Before they beat the Red Sox 8-4 last night, the Yankees had a 98.8 percent chance, according to Baseball Prospectus, of ending their brief absence from the playoffs. Last night's win pushed that number even higher, obviously, and while it's too soon to put things into cruise control, it isn't too soon to start thinking about how to round the team into the form that will guarantee they make their way deep into October.
There are three things that stand out as important issues for the Yankees to look at as the rest of the season plays out. The first and biggest one loomed large this weekend, which makes it the best place to start.
1. A.J. Burnett's struggles at Fenway Park - Notice that it doesn't say Burnett's struggles against the Red Sox, since A.J. shut them out during his recent start against them in the Bronx. The problem here has been his three disastrous trips to the mound in Boston, and, by extension, an inability to produce his best stuff during big games in hostile conditions.A lot of focus has been placed on his relationship with Jorge Posada, but Posada was behind the plate in that game in the Bronx and for several other strong Burnett outings.
It's going to be hard for the Yankees to eliminate the chance that Burnett spits the bit, but they can spend the next few weeks fine tuning things to make sure he's in the best possible position to succeed. If it's a catcher or a preference for early Ted Nugent in the clubhouse, make it so, because the Yankees can't afford a repeat of the Kevin Brown/Randy Johnson/Jaret Wright/Javier Vasquez nightmares of the recent past.
2. Melky Cabrera's return to Earth - Melky's offensive game has cratered in August, he's dropped nearly 50 points of OPS so far this month and almost 100 points since the halcyon days of early June. The Yankees can clearly sustain themselves without major contributions from his bat, see the fact that Cabrera has 12 RBI this month while his hitting drops, but it will be worth seeing if a little rest down the stretch snaps his bat back into place.
Thankfully, they'll have Brett Gardner back from the disabled list soon which will give them a chance to do that. While Gardner has had his moments this season, it is in the team's best interests to have him on the bench in October so he can be deployed as a pinch running weapon in late innings. That means Melky's game needs to stabilize, and the sooner the better.
3. Can they count on Alfredo Aceves? - In one of his HBO specials, Chris Rock talks about his father's penchant for using Robitussin to counter all of life's ailments. Aceves has been Joe Girardi's version of 'Tussin this season, but there may be need for another elixir. He's given up 16 runs in his last 17 innings pitched, which could be explained by some issues he's had with a sore shoulder or, perhaps, by the league finally having enough of a book on Aceves to battle him effectively.
There aren't many issues at the end of games with Phil Coke, Phil Hughes and the mighty Mariano, but without a reliable Aceves the Yankees could have trouble bridging the gap from a subpar start or a game that goes deep into extra innings. Sergio Mitre saw some relief action this week, and they've got Chad Gaudin as another possibility, but Aceves' value has to be constantly assessed so that the Yankees go into October with the deepest, most competent team as possible.