Ten All-Stars and several MVP candidates took the field when the Yankees and Athletics met in the ALDS in 2000 and 2001, a treasure trove of talent that included Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi and Tim Hudson.
Now, more than 15 years after the Yankees narrowly claimed both of those series, Oakland and New York are back near the top of the American League and on track to meet in the playoffs. This time, they could face off in a winner-take-all American League wild-card game.
Before that happens, though, they must address the following roster concerns, which seemingly grew more urgent as Oakland took two of three games from New York this week.
How might New York and Oakland replace ace starters?
Earlier this season, when New York right-hander Luis Severino was still dealing and Oakland left-hander Sean Manaea hadn’t yet experienced a dropoff in velocity, it seemed obvious that the duo would start against each other in a potential wild-card clash.
But that decision has become murky for managers Aaron Boone and Bob Melvin over the past month, with this week providing further motivation to consider a change of plan.
In his past 11 starts, Severino has posted a 6.83 ERA. He lasted a season-low 2 2/3 innings on Wednesday against the A’s and surrendered five earned runs before a quick hook.
If his sharp decline continues, it might force Boone’s hand.
“We have a few weeks for that kind of stuff to unfold and see where we are at and make those decisions,’’ Boone told reporters.
CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ are likely in contention to replace Severino in a wild-card bout should Boone decide a switch is necessary.
The A’s, meanwhile, face the possibility that Manaea won’t return this season. Manaea is shut down indefinitely with rotator cuff tendinitis, and from a June 22 start to his last outing on Aug. 24, his average fastball velocity dipped from 91.4 mph to 89.5 mph.
Before Manaea was placed on the disabled list, he anchored an injury-ravaged Oakland rotation, sporting a 3.59 ERA and throwing a no-hitter earlier this year against the Red Sox.
It’s unclear who might provide cover if Manaea is unavailable for a must-win wild-card matchup, though recently acquired Mike Fiers has made a strong case to claim the role.
Fiers has only given up more than two runs once since joining the A’s from the Tigers in early August. He earned the win Wednesday night against the Yankees, hurling six innings of two-run ball.
“I came over here and I wanted to make an impression,” Fiers said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s how you have to do it, on the field.”
Can the A’s keep their clubhouse chemistry intact?
As Oakland chased down the Mariners for the second wild-card spot and applied increasing pressure on the Astros in the division race with a scalding July and August, its clubhouse became an increasingly tight-knit community.
Before and after games, players sat together on a leather clubhouse couch to watch MLB Network on a big-screen TV. They gathered around a wooden table to eat meals with one another. Banter came from all angles — catcher Jonathan Lucroy poked fun at reliever Yusmeiro Petit for being the subject of sudden interview attention, teammates held shooting contests on a nerf basketball hoop above Manaea’s locker, and third-baseman Matt Chapman trolled himself over a less-than-graceful belly flop into second base.
Core roster pieces such as Chapman, first baseman Matt Olson and outfielder Chad Pinder came up through the A’s minor league system together, which Melvin said helped build chemistry. Veterans such as Edwin Jackson and Jonathan Lucroy were viewed as valuable sources of knowledge and leadership, with each willing to dish to teammates about in-game strategy.
But a report from The Athletic on Wednesday indicated that front-office tinkering has upset several players, who perceive changes such as shortened outings for starting pitchers and a recent strategy of beginning games with a reliever as “gimmicky baseball.” More concerning for the team, perhaps, is the claim that decisions are largely being made without significant say from Melvin, who less than a month ago indicated he didn’t want to use the “opener” strategy.
“We have the ability to [use the opener], but I think right now some of our starters are pitching as well as they have all year,” Melvin said Aug. 13. “At this point I don’t see us doing that.”
Injuries to Manaea and Brett Anderson likely changed the formula. After the A’s lost their first two tries at the opener experiment — both started by reliever Liam Hendriks — it remains unclear whether they intend to continue the practice down the stretch, or even deploy it in a winner-take all game against the Yankees. Their heralded chemistry could hinge on how the situation is handled.
What do the Yankees do with Gary Sanchez?
When he’s on, catcher Gary Sanchez meaningfully adds to New York’s daunting middle-of-the order offensive attack. When he’s off, Sanchez is enveloped in New York’s infamously unforgiving media and fan climate.
After clubbing 53 home runs between his first two MLB seasons, Sanchez is mired in a prolonged funk that’s kept him in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. He’s hitting .186 and has had his effort questioned at times, most notably for seemingly not running hard enough to first base July 23.
Sanchez’s season might have hit a new low Wednesday in New York’s 8-2 loss to Oakland. He mishandled three pitches from Severino in the first inning, which helped the A’s jump out to a quick four-run lead. He has 13 passed balls this year.
“There were a couple of cross-ups, but at the end of the day they were near the zone,” Sanchez told reporters after Wednesday’s game, per the New York Post. “I feel I have the ability to stop them and I didn’t.”
Sanchez has battled groin injuries throughout the campaign, though he’s repeatedly said that’s not an excuse for his struggles.
“I should have done a better job. I should have run harder,” he said after the July 23 controversy, per Newsday.
Catcher Austin Romine is another catching option for the Yankees, and he helped fill in when Sanchez was on the disabled list. Despite a career-high nine home runs this year, Romine has been known as a defense-first backstop during his seven seasons in the league, and he likely doesn’t possess the same game-to-game potential as Sanchez.
Still, Romine’s stability could prove an asset in a high-pressure playoff matchup with the A’s.