The New York Yankees have played 134 games this season, and ace CC Sabathia has started only 29 of them. A.J. Burnett, the bane of the Yankee fan’s existence, has started 27 times — with a 28th to come tonight in the finale of a Yankees/Red Sox series at Boston’s Fenway Park — followed by youngster Ivan Nova (22), retreads Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia (21 each) and one-time prospect Phil Hughes (12). Despite each pitcher’s obvious flaws, none, acting either alone or in concert, has managed to bring down the Yankees’ championship hopes.
It is tempting to view the Yankees’ underwhelming rotation behind Sabathia and assume the team has no chance in October. A fate that was preordained over the winter, when Cliff Lee chose the Phillies and Andy Pettitte chose retirement, appears to be coming to fruition. The Yankees have no obvious candidate to start Game 2 of a postseason series, let alone Games 3 and 4.
But for five months now, the Yankees have been running those same six starters out to the mound — in one configuration or another, with a six-man rotation the current set-up — and they have not only survived, but have managed to compile the third-best record in all of baseball. At their current pace, they will breeze into the playoffs (their wild-card lead is 7 ½ games) with 98 wins, more than three of their four World Series winners during the 1996-2000 title run.
If you think the Yankees are doomed in October because they have to choose among imperfect choices to fill out their playoff rotation, think again. Contrary to popular belief, the Yankees’ starters don’t have to outpitch their mound counterparts on a given night; they merely have to contain the opposing lineup better than that counterpart contains the Yankees’ offense. That’s no small distinction.
In a pitching-dominated era, this Yankees’ lineup is an old-school juggernaut. It is the highest-scoring offense in the game, having hit 18 more homers and drawn 29 more walks than any other offense in baseball. It has eight hitters with 10 or more homers, including five who should be at 20-plus by the end of the season.
Besides, it’s not as if the AL is loaded with deep postseason rotations. The Red Sox have Josh Beckett and Jon Lester at the top, but after that it gets murky, with John Lackey and Erik Bedard possibly in line to pitch Games 3 and 4. The Tigers’ rotation falls off steeply once you get past Justin Verlander. And the Rangers don’t have an ideal Game 2 starter behind C.J. Wilson (although their choices are admittedly better than the Yankees’). The best October rotation in the league, in fact, belongs to the Angels, who nonetheless wouldn’t make the field if the season ended today.
The Yankees undoubtedly will go into October with the shakiest postseason rotation of any AL contender. By merit, Nova, the 24-year-old rookie, probably deserves the Game 2 start, but the Yankees aren’t accustomed to trusting rookies in such spots. “Trust,” in fact, is the operative word here. They Yankees have none left in Burnett, who appears to be exiled to the bullpen — no matter what happens in Boston tonight — and only modest amounts in Hughes, Garcia and Colon.
But a great offense, such as the Yankees’, can hide an awful lot of flaws. Somebody has been pitching the Yankees to a lot of wins this season (oh, and by the way, they are 7-2 this season against the Rangers, who would be their first-round opponent if the season ended today), and it wasn’t all Sabathia.
Not every World Series winner has a staff full of aces. Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton started Games 2, 3 and 4 of the 2008 World Series for the Phillies. Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan and Anthony Reyes all got World Series starts for the 2006 Cardinals.
Would I pick the Yankees to go all the way to the World Series? Not a chance. But would I be shocked if they did so. Not in the slightest.