The New York Yankees and Houston Astros would have been the two best teams in the American League even if they hadn’t made any trades this summer. They have the two best records, by at least eight games. They have the two best run differentials, by at least 50 runs. They have the two best pitching staffs, by more than half a run per game.
But the Yankees and Astros also made trades, and in so doing cemented their advantage over the rest of the AL. New York and Houston are on track to win the league’s two byes in the new postseason format—FanGraphs’ playoff odds give both teams better than a 95 percent chance to skip straight to the division series round—and they’re the strongest playoff clubs, too, after filling their few roster holes and supplementing their star cores before the trade deadline. After meeting in the 2017 ALCS, and then the 2019 ALCS, they’re on a collision course for their third playoff clash in six seasons.
Let’s start with Houston’s moves—which were simpler than the Yankees’, but no less important for the club. The Astros rank second in the majors in runs allowed per game, behind the Dodgers and narrowly ahead of the Yankees, but sit in 15th place in runs scored per contest. Their two largest offensive holes were at catcher and first base, where they rank 29th and 23rd, respectively, in season-to-date WAR. Martín Maldonado and Yuli Gurriel are franchise favorites, but neither fits in a championship lineup any longer.
Enter Christian Vázquez and Trey Mancini from the Red Sox and Orioles, respectively. Vázquez isn’t Willson Contreras’s equal as a pure hitter, but the former Boston backstop combines solid offensive production with a much better defensive reputation—the latter a key factor given the steep learning curve as the Astros’ new catcher adjusts to an entire pitching staff. Mancini, meanwhile, could especially benefit as he switches from targeting Camden Yards’ newly deepened left field to taking aim at Houston’s Crawford Boxes. Mancini has 10 home runs this season; according to Baseball Savant, however, he’d have 21 if he played in Houston.
If the two new additions start and Michael Brantley returns from the IL, the Astros’ playoff lineup could feature nine players with above-average batting lines this season:
Potential Astros Playoff Lineup
To their credit, the Yankees could almost replicate that unanimous feat: They could field a playoff lineup with only shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa rating below average, while also benefiting from better bench bats behind their starters. (This chart lists just one possible iteration of a healthy Yankees lineup—with DJ LeMahieu’s infield flexibility and more outfielders than spots to fit them, manager Aaron Boone should have plenty of permutations he can choose based on matchups and recent form.)
Potential Yankees Playoff Lineup
Like the Astros, the Yankees filled all of their largest holes at the deadline. With the bullpen lacking depth after Michael King and Chad Green suffered season-ending injuries, New York added sidearmer Scott Effross and Lou Trivino. And with incumbent corner outfielder Joey Gallo struggling, the Yankees opted for a two-pronged outfield upgrade, adding a pair of possible platoon partners in Andrew Benintendi and Harrison Bader. (Gallo, in turn, was dealt to the Dodgers.)
Brian Cashman’s biggest swing came Monday, the day before the deadline, as he and old friend Billy Beane completed yet another deal, which sent Trivino and starter Frankie Montas to New York in exchange for a quartet of prospects. The Yankees certainly hope this deal works out better than their last trade for a cost-controlled Athletics starter, Sonny Gray—but Montas looks like a solid fit, at least on paper, as a no. 2 starter behind Gerrit Cole.
The trade for Bader was more curious, as a veteran-for-veteran swap rather than the deadline’s typical veteran-for-prospects exchange. To add Bader—perhaps the majors’ best defensive outfielder—the Yankees traded reliable mid-rotation lefty Jordan Montgomery to St. Louis. Perhaps the Yankees felt comfortable with a new projected playoff rotation of Cole, Montas, Jameson Taillon, and Nestor Cortes Jr., but Bader is currently injured, and trading Montgomery strains the club’s starting depth—especially because seven of the eight prospects New York traded for Benintendi, Effross, and the Oakland duo were pitchers, severely depleting their minor-league ranks. If Montas’s shoulder barks again, as it did during a stint on the injured list just last month, the Yankees will rue the Montgomery deal.
Still, Cashman successfully completed his to-do list at the deadline, upgrading his championship contender’s floor and ceiling simultaneously. Every area of the roster ticked upward: rotation, bullpen, lineup, and defense.
Astros GM James Click almost matched that across-the-board boost, as he bolstered his team’s offense and bullpen without severely compromising his roster’s strengths. While most teams—even good ones, like the Yankees—are ever in search of more starting pitching, the Astros were set to roster a group of seven capable starters once Lance McCullers Jr. returned from injury. Out of that surplus, they dealt Jake Odorizzi to Atlanta for reliever Will Smith, who’s homer-prone and erratic but could play a key role in a bullpen otherwise lacking left-handed options.
Houston and New York weren’t the only playoff hopefuls to improve this week, of course. The Mariners traded for Luis Castillo, the best pitcher to change teams this season; the Twins added a trio of useful pitchers in Tyler Mahle, Jorge López, and Michael Fulmer; the Blue Jays nabbed (a presumably soon-to-be-vaccinated) Whit Merrifield and relievers.
But those other contenders all still have holes: for the Mariners, second base; for the Twins, an outfield corner; for the Blue Jays, the back of the rotation. By contrast, the Astros and Yankees arguably made the most meaningful upgrades in the AL even as they entered this month with the league’s best, most complete rosters—thereby widening the gap between themselves and the clubs chasing them for AL supremacy.
Before they can meet again with a pennant on the line, both teams will need to survive a divisional series—and in baseball, being the better team means only so much in a best-of-five series. But at the very least, Houston and New York are heavy favorites to reach the ALCS round again: FanGraphs’ playoff odds give them 60 percent and 55 percent odds, respectively, with no other AL club higher than the Blue Jays’ 30 percent.
Such a meeting would look somewhat different from their other recent playoff matchups—which, including the Astros’ victory in the 2015 wild-card round, have all gone Houston’s way. For instance, out of the six Yankees pitchers who made starts across those previous meetings, only Luis Severino might pitch in this postseason—and as he’s stuck on the 60-day IL with a shoulder injury, he’s more likely to serve as a short-stint reliever than a starter by October anyway. Cole, the Yankees’ ace, pitched for Houston—and threw seven shutout innings in a win—in the 2019 ALCS.
Those previous series don’t register as total classics, in retrospect, but they sure were fun while they lasted, with one going seven games and the other climaxing with a pennant-clinching walk-off homer in Game 6. The subsequent sign-stealing revelations elevated the bad blood between the two teams. And a 2022 rematch could prove climactic as well, given that all seven regular-season games between the two juggernauts this season were decided by three runs or fewer, with three of the seven ending on walk-offs. The Yankees and Astros are almost evenly matched, and they stayed almost evenly matched through their deadline activity. ALCS Round 3 could be coming up soon.