Postseason Yankees: CC and the question marks

The season in review

What went right—briefly:

Curtis Granderson had a disappointing first season in New York in 2010, battling injuries and early-season struggles. Given a second chance in 2011, Granderson has exploded.

He is posting the best season of his career with the bat while seemingly solving his long-term issue with lefties, hitting .277 with 16 home runs. This follows batting averages of .234 and .245 against lefties the previous two seasons with just six homers combined. (All numbers are through Sept. 22.)

Despite missing some crucial pieces (more about that below), the bullpen is once again a strength. In addition to the ageless Mariano Rivera, this year has been about the emergence of David Robertson. The Alabama native has a 1.11 ERA and is striking out nearly 13.5 batters per nine innings. Other strong performers include bounce-back veterans Cory Wade(6-1, 1.98) and Luis Ayala (2-2, 1.69).

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Can Alex Rodriguez regain his 2009 playoff form? (Icon/SMI)

Through July 7, Derek Jeter was posting just a .649 OPS and seemed every bit as finished as his detractors claimed. But on July 9, Jeter recorded his 3,000th hit—a home run, famously—and since then he has hit .341 and has a shot to finish the year above .300.

What went wrong—briefly:

Whose numbers are these: 66 innings, 3.27 ERA, $19.4 million in salary? Unfortunately for Yankee fans, that’s the combined statistics for Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte.

Combine that with the performance of Boone Logan—ostensibly the Yankees’ top lefty out of the bullpen despite actually posting reverse platoon splits—and the Yankees’ bullpen success is even more improbable.

Alex Rodriguez made $32 million in 2011, but has struggled with injuries (he will play his fewest games since 1995) and poor performance. This season will end Rodriguez’s streak of thirteen straight years with 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

Jorge Posada—troubled by the switch to DH and the debacle of his asking out of the lineup when assigned to bat ninth—has led to an ungraceful end to the Yankee career of one of the cornerstones of their recent title teams. The bench has also been hit-or-miss, with questionable defense and a recent slump by Eduardo Nunez and erratic performances from Francisco Cervelli but strong play by Andruw Jones.

The playoffs

What’s to come—less briefly

Barring a remarkable comeback from the Angels, it seems likely the Yankees will open the playoffs facing either the Detroit Tigers or Texas Rangers. In a five-game series like the ALDS, analysis of the opponent is always difficult, sometimes bordering on futile.

The Tigers’ advantage is primarily in their starting pitching, as Justin Verlander—who will run away with the Cy Young award and may yet win the AL MVP—and Doug Fister pose a formidable one-two punch. But the Tigers are relatively weak offensively, regularly running out multiple players with sub-.325 on-base percentage.

Despite the quality of C.J. Wilson (2.97 ERA, more than 200 strikeouts) and emergence of Derek Holland (8-1, 2.92 ERA since the All-Star break) the Rangers cannot match the starting pitching quality of the Tigers. But the team ranks in the top three in hits, runs, batting average, on-base and slugging percentage.

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Perhaps the most important Yankee in October: Ivan Nova (Icon/SMI)

Neither team makes for an easy match-up for the Yankees, who in the last two years under Joe Girardi have gone 6-0 in the LDS, sweeping a seemingly hapless Twins team both times while outscoring them by a combined 32-13.

Given the strength of the Yankees’ offense, it seems likely that the pitching—especially the starting pitching—will determine how long an October journey they take.

CC Sabathia, winner of 19 games and having arguably his finest season in pinstripes, will be carrying the load in the playoffs. Girardi has all but announced that the team will go with a three-man rotation in the LDS, pitching Sabathia on short rest in a possible Game Four.

The second starter is likely to be Ivan Nova. Since returning to the majors after a brief demotion, Nova has gone 8-0 with a 2.92 ERA, a development owed to the slider Nova refined throughout his season.

Of course, this is taking an already small sample and reducing it even further, which is, in statistical terms, a very bad thing. Nonetheless, if Nova can maintain his recent performance, that will go a long way to carrying the Yankees to World Series glory.

The third starter remains an open question. Bartolo Colon had been the team’s second-best starter much of the season, but at age 38 and not exactly a fitness buff, he may be fading. Since August, Colon is 0-4 with a 5.58 ERA.

Meanwhile, Freddy Garcia has been doing his Eddie Harris act to much success for the year, but he also has performed badly of late.

This means the best option for the third starter might be Phil Hughes. Hughes has endured a largely awful year but posted two strong starts in September before back spasms kept him from making his last start. A.J. Burnett (6-9, 6.02 since May 15) will likely make the postseason roster but is unlikely to start a game.

Outside starts from Sabathia, and perhaps Nova, the Yankees will lean heavily on their bullpen. Though he struggled early, Soriano has posted a 2.42 ERA since his return from injury and combined with Robertson and Rivera, gives the Yankees perhaps the best bullpen Cerberus outside of Atlanta.

As Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver proved in the 2006 playoffs—posting a combined 2.45 ERA—unexpected arms can come up big in October. The Yankees likely will need some of their unexpected arms—perhaps Nova and his slider or Colon rediscovering his fastball—to step up and carry them back to the Canyon of Heroes. If the Bronx Bombers get that pitching, and combine it with characteristic offense, they will be a tough matchup for any team.

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