August was a sweltering month in New York City, where temperatures reached the eighties on all 31 days, and the nineties eight times. For the Yankees, though, it felt a bit more like February. For the first time all year, things started to go wrong - really wrong. The club posted a season low OPS of .706 through the 30th and scored three runs or fewer in more than half their games. Brett Gardner and Alex Rodriguez slumped hard and Mark Teixeira was stymied by a severe bone bruise whose prognosis seems to get darker by the day. The Yankees have coughed up eight games in the all-important loss column to Toronto since July 31st.
Despite all that, though, this isn't a team that's tanking or collapsing. They're in command of the AL's top Wild Card spot and are still right there in the AL East. Here are five reasons to believe that as the temperature goes down in September, the Yankees will heat up.
1. Toronto isn't THIS good
Despite the offensive struggles that plagued them up until this past weekend in Atlanta, the Yankees did a good job weathering the August storm, hanging in with a .500 record. Generally if you're a first place team, that's what you do - rack up the victories when things are going well and battle through when they aren't. Unlike some other teams who seemed playoff bound in July, like the Angels and Nationals, the Yankees were able to maintain control of their postseason destiny.
Unfortunately, the team chasing them just forgot how to lose. The Blue Jays were 21-6 in August and are 23-6 since their July 28th acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki. The Yankees gained nothing on the division lead during their weekend sweep of the Braves. Prevailing wisdom is that their big deadline deals are what propelled Toronto into orbit and there's some truth to that. Tulo and David Price have been fantastic and management's commitment to winning has lit some kind of fire under the rest of the roster. Still a .793 winning percentage isn't sustainable no matter who's on your team and neither are the 2.82 ERA and 1.06 WHIP that the Jays' staff held through the 30th. Toronto's 74-57 record is still short of their 83-48 Pythagorean projection, so they're likely to keep rolling, but not at their recent rate, because it's all but impossible.
2. A-Rod will hit
The .525 OPS that Rodriguez put up through August 30th made it not only his worst month of the season, but his worst since July, 1994, when he played in 17 games as an 18-year-old rookie. Sure, it's concerning that A-Rod's recent futility could mean his 40-year-old surgically repaired physique is wearing down toward the end of a grueling season, during which he's played far more than anyone expected. That theory, though, would be better supported by a gradual decline, not a sudden plummet from an outstanding 181 wRC+ in July. Though A-Rod's line drive and hard hit rates were notably beneath his season totals in August, his poor output could also be blamed on an unreasonably low .182 BABIP.
With the date of Teixeira's return in question - along with whether or not he'll be at 100 percent when he does make it back - A-Rod is arguably the most important Yankee in September. A series against a lousy team in an NL park afforded him some much needed rest this weekend while the team was still able to win. He might not replicate his all-star-like performance from the first two thirds of the year, but any improvement at all, which should happen, will go a long way.
3. Greg Bird, not Garrett Jones, is filling in for Mark Teixeira
In terms of production, Teixeira was the player the Yankees could least afford to lose. His 31 home runs and a 145 wRC+ were arguably the defining characteristic of an offense that was the second best in the league until the end of July, and one can only imagine how many errors Chase Headley would have if someone else was playing first base. If the latest round of tests on Tex's battered shin reveals a serious problem, that'll be a major blow to the Yankees divisional chances and their ability to advance in the playoffs if they get there.
In terms of replaceability though, Teixeira isn't the most serious loss the Yankees could have suffered. Imagine that his injury occurred two months earlier, when Greg Bird was still in Trenton and Garrett Jones the only viable backup at first. Going from Teixeira to Jones, a league-average-or-worse hitting platoon bat with negative defensive value would have been devastating. Going from Teixeira to Bird isn't ideal, but at least there's hope. Bird's been solid at every facet of the game so far, hitting .255/.339/.412 through the Atlanta series and looking not Tex-like in the field, but not Jones-like either. Bird doesn't need to be sat vs. lefties - his .777 OPS vs. them at Scranton was decent enough - and his advanced plate approach should continue to make his transition to the majors more smooth than most.
4. Rob Refsnyder might actually play
Refsnyder will be among the Yankees' September 40-man roster call-ups. Realistically, the 24-year-old who has hit .270/.359/.398 at Scranton-Wilkes Barre this year isn't going to supplant Stephen Drew as the Yankees' regular second baseman, but he should at least take the at bats that Brendan Ryan's been getting. Though Ryan's fared well in 40 plate appearances vs. lefties this season, his .248/.312/.330 career line against them tells a different tale. Refsnyder won't be a difference maker down the stretch, but it will be interesting to see what he can do in at least a limited tryout. He'll give Joe Girardi the flexibility to not play Ryan and to pinch hit for Drew in close and late situations, where he's hitting .148/.200/.213.
5. No CC vs. Toronto
It's never good news when someone's hurt and CC Sabathia's knee injury is costly to the Yankees, particularly in their ability to find adequate rest for a fragile starting rotation. The 35-year-old's latest rehab is unlikely to have him back in time for the seven games the team plays against the Blue Jays between September 11th and 23rd, though, and that should bother no one. Packed as they are with right-handed sluggers, Toronto is about as bad a match-up for Sabathia as there can be. Righties have hit .314/.366/.532 vs. CC this year with a homer-per-nine inning rate of 1.93. If he turns the average righty into Josh Donaldson or Jose Bautista, it's best not to think about what he turns Donaldson and Bautista into. The Yankees managed to avoid CC vs. the Jays during their six August meetings, but he allowed eight earned runs in 12 innings over two starts against them in April and May, and that was before the addition of Tulowitzki.
With Sabathia still on the mend, the Yankees can attack Toronto with a rotation full of right-handers, and hard-throwing right-handers at that. Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Nathan Eovaldi pitched as well as any other trio who faced the Jays in August, combining for a 2.33 ERA in 27.1 innings over four starts, while striking out 25. Now that Michael Pineda's also in the mix, New York can counter Toronto's strength with one of its own.