BALTIMORE - The correct way to evaluate what the Yankees accomplished by clinching an American League wild-card berth Thursday night is to ask yourself one question. Honestly, where did you think they were going to finish this season?
We'll go first. Reading directly from the April 5 edition of Newsday, we had the Yankees in third place -- a generous estimation compared to many others -- with 84 wins.
The prediction was accompanied by an important caveat (again, pulled right from our 2015 baseball preview section):
The fragile state of the rotation could mean a 10-game swing either way. If CC Sabathia is effective despite an arthritic knee, Masahiro Tanaka avoids Tommy John surgery and Michael Pineda makes 30 starts, this is a playoff team.
And so, here we are. We'll settle for a relatively loose definition of "effective" in Sabathia's case, and Pineda will end up with 27 starts if he takes the mound as planned Sunday. Otherwise, the Yankees got a decent return from a pitching staff that was constantly in flux, and their aging players stayed healthy long enough to reach the number they needed: 87 wins.
That total didn't win the AL East this season, but very few -- if any -- outside the Yankees' clubhouse probably entertained the notion that another division title was possible back in April.
The payroll is the payroll, and it's realistic to want more from a $220-million team. But there's a ton of bad money on this roster -- part of it the excess from the 2009 World Series championship -- so Joe Girardi and Co. had to play the hand they were dealt. The Yankees, without the injured Mark Teixeira the past month, still wound up a top-five team in the American League.
"This was really rewarding," Joe Girardi said after Friday night's game against the Orioles was postponed by rain. "Because I've had the chance to be on a lot of teams that had made the postseason, fortunately, and this one was probably as much a grind as any one. And probably as much uncertainty. There were a lot of moving parts."
The Yankees used 54 players, including 31 pitchers, with Brian Cashman operating a virtually nonstop shuttle between Triple-A Scranton and the Bronx. He restocked the bullpen on almost a daily basis with his minor-league resources but stood pat at the July 31 trade deadline, dealing for only Dustin Ackley.
The Ackley trade provided some benefit, especially after Stephen Drew was knocked out indefinitely with what Girardi described Friday as a "vestibular concussion." Drew isn't expected back for the playoffs, which opens the door for more Ackley and maybe a star turn for Rob Refsnyder.
While those two hardly fit the profile of October game-changers, the Yankees are about to begin a new chapter, a segment that doesn't always follow the trends of what we've watched during the previous six months.
If not for the Blue Jays' aggressive midseason moves, the Yankees probably would have won the AL East title. But with the do-or-die wild-card game scheduled for Tuesday, the Yankees don't have much time for reflection these days, or excuses. There's no winning a World Series -- long considered a Bronx birthright -- without getting into the playoffs first.
"Our team didn't change," Girardi said. "We basically played the same the second half as we did the first half. The other club, Toronto, played out of their minds. And that's not something you can predict that's going to happen. We had a lot of challenges that we had to overcome. Now everything becomes a short series, and anything can happen."
Both Girardi and Alex Rodriguez referred to the Yankees as "underdogs" in the past 24 hours, a term we are not used to hearing about a 27-time world champ with cash to burn. Whatever. But the Yankees are a playoff team, and if that's more than you gave them credit for, it's worthy of celebrating until something better comes along.