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The Yankees’ slow start has left them little room for error

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While still division favorites, the club is in for a much tougher fight than initially expected.

Atlanta Braves v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There’s a saying that while you can’t win the division in April, you sure can lose it. I’m not sure I believe that, but it’s inarguable that you can make your own job harder. Unfortunately for the Yankees, that’s exactly what they’ve done with this putrid April.

On Opening Day, the Yankees had about 71-percent odds to win the division, per FanGraphs projected standings. Those were the highest division odds in baseball, at one point higher than even the powerhouse Dodgers. In terms of making the playoffs broadly, both division and Wild Card odds, the Yankees had the third-best chances in baseball — just over 91 percent.

Those odds were reflected in the way this roster is constructed, particularly the pitching staff. The Yankees bought up as much upside on the rotation as possible, with the understanding that there would be rust, injury, and ineffectiveness at points in the season. This risk was then balanced against how good the offense was — good enough to give the pitching a lot of rope in the regular season — and the possibility that come October, the upside would present itself, and the Yankees would have a rotation that could contend with anyone in a short series.

And then, well, April happened (odds coming into play Thursday):

Don’t get me wrong, the Yankees are still the favorite in the AL East by these projections. Still, the math is the math, and the Yankees have dropped 23 percentage points, or 33 percent overall, farther down into the field. Interestingly enough, the only team that has seen a drop-off like this is the Houston Astros. I only mention this because both teams were expected to win their divisions, and have played rather poorly, in a near-carbon-copy of the 2020 season. It’s too early to comment on that; just something to keep an eye on.

Perhaps the saving grace for the Yankees is that the rest of the division doesn’t seem that interested in winning it either. The Rays have a negative run differential, and the Blue Jays have underperformed — at least, when they haven’t played the Yankees, which is a recurring trend in this division. The real question is how real are the Red Sox? They have the best run differential in the AL, and now sit projected for 89 wins on the 162 game season, a significant upgrade from where they were just three weeks ago.

I think we all expect the Yankees to turn it around, or at least to partially get back on track. I think every good team goes through a cold patch that ends up not affecting their final place in the standings. Sometimes it happens in August, sometimes it happens in April; rarely does it matter come October.

However, they are only allowed one cold patch. We’ve seen just in the first three weeks how much ground the Yankees have ceded to the competition. The margin for error is significantly thinner than it was on Opening Day. Another cold spell, a longer cold spell, or a major injury to, say, the only really reliable starting pitcher, and that margin for error might disappear entirely.

The Yankees are still the favorites to win the East, and heavily favored to make the playoffs. They’ve had a garbage three weeks, but baseball is a long road. They haven’t ruined anything yet. They have, likely, used up their Chance to Suck, that one stretch a year where a good team doesn’t play well. If they play .650 ball the rest of the way, they still finish with 100 wins. If they fall into another rut, those playoff, and especially those division odds, will just keep falling.