The Yankees might be flirting with getting back into the AL East race, but if we're being honest, chances are they'll be playing in the wild card game. As much as the game might beckon for a bullpenning effort -- one that the Yankees could likely handle -- let's look at the true starter options New York can throw in the winner-moves-on contest...
Happ has been an absolute stud for the Yankees since coming over from Toronto. He was expected to provide innings in the middle of the rotation, but he's been more or less their most consistent starter since the trade deadline. Happ, being a left-hander, would be an interesting option if the game was being played in Yankee Stadium, where southpaws have an advantage. That said, if the Yankees were to win the wild card game, they might want Happ to be starting as many games as possible against the Red Sox (their likely ALDS opponent), who he has a career 2.98 ERA against in 105.2 innings.
Sabathia might not seem like an obvious choice for the job, but if one sits back and thinks about it for a bit, he's not an entirely bad option. He is the lone pitcher among the group that has a wealth of postseason pitching experience. Sabathia, who has never been fazed by the spotlight, has also demonstrated over the last couple of seasons that he can control a game by inducing weak contact. Finally, isn't he the perfect pitcher to start a game, get through four or five innings and then stick the opponent with contrasting firepower from the bullpen?
As of July 1, there would have been no need to ask the question that prompted this discussion. Severino was 13-2 at the time, with a 1.98 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 118.1 innings (18 starts). Severino went into a funk after the All-Star break and while he has been doing his best to dig out of it, he's still nowhere near as dominant as he was early on this season. Severino is built to put a club on his shoulders and carry them through this type of game, but we only need to look back to last season's wild card game (Severino lasted all of 1/3 of an inning) to recall how unpredictable baseball can be.
Tanaka has been working in the inverse of Severino in terms of the timing of his production. He had a 4.97 ERA on May 21, but he's dropped it below 4.00 over his last several starts. Tanaka, like Sabathia, has a strong record in the postseason including dominant efforts in 2017. He also carries a calming demeanor on the mound, but is a voracious competitor. Tanaka seems to step up in the big moments and that's a certain plus when selecting a pitcher to take the hill with the season on the line.
Who gets the nod?
It would be easiest for the Yankees if one of the pitchers makes a strong case for the role as the season concludes. If we take the question on its face and given what we know about the makeup of each pitcher today, I suspect the Yankees would rank the pitchers this way -- Severino, Tanaka, Happ and Sabathia. That said, it is also easy to see how they could shuffle the group various ways and be somewhat comfortable with any of the pitchers on a given night.
Matchups might play a role, but one factor that could skew their first choice would be having to win one of the final regular season games in order to either catch the Red Sox, maintain the top wild card slot or just to get into the postseason. Such a circumstance would surely present a shift in the rotation and not allow the Yankees the luxury of holding a particular pitcher back for a wild card game.
Severino's recent skid is concerning, but he has the most dominant stuff of the group. Tanaka maintains the pedigree and also has lockdown potential. Sabathia could be great, but for the least amount of innings. Happ, while most consistent as we investigate this, is not necessarily a shutdown pitcher. Tanaka seems to be the pitcher that checks off more boxes at the moment. However, if Severino finds some of the first half magic in September, it would be shocking if he's not the one on the mound if the Yankees again wind up in the do-or-die game.