Off Day Dreaming: Yankees Have Clinched AL East

With a sizable division lead, the Rays and Red Sox aren't catching the Yankees this season

I wanted the Yankees to go to London and win one game, not lose any ground in the standings and take two more games off the schedule. They did even better, sweeping the two games and pushing their division lead out of reach for their competition.

This is going to be a fun, relaxing and enjoyable summer with no chasing for the Yankees to do. For the first time in a long time, Yankees fans can sit back during the second half and not worry about the division title or wild-card seeding.

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

1. The division is over for the Rays and Red Sox. O-V-E-R. Yes, on July 1, with essentially half the season left, I’m calling the division for over for both the Rays and Red Sox. I called it over weeks ago for the Red Sox, but I’m eliminating the Rays from the AL East now as well.

If the Yankees were to play .500 baseball over their remaining games and go 40-40, the Rays would have to go 46-32 (.590) to tie them and the Red Sox would have to go 50-28 (.641) to tie them. Both winning percentages represent higher win percentages than both teams are currently playing to, though that doesn’t even matter since the Yankees aren’t going to become a .500 baseball team for the next three months. The level of competition in baseball this season won’t let them.

The Yankees currently have a .659 winning percentage (54-28), so let’s say they win 60 percent of their remaining games, which still might be low. That would give them a final record of 102-60. The Rays would then have to go 54-24 (.692) to tie them and the Red Sox would have to go 58-20 (.744) to tie them. So yeah, the division is over.

2. The Yankees return home from London with a two-game series against the Mets and then four games in Tampa against the Rays. The best part about having such a big lead in the division is the Yankees no longer have to win series against their direct competition. They don’t have to go to Tampa this weekend looking to win three of four to gain ground on the Rays or create more separation. All they have to do is play .500. Win two of the four and that’s four more games off the schedule and four more games off the schedule between them and the Rays.

It’s a beautiful feeling to have this type of division cushion that I forgot what it felt like. It’s been nearly seven years since the Yankees last won the division and have had only a handful of division, some only for a day or two, in that time. The second half of this season is going to be about getting healthy, staying healthy, acquiring a starting pitcher and preparing for the postseason. It’s just like the old days: the regular season is set up as a formality for the postseason. I couldn’t be happier.

3. The problem is the Yankees could go out and win 100 games again like last season or 105 or 110 and it won’t matter if they don’t get those 11 wins in October. I hate to rain on the parade of the best team in the AL, especially after they destroyed the Red Sox this weekend, but it’s the truth. Nothing matters if the Yankees don’t finish the job for the first time in a decade in October.

4. What a weekend it was for the Yankees. Putting up 29 runs in the two games against the Red Sox and ruining any small chance the Red Sox had of getting back in the division race. The Red Sox are now 12 games back in the loss column of the Yankees and two games back of the second wild-card berth. The best-case scenario for the Yankees would be for the Red Sox to play themselves out of the postseason completely since they would have the best chance of winning the AL Wild-Card Game among the competition and that would most likely set up a best-of-5 with the Yankees. The Yankees might own the Red Sox this regular season, but that would mean nothing in October, and I don’t want to find out if the Yankees can continue their 2019 success against their rival.

5. I think DJ LeMahieu should officially change his first name and replace the DJ with Derek Jeter. Derek Jeter LeMahieu. We are watching Derek Jeter at the plate when LeMahieu comes up. A contact-first, opposite-field approach that not only works, but is every bit as good as Jeter’s was. LeMahieu is up to .345/.392/.534 on the season with 12 home runs and 61 RBIs, playing first base, second base and third base. If the season ended today, LeMahieu would be the AL MVP. Remember when he wasn’t in the Opening Day lineup and was going to be used a super utility player?

6. I don’t care that Aaron Hicks hit a home run on Saturday and I don’t care that he hit that seventh-inning triple on Sunday, Hicks should never bat third for the Yankees. He shouldn’t bat higher than seventh, and even putting him seventh might be too high. The only person Hicks should ever bat higher than on this current Yankees team is Brett Gardner. That’s it.

