Better matchup for the Wild Card Game: Angels or Twins?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With a week and a half left in the season, the Yankees appear set to host the American League Wild Card Game.

The team is still in hot pursuit of the division crown, but the Red Sox’s extra-inning escapes against the Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays in recent weeks have kept the Yankees from catching up.

Therefore, it’s time to look at the two likely potential opponents for the Wild Card Game: the Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins. The Yankees are 4-2 this season against the Twins and 2-4 against the Angels. While these are very different teams from past iterations of the Angels and Twins that the Yankees faced in the postseason, those records certainly mirror recent history between each franchise.

So which team is a better matchup for the Yankees in a one-game scenario? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons for each matchup.

Pros for facing the Twins

We’ve seen the case for why the Yankees would want to face the Twins this week. With Minnesota visiting Yankee Stadium, the Bombers were able to beat both of their top starters — Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios — while holding the Twins’ hot lineup at bay. Budding star Byron Buxton went 0 for 10 with a walk and was a non-factor in the series.

Perhaps the best reason to face the Twins is their bullpen. The Yankees got into the bullpen quickly against Berrios, who has significant home-road splits and therefore may not be the choice for a WCG. Rookie Trevor Hildenberger has been a revelation in recent weeks, but the rest of the bullpen is highly beatable. Matt Belisle is their closer and has converted just 7 of 12 save opportunities.

Their best reliever was Brandon Kintzler. He was traded at the deadline to the Nationals. That deal shows what the front office expected this team to do in the second half. Instead, they’re 28-20 since Aug. 1 and appear to be playing over their heads, although they’re 11-24 this season against the current AL playoff teams. The Angels are a more respectable 14-19.

They’ve had a lot of their success without slugger Miguel Sano. Sano struggled with injuries and is now on the 10-day DL with a stress fracture in his left shin, which likely has him out for the year. That should be a relief for Yankees fans: He’s the type of player that can turn a single game with his bat and is objectively Minnesota’s best hitter.

Cons for facing the Twins

There’s a lot to make the Twins a good matchup, but there’s also plenty of reasons to not to face them. A big reason to avoid them? Power. Even without Sano, the team has power up and down the lineup. They have five players with at least 15 home runs. They’ve hit the fourth most home runs in baseball since the All-Star break. And in the second half, they’re fourth with a 109 wRC+. They’re third in WAR thanks to a strong defensive unit.

Buxton epitomizes their resurgence. He returned from the disabled list on Aug. 1 and has batted .302/.348/.581 with 11 home runs and 21 total extra-base hits in 190 PAs. He’s still struck out 51 times, but he’s been a better hitter. What makes Buxton special is how he affects the game on both ends. He may be the best defensive center fielder in the game and he ranks at the top of the Statcast leaderboards for sprint speed.

In a WCG, the Twins could eschew their normal bullpen and simply use Santana followed by Berrios or vice versa, limiting the need for their parade of sub-par middle relievers. The Yankees can get to both, but they’ve each been special at times this year. Of any pitcher on the Angels and Twins, I would least want to face Berrios, who has a fastball-curveball combo that is unhittable when he’s rolling.

Pros for facing the Angels

Why would you want to face the Angels? Pitching, pitching, pitching. This team doesn’t have a clear starter for a one-game playoff, let alone a staff that you could see an easy path through nine innings. Three of their best starters — J.C. Ramirez, Matt Shoemaker and Alex Meyer — are out for the year. Their closer, Huston Street, threw four innings this year and is out for the season.

So who do the Angels turn to for a winner-take-all game? Parker Bridwell?? Bridwell is 8-2 with a 3.71 ERA through 102 innings, but his peripherals indicate he isn’t that good. He also has a 4.69 ERA over his last nine starts. Bridwell did hold the Yankees to three runs in 8 2/3 innings in two June outings, but he allowed nine hits and walked five to just four strikeouts.

Yusmeiro Petit has been the key cog in their bullpen and could throw multiple innings in a one-game playoff. Former Yankee Blake Parker has been solid this season with elevated strikeout numbers. But if the Yankees face anyone else in that bullpen, they should feast.

In the lineup, Albert Pujols still bats in the middle of the lineup despite batting just .242/.287/.392 (79 wRC+) and is an enormous negative on the basepaths. Teams have begun using extreme shifts to limit him further. The more he bats in the middle of the order, the worse things go for the Angels.

