The Astros show up in the Bronx on Thursday night as the team to beat in the American League.
OK, they were my preseason pick to win the World Series this year, so I’m biased, and who knew you’d be able to make an argument for the Yankees here in early May, but it’s hard to argue against the ‘Stros, really, considering how loaded they are with young, position-player talent.
Put it this way: with the likes of Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman, they’re maybe a year or two ahead of the Yankees in developing home-grown stars, and perhaps right on schedule to follow the lead of the Cubs and turn that young talent into a championship.
Of course, with the Yanks threatening to crash the party ahead of schedule, the ‘Stros also loom as another measuring stick for the home team. Though after going 5-0 in Fenway Park and Wrigley Field the last couple of weeks, Aaron Judge and friends are fast proving to be more than an April fluke.
It should make for an entertaining weekend at the Stadium, especially with Dallas Keuchel taking the ball in the series opener against Michael Pineda.
Back to his Cy Young Award form of 2015 so far this season, at 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA in seven starts, Keuchel has been murder on the Yankees during his career. In six starts against them he is 4-2 with a 1.41 ERA, including the six shutout innings in the Astros’ wild-card win at the Stadium two seasons ago.
If the Yanks, with their dynamic offense that is leading the AL in runs scored and home runs, do some damage against Keuchel, it will be that much harder to doubt they’re for real.
Still, the Astros right now look like the surer bet to win their division, at least partly because of a lack of competition. In fact, with the disappointing Rangers in the cellar, the AL West just might be the weakest division in the majors.
But here’s what adds intrigue, should it turn out the Yankees are primed for a bigger season than even their front office saw coming: both of these teams are going to need to add a top starting pitcher to be serious about making a deep run in October, which means they could be bidding against one another come trade season.
In fact, it seemed a foregone conclusion throughout the off-season that the Astros would make a trade for a starter, specifically White Sox lefty Jose Quintana.
Industry sources say the ‘Stros wanted Quintana, but GM Jeff Luhnow thought the price was too high and wouldn’t give up his best prospects.
It could very well still happen. As a major league scout said Wednesday, “right now the best bet in baseball is that Houston is going to make a trade to upgrade their starting rotation.
“Even with Keuchel pitching like a No. 1 again, they’re a starter short, if you’re talking about winning a title. With all of the talent they have — and they have prospects to trade — it would be a sin not to go get a guy at the deadline.”
It’s true, the ‘Stros seem to have all the makings of a championship team. In addition to their young stars, they added some needed veteran presence in trading with the Yankees for Brian McCann behind plate, where he platoons with power-hitting Evan Gattis, and signed Carlos Beltran as a free agent.
Their bullpen is strong as well, as their trade with the Phillies for closer Ken Giles is paying dividends a year later.
So far their rotation has been solid behind Keuchel, but even if Lance McCullers is blossoming as they hoped, another proven starter could be crucial for them come October.
If it’s not Quintana, well, new trade candidates are already emerging, with a handful of teams already looking at the possibility of lost seasons.
The Blue Jays could be looking to move Marco Estrada or J.A. Happ. The Giants might like to trade Johnny Cueto, who has an opt-out on his contract for after this season.
With free agency looming for Yu Darvish, the Rangers could dangle the Japanese star at the deadline. And as I wrote last week about an idea that applied to the Yankees, if the Pirates decide it’s time to rebuild, they very well could look to trade Gerrit Cole.
How far Yankees GM Brian Cashman is willing to go to make such a trade, if the Yankees keep hitting and winning, should be fascinating.
He’s got plenty of prospects, but wanted more time to evaluate them and didn’t think he’d have reason to give them up as soon as this summer. Nevertheless, fellow executives don’t see him sitting on prospects if the Yankees have an opportunity to win the AL East, unexpected or not.
“Cash will make a move if it’s warranted,” a rival exec said Wednesday. “I wouldn’t see him doing what the Cubs did last year, giving up a kid like (Gleyber) Torres for a rental (Aroldis Chapman).
“He’s probably not trading Torres for anybody, but I think he’d give up some other top pieces for the right pitcher who’d be under (contractual) control for a couple of years.”
Most likely that would mean Quintana, who has a reasonable contract with option years through 2020, or Cole, who is a free agent after the 2019 season.
So as appetizing as this early-season matchup is between the Astros and Yankees, it might prove to be more of an appetizer for any battle they may do on the trade market come July.