Teetering near mediocrity for 3-4 seasons has left the Yankees with few true rivals. But there may be a budding rivalry in the opposing dugout this weekend.
Since the Yankees last played a multi-game playoff series in 2012, the team has hovered near .500 and played fewer truly intense games. The exception would be in-division. The games against the Blue Jays the last two seasons have had fans on the edge of their seats, particularly after the Jays made moves at the 2015 trade deadline. The Orioles’ emergence since 2012 has led to a few interesting regular season series. The classic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry still exists, but I doubt anyone would consider it near its peak. David Ortiz’s retirement really drives that home.
The Bombers have had rivals outside the division in the past, particularly during the 1996-2012 period of constant contending for titles. The Mariners at the turn of the century. The Indians before them. The Angels and Tigers each beat the Yankees in the playoffs multiple times and it created a bit more importance for those series, particularly the Angels games. Anaheim was always the team that had the Yankees’ number in their 15 years of contention and it was brought to the surface in three playoff series over an eight-year span.
Ultimately, that’s probably the best way to create a rivalry: Close playoff series. If two teams play multiple tense series in a short time span, it can lead to regular season series that mirror the same character of a postseason series.
In that regard, the Astros and Yankees already have step one out of the way. The two players who hit home runs for the Astros in that 2015 Wild Card Game have moved on from Houston, but we still have both starting pitchers: Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka.
And I think that a potential rivalry can pivot on the abilities of Keuchel. His tormented the Yankees in 2015, both in the regular season and one postseason game. The Yankees kinda sorta maybe got to him in his two starts last year and then he looked like Cy Young for four innings on Thursday before grinding out the fifth and sixth innings. It seemed that to be a fait accompli that Keuchel would wiggle out of his self-made jams and get a lead to the Astros’ bullpen. Just like how the early 2000s Yankees-Red Sox rivalry rose to new heights with Pedro Martinez on the mound, Keuchel can take that role on. He’s imperfect with less intensity and flare on the mound, but he gives the Yankees a nemesis, a hurdle either in a regular season series or in the postseason. With that, perhaps he’s more similar to 2009-10 Cliff Lee than 1999-2004 Pedro, but still, a tough challenge.
Beyond one key starting pitcher, a rivalry also can be aided by similarly built teams going to battle and we certainly have that with Astros-Yankees. A lot of young, exciting position players poised to man the middle of the lineup for the next decade? Check. Bullpens full of flame throwers? You got it. They both have questions in their rotation and have been linked to Jose Quintana this last offseason. With the young talent on these teams, it’s not hard to see ESPN, Fox or TBS market a series centered around Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve vs. Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge. They’re not limited in that regard as the teams seem to match each other budding star for budding star.
With their similar constructions also comes a similar timeline for success in this case: Both teams are rising to the top of the American League at the same time. Many in baseball foresaw the Astros’ success this year, perhaps as far as three years in advance. (Thanks Sports Illustrated!) Even though the Yankees came out of nowhere for some, they seem to be a team on the cusp of contention with their strongest days ahead of them.
This weekend’s series with the Astros may be getting overshadowed by the sweep of the Cubs and the upcoming festivities for Derek Jeter, yet it’s still an important series. Important at least for mid-May. Houston is a useful measuring stick for the Yankees, bringing a team just as hot as them into Yankee Stadium for four games. Come out with three wins and you gain a lot of respect. Lose three of four or get swept and it will be much easier nationally to dismiss the Yankees as a flash in the pan, a team not quite there.
Without 1-2 more playoff series between the two franchises, it will be hard to create a real rivalry. Close games like Thursday night can nudge it that way and so could a brawl, although the latter isn’t something for which to rot. A larger impediment is that they’re limited to 6-7 regular season games a year spread out over two series, not the 19 games the Yankees play against the Red Sox. But as far as rivalries go outside the AL East, the Astros are the best bet for one over the next half decade.