photo credit: Adam Hunger USA TODAY Sports
The Yankees made the biggest splash of the 2017 offseason when they acquired Giancarlo Stanton in a trade with the Miami Marlins.
However, the Houston Astros won it all last year, and FanGraphs’ projected standings have them winning 100 games for the second consecutive season.
With no disrespect to the other American League contenders this year, the Astros are the biggest obstacle standing between the other AL teams and a World Series berth.
How the Teams Match Up
Starting Pitching – Astros
The Astros made a little offseason splash of their own, sending 4 players to the Pittsburgh Pirates in January in exchange for starting pitcher Gerritt Cole. After Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, and Lance McCullers, Cole will likely be the number four starter for the Astros. The number five starter this year for the Astros will be Charlie Morton
Keuchel won a Cy Young in 2015 and Verlander was the runner up in a very close vote in 2016. In addition, both McCullers and Keuchel were all-stars in 2017.
Justin Verlander was acquired via trade from the Detroit Tigers last August. In his five regular season starts with the Astros in 2017, Verlander posted a remarkable 1.06 ERA over 34 innings. He averaged nearly 7 innings per start, along with 43 strikeouts and five walks.
Verlander was unstoppable in the 2017 ALCS, pitching 16 innings in his two starts, giving up only one earned run. In addition, he struck out 21 Yankees and walked only two batters. His stellar performance made him the obvious MVP choice of the ALCS.
Always a workhorse, Verlander has topped 200 innings pitched 10 times in his career. The Astros new ace will likely increase that total to 11 in 2018.
Dallas Keuchel is more than just a pretty beard. In the past two seasons, Keuchel hasn’t quite matched the performance that earned him the 2015 AL Cy Young award. This was partly due to Keuchel missing several starts in 2016 and 2017 with shoulder and neck issues. However, Keuchel has looked good in his three starts this spring, posting an ERA of 1.74 and striking out 10 batters in 10.1 innings.
Lance McCullers hasn’t thrown more than 125 innings in a major league season yet, but he’s made his presence felt. In 2016 and 2017, McCullers threw a combined 199.2 innings, posting an fWAR of 5.1. For comparison, only 7 pitchers in the entire league managed to do that in 2017. McCullers is only 24, so there is plenty of room for him to grow. The Astros probably won’t increase his workload to more than 180 innings, but McCullers will be even better than last season.
Cole was an all-star in 2015 before missing the second half of 2016 with a shoulder injury. He was decent in 2017, tossing over 200 innings and posting a 3.1 fWAR, along with an ERA of 4.26. One troubling statistic is Cole’s HR/9 of 1.37, nearly twice as high as any of his other seasons. Pittsburgh was 20th in the MLB in Park Factor last season. Houston finished 30th, which will help Cole either way.
Charlie Morton comes into 2018 as the number five starter for the Astros. The veteran right-hander had a career year in 2017, posting career highs in wins, fWAR (3.3), and K/9. Although Morton hasn’t had a very good spring so far (6.92 ERA with a WHIP of just under 2), he should perform well once he gets into a rhythm this season.
This Bleacher Report article ranks the Astros starting rotation as #2, and this is a fair assessment.
Starting Pitching – Yankees
On Opening Day last year, Tanaka took the mound for the Yankees. However, by the end of the year, Severino had emerged as the new ace.
Severino’s surpassed his 2016 performance in many categories. In 2017, Severino improved his K/9, his BB/9, as well as his HR/9. Additionally, Severino induced more ground balls from hitters.
FanGraphs’ Depth Charts predicts a 4.9 fWAR, though Severino should be able to surpass this. The righty has looked sharp this spring, walking only one batter in 8.1 innings while racking up 10 k’s.
Masahiro Tanaka now falls to number two in the Yankees pitching hierarchy. 2017 was an off year for Tanaka. His ERA was 4.74, a full run above his previous worst. Despite this, he still managed to be worth 2.7 fWAR, a number he should far surpass in 2018.
Tanaka hasn’t been having a good spring, posting a 7.24 ERA in four spring starts. However, in 2016, his spring ERA was 7.36 and Tanaka ended that season with a 14-4 record, accumulating 4.6 fWAR as the Yankees’ ace.
Sonny Gray was added to the Yankees in July of last year, rounding out a strong trio. As I mentioned in my article here: https://yankeebrigade.com/team-news/three-under-the-radar-yankees-going-into-2018/
Gray has been under the radar in his time with the Yankees. Formerly the ace in Oakland, Gray slides in as number three in New York. After his injury-plagued 2016 season, Gray returned to form in 2017. Gray put up a decent 2.8 fWAR in 162.1 innings pitched last year, and FanGraphs Depth Charts projects a 3.3 WAR for him this season. If Gray can return to his 2015 form that saw him finish third in Cy Young voting, it would go a long way toward the Yankees World Series aspirations.
Jordan Montgomery pitched well in his first season and will likely take another step forward in 2018. The six foot six lefthander generated 2.7 fWAR in 155.1 innings pitched last season. In 2018, Montgomery will probably see that workload increase to at least 180-190 innings. It wouldn’t be surprising if Montgomery finished the year with a fWAR above 3.7.
CC Sabathia rounds out the Yankees rotation, and gives the Yankees a chance to win every 5 days. In what could be his final season, Sabathia’s leadership is valuable, as he’s also been mentoring Montgomery.
Although the Yankees have seemingly been linked to every free agent starting pitcher, this team has as good a rotation as any in the league.
The same Bleacher Report article as above ranks the Yankees starting rotation as number 6, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they outperformed that ranking this season.
Medium Advantage: Astros
Part 2 will be released on Sunday and part 3 will be released Monday