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Yankees 2017 possible playoff opponent: Houston Astros

If the Yankees advance beyond the Wild Card game, the Houston Astros could await.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Less than a week remains on the 2017 regular season. It’s hard to describe the campaign as anything other than a resounding success for the Yankees. The club arrived to spring training as a team in transition. Now they will head to the playoffs in the first Wild Card spot.

Should the Bombers advance beyond the one-game playoff, they will face either the Cleveland Indians or the Houston Astros. While much fanfare has been made of the Tribe’s season, the Astros currently sit just one game back for best record in the American League. That’s by no means an insurmountable lead. They could sneak away with the top seed and play the winner of the Wild Card game in the ALDS.

If that’s the case, how do the Yankees stack up against the AL West champions? A closer look reveals two evenly matched teams.

The Rotation

Following Tuesday night’s games, the Yankees and Astros sported eerily similar rotation numbers.

2017 Yankees: 881.2 innings pitched, 8.90 K/9, 2.78 BB/9, 4.03 ERA (4.22 FIP)
2017 Astros: 873 innings pitched, 9.28 K/9, 3.14 BB/9, 4.01 ERA (3.98 FIP)

Scary, isn’t it? The Astros have a slight edge in strikeouts and overall results, but the Yankees do a better job with preventing walks. These topical numbers make it too difficult to determine a clear leader. It makes sense then to examine the top three arms in each rotation, the starters most likely to take the ball in a short series.

Since arriving in Houston, Justin Verlander has been among baseball’s most dominant pitcher. The right-hander sports a 0.64 ERA (2.44 FIP) over 28 innings pitched. Somehow he hasn’t pitched against the Yankees this season. They’ve had success against him in years past, but given the roster turnover, it’s tough to count those numbers. Nonetheless, I like Sonny Gray’s chances in the first game of the ALDS.

Dallas Keuchel has had a nice bounce-back, albeit injury shortened, seson. Over 145.2 innings, the soft-tosser has managed a 2.90 ERA. Keuchel’s peripherals, however, make for an interesting study. He has a sterling 66.8% groundball rate, but a pedestrian 3.78 FIP. The southpaw faced the Yankees once this year, tossing six innings of shutout ball while striking out nine. Although I like Masahiro Tanaka going in game two, there’s hardly been a tougher pitcher against the Yankees than their bearded nemesis.

Game three, however, proves a question mark for the Astros. They will probably turn to Brad Peacock, with his 2.98 ERA (2.96 FIP). The again, Lance McCullers Jr. recently returned from the disabled list. While he’s struggled this year, pitching to the tune of a 4.01 ERA, his upside is enormous. Nevertheless, a fresh Luis Severino has the edge here, no matter who Houston starts.

Advantage: Push.

The Bullpen

Whereas the rotation required analysis with a fine-tooth comb, the bullpen debate proves far simpler to manage. The Yankees have, without question, the most dominant bullpen in baseball. In fact, it’s built for a deep postseason run. Joe Girardi has a number of weapons at his disposal, with a trio of closers that rank among the best in baseball history. There’s also Chad Green, who’s having a historic season, as well as Tommy Kahnle and Adam Warren. The Yankees have a nonpareil bullpen.

Houston, on the other hand, has a solid bullpen. Led by Ken Giles, the relief corps also features the likes of Luke Gregerson, Chris Devenski, and Francisco Liriano. On the other hand, the club actually traded for Tyler Clippard. So, while they have done a fine job at accruing 5.3 fWAR, they clearly fall behind the Bombers here.

Advantage: Yankees.

The Lineup

The Yankees and Astros stand out as the two best offensive teams in all of baseball. The Bombers have posted a cumulative 108 wRC+ on the year. The back-to-back threat of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez likely tops the American League. When one factors in a standout season by Didi Gregorius and a healthy Greg Bird, that’s one formidable lineup. In fact, I’m probably underselling it here. The bats have truly come to life down the stretch.

The Astros, however, have baseball’s best lineup. With a 120 wRC+, Houston has been dominant all season. Jose Altuve has generated serious MVP buzz, while Carlos Correa and George Springer have both had strong campaigns. Add in the veteran production of Josh Reddick, Evan Gattis, and Brian McCann, then one has a tremendous offense. It’s also easy to write off Carlos Beltran and his disappointing season, but he has a tendency to turn into Babe Ruth during the postseason.

Advantage: Astros.

On paper, this could be the most even matchup across the entire postseason. The Yankees and the Astros rank evenly in almost every category. Should the stars line up correctly, then we could be in store for an old fashioned showdown. A Houston - New York ALDS would make for compelling, even if nerve-wracking, baseball.