Before discussing Houston’s tumultuous offseason and the club’s current outlook, let’s consider the season that was 2019.
Across the board, the Astros were arguably the best team in baseball. Houston led the majors with 107 wins, reaching the World Series before falling to the Washington Nationals in seven games.
Houston’s rotation boasted 2019 AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and runner-up Gerrit Cole. Former Cy Young awardee Zack Greinke buoyed the starting staff for the postseason run after joining the team in July.
2019 Astros Pitching
The bullpen’s .292 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) tied Tampa Bay for second best in MLB, only the Dodgers (.285) were better.
It truly was a team effort by Houston’s bullpen. Seven relievers posted an xwOBA better than the .318 league-average – Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna, Josh James, Will Harris, Collin McHugh, Héctor Rondón, and Chris Devenski.
2019 Astros Offense
The Astros led the majors with five players with 500-plus plate appearances and an OPS+ above 120 (league-average is 100) – Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuvé, Michael Brantley, and George Springer. Álvarez also had a 173 OPS+ in 375 plate appearances.
Obviously, the most newsworthy departures were GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch due to their involvement in a sustained, organization-wide electronic sign-stealing operation. Each earned one-year suspensions from MLB; owner Jim Crane fired both of them.
|* Fired For Sign-Stealing Scandal|
The roster also took a big hit with five key contributors, including Cole, leaving via free agency. Luhnow subsequently non-tendered Aaron Sanchez and traded outfield defensive whiz Jake Marisnick to the Mets for a pair of prospects.
As for player acquisitions, Luhnow didn’t do much before his January termination. The most important newcomers are first-time GM James Click and a skipper with 22 seasons of MLB managerial experience – Dusty Baker.
At first base, Gurriel had his best since season since joining the team as a rookie in 2016. The Cuban made 104 starts in 2019 and figures to be the main stakeholder again. But first base depth is rather thin behind the 35-year-old.
Utility-man Aledmys Díaz is an option, although no one else on the 40-man roster started a game at first base in the majors last year. Down on the farm, Taylor Jones made 64 starts at first base for Class-AAA Round Rock last year. Jones also spent time at third base and in the outfield.
Prospect Abraham Toro has been mentioned as a potential first baseman. Last season, Toro appeared in 25 games with Houston; most were at third base. Perhaps the 23-year-old receives more opportunities during the upcoming campaign.
Altuvé remains a foundational piece, but a recent decline in productivity and availability merits attention. The Venezuelan, who’s entering his age-30 season, averaged just 130 games in 2018-19. Moreover, his combined 8.9 bWAR for those two years barely exceeds his value during his 2017 MVP campaign (8.1).
Shortstop Carlos Correa appeared in just 75 games last season marking his third consecutive injury-marred campaign. Since 2017, Correa is averaging just 98 games annually. Having said that, the 25-year-old Puerto Rico native remains a potent weapon when available.
Bregman remains at the hot corner and enters the upcoming season as an MVP candidate. The 25-year-old has progressively improved in each of his first four seasons and is still getting better.
Considering the infield’s injury issues, Díaz is an important player on the roster. The 29-year-old slashed a strong .271/.356/.467 last year, starting 15-plus games at both corner infield spots and second base. Díaz also started contests at shortstop and in left field.
Springer, Brantley, Josh Reddick, Kyle Tucker, Myles Straw, and potentially Álvarez are in the outfield rotation. Springer and Brantley are locks in center field and left field respectively. Reddick has been the mainstay in right field, but likely faces competition from Tucker.
Reddick appears on track to be ready for Spring Training after undergoing arthroscopic shoulder surgery in the offseason. That said; the Georgia native has a 93 OPS+ since the beginning of 2018, ranking him in the bottom 15-percent of hitters with over 1,000 plate appearances during this period. A strong showing by Tucker may lead to him supplanting Reddick.
Straw is an interesting piece capable of playing anywhere in the outfield. The 25-year-old even appeared in 26 games at shortstop with Houston last season. In his brief 56-game audition, he was a disruptive base runner with good on-base ability.
Álvarez will likely be team’s everyday designated hitter rather than a regular outfielder. While the 22-year-old’s prolific regular season earned him top rookie honors, he struggled greatly in the postseason. Which Álvarez will the Astros get in 2020?
Despite entering his age-33 season, there’s no evidence of a pending Brantley regression. The Washington native delivered almost identical production in 2018 and 2019, earning All-Star selections in both seasons.
The Astros outfield was one of the better defensive units last year. But it’s important to highlight Marisnick, who’s no longer with the team, and Springer were the main contributors to the team’s OOA tally. The remaining players were average-ish with the exception of Brantley, who was well below average at -6 OOA.
From an offensive standpoint, catcher is the weakest position on the roster. But that’s acceptable as long as the rest of the lineup is producing. Maldonado remains an above-average defender, although advanced metrics suggest he’s no longer elite.
Garneau is also a strong defensive presence behind the dish. Garrett Stubbs is the third backstop on the 40-man roster. Garneau has no minor-league options remaining, while Stubbs enters this coming season with two options remaining.
