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The Houston Astros have a potent lineup, plus the reigning Cy Young winner and Rookie of the Year. Yet, a turbulent offseason leaves the team vulnerable to challengers within its division. Can the Astros hold it together in 2020 and repeat as AL West champions?

To gauge the likelihood of the defending AL champions winning a fourth consecutive division title, let’s peruse key components of the roster new Astros GM James Click is providing new skipper Dusty Baker. There are many familiar faces, but the club’s success may ultimately hinge on the performance of young newcomers.

Rotation

The staff took a big hit when Gerrit Cole signed a monster free agent deal with the Yankees in the offseason. But the rotation still features Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke as its headliners with Lance McCullers Jr. locked into the third spot.

While Verlander and Greinke had great seasons in 2019, Verlander is 37-years-old and Greinke turns 37 in October. Am I suggesting the duo falls off an age-regression cliff this season? No, but Verlander did go down in March with a lat strain and subsequently underwent groin surgery. The 15-year veteran is now healthy, but his injuries represent a subtle reminder that Father Time doesn’t schedule his arrival.

Age isn’t an issue for the 26-year-old McCullers, but the right-hander missed last season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Moreover, he’s averaged just 20 starts/season during four seasons in the majors due to injury problems. Perhaps this isn’t a big deal since the club will be asking the son of former major leaguer Lance McCullers to make 10-12 starts during a truncated 60-game regular season.

Entering Summer Camp, the prime candidates for the final two rotation slots were José Urquidy, Josh James, Austin Pruitt, Framber Valdéz, and Bryan Abreu. However, health-related issues are complicating the situation.

Urquidy was a front-runner to make the rotation before camp, but he’s on the injured list for an undisclosed reason. During his rookie debut last season, the 25-year-old posted a 3.95 ERA in nine games, including seven starts. However, Urquidy’s .292 xwOBA (.319 was league-average) suggests he performed better than his conventional stats indicate. The right-hander’s crowning achievement was five shutout innings in Game 4 of the 2019 World Series.

Pruitt is currently dealing with an elbow issue, which takes him out of contention for the Opening Day roster. The 30-year-old pitched with the Rays organization last season bouncing between the majors and Class-AAA Durham. In both locations, the right-hander primarily served as a reliever. In fact, he’s made just 24 starts in the majors and minors since 2017.

James was as a reliever in 2019, but likely to make the rotation this year. Since debuting in the majors in 2018, the 27-year-old has demonstrated the capacity to miss bats (13.8 SO/9 in 84.1 MLB innings). Unfortunately, finding the strike zone (4.5 BB/9) has been a recurring problem for the right-hander.

Valdéz didn’t pitch particularly well in 2019 with opposing hitters having a .790 OPS against the 26-year-old (league-average was .743). As with James, free passes were an issue for Valdéz (5.7 BB/9). Nevertheless, he’s emerged as a favorite for the final spot. If the left-hander doesn’t make the starting staff, he may land in the bullpen.

Still just 23-years-old, Abreu appeared in seven games for the Astros last year striking out 13 and walking three in 8.2 innings. The Dominican Republic native is a dark horse to begin the season in the rotation and may join the bullpen if he doesn’t make the cut.

I didn’t list Brad Peacock as a candidate since the Floridian is dealing with shoulder issues first encountered last season. Peacock began 2019 as a starter, but the shoulder sidelined him during the second half. Still, the 32-year-old did return to make five postseason relief appearances. If he returns in 2020, the right-hander most likely pitches in relief.

Perhaps Houston’s top pitching prospect, Forrest Whitley, is a factor this year. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed the 22-year-old’s 2019 season, although he did pitch well in six Arizona Fall League starts. Still, it’s reasonable to wonder whether management would start the right-hander’s service time clock during a shortened season.

Bullpen

Last year, Houston relievers collectively posted a .292 xwOBA – second best in the majors behind the Dodgers. However, the team’s current bullpen won’t be an obvious strength on Opening Day.

Closer Roberto Osuna was a late arrival to camp due to undisclosed reasons and wasn’t in shape. Apparently, pandemic-related restrictions in Mexico reduced his training opportunities. The team maintains their closer will be available for the season opener, although he hasn’t thrown off a mound during camp. Last season, the 25-year-old led the AL with 38 saves and his .259 xwOBA ranked tenth best in the majors among relievers.

Ryan Pressly dealt with a July knee injury last year, which affected his second half and postseason effectiveness. The knee is now healthy, although Pressly is currently nursing a blister on his index finger. That said, the team appears confident the unheralded 31-year-old can once again be a key late-inning weapon.

This is a pivotal season for Chris Devenski, who’s coming off two sub-par campaigns since being a 2017 All-Star. While it’s plausible the 29-year-old could rebound, it’s unclear whether Baker will use Devenski in high-leverage situations.

After the three most prominent names, there’s much more uncertainty. In the past, the club turned to established veterans such as Peacock, Will Harris, Héctor Rondón, and Joe Smith to get the ball to Pressly and Osuna. Not this year.

Rondón and Harris left via free agency in the offseason signing with the Diamondbacks and Nationals respectively and we’ve already covered Peacock’s issue. Making matters worse for the Astros, Smith recently opted out of playing this season. Losing the side-arming right-hander is a big loss considering he held opposing hitters to a .249 xwOBA in the second half of 2019 – best on the team and top-15 in MLB after the All-Star break.

It appears the new front office intends to rely more heavily on young and undistinguished arms to reach its late-innings. As noted earlier, Abreu could be in the mix for the bullpen. Other potential candidates are Joe Biagini, Blake Taylor, Cy Sneed, Brett Conine, Enoli Paredes, Jojanse Torres, Brandon Bielak, and Cristian Javier. It’s worth noting Taylor, Conine, Paredes, Torres, Bielak, and Javier have no big-league experience.

