The New York Yankees are locked in a tight battle with the Toronto Blue Jays for the American League East. Currently, they trail Toronto by 3 1/2 games in the East and are up three games in the AL Wild Card race. They have a .549 winning percentage and boast an over 78-run differential.
By all accounts, they are having a good season.
But this weekend, they dropped three of four games to the Jays, bringing their overall record against their division rival to just 3-7. Which brings me to my question: do the Yankees have what it takes to beat the elite teams in the AL and make a deep playoff run?
At the top of the lineup, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has been a mixed bag. In the first half, the former All-Star hit .324. But an extended recovery from a nagging knee injury sidelined him for two months. Ellsbury has shown alarming inconsistency since returning, going on a short hot streak in August but posting an appalling .167 on-base percentage thus far in September.
The remainder of manager Joe Girardi’s lineup has made up for much of Ellsbury’s troubles. Brett Gardner has been consistent and healthy in the two spot. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have provided an unexpected amount of power in the three and four spots. Rodriguez struggled in August but is enjoying a strong season overall.
Rodriguez and Teixeira lead the team with 31 home runs each, but the Yankees just announced that their veteran first baseman is out for the season with a leg fracture. This is a huge blow. His slugging percentage is over 100 points higher than that of his replacement, rookie Greg Bird.
Several capable veterans have supported Gardner, Rodriguez and Teixeira in New York’s lineup. Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Chase Headley are overpaid, but they provide solid power and consistent contact. McCann and Beltran have on-base plus slugging percentages hovering around .800, respectable numbers for two power hitters. Headley’s switch-hitting ability promises to give Girardi some flexibility in maneuvering elite AL bullpens.
At the bottom of the lineup, shortstop Didi Gregorius and second baseman Stephen Drew make Yankee fans long for the glory days of Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. Gregorius has actually had some success, hitting .270 this season. Drew has not, hitting .203.
On the mound, the Yankees rely heavily on the back end of their bullpen, which is the best in baseball. Setup man Dellin Betances is a strikeout machine. And when you follow up Betances’ lethal fastball with Andrew Miller’s devastating sliders, you’ve got a recipe for happy Yankees fans. The duo both have sub-2.00 ERAs and sub-1.00 walks plus hits per innings pitched ratios. Having those two guys coming out of the same bullpen? Ridiculous.
The Yankees’ starting pitching is the biggest question mark. Masahiro Tanaka proved his status as the team’s ace Sunday when he dominated Toronto in seven shutout innings. Tanaka will lead the rotation into the playoffs, but the rest of the rotation is not as reliable. After going 14-3 in 27 starts, Nathan Eovaldi was shut down for the rest of the regular season with a sore elbow. Although he will likely be available for the playoffs, his uncertain health means the Yankees will likely rely on Ivan Nova, C.C. Sabathia, Luis Severino and Michael Pineda in the meantime.
In Nova’s last start, the righty gave up six runs in less than two innings of work. This poor performance has unfortunately been common this season as Nova’s ERA has ballooned to 4.91. If the Yankees want to make a run, Nova needs to return to his 2013 self, when he went 9-6 with a 3.47 ERA.
The veteran Sabathia has the worst ERA and WHIP among the starters at 5.16 and 1.45, respectively. He’s been banged up, sure, but that doesn’t account for his declining velocity or high walk rate. The big fella is getting old.
Pineda broke into the rotation in 2014 and dominated immediately, posting a 1.89 ERA and a .83 WHIP over 13 starts. But this year, Pineda has struggled. He strikes out batters (8.7 strikeouts per nine innings), but the righty’s ERA has climbed above 4.00 on the season. Strikeouts only mean so much.
Severino broke into the league in August and was on a tear until his Sept. 11 start against the Jays when he got absolutely shelled. The 21-year-old is the Yanks’ top prospect and has progressed well, but the kid was pitching in Double-A ball at the beginning of the year. We’ll see if he can have sustained success in the bigs.
The Yankees aren’t flawless. But overall, their balance in the lineup and on the field, experience in the rotation and lights-out bullpen make them a tough out in the AL. They’re a legitimate ALCS contender.
Hugh Ramlow is a sophomore in the College. The Zone appears every other Tuesday.
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