No Minor-League Options
Clearly, losing Cole is a big hurdle to overcome. However, Greinke’s acquisition helps the team to somewhat mitigate the loss of its co-ace. Despite his advancing age, the Florida native continues delivering excellent results and innings.
Last season, Greinke’s .282 xwOBA was fifteenth best among starters facing 500-plus batters. Since 2017, only Verlander (643.0) and Jacob deGrom (622.1) have thrown more innings than the 36-year-old has.
Lance McCullers Jr. expects to be ready for Opening Day after missing last season due to Tommy John surgery. Still, availability has been a recurring concern during the 26-year-old’s career.
McCullers hasn’t made over 22 starts or tossed more than 129 innings in any of his four big-league seasons. Therefore, it’s reasonable the team will cautiously monitor his workload. Luhnow previously commented the team would limit the right-hander to 100-120 innings.
Behind Verlander, Greinke, and McCullers, the Astros have a large pool of candidates for the final two spots in the rotation. Most notably: Brad Peacock, José Urquidy, Forrest Whitley, James, and Pruitt.
Peacock started 2019 in the rotation. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury sidelined him in the second half, although he did return for the postseason. Considering the injury and the fact he’s performed well as a swing-man, would remaining in that role be best for both player and team?
After pitching five shutout innings in Game 4 of the World Series, Urquidy would appear well positioned to earn a rotation spot. Workload is always a concern for a rookie, but he did throw a combined 154 innings in the minors and majors in 2019.
Luhnow previously suggested Whitley had a chance to make the team out of Spring Training. The 22-year-old was one of the top pitching prospects in MLB last year until injuries and ineffectiveness derailed him. That said; he did rebound with a 3.60 ERA during six Arizona Fall League starts.
Although James was a reliever in 2019, the team intends on trying him in the rotation in Spring Training. The hard-throwing right-hander’s main challenge is throwing strikes. He averaged 5.1 BB/9 in relief last season and 3.9 BB/9 as a minor-league starter in 2018.
Pruitt’s name has been floated as a potential fifth starter arriving from Tampa Bay. However, the former Houston Cougar primarily served in a relief role in recent seasons with the Rays.
Other notable young rotation options are Rogelio Armenteros, Framber Valdéz, Bryan Abreu, and Cristian Javier. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it’s unlikely any of them begin the season as a starter with the Astros.
On the subject of Houston’s young guns, we should remember the last productive starter from the Astros’ system is McCullers. In 2019, the club received zero WAR from homegrown starters.
A July knee injury diminished Pressly’s second half and postseason effectiveness. Assuming good health, the All-Star figures to be a high-leverage stopper in Baker’s bullpen.
Smith’s season didn’t start until mid-July due to an offseason Achilles tendon rupture. However, the side-arming 35-year-old held opposing hitters to a .249 xwOBA in the second half – best on the Astros and top-15 in MLB after the All-Star break.
Chris Devenski was a 2017 All-Star, although he’s regressed with each passing season. That’s not to say Devenski can’t to contribute. But he doesn’t project as the high-leverage reliever he was several years ago.
Martes personifies an unknown unknown. He returns from the double-whammy of Tommy John surgery and an 80-game PED suspension.
It’s plausible young starters not making the rotation are enlisted into the bullpen. This has been common practice with Houston in recent years. There’s no evidence the new regime will alter this approach.
The Astros have a bunch of young, promising arms. Having said that, will a team with World Series aspirations be comfortable beginning the season with the uncertainty youth and inexperience present?
Perhaps adding a veteran arm capable of starting or relieving is in the cards. Peacock could potentially fill this role, although he’s coming off an injury-plagued season. It’s worth noting McHugh remains a free agent.
Currently, Valdez and Pérez are the only left-handed pitchers on the 40-man roster. It’s possible the new front office adds southpaws prior to Opening Day.
Since Gurriel is entering his age-36 season, adding a player with first base experience would be beneficial – even if it were minor-league depth.
Considering the talent of the roster, it’s unlikely the Astros collapse this upcoming season. But the club will be under tremendous scrutiny thanks to their illicit behavior. If the team did tank, would Click begin preparations for 2021 by selling players in July?
Perhaps. If that scenario unfolded, several pending free agent could potentially garner interest from contenders.
Pending Free Agents
Although Gurriel has been productive, it’s plausible the team considers moving him. The same applies to Brantley and Springer. All three are proven postseason performers.
Correa has one season of arbitration eligibility remaining before free agency. Would the club consider moving him this summer? Bregman could slide over to shortstop and Toro could takeover at third base, giving management a chance to assess their prospect.
Okay, back to reality.
A more likely scenario is the Astros remain competitive and Click adds players capable of helping the team in 2019 and beyond.
The exodus of on-field talent combined with the dismissal of Luhnow and Hinch presents a daunting challenge for the new leadership to overcome. Selecting Baker to be the manager for 2020 is a win-now move, but Click’s hire takes the long-term health of the organization into account.
In the short-term, Baker’s presence should serve as a credible, calming influence for a team that will be playing in a pressurized atmosphere all year. Also important, he has a history of guiding teams to winning records.
Certainly, a winning season is what Crane and Houston fans are hoping to see in 2020.
(Featured Photo – Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle)
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