With the Yankees’ double-header sweep of the Rays yesterday, combined with another Boston loss, the Yankees accomplished what 45 ESPN baseball contributors thought to be impossible: winning the American League East. With the division safely sewn up and the Yankees’ spot in the playoffs secure, the Yankees will have some interesting decisions about how they want to handle their seven remaining games. Among the factors to consider will be how much to rest the regulars, how to set up the rotation for October, and who they would want to face in the Division Series.
I expect to see a number of the regulars to get a few extra days off to help them rest up for the playoffs, which means more playing time for Austin Romine, Eduardo Nunez, and Brandon Laird, among others. CC Sabathia will probably also not make his final scheduled start of the season (to put him on regular rest for Game 1), so I expect to see Hector Noesi get another opportunity to start.
Currently, the Yankees have the best record in the American league, leading Detroit by 5. The team ending the season with the best record would have home field advantage through the ALCS, as well as the right to play either the wild card or the division winner with the worst record. Even though the wild card is still up in the air , with the Rays and Angels trailing the free-falling Red Sox by 2 games in the loss column, it seems very likely that the wild card winner will come out of the East. If so, the Yankees would take on whoever has the worst record between Texas and Detroit.
The first-round matchup I would fear the most would probably be the Angels (if they are able to make it in) because of their rotation, but neither Detroit nor Texas are as scary in my mind. I would probably lean toward facing Texas if I had a choice, due to the Yankees’ well-documented ability to crush left-handed pitching. However, since both teams are tied and don’t have a ton to play for, it will be hard to predict who will wind up ahead.
Since the Yankees appear to have little say in determining their first-round matchup, the next question is what kind of a role they want to play as a potential spoiler for Boston or Tampa. Since the Yankees have 7 games remaining against the two, they are in a position to crush the playoff dreams of one of their divisional rivals. Between the two, I would argue that it is in the Yankees’ interest to ensure that the weaker of the two makes the playoffs (since the Yankees have little control over how the Angels perform) while resting players in a manner that will maximize their effectiveness come October. While Boston is playing terribly right now, and the back of their rotation looks weak after the top 2 of Beckett and Lester, Boston’s lineup still is a far more formidable force than that of the Rays, which for me is enough to make me prefer to face Tampa. Consequently, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Yankees rest more of the regulars in the Tampa series and then play the starters in the 3-game set against Boston to finish the season. This will get them sharp again for the Division Series, as well as give Tampa a little help in catching Boston. Even if Boston winds up winning the wild card, it still is in the Yankees’ interest for them to play as many important games as possible going down the stretch.
I imagine this perspective may not be a popular one around baseball. Boston fans certainly would not be happy if the Yankees took this approach, and they would likely be ripped in the media for taking it easy on Tampa. Ultimately the Yankees need to do whatever maximizes their probability of winning the World Series this year. If this means that they earn some criticism from their rivals or the media for influencing the wild card outcome, so be it. I would certainly sympathize with Boston to a point here, but the bottom line is, if they didn’t absolutely spit the bit in September, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. In my opinion, the Yankees have no moral obligation to maintain a level playing field.