Three ALCS Questions
Tonight, the Yankees will open the ALCS against the Houston Astros. This is the series that fans of both, and neither, team have been waiting for all year. The two best teams in baseball are facing off against each other with a trip to the World Series for the winner. The Astros are an extremely balanced team with a potent offense, excellent defense and fantastic starting pitching. The Yankees offense can keep up with the Astros, and their bullpen is better. Moreover, if they field the way they did in the ALDS, the Yankees are as good as anybody defensively. However, the Astros top three starting pitchers Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke constitute the best top of the rotation in the game and make Houston slight favorites in the series.
The winner of this series will have to play a little better and get a few more breaks than their opponent. There are many ways that can happen, but for the Yankees there are three questions that, for me, are front and center. The first question is whether Didi Gregorius can stay hot. Gregorius slashed .400/.500/.700 in the first round of the playoffs including a big grand slam in game two. This came on the heels of a very forgettable 2019 in which he spent the first three months recovering from offseason surgery and hit only .238/.276/.441 after coming back. Gregorius has long been an elite defender at shortstop, but he has been a streaky hitter in the past as well. In 2018, he had an OPS of 1.156 through his first 27 games before slumping to a .396 OPS for his next 22. As one of the few left-handed bats in the Yankees lineup against a heavily right-handed Astros starting rotation, Gregorius will be a key player for the Yankees in the ALCS, if he can continue his hot hitting he could be a major factor in this series.
A hot hitting Didi Gregorius will not be enough to carry the Yankees to the World Series, which raises the question of why Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez are playing so poorly. The two sluggers combined to slash .143/.428/.143 in the first round of the playoffs with six strikeouts in 21 plate appearances. Both of these players only rejoined the Yankees lineup after recovering from injuries late in the regular season. It is not clear whether they are slumping, still injured or both. If these players can turn it around and begin hitting again, the Yankees lineup will be even more formidable, but if not, Aaron Boone may have to consider other options. At some point, if Stanton continues to look this bad, it may make sense to give Cameron Maybin more playing time. Similarly, if Sanchez is hurt or even possibly hurt, Austin Romine would become a more important player in this series.
The third question facing the Yankees is how they will construct their roster. They carried twelve pitchers in the first round and given Aaron Boone’s aggressive use of the bullpen needed eleven of those pitchers. They will probably carry twelve in the ALCS as well and may even move to 13 as carrying an extra pitcher can always be rationalized. However, that would be a mistake. The wiser decision would be to carry 11 pitchers for the next round and expand their bench to five players. The Yankees simply do not need three back of the bullpen arms like Cessa, Loaisiga and Lyons for the next round, and certainly do not need to add another, which would most likely be CC Sabathia.
Until recently, the question of carrying 11 pitchers was not so pressing because there was no player who needed to be added to the roster. Adding Mike Ford would help because the team could use a lefty bat given all those good right-handed Astros pitchers, but that could be done simply by adding Ford and dropping Luke Voit, a move that the team should make. However, recent news that Aaron Hicks may be ready to comeback changes that. There is a strong argument for adding Hicks. He is their best defensive centerfielder and is a switch hitter who could balance the Yankees lineup. He could also give the team options if Stanton continues to slump or is found, after the series starts, to have a minor injury. The argument against Hicks is that Brett Gardner, who has played a lot of centerfield in Hicks’s absence, has had an excellent years, is a left handed hitter and hit well, .250/.357/.500, in the first round of the playoffs. Moreover, if bringing up Hicks means cutting Maybin it is unlikely to be a net gain. Maybin did everything the Yankees asked him to do during the regular season and had an excellent first playoff round in the field and at the plate.
The solution here is for the Yankees to drop Voit and a pitcher and to add both Hicks and Ford. If they want to add Sabathia and drop Lyons as well, that would be okay too. This plan will increase their bench strength, give them more lefty bats and not hurt their pitching in any meaningful way. Over a 162 game regular season, the back end of the bullpen is important, but in a series that at most will be seven games over a nine game period preceded by four days off, there is simply no need for twelve pitchers.
Photo: cc/ Arturo Pardavila III