Cons for facing the Angels

Mike Trout? Mike Trout!!!! Why would you want to face Mike Trout in a one-game playoff?!?!

Having a stud starting pitcher is the best weapon for a one-game playoff (Luis Severino!). Outside of that, having a once-in-a-generation type talent that can dominate with his bat and glove is paramount. Trout is that. It’s like having a right-handed hitting Mickey Mantle for a one-game playoff. I’m not going to reel off his stats because Trout’s name should be synonymous with otherworldly success at this point in his career.

Unlike recent seasons, there is actually offensive talent around Trout. The Angels acquired Justin Upton at the August waiver deadline and he’s been mashing for three weeks in Anaheim. You’ll still want to avoid Trout beating you, but Upton makes you think twice before pitching around him.

Andrelton Simmons, the best fielding shortstop in baseball, has also turned back into an above-average hitter with power and helped turn one of the Yankees-Angels games earlier this season with a home run. The presence of Simmons extends their lineup, as does Brandon Phillips and the power of C.J. Cron and Luis Valbuena. It’s not exactly murderer’s row, but it’s more than the nothingburger the Angels had flanking Trout since their 2014 playoff appearance.

Ultimately, the Yankees should win a one-game playoff if they get there. They have the best lineup, the best starting pitcher — perhaps the top four starting pitchers — and the best bullpen of any wild-card contender. However, anything can happen in a one-game playoff.

My take? While Twins look to be a more complete roster, I’d rather not face Mike Trout and co. in a one-game playoff. It’s kind of irrational because one player can’t beat you unless you let him. And in a five- or seven-game series, I feel like the better overall roster is a bigger advantage. Yet in a one-game series, having the best player on either side could be magnified, particularly if that player can do what Trout does.

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The Yankees need Aroldis Chapman closing down the stretch

(Steven Ryan/Getty)
(Steven Ryan/Getty)

Aroldis Chapman improbably pitched poorly enough this season to lose the closer job, but that doesn’t lessen his importance to the team.

His August was pretty dreadful as he allowed 14 baserunners and eight runs (three home runs) in eight innings, proving unreliable and forcing Joe Girardi to take him out of the closer’s role.

But after getting six days off after taking a loss on Aug. 25 vs. the Mariners, Chapman came back with a return to form starting with a low leverage outing against Boston on Sept. 1.

And now he’s back where he needs to be for the Yankees to be successful. You definitely don’t have to like Chapman, but he’s still essential to the Yankees’ postseason chances. While David Robertson and Dellin Betances can capably close, the team needs Chapman as their ninth inning man. Here’s why:

1. The contract: Let’s get this reason out of the way. In terms of the 2017 team, his contract is irrelevant. He’s a sunk cost and Girardi should go to his best relievers without worrying about the future.

But you can’t ignore the $68.8 million he’s owed after this season. With the Yankees aiming to get under the luxury tax, they need their top earners to play at a high level. Before Betances receives a raise via arbitration this winter, the Yankees will have $33.3 million tied up in their top three relievers.

They’ll have at least two openings in their rotation and trading either Robertson or Betances to both save money and fill a rotation spot would make some sense, although it’d be painful to trade one of those fan favorites. However, the front office can’t feel comfortable making that type of deal if Chapman continues to pitch like he did in August.

2. Weaponize the bullpen: Beyond Chapman’s contract, the return of something approximating his 2016 form would make the Yankees a deadly force this postseason.

Picture it: You can turn to Luis Severino in the Wild Card Game and feel comfortable going to the bullpen as early as the third or fourth inning, not that he would. Even without Adam Warren, Girardi can use Chad Green and get innings out of Robertson, Betances and Chapman in any one game, turning any early lead into wins with his cadre of relievers.

And with Severino teaming with Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka, the team has the ability to get relatively deep into games. That means Robertson and Betances can work as firemen and clear the way for Chapman. That’s certainly what Brian Cashman was dreaming up after the trade deadline. It just hasn’t worked out in the last 1.5 months because Chapman and now Betances have had rough patches.

How Chapman performs also could affect how Chad Green is used in the playoffs. He could be a caddy for the No. 4 starter, but he’s probably best used in the same way they’ve used him recently, taking early high leverage situations and then reeling off multiple innings. Warren can do this, too, but with him out, Green is the go-to first reliever out of the pen for any short outing.

If Chapman is August Chapman, that’s irrelevant. The Yankees then likely need Green as a late inning reliever, even with Tommy Kahnle in the pen, and Chasen Shreve could be the one coming in early this October. That’s not ideal.

