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Big payroll helps, but Yankees have some smarts, too

Yankees captaDerek Jeter had been written off by some but he entered play Tuesday with major-league-leading 167 hits .326 batting

Yankees captain Derek Jeter had been written off by some, but he entered play Tuesday with a major-league-leading 167 hits and a .326 batting average. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 23, 2012 6:20AM

The White Sox’ series this week against the Yankees at U.S.
Cellular Field is a matchup of division leaders, but not one of equals. The Yankees long have been the standard
by which major-league teams are measured, for reasons that go beyond 27 world championships.

‘‘It’s how they play the game and how the players carry themselves,’’ Sox captain Paul Konerko said. ‘‘They’re a classy organization. Guys get there from other teams, and they know there are certain expectations.’’

Sox manager Robin Ventura, who played for the Yankees in 2002-03, offered a less romantic take.

‘‘Some people would say they set a standard because of their payroll,’’ Ventura said. ‘‘They’re definitely not afraid to add on.’’

A team with the resources to fund a $189 million payroll does enjoy more marketplace muscle than its rivals, as evidenced by the Yankees’ acquisition last month of Ichiro Suzuki and his expiring $17 million contract from the Seattle Mariners.

In recent years, though, the Yankees’ savvy has kept pace with their opulence.

They took a $900,000 gamble on third baseman Eric Chavez when other teams wouldn’t touch him because a back ailment had limited the former Athletics star to a combined 154 games from 2007 to 2010. When Alex Rodriguez went out last month with a broken hand, Chavez, 35, stepped in as a capable replacement, with a .295 average and 13 home runs in just 210 at-bats through Monday.

An earlier $14 million commitment to setup man Rafael Soriano seemed extravagant even by Yankees standards, stirring up old ‘‘best team money can buy’’ resentment. But general manager Brian Cashman was prescient: When Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ indispensable closer, was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, Soriano took over and has provided Rivera-like reliability with 31 saves in 33 chances and a 1.64 ERA.

As the July 31 trade deadline approached, Cashman went shopping for another bat, even though the Yankees led the American League in homers and slugging percentage and were second in runs scored. He targeted Ichiro, figuring the fading 38-year-old would be invigorated by the game’s biggest stage. Ichiro is hitting .315 with the Yankees and is playing the outfield with his old élan. He looks like he was born to wear pinstripes.

The move that best illustrates the Yankees’ thinking brought Curtis Granderson to New York in a three-team deal in 2009. The Yankees surrendered top prospect Austin Jackson, who has become an All-Star with the Tigers, but Granderson has a left-handed power stroke that’s tailor-made for Yankee Stadium and a down-to-earth maturity that’s unaffected by the New York fishbowl. The pride of UIC is one of the elite sluggers in baseball and a respected figure in a Yankees clubhouse full of stars.

Then there’s Derek Jeter. Two years after the know-it-all seamheads were writing off The Captain as used up, he’s an MVP candidate with a .326 batting average and a major-league-leading 167 hits after going 4-for-5 on Monday. At 38, Jeter is one reason the Yankees are the oldest team in baseball (an average age of 31.1 years). He’s also one reason they’ve been one of the best teams since he showed up 17 years ago.

In a typical season, the Boston Red Sox’ struggles would expedite things for the Yankees in the AL East. But the Rays’ resilient lineup has regained slugger Evan Longoria, and the Orioles have hung tougher than anyone would have foreseen. Thirteen of the Yankees’ last 39 games are against the Rays and Orioles.

They’re through with the Sox after Wednesday. Too bad. Yankees-White Sox used to mean something in Chicago. You wouldn’t know it by the crowds, but it’s good when it does.

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