While the New York Yankees haven’t exactly faltered in these last couple of weeks, the unprecedented surge of the Toronto Blue Jays likely means that the Bombers will have to settle for a Wild Card spot. And that isn’t a bad thing! Keep in mind that the Yankees are one of baseball’s best all-around teams at worst and an absolute juggernaut at best. That said, how do the Yankees match up in a potential Wild Card Game versus some of the American League’s upstart squads?
New York Yankees:
First let’s realize what the Yankees have in themselves. Boasting one of baseball’s best offenses, the Bronx Bombers have lived up to their nickname. There’s 32 home runs and an .843 OPS for Alex Rodriguez, a .301 AVG and 18 homers for Carlos Beltran since May 1, 26 homers for Brian McCann, some of baseball’s preeminent yet streaky speedsters in Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, underrated but consistent Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley, and finally the almost Mark Teixeria-esque production of Greg Bird. That is a lineup that is no fun for opposing pitchers when even half of it is firing on all cylinders. While a one-game Wild Card playoff is as unpredictable as it gets, chances are that if the game is at Yankee Stadium (extremely likely), the offense will be in good shape. Pitching a do-or-die game would have to be Masahiro Tanaka barring injury. Scratched from his most recent start with a hamstring injury, Tanaka is the Yankees’ best starter by a long shot. Even when he “struggles”, Tanaka never allows more than 4 earned runs. Other options would be flamethrowing Luis Severino or enigmatic Michael Pineda. Regarding the bullpen, the Yankees are the definition of top-heavy at this point in time. Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances are ridiculously good, but their workload could be catching up with them (1.88 WHIP for Betances and 2 home runs allowed for Miller in their last 7 games). Justin Wilson is a solid setup man, but Adam Warren is back in the rotation and Chasen Shreve has fallen apart at the end of his rookie year. With AAA options providing little help, the Yankees’ impenetrable bullpen suddenly looks beatable. Despite this, you’d have to like any team with their lineup, Tanaka starting, and a 1-2 punch of Betances and Miller closing out the game in a one game winner-take-all setting. The Yankees are a formidable club when on, and merely average when at their worst.
If the season ended today, the Houston Astros would be the Yankees’ opponent in the Wild Card Game. That may not be a good thing given the fits that the Astros have given the Yankees this year. Boasting Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel, 17-game winner Colin McHugh, and savvy Scott Kazmir, the Yankees might as well pick their poison. But Houston doesn’t just have starting pitching, they’ve got one heck of a bullpen that’s flown somewhat under the radar this season. Between solid closer Luke Gregerson, former All-Star setup man Pat Neshek, and the sensational Will Harris (1.89 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 64 strikeouts in 66.2 innings), the Astros have almost as good a back end of the bullpen as the Yankees. Furthermore, their middle relief corps. is not out of gas like the Yankees; lefty Tony Sipp and veteran Chad Qualls are steadfast middle innings options. But the Astros’ real calling card is their offense. While the club has cooled off since the All-Star Break (a modest 80-74 record), their lineup still features legitimate names that any pitching staff must respect. Middle infielders Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are the total package. Altuve has hit .314 with 38 steals and steady defense, while likely AL Rookie of the Year Correa has hit .277 to go with 19 homers as a 21 year-old rookie in only 91 games. Correa’s flashy defense combined with his bat makes him a replica of a young Alex Rodriguez (strictly talking about the on-field Alex here). The Stros’ power comes from all-or-nothing Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Luis Valbuena, and Chris Carter (average 22.5 homers but a collective .219 AVG with an average 127 strikeouts). Playing in Yankee Stadium or Minute Maid Park for that matter makes for a hitter’s paradise for Houston. Houston matches up quite favorably with the Yankees. Keuchel is unbeatable 9 times out of 10, and their bats, while inconsistent, have the best power in the bigs, even trumping the mighty Toronto Blue Jays in that respect. A game between the Yankees and Astros would be one of the most memorable Wild Card Games in history.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim:
Don’t look now, but the underachieving Angels are only 1 game out of the second Wild Card spot. Led by Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, the Angels go as their dynamic duo goes, and right now, that’s in the right direction. Trout has 40 homers and a .297 AVG, and while Pujols has faded into strictly a power threat as the season progresses, he can still do that well; just ask the 37 baseballs he has sent out of MLB ballparks. Behind them, Kole Calhoun has 24 homers, a strong outfield arm, and 150 strikeouts, Ereck Aybar has struggled out of the middle of the order, and Johnny Giavotella, Matt Joyce, David Freese, C.J. Cron, and David Murphy are streaky but unimpressive as a whole. Simply put, if Trout and Pujols combine for less than 3 hits, the Angels have no chance to score runs. Garrett Richards would likely start a Wild Card Game; he’s 15-11 with a 3.73 ERA in a somewhat underwhelming season from the Angels’ ace. Hector Santiago would be another option; he made the All-Star team and has a .228 BAA, but is 9-9 and has allowed 27 homers. Closer Huston Street desperately needs dependable setup men. While Street is 40-45 in save situations and has 57 strikeouts in 62 innings, his setup crew of sidewinding Joe Smith, strike-throwing Fernando Salas, and lefty Cesar Ramos is not what manager Mike Sciosia wants to have. Facing the Angels would be ideal for the Yankees; they have a top-heavy offense and volatile pitching that isn’t made for a one-game playoff.
The Other Guys:
There is something of a logjam brewing for the second Wild Card Spot right now, with 2 other teams feasibly having a chance. The Minnesota Twins have shocked everyone by even being 78-75, and are only 2 games back on the second Wild Card team, the Houston Astros. Their lineup features Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, and upstarts Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, but their pitching could use work. Given that Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, or Ervin Santana would start against the powerful Yankees at Yankee Stadium, it’s hard to like the Twins’ chances. Meanwhile in Cleveland, after initially being a fun spoiler team, the Indians are back in the playoff race, only 3.5 back. Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantey are really Cleveland’s only legitimate stars on offense, but their rotation, spearheaded by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar, has made the Indians a fun sleeper team. While it is unlikely the Yankees face any of these teams in a Wild Card Game, it is worth mentioning them nonetheless.
Ultimately, while a Wild Card Game is most likely favorable to the Yankees, you just never know how any one game can go. Masahiro Tanaka could implode and Alex Rodriguez could go 0-4, but they could just as easily pitch 7 scoreless and hit a game-winning homer. This goes for all of the aforementioned teams as well. But looking at the way everyone’s seasons have gone, I’d say that the Yankees would feel good about a game versus the Angels, Twins, or Indians, and evenly matched versus the Astros. Most likely, it will be Houston versus New York in a winner-take-all matchup, one that would prove to a must-see affair.