The New York Yankees secured the A.L. East earlier this week with a dominant victory over the Red Sox, earning the luxury of playing spectator while the Orioles and Rangers square off in a one game Wild Card playoff on Friday, October 5. October baseball is old hat to the Yankees, but that doesn't mean there aren't concerns heading into the 2012 postseason. Here are five potential roadblocks the Yankees face en route to their 41st World Series.
Even with a solid three man rotation in C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees lack a true "ace" heading into the playoffs. Sabathia pitched three strong outings to finish the regular season, but struggled through much of September. Kuroda went just 5-5 with an inflated 4.23 ERA on the road this year.
As for the Yankees' third option, there's no denying the experience of baseball's all-time winningest postseason pitcher, Andy Pettitte. Watching him shutout John Smoltz and the Braves in Game 5 of the 1996 World Series is one of my favorite memories as a Yankees fan. But in the past eight months, Pettitte has come out of retirement and then missed most of the season on the DL…not to mention turned 40 years old.
Despite the shortcomings, I'm confident that Sabathia, Kuroda, and Pettitte can pitch the team to victory in the playoffs. Should the Yanks need to rely on a fourth starter, however, then all bets are off.
It's hard to believe that scoring runs would be a concern for a team that led the Majors in homeruns this season by a margin of 31. But it's no secret that the Yankees have struggled mightily at the plate with runners in scoring position, especially with two outs. I think the Yanks could probably get through one playoff series, possibly two, relying on the long ball as they have most of the season. What scares me though is the thought of a fifth and deciding game against a pitcher like Detroit's Justin Verlander, who doesn't allow many scoring opportunities, let alone baserunners.
Yankee manager Joe Girardi announced that he's considering Brett Gardner for his playoff roster. I like that move, considering the team's noticeable lack of speed. If a game comes down to a late inning stolen base or pinch runner, Gardner is head and shoulders above any other option on the bench.
A Yankees' postseason without Mariano Rivera? Say it ain't so, Joe! The Yankees will be without their ace closer in the playoffs for the first time since 1995. For a lot of teams, a seventeen year stretch means a handful of postseason opportunities at best. But for the New York Yankees, that's 16 seasons of extra baseball, all anchored by baseball's greatest closer. Rafael Soriano has been a Godsend since Mo's season ending injury in May. But it's hard to predict how he, or anyone for that matter, can fill the shoes of one of the most dominant postseason pitchers of all-time. Rivera has pitched in almost 100 postseason games for the Yanks, recording an unfathomable .70 ERA and saving 42 games (not to mention winning 8). Soriano, as reliable as he's been in pinstripes, has just 6 postseason games on his big league resume, amounting to a 4.70 ERA and 1 save. I'm not saying I don't like the Yankees' chances with Soriano in the clutch…I'm just saying he's not Mariano Rivera.
It's not so much Mark Teixiera's abysmal season ending series against the Red Sox that concerns me. It's more the fact that in 121 at-bats for New York in the postseason, Tex has batted just .207 with 3 dingers. In 2010, he went 0-14 in the ALCS against the Texas Rangers, who could well be New York's opening matchup. Teixiera battled injuries through much of 2012, but did manage to hit 24 homeruns in less than a full season's worth of at-bats. But if he looks as lost at the plate as he has the past few weeks, the Yankees could be looking at a serious hole in the middle of their lineup.
If there's one guy in pinstripes who has hit worse than Tex in the postseason, it's Nick Swisher. Swisher put in another solid offensive year for the Yankees, and I guarantee nobody on this team wants to get to the World Series as badly as he does. Yankee fans love him, and will no doubt be pulling for Swisher in what may well be his last hurrah in New York. But if history is any indication, the Yankees need Swisher to show some major improvement at the plate if they are going to count on him for any production in the playoffs. In 124 career postseason at-bats, Swisher has hit well below the Mendoza line at .169, with only 4 homers and 6 RBI to boot. Hopefully for his and the Yankees' sake, history does not repeat itself this October.
Sources: stats from baseball-reference.com
Joe is a lifelong Yankees fan who's anxiously awaiting the start of another postseason.