If we've learned anything about Octobers the last few years, it's that the month tests, stretches and hones every aspect of loyalty fandom.
Therefore, to adequately preview the madness that is the baseball playoffs, we've invited some of our favorite writers for each of the eight playoff teams to write about their teams. These will be running all day today and tomorrow, and we very much hope you enjoy them.
Up right now: The New York Yankees. Your writer is Alex Belth.
Alex Belth is is the author of Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights and the editor of Bronx Banter. He also writes for SI.com. His words are after the jump.
The demise of the Yankees has been talked about ever since they won 114 games in 1998. It gained steam in Buster Olney's book, Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty and peaked when New York blew a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS. But the '04 collapse, which would have sent many other organizations into a tailspin, didn't kill the Yankees. Yes, New York has lost three straight playoff series (a lifetime for long-suffering Yankee fans). Still, for the past three seasons, they have put themselves in early-season pickles only to rally to play in October. The Yanks can still absorb high-priced mistakes (Carl Pavano, Kei Igawa), and big-ticket free agents (Clemens, Damon) like no other team, but since GM Brian Cashman has been allowed to develop young players, Chien-Ming Wang, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and now Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain have all played crucial roles.
On top of that, of course, Alex Rodriguez is having the best offensive season a Yankee has had since Maris and Mantle in 1961. Moreover, he's won over his critics, producing over and again in big moments all season. With two games left, he's scored 142 runs, with 32 doubles and 54 home runs, a beautiful, zaftig statline with only one blemish — 0 triples. A Rod's 155 RBI is the most by a Yankee since Joe D (and it's only good for 10th-best in Yankee history). According to OPS+, Rodriguez has four of the five greatest offensive seasons of any Yankee third basemen, and his 2007 season is one of the five or 10 greatest ever for a third baseman. This year, he's ducked a front-page sex scandal, mentored Cabrera and Cano and generally terrorized the American League into submission.
But in New York, the playoffs are the thing, and Rodriguez desperately needs to avoid a repeat of the '05 and '06 postseason. He needs to have his Reggie moment. The Yankees don't even need to win; Rodriguez just can't go bust again. If he does, he's as good as gone. But if the Yankees win the World Serious, or if Rodriguez performs admirably in defeat, it's hard to imagine him playing anywhere else.
The Yanks have had more than Rodriguez this season too. Jorge Posada is having a career year and would be a stellar MVP candidate if it weren't for Rodriguez. Bobby Abreu and Robinson Cano recovered nicely after struggling early, and Derek Jeter, playing through a balky knee late this summer, is having another representative season. Mariano Rivera's strikeout numbers are still strong, but he's sporting the worst ERA since he's become a closer. Of course, Joba Chamberlain has been enormous — he's the best young pitcher the Yankees have had since, well, a young Rivera.
The starting pitching remains the biggest question going into the playoffs. The Yankees have the weakest staff of all the American League playoff teams, yet it's not that hard to imagine Wang, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens doing well. Then again, it's not a stretch to picture them getting ripped either. I mean, who knows what they can expect out of Clemens, who was shut down with a leg injury for the final two weeks of the regular season. But the Yankees need their starters to show up in order to get passed Cleveland in the first round. The Yanks were 6-0 against the Tribe this year, but you can throw that right out the window; they didn't face C.C. Sabathia at all, and saw Fausto Carmona just once.
My sense is that if the Yankees make it past the first round, they'll be tough to beat. But as Joe Torre said earlier in the week, they'll need a good deal of luck on their side, along with the good pitching and timely hitting. For Rodriguez, as great as he's been this year, it's another make-or-break moment in his career. He'll be center stage, and his next career move will most certainly be determined in the weeks to come.
The Yanks will try and have their starters go six, and then hand the ball to Vizcaino, Joba and Rivera.