Green (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Green (Patrick Smith/Getty)

3. Roster flexibility: Chapman in top form also enables the Yankees to carry more position players in a postseason series. Right now, the team appears set to go with 14 position players and 11 pitchers, adding Jordan Montgomery or someone like him as the long man in addition to all the names mentioned above. If Warren is out, then Shreve or Garcia could find their way onto the roster.

With Chapman pitching like he has this September (5.1 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 10 K), the team can worry less about the last reliever on the roster and instead add a pinch runner like Tyler Wade or extra hitter in Tyler Austin, if not both.

The Bombers didn’t maintain much roster flexibility this season, often going with eight relievers. They should buck that trend for a series (Wild Card Game is a different animal), but you may need that 12th pitcher if one of your key cogs is unreliable, thus moving everyone up an inning.

4. Betances and Robertson as dual Andrew Millers: As they’ve proven plenty of times, both Betances and Robertson can close. It gets a little dicey at times with Betances and his 16.9 percent walk rate, but he tends to get the job done, recently outings notwithstanding.

This kind of piggybacks on point No. 2, but can you imagine how these two can be used if one isn’t tied to the ninth inning? Sure, it could end up being a traditional 7-8-9 of Robertson-Betances-Chapman, but Girardi has shown glimpses of a willingness to use his relievers more like Terry Francona has deployed his bullpen.

Take Monday and Wednesday for example: With his pitchers one out from a win, Girardi instead turned to two of his best relievers — Robertson and Green, respectively — to face Evan Longoria in a key situation. That’s not something we’ve seen all too often from Girardi and it’s a welcome sign.

The September roster expansion helped enable him to do that, but Chapman’s resurgence does as well. He’d do the Green move again for sure, but I feel Robertson would have been tied into later innings in a 5-1 game on Monday if Betances is the only other top reliever he trusts at the end.

While there won’t be an expanded roster in October, there will be enough off days to keep nearly everyone fresh. And that leaves Girardi to throw Robertson or Betances into any situation on any night. A flamethrowing and effective Chapman allows him to not worry about who he has left at the end. It also means he can pull either of his firemen if they’re ineffective as he did on Wednesday. Betances’ control problems are, therefore, less of a concern.

It’s tough to say which Chapman we’ll see next outing, let alone next month. Up until this April, he constituted just about the safest bet of any reliever, but that’s been thrown into question with his 3.71 ERA, multiple blown saves and lesser heat.

But if he continues to look more or less like a reliable reliever for the stretch run, even if he isn’t dominating quite the same, it’s worth keeping him in the closer role. And yes, you could go without a closer entirely, using any reliever in any situation, but the Yankees remain unlikely to eschew that tradition entirely. Assuming they don’t, Chapman is the man they need in the job if they’re going to make a run at a 28th title this fall.

9/14 to 9/17 Series Preview: Baltimore Orioles

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

After taking two of three at Citi Field, the Yankees return across town to face the Baltimore Orioles for the last time this season. The Yankees have won 9 of 15 from the O’s this season and need just one win in this four-game set to clinch the season series.

The Last Time They Met

The Yankees and O’s haven’t played since … last week. On Sept. 4-7, the Bombers won their first series at Camden Yards in four years as they broke out the bats.

  • Chad Green got seven outs (4 Ks) in relief in the opener as the Yankees overcame a 3-0 deficit with seven straight runs. Aaron Judge walked four times while Starlin Castro had three hits, including a home run.
  • After a long rain delay, the Yankees slowly surrendered a 6-1 lead on a series of home runs. They came within one out of victory but Manny Machado slugged a two-run walk-off shot off a Dellin Betances curveball to seal the crushing defeat.
  • Sonny Gray held Baltimore to one unearned run in the finale while Judge, Castro, Chase Headley and Todd Frazier each homered in a 9-1 blowout victory over Kevin Gausman and co.

Since They Last Met

  • Once they were done with the Yankees, the Orioles traveled to Cleveland. Not great timing. They were promptly swept by the Indians, who picked up wins No. 16-18 during their current 21-game streak.
  • North of the border, the O’s took two more L’s in the first two games of the series with the Blue Jays, both by one run. They held a 2-1 lead into the ninth on Tuesday, but usually reliable Zach Britton blew the save and took the loss.
  • They finally picked up a much-needed win in the sixth game of their 10 game set. Gausman threw seven one-run innings before the bullpen hung on. Trey Mancini did some damage with an RBI triple.

