Envisioning the Yankees' Playoff Roster

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Who of the Yankees' numerous regular season players should make the cut to their 25-man playoff roster?

The New York Yankees are officially going to the playoffs, and they could either be playing in the American League Division Series beginning on Sunday, October 7th or in the American League Wild Card Playoff on Friday, October 5th. Thanks to their first win trailing after eight innings all season long last night, they control their own destiny today.

Hiroki Kuroda can pitch the Yankees to the AL East title with a win tonight over countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Boston Red Sox. It would also be their AL-leading 95th victory, which would ensure home-field advantage through the American League Championship Series. Should they lose, they would need the recently-eliminated Tampa Bay Rays to pretend it's 2011 and come up with a crucial Game 162 win, this time against the Baltimore Orioles (both games start a little after 7:00 today). If either a Yankees win or an Orioles loss occurs today, then the Yankees will prepare to face the Wild Card playoff winner on Sunday in the ALDS. Should the Yankees lose today, then determining seeding gets a little more complicated since both the Yankees and the AL West winner, which will be determined in a game between the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics at 3:30 this afternoon, would have records of 94-68 (a potential Game 163 for the AL East title would not count toward seeding). Per Ken Rosenthal's report, the Yankees would still have the top seed if Texas wins due to their 4-3 season series win over the Rangers, but if the Athletics complete their amazing 13-game comeback and win while the Yankees lose, then Oakland would have the top seed thanks to their better record in divisional play (the two teams split their season series 4-4, so it moves to this second tiebreaker, where Oakland's .559 is better than the Yankees' .556 in divisional play). If the Orioles win, they would also have a 94-68 record, but as long as they are put into a Wild Card position, they can never have home-field advantage despite their record. Got all that?

The Wild Card playoff winner could be either the Orioles, Rangers, or Athletics. Thus, the ALDS roster might vary slightly depending on who the Yankees are playing, but here is an idea of who Yankee fans can expect to see on a potential 25-man playoff roster.

Catcher

(2)- Russell Martin and Chris Stewart

No surprises here. This combination has been the starter/backup team all season long, although it is unlikely Stewart will get much playing time unless a game goes deep into extra innings or Martin is injured. Martin has hit a season-best .256/.340/.535 during the Sept./Oct. month, so maybe he is heating up at the right time.

Infield

(6)- Mark Teixeira (1B), Robinson Cano (2B), Derek Jeter (SS), Alex Rodriguez (3B), Eric Chavez (1B/3B), Eduardo Nunez (SS/3B/2B)

As long as Teixeira doesn't badly re-aggravate his calf injury on the season's final day, the infield is basically a lock. Remarkably, Cano and Jeter have combined to miss only four games all year, a testament to the Yankees' durability and terrific offensive production up the middle. A-Rod might appear in a few lineups as the DH if manager Joe Girardi wants to get lefty Eric Chavez in the lineup against a righthander, which he has done at times during the season, but it is far more likely that his default lineup against righties will feature Raul Ibanez at DH and A-Rod at third.

When facing southpaws though, Nunez could get some appearances in the lineup at DH since he has done very well in September against lefties. The hip injury to infielder Jayson Nix that will keep him out of action 10-14 days was unfortunate for Nix, but it helped Girardi avoid having to make a tough decision about whether to take Nix or Nunez on the roster. He might have to make that call in the ALCS or World Series should the Yankees make it that far and Nix successfully recovers. For now, Nunez is the default pick since no other bench players have experience at shortstop and second base, though because of his defensive struggles, it would be surprising to see him in the field at all.

Outfield

(5)- Ichiro Suzuki (LF/RF), Curtis Granderson (CF), Nick Swisher (RF/1B), Raul Ibanez ("LF/RF"), Brett Gardner (LF/CF)

Even though the Yankees envisioned an outfield of Ichiro/Granderson/Swisher at the time of the Ichiro trade, they have not been able to play it much within the past month due to Swisher filling in at first base in place of the injured Teixeira. Now that Tex is presumably healthy, it allows the Yankees to deploy their optimal starting outfield. The Yankees can only hope that Ichiro's hot September bat doesn't cool off in October, but even if it does, he is still a great defensive outfielder.

