With home-field advantage and the chance to repeat as World Series champions squarely on the line, the Yankees are entering the deep end of the pool in sink-or-swim mode, and due to injury-depleted starting pitching, the size of their floaties appears to be shrinking by the day.
Of course, it didn't have to be this way.
Remember those incredible "Choose Your Own Adventure" books you read growing up? You know, those stories that pitted the reader at the crossroads of some life-altering, fountain-of-sweat situation where the reader was given two options. Option A had the protagonist choose the conservative and sensible path (stay on Page 12 and take the paddle boat to save your family from the three-eyed dragon), while Option B attracted those bold readers who ate dessert first and lived on the wild side (sprint to Page 67 and try to slay the three-eyed dragon with your bare hands. Come on Dave, you can do it!).
Well, the Yankees had their own little "Choose Your Own Adventure" moment back in July, when they were on the brink of acquiring Cliff Lee from the Mariners. When Seattle's trade demands for its ace increased, the Yanks buttoned their Don Draper suits, walked away and took the conservative approach with Option A (pass on Lee, hang onto top prospects, make moves closer to the Trade Deadline).
And considering how things have played out, well, I can't help but wonder what Option B would have looked like.
The Scene: On July 9, the Yankees were three games up on the Rays atop the American League East and had the rare opportunity to lay down the hammer and run away with the division. Reportedly, all they needed to do was sweeten their package of prospects (which apparently included blue-chipper Jesus Montero), and the Mariners' ace, free-agent-to-be Cliff Lee, and his 9-4 record and 2.34 ERA, would be theirs.
Option A: Call the Mariners' bluff, stand pat on the Montero-plus-second-tier-prospect offer knowing that if the M's pass, other moves at the Trade Deadline (Austin Kearns, Kerry Wood) could be made. Oh, and, ya know, just sign Lee in the offseason.
Option B: Strike while the iron is hot, hold a top-prospect fire sale, rake in Lee, bust out the cigars and start printing World Series tickets.
We all know what happened here: The Yanks were unwilling to give Seattle the never-ending-pasta-bowl treatment with their prospect selection, and as the M's were trying to figure out what they wanted to do, the Rangers sniped at the 11th hour, leaving the Yankees resembling pimply 17-year-olds standing awkwardly around the punch bowl at the senior prom, hands in pockets.
Fast forward seven weeks. The Yanks are in a dead heat with the Rays for the division and are likely to head into the playoffs with a rotation that features CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes. Unfortunately, their patchwork staff also features A.J. Burnett (9-12, 5.17 ERA), who has been playing the "You can't be mad at me because I was lights-out last postseason!" card all season long, and Ivan Nova and Dustin Moseley, not exactly the second coming of Koufax and Drysdale.
This has all culminated in a 14-13 record for August, underscored by a 4.10 staff ERA, which is "good" for eighth in the American League. Their big offseason acquisition, Javier Vazquez, has pitched his way into the bullpen, and the always-reliable Andy Pettitte has been sidelined since July 18 with a groin injury. The team clearly needs a competent starter more than Yankee Stadium needs a build-your-own, all-you-can-eat nachos bar (yes, please!).
Throw Cliff Lee, the Adverb, the guy who grabbed the spotlight by going 2-0 with a 2.81 ERA in last year's World Series and owns a lifetime 2.40 ERA at Yankee Stadium, into the mix, and I can't help but think that the storyline of this Bronx Tale would be different. Not only would they be putting the fear of a rabid J-Woww into their first-round playoff opponent with a 1-2-3 rotation of Sabathia, Lee and Pettitte, but they'd already be resting their top arms, with the AL East firmly locked up.
I know this, because the stats tell me so.
To spare you too much intimidating sabermetric speak, I'll try to keep things simple. There is one stat I consider to be the crown jewel among the sabermetric world called "WAR" (Wins above Replacement player). WAR takes into account everything a player does (pitching, hitting, defense, facility with a shaving-cream pie) and assigns said player a value in terms of how many wins he is worth. Currently, Cliff Lee's WAR is 6.0, meaning Lee is worth six wins. A.J. Burnett's is 0.9. This means that had the Yankees had Cliff Lee in their rotation all season instead of A.J. Burnett, they'd have 5.1 more wins, and contra-positively, five fewer losses, giving them an 85-45 record on the year with a much cushier 5 1/2-game lead to boot.
Now, I know it's not that simple, and I realize the back of Lee's baseball card says he hasn't exactly been Nolan Ryan in his brief tenure with Texas, going 2-5 with a 4.50 ERA thus far in his new digs. However, most of these numbers can be attributed to just a patch of bad luck, as Lee's .372 batting-average-against-balls-in-play (BABIP), combined with a jaw-dropping 42/5 strikeouts-to-walks ratio screams, "Guys! I'm still Cliff freaking Lee!"
The bottom line is that I couldn't be more confident that Lee would be positively dominating for the Yanks, had they just added some rainbow sprinkles and hot fudge to their Montero trade-offer waffle cone.
And if there was ever a year that a waffle cone could use some sprinkles, well, this clearly would be the one.
Dave Feldman is a fantasy writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.