Run from them, dread them, the Astros arrive all the same.
There was a brief buzz about the Yankees getting to face the Rays (with some newfound respect) in the ALCS. Instead, we get the matchup of goliaths, the two best teams remaining, as the Bombers battle the Astros. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best in this case.
As with mighty Thanos, the Astros seemed inevitable. They are the fully-formed, infinity-stone-wielding titan that 2017 hinted they’d become, someone far surpassing their previous championship squad. Alex Bregman, not Carlos Correa or Jose Altuve, turned into an undeniable superstar, while Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke form a triumvirate powerful enough to plaster over their bullpen flaws.
But the Yankees were inevitable, too, with some offense to the Twins. Houston was the best team in baseball this season, but the Yankees were close despite a spate of ailments and they got healthy in time to match the Astros blow for blow.
I’ve written before about how the Yankees and Astros are on the cusp of a real rivalry, and it seems they might actually cross the threshold this series. This will mark their third postseason meeting in five years and second time with a World Series bid on the line. By all appearances, they’re set to stand at or near the top of the American League for the next half-dozen years.
This series, and in some ways the futures of each franchise, hinge on the Astros’ Game 3 starter, Cole. If you watched any of his ALDS starts, or frankly his last six months, you saw a pitcher at his peak, a slider and curveball dealing ace capable of taking down teams by his lonesome. Despite missing Games 1 and 2 after finishing off the ALDS, he looms large.
It’s not that Verlander doesn’t strike fear anymore, but he was (figuratively) wounded in the ALDS. The Yankees saw him bleed. He was forced to pitch on short rest, which could add to his burden in his next start. As for the future of each team, he’s 36 years old, and there comes a point where even a Hall of Famer starts to slide, though that doesn’t have to be now necessarily.
But Verlander’s one off night displayed Cole’s crucial role. Whichever team possesses him in the postseason can practically snap their way through a few games. The Rays did the Yankees a favor by forcing him to wait until Game 3, where he’ll have to pitch in the Bronx, but now it’s imperative the Bombers win in six games or else face the full weight of Cole at home in Game 7. He hangs over the Yankees like Dallas Keuchel did in past postseasons.
Beyond this season, Cole will be the most sought-after free agent outside of perhaps Anthony Rendon. There aren’t many true innings-eating aces left and he’s one in his prime. He’s like watching Verlander in 2011. There should be 30 teams going hard after him.
But the Yankees and Astros might actually pass on Cole in the offseason. New York is already over the luxury tax while the Astros are close and hesistant to surpass it. They seemingly acquired Greinke both to get over the top in 2019 while staying fearsome in 2020 after Cole leaves in free agency.
We all know the Yankees appear short in the rotation, but signing Cole would require enough money to affect the rest of their roster construction. Much of the depth that has buoyed their magical 2019 run could be dealt or let go in order to make room for the best of the best, which would be a painful but worthwhile tradeoff. The Bombers will also have to compete with the likes of the Phillies, Angels and Padres (just to name a few) for Cole’s services.
For now, the Yankees have to figure out how to beat Cole, or win four of five against Greinke, Verlander and a lesser starter with two of those wins in Houston. The 29-year-old right-hander, who grew up a Yankees fan, now represents the present and the future of the Astros-Yankees rivalry, one way or another.