Planning for the Wild Card Game Starter

Barring a wild finish to the regular season, the Yankees will host the American League Wild Card playoff against the runner-up in the Western Division one week from tomorrow. That allows Joe Girardi and his staff a few days to align a starting pitcher for said do-or-die game. Lining up Masahiro Tanaka for the start would be the easy decision had he not tweaked his hamstring recently. He is expected to make one more start, presumably on a date to set him up to potentially pitch in the one game playoff next week. Nonetheless, expect the Yankees to have a contingency plan in order.

At the moment, the starters on September 30th (Wednesday) and October 1st (Thursday) are the ones to watch for next Tuesday’s pivotal game. The starter on the Wednesday would have an extra day of rest for the Wild Card game, while the pitcher the following day would scheduled for normal rest. CC Sabathia last pitched on Friday, and thus would be on regular rest for Wednesday the 30th. However, the starter for that evening is TBA, so Tanaka is certainly in play for that game. Adam Warren would be on normal rest for Thursday the 1st, but the Yankees have that night listed as TBA as well.

Warren and Ivan Nova can be disregarded as potential starters for next Tuesday. That leaves the team with Tanaka, Sabathia, Luis Severino, and Michael Pineda. Tanaka is the favorite assuming good health. Severino and Pineda are likely 2a. and 2b. If Sabathia is truly under consideration, it’s as a nostalgia candidate despite solid performance recently.

I expect the Yankees to announce Tanaka as the starter for Wednesday’s affair. Again, that would line him up to start the playoff game on five days rest, something he’s accustomed to from his time in Japan. This scenario assumes Tanaka’s hamstring is well enough to perform.

Planning a starter for Thursday is a tad trickier. It wouldn’t be difficult to pitch Pineda or Sabathia, as either would be on extra rest. Pineda’s and Sabathia’s regular turn would be Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Pitching Severino would require him to start on short rest (three days) following his outing Sunday. I’m not so sure the Yankees want to ask their 21 year-old phenom to do that given his importance to the long-term future of the team. The only way to avoid short rest for Severino would be not to pitch him again for the rest of the regular season, handing him the ball with eight days of rest next Tuesday. That’s a long layoff and it’s hard to imagine the Yankees being totally confident in such a plan.

I get the sense that the masses will clamor for Severino to get the start if there’s a hiccup in Tanaka’s return. That certainly seems like the next best option, as the rookie right-hander has been very impressive in his debut. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t count on it given the issues mentioned in the previous paragraph. That would leave Pineda and Sabathia as the last men standing. Neither inspire much confidence given their inconsistency, but Pineda certainly has an edge over Sabathia. At this stage of their careers, Big Mike has a better chance to toss a gem, although both he and Sabathia have a propensity to throw a dud.

The timing of Masahiro’s hamstring issue couldn’t be much worse, leaving management to be forced to consider inferior options. Everything seemed to be going so swimmingly for Tanaka, who had been showing no signs of ill in his last few dominant starts. Alas, there’s no good time for an injury, and unfortunately Tanaka’s hamstring could prevent him from starting in the team’s most important game of 2015.

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