of the box on the first one and had to turn on the jets to make it to third base. After a talking-to by some of his teammates, he ran so hard out of the box Saturday he might be the first player to lose his cap during a home run "trot."
"I think he was a little excited, which is great to see," manager Joe Girardi said of Mateo's fast turn around the bases. "You want to see young players play with enthusiasm."
As for Judge, he is a 6-foot-7, 275-pound monster with size-17 feet whose home runs generally leave no doubt -- he belted one over that same 50-foot high scoreboard in batting practice last week -- but on this one, he got about half of a curveball and sliced it the other way, the ball sailing over the right-field wall, a three-run home run that ultimately provided the Yankees' final margin of victory.
"He's so strong," Girardi said. "He's going to miss balls and still hit them out."
The important thing, however, was not that two young players hit home runs in a meaningless early-spring game -- the manager himself subscribes to the baseball adage, "Don't believe anything you see in spring training" -- but that for the first time in a long time, the Yankees actually seem to be developing players not just to be traded away for someone else's established (read: aging) stars, but who might actually develop into stars of their own.
"Well, I think you see how close our young players are getting and the talent level," Girardi said. "It's there. There's a lot of talent in our minor leagues and that's exciting for everyone in this organization. You feel like if something happens to one of your players you can rely on people to come up and do a good job. It's nice when you can go to that well, because you know you're going at some point."
Carlos Beltran, one of the prime candidates to give way to the Yankees' youth movement -- Judge, like Beltran, is a right fielder -- has taken a special interest in both players. Much has been written of how he requested that Judge's locker be placed near his in the Yankees' spring clubhouse. He has also taken to conversing with the shy, Spanish-speaking Mateo, and he is likely to have been one of the Yankees teammates who spoke to him about his leisurely trip out of the box last Wednesday.
"He's a great talent. He has a great approach," Beltran said. "He looks comfortable. It's kind of like [pitcher Luis] Severino, but as a position player. He looks like he has been there before, and that's great confidence. When you have confidence like that, that translates into success, so I'm happy to see that."
Beltran said Mateo had come to him before the game to speak about how much he missed his family in the Dominican Republic, and the 38-year-old Beltran assured the kid it was no different for him, despite being in his 19th camp.
"Before I left, my wife was crying, my daughter was crying, my son was crying and my five-month-old was looking at all of them like, 'What's going on here?,'" Beltran said. "I told him, I understand how difficult that can be, but just make sure you don't lose focus on what's going to take care of the family, and that's your career. He's a good kid, man. He listens. He's very polite and he's humble. Something that I don't see often."
Judge, too, is humbled despite the majesty of his spring home runs. On Saturday, he credited the wind with helping his shot find the seats, as he did on the day he cleared the big scoreboard. His batting practices have become must-see events -- even a bunch of Red Sox gathered on the top step of their dugout to watch him hit before the game -- but Judge said he hadn't noticed any additional attention.
But he, too, is impressed by Mateo. "Oh, my goodness," he said when asked about Mateo's home run. "The guy [Red Sox starter Steven Wright] was just throwing knuckeball after knuckleball and Mateo got ahold of one. With his speed, too, I thought he would touch home plate before it landed."
Neither one is likely to land in the Bronx on Opening Day -- Mateo is still a Class-A player and Judge struggled, hitting just .224, after being promoted to Triple-A last year.
"You can't get too caught up in [spring training success], especially early on," Girardi said. "But things happen. Sometimes guys end up making the club. I don't ever rule anything out."