Time to Take the Upstart Yankees Seriously as Real Playoff Contenders

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2016

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 06:  Chase Headley #12 of the New York Yankees celebrates his eighth-inning, two-run home run against the Toronto Blue Jays with teammate Gary Sanchez #24 at Yankee Stadium on September 6, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Here come the New York Yankees.

Seriously, they're in this thing.     

That seemed like an absurd notion when the Yankees went into full-blown sell mode just before the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline, jettisoning veteran pieces such as relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller and outfielder Carlos Beltran. New York was building for the future, the narrative went, waving a white flag and restocking its farm system.

The farm system part was true. After their flurry of late-July deals, the Yankees own the richest stash of minor league talent in either league, per Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter.

But New York is also a legitimate postseason contender here and now. It's not merely some fancy; it's the truth.

After besting the Toronto Blue Jays 2-0 Wednesday in the Bronx and completing a three-game sweep, the Yankees sit at 73-65, 2.5 games off the wild-card pace and only four games back of the Jays for the American League East lead.

The Yankees have now won four straight and six of their last eight. They're rolling, in other words, any way you parse it.

"We'll get there if we continue to play like we're playing," infielder Starlin Castro said, per MLB.com's Gregor Chisholm and Bryan Hoch. "Especially now in September, we're facing the teams in front of us. If we continue winning series like we did today, we'll be all right."

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Rookie catcher Gary Sanchez has been the shiniest story, bashing 11 home runs with a 1.136 OPS in 30 games.

Rookie backstop Gary Sanchez has been a revelation since joining the Yankees.
Rookie backstop Gary Sanchez has been a revelation since joining the Yankees.Adam Hunger/Getty Images

But the Yanks have enjoyed contributions from all over. Take Wednesday's starter, right-hander Bryan Mitchell, who underwent surgery on an injured toe this spring and returned to throw five innings of four-hit shutout ball against Toronto.

Much-maligned Luis Severino, who sports a plus-6.00 ERA, chipped in three scoreless frames of his own out of the pen.

That's how it's gone for New York. Third baseman Chase Headley is hitting .296 over the past 30 contests. Second baseman Starlin Castro has eight home runs and 20 RBI during the same stretch. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has gone 7-for-23 over his last seven games.

On the pitching side, trade-deadline acquisition Tyler Clippard has allowed just one earned run with 18 strikeouts in 16 innings in relief, softening the loss of Miller and Chapman. And Dellin Betances remains an elite reliever, as his 115 strikeouts in 66.1 innings attest.

The rotation is anchored by Masahiro Tanaka, who has won his last five decisions and struck out 38 hitters in August next to just one walk. 

Thanks to Tanaka, Ryan Hatch of NJ Advance Media opined, "there's a glimmer of hope, a modicum of optimism because he's pitching every five days."

Honestly, modicum is an understatement. 

Ace Masahiro Tanaka has been dealing lately for New York.
Ace Masahiro Tanaka has been dealing lately for New York.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Yes, FanGraphs puts the Yankees' chances of nabbing a wild-card slot at 7.6 percent and their chances of winning the division at 0.8 percent. 

But New York opens a four-game set at home against the last-place AL East Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, which should theoretically be an opportunity to make hay. 

In their division, they also have seven games remaining against the first-place Boston Red Sox, four against the Jays and three against the Baltimore Orioles, who own the second wild-card spot.

That stretch, surely, will decide things. The Yankees can either sprint to unexpected glory or head into the offseason with a stacked system and money coming off the books.

It's win-win. But Yanks fans are used to winning, period, so this house-money playoff run would do a lot to satiate the pinstripe faithful. 

As Joel Sherman of the New York Post put it:

It is turning into that kind of stretch run for the Yankees — inexplicable. Which is totally fitting for a team playing for both tomorrow and today and that somehow has gotten better after trading arguably their three best players.

The Yankees’ chances to make the playoffs remain slim. But that the discussion is still going on speaks to their ability to find a little bit of magic down the stretch.

Magic is a strong word. Probably too strong. There's something going on here, though, and it's more than a novelty. 

Here come the Yankees.

Seriously.

        

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.