New York Yankees: 5 Big Questions They Must Answer to Get to the Playoffs

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2017

New York Yankees: 5 Big Questions They Must Answer to Get to the Playoffs

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    In what many expected to be a retooling season, the New York Yankees have emerged as serious contenders, and they have their sights set on a postseason run after buying at the trade deadline.

    They currently sit 3.5 games behind the rival Boston Red Sox in the AL East standings but hold a 2.5-game lead over the Minnesota Twins for the No. 1 wild-card spot with a 3.5-game cushion over the Los Angeles Angels in the third spot.

    However, there's still a lot of baseball to be played, and this year's AL wild-card picture is as crowded as any in recent memory with six teams still within five games in the standings.

    Despite that clutter, FanGraphs gives the Yankees a 91.3 percent chance of reaching the postseason.

    But before they punch their ticket to October, some questions need to be answered.

Can They Take Care of Business Against the Bottom of the AL East?

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    Marcus Stroman and the Blue Jays will look to play spoiler.
    Marcus Stroman and the Blue Jays will look to play spoiler.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    The Yankees are finished playing the rival Boston Red Sox this season, and they have just four games remaining against a Baltimore Orioles team that's managed to hang on the fringe of contention.

    However, they'll see plenty of the AL East's other two teams—the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays—in the season's final month.

    With 23 games left on the schedule, they play each of those teams six more times, including back-to-back series at Yankee Stadium to close out the year.

    Here's how they've fared against those clubs so far this year:

    • TB: 8-5, plus-11 run differential
    • TOR: 6-7, plus-15 run differential

    While they both sport sub-.500 records, the Blue Jays and Rays have good enough starting pitching to cause problems for the Yankees offense as they look to play spoiler.

    If the Yankees can walk away with something like a 9-3 record in those 12 games, it should put them in a great position to hold onto that No. 1 wild-card spot.

Will Clint Frazier Return in Time to Make an Impact?

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Rookie slugger Clint Frazier might finally be close to returning after beginning a rehab assignment with Double-A Trenton on Wednesday.

    Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media wrote: "With it doubtful Frazier would rejoin the team on the road, the earliest realistic date to expect Frazier back would probably be Sept. 14, when the Yankees and Orioles start a four-game set at Yankee Stadium."

    The 23-year-old has been sidelined since Aug. 10 with a left oblique strain.

    Frazier debuted with a bang back in July, going 7-for-24 with three home runs in his first seven games, but his production fell off dramatically from there—due in part to trying to play through that oblique injury.

    With Aaron Hicks also on the disabled list and the veteran duo of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner both batting from the left side, it's not out of the question to think Frazier could play his way into a significant role over the final few weeks.

    However, any sort of setback at this point could take him out of the postseason picture entirely.

Will Aaron Judge Finally Break out of His Slump?

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Aaron Judge is starting to show signs of life.

    The rookie phenom was more than happy to flip the calendar over to September after hitting just .185 with a .680 OPS, three home runs and a 35.3 percent strikeout rate in August.

    In six games so far this month, he's homered twice while posting a .938 OPS and striking out a more palatable eight times in 28 plate appearances.

    Manager Joe Girardi has stuck by the young slugger, and he gave him another vote of confidence while looking at the big picture earlier this week.

    "I think he's had a really good year," Girardi told reporters. "When you look at his numbers he's walked 100 times, he's scored 100 runs and there's a really good chance that he’s going to get to 100 RBI. You would've signed up for that (at the beginning of the year)."

    Judge smacked a two-run home run off Kevin Gausman on Thursday to give the Yankees an early lead, and he'll look to continue building some positive momentum down the stretch.

    "I feel good. I feel comfortable in the box," he told reporters. "I'm swinging at the right pitches. So, I'm happy with where I'm at."

    The Yankees are a different team when Judge is swinging it like he did in the first half and finding some semblance of that over the next few weeks would go a long way.

Who Will Step Up at the Back of the Starting Rotation?

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    Jaime Garcia
    Jaime GarciaJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Yankees have three rock solid starting pitchers in Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray, and they've all thrown the ball well since the All-Star break.

    • Severino: 10 GS, 7-2, 2.15 ERA, 1.01 WHIP
    • Tanaka: 8 GS, 4-2, 2.73 ERA, 0.97 WHIP
    • Gray: 7 GS, 3-4, 2.74 ERA, 1.17 WHIP

    However, the same can't be said about the rest of the starting staff as CC Sabathia, Jaime Garcia and rookie Jordan Montgomery have struggled to consistently turn in quality starts.

    A team can lean hard on three starters once the postseason rolls around, but the Yankees need the back of the rotation to step up in order to punch their ticket.

    Sabathia rattled off three straight quality starts to close out August, but he was tagged for eight hits and five earned runs in 5.1 innings on Tuesday, and he received a lubrication injection in his balky right knee on Wednesday.

    Meanwhile, Garcia has posted a 5.11 ERA in five starts with the Yankees since coming over in a July trade, and he was skipped in the rotation on Monday in favor of Montgomery.

    That was just expected to be a temporary measure as manager Joe Girardi told reporters: "Jaime will be inserted somewhere in the next time through [the rotation] after this."

    Regardless, the team needs the back-of-the-rotation starters to provide some quality innings down the stretch, regardless of who it is taking the ball.

Can Someone Lock Down the Closer's Role?

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    Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

    It's safe to say the Yankees didn't expect to have issues in the ninth inning when they gave Aroldis Chapman a five-year, $86 million deal this past offseason.

    However, after the hard-throwing lefty gave up runs in three consecutive outings in August he was bumped from the closer's role in favor of All-Star setup man Dellin Betances.

    Unfortunately, that hasn't been the answer either.

    Since converting his first three save chances, Betances has been tagged for at least one earned run in three of his last four appearances, including a blown save against the Orioles on Tuesday.

    Meanwhile, Chapman has looked sharp his last two appearances, and manager Joe Girardi has hinted that he's not afraid of switching things back.

    To his credit, Chapman has taken his demotion in stride.

    "I've been a closer for a long time in my career, but that's not the focus here," he told reporters. "For me, I just need to be ready to pitch wherever they need me. The other guys that are closing games right now are very good pitchers, Dellin and [David] Robertson. As of right now, what matters is winning. Wherever they need me to pitch, I'll be ready."

    There's no question the Yankees have as deep and talented a bullpen as any team in baseball. But they can't afford to have the ninth inning be a question mark going forward.

              

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, and accurate through Thursday's games.