Spring Training is underway, meaning it’s time for offseason recaps on the Seattle Mariners’ division rivals. We’ve already discussed the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, and the Oakland Athletics. Now, let’s focus on the defending AL West champion Houston Astros.
As we move forward, it’s important to remember clubs have plenty of time to upgrade rosters. Especially with many free agents remaining on the market.
Houston won a franchise-record 103 games last season returning to the ALCS for a second consecutive year. This time though, the club fell to the eventual World Series champion Red Sox. A quick glance at a stat sheet demonstrates why the Astros were one of the best teams in MLB.
|Astros Team Stats|
The Astros boasted a long lineup with seven players above the 100 wRC+ league-average mark: José Altuve, Carlos Correa, Evan Gattis, Alex Bregman, Marwin González, Yuli Gurriel, and George Springer. Only the Dodgers had more (9).
Cleveland was the only club with a better rotation than the Astros’ starting five. Headlining the staff were Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole; the pair finished top-5 in AL Cy Young voting. Houston’s talented and deep bullpen was similarly impressive.
The Astros were the least active AL West team this offseason adding just four notable players. The highest profile acquisition to date was the December free agent signing of outfielder Michael Brantley.
Ankle and shoulder injuries limited Brantley to just 101 games in 2016-17. But the 31-year-old rebounded last year slashing .309/.364/.468 with 36 doubles, 17 home runs, and 12 stolen bases. He also earned his third All-Star selection.
Starting pitcher Wade Miley played with Milwaukee last season with injuries restricting the southpaw to 16 starts and 80.2 innings. Miley had a 2.57 ERA thanks to a top-10 ground ball rate (52.8%) and a .33 HR/9 ratio – the lowest in MLB.
Aledmys Díaz likely serves as the reserve middle infielder/third baseman. Díaz has 258 starts at shortstop and 33 at the hot corner. The 28-year-old also has four innings at second base and nine in left field. Therefore, he’s not a plug and play replacement for super-utility man Marwin González.
Gurriel appears set as the everyday first baseman. That said: he’ll see time at second and third base, as he did last year. When the 34-year-old isn’t manning first base, Tyler White can fill in when he’s not the designated hitter.
At second base, Altuve returns for his eighth season as the starter. Assuming he’s fully recovered from offseason knee surgery, he’s an MVP contender. The 28-year-old won the award in 2017.
Back issues slowed Correa last year. However, the shortstop reports he’s healthy and only a season removed from hitting 24 home runs and .315/.391/.550. Considering he’s only 24-years-old, a return to 2017 form is a reasonable expectation.
Also just 24-years-old, Bregman enjoyed a breakout season at third base in 2018. The LSU alum led the majors with 51 doubles, plus he hit 31 home runs. Additionally, his 157 wRC+ was fifth best in the majors, also his placing in MVP voting.
Springer regressed from his 2017 production, but still managed 22 homers, a 119 wRC+, and 2.9 fWAR. Conversely, Reddick’s stats were league average-ish after achieving career bests across the board in 2017.
Max Stassi likely pairs with Chirinos at catcher. Last season Stassi appeared in a career-high 80 games. The 28-year-old doesn’t have the same pop in his bat as Chirinos, but has a reputation of being a good pitch framer.
Verlander and Cole will anchor the rotation again. Miley and Collin McHugh join the dynamic duo and will attempt to fill the void created by the departures of Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton and season-ending Tommy John surgery for Lance McCullers Jr.
Peacock made just one start in 61 appearances last season, although he did have a 3.22 ERA in 21 starts with the 2017 Astros. Still, hes’ enjoyed more success at frustrating hitters as a reliever.
The left-handed Valdéz made five late-season starts with a 2.59 ERA. Meanwhile, James’s strong September showing prompted manager A.J. Hinch to include the 25-year-old righty on the postseason roster.
Depending on how the rotation shakes out, the Astros enter the season with six clear-cut choices for the bullpen: closer Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Héctor Rondón, Chris Devenski, Will Harris, and Peacock (if he’s not a starter).
That would leave youngsters Reymin Guduan, Cionel Pérez, and Dean Deetz, and potentially James and/or Valdéz vying for the final relievers spots. If the club intends on having at least one southpaw in the bullpen, Valdéz or Pérez have an edge over the competition.
Unfortunately, side-arm reliever Joe Smith suffered a ruptured Achilles rupture in December and likely misses miss most of the season. The 34-year-old held hitters to a .207 average in 56 games last year making him tough to replace.
Having Verlander and Cole leading the rotation gives the Astros an edge over the rest of the division. But losing Keuchel, Morton, and McCullers will be tough to overcome.
The team reportedly inquired about Mariners ace James Paxton before Seattle shipped him to the Yankees. Perhaps a short-term reunion with Keuchel would make sense for both parties.
Reports also suggested the Astros were interested in catcher J.T. Realmuto when the Marlins were peddling him this winter. Now that Realmuto is with the Phillies, general manager Jeff Luhnow may stand pat for now.
Last year, Luhnow acquired Maldonado last summer when McCann was sidelined with an injury. He could take the same tact this season. It’s worth noting Maldonado is still a free agent.
Although the Astros’ farm system has been productive yielding studs like Correa, Altuve, Springer, McCullers, and Bregman, there may be a sense of urgency for the current core to win now. Especially when you consider the potential free agents after this season.
|Pending Free Agents|
|Justin Verlander||Gerrit Cole||Chris Devenski*|
|Joe Smith||Hector Rondon||Collin McHugh|
|Robinson Chirinos||Wade Miley||Will Harris|
|* Club option for 2020|
Houston could lose 80% of its projected starting rotation, plus several key contributors from their bullpen. While replacing relievers isn’t necessarily easy, replacing Verlander and Cole will be downright daunting. Maybe Luhnow finds a way to retain one of both pitchers, but this may the current crew’s last hurrah.
The Astros certainly has a talented stable of prospects with some likely making an impact in 2019 and touted starting pitcher Forrest Whitley on the horizon. For that reason, Luhnow may be comfortable with riding out this season and relying on the kids going forward.
The Astros are once again one of the best teams in the AL, along with Boston and the Yankees. Having said that, this will be the first time in three years the club could face a worthy challenger for the top spot – the Athletics.
Still, Houston’s lineup is so talented, plus Verlander and Cole are a formidable one-two punch and and their bullpen is battle-tested. Throw in a pool of dynamic prospects as reinforcements and you’re looking at a World Series challenger.