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Breaking down the Astros’ potential playoff competition

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If the Astros want to get back to the World Series, they could have to go through these teams.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is over, Opening Day is here, and the Astros are the favorites to win the AL West. Most experts and projection systems agree on this and consider the club a contender in the American League.

In spite of all the noise in recent months, with outfielder George Springer departing Houston, the undying vitriol of the Astros and the looming issues the team will have to reckon with next winter, they are expected to win their division and play meaningful games in October for the sixth time in seven years.

Cody Poage assessed the AL West utilizing data from FanGraphs’ Playoff Odds. FanGraphs gives the Astros a good chance to win the division and an even better chance to make the playoffs.

On that note, let’s examine the four other AL clubs that FanGraphs has reaching the postseason.

New York Yankees

Playoff percentage: 90.9 percent

Once again, the Yankees are one of the favorites in the American League. According to FanGraphs, they are the favorite, and are not only expected to play in the postseason, but to make a deep run all the way to the World Series.

As has been the case for the past several years, the Yankees have an explosive offense and are projected by FanGraphs to score more runs than any team in baseball. A lineup with an enormous amount of firepower playing half of their games in a hitter-friendly ballpark makes for a deadly mixture.

Another Yankees staple of recent years has been their extremely deep and effective bullpen. While it might not look as good on paper this year, it should nevertheless be a quality unit, provided that Zack Britton, who recently had elbow surgery, is able to pitch later in the summer and presumably in the playoffs.

The Achilles’ heel of the Yankees has been and could potentially still be their starting pitching. Its inconsistency and general unreliability in the postseason is a primary reason why the bombers haven’t won a pennant in over a decade.

The addition of ace Gerrit Cole last year will undoubtedly help going forward, but the issue now is who the Yankees have behind him. As it currently stands, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Domingo Germán, Luis Severino, Deivi García and Jordan Montgomery are all expected to make starts this year.

The problem is dependability. Outside of Cole, there isn’t much stability. Kluber, Taillon, Severino and Montgomery have barely pitched in the past few years due to serious arm injuries, and García, while talented, will be all of 22 years old in May, and has merely 35 big-league innings coming into 2021.

It’s a World Series-caliber rotation if it all comes to fruition, but considering all of the durability concerns, it’s a massive ‘if.’

No matter how productive the offense and bullpen continue to be, starting pitching should ultimately determine how deep a playoff run the Yankees make this year.

Minnesota Twins

Playoff percentage: 62.7 percent

The Twins were supposed to make short work of the Astros in last year’s Wild Card series. Things did not go according plan.

Now, on the heels of another swift playoff exit, Minnesota comes into the new season after having lost and added solid contributors during the offseason. Despite the roster’s lack of notable improvement, the Twins are projected to win the increasingly competitive AL Central.

Offensively, FanGraphs projects the Twins to score the fourth-most runs in the league. This shouldn’t be surprising as they re-signed designated hitter Nelson Cruz and should (hopefully) get a full season out of third baseman Josh Donaldson. The health of Donaldson and center fielder Byron Buxton will be paramount.

The pitching staff looks good on paper and, health permitting, could perform above expectations. In terms of runs allowed, FanGraphs has the Twins pegged in the middle of the pack.

This could end up being light. The Twins are renowned for maximizing their pitchers’ output, and it will be interesting to see what they can do with starting pitchers J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker, whom they signed during the offseason.

Theoretically, this should be another quality regular season for the Twins, but their postseason track record is historically bad. The poor bastards have lost 18 straight playoff games, a streak that dates all the way back to 2004, and is currently the longest postseason losing streak in the history of North American pro sports.

Toronto Blue Jays

Playoff percentage: 54.3 percent

The Astros and the Blue Jays meeting in the postseason would make for a fun and highly entertaining affair for every baseball fan outside of Houston.

Springer’s new club has what could be the most potent offense in baseball, as FanGraphs projects their run total to be the second-highest in the league. One through nine, it is a lineup littered with power. AL East pitching will certainly have their hands full this year.

The Jays’ mighty power potential is what has them on the map and is not something that needs to be explained in detail. What is worth looking at closely, however, is the pitching staff.

Although not lacking in quantity, the quality of Toronto’s pitching is somewhat in question. Hyun-Jin Ryu is an excellent starter, but like the Yankees, the pitchers who follow the Jays’ ace each possess their own dubious traits.

One of the elite pitching prospects in baseball, Nate Pearson, is developmentally ready for the big leagues, but he does have some durability concerns, and will miss the opening portion of the season due to a groin injury.

The other starters on the team include Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, Tanner Roark and projected swingman Ross Stripling. While each have had varying degrees of success in the past, it’s relatively unknown how effective they can be going forward.

As far as the bullpen goes, closer Kirby Yates recently underwent Tommy John surgery, and while arms like Jordan Romano and Rafael Dolis are equipped to handle high-leverage situations, there are some depth concerns.

All in all, the Jays are going to rely on their offense to win games, and so long as their bats are healthy — Springer will open the season on the IL due to an oblique strain — they have the talent to reach the postseason.

Chicago White Sox

Playoff percentage: 46.8 percent

At first glance, the White Sox’ roster might be the most well-rounded of this quartet. Through in-house development, free agency and trades, the team that resides in Chicago’s South Side is poised to be a contender for the next several years.

The Sox will be without budding star outfielder Eloy Jiménez for much of the season as he recovers from surgery after seriously injuring his left shoulder, but there is some hope that he could be ready come playoff time.

Aside from Jiménez, the lineup features reigning AL MVP José Abreu and a host of other impactful hitters. Top prospect Andrew Vaughn, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft, has surprisingly made the big club and will man left field in Jiménez’s absence.

The rotation and bullpen are each anchored by established All-Stars. Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and old friend Dallas Keuchel sit atop the rotation, while $54 million reliever Liam Hendriks will be the team’s new closer.

Beyond them, there’s significant young talent. Ex-top prospect and potential breakout starter Dylan Cease will occupy the fourth starter’s slot, and young flamethrowers Garrett Crochet and Michael Kopech could make a substantial impact out of the bullpen.

At full strength, the White Sox could match up with any other team in the postseason and would make for an especially tough out.