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Three Yankees to watch in the ALDS

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Let’s get our preview of the ALDS started with a look at three players that could be X-Factors in the series.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season is over, and the playoffs are. Since the Yankees secured the second seed in the AL bracket, we know they will face the third-seeded Twins in the ALDS. The series will reprise what was a fantastic matchup in the regular season. Hopefully, theses games will be as entertainign as the contests these two teams staged over the summer, with the same result as well.

Let’s kick off our preview of the series with a look at three players that could have a profound influence on the outcome of the series. Here’s who to watch when the Yankees and Twins go at it starting Friday night:

James Paxton

Paxton unquestionably profiled as something of an X-Factor even before he exited his final start last Friday with a tight left glute. Now, the focus on the Yankees’ presumed ALDS Game One starter will be heightened even further.

It’s difficult to envision the Yankees having a deep, successful playoff run without strong contributions from Paxton. He led the Yankees’ rotation in both fWAR and rWAR, and was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball down the stretch. Paxton at his best gives the Yankees a higher-caliber pitcher than anyone the Twins can muster.

Yet Paxton’s removal from his last outing, while described as a precaution, casts more doubt than any of us would like on the lefty’s future effectiveness. The team indicated that Paxton would have been allowed to keep pitching had the ailment sprung up in a meaningful game, but that’s soft comfort. Even the slight possibility that Paxton is diminished at all when he takes the mound in the ALDS hurts the Yankees’ chances of advancing.

Paxton has authored some of the best starts in the AL in recent years, as well as the Yankees’ best outings this season. He has the capability to put the team on his back in a way that Masahiro Tanaka, based on his uneven season, and Luis Severino, based on his injury-shortened season, can’t really be expected to right now. The Yankees must pray that Paxton is close to 100%, and ready to dominate in his first-ever postseason experience.

Giancarlo Stanton

This one goes without saying. Stanton probably pressed a little bit last season in his playoff debut, recording five hits, just one for extra bases, along with seven strikeouts in 21 at-bats against Boston. Stanton is surely itching at the opportunity to erase the bad memories of that debut, and to redeem what has been an unfortunately lost season in 2019.

Some fans may have forgotten after Stanton spent this year struggling with myriad injuries, but at his peak, Stanton is one the game’s very best players. He won the NL MVP award just two years ago, and has still shown the ability to smash downright earth-shaking home runs even after spending most of this year on the shelf:

I’m not one to say that Stanton has been a bust in pinstripes. The narratives that bubble up from parts of the fanbase, the ones that are quick to label Stanton as overpaid, as a mistake by the Yankees’ front office, are overblown and unfair. Stanton is supremely talented, and the Yankees should be in the business of employing supremely-talented players, high price be damned.

That said, even as someone who thinks Stanton can be incredible and that his import was an obvious, easy decision for the Yankees, I would be a fool to deny that a big postseason from Stanton would go a long way in shifting the tenor of his Bronx tenure. He hasn’t hit quite to his potential when on the field in pinstripes, and he has had trouble even staying on the diamond.

Stanton could thrill his supporters and sway his critics with a brilliant October. A league-shifting performance, a la Alex Rodriguez in 2009, would leave a frustrating 2019 season forgotten. We know Stanton can do it. Let’s just hope that he’s been able to shake off enough rust in the season’s final weeks (over which he posted a .953 OPS) to put himself in a position to make an impact in October.

Chad Green

To keep this from being a list of just three of the Yankees’ most talented players, let’s take a look at someone that ranks a little bit lower in the pecking order in Green. While Green may not be the Yankees’ best reliever, or bring the value of their big sluggers, I think the way the team uses Green is something to keep an eye on. The right-hander’s usage could quickly reveal just how much the Yankees are willing to walk the walk, after they spent much of the past month talking a big game about how creative and aggressive they stand to be with their bullpen in October.

Green has opened 14 games for the Yankees this year. He’s also entered the game out of the bullpen before the sixth inning 10 times. He’s the man Joe Girardi turned to in the first inning of the 2017 AL Wild Card Game when Severino got into trouble, and he’s who Aaron Boone called on to relieve J.A. Happ when things went sideways in Game One of the ALDS against the Red Sox last season.

The Yankees have trusted Green to do the dirty but crucial work of entering games early in high-leverage situations. If they are committed to playing on the front foot with their uber bullpen, we will almost certainly see the proof in how they use Green.

Green has had an up-and-down season, though he has performed well recently, which will lend the Yankees confidence should they thrust him into a key situation in the ALDS. Ever since that disastrous opening performance against Cleveland in August, Green has yielded just two earned runs in 20.2 innings with a .323 OPS allowed. That version of Green is a scary weapon the Yankees can deploy early and often throughout the series.