Sunday, April 3, 2016

Keuchel, Tanaka meet in AL Wild Card rematch

For the Astros to open this season of hope and optimism at Yankee Stadium on Monday at 1:05 p.m. ET is absolutely perfect.
First, there's the symbolism. This is baseball's grandest stage, its brightest lights, and this game will kick off an incredible Opening Day slate in which 22 teams begin their journeys. To play here on this occasion is to feel the history.
This also is where the Astros had their finest moment of 2015, a 3-0 victory over the Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game.
They celebrated wildly, a bunch of young guys soaking in a moment they'd never had before, having risen from nowhere to make their first playoff appearance in a decade.
Now comes the next step, and baseball's roadside is littered with teams that flashed greatness, then disappeared. That's the challenge for the Astros.
Is shortstop Carlos Correa going to be the game's next great player? Are Dallas Keuchel, George Springer and Jose Altuve players good enough to fill ballparks and win championships?
This season is about finding out what that next step is. This bright and shiny new thing they have is called expectations.
They can look across the diamond on Monday and see what real expectations look like. Expectations are such a constant for the Yankees that they don't even acknowledge them or talk about them. They may not even understand them. 
Their deal is simple.
When the Yankees win the World Series, they've had an acceptable season. When they don't, they've come up short. Life is simple.
So are the Yankees good enough to win a championship in 2016? Absolutely. Their trick will be getting through the season relatively healthy, but that's part of the blueprint for every team.
Three other keys for the Yankees:
• Productive seasons (and good health) from older players CC Sabathia, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira.
• Quality starts and rotation depth from Michael Pineda, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino.
• Production from the farm system. Whether that's right-hander James Kaprielian or outfielder Aaron Judge or someone else, the best Yankees kids need to produce when they're needed.
These are transitional years, of sorts, for the Yankees as they attempt to move from a roster dependent on big-ticket free agents to one that uses a more traditional player-development formula.
They've avoided splashy free-agent signings these past two offseasons, and to return to the playoffs in 2015, despite using 33 pitchers, was an accomplishment in itself.
But since they're the Yankees and because only the bottom line matters, all a lot of people will remember is that they got into, then lost, the AL Wild Card Game.
Now things are moving briskly in the right direction. Owner Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman believe their farm system is in better shape than it has been in years.
If things work out the way the Yankees believe they might, they could get a boost of youth and energy during the season similar to what the Astros had in 2015.
Are the Astros better than the Yankees on this Opening Day? Yes, they appear to be.
Their defense and bullpen are among the best in baseball. Their lineup is deeper by having Correa and center fielder Carlos Gomez for a full season.
This Opening Day is a first step, nothing more, for both clubs. But it's a fascinating way to begin this journey.
Astros' projected Opening Day lineup
Jose Altuve, 2B
George Springer, RF
Carlos Correa, SS
Colby Rasmus, LF
Carlos Gomez, CF
Luis Valbuena, 3B
Marwin Gonzalez, 1B
Preston Tucker, DH
Jason Castro, C
Dallas Keuchel, LHP
Yankees' projected Opening Day lineup
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Aaron Hicks, LF
Alex Rodriguez, DH
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Carlos Beltran, RF
Brian McCann, C
Chase Headley, 3B
Starlin Castro, 2B
Didi Gregorius, SS
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP

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