Their Story Right Now

After ending their six-game losing streak, the Orioles are now 72-74, a good 4.5 back of the second wild card. They were just one game back eight days ago and now they’d have to pass five teams in 2.5 weeks to reach the postseason. Anything short of a sweep this weekend is likely not enough for them and even said sweep would only pull them to within 3.5 of the Yankees.

They still have plenty of power in the middle of their order (Machado, Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, Trey Mancini) but their starting rotation most closely resembles Swiss cheese. Furthermore, Tim Beckham boarded the regression train this month, hitting just .184 since the calendar flipped from August.

Lineup We Might See

On Monday, Wellington Castillo had his second groin injury of the year, taking a foul ball to his nether regions. He was taken to the hospital and Caleb Joseph has started the last two games behind the plate. It’s unclear whether Castillo will be back this weekend.

1. Tim Beckham, SS – (.285/.332/.466)
2. Manny Machado, 3B – (.269/.323/.496)
3. Jonathan Schoop, 2B – (.302/.346/.527)
4. Adam Jones, CF – (.283/.319/.471)
5. Trey Mancini, LF – (.291/.338/.500)
6. Chris Davis, 1B – (.217/.311/.429)
7. Mark Trumbo, DH – (.241/.295/.412)
8. Seth Smith, RF – (.259/.340/.439)
9. Caleb Joseph, C – (.263/.295/.425)

The lineup has remained relatively steady in recent games with Davis and Trumbo flipping spots while Seth Smith and Joey Rickard have each played the outfield. We could see Pedro Alvarez, who made his season debut vs. the Yankees last week.

The Starting Pitchers We Will See

Thursday (7:05 PM EST): RHP Masahiro Tanaka vs. LHP Wade Miley

Miley is on pace to add some unwanted black ink to his Baseball Reference page this year as he leads all of baseball with 84 walks issued. Derek Holland is the closest pitcher to him with 75, but he was cut by the White Sox.

Seven of those walks came in his first start of the year against the Yankees. While he lasted just 10 innings over two starts vs. NYY, he held them to two runs with some timely outs. He comes into play Thursday with a 4.96 ERA over 29 starts.

Last Outing (at CLE on Sept. 8) – 5.2 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 BB, 4 K

Friday (7:05 PM EST): RHP Luis Severino vs. RHP Gabriel Ynoa

Just 24 years old, Ynoa made his first start for the Orioles on Saturday in Cleveland. The Orioles acquired him from the Mets in February and he’s been up and down this season. He threw two shutout innings in relief against the Yankees on Labor Day. He utilizes a mid-90s fastball/sinker and a mid-80s slider as his primary offerings.

Last Outing (at CLE on Sept. 9) – 4.2 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 0 BB, 2 K

Saturday (4:05 PM EST): LHP Jordan Montgomery vs. RHP Jeremy Hellickson

Hellickson was a puzzling deadline acquisition for the Orioles and he’s done little to add value since joining the O’s. Likely he was just a fresh arm to throw into the mix for a dreadful rotation. The right-hander has a career-low strikeout rate and is allowing nearly two home runs per nine innings. He’s allowed 10 in the 42 2/3 innings he’s thrown for the O’s.

While he didn’t give up a homer to the Yankees on Sept. 5, he did walk four and give up five runs en route to an early hook after seven outs.

Last Outing (at CLE on Sept. 5) – 6.0 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 0 BB, 1 K

Sunday (1:05 PM EST): LHP CC Sabathia vs. TBA

Both Dylan Bundy and Ubaldo Jimenez will be able to make this start, so it’s unclear to which right-hander Buck Showalter will turn. Jimenez pitched one inning of relief last week against the Yankees, but he’s been exclusively a starter otherwise since mid-June. Emblematic of his 6.75 ERA, he’s allowed five or more runs 12 times this season.

Bundy has been much better (4.03 ERA in his first full season as a starter in the majors) but the Yankees got to him early for the first time on Labor Day. They tagged him for five runs and put nine men on base in his four innings of work.

The Bullpen

Britton recovered from his blown save Tuesday to shut down the Blue Jays Wednesday. That means he’s likely unavailable Thursday. The All-Star closer sports a 3.09 ERA in his injury-shortened season after his 0.54 mark in 2016.

