By Ryan Chatelain
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This would have sounded laughable on Aug. 1 — and it will undoubtedly sound far-fetched to some even today — but I don’t care: Barring a late-season collapse by his team, Joe Girardi deserves to be voted the American League Manager of the Year.
Yes, it would be a stunning reversal, that in a year when it appeared that most had finally left the vaunted Yankees for dead, their skipper somehow emerges to be recognized for doing the best job in the AL.
And Girardi certainly would not be a runaway candidate. There are a handful of others who are quite deserving — and if the Yankees don’t close the deficit and punch their ticket to October, Girardi likely won’t be adding any new hardware to his mantelpiece. But playoffs or not, when you dissect the wild roller-coaster that has been the Bombers’ season, it’s nothing short of a miracle that they sit two games out of the wild card and four games behind the division-leading Red Sox in mid-September.
And when you stack him up to the competition, no American League manager can stake a greater claim that he has endured more chaos and upheaval this year than Girardi has.
Cleveland’s Terry Francona is the presumed front-runner, and it’s hard to argue against him. The Indians have been through their fair share of injuries — most notably a shoulder ailment that limited All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley to 11 games.
The Red Sox’s John Farrell would be a fine choice, too, for Manager of the Year, considering Toronto appeared to be the trendy preseason favorite in the AL East. Buck Showalter has a case, but some voters will likely be turned off by the fact that the Orioles have stumbled some down the stretch. The Rangers’ Jeff Bannister? Yes, losing Prince Fielder hurt, but Texas is still exploding with offensive talent and was coming off a playoff year. Besides, he was rewarded for his job well done in last year’s voting.
But how many of those skippers had their general managers sell off four key players — including their three best — midway through the year? To the contrary, those teams all added talent before the trade deadline.
Girardi’s work essentially included a tale of two teams — the aging, declining group whose face was the artist formerly known as Alex Rodriguez and the young, thrilling “Baby Bombers” starring Gary Sanchez.
Over the course of a long season, it’s easy to forget all that the Yankees and their manager have been through. Remember the disastrous 8-16 start? The starting pitchers were complete strangers to the sixth inning, and Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley, Mark Teixeira and A-Rod all astoundingly opened the year in deep slumps — of which a couple of them never snapped out of.
Sure, the skeptics might try to pin the blame for that start on Girardi, himself, but the warning signs were there at the end of 2015 that time was up for the over-the-hill Yanks. And regardless, rallying the troops and preventing a struggling team from spiraling out of control are the marks of a good manager.
That poor start then fueled a single distracting question that hung over the Yankees’ clubhouse for months: Should they deal relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller and outfielder Carlos Beltran?
Then suddenly all three stars were escorted out of town, seemingly along with any remaining shred of the Yanks’ playoff aspirations. But instead, the Bombers have gone 25-15 since the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the best mark of any American League squad during that span.
Of course, there was A-Rod’s benching and subsequent forced retirement, which was another colossal distraction. Remember when some laughed at Girardi, after a bit of flip-flopping, for saying he wasn’t comfortable starting A-Rod every night during his brief farewell tour because he was still gunning for the playoffs? Doesn’t sound so comical now, does it?
Remember when it seemed every Yankees first baseman was going down with an injury left and right, as though some sinister child with a collection of pinstriped voodoo dolls had just discovered a drawer full of unused pins?
Remember when Gotham screamed for Girardi to wake up and recognize that Masahiro Tanaka couldn’t succeed on three days’ rest? The manager insisted a real major league pitcher must adapt to the schedule, not the other way around. How did that work out? Pretty darn well.
Remember just how bad the starting pitching was at times? Michael Pineda? Nathan Eovaldi? Luis Severino? Having 60 percent of your rotation crash and burn so spectacularly would normally torpedo a team’s season. But not Girardi’s Yankees.
It’s tempting to say the Yankees’ season was saved not so much by Girardi’s work, but by the burgeoning talent, energy and a bit of good fortune that arrived with Sanchez and his other young teammates. But the truth is even before they arrived on the scene, even when times looked so bleak that general manager Brian Cashman mortgaged any real hope of winning this year so that he could build for the future, Girardi was the puppeteer who kept the Bombers in close enough striking distance to make them relevant today.
And of course, then Girardi had to manage that collection of rookies who had arrived in the Bronx ahead of schedule. That might not seem so challenging if you focus only on the Sanchez homers flying over outfield walls on most nights, but Girardi has somehow been managing a contending team while allowing Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, who might have suffered a season-ending oblique injury Tuesday night, to work through their struggles almost every night on the biggest stage.
Wins and losses aside, no American League manager has been through more.
And yet the Yankees are on the cusp of their 24th consecutive winning season and within arm’s reach of another trip to the postseason.
If that doesn’t sound like the work of a Manager of the Year, what does?
Please follow Ryan on Twitter at @ryanchatelain