It’s been nearly ten years since the New York Yankees last won a World Series and in the baseball culture of the Bronx, that probably has Yankee fans seeing themselves on a par with fan bases of the Cubs and Astros—the next in line to end an interminably long championship drought. This Yankee team has the horses to do it and the question over the rest of the summer will be what kind of starting pitching first-year manager Aaron Boone has to work with.
When I watch the Yankees, the word that always comes to my mind is “sleek.” This team is loaded with young, athletic players. If MLB teams ever decided to have a pickup basketball tournament, I’d take the Yanks on that basis alone.
And they aren’t bad at baseball either. Aaron Judge has picked up where he left off and showed his big rookie year of 2017 was no fluke. The infield trio of Gleyber Torres at second, Miguel Andujar at third and Didi Gregorius at short epitomizes the athleticism of this team. Torres and Andjuar in particular have been revelations this season. Last year, the Yanks went into October with Starlin Castro at second and Todd Frazier at third. That isn’t bad, but it wasn’t a long-term solution. Torres and Andujar look like they’re here to stay.
New York is third in the American League in runs scored. Some of that is a byproduct of being in a hitter-friendly park, but if we narrow the focus to road games, they’re still fifth. What’s more, the coming months are likely to see them hit better, not worse. Gary Sanchez, the young catcher, is having an awful time at the plate, batting a buck-90. Aaron Hicks, another sleek outfielder, is mucking along at .243, though he does take his walks.
First baseman Greg Bird is off the disabled list and capable of providing another power bat, and a left-handed one at that to complement right-handed sluggers Judge and Sanchez. Bird homered yesterday afternoon against the Nationals and it’s scary to think what he could do if he stayed healthy for any length of time.
The Yankee bullpen ranks second in the American League in ERA, again picking up where they left off last year. Aroldis Chapman is pitching some of the best baseball of his career right now, with a 1.26 ERA in the closer’s role. This is another area where the Yanks are doing it in spite of some underperformance—Dellin Betances is capable of much more than his 3.41 ERA.
Finally, Boone has a legitimate rotation ace in Luis Severino, who sits on a 2.27 ERA in 14 starts. This is the second straight big year for the 24-year-old and he’s got a shot at being New York’s first Cy Young winner since Roger Clemens in 2001 and only the second since Ron Guidry’s 25-win year of 1978.
All of the above is a good explanation for why the Yankees are on a pace to win 111 games, a lock to be playing again in October and the betting favorite to outlast the equally red-hot Red Sox in the AL East.
But with a Boston on on a torrid pace themselves—a pace to win 110, with Houston lurking with a potent starting pitching trio of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Dallas Kuechel and with expectations in New York being nothing less than a 28th World Series championship, there’s no room for even the slightest of flaws. And the rotation beyond Severino has to concern Boone.
C.C. Sabathia has been the second-best starting pitcher and the old warrior continues to get it done, with a 3.27 ERA. He’s also 37-years-old. As the fourth starter, a battle-tested vet like that is invaluable. As the second starter…that might be pushing it.
If all were going to plan in the rotation, Sabathia wouldn’t have to be #2. Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray are each more than capable, but both have ERAs in the high 4s. Tanaka has just gone to the disabled list with hamstring problems. Jordan Montgomery, who was providing some back-end stability, has been lost for the year with an elbow injury.
None of this adds up to any reason to panic—or for those of us in New England to take any false hope. Betting on Tanaka and Gray to return to form makes sense and the Yankees have the assets—both in the farm system and in the bank—to go get trade deadline help, although landing a frontline starting pitcher is never a sure thing. How the starting pitching, particularly in the 2-3 spots in the rotation will tell us if the Yankees can separate themselves from the Red Sox and survive the Astros. My resigned guess is that they’ll probably figure it out.