Darren O’Day, Brad Brach and Mychal Givens are the primary setup men right now with O’Day fulfilling that duty yesterday. Righty Miguel Castro has seen plenty of work, but he’s allowed runs in each of his last three outings. Rookie RHP Jimmy Yacabonis and former Yankee Richard Bleier have each had four appearances this month and are middle relief options From there, it’s a free-for-all. Expect plenty of pitching changes with Showalter and his lower tier rotation.

Who (Or What) to Watch?

The Orioles season has spiraled out of control since the Yankees went to Camden Yards on Labor Day, so it’d only be fitting if the Bombers put the finishing touches on the O’s. If the Yanks are going to make up ground on Boston, they need to take advantage of a team they’ve consistently beaten at Yankee Stadium this season.

In terms of the play itself, Aaron Judge hits Baltimore especially well. He’s hit an absurd .449/.603/1.082 in 68 PAs against the O’s, launching nine home runs and walking 19 times to just 14 strikeouts. Baltimore had zero interest in giving him pitches to hit last week, so we’ll see if they avoid him once again over the four-game set.

9/11 to 9/13 Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

After taking four of six from wild-card contenders during their six game road trip, the Yankees return to New York for what is technically a road series against the Tampa Bay Rays. With Hurricane Irma touching down in western Florida, Tropicana Field was unavailable. That forced the Rays to play the three-game home series at Citi Field.

The Last Time They Met

From July 27 through July 30, the Yankees took three of four from the Rays at Yankee Stadium, taking a six-game winning streak in the series finale. It was part of a stretch where the Bombers won 9 of 11 to briefly regain the AL East lead going into August.

  • It was a walk-off weekend for Brett Gardner. After a Gary Sanchez single (and poor Rays fielding) scored him to tie up the opener in the ninth inning, Gardner lined a home run to lead off the 11th for the win. He’d single with the bases loaded and no outs two days later for another walk-off.
  • Masahiro Tanaka had one of his best outings of the year in Game 2. He had a perfect game until Adeiny Hechevarria singled with two outs in the sixth. He went 8 IP, allowing just two hits while striking out 14.
  • Aroldis Chapman looked like his old self, striking out five in three dominant innings while picking up the win during both of Gardner’s walk-offs.
  • Sanchez and Gardner each homered twice in the series, but so did new Rays first baseman Lucas Duda, who made an immediate impact by reaching in 7 of 12 PAs during his first series with Tampa.

For more information, check out Katie’s Yankeemetrics post.

Injury Report

The Rays are relatively healthy, but rookie starter Jacob Faria (abdominal strain) made a rehab start against Staten Island on Sunday. He could be back vs. Boston this week.

INF Matt Duffy (heel) won’t play this season and had just 80 PAs as a Ray. LHP Xavier Cedeno (forearm) and former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi (elbow) both began rehab appearances but are on the 60-day DL and their returns this season are in doubt.

Their Story So Far

The Rays are 71-73, leaving them 3.5 games out of the second wild card. Not only are they four games back in the loss column, they would have to surpass six teams to get the spot. Their lineup has been very middle of the road (.245/.318/.426, 97 wRC+) but they’ve also had the second worst strikeout rate in all of baseball. As Tanaka did in July, pitchers can rack up Ks against them. Their pitching staff has been solid with the 9th best team ERA (4.07) in baseball.

They have had similarly bad one-run luck to Yankees with an 18-22 record in those games. One thing that has held them back is the AL East as they are 27-33 in the division.

They’ve had a productive outfield with Dickerson/Kiermaier/Souza while Lucas Duda has been a major help since coming over at the deadline. The infield has been another story with Duffy out, Brad Miller struggling and Evan Longoria being merely an average (98 wRC+) hitter despite hitting .319/.411/.553 with three of his 18 HR against the Yankees.

Lineup We Might See

Kevin Cash mixes up his lineups depending on matchups, so you’re unlikely to see the same lineup twice. Trevor Plouffe, Peter Bourjos and Cesar Puello could all move into the lineup vs. LHPs while Mallex Smith’s glove often gets him into the starting nine. Here’s a possible lineup you’ll see this week.

