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Big, bad Yankees are MLB's must-watch team

Astros still favorites in AL, but Bronx Bombers will be most entertaining
MLB.com @MikeLupica

Nothing has changed across Spring Training and all the way to Opening Day: The Astros, who won it all last season, are still the team to beat in baseball. But something else hasn't changed, either: The Yankees are still the team to watch.

In fact, the Yankees are as much a team to watch coming into a season as any team they've ever had, on either side of 161st St. in the Bronx. Of course, they now have to back up the hype machine that has been blasting since they traded for Giancarlo Stanton, with the way Stanton and Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are supposed to blast home runs.

Nothing has changed across Spring Training and all the way to Opening Day: The Astros, who won it all last season, are still the team to beat in baseball. But something else hasn't changed, either: The Yankees are still the team to watch.

In fact, the Yankees are as much a team to watch coming into a season as any team they've ever had, on either side of 161st St. in the Bronx. Of course, they now have to back up the hype machine that has been blasting since they traded for Giancarlo Stanton, with the way Stanton and Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are supposed to blast home runs.

Of course, the Yankees still have to play the season. But there has never been a more intriguing preseason in the franchise's storied history.

It is mostly about home runs.

The Yankees are supposed to hit more than anybody else in what has become a home run sport, with balls flying out of Major League ballparks like Titleist golf balls, in what sometimes feels like the national pastime of launch angles and uppercut swings, and treating strikeouts like mere speed bumps. Stanton hit 59 home runs for the Marlins last year. All Rise Judge hit 52 for the Yanks. And, oh by the way, Sanchez, their starting catcher, managed to hit 50 home runs in his first 161 big league games.

Video: PIT@NYY: Sanchez skies a three-run homer to right

It all means this is where we came in with the Yankees, a million years ago, with Babe Ruth. He was the one who made the Yanks big and bad and glamorous with home runs in the first place, back in the 1920s, when people talked about Murderers' Row instead of Evil Empires. Now home runs have brought the Yankees to Opening Day 2018 as what people expect to be the greatest baseball show on earth.

Doesn't get them past the Astros, who finally beat New York in seven games in the 2017 American League Championship Series. Doesn't mean the Yankees are some mortal lock to beat the Red Sox in the AL East. Doesn't even mean that the Yanks will get past the Indians again in the postseason, the way they did last October after the Tribe had them down, 2-0, in the AL Division Series.

The Yankees still haven't won a World Series since 2009 -- the only one they have won in the past 18 years. Every time there are these sort of sky-high expectations for them, there is the idea that order has been restored to the universe, Yankee Universe, as if they're about to turn right back into Joe Torre's championship teams.

They may never again win four World Series in five years -- and nearly five in six years -- the way Torre's Yankees did between 1996-2001, when the D-backs beat them in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the '01 World Series. But they look big and bad again. It's a good thing, as they prepare to give the ball to their young ace, Luis Severino, in Toronto and have 162 games to begin sorting things out.

Before the Yankees made their run last season, before they upset the Indians and nearly did the same to the Astros --- against whom they didn't just stop hitting home runs, but stopped hitting at all in Games 6 and 7 -- the Yanks hadn't been fun to watch in a long time. Now they have the 6-foot-7 Judge and the 6-foot-6 Stanton, who hit 111 jacks between them in 2017. It means the Yankees, in all ways, are big guys again. Fun to watch; the team to watch.

There are other storylines, of course, all over the map. There always are. The long regular season is always the great, long novel of American sports. There is no more compelling storyline than how many home runs the Yankees might hit, and how far they might hit them, and whether or not all their big guys can swing them all the way back to the World Series.

Video: State of the Yankees: Brian Cashman

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman began remaking his team's roster near the non-waiver Trade Deadline in 2016, rebuilding their farm system in an almost dizzying way, principally with trades involving Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, the latter of whom Cashman then got back to be his closer as a free agent.

Cashman set the Yankees up for the future. But the ironic thing about those deals is that they really haven't impacted the 2018 Yanks at all. New York already had Judge. Already had Sanchez. Nobody could ever have dreamt that Stanton might be on his way to the Bronx at the time. But there Stanton will be Monday, when the Yankees are scheduled to open their home schedule against the Rays.

And how did Stanton close out his Spring Training? Oh, wait, I know: He hit one 434 feet against the Braves in Atlanta. Stanton said he is ready for New York, even though not even Reggie Jackson was ready for New York 40 years ago, when he arrived at the old Stadium saying he was bringing his star with him to the big city.

Video: NYY@ATL: Stanton clobbers a two-run homer to left

Reggie had already been on A's teams that had been the last to win three World Series in a row. Stanton has still not taken a postseason at-bat in his career. It's still amazing that he is a Yankee, the deal for him made in an offseason when the Yanks thought their big play might be for Shohei Ohtani.

On Tuesday, I asked Cashman -- who has seen a lot in two decades on the stick for the Yankees, and who knows as well as anyone how dreary the Yanks had become before last season -- if he has ever had a team as intriguing to him as this one.

"It's hard to say," he said, "as I'm always forgetful about the past, and always hopeful about the future."

Cashman made a turn with his franchise in the summer of 2016, making those trades, selling instead of buying. So the team that sells the past the most -- simply because it has more past than anybody else -- began talking about the future. Then the future began to arrive earlier than scheduled or planned last October. Now, the Yankees come swinging into the end of March and into April.

The Yankees, with those big guys, are looking big and bad again. Good for baseball.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com and the New York Daily News, and is a best-selling author.

New York Yankees