Now that the Yankees have clinched the playoffs, we can finally look ahead to October baseball. The team's second-half struggles made this year's pennant race much closer than expected, but the Yanks avoided a major collapse and will be one of 10 teams vying to win the World Series.
They have played better down the stretch and are clearly one of the best teams in baseball, but they are not without faults or question marks.
Here are five of the biggest questions facing the Yankees in the postseason. The answers will decide whether 2012 will be another first round exit, a 28th championship or something in between.
1. How will the starting pitching perform?
Since CC Sabathia joined the Yankees in 2009, his performance in the playoffs has been a given. The Yankees could always count on him in Game One. That is not quite the case this year, after Sabathia has been on the DL twice and has been shaky at times. He's looked great in his last two starts, going eight innings in each allowing a total of two runs and striking out 21. But he is somewhat of a question mark.
But the real concern is about what Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes will give them. All have been strong at times but each has their own issues.
Kuroda has been good in his first season in pinstripes, but has had a rough September (he has a 5.22 ERA in five starts) and hasn't pitched in the playoffs since 2009 (when he was roughed up by the Phillies for six runs in one and a third innings).
Pettitte's postseason experience is second to none and has pitched well since returning from a fractured ankle, but will he be able to keep it up after making just 12 starts?
And Hughes has had dominant outings and horrible outings, so the question is: Which Hughes will show up?
If the starting pitching falters, the Yankees could make an early exit from the playoffs.
2. Will the offense's reliance on the home run be the Yankees' undoing?
The Yankees have shown themselves to be too reliant on the home run and have struggled with runners in scoring position all season long.
That can work when you're playing the Royals and Red Sox of the world (sorry Red Sox fans, I had to), but it's a different ballgame when you're facing Justin Verlander and other starting pitchers on baseball's best teams.
At some point, the Yankees will need to manufacture a run late in a playoff game and the question is: will they be able to?
If Brett Gardner returns to the lineup alongside Ichiro Suzuki, the Yankees' lineup will look much different and will be better equipped to play small-ball.
3. Who will make the playoff roster?
By my count, there are 19 players who will definitely be on the playoff roster.
On offense: Russell Martin, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Chris Stewart, Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez.
Pitching: CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan and David Phelps.
With only four starters needed for the playoffs, I'd expect the team to carry 13 hitters and 12 pitchers, although that could flip. Assuming they go 13 hitters/12 pitchers though, that leaves three spots for a combination of Mark Teixeira (who will obviously be on if healthy), Jayson Nix (if healthy), Eduardo Nunez, Brett Gardner, Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee. If I were Brian Cashman and Teixeira and Gardner are healthy and can hit, I'd go with Teixeira, Gardner and Nunez.
12 pitchers leaves three spots for Ivan Nova, Cody Eppley, Clay Rapada, Freddy Garcia, and Derek Lowe. Nova isn't needed because he's been ineffective and the team only needs four starters. I'd expect to see Eppley and Rapada on the roster, along with Derek Lowe as a long man so Joe Girardi can use Phelps in short-relief situations.
Some of this will depend on series matchups, but even the last man off the bench can make a difference late in a playoff game.
4. Will Brett Gardner or Mark Teixeira be difference-makers in the lineup?
Teixeira will have a bigger impact because he has more power in his bat than Gardner but also because, as a switch-hitter in the middle of the lineup, he allows the Yankees to spread out their lefties.
But if Gardner can swing the bat and return to the lineup, being matched with Ichiro at the bottom of the order, the Yankees would have some serious small-ball potential and could make things happen on the basepaths
5. Who will Joe Girardi trust in the bullpen other than Rafael Soriano and David Robertson?
At some point in a playoff game, Joe Girardi is going to have to go to the bullpen in the seventh or earlier, but no middle relievers have really done enough to earn the trust of their manager down the stretch.
Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada have all been shaky, so who Girardi opts to bring in for an important at-bat could make a huge difference.
How these five questions are answered will determine how far the Yankees go in the playoffs. Stay tuned.
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