The Houston Astros have traded for a premier starting pitcher three times in the last two years. For the second time in the last three years, the Astros have won the American League pennant. Their AL Championship Series opponent in both of those pennant runs, the New York Yankees, never responded with a prestigious move of their own — and it has officially caught up to them.
All year long the talking point with the Yankees was their starting rotation. Whether it be James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Domingo German, or J.A. Happ, this rotation collectively struggled to pitch deep into games, limit home runs, and keep runners off the basepaths. While they got a bit better down the stretch, this rotation remained the Yankees’ kryptonite.
Incredibly enough, the Yankees didn’t lose to the Astros in the ALCS because of their rotation. They lost because of an inconsistent offensive attack and the Astros rotation overmatching their lineup.
The Yankees could’ve avoided this. They could’ve made a move for starting pitching to either match or take away from the Astros. But there was only so much they could’ve done for this season. It’s what they haven’t done over the last two years — and what the Astros have done — that has snakebite them.
On August 31, 2017 the Astros acquired Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers. He kicked things into another gear upon arrival, pitched at a high level, and was a monumental figure in the team’s 2017 World Series championship. You could argue that he has never been more dominant than he is right now.
In January 2018 the Astros acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was widely viewed as a risk worth taking, and, well, he was. The hard-throwing right-hander marveled in his debut year with the Astros and may very well win the AL Cy Young Award in his second year with the team.
At this season’s trade deadline, the Astros acquired Zack Greinke from the Arizona Diamondbacks. While he hasn’t been lights out, so to speak, Greinke has done a plausible job limiting damage and keeping hitters guessing. He’s also a potential future Hall of Famer.
In fairness, the Yankees haven’t smoked a cigar and watched the Astros go to work, so to speak.
At the 2017 Major League Baseball trade deadline, they acquired right-hander Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. At the time, it seemed like Gray could form a potent one-two pitching punch with Luis Severino; it just didn’t go as planned. He was subpar in 2017 with New York and posted a dismal 4.90 ERA in 2018. They also acquired left-hander Jaime Garcia from the Minnesota Twins, though Garcia manned a minuscule role on their pitching staff.
Last season the Yankees acquired Happ from the Toronto Blue Jays and reliever Zach Britton from the Baltimore Orioles. Happ provided them with a veteran groundball pitcher, and Britton bolstered an already accomplished bullpen.
Last offseason the Yankees acquired Paxton from the Seattle Mariners. While it was a bumpy debut year for the Big Maple in the Big Apple, he held his own in the postseason, most notably holding the Astros to one run in six innings pitched in Game 5 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium with elimination on the line.
The problem is these moves, mostly the in-season ones, aren’t rotation-altering trades or ones that net aces. They’re ones that add middle-of-the-rotation starters. The Yankees have needed an ace and/or a co-ace (when Severino has been healthy) for the better part of the last three years.
This has to stop.
The Yankees have an offense with a boatload of premier players such as Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, and Giancarlo Stanton. They have potent backend relievers such as Britton, Aroldis Chapman, and Adam Ottavino. Aaron Boone has actually done a great job eliminating the stigma that he was a manufactured manager, so much to the point where he may win 2019 AL Manager of the Year honors.
The Yankees have some experienced starters. At the same time, Paxton and Tanaka are free agents after 2020, and German has an uncertain MLB future. Severino pitching a full season will be enormous, but he alone can’t carry their rotation and be the sole fixture beyond 2020.
The Astros take chances. They were never mentioned as Verlander’s ideal landing spot, but they decided to roll the dice, shoot for the World Series, and see what happens. It worked. They acquired Cole after a couple rough seasons of injuries and inconsistency, fine-tuned some of his pitches, and now he’s arguably the best pitcher in baseball.
Last offseason the Astros took a one-year flier on Wade Miley and made their rotation overkill by acquiring Greinke. Why did they do it? To make a run at the World Series.
General Manager Brian Cashman and the Yankees have had all the resources to make a big-boy trade, most notably a surplus of young players and prospects. They could’ve acquired Cole, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, or Trevor Bauer or even take a chance on Patrick Corbin and/or Dallas Keuchel in free agency. They couldn’t acquire Greinke because the veteran had the Yankees on his no-trade list, making it even more imperative that they make a move for one of the aforementioned top-of-the-rotation arms. Instead, they banked on internal improvement.
Their big move was acquiring Edwin Encarnacion from the Mariners. While he’s one of the best power hitters of this decade, have the Yankees been in need of power from any position across the diamond or spot in the order?
While there’s no guarantee that any of those pitchers would’ve gotten them over the Astros, would their arrival have hurt them? The Yankees have to take a chance on someone. When you continually mask a problem by strengthening other aspects of your roster that aren’t in need of improvement, it catches up to you. That time is now for the Yankees.
When the Astros smelled a pennant or had to make a move, they went for the kill. The Yankees went the safe route. The Astros are going to the World Series for the second time in three years. Both times they went through the Yankees and made a move for top-tier starting pitching. It’s not a coincidence.
The Yankees entered 2019 with World Series expectations and rightfully so. Expectations will be the same next season. Losing on a two-out walk-off home run by Jose Altuve will sting for months, but the Yankees are in this position because of where their priorities have been and what consequently hasn’t been done.
The Yankees have been outmaneuvered by the Astros at every leg of the race.