Aaron Hicks, left, Aaron Judge and the “Baby Bomber” Yankees are on top of the American League East. (Elsa/Getty Images)

The winningest general manager in baseball, the only one with four World Series titles on his ledger, has never won a major executive of the year award. For much of his tenure, it was easy to dismiss Brian Cashman’s success as the result of the New York Yankees’ industry-leading resources and ownership’s willingness to spend them. Cashman, in this view, was merely the bag man, handing over the Steinbrenners’ cash to the next big-ticket free agent.

But that perception, never exactly true in the first place, no longer exists. Cashman has far greater control of the team’s baseball operations than he used to, and the Yankees are no longer the game’s biggest spenders: Their Opening Day payroll ranked third, behind the Dodgers and Tigers. The franchise’s financial philosophy the past couple of years has been one of mostly restraint.

The 2017 Yankees are Cashman’s team, more than in any previous year, and as the season rounds first base and heads toward second, this collection of players may represent the pinnacle of his career as an executive. Entering Friday’s play, the Yankees, built largely around a group of youngsters known as the “Baby Bombers,” were 27-17 and leading the American League East, baseball’s toughest division, by 2½ games.

Over the offseason, the Yankees undertook one of the most difficult missions in baseball, attempting to transition to a younger, more flexible roster while still assembling a championship-caliber club. It helped, of course, to have some $200 million in payroll budget, but it still left Cashman in the tough spot of trying to achieve two separate goals that are often at cross-purposes.

“It’s a balancing act,” Cashman said earlier this season. “You’re trying to constantly get younger, and build up for the present and the future, but also continue to try to fight for a playoff spot.”

Cashman said he doesn’t derive any more satisfaction from this roster, because of the way it was constructed, in relation to the World Series title teams of 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009 — “The only thing that matters, everything we do, is to win a championship,” he said — but he conceded the challenges are different.

“I thought this team was capable of all colors of the rainbow,” he said. “It could be really, really good, or there could be growing pains if we hit road bumps at various stages. Right now, I’m proud of what we’ve done, but there’s a long way to go.”

There is no defined starting point in the construction of this roster — the longest-tenured Yankee, Brett Gardner, has been in the organization since 2005 — or any roster, for that matter, but in examining Cashman’s handiwork, it is possible to pick out pivot points along the way, where decisions were made that made possible what has occurred in the first two months of the 2017 season. Here is a look at four of them:

>> The 2013 draft. By making a qualifying offer the previous winter to veteran Nick Swisher — which Swisher, as the Yankees had hoped, eventually rejected — the Yankees received a compensatory draft pick, 32nd overall, when he signed elsewhere. And by failing to sign a major free agent themselves, they held onto their original first-round pick, 26th overall.

With the 26th pick, the Yankees took Notre Dame third baseman Eric Jagielo, who still hasn’t appeared above Class AA, but whom Cashman traded to Cincinnati in December 2015 as the centerpiece of the prospect package that got them closer Aroldis Chapman.

And with their 2013 compensatory pick, they took Fresno State outfielder Aaron Judge, a 6-foot-7, 280-pound behemoth who reached the majors in 2016 and who this year, with a league-leading 15 homers entering Friday and a 1.098 OPS, is a leading candidate for AL rookie of the year, if not most valuable player.

“Judge has definitely come quicker than we expected,” Cashman said. “We figured we were sitting on a better-than-average, everyday right fielder who could provide both offense and defense. But to become an MVP-contending type of player in his first full big league season? No, no one could have expected something like that.”

>> The December 2015 trades. Not only did they get Chapman from Cincinnati for four prospects, none of whom at this point look like impactful big leaguers, but in a separate trade, they also acquired three-time all-star second baseman Starlin Castro from the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Adam Warren and a player to be named (who turned out to be infielder Brendan Ryan). And not only has Castro, still just 27, become a middle-of-the-order mainstay in the Bronx, but they also reacquired Warren from the Cubs as a secondary piece in a trade last July, meaning they essentially got Castro for free. Warren, meantime, has become a key middle reliever in the Yankees’ bullpen.

>> The 2016 trade deadline. This was the centerpiece of the Yankees’ transition, as in a span of a week they traded away veteran relievers Chapman and Andrew Miller and outfielder Carlos Beltran for a total of 11 players, mostly prospects — including highly regarded shortstop Gleyber Torres, who could be on his way to the Bronx this summer. Almost instantly, the Yankees’ farm system went from one rated in the middle of the pack to one that Baseball America ranked as the second-best in the game entering this season.

In a less heralded trade, they also picked up reliever Tyler Clippard from Arizona for a reliever, Vicente Campos, whom the Diamondbacks waived after the season. Entering Friday, Clippard has a 1.37 ERA this season and has allowed only one earned run this month.

And around this same time, they promoted catcher Gary Sanchez to the big leagues, where he went on to hit 20 homers in just 53 games for the Yankees.

>> The Chapman signing. This winter, Cashman made one important deviation from the downsizing strategy, signing Chapman to the richest contract in history for a closer — a five-year, $86 million deal. At first glance, it seemed a strange move for a team that didn’t necessarily envision itself as a championship contender in 2017. But Cashman knew it could be years before another closer such as Chapman would hit free agency — so the signing may have been more about 2018 and beyond, but it also gave the 2017 Yankees a ninth-inning anchor in the event this team arrived early, which appears to have happened. Though Chapman is on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, and could be out until mid-June, he remains among the most unhittable pitchers in the game.

What jumps out from these moves is the fact that Cashman, in the final equation, acquired many of this team’s key performers for virtually no corresponding cost in talent. The trade of Chapman to the Cubs last summer was the definition of a rental (and one that worked out well for the Cubs, who rode Chapman all the way to a World Series title), bringing them a potential future centerpiece, in Torres, while Chapman’s return via free agency cost them only money. Castro, Warren and Clippard were also effectively acquired for free. Meantime, the development of Sanchez, Judge, pitcher Luis Severino and (so far) Torres has been a textbook example of bringing along young players in a championship atmosphere.

Plenty can still happen in 2017. Injuries could derail the Yankees’ season. Their youngsters could flame out all at once. They could get caught by the Baltimore Orioles and/or Boston Red Sox. They could stay in contention all year, but still fall just short. They could trade for a front-line starter such as Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole and go deep into October.

But this much is clear: Even if it doesn’t happen this year, the Yankees, five years since their last division title and eight years since their last World Series win, are back as a perennial championship contender. And Cashman, their architect, deserves a huge portion of the credit.