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Yankees 2015 possible playoff opponent: Houston Astros

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If the standings remain the same, the Yanks must contend with baseball's biggest surprise of 2015 and an intimidating foe on the mound.

someone save that animal from his face, it has a family
someone save that animal from his face, it has a family
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have just 11 games remaining in this topsy-turvy 2015 campaign, and after a tough series loss to the Blue Jays, it appears that they are destined to have their season come down to one game: the Wild Card playoff. If the season ended today, then they would be playing at Yankee Stadium against the Houston Astros, a team that few people viewed as a legitimate playoff contender prior to the 2015 campaign.

It was only two years ago that Houston bottomed out with its third straight 100-loss season and a franchise-worst 111 defeats in 2013, including the final 15 games in a row. An improvement to 70-92 last year was hardly much comfort, either, despite all the young talent. Expectations remained low entering 2015, and the best-case scenario seemed to have the Astros finishing around .500 if they received major contributions from their top young players. Well, they jumped out to a 15-7 April and have played just steady enough since then to remain right in the playoff mix, even as the cross-state rival Rangers surpassed them for the AL West lead.

Although they presently only lead the Twins by a game and the Angels by a game and a half thanks to a 7-14 September, this Astros team is the Yankees' most likely opponent in the AL Wild Card game, so how do they compare?

The Wild Card Starter

In an ideal world for Houston, they would be able to prepare themselves for the one-game playoff by unleashing their unquestioned ace, Dallas Keuchel. A seventh round pick six years ago who spent two seasons getting smacked around by major league offenses to the tune of a 5.20 ERA, Keuchel took a big step forward last year and has now emerged as a legitimate candidate for the AL Cy Young Award. He was chosen to start the All-Star Game this year, and his full-season numbers are just as impressive.

Keuchel leads the AL in innings (219), WHIP (1.023), and Baseball-Reference WAR (6.7). Furthermore, he has posted a 2.51 ERA, a 2.90 FIP, and he has struck out a career-high 203 batters. David Price might be the favorite to take home the trophy, but Keuchel isn't going to make it easy. Batters rarely make much hard contact against his fastball, changeup, and slider. This arsenal has led to an 8.3 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, and a terrific 61.8% ground ball rate. Keuchel is just terrific, and the Yankees have already struggled against him in starts twice this year; they haven't even scored a run.

Hope prevails though! Houston might not even have the luxury of saving Keuchel for the WIld Card game, as they are barely holding onto the Wild Card lead. The rotation as it is currently lined up has Keuchel starting next on September 27th, meaning that the soonest he could make a start after that on regular rest is October 2nd. So on the day of the Wild Card playoff, he would only be able to go on three days' rest unless they skipped him or moved their rotation around in some other way.

Depending on the Rangers' desperation for a playoff spot, that might be what they have to do. Keuchel is their best starter, and they need him taking the mound in that Wild Card game. Collin McHugh has been fine all year with a 102 ERA+, and both Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers have been solid pick-ups down the stretch. (McHugh would currently line up to start that playoff on regular rest.) None match up as well with Masahiro Tanaka though, so fans will just have to wait and see how it plays out.

Advantage: Astros, if they can start Keuchel.

The Bullpen

This is a tweet about recent baseball activity:

The Astros' bullpen has turned into a tire fire right when they have needed them the most. For quite some time this year, the unheralded group of Will Harris, Pat Neshek, Tony Sipp, Chad Qualls, and closer Luke Gregerson was among the best in baseball? Now? Skipper A.J. Hinch doesn't know who to trust, aside from Gregerson. Harris, Neshek, and Qualls have all been miserable this month, and while Sipp has been better, he only recently returned from back and oblique problems.

Without much to rely upon right now beyond Gregerson, the edge has to go to the Yankees, even though they have certainly had their flaws beyond their main cogs as well. Like in the Angels preview, the combination of Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Justin Wilson is just too dominant to ignore.

Advantage: Yankees.

The Lineup

This comparison is downright alarming.

2015 Astros: .246/.312/.427, 209 HR, 8.0 BB%, 102 wRC+
2015 Yankees: .251/.321/.424, 205 HR, 8.6 BB%, 103 wRC+

That is also a narrow six hundredths of a decimal point difference in OPS. These teams are about as evenly matched as possible with the bat. Sure, the Astros strike out more at 23% to 19.6%, but that is hardly a huge factor. They have four 20-homer hitters, and they have received reputable work all year from Jose Altuve, George Springer, Colby Rasmus, and rookie Preston Tucker, just to name a few players. The center of their offense though is their sparkplug and one of the youngest players in baseball: Carlos Correa.

The AL Rookie of the Year is going to be either Correa or Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor, and Correa has been just outstanding. At age 20, he has hit .278/.346/.504 with 19 homers and a 132 wRC+ in just 90 games. As Correa goes, so do the Astros, despite decent performances around the lineup. Meanwhile, the Yankees are a bit more well-rounded on offense, as all of Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann have the potential to cause nightmares for opposing pitchers. This is a very close match-up, but the Yankees get the very narrow edge.

Advantage: Yankees, by a hair, but again beware if Keuchel starts.

The upper hand in a potential Wild Card matchup between these two teams simply comes down to Keuchel. He is imposing enough to make the Yankees' two advantages almost a non-factor, given his potential to dominate. If the Yankees can somehow avoid him, then they are in luck. If not... well... John Sterling knows the appropriate strategy.