There's no guarantee that the Yankees will play in the AL Wild Card game. That being said, it is the team's most likely fate. With a gap between the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East, as well as a gap between the Yankees and the other Wild Card contenders, it's a good time to start grappling with a do-or-die playoff.
When it comes to the Wild Card game, there are a number of things the Yankees can control, such as who they start, or whether they go with a bullpen game. What they cannot control is who they may play.
A few teams have slipped in what was once a seven-way race for the fifth spot in the AL bracket, but there's still some uncertainty remaining. The Twins and Angels are in the thick of it, while the Mariners, Rangers, and Royals remain on the periphery. With the season coming down to its final days, it's fair to ask: Who should the Yankees want to play in a potential Wild Card matchup? There are arguments for a few different clubs:
The flat-out worst team
Baseball is unlike many other major sports. Perhaps more than any other game, a bad team can beat a good team on any given night. Even so, bad teams are less likely to win than good teams, and that is why the Yankees should want to face the Royals.
It may seem strange to refer to the Royals so bluntly as bad, a team that so recently won consecutive pennants, but there's simply little evidence that the Royals are a good baseball team. Kansas City's semi-respectable record masks a team lacking in talent and on-field performance.
Kansas City may still only be four games back in the loss column, but they have been outscored by 78 runs on the year. Baseball Prospectus' third order winning percentage, which adjusts for the sequencing of events as well as for schedule to estimate a team's quality, pegs the Royals as a .444 winning percentage team. That's equivalent to a 72-win team over a full season, and is the third-worst mark in the AL.
The Royals managed to hang in the race deep into the year and deserve nominal credit for doing so in what's probably the final year of their window with their core. It just seems clear that core is pretty weak right now, and on true talent, they are probably among the worst teams in the AL. Not a bad prospective matchup from the Yankees' perspective should the Royals somehow rally into the postseason.
The least-equipped team
Playoff baseball is undoubtedly different than regular season baseball. The 162-game season is about the grind, depth, and is a true test of a team's overall balance and ability. The playoffs are a small sample sprint, with fewer games and more days off, which leads to a higher percentage of innings pitched by each teams' best hurlers.
So while the Royals are the least talented team to contend for the Wild Card, the Twins may be the worst-equipped. Kansas City at the very least has a potentially formidable starter in Danny Duffy, and a flame-throwing closer in Kelvin Herrera. The Mariners have James Paxton, and the Rangers have Cole Hamels. The Twins have... Ervin Santana? Bartolo Colon? Perhaps the exciting Jose Berrios, but he's 23 and has a career 5.09 ERA.
Minnesota, which has had a grip on the second Wild card for some time now, just has no good option to log innings in an elimination game. No matter what, they will be forced to turn to a starter that possibly would not even rank among the Yankees' top five.
Not only that, the Twins traded their best reliever, Brandon Kintzler, at the deadline, as well as Jaime Garcia, days after acquiring him. That both weakened their pitching staff, and said a lot about what the team thought about its own chances just a couple months ago.
The Twins have position player talent, in guys like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Brian Dozier among others. They just don't have arms, and it's not hard to envision the likes of Kyle Gibson or Matt Belisle getting shellacked in Yankee Stadium in a playoff. They too would profile as a favorable matchup come October.
The best team
For the most part, the Angels are the team the Yankees don't want to see. The only argument you could make for the Yankees wanting to face LA is, I suppose, that the team could be jet-lagged coming across to the east coast. Or, perhaps, you believe the Yankees should have to face the best at every stop in their journey to a 28th title.
Otherwise, the Angels would be the worst draw for the Yankees in the Wild card round. If Garrett Richards gets to full strength, they have a potential front-end option to start. Their bullpen has been great, with arms like Yusimero Petit, Blake Parker, and Cam Bedrosian anchoring a surprisingly strong relief corps. Most of all, LA has the most talented lineup of all the other Wild Card contenders.
Obviously, it all starts with Mike Trout. Baseball teams can't clear out and run their gameplans through one player, the way a basketball or football team might, but if there's one position player that can threaten to single-handedly change a game, it's Trout. Trout goes 2-for-4 with a walk, a double, a homer, and two good plays in center field seemingly on the daily.
Beyond that, the Angels have a legitimate supporting cast for once. The addition of Justin Upton to Andrelton Simmons and Kole Calhoun gives Trout three very good players as wingmen for the first time in years. The likes of Yunel Escobar, Brandon Philips, and CJ Cron aren't great, but are more than serviceable in a lineup that has starpower at the top.
The Angels would be a threat in a Wild card game. In truth, any team, even under-powered ones like KC and Minnesota, poses a threat in a sudden-death format. It's baseball. Dumb things happen nightly, and it would be appropriately baseball for the Yankees, with a run differential nearing +200, to be eliminated by a team starting, like, Adelberto Mejia. We only have to go back to last year to recall the Mets squandering a brilliant Wild Card start by Noah Syndergaard because literally Conor Gillaspie hit a home run.
So those are the options. The Royals are the pick if you want the worst roster, the Twins if you want the least intimidating pitchers, and the Angels if you want a challenge. Now, let's cross our fingers and hope the Yankees win out and avoid playing in the Wild Card game in the first place.