Yankees Shouldn’t Take It Easy On The Rays

Going into tonight’s action, the common assumptions seems to be that the Yankees are going to coast on into the playoffs. They have already clinched the division and home field advantage, and since they got most of their regular starters and bullpen arms work yesterday, they have little incentive to play their hardest on Wednesday night. Why work yourselves hard in a meaningless game? Why risk injuries to your players when you have nothing to play for?

But I’m not sure that the predominating narrative is correct in this case. Joe Girardi has already said that he’s planning on starting many of his regulars tonight — although who knows how long he’ll keep them in the game — and he seems to be practicing some “gamesmanship” by choosing not to announce his starter until closer to game time. Could it be that the Yankees are treating tonight’s game more seriously than many people are assuming?

If they are, I have to tip my cap to the Yanks for looking past their history with the Red Sox and realizing the larger fact: it’s in their own best interest if the Red Sox to make the playoffs.

That’s right, Yankees fans. As horrible as it may sound, you should probably be rooting for the Red Sox tonight.

I’m sure this thought has already crossed most people’s minds, as the Red Sox have been a walking (and fielding, and pitching, and hitting) disaster this past month. It’s in the Yankees’ best interests to have the weakest teams possible make the playoffs, as it would theoretically make their march toward the World Series even easier. And right now, what team wouldn’t like their odds against the Red Sox?

Of course, the case can be made that the club is still incredibly talented — they likely have a higher true-talent level than the Rays, although it’s a debatable point at the moment — and could easily get on a roll in the postseason. If it’s true that the Red Sox’s pitchers have been choking on the pressure (Nate Silver found some possible evidence yesterday), then maybe reaching the postseason would allow them to relax and go back to being a dominant team. Anything can happen in the playoffs, right?

But if I were the Yankees, I’d prefer the Red Sox to make the postseason for one simple reason: the Rays’ rotation. Take a look at this potential rotation:

*Note: Matt Moore’s numbers are from Triple-A, as he’s only pitched 9 innings in the majors.

The Rays have their rotation lined up perfectly at the moment so Shields could start Game 1 on the ALDS on regular rest, and Price could be moved ahead to Game 2 and only miss one day of rest (or start Game 3 on regular rest). And while Jeremy Hellickson is easily the weakest link of the bunch, it’s worth remembering that he was one of the top prospects in the game coming into the season and he has the potential to be dominating when on.

And as for Matt Moore, he’s the ultimate ace in the hole. The Rays could use him out of the bullpen like they did with David Price in 2008, but Moore is a much more complete and refined pitcher than Price was back then. He struck out 11 Yankees over five innings in his first major league start, and he’s only at around 160 IP on the season (144 IP last season). Considering Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann have both been inconsistent at best, Moore seems the natural fit for the #4 slot.

What team right now would want to face that rotation in a short series? Certainly not me. It has the potential to be the most dominant AL rotation in the postseason (although the Phillies and Giants have it beat in the NL), and the Rays’ bullpen has also been rounding into shape recently with a 3.47 ERA / 3.90 FIP over the last month. Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta form a shutdown duo at the back of the ‘pen, and Jake McGee and Brandon Gomes have both begun to realize their potential.

While the Rays’ offense isn’t nearly as strong as Boston’s, their pitching staff is much, much stronger at the moment and is lined up well for the postseason. Even if the Red Sox made the playoffs, they’d have to scramble for Game One and wouldn’t be able to start Jon Lester until Game 3 at the earliest. Right now, they simply look like a weaker and less prepared playoff club than the Rays.

Pick your poison, Yankee fans. But if I were you, I’d think hard before rejoicing if the Red Sox miss the playoffs.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.