MLB: Is This Younger Yankees Team a Playoff Contender?
Faced with the choice of staying the course with slim playoff hopes or selling off veteran players to reload at the trade deadline, the Yankees opted to sell. Despite the the considerable returns GM Brian Cashman landed, it looked like a sensible waving of the white flag. Yet a funny thing happened in the weeks following August 1. Instead of sinking under the weight of a rookie-packed lineup, New York has seen a mini-revival of power and winning in the Bronx.
In fact, the idea that this rebuilt Yankees team could be a playoff contender has even been floated with credibility. Beginning play on August 16, just 4.5 games behind in the Wild Card race, New York had 44 games remaining, many of which were against division rivals Boston, Toronto, and Baltimore. With every AL East club showing weaknesses, tougher paths to the postseason exist. Here’s what the younger Yankees squad needs to continue its improbable surge and make the playoffs.
Sustained power from the Baby Bombers
What happened in the debuts of Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin was a first in the history of baseball. When both clubbed home runs in their first at-bats (back to back, no less) they become the first pair of teammates to do so in their first games. The following day, Judge lined a ball to right-center that cleared the wall, giving him homers on back-to-back days. In his third game, Judge provided the game-winning RBI with a double to right-center.
Judge’s explosive debut can hardly be sustained and, given the minimal hype surrounding Austin, there isn’t much hope that he will become the Greg Bird of 2016. Gary Sanchez is the third slugging Yankees prospect to join the club since the trade deadline, and he is something of a wild card himself.
Sanchez had five extra-base hits and six RBI in his first 10 games after being recalled, seemingly fulfilling his potential before his time. For a team that got almost no production at first base, DH, and catcher in 2016, the power infusion provided by the Baby Bombers seemed to transform the club overnight. Were there some way for the onslaught continue, the path to the postseason would be much clearer.
Unfortunately for Yankees fans, they have to temper this enthusiasm, and for that we turn to the biggest killjoy of them all: Fangraphs. Expect little or nothing from Judge and Austin, the first post on the pair declared, citing projection models that could explode unsuspecting brains. Despite the fact that the models are often wrong, the point about Judge’s swing-and-miss tendencies are nothing new. In fact, most Yankees fans expected more whiffs and less-competent handling of breaking pitches than Judge has shown.
Streakiness is another one of Judge’s traits that give scouts pause when evaluating the young player. On the positive side, the Yankees would only need two of their three prospects to stay hot for the next six weeks. That would likely be enough to give the team enough runs to win ballgames. Remember, they are only four games and change from a playoff spot.
More bullpen and spot-start magic
While the trades for Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran were the headline deals, New York also lost its fourth and fifth starters near the deadline when Ivan Nova went to Pittsburgh and Nathan Eovaldi went to the disabled list a couple starts later. Rookie Chad Green filled in capably in a dominant August 15 performance against Toronto, in which the young right-hander struck out 11 Blue Jays over six innings.
Starts by the once-promising Luis Severino have been as disappointing as Green’s was energizing. Nonetheless, the Yankees only need one of the two to perform above replacement level if the top three of Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, and Michael Pineda stay strong through the season’s final weeks. If Severino cannot provide value in the rotation, Luis Cessa is another option for Joe Girardi.
As far as the bullpen goes, New York cold hardly be more pleased with what’s happened since the trade deadline. Yankees relievers have been among baseball’s best since Chapman and Miller found new homes, with Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren bolstering the pen and providing a bridge to Betances in the ninth. (An eight-inning performance at Fenway following an injury-shortened appearance by Eovaldi was one of the highlights of New York’s season.)
It’s difficult to expect this type of performance until the end of the season, but the Yankees might consider slotting Severino back in the pen to keep the power-arm quotient high back there. Yet there is nowhere for New York to go without the club’s veterans leading the way.
As Yankee veterans go…
A power surge from some younger Yankees would be enough to keep the club scoring and in the wild card hunt, but the team’s veterans will have to play at a high level for a postseason appearance to become reality. Start at the top of the rotation with Tanaka and Sabathia before continuing with Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Mark Teixeira. These five players are the highest paid Yankees left in the club and will have to play like it.
Only Teixeira and McCann have a chance of riding the bench for a large number of the final games. Girardi is likely to pencil in the veterans for every possible start, so there will have to be more production for the club to make it into the playoffs. In that sense, the Yankees are not all that much different from the squad before the trade deadline, at least as far as the Major League roster is concerned.
If you like projections, the Yankees still have less than a 5% chance to make the playoffs, so there’s that. If you’re a fan of the Bronx Bombers, the on-the-field product is infinitely more exciting than that of the season’s first four months. Plus, you can’t ignore the struggles of the Red Sox, Orioles, and Blue Jays. These teams are flawed, and the Yankees will have their chances. As Girardi reliably repeats in postgame interviews, stranger things have happened.
Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY