We have cleared the first key mile marker of the Major League season — Memorial Day. And it appears we could have a year to remember in the city.
The Mets and Yankees are both in first place as the calendar turns to June. The American League-leading Yankees are tied with the Dodgers for the best record in baseball at 33-15; the Mets are a few extra losses off the pace at 33-17, but have opened up a commanding 9.5-game lead in the National League East.
The Yankees, despite their torrid start, have not pulled away from the pesky Rays just yet. Their AL East lead is only five games at the moment after a weekend split at Tropicana Field.
Anticipation is already building for the first pair of interleague games between the clubs in late July. But everyone around town is already looking ahead: Can the Mets and Yankees meet in October for it all? It’s been 22 years since the 2000 World Series. Is this the fall we get it again?
It’s certainly possible — if everything comes together. Here is the roadmap to another Subway Series:
Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer return (and stick around). If the Mets get both Cy Young Award winners back, they are a legitimate World Series contender. If they only get one back, or both have starts and stops the rest of the way, the calculus changes. The Mets are almost assuredly going to make the postseason with deGrom and Scherzer missing significant chunks of the year. That is a major accomplishment. But they won’t win in October without them. Getting Tylor McGill back is also important.
Aaron Judge stays healthy. He has been brilliant after betting on himself and breaking off contract extension talks. Judge is the early favorite for American League MVP and the Yankees cannot afford to lose him for any stretch of time. His continued health is as important to them as getting the aces is to the Mets.
So do the rest of the Yankees. The bullpen is banged up. Giancarlo Stanton is on the injured list, as is Josh Donaldson. DJ LeMahieu missed a few games. As long as Stanton comes back quickly, as expected, all is well for the time being. But the Yankees really cannot afford for the annual injury avalanche to rumble down the mountain again. If it does, that may be all the daylight the Rays need to take control of the division again.
Mets add a bat. The lineup has been productive, but Pete Alonso could use some added protection. The Red Sox’s J.D. Martinez might make sense as a rental, but he is going to clog things up at designated hitter. The Mets might have the inside track on Cubs catcher Willson Contreras since they can afford to bring back a bad contract like Jason Hayward to make the deal happen.
Nestor Cortes stays nasty. Cortes has made the jump from feel-good early season story to “Wait, this guy might start the All-Star Game and win the Cy Young” breakout star. And he probably deserves to be the AL’s starter, too, with a 1.70 ERA and 0.85 WHIP. The Yankees need him to maintain that form the rest of the way and into October. They may be better off if Cortes gets the ball to start the first postseason game. That could make Gerrit Cole’s life easier. And while Cole and Cortes doesn’t sound as good as deGrom and Scherzer, it may be as effective.
But Yankees need another starting pitcher, too. The rotation has been great this season. But you can never have enough pitching, and there are reasons to concern about each starter in a big spot — even Gerrit Cole. Could the Yankees actually somehow make a deal with the Red Sox to rent Nathan Eovaldi? Doubtful. But the Athletics’ Frankie Montas and the Reds’ Luis Castillo will be available.
Both teams shore up their bullpen. The Yankees will probably rely on their organization depth for now and bet on Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Loasiga getting healthy. Clay Hughes has been lights-out and Zack Britton could be a nice addition down the stretch, so they may not need to make a trade. The Mets likely do need to make a move, as their bullpen has shown some signs of vulnerability of late. Maybe they raid the Diamondbacks for Ian Kennedy or Mark Melancon, both former Yankees.
Yankees make a move up the middle. Either upgrade at catcher or find a better center fielder than Aaron Hicks. Many are going to clamor for a slugging backstop like Contreras. But the belief here is the Yankees are OK placing emphasis on defense and sticking with Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino. They can win the pennant with that catching platoon. It’s debatable whether they can do so if Hicks is the best option they have in center. Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds would be the splash move. The Yankees also need to get better in left field, but the move may already be in-house (Miguel Andujar). It’s hard to believe Joey Gallo has much longer here.
Josh Donaldson controversy doesn’t become a crisis. The controversy surrounding Donaldson’s taunts of White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson seems to have run its course after the third baseman issued a second apology. But time will tell if the Yankees can completely move on. Judge almost assuredly was speaking for many of his teammates when he criticized Donaldson. And this guy is playing for his seventh team for a reason. Boone needs to make sure this doesn’t blow up his clubhouse. Making matters more complicated: It’s hard to imagine owner Hal Steinbrenner is going to eat Donaldson’s remaining salary for baseball reasons like Cohen did with Robinson Cano (albeit under much different circumstances).
Buck Showalter outmanages Dave Roberts in the NLCS. The Yankees aren’t going to have a cakewalk in the AL by any means. They’re going to have to overcome the Astros and Rays — two teams that have had their number — and the Angels and Blue Jays could be a nuisance as well. But the only way the Mets are getting to the World Series is by surviving a steel cage match with what might be the Dodgers’ soundest team during this run. This matchup has seven games of nip-and-tuck drama written all over it. Showalter and the Mets have to find a way to be better — and that may include winning Game 7 in Los Angeles.
James Kratch can be reached at [email protected]