I left Yankee Stadium just before midnight on Oct. 3, 2006 as River Ave. filled with chants of “SWEEP! SWEEP! SWEEP!” The Yankees had cruised to an 8-4 win in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Tigers, backed by a 5-for-5, two-double, two-home run night from Derek Jeter and a two-run home run from Jason Giambi, and the 56,291 at the Stadium were pouring onto the street making it known how they thought the best-of-5 series would go.
The Yankees had won 97 games, easily winning the AL East by 10 games. Their starting pitching had been shaky all season, but their offense was so ridiculous and overflowing with talent that defending AL MVP Alex Rodriguez was batting sixth, Robinson Cano hit .342 in the regular season and was batting ninth and Gary Sheffield had to learn how to play first base to keep his bat in the lineup. Their lineup for that Game 1 win:
Johnny Damon, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Bobby Abreu, RF
Gary Sheffield, 1B
Jason Giambi, DH,
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Hideki Matsui, LF
Jorge Posada, C
Robinson Cano, 2B
The 2006 Yankees were the best team in baseball. They should have won the pennant and then would have faced an 83-win Cardinals team in the World Series, a team which started Jeff Weaver twice and Jeff Suppan once in the World Series. The Yankees should have won the World Series. They didn’t because they had been built only to win in the regular season, the same way they have been many times between 2004 and 2018. The Yankees had the league’s best lineup and one of the best of all time, but the organization failed to address their need for starting pitching, and when the bats went quiet, the season ended against Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman.
The Yankees could have won that World Series with a rotation that featured 43-year-old Randy Johnson and his 5.00 ERA and Jaret Wright and his 1.525 WHIP, just like they could have won any of the seasons between 2004 and 2018, when they were giving postseason starts to less-than-ideal options. Rarely during those 15 years did the Yankees go into the playoffs with a pitching edge, relying on their always-stacked offense and mediocre starting pitching to be enough, and only once was it enough. Since 2004, the Yankees have had many chances to win championships, but nearly every season, they have entered the postseason as just another team in the crapshoot that is baseball’s postseason, infrequently putting together the best possible team to give them an advantage over the rest of the field.
The Yankees have tried in recent years to build a team which can win in both the regular season and postseason by creating a super bullpen, capable of shortening games to four or five innings. The strategy nearly got them to the World Series in 2017 before the bats went quiet in Games 6 and 7 in Houston, and it might have worked in 2018 if the manager had used his best relievers with the season on the line. So far, the Yankees’ decision to focus and spend on building the best possible bullpen while piecing together a rotation filled with inconsistency and injury concerns hasn’t worked out, and there’s a chance they could be headed for the same fate this season.
The Yankees are once again the best team in baseball. The Dodgers’ win percentage might suggest differently, but the Yankees are tied in the loss column with the back-to-back World Series loser despite being without their best starting pitcher and best reliever all season, having their best player miss two months, losing their starting third baseman for the entire season, getting nine games out of last season’s leading home run hitter, playing without their starting centerfielder for the first six weeks and their starting shortstop for the first third of the season. They have also watched their catcher, first baseman, three other starting pitchers and their should-be fourth outfielder all also land on the injured list. Yeah, the Yankees are the best team in baseball.
The Yankees might be the best team in baseball, but as currently constructed, they aren’t the best team for October baseball. There aren’t many playoff scenarios in which they will have the edge with their rotation and there are lineups as good and possibly more balanced than theirs. Right now, the Yankees would be just one of the teams in the postseason, and not the team, with the same chance as any of the other teams to win.
There are three things that worry me about the Yankees for the 2019 postseason. They aren’t minor worries, they are keep-me-up-at-night worries.
1. The rotation. Last week, I wrote I want the Yankees to trade for Madison Bumgarner, and they should want to too. If Luis Severino is unable to return and be his old self, the Yankees would go with Masahiro Tanaka (who I trust as a much as anyone I ever trusted in October) in Game 1 and then the right-handed A.J. Burnett in James Paxton in Game 2. After that, maybe it’s Domingo German if his nonsensical innings limit allows, or it’s a combination of CC Sabathia, J.A. Happ and Chad Green the Opener. Excuse me, while I quickly search Amazon for a respirator.
2. The lineup. The Yankees’ lineup the last couple years reminds me of that Yankees lineup which lost to the Tigers. It’s a lot of power and a lot of big names that easily beats up on average starting pitching for six months, but when it sees good to great starting pitching every night in the playoffs, it disappears. I envision the lineup chasing sliders low and away in October because I watched it the last two Octobers. To make matters worse, the Yankees only left-handed bats are Aaron Hicks and Didi Gregorius, and neither belongs higher than sixth in the order, though I’m sure the Yankees will force them higher to break up the righties even though they are undeserving.
3. The manager. Brian Cashman built Aaron Boone a super bullpen for last October, featuring Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Zack Britton and Chad Green. But in the most important bullpen spots in the postseason, Boone either went to his bullpen too late or went to Lance Lynn instead. Buying someone a Ferrari doesn’t make sense if they either don’t know how to drive or are going to opt to drive their old, beat-up Acura anyway. Boone demonstrated all of last season he didn’t know how to manage a bullpen and it reared its ugly head at the worst possible time. This season, he has made the same egregious mistakes as last season, and I’m petrified he could be the Yankees’ most-feared opponent in October.
The Yankees could win the World Series with their current roster though their chances would certainly increase if Severino, Betances and Giancarlo Stanton all returned and all returned at their normal performance level. It’s quite possible the Yankees feel they are essentially acquiring an ace, the best reliever in baseball and the 2017 NL MVP at the deadline, and therefore, they will stand pat with their current roster. But Severino is one setback away from not being able to start a game this season and Betances is getting dangerously close to having his free-agent season be lost. As for Stanton, who knows if and when he will come back as the most recent update had him still not ready to resume baseball activities. Stanton’s situation is the least dire and least important, but with two weeks to go until the trade deadline, the Yankees have to plan as if they won’t have Severino or Betances this season.
The Yankees are going to the postseason and they are going as AL East champions. There are 70 games left for them to prepare for October, try to get and remain healthy and line up their rotation for the ALDS. Everything they do between now and Game 162 is for the playoffs. The first thing they have to do is address their rotation.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is available!