1. CF Kevin Kiermaier (.278/.341/.447)
2. 1B Lucas Duda (.232/.337/.536)
3. 3B Evan Longoria (.265/.320/.433)
4. DH Logan Morrison (.248/.355/.529)
5. RF Steven Souza Jr. (.246/.351/.477)
6. LF Corey Dickerson (.280/.325/.499)
7. SS Adeiny Hechavarria (.245/.273/.366)
8. 2B Brad Miller (.195/.333/.322)
9. C Wilson Ramos (.238/.271/.387)

The Starting Pitchers We Will See

Monday (7:10 PM EST): LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP Jake Odorizzi

Odorizzi has been plagued by a case of way too many home runs this year. He’s allowed at least one homer in all but three outings this year and he’s allowed 28, one fewer than he allowed last season in 64 fewer innings. His career low groundball rate has been paired with fewer strikeouts and more walks, part of which may be explained by a loss of .75 mph off his pitches.

He has only 3 quality starts in last 11 outings, though his last start was one of his best all season. He held the Twins to just two baserunners in 6 2/3 innings.

Last Outing (vs. MIN on Sept. 5) – 6.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K

Tuesday (7:10 PM EST): RHP Sonny Gray vs. LHP Blake Snell

Snell has essentially had two seasons. Up until August, he continued to have the same issue as in his rookie 2016 season: Walks. He dished out 5.1 walks per nine innings and had a 4.98 ERA, all while barely getting through five innings a start.

Since getting recalled on Aug. 8 from his second demotion of the year, he’s been a whole new pitcher. He’s cut the walks to 2.2 per nine and held opponents to a .222/.271/.385 line. While he has a 3.16 ERA in that span, he did have a poor outing his last time out, getting battered around by the Twins, who launched two home runs off the southpaw.

Last Outing (vs. MIN on Sept. 6) – 4.0 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 0 BB, 7 K

Wednesday (1:10 PM EST): LHP Jaime Garcia vs. RHP Chris Archer

You surely know Archer by now. Hard fastball, top-notch slider. The Rays’ No. 1 has still struggled this season, posting a 4.00 ERA. Like Odorizzi, he’s surrendered a few too many homers (25) but he’s still posted career-best strikeout and walk rates. Two outings ago, he left with forearm tightness after just two batters. He came back on turn and was beat up by the Red Sox over three innings. The good news is that his velocity was back after his disastrous two-batter start in Chicago.

Last Outing (at BOS on Sept. 8) – 3.0 IP, 9 H, 8 R, 1 BB, 5 K

The Bullpen

The Rays have the fourth best bullpen ERA (3.28) since the All-Star break, only behind the Indians, Orioles and Yankees. Their closer, Alex Colome, leads baseball with 43 saves this year, but he’s been fallible, accumulating eight meltdowns.

Setting up Colome has been Tommy Hunter with Steve Cishek, Sergio Romo and Dan Jennings all spotting up in middle relief. While Jennings is one of just two lefties in the pen, he’s more than just a lefty specialist. Austin Pruitt is their main long man and former closer Brad Boxberger typically pitches low leverage innings. Since it’s September, you’ll see plenty of other pitchers with 12 relievers on the active roster.

Yankees Connection

Both Chaz Roe and Chase Whitley are former Yankee pitchers currently in middle/long relief for the Rays. Eovaldi won 23 games in pinstripes over the last two seasons before having Tommy John surgery. Of course, Cash had a brief 10-game stint with the 2009 Yankees, earning himself a World Series ring in the process.

Who (Or What) to Watch?

For this one, the crowd is weirdly a must-watch. This will be a unique environment. It’ll surely be mostly, if not exclusively, Yankees fans, but will it be nearly empty? Will the apple in center rise when the Rays hit a home run? And how will the Rays handle being on the road for perhaps the rest of the season? Hopefully, they’ll be back at Tropicana Field soon.

As for the games themselves, the Yankees come in having won three straight series. If this was in Tampa, they’d feel destined to lose two of three. Take two of three and you don’t have to worry too much about what everyone else does.

The Yankees are playing well, but the wild card race is closer than it appears

Trout, Buxton and Machado (Getty Images)
Trout, Buxton and Machado (Getty Images)

For the past month, the focus for the Yankees has been on the AL East race. And rightly so, as they started July up a half game and are now just two back in the loss column. The division is still very much up for grabs.

But lost in the shuffle has been how the Bombers haven’t separated themselves rest of the pack in the AL Wild Card race. After play on Monday, the Yankees are up just three games on the Minnesota Twins, current holders of the second wild card spot. Just 1.5 games behind the Twins stand the Los Angeles Angels, four back in the loss column of the Yankees.

