We’ve finally arrived at the best time of the year, the MLB postseason. From the owner lockout and threat of missed games to the final day of the regular season, these six months have flown by, and all of the hard work of the 162-game grind will be rewarded or wasted in the next month.
It’s been an especially topsy-turvy six months for the Yankees. From looking like one of the best teams in history to looking like they would squander a 15.5 game lead, and back to looking like a force in recent weeks, New York ends the regular season with a 99-win record and a mountain of expectations heading into the playoffs. They get six days of rest before Game 1 of the ALDS, where they’ll face the winner of the Guardians-Rays Wild Card matchup. Josh made the case earlier today that they’d rather face their AL East rivals in the ALDS. I’d like to argue the opposite side of the debate — the Guardians should be the Yankees’ preferred choice of opponent.
The undoubted strength of the Guardians is their bullpen. They may just boast the best one-two-three punch coming into the later innings of any team in baseball. Emmanuel Clase has ridden his triple-digits cutter to become one of the top closers in the game while Trevor Stephan and James Karinchak can strike out the side without much thought.
That said, those relievers are only at their most valuable when pitching with a lead. While in recent postseasons we have seen teams lean heavily on their best relievers even when trailing, the aforementioned trio can only pitch so many innings in a series. And I trust the Yankees to score more heavily against the remaining pitchers on the Cleveland staff than against Tampa Bay, just as I trust the Yankees pitchers to suppress runs more effectively facing the Cleveland lineup than the Rays bats.
The Rays offense is middling to be sure — 101 wRC+, good for 15th in baseball — but they are getting Wander Franco back. The Guardians meanwhile have a bona fide superstar in José Ramírez (137 wRC+) and a budding superstar in Andrés Giménez (141 wRC+), but outside of that pair it’s hard to see where the runs come from besides maybe a random Josh Naylor home run. Indeed, the offense as a whole managed a collective 98 wRC+ on the season, placing them in the bottom-half of the league.
Cleveland has its frontline three starters lined up for the ALDS and the trio is nothing to shake a stick at. Shane Bieber had a brilliant bounce-back campaign after a disappointing 2021, albeit with depressed strikeout totals. Triston McKenzie was one of the best starters in MLB from the start of July, pitching to a 2.19 ERA and 2.70 FIP in the final three months. Cal Quantrill is a step below his two teammates, but still went almost 200 innings with commendable run suppression numbers (3.38 ERA). All this being said, they just don’t strike fear into the heart the way the Rays pitchers do.
As fierce as the Guardians bullpen may be, the entire Rays pitching staff frightens me. A duo of Shane McClanahan and Tyler Glasnow can silence any given lineup on any given day. Corey Kluber has pitched like prime Klubot against the Yankees in four out of five starts this season. I want no part of Ryan Yarbrough nor any of the Rays relief corps for that matter.
Then of course there’s the matter of the Yankees’ recent performance against the Guardians and Rays. New York owned Cleveland this season, going 5-1, while they fared considerably worse against Tampa Bay, winning the season series in much slimmer fashion, 11-8. And who could forget Gerrit Cole out-dueling Shane Bieber in Game 1 of the 2020 AL Wild Card Round, striking out 13 while the Guardians ace got tagged for seven runs. The Rays then bounced the Yankees out of the playoffs the following round.
While there’s no doubting that this Rays team is weaker than iterations from previous years, I feel their ability relative to the Guardians is masked a bit by the divisions the two teams play in. Cleveland may have finished as one of the hottest teams in baseball, but they did so playing the majority of their games against the weakest division in baseball, which outside of the Guardians was in a collective free-fall to close out the regular season. Swap the Rays to the Central and the Guardians to the East and I reckon Tampa Bay wins the division comfortably and look more threatening heading into the playoffs while the Guardians likely do not squeeze in with the third and final Wild Card. It is for all these reasons that I feel the Guardians are the preferable matchup for the Yankees in the ALDS.