The Playoff Roster

Photo Credit: Bob DeChiara - USA TODAY Sports (Click to Enlarge)

I’ve danced around talking about the playoff roster for a little over a month now, but the time has finally come to discuss the likely playoff roster. At first pass, I think as many as 21 of the 25 roster spots are locked up. In order to predict the most likely roster composition, we’ll need to look at the most likely ratio of position players to pitchers; evaluate possible injury complications; identify the players locked into spots; and then identify the bubble spots and likely candidates to fill those spots. Let’s get at it:

Roster Composition

While the Yankees maintained a 13-man pitching staff throughout the regular season, I do not believe that it is likely that the Yankees will utilize that roster configuration in the playoffs. The Yankees will play a lower volume of games in the playoffs than they do in the regular season, and the Yankees will not need to scrape the bottom of the barrel for innings most nights.

However, given the Yankees’ obvious proclivity for turning playoff games into bullpen match-ups due to the strength of the back of the bullpen, the Yankees will have trouble decreasing the pitching staff to 11 men. This is the fundamental tension of building a postseason roster for the Yankees: the Yankees would surely love to give themselves an additional pinch-hitting option for match-ups late in ballgames, but the strain the Yankees’ strategy is likely to put on the bullpen will mean that the Yankees stick with a 12-man pitching staff, with 13 position players.

Possible Injury Complications

We don’t need to re-hash just how insanely banged-up the 2019 Yankees have been and continue to be heading into the playoffs.

Gio Urshela, in addition to having a sore hand due to a HBP a couple of days ago, rolled his ankle in the final game of the regular season on Sunday. As of right now, the word is that he will be OK to play, so I expect him to make the playoff roster.

Gary Sanchez recently returned to the active roster following a groin pull. Sanchez managed to catch 9 innings on Sunday, so I expect Sanchez to be penciled in as the starting catcher.

1B/DH is the most interesting position from an injury perspective. Luke Voit has been back in the lineup for a few weeks, but his offensive performance has been abysmal. Voit will need surgery for a hernia as soon as the season is over, and it’s obvious that the injury continues to affect Voit’s ability to swing the bat consistently. I did not expect to say this, but I think that Voit could be on the injury bubble. Edwin Encarnacion is in the same boat. Eddy missed the last couple of weeks of the season, and admitted this week that he is only comfortable making 80-85% swings right now. Obviously, Eddy will be on the roster if he is healthy enough to go, but his status is very much in doubt right now due to the difficulty most players have recovering from oblique injuries.

All of these guys are locks to make the roster, if healthy. For the purposes of this exercise, I am assuming that all of the aforementioned players will be healthy enough to make the roster to start the ALDS. Obviously, the calculus changes significantly if any of these guys aren’t healthy enough to go.

The Locks

Here are the locks for the playoff roster:

  • C (2) - Sanchez, Romine

  • IF (6) - Voit, Encarnacion, Torres, LeMahieu, Urshela, Gregorius

  • OF (4) - Stanton, Gardner, Judge, Maybin

  • SP (3) - Paxton, Severino, Tanaka

  • RP (6) - Chapman, Ottavino, Britton, Kahnle, Green, Sabathia

Not much to see here - most people would agree with this list. The only quibble might be Sabathia, but I’ve said all season that he’d make a great lefty match-up reliever, and the Yankees clearly are thinking along the same lines given the way in which Sabathia was used the last week of the season.

The Bubble Guys

Based on the roster construction I outlined earlier, we have one slot for a position player. I really only see two options for that spot:

  • IF/OF Tyler Wade - Wade plays good defense on the infield dirt, and has made himself a viable short-term option in the outfield. More importantly, Wade is an excellent baserunner, capable of stealing bases while making smart decisions on the basepaths. Wade has a reputation for being a light bat, but he showed some minimal evidence of finally realizing some of the offensive potential his minor league record has always hinted at, hitting .279/.340/.465 since his August 21st call-up. Final fact: Wade could be able to lay claim to being the fastest player on the Yankees roster in the playoffs, as he edged Brett Gardner on Statcast’s Sprint Speed Leaderboard, 29.1 ft/s to 28.9 ft/s.

