These franchise-rattling records are on the line as Astros and Yankees prep for battle

These franchise-rattling records are on the line as Astros and Yankees prep for battle
Get your popcorn ready! Composite image by Brandon Strange.

Filed the column early this week with Astros’ baseball that counts arriving Thursday! Ideally that arrival occurs with Minute Maid Park’s roof open under sunny skies with temperature in the mid-70s and only moderate humidity (that’s the forecast).

As they ready for their season-opening four game series, the Astros and Yankees enter 2024 with streaks on the line. The Astros take aim at an eighth consecutive American League Championship Series appearance while obviously aiming ultimately higher than that. The Yankees are a good bet to fail to make the World Series for the 15th consecutive season, which would be a new Yankees’ record! At its origin in 1903 the franchise was known as the New York Highlanders. The name became the Yankees in 1913, with the first franchise World Series appearance coming in 1921. So that was 18 years of play without winning a pennant. Maybe that gives the Yanks something to shoot for in 2027.

On the more immediate horizon, the Astros and Yankees both start the season with question marks throughout their starting rotations. It’s just that the Astros do so coming off their seventh straight ALCS appearance while the Yankees are coming off having missed the postseason entirely for the first time in seven years. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole can spend time Thursday chit-chatting about their days as Astro teammates because they won’t be pitching against one another. Cole’s absence hurts the Yankees more than Verlander’s should the Astros. Cole was the unanimously voted AL Cy Young Award winner last season, and at eight years younger than Verlander the workload he was expected to carry is greater. Cole is gone for at least the first two months of the season, the Astros would be pleased if Verlander misses less than one month.

Whoever does the pitching, the guy on the mound for the Astros has the benefit of a clearly better lineup supporting him. The Yankees could have the best two-man combo in the game with Aaron Judge batting second ahead of offseason acquisition Juan Soto. Two men do not a Murderers’ Row make. Gleyber Torres is the only other guy in the Yankees’ projected regular batting order who was better than mediocre last season, several guys were lousy. The Astros have six guys in their lineup (Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman, Chas McCormick, and Yainer Diaz) who were better in the batter’s box than was Torres last season. The Yanks have hopes for a healthy and huge bounce back season from the brittle and 34-years-old Giancarlo Stanton. Good luck with that.

Man with a plan

We have to see how things play out over the season of course, but it is exciting to see new manager Joe Espada’s progressive outlook on a number of things. Acknowledging that Astros’ baserunning has too often been deficient, Espada made improving it a spring training priority. The same with Astros’ pitchers doing a better job of holding opposing base runners at first with base stealing having occurred with the highest success rate in MLB history last season. Tweaking the lineup to bat Alvarez second behind Altuve is a strong choice. Having your two best offensive forces come to the plate most frequently is inherently smart.

Opting to bat Tucker third ahead of Bregman rather than the other way around also seems wise business. Let’s offer one specific circumstance. An opposing pitcher manages to retire both Altuve and Alvarez. Tucker walking or singling is much more capable of stealing second base and then scoring on a Bregman single than the inverse. Or scoring from first on a ball hit to the corner or a shallow gap. I suggest in a similar vein that is why the much older and much slower Jose Abreu should bat lower in the lineup than Chas McCormick and Yainer Diaz. Though Espada giving Abreu veteran deference to get off to a better season than Abreu’s largely lousy 2023 is ok. To a point.

Eye on the prize

The ceiling for the 2024 Astros is clear. Winning a third World Series in eight years is viably in play. The floor is high. Barring an utter collapse of the starting rotation and/or a calamitous toll of injuries within the offensive core there is no way this is only a .500-ish ballclub. That does not mean the Astros are a surefire postseason team. The Rangers may again have a better offense. The Mariners definitely begin the season with a better starting rotation. In the end, other than when it impacts team decision-making, prognostication doesn’t matter. But these two words definitely matter: PLAY BALL!

To welcome the new season we’ll do a live YouTube Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast about 30 minutes after the final out is recorded in Thursday’s opener.

Our second season of Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast is underway. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics weekly. On our regular schedule the first post goes up Monday afternoon. You can get the video version (first part released Monday, second part Tuesday, sometimes a third part Wednesday) via YouTube: stone cold stros - YouTube with the complete audio available at initial release Monday via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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