A month after the New York Yankees sold at the trade deadline, the team is right in the thick of the AL wild card race. How thick, you ask? Despite the hot streaks of Detroit and Houston, two teams they trail in the standings, the Bombers entered play on September 2 a mere two games out of a postseason spot. An even 30 games from this season’s end, the Yankees could confidently say a .600 record (18-12) the rest of the way would land them in the playoffs.
Considering the late July shake-up included the subtractions of Carlos Beltran, Andrew Miller, Alex Rodriguez, and Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees’ performance in August was impressive. The club posted a 17-11 record (.607), easily its best of the season. Buoyed by the onslaught of Gary Sanchez (11 HR, 21 RBI, 1.290 OPS), an explosion from Starlin Castro (8 HR, 24 RBI, .904 OPS), and a name-making performance by Ronald Torreyes (.438 BA/1.190 OPS), the Bronx Bombers earned the right to use their old nickname.
But the top-five offensive showing would have been useless without an equal showing by the Yankees pitching staff. Seven wins out of the bullpen proved to be the difference, and it begins with Dellin Betances (1-0, 7 SV, 0.68 ERA). Yet Tyler Clippard and Red Sox castoff Tommy Layne have been godsends for the club in the absence of Miller and Chapman. (As a consequence, Dave Dombrowski’s acquisition of Fernando Abad has become a negative in multiple ways for Boston.)
Other names few will recognize — Shreve, Bleier, Parker, and Heller — have made major contributions, especially in the series win at Kansas City, another club in the wild card hunt. Meanwhile, Masahiro Tanaka, the club’s best player, has been his rock-like self. So has it been luck, the law of averages, or some expert fine-tuning by the front office that has New York here? Whatever it is, the hunt is on. Here are three paths the Yankees can take to the 2016 postseason.
1. The wild card via slugging
New York’s offense finally made its presence felt in August, when the Yankees were among the AL’s best in slugging (first), home runs (third), and RBI (second). With A-Rod, Brian McCann, and Mark Teixeira either gone or on the bench most of the time, New York showed gains in base-running metrics as well. But the power surge coming from Sanchez at catcher and Castro at second base is the biggest difference between the club in August and any other month of the season. This formula could very well get the club the wild card. Aaron Judge, another heralded prospect, has slumped badly since his charmed debut, so anything from the big slugger will help continue this roll. Castro, Didi Gregorius, and Jacoby Ellsbury also have to keep hitting for the lineup to remain long.
The easiest, most direct way to this wild card is straight through Baltimore, which had its worst month of the season in August and is no longer in first place. What many saw coming — the thin pitching staff crumbling, a cooling period for Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo — has finally happened. Meanwhile, the club’s most effective starter by a mile has been sidelined until the second week of September.
New York has its first shot in the series beginning September 2. If the Yankees punish Baltimore pitching once again (they outscored the O’s 27-14 in late August), it would put one nail in the Orioles’ coffin. A sweep would land New York in first place for the second wild card, but two of three would keep Baltimore reeling.
2. More Girardi bullpen shuffles
The performance of Tyler Clippard (1-0, 0.73 ERA in 12.1 IP) has allowed manager Joe Girardi to tinker with the middle-innings relievers, and he my have found something in the series against the Royals. Chasen Shreve, Ben Heller, and Blake Parker all showed grit in high-leverage situations against a hot Kansas City club, and the two wins allowed New York to leapfrog the Royals in the wild card chase.
More help arrived with the September 1 call-ups from Scranton, when Girardi got Luis Severino and Nick Goody back in the ‘pen after brief absences. In Severino, the Yankees might have the closest thing it can find to replace the flame-throwing Chapman and Miller. The young right-hander has thrown 8.1 IP of scoreless ball in relief, featuring his high-90s fastball and wipeout slider exclusively.
Compared to his disastrous run in the rotation, Severino has been a legitimate difference-maker out of the ‘pen. With more toys to play with, Girardi can make three or four runs stick like he used to in the pre-deadline days. Yankees hitters would merely have to remain solid in order to win in this fashion. Meanwhile, starters would only have to give six quality innings, which (outside of Tanaka) is about as much as this group can manage.
3. Assault on the AL East
The least likely (though still conceivable) Yankees postseason path would be straight through the AL East-leading Blue Jays. New York trailed Toronto by six in the loss column on September 2 and the two clubs had seven more games remaining, head to head. A 5-2 record versus the Jays would cut the Yankees’ deficit in half, making the rest of the job manageable over the other 23 contests.
In this scenario, the Yankees would have to light up Tampa in the final seven games in which the two teams face off while playing, say, .600 ball (15-8) otherwise. If New York can win five or six against a mediocre Rays club and beat up the Jays one on one, winning the AL East is doable. Toronto and Boston play each other seven times and have a similar number of games against other division opponents, so there is no mystery about how the East will be won.
Playing better than .700 ball is something the Yankees have not done for a month since July 2015 (17-7), and that club featured a red-hot Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. So a similar run will take more ace-worthy work from Tanaka, strong starts from C.C. Sabathia and Michael Pineda, and all-around attacks from the offense and bullpen. Considering how the group is playing at the start of September, it’s not too much to ask.
But hey, this team would throw a New York-appropriate party if it could just get a wild card. Let’s see what these Baby Bombers have in them a year or so ahead of schedule.
Follow Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY