Y’know one of the things that was really nice about 2019 for the Yankees? It wasn’t just the 103 wins and the surprises of guys like Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman. It was also winning the AL East, after two straight years of the Yankees being relegated to the Wild Card game. You don’t realize how much the play-in game changes your outlook on a playoff run until your team is resting their best starter and optimizing their lineup, while the division runner-up has to tackle a talented Oakland squad, then head to Houston.
It’s no secret that the first goal of most competitive MLB teams is to win the division, and do everything possible to secure home-field advantage in the ALDS. After a winter where the Yankees poached their biggest AL rival’s best pitcher, it looked like New York would have the best chance at completing those goals, and sported a gaudy 98% chance of making the playoffs.
How things change in ten days.
James Paxton is going to miss 3-4 months. Earlier this week we got the news that Luis Severino, entering the season as perhaps the best nominal #2 pitcher in baseball, wouldn’t pitch an inning for the Yankees in 2020. Losing two of a team’s three best starters for any length of time isn’t what you want, and that’s certainly the case when evaluating the other teams within the division.
Indeed, the Yankees have seen their playoff odds take a hit with all this injury news, and the primary beneficiary of that hit has been the Tampa Bay Rays:
The Yankees are still overwhelming favorites to make the playoffs one way or the other; only the Dodgers and Astros boast higher chances of reaching the postseason. Where you see the largest shift within the division is the race for the division itself, with Tampa becoming much more serious contenders for the AL East title now that the Yankees are down a couple starters.
The Yankees at press time are “only” projected to be three wins better than Tampa. I think the team has smaller error bars than the Rays just because their lineup is better - and healthy, for now - but Tampa’s certainly looking like more and more of a threat than they were at the beginning of the month.
There are two risks to the Yankees now that the division’s much more competitive: further injury and the Rays’ ability to improve. In a way, Masahiro Tanaka has become the Yankees’ most important player, as the team can probably cover the loss of Paxton in the short term, and squint to cover Severino’s innings. They cannot replace three starters, at least with in-house options.
The offense becomes proportionally more important as well - a run saved is the same as a run scored, but if your run suppression ability takes a hit, you need to be able to score to close that gap. Therefore, healthy seasons from Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu are crucial to covering up for the extra runs the team is likely to surrender with no Severino.
Then there’s the Rays themselves. If they hit their higher-percentile outcomes, that three-game spread between the two teams atop the projections disappears quickly. The Rays also boast just about the best farm system in baseball, and therefore have the capital to make a deal as the season progresses, capital the Yankees may not have.
The goal of the season is to win the World Series, and the easiest path to doing that is winning the division. The Yankees are still likely playoff teams, and heck, are still the favorites to win the division, but the race is closer and the difference between it becoming a coin flip is a razor’s edge.