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The AL Rest, Part 5: How Do the 2019 Yankees Compare to the Astros?

The Evil Empire once again seems like a Death Star looming on the Astros’ horizon.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

We continue to look at the best of the rest not out west, following up our look at the Red Sox from last week with their main divisional rivals, arguably the strongest team in the majors: the Baltimore Orioles.

Nah, I’m kidding. It’s the Yankees.

The New York Yankees

2018 in Review

Following their ALCS loss to the Astros in 2017, the Yankees came back even stronger in 2018. They were one of three teams to reach 100 wins last season, finishing on the mark exactly, but that was only enough for a Wild Card berth thanks to the Red Sox’s historic season. Newly-acquired Giancarlo Stanton had a slightly down season for him, but the big emergence of rookies like Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar (third and second in Rookie of the Year voting, respectively) was more than enough to make up for that.

Following that, they ended up easily taking the Wild Card game from the A’s, but the 108-win Red Sox wound up overpowering them in the ALDS round, ending their season.

What’s New in 2019

There was a lot of speculation heading into the offseason that New York would be aggressively pursuing at least one of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, the two biggest names on the market. That never really developed, though, and they instead focused on improving the team in other ways.

The single biggest acquisition was acquiring James Paxton from the not-quite-rebuilding Mariners. Paxton (plus a full season from J.A. Happ, who was acquired mid-2018 and re-signed) shores up the Yankees’ rotation quite well. Of course, being the Yankees, they weren’t content with just that, and wound up picking up Gio Gonzalez in what looks (in my opinion) like one of the biggest bargains of the offseason. All of that should be more than enough to offset the losses of Sonny Gray and mid-season acquisition Lance Lynn.

Similarly, Zach Britton (also acquired in a mid-year trade) will also be sticking around long-term in the bullpen, as will new signee Adam Ottavino. Just as in the rotation, these two moves make it hard to argue the bullpen looks at all weaker than in 2018, even as they lost David Robertson.

On the offense side of things, D.J. LeMahieu was brought in to replace the injured Didi Gregorius, who looks like he’ll be out until the middle of the season. Troy Tulowitzki was also brought in as a depth option, and Luke Voit will stick around after his impressive New York debut following a trade from the Cardinals. On the outgoing side, there’s mostly just Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen (another mid-season pick-up), who were more of depth options in 2018 than core fixtures of the lineup.

Key Players in 2019

It’s hard not to start this section with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Both were good overall last year, although both failed to live up to their 2017 seasons where they finished second and first in AL and NL MVP voting, respectively. They’re a lot like the Astros in that regard, and there’s at least as much reason to expect New York’s stars to bounce back in 2019 as well.

Center fielder Aaron Hicks definitely stepped up in their absence, posting a break-out age-28 season that he parleyed in to a big extension. However, like Gregorius, he’s facing some degree of injury questions heading into the year (albeit much less severe, with his back injuries likely only keeping him out until late April). Healthy returns from those two would go a long way in helping them dethrone the Red Sox from the top of the AL East.

Miguel Andujar and Gelyber Torres avoiding sophomore slumps would also do a lot in that regard. And catcher Gary Sanchez bouncing back from an injured sophomore slump year could also help things, albeit with a more stretched definition of “sophomore” (he won Rookie of the Year votes in 2016, but he also only played in 53 games, making 2018 his second “full” season). Regardless of semantic games to create a narrative link, the larger point is, if everything goes right for New York, this will be a terrifying lineup.

The pitching is overwhelming in its own way, albeit with some larger health question marks. Luis Severino still looks like an ace at 25, but it looks like shoulder inflammation will delay his season for a few weeks. Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka will serve as the frontline in the meantime, with Gonzalez, and Happ trying to hold things together in the meantime. CC Sabathia will also be around; he looks like a solid starter in his late 30s, but has announced that 2019 will be his final year in what has been a Hall of Fame-caliber career.

The bullpen still looks tough as well, with those new additions bolstering closer Aroldis Chapman’s domain. If there are any question marks, it’s Dellin Betances’s health, as the set-up man still has no estimated return date.

How do they measure up to the Astros?

Along with Houston and Boston, New York unquestionably makes up the upper tier of teams in the American League, and possibly the majors as a whole, this season. Like with Boston, it’s something of a relief that the Astros almost certainly won’t be competing directly with them for a playoff spot, and there’s even a decent chance one of them doesn’t even make the ALDS round thanks to the randomness of a one-game playoff.

But on the whole, there’s a very good chance that the Astros will have to face at least one of the two come October, and possibly both of them depending on how the season plays out. There’s no use in worrying about a short-sample playoff series right now, and the Astros have made the World Series while having to go through both of these teams. Plus, a lot of the key questions we’ll need to know to make an accurate comparison before a match-up, we’ll discover as the season progresses (for instance, the effect injuries or call-ups will have on the shape of a series).

But right now, this one looks even tougher than the Red Sox. Last time, I said that I think the Astros are better than the Sox; it’s close enough that Boston easily could be better, but I think if both teams hit their median projections, the Astros come out ahead. I’m not sure if that’s the case with New York; this is an incredibly stacked and deep squad, and while the number of injury questions facing the Yankees might be an edge, it’s not like the Astros have a totally clean bill of health either.

If nothing else, I think the Yankees have an edge on claiming the AL East, which makes it that much more likely that they will come into conflict with the Astros eventually, one way or another.