And despite the loss on Monday, the Baltimore Orioles are just 1.5 back of a playoff spot. The Texas Rangers are tied with them despite selling at the deadline. Further back are the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals, both within three games of the Twins and six in the loss column of the Yankees.

By taking 3 of 4 from Boston, the Yankees kept themselves in the division race and added some much-needed distance between them and the Twinkies. Yet we’re just a few days removed from the Twins being just a game back of the Yankees and the Angels and Orioles each had impressive second halves to stay in the race.

Sure, four games up in the loss column on a playoff spot is comfortable for the time being, but there are enough teams in striking distance to cause some uneasiness.

The Twins have an easy schedule for the last four weeks of the season, playing just six games against teams above .500. Three of those are at Yankee Stadium in two weeks. They also have seven against the last-place Detroit Tigers and two with the San Diego Padres. The Twins made up ground in part from playing an easy schedule, but it’s not as if their remaining competition is about to deter them.

The O’s, meanwhile, have 12 games left against current AL playoff teams while the Angels play a bunch with the Astros, Indians, Rangers and Mariners. The Rangers have three with the Yankees and then play in the AL West of the rest of the way. Each of these teams will be tested, but they’ll also have opportunities to move up, especially if the Yankees continue to play .500 ball.

While there are clear opportunities for the teams chasing the Yankees, there’s obviously no need to panic yet. Baltimore, Minnesota and Texas can use upcoming series against the Yankees to catch up, but the Yankees can create further distance with wins. Even splitting those contests is a win with time running out.

Despite lackluster pitching staffs, the Orioles and Angels have shown the ability to win games with their bats in the last month and each has added firepower (Tim Beckham and Justin Upton, respectively) since the All-Star break. The Rangers have shown resilience even with Adrian Beltre out and Yu Darvish dealt at the deadline.

What should keep Yankees fans sane is the talent gap in the Bombers’ favor. The Yankees have the best rotation and bullpen of any remaining WC contenders and likely have the best offense, too. None of these teams have a backend that can rival David Robertson and Dellin Betances, or a top four of Severino-Gray-Tanaka-Sabathia.

The Twins’ defense is impressive, particularly with Byron Buxton in centerfield every day and they boast strong young talent with Buxton, Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios. Berrios may be the one pitcher the Yankees least want to see in the Wild Card Game if it comes to that. However, their bullpen is highly beatable, as is the backend of their rotation. They even dealt their closer to the Nationals on July 31.

The Orioles and Angels have high-end talent in their everyday lineup (read: Manny Machado and Mike Trout, among others) to get hot, but, again, their pitching holds them back. The Yankees’ Labor Day comeback against Dylan Bundy and co. was a supreme example of this. Beyond the top contenders, the Mariners have the best lineup of any remaining WC hopeful, but they’ve used 39 pitchers and counting during a season full of injuries and disappointment from their pitching staff.

Beyond simply the high-end talent, the Yankees also have the most depth, even after Aaron Hicks‘ injury. It’s the same depth that can win them the division and make them a legitimate World Series contender if they make the postseason.

But they have to make the postseason first and after going 17-16 in their last 33, that’s no sure thing. So when you’re scoreboard watching over the next couple weeks, make sure to not just look at the Red Sox, but also the wild card contenders. They may be closer than they appear.

The Yankees’ late-season pinch runner is already on the roster

Wade (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Wade (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Most seasons, the Yankees would have had to look to the outside for that pinch running help down the stretch. But this year, they’ll only have to look a little further down their 40-man roster.

As you may remember, the Yankees tend to acquire a pinch runner every year around the end of August. That allows them to add the player in time to be eligible for the postseason while adding some small value in September.

There are plenty of past examples. Eric Young Jr. fulfilled the role last year. Rico Noel the year before. The one that sticks in my mind is Freddy Guzman during the 2009 World Series run. These players are easy to forget and wouldn’t be a useful part of a 25-man roster from April to August, yet they earn their spot once the roster expands in September or becomes more position player friendly in the postseason.

The thing is, the Yankees didn’t acquire anyone at the August waiver deadline this season.

That could mean one of two things. One possibility is that they can’t afford to take someone off the 40-man roster for someone in such a minute role. They’ll be able to put the extra relievers to good use and they already gave Erik Kratz a 40-man spot on Friday.

But the more likely explanation is that they have their pinch runner on the roster already. Two in fact.

Therefore, Tyler Wade is likely the Yankees’ late season pinch runner.

