Yankees vs. Guardians ALDS Preview: Predictions, pitching matchups, and X factor for each team

Perhaps you have heard, at some point in the past three decades, about the payroll disparity between big markets and small markets in baseball. The Yankees and the Guardians have occupied opposing poles on this spectrum for quite some time.

The gap between these two clubs, in terms of payroll, is vast. The Yankees financed in 2022 a nearly $249 million roster, according to FanGraphs. Cleveland’s ownership group paid a little more than $69 million. Within that $180 million difference, the Yankees pay 10 players an eight-figure salary. The Guardians pay just one, to homegrown star third baseman Jose Ramirez.

The gap between these two clubs, in terms of actual performance, depends on your perspective. The Yankees faded off their ferocious, first-half pace, but still managed to win 99 games. The Guardians jogged out of the gate before running away from the weakened competition in the American League Central and collecting 92 victories.

As the Yankees enjoyed a weekend off, a product of their regular-season success, the Guardians were trading scoreless innings in the Wild Card round with Tampa Bay.

Cleveland limited the Rays to one run, courtesy of a solo homer, across 24 innings in a two-game sweep. The series demonstrated the perennial strength of Cleveland’s roster — its bountiful array of arms, like Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie — and its usual weakness — a lack of dynamic hitters.

Perhaps the Guardians lineup felt some nerves. Cleveland sported the youngest roster in the majors in 2022, let alone the playoffs. Ramirez, who blasted the decisive homer in the Game 1 victory, is the lone Guardian with significant experience in October. Now his teammates have a sense of the stage.

The stage is a familiar one for these Yankees. The stars of the production are the same, too: Judge, Gerrit Cole, Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo. The supporting cast is less familiar. The Yankees entered October with something of an injury crisis in the bullpen, with nearly all of manager Aaron Boone’s regular options dinged by injuries or marred by recent spates of ineffectiveness. The unsettled bullpen will put more pressure on Cole, who has been homer-prone in the second half and has a checkered playoff history.

Few players withstood more pressure in a recent season than Judge. After he turned down a $213.5 million extension offer, he understood he would spend the summer in the spotlight. He responded with a historic season: 62 home runs, 131 RBI and a 1.111 OPS. He was, by far, the best hitter in the sport. His only competition for the American League MVP is Shohei Ohtani, the dual-threat unicorn, and even Ohtani is likely to finish second to Judge in the voting.

All that remains for Judge, as he prepares for free agency, is the championship that has eluded him since his debut in 2016. He has come close. The team has made the playoffs each of the past six seasons. The Yankees finished one victory away from the World Series in 2017. As attention surrounded him in 2022, Judge repeatedly made reference to his big-picture goal of ending the Yankees’ title drought. To get there, he will have to go through Cleveland.

But payroll and ideology aside the two teams find themselves head to head in a playoff series once again.

Pitching Matchups

The Game 1 starting pitcher matchup isn’t your typical ace vs ace due to the Guardians having to use their top 2 guys to escape the Wild Card series. Thus they are sending out their third best starter Cal Quantrill.

Quantrill is a very good pitcher, but not an ace. His opposing pitcher is a textbook ace, Gerrit Cole. Cole has been on this stage plenty of times throughout his career, dating back to his days in Pittsburgh and his dominant days in Houston.

The bright lights won’t be overwhelming for the Yankees right hander, and it helps that he pitches well against the Guardians lineup.

Even with Cole being the prototypical ace, there was some questions about if he should be given the ball in game 1.

But if there really is a debate that Gerrit Cole, the one with all those strikeouts, isn’t the Yankees’ best starter, you get a sense of how good this team is. Nestor Cortes was vicious all season and his stuff only ticked up over the course of the season. By Stuff+, Luis Severino had three of his five best outings of the season after his return from injury.

Anything can happen in a short series, and the Yankees who have home field advantage, plus the pitching edge in at least game 1, need to take a hold of the series from the first pitch.

