Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Life is good for a baseball team that is 57-31, the best record in the American League. But while the Yankees might be favorites to go back to the World Series for the first time in a decade, that doesn't mean the second half of the regular season is just about lining up the playoff rotation.
Yes, even juggernauts have potential trouble areas and question marks. With that in mind, we offer five things to watch while the Yanks try to hold their sizable 6.5-game lead in the AL East over the season's final two and a half months.
Who's coming in a trade?
Pitching talk likely will dominate the bulk of the Yankees second half because of the perception the club needs an October lion to have any chance in the postseason. They have candidates in house - James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka come to mind. Paxton's stuff can be lethal - he has 95 strikeouts in 76.1 innings - but he's had his uneven days and has a 4.01 ERA. Tanaka, an All-Star, is probably the Yanks' most consistent starter and he's thrived in the October cauldron before. Luis Severino is talented enough, if he's ultimately healthy.
But fans crave a big-name addition, too. Some names already linked to the Yankees via media reports include Madison Bumgarner, Marcus Stroman, Zack Wheeler, Trevor Bauer and Robbie Ray. Even Blue Jays' reliever Ken Giles has been connected to the Yankees. For what it's worth, the Yanks are 10th overall in MLB in ERA (4.15), 12th in starter's ERA (4.22) and 10th in bullpen ERA (4.05). The potential returns of Severino and ace reliever Dellin Betances, who haven't pitched all year, would help.
Can Aaron Judge stay healthy?
Judge is ridiculously talented. Duh. But after his incredible rookie season in 2017, one that had the baseball world wondering if he was the new face of MLB, he's failed at staying on the field. He played 112 games in 2018 and has already missed 55 this year.
He has missed a large chunk of each of the last two seasons and whether this is fair or unfair, it's a glaring mark on his otherwise otherworldly resume. It's not a performance problem -- he's been great when on the field, a dangerous hitter and underrated, terrific outfielder. But the Yanks need Judge to be a healthy beast, not just a beast.
Is this the real Gary Sanchez?
This one is for the "Austin Romine should start in the playoffs" fringe: Yes. Yes, it is the real Sanchez. Or at least Sanchez is closer to this player -- one of, if not the best, catchers in baseball -- than the one who plodded through a disastrous 2018 where he hit just .186 and had 18 passed balls.
Sanchez has 24 homers, .556 slugging and an .870 OPS so far entering the second half. His Statcast numbers make him one of the most fearsome at-bats in the game. He's averaging 92.2 miles per hour of exit velocity, in the top 6 percent of hitters, according to baseballsavant.mlb.com, and his barrel percentage is in the top 1 percent of hitters. He's also got three of the top 13 hardest-hit balls all year.
In other words, beware, third basemen, of scorched drives down the right-field line. Sanchez has also cut down on the passed balls, at least so far - he's got five this year - and he's third in MLB in average pop time on throws to second.
By the way, this is no slap at Romine, a valuable pinstriped component. But he's got to be Sanchez's backup.
What can they expect from the big returnees?
Betances, a four-time All-Star, is one of the most intimidating relievers in the game, so if he thrives when coming back from a shoulder issue/lat strain in late July, he'll make a good bullpen better. Sometimes, though, his high-octane stuff goes awry, like when he was not part of then-manager Joe Girardi's circle of relief trust during the 2017 postseason.
What about Severino, who's also healing from a shoulder problem and a lat strain? He looked like a Cy Young-cinch during the first part of 2018, faded a bit and later bombed in a playoff start against Boston. But when he's right, he's tremendous.
Giancarlo Stanton also bears watching - he's played only nine games all year and isn't expected back until sometime in August because of a knee injury. Will he provide a power boost to a homer-happy team already fourth in baseball with 149 home runs.
Will the 'B Yankees' continue to thrive?
With all the injuries the Yankees endured in the first half, one key to their success has been the work of the replacements, such as Gio Urshela, Domingo German and other plug-and-play subs. Urshela was always known for a good glove at third base, but he's emerged as a hitter, too, with a .304 average and .824 OPS. German (10-2, 3.67 ERA) flirted with an All-Star nod before getting hurt. Nestor Cortes, Jr. has been helpful at times out of the pen.