Column: Are the Yankees a real contender?

Tampa Bay Rays' Wilson Ramos watches a two-run home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

After New York Yankees’ star Aaron Judge hit his record-breaking 50th home run on Monday, he was asked about the American League MVP race. He responded in typical Judge fashion,

“I’d rather be holding up a World Series trophy than an AL MVP trophy,” Judge said.

Seems obvious, right? But with all the talk surrounding Judge in the past week, it’s easy to forget that the American League Wild Card Game is a mere four days away—a Wild Card Game that could deal an abrupt end to the Yankees’ season.

The once-hotly-contested AL playoff race ultimately sorted out without much excitement, with the Yankees settling for a Wild Card spot, Boston winning the AL East, and the Twins nabbing the second Wild Card spot with relative ease.

As a result, the Yankees’ road to the World Series would look as follows: a one-game showdown at home against Minnesota, followed by a series against the top-seeded Indians, followed by an ALCS against either Houston or Boston. Not an easy road by any means, but is it doable?

The Yankees are a tough team to figure out. The first third of the season was stunningly successful, and all talk of a quiet rebuilding year went out the window. However, the team limped into the All-Star Break, and didn’t emerge on the other end any better. At their lowest point, the Yankees lost 19 of 26, the bullpen couldn’t hold a lead for its life, Aaron Judge was stuck in a severe slump, and serious doubts emerged of whether the team would make the playoffs at all.

However, there’s a long history of teams that simply peaked at the right time, and the Yankees are starting to look like one such team. Led by a resurgent Aaron Judge (who should be the AL MVP, by the way), a steadied bullpen and improved starting rotation, New York is suddenly looking very scary once again. The Bombers have now won 14 of their last 20, the second-most only to Cleveland over that span.

So who are the “real” Yankees? The team at the two bookends of the season capable of beating any team in the league, or the team in the middle, with a lifeless offense and an abysmal bullpen?

I don’t know. But here’s what I do know:

Yankees fans will shirk from another Wild Card Game appearance. In the past four years, New York has played a grand total of one postseason game, in which they were defeated by the Astros, and would-be Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, in the 2015 AL Wild Card game.

This team, however, is far better-equipped to win a one-game series. Luis Severino, who would presumably get the starting nod, has emerged as a bona fide ace. The Yankees’ back half of the rotation is considerably more beatable, and could be exposed in a longer series, but New York fans should feel confident in Sevy’s ability to lock down the Twins in a one-game play-in.

History also favors the Bombers, who swept Minnesota in statement fashion only a week ago, outscoring the Twins 18-6 combined. New York is also 12-2 against the Twins in the playoffs in the last 15 years. In fact, the Yankees have ended the Twins’ season each of the last four times Minnesota has made the postseason.

Let’s imagine for the moment that the Yankees are in fact able to get past Minnesota, setting up a matchup with the Indians. No team has been better in the second half than Cleveland, posting a 51-18 record since the break, including a 22-game winning streak, the second-longest in major league history. Cleveland’s Corey Kluber is having a Cy Young-caliber year, and is simply lights-out against the Yankees.

And if, somehow, the Yankees could beat Cleveland, they’d then be faced with the dangerous but inconsistent Red Sox, or more likely, the electric Astros, who are, in my opinion, the best team in baseball.

Did any of that answer the title question? Not really. In short, I think the Yankees will beat the Twins, and will at the very least take a couple games from the Indians. In all likelihood, I’m guessing the Yankees will probably fall to Cleveland, and even if they advance, I don’t see any team (in either league) beating the Astros.

But perhaps that question misses the point. After all, the Yankees find themselves in unfamiliar, yet immensely exciting territory. For once, they’re playing with house money. For once, a team that is constantly barraged and stifled by “championship-or-bust” expectations has done the unthinkable: They’ve already exceeded expectations.

I hate when teams are described as “ahead of schedule” (like the 2016-17 Celtics), because there’s no such thing as a “schedule” in sports, besides the one that says who a team is playing each day. After all, who would’ve thought that the Celtics’ “schedule” included shipping off Isaiah Thomas in return for Kyrie Irving? But the Yankees are, in a sense, “ahead of schedule.” For such a young, developing team, they weren’t supposed to be this good, this early.

The newcomers, from Judge to Sevy, won’t know any better. But I’m sure that the Bronx veterans, guys like CC and Gardner, will notice a different feel in the air. Simply getting here was an achievement; now they can have some fun.

And with that said, I hope the future stars of the Yankees, including Clint Frazier and Gary Sanchez—oh, and that Judge kid—can enjoy and appreciate this postseason, because it won’t be long before the sky-high expectations return, and this time they’ll be riding on their shoulders.


Andrew Morrison is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at andrew.morrison@uconn.edu. He tweets at @asmor24