For the second consecutive year, the Yankees have had a relatively drama-free season. Sure, there have been the occasional headaches—A-Rod’s endless and awkward quest for 600 homers, the Cubs’ flirtations with Joe Girardi, and the painful loss of George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard over a three-day span in July—but on the whole, this has not been a Yankees season to lose much hair over. The Yankees, after all, have had at least a share of first place in the AL East or the wild-card standings every day since April 14. That’s about as stress-free as a baseball season gets.
The Yankees have done it the same way they did it last year: through relentless, almost dull efficiency. The team doesn’t lead the major leagues in slugging or batting average, but it’s first in runs because it’s first in on-base percentage. It is a team composed of a string of guys who work a count, take their time, and pick their pitch. The American League’s average on-base percentage is .329; every single Yankee regular, save new addition Curtis Granderson, is above that mark. Other than breakout star Robinson Cano, no one on the Yankees is having the best season of his career (in fact, several, including Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Granderson, have put up some of their worst stats). One could argue that this is the quintessential Yankees team—no muss, no fuss, just six months of plodding along, piling up wins, looking up and seeing, hey, first place, no problem. It’s a technocrat’s wet dream, and Brian Cashman’s finest season.
But there is trouble brewing, and it’s best described by a quote that Cashman might recognize from his old rival across the country in Oakland, Billy Beane. In Moneyball, Beane confesses, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” What Beane meant was that for all his work at roster construction, once the strange dynamics of October take over—short series where a hot pitcher or a random bounce can prove decisive—winning is a crapshoot. Anything can happen. It’s a lesson Yankees fans should keep in mind, because one can make a strong argument that this team’s postseason prospects are shakier than anyone is willing to admit.
This season, A. J. Burnett will make more money than Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Robinson Cano. His $16.5 million salary makes him the twentieth-highest-paid player in the game and the sixth-highest-paid pitcher. And he has been terrible. His 5.15 ERA is easily the worst of his career, and he’s compiled a 10-12 record, which, on a team that’s more than 30 games over .500, is difficult to achieve even if you’re trying. Girardi has kept him in the rotation for the same reason Girardi makes most decisions—he has a solid enough lineup, and a big enough cushion in the standings, that he can keep sending Burnett out there and hope he figures it out. In October, he will have no such luxury.
Burnett is just the highest-profile symptom of the Yankees’ biggest postseason concern. The rotation is springing leaks everywhere. After CC Sabathia, who has been terrific, the Yankees don’t have a single reliable starter. Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched since mid-July, and it’s far from certain he’ll look like the old Andy when he returns from his left-groin injury. Phil Hughes was the team’s best pitcher the first three months of the season but has cooled off lately (and is nearing his innings limit). Javier Vazquez has vindicated fans who screamed when the Yankees traded for him in the off-season (funny how Game 7 grand slams given up to the Red Sox don’t fade from public consciousness) and was recently plying his trade in the bull pen. Rookie Ivan Nova has been a pleasant surprise, but he’s still a rookie. Dustin Moseley, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre are guys you throw in the game in case one of the above pitchers can’t make it out of the second inning.
And that’s it. That’s all the Yankees have as a rotation. A $213 million payroll, and the Yankees have one reliable postseason starter. So much of October comes down to starting pitching—that and Mariano Rivera have been the constants during every Yankees World Series run—and the Yankees, the vaunted Yankees, have no idea who starts Game 2 of a series. Sure, they’re planning on its being Pettitte, but that’s assuming he’s ready and able. If he’s not, the Yankees are looking at Burnett, Hughes, or Vazquez. Never mind Game 3.
But, you say, they’re still in first place; they must be doing something right. Of course. That on-base-churning lineup is still producing runs. (Though it’s worth noting that they were only 16-13 in August, their worst single month since April 2009.) One of the benefits of the regular season is that you face league-average starters, and the Yankees have laid waste to the plebeians of opponents’ rotations. In the playoffs, though, they will have no such good fortune.
At this point, the Yankees will likely be joined in the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, and the Minnesota Twins. The only one of those teams with a worse rotation than the Yankees is the Twins, and even that’s arguable. They might not be top-heavy (their ace this year has been Carl Pavano!), but the Yankees would take Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, or Kevin Slowey in a heartbeat. Not that the Yankees should be particularly terrified of the Twins: They’re 14-2 against Minnesota (counting postseason) over the past two years.
The Twins are certainly preferable to the Yankees’ other possible ALDS opponent, the Rangers, with their bona fide Yankee killer, Cliff Lee, the man who shut down the team in the World Series last year and their No. 1 off-season free-agent target. (The Yankees and Lee have been leering at each other for so long they’re like a Mormon couple waiting to consummate a marriage.) With the Yankees’ rotation problems, the nightmare scenario involves losing Game 1, despite Sabathia, then having to rely on the mystery second starter to keep them out of a massive hole.
If the Yankees do advance, they’ll likely face the Rays, a team that can match up with Sabathia in Game 1 (with David Price), has better secondary starters (Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, James Shields), plays equally good defense, and has an offense that’s just a tick or so behind the Yankees’—not to mention a virtually identical record to the Yanks’.
The Yankees have had a wonderful season, and because of Cashman’s prudence and measured decision-making, they’re set up to continue their domination for years to come, even as players like Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Pettitte age and ultimately retire. The Yankees are currently operating at an optimum level: in first place at the big-league level and investing in a farm system that will keep the model sustainable for the next decade. Next year, Cliff Lee (and Carl Crawford?) will more than likely join a restocked Yankees team, replete with (maybe) top prospect Jesus Montero and new superstar Cano, for another run to the playoffs, and then another after that, and another after that. That’s franchise-building, and Cashman has finally mastered it. But, as we may find out soon, that shit don’t work in the playoffs.