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Yanks' start revs up rivalry with Red Sox

New York, Boston set to face off for first time this season at Fenway
MLB.com @castrovince

It's early enough that we don't know enough, but there's juice to be squeezed from the Yankees-Red Sox matchup again. Maybe the three-game series that begins tonight at Fenway Park won't matter as much in the long run as it seems to matter right now, with both clubs within spitting distance of the first-place Orioles, but the fact that it matters at all is a nice change of pace for a rivalry that, in recent years, has existed more out of traditions than tangibles.

For that, we have the Yankees' strong start in what was supposed to be a "rebuild" year to thank. Interorganizational honesty and sensible sanity prevailed when the Yanks were summer sellers in 2016 for the first time in a generation, and the improvement from that point has been stark enough that people in the industry are already beginning to wonder if this club might be a buyer here in 2017.

It's early enough that we don't know enough, but there's juice to be squeezed from the Yankees-Red Sox matchup again. Maybe the three-game series that begins tonight at Fenway Park won't matter as much in the long run as it seems to matter right now, with both clubs within spitting distance of the first-place Orioles, but the fact that it matters at all is a nice change of pace for a rivalry that, in recent years, has existed more out of traditions than tangibles.

For that, we have the Yankees' strong start in what was supposed to be a "rebuild" year to thank. Interorganizational honesty and sensible sanity prevailed when the Yanks were summer sellers in 2016 for the first time in a generation, and the improvement from that point has been stark enough that people in the industry are already beginning to wonder if this club might be a buyer here in 2017.

Of course, the Yankees already were buyers, of a different sort, when they signed Aroldis Chapman to his record $86 million contract over the offseason. Five-year deal or not, you don't make a move like that if you're totally punting on the present tense.

But the Yanks' present has been brighter than even they could have honestly envisioned, all because:

Injuries haven't derailed them: You would have assumed a strong start for the Yankees would have to be directly tied to a sizzling one from Gary Sanchez, but he's missed all but five games with an elbow injury, and backup Austin Romine (.840 OPS) has come up clutch. The spring injury to Didi Gregorius has also been neutralized by the strong play of Ronald Torreyes, and Gregorius is due back as soon as this weekend.

Aaron Judge figured himself out: When you're 6-foot-7, you've got a big strike zone, and Judge's trouble with that zone led to a 44-percent strikeout rate in a small sample last season. This year, the rookie's significantly cut down on the K's (25.4 percent), hit some home runs so mammoth they ought to count for two and, on the underrated side of the spectrum, played good defense in right.

Video: NYY@PIT: Headley smacks a two-out RBI double

Some "old" guys look fresh: Chase Headley's had a substantially better showing against the shift (.375 average), Jacoby Ellsbury (.333/.380/.455 slash line) is a productive player for what feels like the first time since he first put on the pinstripes, CC Sabathia has learned how to make his diminished stuff work for certain hitters and just pitch around the guys who give him trouble.

Some mercurial talents have started strong: Starlin Castro's got a .357/.400/.571 slash line with seven extra-base hits, and the Yanks have won three of Michael Pineda's four starts thanks in part to his improved control (1.2 walks per nine).

Video: NYY@PIT: Carter crushes a pinch-hit three-run homer

There's been boom on the bench: Reigning National League home run champ Chris Carter is now a reserve, and that paid off the other night with a three-run pinch-hit homer. Outfielder Aaron Hicks was a reserve, but is playing himself into a more pronounced role with a sensational start (1.182 OPS, four homers, two doubles).

The bullpen is as advertised: Chapman's 12.8 strikeouts per nine rank fourth in this 'pen. Need I say more?

So that's a pretty good start, and we didn't even mention the encouraging signs shown lately by Tuesday's starter Luis Severino or the fact that Wednesday's starter Masahiro Tanaka looks locked in lately. The return of the injured bodies might provide another boost, as might a Judge-like epiphany from slow-starting-but-talented first baseman Greg Bird.

Video: CWS@NYY: Severino strikes out 10 over eight frames

But what makes the Yankees really dangerous is the farm system they fattened with last summer's sell-off. The additions of Gleyber Torres (Chapman trade) and Clint Frazier (Andrew Miller trade), ranked as the club's top two prospects by MLBPipeline.com, brought the Yanks added depth in the realm of natural shortstops and outfielders who rake. That's depth that could serve them well should they look to add Major League talent this summer. Same goes for Miller trade acquisition Justus Sheffield, who is now part of an eye-opening Double-A rotation that also features Domingo German and Chance Adams. I'm not suggesting the Yankees will move the guys they added in last year's overhaul; I'm saying those prime prospect pieces could give them the added flexibility to move others.

It's a long season, of course, and the Yanks could wind up regressing toward rebuild-like results. Still, when you combine the strong start with the organizational flexibility, you have something that looks increasingly interesting.

Yankees-Red Sox matters in April. But if one club is as better than advertised and the other is as good as advertised, this is a rivalry that might matter in September, too.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

New York Yankees