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What’s the 2011 AL East Title Worth to the New York Yankees?

Alex Rodriguez, Joe Girardi (Winslow Townson/AP)

At this point in the season, the Yankees will most likely make the playoffs, whether they win their division or take the AL wild-card spot. They are essentially tied with the Red Sox atop the AL East and 8.5 games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card race. Given that the Bombers are banged-up and facing an arduous September schedule, I have to ask: What are the upsides and downsides of battling for the AL East this year?

The Schedule

Let’s begin by looking at the Yankees’ September schedule. They will play 26 games in the next 27 days, which means that each contest will be extremely important in edging out the Red Sox. Fourteen of those games are away; six of them are on the west coast, a trip which falls in the middle of the month; and 20 are against teams with winning records.

The regular season ends on September 28th and the first game of the ALDS is September 30th. If any of the September games get rained out, the 29th could go from off day to game day. Between the traveling, the lack of off-days, and the tough opponents, this will be a taxing, tiring month for the team.

The Players’ Health

The Yankees will have their best shot at winning the World Series if players begin October feeling healthy, fresh and energized. Battling for the division, which could mean guys playing injured or pitchers being overused, could have a detrimental effect on the Yankees’ postseason efforts.

Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter are 36 and 37, respectively, and both have been on the disabled list this season. During the All-Star break, A-Rod got surgery to repair torn meniscus in his right knee and was out for almost two months. He is currently day-to-day with a thumb sprain. Last night, Mark Teixeira left the Yankees-Red Sox game shortly after he was hit by a pitch on the inside of his knee; he may not play tonight against the Blue Jays.

Pitchers Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia are in their mid thirties and on track to pitch more innings than they pitched last year. In fact, Colon only threw 62 innings in 2010. Mariano Rivera is 41. Eric Chavez, though only 33, is notoriously injury prone; he broke his foot earlier in the season.

All of these players, along with the rest of the starters, are key to the Yankees’ postseason success.

Potential ALDS Opponents

It’s September 2nd; we still have a month of baseball left. For lack of a better cliche, anything could happen (Consider the fact that Yankees play the Rays six more times this season, which could actually have a significant impact on the wild-card race.)

Barring a major and unexpected collapse and  given the current standings, here is how the ALDS brackets will look: The team that wins the AL East (either the Yanks or the Sox), will play the Detroit Tigers. The wild-card winner will play the Texas Rangers or the L.A. Angels.

Texas Rangers

Last year, the Rangers and their ace starter Cliff Lee beat the Yankees in the ALCS. This year, Lee is a Philly, but the Rangers still have a potent offense that includes Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Michael Young, to name just three. And their pitching staff is nothing to laugh at: Each of their five starters has a winning record; their average ERA is 3.8. They also have a decent closer in Neftali Feliz. The Yankees are 7-2 against the hard-hitting Rangers this year, though.

Detroit Tigers

The Tiger’s biggest weapon is ace Justin Verlander, who is 20-5 with a 2.38 ERA this season. In a five-game set, Verlander would likely pitch twice. The Tigers also have some strong hitters, including Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, and Miguel Cabrera. The Yankees have a losing record against the Tigers this season; they are 3-4.

L.A. Angels

Like the Tigers, the Angels have an ace pitcher, Jered Weaver, who could pitch twice in a five game set. He has a record of 15-7 this season with a 2.28 ERA. Pitcher Dan Haren is also having a strong year with 13 wins so far. However, the Angels’ offense does not have the potential to do as much damage as the Tigers or the Rangers. None of their hitters have an ERA over .300. The Yankees are 4-2 against the Angels this season and the teams are scheduled to meet for a three-game set later this month.

But do numbers tell the whole story? The Yankees have faced Verlander twice this year, on March 31st and May 2nd, and handed him two losses. These games were early in the season, and Verlander has been on fire for the past several months.

Even if pitching wins championships, one pitcher alone does not win a championship. (By that logic, the advantage of having a Verlander or a Weaver would be negated by the fact that the Yankees have CC Sabathia, who has had great postseason success pitching on three days rest.) If the Yankees win the ALDS in three or four games, they might only face Verlander or Weaver once, anyway.

As we assess their potential ALDS opponents, let us not forget that the Yankees have a stronger, more diverse lineup than any of these three teams, a decent rotation to follow Sabathia, and a deep, dependable bullpen.

Home Field Advantage

Clinching the AL East could potentially give the Yankees home-field advantage in the AL playoffs. The wild-card team is never awarded home-field advantage in a division series or in a league championship series.

The Yankees currently have a 41-26 record at home and a 41-27 record on the road. Therefore, this season, home field advantage has not been a significant factor in the Yankees’ play. That said, the postseason is different, and every team feels more comfortable playing in a ballpark they know with their fans behind them.

So, Is the Division Title Worth the Battle?

Entering the playoffs as the division winners would give the Bombers a psychological boost and home field advantage in the ALDS and ALCS, which is helpful, but not a necessary condition for success. They would likely play the Tigers, arguably the best team out of the three, but a team that that the Yankees can beat.

Entering the playoffs as the wild card, the Yankees would not have home field advantage in the ALDS, but they would likely play the Angels or the Rangers, which could make for an easier series.

Winning the division is and should remain the goal because it will give the Bombers an important edge in the postseason. However,  that title won at the cost of the players’ health is worthless.

Balance is Everything

As Nick Swisher has said repeatedly this season, the Yankees have “tenacity.” They battle through every at bat, fight for every run, and are willing to sacrifice their own bodies in key situations (think Jeter diving into the stands for an out or  Brett Gardner sliding head-first into first base).

This competitive drive is not something that should be turned off, nor can it be. In order to win the ALDS, the ALCS and the World Series, the Yankees must go into the postseason hungry to win. Attempting to relax or damper their enthusiasm and aggression in September would be futile come October.

Therefore, it is Joe Girardi’s responsibility to rest players who are tired, to bench players who are injured, and to use his pitchers intelligently. The Yankees should not give up striving to win their division, but they should be mindful of their ultimate goal: a 28th World Championship.

If Girardi is able to balance his team’s competitive spirit with common sense, and the Yankees don’t catch the Red Sox, than winning the wild card might not be so bad. Since its inception in 1995, nine wild-card teams have made the World Series and four have won…but a discussion of World Series matchups is an entirely different post. I’d rather enjoy the ALDS than think about the fact that Cliff Lee is the Phillies’ number two starter.

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One comment for “What’s the 2011 AL East Title Worth to the New York Yankees?”

  1. New Post: What’s the 2011 Pennant Worth For the New York Yankees? http://t.co/4YwWB5j

    Posted by Sports of New York | September 2, 2011, 4:09 pm

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