Off Day Dreaming: Yankees Draw Best Possible ALDS Opponent

Despite not being the 1-seed, the Yankees have a favorable first-round matchup

This is it: the Yankees’ final off day of the 2019 regular season. The Yankees have three games remaining and then it’s the postseason. Growing up, this time of year was always a given as a Yankees fan, and for the third year in a row, it’s back to being a given.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees on this off day as usual.

1. The goal of being the 1-seed and having home-field advantage for the American League playoffs won’t be accomplished. The Yankees trail the Astros by three games in the loss column, which means four games overall for the 1-seed, and with the Yankees only having three games left, the Yankees will be the 2-seed in the AL. The Yankees also now trail the Dodgers by a 1/2 game for home-field in a potential World Series.

It’s still possible the Yankees could have home-field for both the ALCS and World Series. The Astros could get upset in the ALDS by the Rays, A’s or Indians (I wouldn’t count on it) and the Yankees could either finish with a better record than the Dodgers, or the Dodgers could get upset as well. But if the Yankees advance to the ALCS, plan on them playing the Astros.

I wanted the Yankees to have home-field in the event they reach the ALCS and play the Astros because I think they need it to win. The 2017 ALCS was completely lopsided in favor of the home team, the Astros have the best home record in baseball this season (60-21) and Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have been nearly unhittable in Houston, though they have been nearly unhittable everywhere. The Yankees have had success against this Astros core in New York, and it was these Astros who admitted to being intimidated by the Yankee Stadium crowd in the postseason. The Yankees can beat the Astros, but it would have been easier to do so with the first two games, and four of the seven games of the ALCS at home.

Now the Yankees are either going to need to have an unlikely upset in the other ALDS or do something they have a lot of trouble doing in Houston: hitting, scoring and winning.

2. I’m scared of Verlander in the postseason, but I’m just as scared of Cole, who has better strikeouts numbers than Verlander, and who the Yankees have seen a lot less of in recent years.

I stayed up on Wednesday night to watch the Astros-Mariners game (because I had an Astros-A’s two-team parlay), and during the broadcast, there was a graphic shown about Cole and how for more than four months now he is first in every single pitching category in the league.

Cole was originally drafted by the Yankees, but chose to attend UCLA instead, and was later redrafted by the Pirates. The Yankees unsuccessfully tried to trade for him before the 2018 season, but the Astros landed him, and he helped lead them to the ALCS, before laying an egg, which helped the Red Sox advance to and win the World Series.

I can’t help but envision Cole shutting down the Yankees in the ALCS the way he was unable to shut down the Red Sox last season, and then watching the Yankees greatly overpay to sign him in the offseason only to have him come to New York and be more like the pitcher the Pirates dealt than the one the Astros acquired. That seems like something that would happen. Then again, the Yankees probably won’t sign him in the offseason, opting to once again shop from the starting pitching clearance rack.

3. The type of game we saw from the Yankees on Wednesday night against Charlie Morton and the Rays is the exact type of game that keeps me up at night for fear of it happening in the postseason. The Yankees’ right-handed heavy lineup (missing two more right-handed hitters in Gary Sanchez and Edwin Encarnacion) was completely shut down by Morton for six innings and the Rays’ bullpen for the final three. The Yankees were one-hit in the game and managed to score only one run in the 21 innings in the two-game series. For now, I’m going to chalk it up as just two games of 162 at a time when the Yankees are just trying to go through the motions and stay healthy against a team with everything to play for still.

Morton has owned the Yankees away from Yankee Stadium, but the Yankees have owned him in New York (like they did in Game 3 of the 2017 ALCS), only further proving how much better the Yankees are at home than on the road. Wednesday night’s game was essentially a duplicate performance of Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS for Morton. In that game, Morton shut out the Yankees for five innings, only allowing two hits, before Lance McCullers Jr. came in and threw 100 straight curveballs to finish the game. 

The Yankees and Yankees fans should be extremely grateful Morton is no longer on the Astros. Outside of Verlander and Cole, he’s been arguably the best pitcher in the AL. It’s bad enough the Astros’ third starter is Zack Greinke, but if it were still Morton, the Yankees could pack up the bats and balls and try again next season.

4. It’s hard to put a lot of stock into how badly the Yankees have played recently, and they have played badly, going 7-7 since their unnecessary bullpen management loss in Detroit back on September 10, because they haven’t been using their best possible lineup and have been avoiding using their elite relievers.

I’m not worried about the team playing poorly at the end of the regular season because nothing that has happened this month and nothing that will happen in the last three games of the season this weekend will matter come next Friday night at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees could be on a 15-game winning streak or 15-game losing streak heading into October and it wouldn’t matter, and the team’s lack of hitting this week against the Rays, doesn’t worry me. I have long been worried about the offense disappearing in the postseason like it did in Games 6 and 7 of the 2017 ALCS and Games 3 and 4 of the 2018 ALDS, and the last two games didn’t change that.

