New York Yankees: Ranking Potential Wild-Card Game Opponents

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistSeptember 14, 2017

New York Yankees: Ranking Potential Wild-Card Game Opponents

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees have a three-game lead over the Minnesota Twins for the No. 1 American League wild-card spot and a five-game cushion overall for a playoff berth.

    At the risk of counting our chickens before they hatch, it looks like a safe bet they will be playing in October, and FanGraphs agrees, giving them a 98.4 percent chance of reaching the postseason.

    However, the second wild-card spot is still too close to call with five teams within four games in the standings.

    Who from that group poses the biggest threat to the Yankees and who would they most like to face?

    Ahead, we've broken down all five clubs and ranked them from least to most preferable opponent based on head-to-head performance, potential pitching matchups and other factors.

    On the Yankees side, we're assuming it will be breakout ace Luis Severino taking the ball.


    Note: The Baltimore Orioles (4.5 games back) and Tampa Bay Rays (five games back) are technically still in the wild-card running as well, but neither team has been playing particularly well of late and FanGraphs gives them a 1.3 and 1.8 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, respectively. As a result, they weren't included in this discussion.

5. Seattle Mariners

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    James Paxton
    James PaxtonTony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Head-to-Head Record: NYY 5-2

    Head-to-Head Run Differential: NYY +19

    Luis Severino vs. SEA: 1 GS, 7.0 IP, 8 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K


    Potential SP Options

    • James Paxton (20 GS, 12-3, 2.78 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 138 K, 119.2 IP)
    • Felix Hernandez (13 GS, 5-4, 4.28 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 69 K, 73.2 IP)

    James Paxton (strained pectoral) and Felix Hernandez (shoulder bursitis) have both been sidelined since early August and will return this week with the latter taking the ball against the Rangers on Thursday and the former starting on Friday against the Astros.

    Assuming both pitchers stay healthy, Paxton should have the upper hand to start the Wild Card Game as he has emerged as a legitimate ace this season with a 2.78 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 over 20 starts.

    If injury strikes again, they will have to choose from Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda and surprise standout Andrew Albers.


    Projected Lineup

    • SS Jean Segura
    • RF Mitch Haniger
    • 2B Robinson Cano
    • DH Nelson Cruz
    • 3B Kyle Seager
    • 1B Yonder Alonso
    • C Mike Zunino
    • LF Ben Gamel
    • CF Guillermo Heredia

    It's a small sample size, but the Mariners are averaging 5.2 runs with 22 home runs in 12 games in the month of September.

    The middle-of-the-order trio of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager remains as dangerous as any in baseball, and catcher Mike Zunino has quietly posted an .890 OPS with 21 home runs since returning from an early demotion to the minors on May 23.

    The Mariners haven't seen much of Severino, as he's made just two career appearances against them, but Cano (4-for-7, RBI) and Cruz (2-for-6) have both had some success.


    Final Thoughts

    Paxton is the toughest potential starting pitching matchup as long as he's back to 100 percent, and the fact he hasn't faced the Yankees this season figures to work in his favor.

    The Seattle offense hasn't been as productive as it was a year ago, but it's still a dangerous group with a number of players capable of turning one mistake into the difference between winning and losing in a one-game playoff.

    If I'm the Yankees, I'm hoping the playoff drought that dates back to 2001 continues.

4. Texas Rangers

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Head-to-Head Record: 3-3

    Head-to-Head Run Differential: TEX +2

    Luis Severino vs. TEX: 1 GS, 7.0 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 10 K


    Potential SP Options

    • Cole Hamels (20 GS, 10-3, 4.05 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 84 K, 126.2 IP)
    • Andrew Cashner (24 GS, 9-9, 3.19 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 78 K, 146.2 IP)

    Cole Hamels has as impressive a postseason track record as any active pitcher with a 3.48 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 98.1 innings of work—including a dazzling 2008 postseason where he won NLCS and World Series MVP honors.

    However, at 33, he's not the same pitcher he was in his prime, and his 4.15 ERA and 6.0 K/9 this season don't exactly give him the ace profile.

    Would that be enough for the Texas Rangers to consider handing the ball to Andrew Cashner?

    The 31-year-old has provided great value on a one-year, $10 million deal with a 3.19 ERA over 146.2 innings of work, but his peripheral numbers raise some questions.

