On the eve of the 2010 playoffs, the Yankees are the Vegas favorites to win the American League pennant (if not the World Series). But there are real reasons to believe that, unlike last year, when they went 11–4 en route to their 27th World Series title, the road to No. 28 won't be quite so easy. Below, the four biggest concerns heading into tomorrow's postseason opener, and — for the optimists out there — why each may not really be so bad.
1. The starting pitching beyond Sabathia is shaky. The most obvious flaw, and the most concerning one. Andy Pettitte's made just three Major League starts since coming off the DL, and he's struggled in two of them. And if the Yankees make it out of the ALDS, they have little choice but to reinsert A.J. Burnett into the rotation (unless they trust Pettitte and Phil Hughes to pitch on short rest, which seems unlikely). Even Phil Hughes hasn't lasted seven innings — be it because of pitch counts or whatever — sine July 9.
On the other hand: Hughes has pitched well in his last few outings, and if Pettitte's healthy, his postseason history has to count for something. And when Burnett is on, even this season, he can be very good. It's a high-risk, high-reward situation — but it's hope, at least.
2. The Yankees have struggled against lefty pitching. They've lost their last nine games in which the opponent has started a left-handed pitcher, and the Twins will start two lefties in the first three games of the ALDS. Curtis Granderson's struggles against lefties, in particular, have been well-documented.
On the other hand: Neither of those lefties — Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing — has ever beaten the Yankees. Plus, to offer up an excuse, some of the lefties they faced in that nine-loss stretch were particularly good. Among them: Cliff Lee, David Price (twice), and Jon Lester. And for what it's worth, Granderson's batting average, OBP, and OPS against lefties this year were all above his career averages.
3. Mariano Rivera hasn't been Mariano Rivera lately. Rivera blew three saves in September, which for him, constitutes a major slump. (His five blown saves this season mark his highest total since 2003.) Given a closer's margin for error in the playoffs, when one bad inning can swing a series, his last 30 days are hard to ignore.
On the other hand: He's Mariano Rivera. Even after a rocky September, he finished with a WHIP under one for the third-straight season. Who would you rather see out there in the ninth?
4. Stealing bases against the Yankees is becoming far too easy. The September 26 game against Boston exposed a real weakness: Twice in the ninth inning, a runner stole both second and third, allowing the Red Sox to score twice on Rivera with just two singles and a sacrifice fly. Perhaps the Yankees pitchers aren't paying enough attention to runners, but the numbers are scary: Jorge Posada's thrown out just 15 percent of runners this season, and Francisco Cervelli's thrown out just 14 percent.
On the other hand: The Twins, at least, don't run very much. They've stolen just 68 bases as a team this season, the second fewest in the American League. (The Rays and Rangers, however, both rank in the top five.)