It will be a very sad day if Ibanez sees time in the outfield in the playoffs, but from watching Girardi throughout the campaign, it is evident that he does not share such reservations. However, if Teixeira stays healthy at first, it will keep Swisher in right and Ichiro in left, making it difficult for Ibanez to start a game in the outfield. He'll make it out there at some point; hope that his time in the field is minimal. The fifth outfield spot will likely go to Gardner even though he's missed most of the season. Girardi has alluded to the possibility that Gardner will make the roster since he's a superb defensive replacement as well as a big pinch-running threat (Girardi has added odd pinch-runners to playoff rosters in the past like Freddy Guzman in '09). Yes, Chris Dickerson has played well and can almost certainly offer more at the plate than Gardner right now, but neither would be expected to get any plate appearances anyway and Gardner's better both defensively and on the bases. The disappearance of Andruw Jones from most lineups since mid-September would seem to confirm that the Yankees thankfully no longer trust him to come up with big hits, which was his one asset. There is probably still a chance that Girardi goes with Druw over another reliever to simply add a righthanded bat and outfielder to the bench, but his recent absence is telling.

Starting Pitchers

(4)- CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes

The actual order of these four in the ALDS rotation will depend on whether or not the Yankees are playing games like an AL East tiebreaker or Wild Card playoff between today and Sunday, but it will be some variation of these four. In the most ideal situation, which is Kuroda clinching the AL East today, the Yankees can appropriately organize their rotation. Game 1 would be Sunday, October 7th on the road, Game 2 would be Monday, October 8th on the road, Game 3 would be Wednesday, October 10th at home (times have not yet been announced). If necessary, the final two games would also be at home on the 11th and 12th, respectively.

In that case, they will probably go lefty/righty/lefty/righty in the order they are listed above. Doing so would put Pettitte at lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium for Game 3, which is perfect. Pettitte should still be good to pitch Game 3 should the Yankees need an AL East playoff to win the division (Pettitte is scheduled to start that game on the 4th if needed, and would pitch Game 3 on the 10th with normal rest). Kuroda has pitched better at home than on the road, but that should not impact Girardi's decision to start him on the road in Game 2 since Hughes's ERA is still over a full run better at home despite his 22 homers allowed, 3.74 to 4.76. They can afford to pitch Hughes in Game 4 if they have the series lead since pitching a less-than-optimal Sabathia on three days' rest in Game 4 could set up a potential problem in Game 5 should he falter (Kuroda has never pitched in the U.S. on three days' rest, and it is unlikely that anyone is comfortable with Hughes pitching Game 5). That being said, the Yankees should strongly consider pitching Sabathia on three days' rest if they are on the brink of elimination in Game 4--go with your best to keep the season alive and worry about Game 5 later. Just hope the Yankees sweep so we don't have to bemoan this dumb "two away-three home" ALDS format that takes home field advantage away from the superior team unless it goes to Game 5 (of which only 25% of Division Series have done so, according to Terry Francona).

Now in the undesirable scenario that has the Yankees losing both today against the Red Sox and the AL East tiebreaker against the Orioles but winning the Wild Card playoff, they would face the AL West champion in the ALDS. The dates would be the same, but the first two games would be at Yankee Stadium and the last three would be in Oakland or Texas. The Yankees will have presumably used Sabathia on three days' rest to win the Wild Card playoff on the 5th, so he would not be available to start Game 1 on the 7th. It looks like it would have to be Hughes to pitch Game 1 since Kuroda would be going on three days' rest otherwise, which as previously mentioned, he has never done. Game 2 would then go to Kuroda on full rest, and with the day off on the 9th, the Yankees could turn to CC over Pettitte in Game 3 since CC would also be on full rest. If needed, Game 4 would go to Pettitte, and Game 5 would go to Hughes, though I could understand gambling with Kuroda on three days' rest in that situation if he pitched well in Game 2 and Hughes was roughed up in Game 1.

Explaining all that might have gotten confusing, so here's a simple chart explaining the likely rotations:

Game 1 (10/7) Game 2 (10/8) Game 3 (10/10) Game 4 (10/11)* Game 5 (10/12)*
AL East champs Sabathia Kuroda Pettitte Hughes Sabathia
AL East champs down 2-1 Sabathia Kuroda Pettitte Sabathia Hughes
AL Wild Card** Hughes Kuroda Sabathia Pettitte Hughes

**Presumes Kuroda lost 10/3, Pettitte lost AL East playoff 10/4, and Sabathia won WC playoff 10/5

Bullpen

(8)- Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain, David Phelps, Clay Rapada, Cody Eppley, Derek Lowe

