It’s not often that a team with a $201 million payroll, 27 championships, and the best young slugger in the game can call itself an underdog. But that’s where the Yankees found themselves at the start of the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians. And then again after going down 0–2 in the series. And once more at the start of Wednesday’s decisive game five, which was played in Cleveland with likely Cy Young winner Corey Kluber on the mound for the Indians.
Each time, the Yankees beat the odds and came back to beat the Indians. On Wednesday, shortstop Didi Gregorius was the hero, launching two homers in the first three innings and helping to chase Kluber from the game. Gregorius gave the Yankees a 3–0 lead by himself, which was plenty for starter CC Sabathia and the Murderers’ Row in the Yankee bullpen.
On Friday, the Yankees will head to Houston for the ALCS against the Astros, who have the third-best record in the league. They’ll be underdogs in Las Vegas again, but don’t be swayed by the team’s eagerness to embrace the narrative — these are still the mighty Yankees, not the booger-eating Bad News Bears.
Yes, the Yankees may be at the end of a rebuild, but others teams don’t get to rebuild like they do in the Bronx, where the past few years, lean as they were, all ended with a winning record. Unlike the Yankees, who kept spending while rebuilding, the Astros had three straight 100-loss seasons as they prepared for the future.
It’s true that the Yankees weren’t expected to make this deep a playoff run until next year, or the year after. But the stars aligned this season with Aaron Judge emerging, Gary Sanchez avoiding a sophomore slump, Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, and Starlin Castro bouncing back, and Gregorius and Aaron Hicks putting up career years. On a typical rebuilding team, those performances might have been squandered. But the Yankees aren’t typical.
That surprising offense was paired with one of the most effective and well-paid pitching staffs in baseball. The three pitchers who appeared in Wednesday’s win over the Indians will make a combined $54.2 million this year by themselves. That’s more than the entire pitching staffs of all but nine Major League teams. And even though the Yankees’ good hitters were mostly making less than $10 million a year, only a team with deep pockets can pay $34 million to two aging outfielders such as Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Holliday and not play them every day.
The underdog label might have been technically accurate when the Yankees played the Indians and the same will apply against the Astros. But baseball fans will be forgiven for going against their instincts and cheering for the favorite in Houston. After all, the “underdog” has the highest payroll in the American League.