Wade was added to the active roster on Monday. He hit extremely poorly in his first cup of coffee with a .135/.211/.212 (10 wRC+) line. Yikes. And with Ronald Torreyes/Starlin Castro/Didi Gregorius ahead of him up the middle and plenty of depth on the corners, he won’t be seeing a start unless everything goes wrong or there are meaningless games at the end of the month.

He’s a fine defensive replacement, particularly because he can play almost anywhere, and he should be able to hit as he adjusts (second for International League batting title), but for now, he can just show off his blazing speed. He’s a 75 percent base stealer in his minor league career and has stolen 27 in 32 attempts (87 percent) this year. He’s third in the International League with 26 steals while swiping one base against the Astros two months ago.

He hasn’t had enough opportunities in the majors to place on Statcast’s sprint speed leaderboard, but suffice to say, he’s an above-average runner.

Jacoby Ellsbury, of course would have been the perfect pinch runner for October, but that’s not going to happen after Aaron Hicks‘ injury. Like it or not, he’s going to be playing center field an awful lot, even after Clint Frazier returns from injury. That’s just the way it is. Joe Girardi trusts him enough to give him those starts and Hicks’ oblique injury makes Ellsbury starting a potential playoff game a likely possibility.

Ellsbury had already been quite useful as a pinch runner this season. In seven pinch running appearances, he’s stolen four bases and been caught once. He even helped the Yankees tie up a game in the ninth inning with a clutch steal before scoring on a single vs. the Mariners in July.

Even though he’s looked overmatched at the plate and has lost a step, he’s still an efficient base stealer and that alone means he’s worth the roster spot down the stretch. His 28.1 ft/s sprint speed is over 1 ft/s above average. He’s not a 70-base stealer anymore, but he can still be a menace on the basepaths. Therefore, it’s a shame he’ll be in the lineup instead of lying in wait on the bench.

Ellsbury (Elsa/Getty)
Ellsbury (Elsa/Getty)

Before Saturday, Wade may not have even been a likely member of the playoff roster. He has the positional flexibility to make the 25-man roster, but Girardi certainly wouldn’t want him at the plate. Can you blame him? The first opportunity for the 22-year-old was uninspiring.

But Hicks’ injury bumps Ellsbury up from inch runner to everyday player. Wade was already essentially a lock for the Wild Card Game roster where you have room for 16-17 position players, but now he’s the best pinch running option for the ALDS and beyond. This assumes there will be room for a pinch runner, which there should be if the Yankees

This assumes there will be room for a pinch runner on the ALDS roster, which there should be if the Yankees carry 11 pitchers as would be expected if the Yankees get that far.

Wade is a much more dynamic player than just a pinch runner and you shouldn’t let 57 poor PAs in his first try at the majors define him. He has potential to be a solid everyday shortstop or a Ben Zobrist-type if he hits his ceiling.

But for 2017, the best way the 22-year-old can make an impact down the stretch will be solely with his legs.

Game 130: Aces Up

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Yankees come into tonight riding high after a pair of series wins, inching within 2.5 games of the Red Sox for the division lead. Before a four-game set with Boston, they’ll have to take on AL Central leaders for three games.

You couldn’t have asked for a better pitching matchup in the series opener. AL Cy Young favorite Corey Kluber toes the rubber for Cleveland while the Yankees send out their young ace, Luis Severino. While Severino has a 3.10 ERA with 10.5 K per nine, Kluber has been on another level with an AL-best 2.65 ERA to go with 12.3 K per nine.

Each starter picked up a win during the previous Yankees-Indians series, which was split 2-2 at Progressive Field. Quite the test for Severino, who has already faced off with the likes of Chris Sale, Jon Lester and Carlos Carrasco this season.

Here is Cleveland’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

    1. LF Brett Gardner
    2. CF Aaron Hicks
    3. Gary Sanchez
    4. SS Didi Gregorius
    5. 2B Starlin Castro
    6. 1B Greg Bird
    7. DH Chase Headley
    8. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
    9. 3B Todd Frazier
      RHP Luis Severino

A rare day off for Aaron Judge, who hasn’t had a game off since Aug. 3, the last time the Yankees faced Kluber.

The forecast is partly cloudy for the Bronx, but no sign of precipitation to ruin this pitchers’ duel. First pitch is set for 7:05 on YES locally and ESPN for those out of market. Enjoy a fine night for baseball!