With just 2.5 weeks left in the season, the Yankees are almost certainly going to hold homefield advantage in the ALDS. They hold a five-game lead on the Twins and would need a genuine collapse to be playing in Minnesota.
But it is time to start thinking about potential opponents to roll into the Bronx on Oct. 4 for the American League Division Series. With the Red Sox all but eliminated, there are four realistic first-round opponents: The Twins, Rays, Athletics and Indians.
If the Yankees finish with the AL’s second-best record, they get the Twins. If they beat out Houston, they place one of the latter three teams.
Do any of these teams pique the fear index? Not really. The Yankees should win a series against any of these teams. But which is the most fearsome? That is what I want to find out. Let’s peruse the question, shall we?
Minnesota Twins Fear Index: 2 out of 5
The story of the Minnesota Twins has been home runs. They’ve hit 276 of them this season and broke the 2018 Yankees’ record … before the 2019 Yankees tied them last night. They’ve been rewarded by the juiced baseball for shoring up their roster in free agency. While these Twins have very little postseason experience, those home runs should carry over into October.
In two series with the Bombers, they lost two of three both times, though they were both tightly contested series. It’s hard to forget the slugfests in Minnesota. The Twins were able to get to the Yankees’ late-inning relievers, though they did most of their damage against Domingo German, CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ.
As a team, they have a 117 wRC+, trailing just the Yankees and Astros. Their 4.07 staff FIP is fourth-best in baseball and their 4.17 ERA is eighth.
However, here’s why the Twins are better on paper than in playoff series: They’re shorthanded. Byron Buxton is out for the year. Nelson Cruz is dealing with a wrist injury. Max Kepler has had multiple injuries in his breakout season.
Meanwhile, their best pitcher in the second half, Michael Pineda, was suspended for PEDs and is done for the year. The rest of their starting pitching has struggled in the second half and their bullpen might not hold up in October. Starter Kyle Gibson is dealing with an intestinal issue and returns to the team Thursday.
You can throw out the Yankees’ postseason history with the Twins. Most of that involves players long since retired and this Minnesota team actually gets strikeouts and hits homers. However, the Yankees have a clear advantage on Minnesota when they aren’t using their back-end starters.
Tampa Bay Rays Fear Index: 0.5 out of 5
On paper, the Rays have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. They’re second only to the Dodgers with a 3.63 ERA and lead MLB with a 3.67 FIP and 22.6 fWAR. They strike people out at a high rate and the team boasts Charlie Morton at the head of their rotation.
However, they’re thin going into the stretch run. Morton has a 4.52 ERA in the second half. Though he’s matched up well with the Yankees, he would be the Rays’ best Wild Card Game starter, so they might not see him more than once. Meanwhile, both Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell are on the mend from injuries and neither will be fully stretched out in all likelihood.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen has held its own this season … except against the Yankees. Colin Poche, Diego Castillo, Emilio Pagan, the Yankees have hit all of them. While deadline acquisition Nick Anderson has been electric in Tampa, the Rays’ depth won’t confer them the same advantage in October. It’s hard to imagine a team bullpenning its way through 3-4 games in a series and surviving.
As for their lineup, it’s fine. Austin Meadows and Tommy Pham are both above-average players and the team sports a collection of good but not great hitters. They don’t stack up with the rest of the AL contenders.
The Yankees beat them 12 out of 17 so far this year. Considering that track record, the Rays’ injured pitching staff and the lack of homefield advantage at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay is undoubtedly the team the Yankees would most want to face. A series loss to Tampa would be a terrible look.
Oakland Athletics Fear Index: 2.4 out of 5
Over the past few weeks, the A’s made their case as a team to fear. They took four of six from the Yankees and could have easily won the two games they lost. They showed off their offense led by Marcus Semien and Matts Chapman and Olson. Those same players anchor an impressive defensive infield.
Oakland’s pitching staff also is at full strength. Sean Manaea has had two fantastic starts since coming off the injured list and is able to make full appearances. He’s already a prime candidate for a Wild Card Game start, should they get there. They can follow him with Mike Fiers, Tanner Roark and Homer Bailey, each of whom has a win over the Yankees this year.
Meanwhile, their bullpen has holes. The Yankees beat Liam Hendriks in last year’s Wild Card Game and in their series finale before Labor Day. For manager Bob Melvin, it’s been Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit and a cadre of sub-par options. Rookies A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo could be a boost.
Coupled with holes at the bottom of their lineup, the Athletics certainly have exploitable weaknesses for the Yankees to beat. The Bombers took two of three in the Bronx and would only need to play twice in Oakland at most. As they stand now, the A’s are probably the top ALDS competition.
Cleveland Indians Fear Index: 2* out of 5
Cleveland sports the best rotation of these four teams with Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber as a 1-2 punch. Zach Plesac and Adam Plutko don’t hold up quite as well as Oakland’s veteran back end, but the chance to use their top two for the majority of a series carries significant weight.
This team also features Francisco Lindor, one of the more dynamic players in baseball. He can change a series and is a player you can’t let beat you. Carlos Santana has had a career-year in the middle of the lineup and deadline acquisitions Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes extend the lineup.
But there’s that asterisk above. That’s for Jose Ramirez. With him in the lineup, Cleveland probably surpasses the Athletics as a threat. He had just returned to MVP candidate form before he broke his hand in August. I’d assume he’s out for a potential ALDS, but that hasn’t been confirmed.
As with the other ALDS opponents, the Indians have outs at the bottom of their lineup and a creaky bullpen. Brad Hand has blown five saves and the rest of the pen relies on pitchers like Tyler Clippard. Can he hold up in October? Hmmm.
The Yankees should be overwhelming favorites in any first-round series. They’ll either be hosting a banged-up Twins squad — the most-likely scenario — or will be playing a team that used its best starter or band of relievers in the Wild Card Game. We saw in 2017 how exhausted the Yankees were from that one game and it nearly lost them the ALDS. The Bombers get the rest advantage this year, and they’ll have the talent advantage, too.