Thursday, September 21, 2006

AL East Champs: The Yankees win

The Yankees realized what became a foregone conclusion in mid-August after Boston Massacre II: their ninth-straight AL East crown. Barring a mini-collapse, the Yanks will win the division by their biggest margin since 2001 -- the year Bawstin sank to a near-.500 team when Pedro went down midway through the season.

The Yanks' ninth-straight division crown is remarkable considering what they had to overcome:

-- Boston's largest All-Star Break lead, and the Yanks' largest All-Star break deficit, in this 9-year run;

-- The loss by May of 2/3 of the starting outfield to injury, who combined for 57 HR and 239 RBI last year;

-- The ineffectiveness of Randy Johnson;

-- The absence of a consistent fifth starter;

-- The loss of Robinson Cano for four weeks.

Baastin fans complain about the Yankees' money and the RedSawx' injuries, but the fact is that the Yanks stayed even with the RedSux despite the latter's better team health (Lester and Papelbon filled in admirably for the loss of Clement and Foulke) through July and despite the RedSawx upgrade in the arms' race by landing Beckett by trade during the offseason. The Sawx' collapse coincided with their injuries, the Yanks stayed afloat despite their own problems.

So here's some credit where it's definitely due.

(1) Derek Jeter -- the captain is on the way to his second 100+ RBI season, is in the batting title race and has personified the daily grit of this team. This team looks and feels more like the 1996-2001 teams in terms of work ethic, batting approach, and intensity than any of the past four squads. Jeter, and Giambi, get a lot of credit for that. Jeter should be the AL MVP.

(2) Johnny Damon -- his presence in the clubhouse has had a positive effect on the team that exceeds his substantial contributions at the plate and in the field. Combining him with Giambi again, mixed with the Jeter/Rivera/Williams professionalism has made a good blend of lighthearted leadership with unquestionable dedication to victory.

(3) Brian Cashman -- his decisions in 2005 established the foundation for this team, and the 2007 team. When the Yanks hit 11-19, Cashman called for a youth infusion: Cano, Melky Cabrera and Chien-Ming Wang. Cano had a fine rookie season (and a good playoff series) to establish himself as the secondbaseman of the present and future. Wang pitched a solid 8-5, 4.02 last year and should have won his playoff start (defense honked). This year, he's been the Yankees' ace: 17-6, 3.64, only 11 HR allowed in 205 IP. He's the righty Tommy John: few strikeouts, fewer walks, ridiculous amounts of grounders. Cabrera was a washout last year -- but that failure, and the success of his close friend Cano, drove him to prepare for this season. The Melkman has been solid: he hits well, he is patient, his defense is solid (and his arm is good) and he has the same professional attitude and work ethic that Tino, Paul O'Neill and Jeter have. Credit Cashman for obtaining Bobby Abreu -- scorned in Philly but solid in NY, Abreu's addition has rocketed the Yanks to tops in the AL in runs scored even though the Yanks will end up with their lowest HR totals since the pre-Giambi years.

(4) Torre -- Jim Leyland will win Manager of the Year because the Tigers sucked before he arrived, and now they don't. But Torre has done another good job balancing new and old, spare parts and integral components on this team.

So congratulations to the 2006 Yankees, AL East Champs. In just under two weeks, the more important season begins.

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