The Yankees’ season has been done for a few days, and the deconstruction has been rapid about what went wrong in this year. There’s a lot to discuss there, but given that their year ended when facing an opponent that they’ve run into a few times now there’s a larger scope to consider as well. The Yankees have made significant changes to the roster that first got them back to the ALCS in 2017, but for all of their tinkering they’re further away from the Houston Astros now than they were then.
Of course, the results have changed for the worse over the years — the Yankees lost in seven games in 2017, six in 2019, and were swept this year — but that’s just a surface level view of the problem. Results in a short series like this can vary tremendously based on a number of factors within the series itself that don’t speak to the talent level of the team itself. I’d argue that the 2019 team had the best chance of advancing of the three squads over the 2017 one that went a game farther simply because they showed that they could actually win a game in Houston while the latter couldn’t, but that 2019 team on paper was also better than the 2017 one. The problem? Houston had a bigger leap than the Yankees did over those two years, namely by adding Gerrit Cole.
On the Yankees’ side, it’s clear that while they took some leaps forward there were also significant setbacks. The offense has improved dramatically thanks to the additions of Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit, and Anthony Rizzo over this span, but it’s been countered by the team giving a considerable amount of starts to players like Joey Gallo and Josh Donaldson. They also fully intended to start players like Troy Tulowitski and Isiah Kiner-Falefa at shortstop, one of whom lost their job almost immediately while the other arguably stayed around too long, and that’s completely disregarding the players that they could’ve signed to play there instead.
Meanwhile, the pitching has been an adventure to behold. In the earlier years of this era the pitching staff was the Achilles’ heel of the team, buoyed by one excellent arm like Luis Severino or later Gerrit Cole but dragged down by a host of players in the bottom of the rotation that would be hard pressed to start a postseason game. The group gained consistency in recent years, just as the offense began to decline and the bullpen that had saved them in so many situations began to unravel.
The Astros have had little issue plugging in new weapons into their lineup over the years, adding an electric young talent in Yordan Alvarez and a dependable veteran in Michael Brantley. They did lose Charlie Morton to free agency, but replaced him with an elite arm in Cole to pair up with ace Justin Verlander for a 1-2 punch that the Yankees couldn’t hope to match that year, and then when Cole defected in free agency they simply built a new core of their rotation with Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, and Cristian Javier all stepping up. Carlos Correa also wasn’t missed when he left for Minnesota, since the Astros had a promising bat in Jeremy Peña ready to take over the reins, and Kyle Tucker all but kicked Josh Reddick out of right field. The only area where they clearly declined was with the departure of George Springer, and even there they utilized a defense-first player that actually carried his own weight.
The biggest area of separation between these teams, however, is how their cores have developed. While Aaron Judge just put together the best offensive season this side of Barry Bonds and is clearly the best player of either side, the supporting cast around him for this ride hasn’t lived up to their expectations. Severino has unfortunately dealt with injury, Gary Sánchez’s bat disappeared too often to excuse his play behind the plate, and Gleyber Torres has swung through some major ups and downs of his own.
Compare that to what Houston has gotten out of the likes of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Alvarez, Springer and Correa. Two of those players aren’t around anymore, not because they declined, but because they played so well that other teams were willing to pay vastly to get them onto their teams. The rest have remained the lifeblood of their team, and combined with prudent roster construction have built a true juggernaut in the American League. Their roster is so deep that Altuve and Alvarez didn’t even need to be productive for this latest matchup to be a sweep — Altuve didn’t factor into a game until Game 4 and Alvarez simply never got going.
Have the Yankees gotten unlucky in some of the moves that they made to improve? Certainly, especially in this year with the injuries to Andrew Benintendi, Scott Effross, and Frankie Montas (and that’s being especially kind in Montas’ case). Injuries are a fault of every single baseball team though, and you have to plan around them. It’s also a part of why it pays to make the best possible move that you can to improve immediately, instead of opting for budget B-tier deals. The Astros have played their hand about as all-in as they could, and have been rewarded with six straight ALCS appearances and now a fourth trip to the Fall Classic.
The Astros are one of the most despised teams in Yankees fandom history, both for their recent run against the team and for the cheating scandal that marred it. There comes a time though, when you have to recognize the facts. Just as Bonds and Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens cheated but were world-class athletes above their peers, the Astros cheated but have built a team far and away better than anyone else who has challenged them in the AL. They’re not impervious, and if the right moves are made the gap can be narrowed or even shrunk to a negligible difference, but for all of their efforts the Yankees have only watched as their rivals continue to surpass them.