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The Yankees Are Fine, and the Yankees Are Screwed

Led by the best offense and the best bullpen in baseball, the Bronx Bombers are on pace for 104 wins. And yet, their rotation is a mess, Aaron Judge is hurt, and they’re 5.5 games back of the Red Sox. What should we expect from New York’s next two months?

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The New York Yankees are currently 67-37, which is a little better than a 104-win pace. The Dodgers won 104 games last year, which gave them the best record by any team since the 2004 Cardinals. Only 26 teams in the past 100 years have won 104 games or more. The Yankees are on a 104-win pace—and they’re 5.5 games out of their division lead. It’s a weird place to be.

Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have the Yankees as near–100 percent locks to make the playoffs, but at a shade under 30 percent to catch Boston and win the division. That makes now as good a time as any to take stock of the Yankees. With a day to go until the non-waiver trade deadline and two months to catch the Red Sox, let’s examine how they might go about catching the Red Sox, and what flaws might end up leaving them short.

Good News

The Bullpen

The Yankees’ bullpen is the best in baseball. They have the best K%, best ERA-, lowest opponent batting average, and the second-best win probability added. Even with Tommy Kahnle in Triple-A trying to figure out where he left his fastball, the Yankees can call on Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Jonathan Holder, Adam Warren, Chad Green, and newcomer Zach Britton to either hold a lead or keep the opposing offense at bay after a starter falls behind early. The bullpen’s been a strength for the Yankees for years now, and they’ve protected that identity this season.

The Yankee bullpen is so good it’s made Chasen Shreve into a pariah. Shreve, the bête noire of the New York relief corps, had a 102 ERA+ and a positive WPA when he was traded to the Cardinals over the weekend. On a normal team he’d be a valuable middle reliever, but on the Yankees he was surplus to requirements.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees
Zach Britton
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Trade Deadline, So Far

That bullpen only improves with the addition of Britton. The Yankees, who have traded liberally from their gigantic stash of prospects over the past two years, managed to hang on to top prospect Justus Sheffield (no. 40 on the BP midseason top 50) and might soon add him to the big league pitching staff. They’ve managed to acquire not only Britton but J.A. Happ, possibly the best starting pitcher on the market, without giving up any significant prospects. The biggest pieces they traded away were pitcher Dillon Tate, who’s famous for being the no. 4 overall pick and nearly flaming out in the Texas Rangers’ system before recovering some of his command as a Yankee prospect, bench bat Brandon Drury, and outfielder Billy McKinney, who at this point is mostly famous for getting traded. A former Oakland Athletics first-rounder, McKinney was traded to the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzija deal in 2014, then again to New York for Chapman in 2016.

The Yankees already have shored up their biggest area of need—the starting rotation—without hampering their ability to pursue, say, Bryce Harper, if the Nationals make a snap decision to sell before the deadline.

The Offense

Not that they need Harper, really, because as a team they have a 114 wRC+, tops in baseball, and a team-wide number better than (among others) Cody Bellinger, Odúbel Herrera, Anthony Rizzo, Edwin Encarnación, and Michael Conforto. If they did acquire Harper, he’d probably take Brett Gardner’s spot in the playoff lineup. Gardner’s hitting .249/.343/.386, for a 102 wRC+. The Phillies reportedly had a deal in place to acquire Orioles outfielder Adam Jones to bolster their lineup; Jones is hitting .285/.312/.434, a 101 wRC+. With Gary Sánchez and Aaron Judge on the disabled list, both likely for most of August, that production might slip a little, but it could be worse: The pair is expected to be back for the playoffs, so these injuries could be like the month-long absences Harper and Carlos Correa suffered last summer. Those injuries hampered their respective MVP campaigns, but both their teams still won their divisions by 20-plus games. The Yankees aren’t protecting a similar division lead, but they should coast to the playoffs just as easily, with or without Judge and Sánchez.

Even Sánchez’s injury might be a blessing in disguise. He came into the season as possibly the Yankees’ second-best position player, but he’s struggled this campaign, hitting just .188/.283/.416 in 66 games. Taking a few weeks off will not only help heal El Gary’s wounded groin, but taking a break from the brutal New York media crucible might be good for him as well. Besides, Sánchez’s backup, Austin Romine, is hitting .268/.325/.472, after putting up a .220/.263/.314 line over his first six big league campaigns. Stuff like that is why Yankees fans think they’re always going to win.