Long Ball vs. Small Ball

The Yankees were first in the league with 254 home runs; the Guardians were 29th with 127.

It has long been perceived that small ball wins in the postseason, but the statistics in recent years say otherwise. Last season, teams were 2-17 in the playoffs if they didn’t homer. Teams that homered two or more times won at a 71 percent clip.

Hitting becomes that much harder in the postseason, so teams that can score easier with one swing of the bat tend to perform better than those that rely on a scrappy approach. The Yankees had 10 players hit double-digit home runs this season; the Guardians had five, and two of them hit 11 apiece. For Cleveland to score, they have to string together hits at an impressive clip to manufacture runs. The elite pitchers do not allow that many hits or baserunners often. Cleveland’s lack of power and slug should also help Cole, who as mentioned earlier, has had a home run problem this season.

The Yankees also employ Judge, who just finished one of the most historic seasons in MLB history. For the Yankees the game plan is simple, hit home runs and get timely clutch hits.

Its far more difficult for the Guardians offensive plan. I would expect small ball combined with a few huge swings early in the count against Yankees pitching, particularly Cole.

Yankees Biggest Weakness

The state of the Yankees’ bullpen is terrifying. Two of New York’s top options, Michael King and Chad Green, were lost to season-ending injuries earlier this season. Clay Holmes, who emerged as an All-Star closer in the first half of the season, is battling a shoulder strain and his 4.84 second-half ERA showcases how ineffective he’s been when healthy. Ron Marinaccio, who turned into a trusted option in his rookie year, is out for this series with a shin injury. Aroldis Chapman will not be on the postseason roster after he did not show up for the Yankees’ mandatory workout on Friday. Boone said he did not have an acceptable reason for not being there. Scott Effross, who had been closing games, will be on the IL and out for the ALDS as well.

That leaves the Yankees with a combination of Wandy Peralta, Lou Trivino and Jonathan Loaisiga as Boone’s healthy options. Those four have a combined 11.1 innings pitched in the postseason.

There is a chance Yankees staring pitcher Jamison Taillon could be closing games this postseason. Yeah the lack of depth is concerning.

Given the lack of postseason experience and general unknown of how each of them will pitch with bigger-than-expected roles, much will be riding on New York’s starting pitching going deep in games.

If the Guardians can force the Yankees to turn to their bullpen early, Cleveland might have a chance for an upset.

Guardians Biggest Weakness

It has only been two games, and both began at brunch time, so hitters were still wiping the crust from their eyes, but Cleveland’s series against Tampa offered another reminder that it’s difficult to employ a slap-and-run style of offense in the postseason, when teams typically boast better pitching and more sound defense. The Guardians owned the league’s best strikeout rate in the regular season, at 18.2 percent. In the two tilts against Tampa, they struck out in 32.9 percent of their plate appearances. That could bode well for a strikeout savant like Cole, who won’t have many power threats to fear in Cleveland’s lineup.

And when they do get on base, they typically like to steal a base or two in order to improve their scoring opportunities. Cleveland had five players tally between 18 and 21 stolen bases

But the Yankees catcher duo Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka, excelled in nabbing potential base stealers this season. So it will be a battle of strengths if and when the Guardians get on base.

Series Prediction

The Guardians played their season in the weakest division in baseball and accumulated 92 wins in the process. They are a good team, not a great one.

The Yankees have great players, and in the middle of a great season.

New York has more sure things than Cleveland, and more upside. The room for error for the Yankees is greater. The Yankees simply have more ways to win.

In a short series anything is possible, and the Yankees bullpen complicates things, but I love the Yankees chances of advancing.

Without coming off smug, I have the Yankees winning in 4 games. I think the Guardians steal game 3 at home before the Yankees close it out in Game 4 in Cleveland.

I expect a big series from not only Judge, but Stanton as he has such impressive postseason numbers combined with a hot bat to end the season.

And for Cole, this is a stepping stone to becoming that dominant postseason pitcher, but this time in Yankees pinstripes.

Yankees win the series 3-1.

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