The Houston Astros’ offseason was absent of significant roster improvements. So much so, it’s reasonable to speculate whether the Astros can win in 2021. We’ll delve into the team’s offseason strategy and much more after discussing its 2020 season.
First-year manager Dusty Baker did a splendid job guiding his squad through cheating scandal backlash, losing players to injury, and ineffective production from several key contributors. Despite having a losing record, the Astros earned a Wild Card berth and then marched to the ALCS before falling to the Rays.
Houston saw a steep decline in run production last year compared to 2019. The problem was attributable to subpar performances by multiple players including 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuvé, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, shortstop Carlos Correa, and right fielder Josh Reddick.
Altuvé also missed time due to a knee strain. He wasn’t the only Astro missing time – far from it. An August hamstring strain limited 2019 AL MVP runner-up Alex Bregman to 42 games. Bregman’s offense fell significantly afterwards and into the postseason. Meanwhile, the team lost 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez two games into the season after he underwent surgery on both knees.
Correa, who missed significant time to injuries in recent years, played in 58 of 60 games last season. However, he was average-ish at reaching base (.326 OBP) with a below average 92 OPS+. The 26-year-old also suffered from a power outage. His .383 SLG was nearly 100 points below normal.
On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.
It’s worth noting both Altuvé (five home runs and .375/.500/.729) and Correa (six home runs and 1.221 OPS) performed much better in the postseason. Normally, this might not matter since it was only 13 games. Still, that equates to 22-percent of last year’s regular season.
There were also Astros who delivered excellent results.
George Springer hit a team-leading 14 home runs with a 140 OPS+. Michael Brantly continued his hitting excellence during his age-33 season with a .300/.364/.476 slash line, while pacing the Astros with 15 doubles. Kyle Tucker had a breakout season leading Houston in triples (6), stolen bases (8), He also hit nine home runs and .268/.325/.512.
Despite losing 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander (elbow) for the season after his Opening Day start, the starting rotation was a strength. Houston’s staff had a combined .308 xwOBA, which was ninth lowest in the majors.
Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA last year = .312
|Sources: Baseball Reference; Baseball Savant|
Wily veteran Zack Greinke headlined the rotation, although there were potential signs of age-related regression by the end of the shortened season. Lance McCullers Jr. had a solid campaign after spending 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Framber Valdéz continued his breakout season into the playoffs. Among pitchers facing at least 40 hitters in the postseason, Valdéz had the fourth best xwOBA (.272) behind Dodgers Clayton Kershaw (.217) and Julio Urías (.251) and Gerrit Cole (.262) of the Yankees.
Cristian Javier posted a .256 xwOBA, which was sixth best in the majors among all pitchers facing 200+ hitters last year. This placed Javier ahead of stars like Cole, Kershaw, and Yu Darvish. The 25-year-old’s strong debut resulted in a third place finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Another youngster, José Urquidy, performed well in five regular season starts and then went on to help his team in October by holding opponents to a .204 AVG in three postseason starts.
Based on xwOBA, the bullpen went from being fourth best (.300) in 2019 to middle-of-the-pack last year (.311). Not helping matters was the loss of former closer Roberto Osuna to a UCL injury after just four outings. Fortunately, Ryan Pressly (.247 xwOBA) was able to take over and perform well in the closer role.
Behind Pressly, Baker relied on a cadre of young arms out of the bullpen. Among them; Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, Cionel Pérez, Humberto Castellanos, Nivaldo Rodríguez, Brandon Bailey, Bryan Abreu, and Carlos Sanabria. All were 25-or-younger; some performed better than others did.
Although the Astros dropped from third in defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2019 to eleventh last year, the team’s overall defense was good. The following illustrates the team’s DRS totals for each position and respective MLB rankings.
Advanced metrics have never cared for Altuvé’s second base defense; last season was no different. There was regression from Reddick in right field, but it wasn’t gross. Still, it’s important to remember that it’s best to consume defensive metrics in large quantities. Therefore, looking too deeply into changes in 2020 could unnecessarily lead you down a rabbit hole.