    His 4.8 K/9 tops only Ty Blach among qualified starters and his 5.9 percent swinging strike rate is dead last. Starting him would be putting a lot of confidence in the defense.


    Projected Lineup

    • LF Delino DeShields Jr.
    • DH Shin-Soo Choo
    • SS Elvis Andrus
    • 3B Adrian Beltre
    • RF Nomar Mazara
    • 1B Joey Gallo
    • CF Carlos Gomez
    • 2B Rougned Odor
    • C Robinson Chirinos

    The Rangers lead the majors with 221 home runs and getting Adrian Beltre (hamstring) from the disabled list only adds to their firepower.

    However, Severino dominated them with just one hit allowed and 10 strikeouts in seven innings of work last Saturday.

    That's not a promising performance, but the fact the Texas lineup will have seen him more recently than any of the other team is actually something that could work in its favor. Then again, it could wind up being more of the same.

    Andrus (2-for-5), Mazara (2-for-4) and Beltre (1-for-2, 2B) have had some modest success against the Yankees' ace.


    Final Thoughts

    With a dangerous lineup and a starter in Hamels who won't be intimidated by the stage, the Rangers would be a tough draw.

    A shaky bullpen and that feeble showing last week against Severino is enough to keep them from being named the toughest potential opponent, but it's close.

3. Kansas City Royals

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    Danny Duffy
    Danny DuffyOrlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Head-to-Head Record: NYY 4-2

    Head-to-Head Run Differential: NYY +7

    Luis Severino vs. KC: 1 GS, 8.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K


    Potential SP Options

    • Danny Duffy (21 GS, 8-8, 3.78 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 116 K, 131.0 IP)
    • Jason Hammel (29 GS, 8-11, 4.91 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 132 K, 165.0 IP)

    There's little question Danny Duffy is the Kansas City Royals best option to start an elimination game, provided he's healthy.

    The left-hander hasn't pitched since Aug. 22 while nursing a "low-grade pronator strain" in his left elbow. He's expected to be activated at some point during the team's upcoming series against the Cleveland Indians, which begins on Thursday.

    "It's not ever going to go away until I take care of it," Duffy told reporters. "I just got to push through to the end of the season."

    If Duffy is unable to make the start, it would likely be Jason Hammel who takes the ball.

    Veterans Jason Vargas (11 GS, 7.27 ERA) and Ian Kennedy (11 GS, 7.14 ERA) have both struggled mightily in the second half, and it's unlikely rookies Jake Junis or Eric Skoglund would be trusted with the start.


    Projected Lineup

    • 2B Whit Merrifield
    • CF Lorenzo Cain
    • RF Melky Cabrera
    • 1B Eric Hosmer
    • C Salvador Perez
    • 3B Mike Moustakas
    • DH Brandon Moss
    • SS Alcides Escobar
    • LF Alex Gordon

    The biggest thing working in the Royals' favor is experience.

    Aside from Merrifield and Moss, that's essentially the same lineup which appeared in back-to-back World Series. They even played in the Wild Card Game to get there one year, picking up a dramatic win over Oakland in 2014.

    With Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas and Escobar all headed for free agency, this figures to be the last hurrah before the small-market club is forced to begin rebuilding, so that should provide some additional motivation—as if it were needed in the winner-take-all format.

    However, that projected lineup has gone a combined 5-for-35 (.143) with eight strikeouts against Severino.


    Final Thoughts

    Duffy is the obvious X-factor here.

    He beat the Yankees twice in the span of a week back in May, allowing just two earned runs while striking out 17 in 14 innings.

    That said, Severino has been equally effective against the Royals hitters, so at the very least it looks to have the makings of a terrific pitcher's duel.

    The uncertainty surrounding Duffy's health and an 8-12 record in their last 20 games is enough to land the Royals in the middle of the pack.

2. Minnesota Twins

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    Ervin Santana
    Ervin SantanaJim Mone/Associated Press

    Head-to-Head Record: MIN 2-1

    Head-to-Head Run Differential: MIN +4

    Luis Severino vs. MIN: N/A


    Potential SP Options

    • Ervin Santana (30 GS, 15-7, 3.35 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 158 K, 193.2 IP)
    • Jose Berrios (22 GS, 12-7, 3.94 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 123 K, 130.1 IP)

    Ervin Santana hit a rough patch in the weeks leading up to and immediately following the All-Star Game, but he's pitching well again and would likely be the front-runner to take the ball for the Minnesota Twins given his experience.

