The 2018 New York Yankees are going to end up as a Wild Card team. Looking up at an 8.5-game deficit in the AL East with 35 games left to play, it’s clear where the second-best team in baseball will finish. Unfortunately, that means that a team with possibly more than 100 wins will have to settle for a one-game playoff to determine the fourth entrant in the AL division series.
The only remaining playoff race in the American League is for the second Wild Card, or, the team that plays the Yankees in that sudden death matchup. Currently, the Houston Astros hold a 1.5-game lead in the AL West over the Oakland Athletics, who hold a 4-game lead over the Seattle Mariners. None of those leads are ironclad, especially with how often those three teams play each other down the stretch. Given that, who would be the optimal opponent from the Yankees’ perspective?
Let’s start with the defending World Series champions, the Astros. With a 107 wRC+, the team isn’t quite on the historic pace they hit in 2017, but still boast the third-best record in baseball. Injuries to just about everyone on the roster have taken their toll, and the team many expected to run roughshod through the AL hasn’t quite done that. They’re still excellent, though, and after a year bolstered by their offense, the biggest threat from the 2018 Astros may come from their pitching staff.
Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel highlight the deepest staff in baseball, and any one of those four can completely take over a single game. Yankee fans don’t need to be reminded of the way Verlander shut the team down in the ALCS last year, and are no doubt fearing a repeat in a possible Wild Card game.
Having said all that, the Yankees seem to match up fairly well with this iteration of the Astros. New York is 5-2 head to head with Houston this season, and if the Astros continue to battle injury problems, the Yankees could end up with an advantage. It’s certainly easier to win one game at home than it is to try to beat Houston four times in a Championship Series, but given Verlander’s dominance over the team in the past few seasons, they don’t match up super well against the Yankees.
The Oakland As, taking advantage of Houston’s injuries and Seattle’s regression, have been the hottest team in baseball for the past two months. In July, they were behind the Mariners in the Wild Card standings, and now trail the Astros by 1.5 games with 3 more head to head matchups. This upstart Oakland squad truly controls their own destiny. A sweep against Houston next week would give them the lead in the AL West and mean they skip the Wild Card game all together.
Oakland doesn’t really excel at any one thing. They have solid starting pitching, led by Sean Manea who would likely start a one game playoff. They have a strong bullpen, anchored by Blake Treinen, who, if you haven’t heard, is tremendous. They have a good lineup, even if it’s not at the level of a healthy Yankees or Red Sox. In short, they do everything well, but nothing amazing.
A lot of the questions around the A’s will be easier to answer after Labor Day. The Yankees travel out West and will have a golden opportunity to lock up home field with series wins over Oakland and Seattle. The Athletics probably have the most to gain in a single elimination matchup, as Manea can shut down any lineup in baseball. He no-hit the Red Sox earlier this year, and in tandem with a pitcher like Treinen, could feel it and quiet a prodigious Yankee offense. Pair that with two MVP candidates in Matt Chapman and Khris Davis, and the A’s are certainly a team to be reckoned with.
That leaves us with the Seattle Mariners. When I first pitched this article idea, I debated even including the Mariners, given that they’re not really a team that “does” the playoffs. With the longest postseason drought in the four major North American team sports, and a four-game deficit in the Wild Card standings, they’re certainly a long shot in 2018. But a one-game playoff would feature James Paxton on the mound and a lineup with Nelson Cruz, Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura.
The Mariners have an outside shot at the playoffs, at best, but could represent an awful challenge should they get hot. In the end, the best-case scenario for the Yankees would be a tie for the second Wild Card spot, necessitating a Game 163. Whichever combination of the three AL West teams featured, both would have to burn their number one starter and deal with the logistical problems associated with a game on the East Coast immediately following one on the West. They don’t have a lot of control over the future, but that’s what the Yankees have to be hoping for down the stretch.