As noted earlier, GM James Click was relatively inactive during hot stove season. This must be particularly concerning for Astros fans with the team losing its best player (Springer) to free agency and its best pitcher (Verlander) out for 2021 due to Tommy John surgery.
|Source: Baseball Reference|
Houston’s biggest move was re-signing Brantley to a two-year/$32 million deal. The team added a pair of experienced arms – Pedro Báez and Ryne Stanek – to augment its young bullpen. Veteran reliever Steve Cishek signed as a non-roster invite. Outfielders Jose Sirí and Steven Souza Jr. also received an NRI.
A non-roster invite (NRI) is an invitation to players not on a team’s 40-man roster to attend Spring Training. This includes upper-level minor leaguers and free agents signed to minor-league contracts in the offseason.
Source: Baseball Reference; FanGraphs
The final notable addition was a reunion with the team’s 2008 first round draft pick – catcher Jason Castro. Since leaving Houston after the 2016 season, the 33-year-old played for the Twins, Angels, and Padres.
Once again, the infield will consist of Gurriel (1B), Altuve (2B), Correa (SS), and Bregman (3B). It’ll be tough for Houston to challenge for a postseason berth unless this group is more productive than last year. Health will be crucial too. There are few ready replacement options within the organization.
Aledmys Díaz remains in the utility role. Díaz has experience at all infield positions and left field. He’s also delivered good production (.273/.327/.460 and 109 OPS+) over five big-league seasons. However, injuries have slowed him during his career. Last year, a groin injury sidelined the 30-year-old.
Another player who’ll factor into the infield depth picture is Abraham Toro. The switch-hitter has slashed .182/.269/.327 in 186 plate appearances since debuting in 2019. Considering he’s just 24-years-old and has minor-league options remaining, he may bounce between Houston and the minors.
Players on a 40-man roster have three minor-league “options.” Teams can send players with options to the minors without first having to clear waivers. Only one option is used annually regardless of how many times a player goes to the minors. Players without options must pass through outright waivers before being eligible for assignment to the minors.
Brantley spent over half his playing time as the designated hitter due to Álvarez’s absence. He’ll return to left field where he’s a very capable defender. Álvarez projects as the full-time DH following two knee surgeries.
Myles Straw enters camp as the favorite to be the center fielder. Straw’s defense is excellent and he’s a disruptive base runner. However, his bat will have to justify a starting job. Last season, the 26-year-old slashed .246/.327/.322 with a 37 OPS+. Another potential option for center field could be prospect Chas McCormick.
Assuming he picks up where he left off last season, right field will be Tucker’s position with the Astros for a long time. Sousa and Sirí are potential backups for both corner outfield spots. That’s if they make the major-league roster. In the end, the best choice for fourth outfielder may be McCormick, assuming he doesn’t win the center field job.
Behind the plate, Maldonado will be the starter. It’s plausible Baker forms a semi-platoon with the right-handed hitting Maldonado and the lefty bat of Castro. However, Maldonado is the superior defender and likely sees more playing time as a result. Garrett Stubbs is the third catcher on the 40-man.
The Astros have a talented rotation with Greinke, Valdez, McCullers, Urquidy, and Javier. Backing up the starting five is a gaggle of promising, mostly unproven youngsters.
Once a top pitching prospect, Forrest Whitley has become an enigma after suffering injury and performance setbacks in the minors. Is 2021 the season we finally see Whitley’s MLB debut?
Other minor-league starters include Luis García, Bryan Abreu, Brandon Bielak, and Nivaldo Rodríguez. García, Abreu, and Rodríguez each made their big-league debut last season pitching mostly out of the bullpen. Bielak, also a rookie, made six inauspicious starts.
The bullpen received the most attention in the offseason and should be solid. The top candidates to backup Pressly are Báez, Stanek, Paredes, Taylor, Raley, Scrubb, and COVID opt-out Joe Smith. Other arms in the mix include the young starters just mentioned.
Two future options for the bullpen include Josh James and Austin Pruitt. Both are recovering from surgery and will miss the start of the season. It’s worth noting Pruitt and Raley are without minor-league options. This will figure into roster decisions now and during the season.