    However, Jose Berrios quieted the Yankees offense earlier this season with 6.2 innings of six-hit, one-run ball on July 19, so he could be in the mix as well.

    The 23-year-old has swing-and-miss stuff and can dominate an opposing lineup when he's on his game. He has gone 2-2 with a 2.87 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.1 K/9 in his last five starts.


    Projected Lineup

    • 2B Brian Dozier
    • 1B Joe Mauer
    • SS Jorge Polanco
    • DH Miguel Sano
    • LF Eddie Rosario
    • CF Byron Buxton
    • RF Max Kepler
    • 3B Eduardo Escobar
    • C Jason Castro

    The Twins lead the majors with 252 runs scored since the beginning of August and have gone 25-16 with a plus-62 run differential during that span.

    Getting Miguel Sano back healthy will be key as he's been sidelined since Aug. 20 with a stress reaction in his shin, but he's close to returninglikely in a DH role.

    "You've got to give credit to the guys who have been playing really good offensive baseball," manager Paul Molitor told reporters. "The timing was fortunate for us in that when we lost arguably our most dangerous player, we found guys that have been able to fill some of that middle of the lineup role. We've had upticks from a lot of guys here the last five or six weeks."

    The Twins are the only team on this list that didn't face Severino this season.


    Final Thoughts

    On paper, the Twins look like a team that lacks a bona fide ace and has a rotation backed by a fairly anonymous bullpen.

    They just keep winning, though, and that offense is dangerous.

1. Los Angeles Angels

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    Garrett Richards
    Garrett RichardsChris Carlson/Associated Press

    Head-to-Head Record: LAA 4-2

    Head-to-Head Run Differential: LAA +7

    Luis Severino vs. LAA: 1 GS, 6.0 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 5 K


    Potential SP Options

    • Garrett Richards (3 GS, 0-1, 1.38 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 11 K, 13.0 IP)
    • Ricky Nolasco (29 GS, 6-13, 5.19 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 132 K, 159.2 IP)
    • Parker Bridwell (16 GS, 7-2, 3.94 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 61 K, 96.0 IP)

    The Los Angeles Angels have used 10 different starting pitchers since the All-Star break and injuries to JC Ramirez (elbow strain) and Alex Meyer (shoulder surgery) cost the team two of its best starters. 

    However, Garrett Richards finally returned action on Sept. 5 after missing five months with a biceps strain, and he's looked sharp in his first two starts back while being kept to a pitch count.

    "Garrett just had really good command of everything," manager Mike Scioscia told reporters after his latest start. "He was very pitch efficient, used all his pitches, pitched on both sides of the plate, had good movement on his fastball with obviously good velocity. We were thrilled he could get us through five innings."

    Even if he doesn't have his arm built all the way back up by season's end, hoping for five or six strong innings from Richards might be the team's best bet in a win-or-go-home game.

    The alternatives would seem to be veteran Ricky Nolasco with his 5.19 ERA or surprise rookie standout Parker Bridwell who has fallen off recently with an 11.25 ERA in his last three starts.


    Projected Lineup

    • 2B Brandon Phillips
    • CF Mike Trout
    • LF Justin Upton
    • DH Albert Pujols
    • RF Kole Calhoun
    • SS Andrelton Simmons
    • 3B Luis Valbuena
    • 1B C.J. Cron
    • C Martin Maldonado

    Despite a thin farm system, the Angels were able to add Justin Upton and Brandon Phillips in a pair of August waiver trades, significantly bolstering their offensive attack in the process.

    Albert Pujols has also picked up his production of late with a .351/.380/.500 line and 19 RBI in his last 18 games, giving the team additional protection for MVP candidate Mike Trout.

    Even though Trout missed 39 games earlier this season with a torn thumb ligament, he's still hitting .321/.459/.647 with 28 home runs, 63 RBI and 83 runs scored and has a real chance of taking home MVP honors once again.

    The Angels offense had the most success of any of the potential wild-card opponent against Severino this season, with that start coming back on June 22.


    Final Thoughts

    The uncertainty surrounding who would take the ball for the Angels is enough for them to profile as the most favorable potential matchup for the Yankees.

    It's also pretty easy to chalk up that rocky start from Severino as a one-off incident, especially considering how well he's thrown the ball over the past few months.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and accurate through Wednesday's games.