MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Yankees looking like the class of AL East

Club benefitting from A-Rod's production, stellar back end of bullpen

Yankees looking like the class of AL East

If you looked at the New York Yankees from a certain angle on Opening Day, you could see a team more than capable of finishing first in the American League East.

Or last.

That was the bottom line. No team in baseball had a longer list of questions. And the Yankees had the kinds of questions -- age, production, new faces -- that weren't going to be answered in a month or even in three months.

So this is a progress report. What have these first 57 games shown us? First, the Yanks (32-25) have passed every test, and if they're not yet the consensus favorite to finish first, they're close.

Despite a modest 91-win pace, they've spent six weeks atop the division and lead the second-place Rays by two games in the AL East standings. No other team has seemed capable of taking control.

The Rays may have a better rotation, the Blue Jays more offense. But the Yankees are much closer to being a complete team, and they looked that way again on Sunday by extending their winning streak to six games with a 6-2 victory over the Angels.

Two games isn't exactly an insurmountable lead, but the Yankees seem to be checking off their boxes one by one. They're scoring runs in bunches, hitting home runs, etc. They've got baseball's best eighth- and ninth-inning bullpen combination in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller (four earned runs in 53 appearances).

And the rotation has been competitive enough. Michael Pineda (3.33 ERA) and Adam Warren (3.64) have been solid. Nathan Eovaldi (4.16) has finished six innings in only four of his 11 starts and is still trying to harness that 95-mph stuff.

Masahiro Tanaka (2.76) has been very good, but he has only been able to make five starts. What hasn't changed since Opening Day is that he might be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.

Sabathia's 2,500th strikeout

Meanwhile, CC Sabathia (5.25) has continued to tease with some really good performances mixed with some not so good. If the Yanks can get what they got from him on Sunday when he allowed two runs in six innings vs. the Angels, they'll feel pretty good about their chances of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2012.

Among the questions were what some of the older players -- Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Sabathia -- still had left in the tank.

Teixeira has played in 54 of 57 games and has 17 home runs and a .931 OPS. The Yankees simply couldn't have hoped for more.

Rodriguez has played better than almost anyone thought possible (11 home runs, .907 OPS), and Brian McCann (seven home runs) and Brett Gardner (.793 OPS) have been good. Even with center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury on the disabled list for 20 games, the Yanks have continued to score runs.

All in all, there's plenty of reason for optimism. General manager Brian Cashman had done a tremendous job of adding players who were consummate professionals and great teammates. Even in the toughest of times in recent seasons, the Yankees have had the kind of environment and attitude any team would envy.

Girardi on win, ejection

In other words, the Yanks had players who did the pinstripes proud. And in Joe Girardi, they had a manager who gets as much out of his guys as anyone in the game.

One of the secondary story lines of two straight non-playoff seasons is that Girardi is really, really good at his job. All that said, it's still about the bottom line, and if that's true everywhere, it's more true in the Bronx than anyplace else.

As injuries piled up the last couple of years, Cashman steadfastly said, "There are no excuses. We still have to figure it out. That's the lesson we all learned from working for George Steinbrenner."

On Opening Day, a lot more people thought the Yankees would finish closer to last than to first because of all those questions. It's easier to feel different today. To focus on what the Yanks don't do well is to miss what they do -- score runs and hold leads. They've also got the makings of a competitive rotation.

In another season, a 91-win pace might have a team looking at a huge deficit the second week of June. This is a different kind of AL East, and at the moment, no team ought to feel better about things than the Yankees.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.