  • 1B/DH Mike Ford - Ford proved that he could hit big league pitching. Ford has pop, swatting 12 homers in just 143 ABs this year. That said, Ford is not just a one trick pony, as he showed nearly elite plate discipline, walking in 10.4% of his plate appearances while striking out in just 17.2% of his plate appearances, excellent rates for someone with his pop. Ford also hits left-handed, the heavy side of the platoon advantage.

If any one of Encarnacion or Voit cannot go in the ALDS, both of these guys will make the roster, but if both are healthy, versatility must take precedence. As much as both guys have earned a spot, the nod goes to Tyler Wade based on his versatility and his ability to run.

The pitching staff has 3 open spots. Here are my candidates to fill those spots:

  • JA Happ - Happ struggled for much of the season, but started to put the pieces together at the end of August. In his final 6 starts, Happ’s ERA was just 2.23 while striking out 35 batters in 32.1 innings. Happ also has the advantage of being stretched out, and the Yankees will need at least one of the 3 bubble pitchers to provide the potential for multiple innings.

  • Luis Cessa - I was on the Cessa train for years, to the point that I stopped talking about him. Truthfully, even my support began to wane in the first couple of months of the season, but Cessa actually put together his best season yet, chucking 81 innings with a 4.11 ERA. Cessa is prone to giving up too many homers and walks, but the stuff is solid and he is able to soak up a couple of innings in a blowout.

  • Jonathan Loaisiga - Johnny Lasagna is an unfinished product who struggled through a shoulder injury for much of the season. However, Loaisiga proved that his stuff is top of the scale, hitting 100 MPH with a high spin breaking ball and fastball. Loaisiga can throw more than one inning and his strikeout rate is high (10.5 K/9), but unfortunately so is is HR/9 (1.7) and his H/9 (8.8). Loaisiga may not yet be ready for prime time, but he may very well be good enough to make a difference in October.

  • Ben Heller - Heller finally made it back to throw a bit following a difficult recovery from Tommy John Surgery. However, his high velocity fastball is intact, as is his plus slider. The Yankees clearly like Heller based on the fact that they did not jettison him from the 40-man roster last off-season or during this season when the crunch was felt. I’m not sure Heller has thrown enough in game situations since his recovery to throw him in a playoff game, but it is a testament to his talent that he is worthy of consideration.

  • Stephen Tarpley - He’s left-handed, with solid velocity, and a good breaking ball. He only really is up for consideration if the Yankees feel the need to add another match-up type pitcher.

  • Tyler Lyons - Lyons’ results were forgettable since the Yankees picked him up on waivers, but he did’t allow baserunners (1.04 WHIP), and his strikeout rate was excellent (12 Ks in 8.2 innings). He was available on waivers for a reason, but Lyons does some things well on the mound.

  • Cory Gearrin - Gearrin is in the same boat as Lyons, only Gearrin doesn’t really seem to do anything that distinguishes him from other pitchers on this list. Gearrin doesn’t strike out batters, and he allows a lot of baserunners. I’m including him on this list, because the Yankees sure did seem to take a long look at him in September.

Based on their September roles and relative performance, I think that Happ and Loaisiga have earned 2 of the 3 spots. I think that the final spot is the toughest. I am tempted to pencil in Heller, but I know in my heart that’s probably not likely. To me, the choice comes down to Lyons and Cessa. Cessa is more capable of soaking up innings, but Lyons has better peripherals during his time in pinstripes. The Yankees went out of their way to pick up Lyons on waivers, and Cessa struggled mightily at the end of the year. It’s an upset, but I am picking Lyons for the last spot in the bullpen.

Conclusion

Tyler Wade, JA Happ, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Tyler Lyons fill out the remainder of the ALDS roster, in my estimation. While the pitching staff feels top-heavy, I think that it will be capable of handling a tough first test against the Twins. The offense is elite, even with injuries, as it has proven all year. Even if Encarnacion or Voit prove unable to suit-up, I trust Mike Ford to ably fill the void.

This is the moment all of us expected way back in the winter, although the roster is certainly different than we could have envisioned then. Looking at the lineup in this piece, I like the Yankees’ chances.