Hicks isn’t Bernie Williams, though the Yankees keep treating him like he is. He has no business batting between Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez with Luke Voit and Giancarlo Stanton both out, and he has no business batting higher than Edwin Encarnacion or Gleyber Torres either. For some reason, the Yankees keep confusing Hicks’s ability with Torres’s ability, batting the 23-year-old star at the bottom of the order in favor of the career two-month wonder. Come postseason time, if the team is at full strength, this should be the lineup:

DJ LeMahieu, 3B
Aaron Judge, RF
Gary Sanchez, C
Luke Voit, 1B
Giancarlo Stanton, LF
Gleyber Torres, 2B
Edwin Encarnacion, DH
Aaron Hicks, CF
Didi Gregorius, SS

Unfortunately, the Yankees would likely not bat Sanchez ahead of Voit and Stanton since there’s no amount of records Sanchez can break to solidify himself as the team’s No. 3 hitter, wouldn’t bat Voit ahead of Stanton, wouldn’t bat Torres ahead of Encarnacion, wouldn’t bat Hicks behind Torres and would never bat Gregorius ninth. But that’s what the lineup should be. I don’t care about breaking up the right-handed bats since there are too many that you can’t break them up.

7. Given the odd travel schedule, playing baseball in a soccer stadium and everything being weird about the London games, it makes sense to give Masahiro Tanaka a pass for Saturday’s disaster. No pitcher pitched well in London, so it’s hard to get on Tanaka for a bad inning when Rick Porcello managed to do worse and the teams combined for 50 runs in two games. Even if you remove Saturday’s first inning from Tanaka’s season ledger, it doesn’t change the fact he has one inning nearly every game in which he lets the game get away from him.

London aside, Tanaka is the team’s best and most consistent starter right now. He’s going to get the ball in the postseason, whether it’s in Game 1, 2 or 3 and I have all the faith in the world he will pitch as brilliantly as he has in the last two postseasons. I’m not worried about his regular-season inconsistencies because I trust him more than any other Yankees starter and I know when the calendar turns to October he’s unbeatable.

8. I have a feeling if Luis Cessa let the Red Sox extend their lead considerably on Sunday, it might have finally been his last game as a Yankee. Instead, Cessa went out and pitched four shutout innings, keeping the Yankees in the game, and allowing them the chance to come back and tie the game before taking the lead for good.

This doesn’t change the fact that Cessa isn’t good and doesn’t belong on the Yankees. Give any fringe major leaguer enough chances and eventually they will be successful in some capacity. That game wasn’t Cessa turning a corner or figuring it out once and for all, it was just the last man in a major league bullpen having a good outing. Don’t be surprised when he’s now trusted in a bigger spot in the coming weeks and fails to come through. That’s who Cessa is, not the pitcher from Sunday.

9. Zack Britton is a problem. A real problem. Normally, on a team like this, a bad reliever would eventually be removed of his late-inning role and would pitch in mop-up duty or meaningless games. But because of Britton’s contract, resume and stature, he’s going to get the ball in high-leverage situations no matter what, and I’m petrified he’s going to lose a game in October, just like he did last October.

Don’t let Britton’s 2.55 ERA fool you. He has walked 20 and struck out 26 in 35 1/3 innings this season. Since May 20, he has walked 12 and struck out four in 15 innings. I don’t know what’s worse, the four strikeouts or the 12 walks. But I do know a pitcher with those kind of numbers can’t be trusted to pitch the eighth inning in close games and can’t be viewed as an elite option. It’s only a matter of time until Britton’s high walk rate and low strikeout rate translate into earned runs. He can’t pitch like this and escape damage forever and he better figure it out before it gets to that point.

10. My expected record for the Yankees for June was 15-11 and they finished 17-9, two games better. When they started the month 4-8, it looked like they weren’t going to come close to the mark I set for them, but winning 13 of their last 14 certainly helped.

The Yankees play 25 games in July. They are off today, four games for the All-Star break and again on July 29. My expected record (by expected record, I mean a record I would be content with them having) for July is 13-12. That doesn’t seem great, but with 12 games against the Rays and Red Sox, and a bunch of other somewhat decent matchups, playing a game over .500 isn’t bad. August is when they can get fat again with 13 games against the Orioles, Blue Jays and Mariners. If the Yankees are 67-40 through the end of July, they will still have a comfortable lead in the division with only 55 games left.


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