Last year the Yankees cruised in the second half. As I interpreted it, the Yankees cemented themselves as the best team in baseball after they swept the Red Sox in August. They had the best record in baseball going into that series, and then they put their closest competition away for good.
I don't believe this year's team will have a similar finish. This is an excellent Yankee team with the best record in baseball, but the Rays are good as well. My belief is that the game of musical chairs between 1st and 2nd place that we've seen since the All-Star break will continue right up to the postseason. I also believe that home field advantage could be a difference maker in a potential ALCS match-up with either Tampa or Texas.
With that in mind, here are five questions that I've been asking myself lately, that could be the difference down the stretch:
5. Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher: Can they keep it up?
If Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez had been the best Yankees through the first four months of the season I wouldn't wonder if the great play would continue. If Cano and Swisher were suddenly to slump badly, their final season numbers would fall in line with their career averages, but the slumps would hurt the team. I don't actually believe this will happen. I believe these guys will continue to play the way they have all season, but this is a question that has crossed my mind.
4. Brett Gardner
Brett is slumping. Heading into Wednesday night's game Brett's line had fallen to .279/.375/.376, which is great on the season (108 OPS+), but given that at one point he was batting over .300 with an OBP over .400, he's been pretty invisible for a while. Can he turn it back on? RAB addressed this already, but it has been on my mind as well. In the first half of the season Gardner was one of the best offensive players on the Yankees. Now, he's struggling to draw walks. The team doesn't need him to have a .400 OBP (but it would help). Instead it needs him to break his slump and start getting on base again.
3. Mark Teixeira
Quietly, Tex has gotten his numbers to respectability. His line of .259/.367/.501 is below the standards he has set for himself (although the 136 OPS+ is his career average), but it represents decent production, which is incredible, considering where Tex was through May.
Tex has gotten his numbers up in only the last two months. In July his OPS was 1.160. In August it has been 1.021. A solid season depends entirely upon his ability to continue to hit like, well, Mark Teixeira. The only problem is that I'm still scarred from April. The evidence indicates Tex will continue to play better. September was his second-strongest month of the season in 2009.
2. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez
Will they finish stronger than they've played so far this season? A-Rod and the Captain are in the middle of the worst seasons of their careers. But their seasons don't have to end this way. The difference between this Yankee team finishing strong, and absolutely annihilating the competition, is how Derek and Alex finish. If they finish strong, I believe the team may be unbeatable. If they perform as they have this season, this is still a great group of players heading into the postseason, but it's not head and shoulders above everyone else.
1. Andy Pettitte
Remember him? Until he was injured Pettitte had been the Yankees best starter. Without him, the team doesn't really have a second starter. Phil Hughes has been better, but the Yankees are going to clip his wings soon. A.J. Burnett is still erratic, only the lows are lower this year. And do you want any part of Javier Vazquez in a big game?
I believe Andy will come back just fine. He's a veteran pitcher. But until he proves that he can pitch as well as did before the injury, his performance is a real question mark. If Andy comes back and performs the way he did last season (never mind the great effort he's put forth this year) then the Yankees will be set for the stretch. If he comes back and continues to pitch the way he has until he was injured then the Yankee rotation is as strong as anyone's.