Euan Leith | March 28th, 2020
The Houston Astros won 100 games for the third season in a row last year and made it all the way to a Game 7 versus the Washington Nationals last season, but couldn’t clinch their second World Series title in three years.
Then, if I remember things correctly, they had a relatively quiet offseason. Wrong. Their entire run of success was called into question after the team was caught up in a sign-stealing scandal that took the baseball world by storm. Enough words have been typed about the whole ordeal that I have nothing more to add, but it did cause Houston to hire a new manager in Dusty Baker and a new General Manager from the Tampa Bay Rays in James Click. Will that cause the uber-analytical Astros to take a more old-school approach in 2020?
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Houston lost Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley from their everyday rotation in the offseason. Do they have enough starting pitching depth to make it through the season, or will Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke have to carry the entire staff? In the bullpen, Will Harris and Collin McHugh departed, and Robinson Chirinos was the only regular member of the lineup to leave as the catcher returned to the Texas Rangers. Cole is the most significant loss, of course, but Harris was one of the best relievers in the game last season. Could the loss of Cole and other smaller cracks cause an upset in the AL West? Let’s take a deeper dive.
Alex Bregman finished as the AL MVP runner-up after a tremendous breakout season, and you can make the case that he has overtaken Altuve as the heartbeat of the Astros heading into his fourth full season. Don’t expect the former-LSU tiger to hit another 41 home runs, though. Bregman had a .592 slugging percentage last season, but only had a .471 expected slugging percentage according to the statcast data. Still, he has elite on-base skills and led the league with 119 walks in 2019. He will challenge Mike Trout for the MVP award again, but may not have the power numbers to make the leap from runner-up to the winner.
The days of Jose Altuve‘s compiling 200 hits and 40 stolen bases are behind him as the injuries are beginning to pile up for the soon-to-be 30-year old. He has missed at least 25 games in each of the last two seasons, but a lengthy offseason could help the 2017 MVP return to full form if he can stay healthy. Despite the downwards trend in batting average and stolen bases, Altuve hit a career-high 31 home runs last year and posted an OPS north of .900 for the third time in the previous four seasons.
Carlos Correa just needs to stay healthy. He’s never hit more than 25 home runs in a season but has only played more than 110 games once in his five-year career. His per 162 games averages are 93 runs, 30 home runs, 110 RBI, and 10 stolen bases. The Astros already have an embarrassment of hitting talent, and if Correa can stay on the field, this team has the chance to be the best offense in the league.
One area the team could take a step back is in their production from first baseman Yuli Gurriel. The Cuban hit like a man on fire during the summer months of last season, but the statistics suggest that there is some significant regression in the cards. Looking at his batted ball profile shows that nothing notably changed for Gurriel in 2019 except that more balls left the yard. Among qualified hitters, he had the third biggest difference between his slugging percentage (.541) and expected slugging percentage (.422), trailing only Brett Gardner and his teammate Alex Bregman. Unlike Bregman, though, Gurriel is 35-years old and in the final year of his contract. If he regresses to the mean and struggles, the Astros could look to Kyle Tucker at first base to get their star prospect more at-bats in 2020.
Alvarez came up midseason and proceeded to destroy the baseball on his way to a unanimous Rookie of the Year award. With a full season of games, he could very well lead the entire league in home runs and RBI in this Houston lineup. If his 2019 statistics are stretched to a full year, he would have hit 50 home runs with 145 RBI. It sounds absurd to expect that from a player heading into his sophomore season, but his advanced metrics placed him amongst the elite hitter in the league. He rated in the top five percent in the league for barrel percent, exit velocity, expected slugging percentage, and hard-hit percentage. It is all lining up for Alvarez to continue crushing the ball in year two.
George Springer and Michael Brantley will be very reliable for Houston in 2020. Springer hit a career-high 39 home runs in only 122 games last season. He’s only played more than 140 games once in his career, but if he carries his power surge into 2020 and can reach stay off the injury list, he will crack the 40 home run barrier for the first time in his major league career. Brantley continued to get on base reliably with his third-straight season with at least a .350 OBP, but the 32-year old added some power to his game and slugged above .500 for just the second time in his career. The slugging should come back to earth, but he will continue to hit third or fourth in a Houston lineup that has finished top-six in runs each of the last three seasons.
