Through the first 33 games of the 2013 season, the New York Yankees are defying predictions and poor expectations. When they take the field on Friday night in Kansas City, they’ll do so as a first-place club.

At 20-13, New York is playing .608 baseball.

While much of the credit in New York has gone to general manager Brian Cashman‘s ability to find contributors on the scrap heap over the winter and into spring training, it’s been manager Joe Girardi who has gotten the most out of those players.

The 2006 Manager of the Year arrived in New York for the 2008 season, taking over a franchise that hadn’t missed the postseason since prior to the 1994 strike. If replacing a legend like Joe Torre wasn’t hard enough, a portion of the fanbase was unhappy with Girardi‘s hiring at the expense of former Yankee legend Don Mattingly.

Even though Girardi was a former Yankee, had success in Florida and was the top choice of Brian Cashman, few were sympathetic when the 2008 Yankees missed the postseason during his first year in the dugout.

While that team was flawed, few gave Girardi credit for coaxing them to 89 wins. Instead, his rigid personality and decision-making were routinely questioned.

Over the years, Girardi has been accepted, if not lauded. The 2009 World Series championship helped, but for the most part he’s still underrated in his own town.

In fact, you can make the case that he’s a better game manager than Joe Torre ever was—especially when it comes to handling the bullpen. Throw in his preparedness, willingness to make the unpopular move and yearly success and Girardi should have gotten praise before the 2013 season began.

As this campaign has played out, the masses are coming around.

Not only is Girardi winning with a lineup that features Chris Nelson, Jason Nix and Chris Stewart in prominent roles, he’s coaxing the most of these players and consistently winning one-run games.

This Yankee team doesn’t have the margin for error to win 90-plus games if it leaves winnable games on the table. Thus far, it hasn’t.

Girardi has been an excellent manager, but almost handcuffed at times in his Yankee tenure. With the American League featuring the DH, his roster featuring an overwhelming number of veteran everyday players and few base stealing threats outside of Brett Gardner at his disposal, Girardi has kept his gambling to pinch hitting and bullpen maneuvers.

That’s all changed early on this season.

Daily lineup shifts—including using Robinson Cano in the No. 2 hole to increase his plate appearances, long-term plans to keep Travis Hafner healthy and using Vernon Wells at third base—have shown how good of a manager he can be without the luxury of an All-Star lineup.

In fact, Girardi‘s ability to think through a game, both on the fly and through pregame preparation, is reminiscent of what Tony La Russa brought to the dugout on a nightly basis for over 30 years.

When the reinforcements do trickle back to the Bronx this summer, Yankee fans should be in good hands with a manager who can juggle a platoon, find playing time for everyone and not panic if a star is slow to find his stride.

Handing out contract extensions is against the new organizational policy of the Yankees, but if anyone deserves to be considered for one right now, it’s the manager that looks to be improving by the year.

Has your opinion of Girardi as a manger changed over the years?

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