5. With each game the Yankees use a lineup that features Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius breaking up the right-handed bats, the more nervous I get about this sort of lineup being used in the postseason. I don’t know who actually creates the lineup, and I highly doubt it’s Aaron Boone, but whoever it is, Gardner and Gregorius can’t be hitting anywhere other than the bottom third of the lineup. This isn’t the 2017 postseason when the Yankees had Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley and Starlin Castro to hide. The lineup is too good, whether it’s right-handed heavy or not, to have those two batting anywhere higher than seventh.

If Gardner and Gregorius bat where they should, here’s a lineup I think we could see.

1. DJ LeMahieu, 1B
2. Aaron Judge, RF
3. Gleyber Torres, 2B
4. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
5. Edwin Encarnacion, DH
6. Gary Sanchez, C
7. Didi Gregorius, SS
8. Gio Urshela, 3B
9. Brett Gardner, CF

I don’t agree with Stanton batting ahead of Encarnacion or Sanchez, but the Yankees are going to hit Stanton at least fourth and possibly even third. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Gregorius bats ahead of Sanchez because the Yankees desperately like to hit inferior hitters ahead of superior hitters whenever they can.

6. This lineup doesn’t include Luke Voit, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to play. Between Voit, Encarnacion and Urshela, two of the three will play. I think you need Urshela in the lineup, not only because he’s earned it, but because he’s been so good at third base, that even if he were to stay in his current slump in October, his glove is enough to keep him in the lineup. That leaves the final lineup between Voit and Encarnacion.

Encarnacion will return to the lineup this weekend in Texas and try to get as many at-bats as he can in the three-game series (though I’m sure the Yankees won’t let him play in all three games) to get ready for the postseason. As long he shows he’s healthy, he’s going to play.

Voit, on the other hand, claims he’s healthy and over the hernia injury that landed him on the injured list twice, but he hasn’t hit since returning nearly a month ago. Voit is batting just .222/.341/.375 over 85 plate appearances with two home runs since the end of August and has looked overmatched most of the time. He still has a .383 on-base percentage and an .856 OPS on the season, but you have to go back to the end of July to find the last time he was truly a feared, middle-of-the-order presence. If Encarnacion is healthy, Voit is on the bench to begin the postseason.

7. It can be worrisome to be the 1-seed and have had nothing to play for in weeks and suddenly be playing a postseason game against a team that has been in Game 7 mode for as long as you have been coasting. The Twins are a lot like the Yankees in that they have known for a while they are going to the postseason, even if they didn’t officially clinch the AL Central until Wednesday. Now the Twins can sit back and relax, like the Yankees have been doing, and play spring training lineups and wait for next Friday.

Despite not being the 1-seed and not having home-field advantage no matter what and not getting to face the wild-card winner who will have had to play an extra game and burn their best starter to get to the ALDS, I think the Yankees ended up with the best possible first-round matchup.

I’m not scared of the Twins. Not at all. This doesn’t have to do with the Yankees historically owning the Twins and eliminating them in five postseasons since 2003. This has everything to do with the Twins having the weakest starting pitching in the AL postseason field. If the Yankees were to lose to them, it wouldn’t just be an upset, it would be an absolute disaster. The Yankees would claim it’s the result of a short series and small sample size and the MLB postseason being a crapshoot, but it can’t happen. The Yankees can’t lose in the ALDS.

8. The best chance the Yankees have of not seeing the Astros in a potential ALCS is if the A’s win the wild-card game. The Astros would steamroll both the Rays and Indians, but I could see an A’s upset of the Astros, and from a gambling perspective, there would be a lot of value in taking the A’s series money line.

The A’s took three of four from the Astros in Houston two weeks ago and have won six of the last eight against them. The two teams know each other the same way the Yankees and Red Sox do, and there wouldn’t be any surprises in a series between them.

A series which wouldn’t have been allowed prior to the five-team postseason format is the last thing the Astros want after earning the 1-seed. It’s the only real ALDS matchup which could end the Astros’ season early or at least screw up the order of their rotation for the ALCS.

9. The Yankees are going to finish the season with either 102, 103, 104 or 105 wins depending on how the weekend in Texas goes in what will also be the last three games ever at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

It’s been a fun six months and an enjoyable season, the third in a row, after the previous three out of four were miserable. But now the real season begins. Everything since March 29 has been to prepare for next Friday night in the Bronx and Game 1 of the ALDS, and if the season doesn’t end the way the last nine have failed to, nothing since March 29 will have mattered.

10. This was the 19th and final Off Day Dreaming of the regular season. There will be a similar blog after each postseason game this October as there has been in past postseasons.

Thank you for reading Off Day Dreaming throughout the regular season on the worst days of any Yankees season: off days. The next regular-season Off Day Dreaming will be on Friday, March 27, 2020.


My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is available!