Yankees looking early like team to beat in American League

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Just before the season started, I asked Yankees manager Aaron Boone on TV how it felt to be managing a third-place team, or words like that. While Harold Reynolds was gasping a room away, Boone seemed unfazed, unannoyed. Boone answered calmly, saying he had great confidence in his team, more than many (apparently me included). 

On Sunday, when I asked Boone if he recalled that conversation, he said no. And the reason is plain: He hears a lot of stupidity, and gives it no heed. This is a great gift. 

I’ve known Boone a bit since he was 14, the middle of Bob Boone’s three ballplaying boys (the oldest Bret, you know; Matt, was a Tigers draftee). I was a writer covering the California Angels and Bob, their starting catcher. Yes, it was eons ago. The middle Boone son always seemed unfailingly upbeat. Today, he drowns out negativity and noise, even if it comes from a misguided sometime TV “talent.” 

Boone is so positive you wonder if it’s legit. I asked him if he meant what he said that day. No surprise, he did. You believe him. 

He’s upbeat, yet honest. Remember, he’s about the only player ever to admit he hurt himself doing something in violation of his contract when he wrecked his knee playing offseason hoops, costing himself a huge paycheck and us more than a decade of A-Rod drama. Such rare honesty just might have earned him his current job 13 years later. 

Anyway, as good as Boone felt about the Yankees as spring closed, he must feel that much better now, as they stand 19-8 after splitting Sunday’s doubleheader versus Texas, still the best in AL. It’s early but they are starting to establish themselves as the team to beat in the American League.

The Yankees celebrates after their walk-off win over the Rangers.
The Yankees celebrate after their walk-off win over the Rangers.
Robert Sabo for the NY POST

Gerrit Cole, such a perfectionist he was cursing his one bad pitch, the last of 114 (a homer by Kole Calhoun), into the press conference after 6 ¹/₃ mostly brilliant innings. Walk-off specialist Gleyber Torres homered to win it, his MLB-leading seventh walk-off hit since 2018. 

There’s daily vindication, and the oft-criticized Cole (ERA is down to 2.67), Torres and the rest are earning it. Over the past 16 days, they’ve lost one game. As wrong as I was, that’s how right Boone looks today. 

Like many folks, I was concerned about a winter the Blue Jays did headline-grabbing things, and the Yankees did little, or so it seemed. 

The Blue Jays signed Kevin Gausman, who nearly won a Cy Young, I mentioned to Boone. But Boone pointed out they also lost a Cy Young winner, Robbie Ray. 

The Blue Jays acquired Matt Chapman, I also mentioned. But they also lost Marcus Semien, as Boone correctly countered. 

Meantime, the Yankees grabbed the back page maybe one day, when they traded Gary Sanchez and Gio Ursehla for Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Josh Donaldson and Ben Rortvedt. At the time, the deal looked like both a wash and a gamble. But it gave them a defensive shortstop worthy of the pinstripes, and it removed a catcher in Sanchez who should have been dealt earlier. 

Boone recalled being “a little bummed out” when Kiner-Falefa went to the Twins first, but the Yankees made sure he only remained there momentarily, adding a shortstop that does the little things in a winter when they did enough little things to improve their team significantly. Boone suggested they are “incrementally” better in several areas. 

Aaron Boone (left) hugs Gleyber Torres (right) after his walk-off home run.
Aaron Boone (left) hugs Gleyber Torres (right) after his walk-off home run.
Robert Sabo for the NY POST
Aaron Boone reacts during the Yankees' win over the Rangers.
Aaron Boone reacts during the Yankees’ win over the Rangers.
AP

In one area they are a whole lot better. They were 29th out of 30 last year in defensive runs saved. When you rank that low, it’s not how many runs you saved but how many you gave away. They are third this year. 

“Oh yeah,” Boone answered when he was asked if he meant what he said on the eve of the season. “I think we have a chance to be really good. We’ll see. The beauty of it is we get a chance to find out.” 

The verdict is far from in, but a month and a day into the season, the Yankees look like the AL’s best team. There are two reasons for this. One, they look pretty good. And two, nobody else does. 

While the American League always wins the All-Star Game, and the big-name free-agent shortstops the Yankees didn’t get moved to the AL, the better teams are in the NL. The Dodgers look best again, the Mets and Brewers are up there, and the Braves will be. 

Meanwhile, in the AL, there are a lot of ifs and buts. 

The Jays have posted a negative run differential. The White Sox, while better lately, are banged up. The Rays still own their smoke and mirrors, but that isn’t enough. The Mariners, who had magic last year, have settled into a more normal routine. The Red Sox, well, they just stink (OK, I’m bitter after picking them for the postseason). 

Yes, the Angels and Twins are improved. But they both still have a serious pitching depth questions. 

The Astros, who have a lot of pitching, once against look like the real threat. 

Yes sir, things are lining up nicely for the Yankees. And if they meet the Astros in the ALCS, they can avenge the bitter taste that won’t go away — the taste from 2017.

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