It’s certainly possible some of these youngsters can step up to buoy Houston’s relief staff. After all, Edwin Díaz went from Class-AA Jackson to closing for the Mariners in 2016. Still, heading into the regular season with so few proven relievers is something the previous regime didn’t do when the club expected to be competitive.

Infield

The infield has been an impressive unit, perhaps the best in baseball. However, there are reasons to keep an eye on its performance and durability this year.

Last year, first baseman Yuli Gurriel had his most productive campaign since joining the team as a rookie in 2016. However, the Cuban is 36-years-old and the team’s first base depth is relatively thin.

Meanwhile, second baseman Jose Altuvé is entering his age-30 season averaging just 130 games during the last two years. Another indicator of potential trouble, his combined 8.9 bWAR for 2018-19 barely surpasses the value of his 2017 MVP season (8.1). Having said that, it’s only fair to point out the Venezuelan hit 21 home runs and slashed .325/.372/.622 after the All-Star game last season.

Shortstop Carlos Correa appeared in just 75 games in 2019. Since 2017, the former All-Star is averaging 98 games annually. Fortunately, for the Astros and Correa, he’s still just 25-years-old and fully healthy heading into the upcoming season.

At third base, 2019 AL MVP runner-up Alex Bregman is the best player on the Astros. Last year, Bregman hit 41 home runs and .296/.423/.592. In the last 10 seasons, only six players have hit 40-plus homers with a OBP over .420 – Bregman, Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista, and Bryce Harper.

Considering potential availability challenges in the infield, utility-man Aledmys Díaz plays a pivotal role. Díaz started 15-plus games at both corner infield spots and second base while hitting .271/.356/.467 last year. The 29-year-old also made starts at shortstop and in left field.

Prospect Abraham Toro projects to fill a bench role. Toro appeared in 25 games with Houston last year. The 23-year-old had double-digit starts and second and third base in the minors in 2019, although he was primarily a third baseman. Another young infielder with a chance to make the Opening Day roster, Taylor Jones, made 64 starts at first base for Class-AAA Round Rock last year and has third base and outfield experience.

Outfield

George Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, Kyle Tucker, Myles Straw should comprise the outfield rotation. Springer and Brantley will start in center field and left field respectively. Right field may have competition with mainstay Reddick potentially having to fend off Tucker.

Since 2018, Reddick has a 93 OPS+, which places him in the bottom 15-percent of hitters with 1,000-plus plate appearances. It’s worth noting the 33-year-old has historically been a strong defender, although STATCAST ranked him 27 out of 40 right fielders with -2 Outs Above Average (OOA)/ On the other hand, only Mookie Betts was the only right fielder with more OOA than the Georgian in 2018.

Straw is a versatile performer capable of playing any outfield position. He even appeared in 25 games at shortstop for the Astros in 2019. Moreover, the 25-year-old possesses superb on-base abilities to go with the elite-level sprint speed.

Designated Hitter

Yordan Álvarez projected to be the everyday designated hitter. However, he hasn’t been in camp and currently on the IL for undisclosed reasons. Therefore, we don’t know when the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year may rejoin the team. Obviously, we’re rooting for Álvarez to completely recover from whatever is ailing him. From a baseball perspective, which is secondary, his absence is a significant loss to Houston’s lineup.

With Álvarez unavailable, Baker could utilize Brantley and Tucker, assuming he prefers a set designated hitter. Brantley had 110 plate appearances at the position last season and performed well. As already noted, Tucker is competing for the right field job with Reddick.

It’s also possible Baker chooses to use the designated hitter spot as an opportunity to give his position players a break during the hectic 60-game schedule.

Catcher

Martín Maldonado is the starter with Dustin Garneau serving as backup. Maldonado won’t provide much offense (.219/.289 /.355 career slash), but he possesses the reputation of being a strong defender. Similarly, the 32-year-old Garneau, who’s played in 123 career games in the majors, is a good glove and light hitter.    

Third on the depth chart is Garrett Stubbs, who possesses a measure of positional versatility. Stubbs appeared in the outfield with Houston and even started three games at second base with Class-AAA Round Rock last year. 

Moving Forward

The Astros’ lineup remains loaded with stars, plus they still have the one-two punch of Verlander and Greinke anchoring the rotation. Still, this year’s roster enters the upcoming season with more uncertainty than recent versions and that should be troubling to Houston fans.

Sure, losing both GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch in January due to their involvement with the Astros’ elaborate sign-stealing scheme was a big blow. But it’s important to remember Luhnow hadn’t done much to improve the club’s roster prior to his ouster.

Luhnow’s most notable additions to his former team were the now-injured Austin Pruitt in a minor trade with the Rays and Blake Taylor in the a deal sending defensive stalwart Jake Marisnick to the Mets. Other than that, the architect of the franchises’ first-ever World Series championship retained free agents Martín Maldonado and Joe Smith, who’s now sitting out the season.

Perhaps the truncated season benefits Houston’s aging veterans and lessens the criticality of using so many unproven commodities on the pitching staff. Still, two issues become readily clear after reviewing the Astros’ projected roster. The loss of Verlander, Greinke, or McCullers to the IL would be a significant. Moreover, the team will struggle to stay atop the AL West without a reliable bullpen to back up the starting staff.

Can the Astros repeat as AL West champions? Absolutely, but the competition for the division crown will be more intense than in recent seasons. Considering the uncertainty with the pitching staff and the fact the Oakland seems poised to wrest the title way, I see 2020 as the year of the A’s in the AL West.

My Oh My….

(Photo of Justin Verlander – Mark J. Terrill / AP)

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