An area to watch is the battle for right field. Kyle Tucker seemed to finally put things together in September last year when he hit four home runs and stole five bases in 12 starts. While Tucker is on the rise, Reddick is in decline. He sticks in the lineup because of his defense, but if Houston wants to unleash Tucker, it will more than likely come at Reddick’s expense. The 33-year old is in the final year of his four-year contract and will probably be looking for a new team in 2021.
Starting Rotation Projection
Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are going to be the workhorses of this rotation. If they have their regular seasons, then the Astros will already be an average rotation for 2020. It’s the final three spots that remain a question mark for a unit that led the AL with a 3.61 ERA and 19.3 WAR. Lance McCullers seems locked into the third spot after missing all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. The question heading into 2020 is whether McCullers can handle a full starter’s workload. The answer right now is no because he has never thrown more than 130 innings in a major league season. However, if MLB opts to shorten the regular season, then it may work out in his favor. The 2012 first-round pick has pitched a 3.67 ERA and a 3.24 FIP over 453.2 career innings, and a breakout season for McCullers would take a lot of pressure off the top two aces.
Jose Urquidy had never pitched above High-A until last season, but by the end of the year, he was pitching five shutout innings in Game 5 of the World Series. Quite a rise for non-drafted free agent out of Mexico. He will be given every opportunity to lock down the fourth spot in the rotation after becoming the team’s most major-league ready pitching prospect.
That leaves Josh James, Austin Pruitt, Framber Valdez, and Brad Peacock battling for the final slot in the rotation. Peacock may already be out because he is working his way back from a shoulder issue at the end of last season. James could’ve had this job last season if not for a quad injury in spring training. He would be my best guess to win the role. He was a top-100 prospect in 2019, and his electric fastball gave him a 37.6 percent strikeout rate last season. The Astros may start him in the rotation and move him into the bullpen as the season wears on. Pruitt only made two starts for the Tampa Bay Rays last season before a January trade landed him back in Houston, where he went to college. However, he has the capabilities to pitch as an opener or long reliever if he doesn’t make the starting rotation. He had four appearances with at least four innings of relief. I would peg him as the most likely candidate to fill Collin McHugh‘s shoes on the team. Valdez has upside, but his poor control (13.7 percent walk rate) should mean that he is moved to the bullpen before the season begins.
Roberto Osuna led the AL in saves last season and has the opportunity to do it again for a team that has an over/under of 97 wins in Vegas. Ryan Pressly may be the best set up man in all of baseball and provides a lockdown pair to end a close game. Joe Smith, Joe Biagini, and Chris Devenski all return to the bullpen, but any of them could be replaced if the Astros find better options. Three of Josh James, Austin Pruitt, Framber Valdez, and Brad Peacock will end up in the bullpen instead of starting. My money is on James getting the first crack at the rotation, with Pruitt being used as an opener/long reliever when needed. Valdez can throw a blazing fastball when called upon, but his control issues I talked about previously will likely have him coming out of the pen throwing smoke. Peacock is the swingman for this team and could see a repeat of 2019 that saw him make 15 starts and eight relief appearances in an injury-shortened season.
Players to Watch For
Forrest Whitley – Whitley was a first-round pick in 2016 and flew up the minor league system during his first two minor-league seasons. Unfortunately, he put together a 7.99 ERA across 59.2 innings last season and never came close to cracking the major league roster. Still, the 22-year old ranks as a top-15 prospect in all of baseball and has a five-pitch arsenal at his disposal with the fastball, curveball, and changeup all ranking among the best in the minor leagues. He also bounced back in the Arizona Fall League, recording a 2.88 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 25 innings with 32 strikeouts.
Myles Straw – This man can fly. Straw was in the 100th percentile in sprint speed last season and stole eight bases on nine attempts. He had shown zero pop in his major league career with just one home run in 138 plate appearances but had already hit three long balls in spring training before the stoppage. A lot of things would have to break his way to get consistent playing time, but if the Astros need a run in a close game, Straw will be the pinch-runner they call upon to fly around the bases.
The Astros have taken some hits to their pitching depth that may remove them for the upper echelon of the league, but “only” having Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke to lead your rotation is a problem that 80 percent of the league would love to have. The hitting remains the same and could improve if the team can stay healthy. I expect them to claim their fourth straight AL West title and at least reach the ALCS for the fourth year in a row.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images