No real surprises here. This group is the corps that has been essential to the team in September. It will be interesting to see how Girardi uses Phelps since the manager has previously tried him with success in Joba-esque roles during the sixth and seventh. Girardi even gets his valued "second lefty" in Rapada, and since Eppley has appeared in 58 games with a fine 3.38 ERA and Girardi seems to like him, it is hard to envision him not making the roster. Likewise, Lowe has done well to earn his niche in long relief, pitching to a 1.46 ERA in 12.1 innings since September 6th, earning the spot over recently-skipped #5 starter Ivan Nova and the remnants of the "smoke and mirrors show" that was Freddy Garcia. As previously mentioned, the biggest threat to Eppley or Lowe might still be the corpse of Andruw Jones because he's a righthanded bat and another outfield asset, but if Girardi really trusted him, he would have appeared in yesterday's game against southpaw Jon Lester. Additionally, he seems to trust Ibanez as an outfielder, so he has another option there beyond the regular trio and Gardner. Girardi seems to like Eppley and Lowe too much to leave them both off.

***

That is the expected Yankees roster for a potential ALDS. However, the pitching matchup of today's Orioles/Rays game of Chris Tillman (151 ERA+) against Jeremy Hellickson (119 ERA+) favors the Birds. Should the Orioles win and the Yankees lose, then they will have a one-game playoff tomorrow at Camden Yards in Baltimore to determine the AL East champion. If Pettitte loses that start, then the 94-68 Yankees will host a Wild Card game against the 93-69 AL West runner-up. Interestingly, this one-game Wild Card playoff is viewed as its own round with its own 25-man roster (as proven by the Atlanta Braves' preparation for their National League Wild Card playoff). Thus, the Yankees could have a unique 25-man roster designed specifically for one game, and then they could reset to a different ALDS roster (like the one above) should they win. Girardi would probably replicate Fredi Gonzalez's plans to only carry nine or ten pitchers for this game, giving him more options off the bench (though Girardi would not need as many pinch-hitters as NL baseball encourages). What alterations would there be to the roster above for a one-game Wild Card playoff?

Catcher

(3)- Martin, Stewart, and Francisco Cervelli

With the extra space, having a third catcher can be helpful should a game go into extra-innings and flexibility is desired for pinch-runners at the catching position. This depth proved helpful just last night, as it enabled the Yankees to both pinch-run for Martin in the eighth and later pinch-hit for Stewart in the tenth when the catcher's spot came up again. The Yankees might as well take the depth if they can have it for one game, and hey, Cervelli helped win the extra-inning game last night anyway. The Wild Card playoff could be a similar contest.

Infield

(6)- Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, A-Rod, Chavez, and Nunez

There probably won't be any changes to the infield selections. Maybe there would be if Casey McGehee showed signs of life, but even the recently-cut Steve Pearce played over him in September with Teixeira on the shelf. Pass.

Outfield

(6)- Ichiro, Granderson, Swisher, Ibanez, Gardner, and Andruw Jones

In this expanded edition of a roster designed specifically for a one-game playoff, Jones makes it simply as an extra bat on the bench. Yes, I would rather take Dickerson, but the likelihood of Girardi taking him over the veteran is low.

Starting Pitchers

(2)- Sabathia, Hughes, Kuroda, Pettitte

Since this is just one game, the Yankees do not need to include Kuroda or Pettitte on the roster since it is highly unlikely that either would be able to offer any help with barely any rest after starts on the previous two days (though Randy Johnson in both the 1995 ALDS and the 2001 World Series demonstrated you can never say never to a great starter in the 'pen even with just one or zero days of rest). Hughes is there in case of emergency should Sabathia be suddenly unable to start or need long relief more trustworthy than Lowe.

Bullpen

(8)- Soriano, Robertson, Logan, Chamberlain, Phelps, Rapada, Eppley, Lowe

The bullpen can stay the same, and it would likely be bolstered by Hughes as well, who has experience out of the 'pen. Hughes makes Lowe a little redundant, but it would also help Girardi have a shorter leash on Hughes if he struggles. The "Big Unit" example raises the possibility that perhaps Pettitte could be used as another lefty for a few outs in an emergency since the game is win-or-go-home and "all hands are on deck." It is quite unlikely though, and it would be tough to expect such an unusual performance.

***

Hopefully, the entire roster will not play and the Yankees will win all of their necessary games in blowouts, but 25-man rosters are carefully constructed to prepare for the strangest of scenarios. Both potential ALDS and Wild Card playoff rosters above anticipate such catastrophes and should have the Yankees prepared to go on their way to a 28th World Series championship.

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