In terms of the playoffs, the Yankees are in good shape right now but their are a few things that need improvement before they begin and at the same time a few players have bounced back well from earlier slumps.
They are currently one-game behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the AL East, and they have an 8.5 game cushion on the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Angels in the Wild Card. To help secure a trip to the American League Championship Series it would be in the Yankees best interest to finish first in the AL East because they have a history of struggling much more against the Texas Rangers (and the Anaheim Angels who are 3.5 games back) than the Detroit Tigers who in first place in the AL Central (or Cleveland Indians or the surging Chicago White Sox).
There are more questions about the Yankees’ starting pitching than in years past, so they will need to figure out their struggles against the Red Sox down the stretch, in order to face the AL Central winner in the first round.
A pitcher who will be critical for the Yankees fate down the stretch as well as realizing the World Series goal in the playoffs is none other than CC Sebathia. He is having a CY Young caliber season and would be running away with the award if had even been able to approach the stats this season that he has put up against teams not named the Red Sox. This season against Boston, Sebathia is 0-4, with a 7.20 ERA and the Red Sox are hitting .324 against him. The Yankees face the Red Sox six more times before the regular season concludes and the division race will likely come down to the last few games. In six starts since the All-Star break he has also not been his usual dominate self, pitching to a 3.60 ERA whereas in the first-half he had a stellar 2.72 ERA.
Another player who has regressed mightily, and has not pitched up to expectations from his lofty contract, has been the heavily tattooed A.J. Burnett. I am not sure if it is the fact that he has tattoos in every imaginable place, or that he always looks confused, but he can’t be relied upon to go deep into games or pitch in pressurized situations. Burnett’s protégé Ivan Nova, who has only pitched with the Yankees part of last season and most of this season, has more wins this July than Burnett (zero) has during his three season with the team. His last win came all the way back on June 29th and in his last three starts he has allowed four, seven and four runs. There is no way that Burnett should make a single start in the postseason.
Phil Hughes is a pitcher who has rebounded impressively from earlier in the season when he struggled mightily and was put on the disabled list because of a “dead arm”. In his last five starts there has only been one that did not live up to his pre All-Star break form from last season, and is definitely showing signs of being a consistent pitcher again. Last season he was an All-Star, picking up 18 wins in the process, and is proving his turnaround after his miserable beginning to the season since he has allowed two runs or fewer in his last three starts (after not reaching the fifth inning in any of his three pre disabled list starts). He has the potential to be the Yankees number two or three starter for years to come but unfortunately he might be moved to the bullpen since he can pitch there and Burnett would never be able to.
I could see Hughes and Sebathia having a major impact in the playoffs but one player who could be a hidden gem is the catcher that they were used to throwing to in the past, Jorge Posada. He had been the everyday designated-hitter until a week ago until Girardi removed him from his starting role. This is an adjustment for Posada because he is used to playing every day as the productive starting catcher for the last 13 seasons, but it has come time for him to accept a part-time role. The demotion made sense because he purely was not producing enough to be in the lineup every day. His average had been in the .230’s most of the last month, and before Saturday’s throwback game he only had four RBI since July 1st. The three hit, six RBI game against the Rays on Saturday, which included a grand slam, proves that he has something left in the tank, and would likely be the perfect bat to bring off the bench during a clutch situations in the postseason.
Posada’s close friend, and teammate since they broke into the majors in 1995, Derek Jeter, has hit much better recently than earlier in the season. He has been a clutch performer throughout his Hall of Fame career, and there is no better evidence than when he hit a home run for his 3,000th hit during his first five hit game of his season. The Yankees needed every one of those five hits for them to win the game. Jeter’s average was hovering in the high 250’s as recently as the beginning of July but now is hitting an impressive .278. His time on the disabled list, for two weeks at the end of June, was a blessing in disguise because he was able to meet with instructors he liked from earlier in his career, rest his body and improve his swing. Jeter can be counted on as being a valuable asset down the stretch and in the playoffs.
A third player of the core four (the other being Andy Pettitte who retired before the season) is Mariano Rivera, and he has struggled recently but he can surely be counted on to bounce back. He has had three shaky performances in a row, the last two coming against the Angels, and the one before was blown save during a loss to the Red Sox. The Angels and especially the Red Sox are two teams he usually slips up most against, and Rivera also usually has about two stretches in a season where he pitches like he is human. He is the best closer of all-time, and one of the most dominating post-season performers, so even though he is 42 it will be surprising if he is not the lockdown performer like he usually is from here on out.
Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, David Robertson, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have continued their very impressive seasons. I don’t think anybody really counted on Garcia and Colon, who are two aging pitchers who Cashman gambled on before the season, to have the productive seasons that they have had. There has always been the possibility that those two might get injured but they have not, and have they both pitched to less than a 3.32 ERA to this point in the season. If they can continue this same production the Yankees will be in good shape. Granderson has had an MVP caliber season and every since his meeting last season in August with hitting coach Kevin Long he has been a totally new hitter. Ivan Nova has also been a pleasant surprise been able to bounce back from not being able to pitch past the fifth inning, and also from being bumped from the rotation for no real reason of his own except for the Hughes returning from the DL.
If everything falls into place the Yankees have the potential of going making the World Series but it will really help if they can solve their issues against the Red Sox and keep Burnett out of the rotation.