At three games out with 18 left to play in the regular season–three of them against the pace-setting Blue Jays–the Yankees aren't done in the AL East race. Still, a division title is now looking a lot less likely than several weeks ago now that Toronto's played close to .725 ball for well over a month and won seven of ten meetings with the Yanks in that stretch. As of today, Fangraphs has New York's division winning odds down to 14.2%.
The Yankees are, however, still a good bet to reach the postseason. A four-game cushion for a Wild Card spot puts their overall playoff chances at a healthy 97.4%. With that in mind, is it wise for them to keep on scrapping for an increasingly unlikely division crown, or should they rest their players and settle for a Wild Card in hopes of bettering their postseason prospects once they're there?
A few years ago, this wouldn't have even been a question. The Yankees would use their older players in moderation and plod happily toward the Wildcard as they did in 2010 when Joe Girardi all but white flagged the AL East to the Tampa Bay Rays. That move, and others like it, pushed former commissioner Bud Selig toward the Wild Card play-in game, which began in 2012. Even if you're the better team–the Yankees probably feel they are, over their most likely opponents in Houston, Texas and Minnesota–better doesn't mean much in single elimination. Neither does home field advantage, which New York presently holds, as four of six Wild Card games played so far have been won by road teams. Facing the Astros or Rangers could mean drawing Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel or Cole Hamels and his 3.09 postseason ERA. The Yankees have mostly had their way with the Twins over the past decade plus, but zero margin for error makes that history fairly moot. The Angels could sneak in, too, and for all that team's problems, giving Mike Trout and Albert Pujols a chance to send you home doesn't seem fun.
So, division ‘til the end...right? Not necessarily. Going all-out to avoid the Wild Card game can backfire on you if you don't get it done. Just ask last year's Pirates, who entered the final day of the regular season a game back of the Cardinals in the NL Central. They needed a win, and for St. Louis to lose to force a one-game playoff for the division, so their odds weren't great. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh went with its ace, Gerrit Cole. He did his part, striking out 12 over seven one-run innings vs. Cincinnati, but the rest of the Pirates didn't and they fell 4-1, a score which became irrelevant when the Cardinals won their game. When Pittsburgh faced San Francisco two days later, they did so without the benefit of Cole, and Edinson Volquez was no match for Madison Bumgarner.
The Pirates' example is a microcosm of the kinds of decisions Girardi and Brian Cashman will face over the next few weeks. We'll see if there's an opportunity to use Masahiro Tanaka in a big game to chase down the division late, but even if there isn't, the Yankees are a team with rest needs that go beyond those of most other clubs. After Nathan Eovaldi's elbow injury took him out, they fetched Adam Warren out of a relief role to keep with a six-man rotation plan, since they're so uncomfortable with Tanaka and their other starters pitching regularly on four days' rest. Warren leaving the bullpen puts even more strain on the back end, where only Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Justin Wilson qualify as reliable at this point, and where Betances is leading the league in relief innings. With Mark Teixeira out, the Yankees' two most productive hitters by wRC+ are Alex Rodriguez, a 40-year-old with a surgically reconstructed hip and now a bone bruise on his left knee, and Carlos Beltran, 38, who has struggled to a .255/.281/.364 slash line in September after playing 26 games in August, his most in a single month since 2013. Even if they were able to overtake Toronto, riding these guys to the max could make for a speedy playoff exit.
Girardi's been typically cryptic on how he plans to handle this. Last week, he said:
"I think you push them as hard as you can without hurting them is what you do," he said. "That's what you have to weigh. The thing we have to deal with is the 30 games in 31 days . . . We're not necessarily running a lot of 25-year-old position players out there."
OK, Joe. That's pretty much like when you go to the mound and tell a pitcher, "don't give him anything to hit, but don't walk him." Actions speak louder than words, though, and what we see on the field will give us a better read on where Girardi's mind is than anything he's willing to say. Will Tanaka get bumped ahead of Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova in the rotation to give him the chance to start in Toronto and to pitch four more times in the regular season instead of three? Will A-Rod play the field for a game or two vs. the Mets at Citi Field? Will Girardi break the rule he's followed all season and use Betances or Miller on three straight days? Will Brian McCann start 13 more games at catcher to reach his highest total since 2010?
If none of those things happen it means that while the Yankees would love to win the division, they realize that a third of the teams who've played in the Wild Card game so far have made it to the World Series. It's a hurdle, but not an insurmountable one and not one they'll sacrifice their grander plan to avoid.