(Editor’s note: We’ll analyze each team’s postseason chances after it clinches a playoff berth.)
Entering this season, so many experts were picking the Yankees to finish in the bottom half of the AL East. The Red Sox were a popular pick, along with the Orioles (you know, the defending division champs). Fast forward to the first day of October and the Pinstripers, with a 4-1 win over their hated rivals from Boston on Thursday, have clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2012.
The Yankees most likely will face Houston (84-75), which leads the race for the second wild card, or the Angels or Minnesota (83-76), tied a game behind the Astros.
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Like so many years past, it was a successful season for the Yankees. But unlike the recent past, this was a rather quiet season for New York. And consider the Yankees entered 2015 having to replace Derek Jeter at shortstop and juggle the health of their aging veterans in CC Sabathia, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira. On top of all that, it was tough to expect much out of slugger Alex Rodriguez, who sat out the 2014 season while serving a suspension for PEDs.
Through all of this preseason adversity, manager Joe Girardi did a fantastic job of getting the most out of his players — particularly A-Rod, who has remained healthy and has 33 home runs on the season. While many experts thought the Yanks were going to acquire an ace at the trade deadline, the team added utility man Dustin Ackley from the Seattle Mariners and called up top pitching prospect Luis Severino. It’s worked out so far for the Yanks as they have a slightly better winning percentage in the second half (.549) than the first half (.545).
Why they can win the World Series: Their experienced veterans, but they need to stay healthy. Girardi has done a great job managing these injuries and his veterans, but a postseason run is far different from a 162-game regular season. Everybody needs to be healthy and ready to rock and roll for the one-game wild card (Toronto clinched the AL East on Tuesday, as well). Beltran has had a nice bounce-back season, hitting .273 with 66 RBI in 131 games after playing just 109 games in 2014. A-Rod has been solid has blown away all the preseason projections by having his best year since 2010, all at age 40 (his 33 home runs are his most since he hit 35 in 2008). Jacoby Ellsbury, a catalyst in the lineup, has battled injuries this season playing in just 108 games, but has gotten hot of late, hitting .333 over 14 games dating to Sept. 16.
We saw the Royals prove last season that a strong bullpen can take pressure off the starting staff and carry a team — the Yankees can build off that blueprint. On the season, the team is 73-2 when leading after seven innings and an astounding 81-0 when leading after eight innings. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller anchor a bullpen that has struck out an AL-record 584 hitters their season, beating their own record set in 2014.
Why they can’t win the World Series: Age and injuries. On Wednesday night, that bullpen did the Yankees in against the Red Sox and delayed the playoff clinching. Betances surrendered the tying home run to Mookie Betts in the seventh (Betances’ sixth home run given up this season — all since July 4). And the bullpen will need to be strong in the playoffs as the Yankees’ age and injuries catch up to them. Sabathia is bouncing back from knee surgery, fellow starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has problems with his hamstring and Teixeira is out for the season with a fracture in his shin. Severino has been great, pitching to a 2.77 ERA in 10 career starts, but is largely unproven (not to mention a newcomer to the postseason). Relying on him and Michael Pineda, who has a 4.41 ERA in six September starts, would be a roll of the dice for the Yankees.
There’s something to be said of a veteran presence during the postseason and the Yankees have plenty of that. It’s those veterans that are going to either make or break a deep postseason run for this team.