Stanek will get an opportunity to earn a high-leverage role. He became available when the Marlins didn’t tender him a contract. Last year, the 29-year-old lost a month to COVID and logged just 10 innings. He’ll get his shot to bounce back with Houston.
Notoriously one of the slowest workers on the mound, Báez had another solid season with the Dodgers in 2020. Still, there were signs of potential erosion. Walks and home run rates were up; strikeouts were down. Moreover, his fastball velocity has incrementally dropped from 97.4-MPH in 2016 to 94.4-MPH last year.
The recurring theme for the Astros is areas that were once strengths (offense, starting pitching, and bullpen) have significantly regressed since the end of 2019. It’s plausible the downward slide continues into the upcoming season.
Since losing the 2019 World Series, the team has lost two Cy Young caliber starters – Cole (free agency) and Verlander (injury). Obviously, finding suitable substitutes is no easy task. Nevertheless, this season likely hinges on whether Greinke slows any potential decline, the oft-injured McCullers remains available, and the staff’s young arms take the next step.
With the Mets signing of Taijuan Walker, the most appealing free agent starter remaining on the market is Jake Odorizzi. There are other options, but none as appealing as Odorizzi. They include Mike Leake, Gio González, Jeff Samardzija, Cole Hamels, Julio Teheran, and Rick Porcello. Leake opted out due to COVID last year, Hamels missed nearly the entire season with shoulder issues, and the remaining pitchers were ineffective.
The Astros don’t have a proven commodity to replace Springer in center field or in the lineup. In theory, Álvarez’s return should help offset the loss of Springer’s bat. However, Álvarez essentially missed all of last season and his MLB career encompasses 89 games and 378 plate appearances. Shouldn’t a contender strive to add more certainty to its roster?
Free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. would be an excellent addition in center field. Perhaps Bradley is asking for more dollars and years than the Astros want to commit to a 30-year-old center fielder. That said, there are few viable free agent options other than the former All-Star.
Veteran Jarrod Dyson is available, although he has a 55 OPS+ since 2018 and is 36-years-old. Versatile Danny Santana has center field experience. Santana had a down 2020, but just a year removed from a 112 OPS+. The 30-year-old could help provide additional depth across Houston’s roster – he has double-digit starts at every infield and outfield position. Considering the recent health and performance of the team’s aging roster, this kind of positional flexibility may be appealing.
For a club that reached Game 7 of the ALCS last year, leaning forward would have seemed like the thing to do this offseason. But that wasn’t Houston’s strategy. If the season were to take an unexpected downward turn, perhaps the organization takes on an uncharacteristic role at the deadline – sellers.
Considering the Astros lost their 2020 and 2021 first and second round picks due to the cheating scandal, moving expiring contracts could help the organization recoup needed prospect value. After all, Keith Law of the Athletic recently ranked Houston’s farm system in the bottom 20-percent of MLB.
|* Club Option For 2022
Source: Baseball Reference
Obviously, Verlander is going nowhere. But rotation-mates Greinke and McCullers could appeal to buyers, assuming they’re having good seasons. Both have playoff experience and would be unflappable during a postseason run.
Talented relievers like Pressly, Smith, and Raley will always be in demand during the deadline deal season. The same applies to backstops like Castro and Maldonado.
Perhaps the Astros hope to sign Correa to a long-term extension before he hits the market after the season. Still, considering his reaction to the mega-extension signed by Fernando Tatís Jr., keeping Correa will be costly.
Love to see it. Congrats Fernando
— Carlos Correa (@TeamCJCorrea) February 18, 2021
Since owner Jim Crane fired previous GM Jeff Luhnow in January 2020, the team hasn’t made a significant trade or signed a top free agent. This stagnation jeopardizes a return to the postseason this year and is uncharacteristic for a proud organization with so much recent success.
Perhaps there’s a shift in philosophy on the horizon for Houston. One without as much postseason certainty as we’ve seen over the last half-decade.
The rest of the AL West would be just fine with that.
My Oh My…
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