We were standing in front of the visitors' dugout at First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in Aaron Boone’s first Spring Training as manager of the Yankees. He had come there, really, from the broadcast booth. Yankees senior vice president and general manager Brian Cashman, the man who hired him, said that when Boone was doing Sunday Night Baseball for ESPN, he always acted as if he were getting ready to manage the game instead of talk about it on television. But now things had gotten real for Boone. He wasn’t just managing in the big leagues. He was managing the Yankees.
"I want to chase the prize," Boone said that day.
Boone was talking about the prize of winning the World Series, which is how they keep score at Yankee Stadium, even though the Yankees have won just once since 2000 (and it was 10 years ago). Boone won 100 games as a rookie manager, finished eight games behind the Red Sox and lost to the Sox in the American League Division Series. He didn’t win enough, so this season, he has dialed everything up. The Yankees will win more games this season.
The Yankees will also do something they have not done in seven years, as impossible as that is to believe, just because they are the Yankees: win the AL East.
It happens to be the longest they have gone without claiming the division crown since 1996, when they first won the AL East under Joe Torre, en route to winning it all. Before that, the last division title they had won over a full season was in '80.
There are so many compelling narratives surrounding Boone’s team this season, because of all the injuries the group has endured. By now, people in outer space now about the conga line of players who’ve gone to the injured list. They lost Giancarlo Stanton and their ace from last season, Luis Severino, and a star late-inning guy in Dellin Betances. Their starting center fielder, Aaron Hicks, got hurt, came back and got hurt again; he might be lost for the season. One of Cashman’s "regular irregulars," Mike Tauchman -- one of the many guys who got a chance and made the most of it -- is likely lost for the season because of a left calf injury. Miguel Andújar, one of 2018’s Baby Bombers, was lost early.
The Yankees still might end up with the best regular-season record, better than even the Astros or Dodgers. They might also hit 300 home runs as a team. Last season, the Red Sox clinched the AL East at Yankee Stadium, then closed out the ALDS at Yankee Stadium. Now the Yanks haven't just eliminated the Sox in the AL East at Fenway Park, they were also in town when Boston dismissed its president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski. And please don’t think that the way the Yankees have dominated the Red Sox -- and the division -- this season and the way Cashman has the Yanks set up for the immediate future didn’t factor into what just happened to Dombrowski, less than a year from when the Sox won their fourth World Series since 2004.
As far back as April, I asked Dombrowski what it was like to watch his team start out 3-8 on the West Coast.
“Really, our most concerning situation is that we have just not played well,” Dombrowski said at the time. “Hopefully, we can change that in the near future.”
They never really did.
Every contender always has the same boxes to check in the spring. Win a division. If you can’t win a division, at least win a Wild Card. If you win the division, also try to get best record. Then try to win the three postseason series that win you the prize that Boone was talking about when he first became manager of the Yankees.
Boone has done a superb job to this point, as has Cashman. So have the Yankees themselves. DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela have been among the most valuable players in the league. Aaron Judge, the big guy who has to be big in all ways in October, has started to surge. Gleyber Torres is one of the bright young stars in the game.
The Yankees checked a box when they eliminated the Red Sox. The next one to check will be winning a division in which they are nine games ahead with 17 to play. That’s a prize, too, just because it’s taken the Yanks so long to do that. But by the end of October, they want it to feel like a door prize.