The Schedule

When Judge went on the DL, I announced to my coworkers that the AL East race was more or less over anyway since 5.5 games is a huge gap to make up. Speaking in such bold terms around Zach Kram is risky, because sometimes he’ll throw numbers back in your face—in this case, he pointed out that the Yankees play the third-easiest schedule in all of MLB from here on out, while the Red Sox play the fifth-hardest schedule. Plus, the Yankees play the Red Sox 10 more times in the season’s final two months, giving them more than enough time to make up even a large gap in the standings. Considering that they have to make up three games a month against what might be the best team MLB’s seen in 15 years, the Yankees are in really good shape.

And sure, the Red Sox are on pace to win 112 games, but the Dodgers were doing just as well this time last year, and then they lost 16 of 17, so anything is possible. If the Yankees can just chip away here and there, they could control their destiny up until the season’s final weekend, a three-game series at Fenway Park. I’m as sick of the Yankees–Red Sox rivalry as the next guy, but I’ve also read Summer of ’49, so part of me gets light-headed thinking about a winner-take-all season finale between the Yankees and Red Sox. And even with Judge and Sánchez on the shelf, that could be what we’re lining up for.

Bad News

Injuries

Even though the Sánchez and Judge injuries are well-timed, they’re still going to make life difficult for the Yankees. Dan Szymborski, the man behind the ZiPS projections on FanGraphs, tweeted that Judge’s injury would cost the Yankees two percentage points’ worth of playoff odds for each week he misses. It could be worse—as great a hitter as Judge is, the Yankees have the next-best thing, The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton, on hand already, plus some bench bats with power, like Tyler Austin or Luke Voit, who was recently acquired for Shreve. They’re not long-term replacements for Judge, but they can hold down the fort for three or four weeks without embarrassing themselves while the rest of the lineup picks up the slack.

The real worrisome injuries came in the Yankees’ rotation, specifically to left-hander Jordan Montgomery, out for the year as he recovers from Tommy John surgery in June, and rookie right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga, who pitched well in four starts but currently sits on the DL with shoulder inflammation and no set date for his return. The rotation, believed to be the Yankees’ biggest weakness since before the season started, still feels a starter or two short.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees
Aaron Judge
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Rotation

The rotation isn’t bad, particularly when compared to teams that aren’t the Red Sox, Indians, or Astros. As a team, Yankees starters are 11th in MLB in strikeout rate and 10th in ERA-, which isn’t the 1971 Orioles, but it’s fine, particularly with such a good offense and bullpen to get them out of trouble. However, it is confusing. Happ is a reliable league-average starter, and at age 38, that’s about what CC Sabathia is, too. But neither is going to strike fear into the heart of Boston’s or Houston’s lineup in October.

Staff ace Luis Severino finished third in Cy Young voting last year, and he’s replicating his 2017 rate stats almost exactly this year. But he hasn’t lasted longer than five innings in any of his past four starts, and over that stretch he has an 8.84 ERA, and opponents are hitting .384/.418/.698 off of him, raising his season ERA by almost a full run. Severino’s fastball velocity is down somewhat in July compared to June, but by less than a mile per hour, so this could be fatigue, bad luck, injury, or something else entirely. Even if four starts doesn’t constitute a very large sample, it’s not what you want to see from your ace.

Masahiro Tanaka is coming off a three-hit, complete-game shutout, but on the other hand, heading into that start his ERA was 4.54. But on the other hand, Tanaka is 6-0 with a 3.47 ERA and a .206/.270/.393 opponent batting line in his past 12 starts. But on the other hand, before that run his season-long ERA peaked at 6.04. But on the other other hand his numbers were worse last year than they are this year, and in the 2017 postseason he was New York’s best starter, allowing two runs in 20 innings over three starts against the Indians and Astros. I don’t know what to expect from Tanaka—just line him up for Game 1 of the ALDS and see how it goes, I guess.

For as frustrating as Tanaka’s been at times, he’s looked like Steve Carlton next to Sonny Gray. Gray was the Yankees’ big trade deadline acquisition last year, and since then watching him pitch has been like watching a child play with fireworks. For the first three months of the season, Gray looked like a pitcher you wouldn’t even put on the playoff roster, much less in the playoff rotation, but in his past three starts he’s had a shorter leash, never pitching more than six innings, and he’s been pretty good: 3-0 with a 1.10 ERA and an opponent batting line of .155/.246/.259, with 19 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings.

That’s five starting pitchers who, one way or another, you can talk yourself into, but zero I’d feel completely comfortable starting in a must-win game at Fenway, or in the playoffs. Good thing the bullpen is the best in baseball.