Fresh off the stealing signs scandal, the Houston Astros were clearly not the dominant team we have come to know during the 2020 season. They finished at just 29-31 and were fortunate to sneak into the playoffs. During the postseason we were shown glimpses of the former powerhouse “‘Stros”. They won two playoff series ultimately bowing out to the Tampa Bay Rays four games to three in the American League Championship Series.
A lot of the talk around the 2021 Houston Astros(other than fans getting the chance to boo them in person) is going to be how they will perform without all-star centerfielder George Springer. Springer is widely considered as the league’s premier leadoff hitter. Miles Straw will man center field in his place. A healthy return from Yordan Alvarez will help alleviate the loss left by Springer.
The injury bug hit the Astros rotation but not all is lost. Management had plenty of time to digest the fact that Justin Verlander would be out long term. One through five still looked pretty good, especially when compared to other A.L. West clubs. Then Framber Valdez fractured his finger. In steps their biggest acquisition for 2021. Former Twin Jake Odorizzi will slot in nicely as their number two between Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers.
The Astros were also smart to bring back outfielder Michael Brantley who will continue to be a steady force at the top of the lineup. Jason Castro was brought in to compliment fellow catcher Martin Maldonado. Other notable transactions included moving on from closer Roberto Osuna and reliever Chris Devenski while bringing in Pedro Baez and Ryne Stanek.
C/ IF Projections
You’d be hard-pressed to find an infield core as stacked as this throughout baseball. The question will be, can they perform up to their standards after a disappointing 2020. Altuve and Gurriel each had the worst seasons of their careers. Altuve, a career .311 hitter, somehow managed to hit just .219 while slugging .344 in 48 games. A constant hitting machine throughout his career, this was the first time we have ever seen such a struggle for the six-time all-star. Astros fans can feel a little bit better about the 2021 outlook based on the bounce-back postseason he put up; five homers and 11 runs driven in over 13 games.
A more legitimate concern may be the aging Gurriel. He went into a major funk over the final 30 regular-season games hitting just .189 with one big fly. The struggles really peaked during the postseason as he managed just five hits in 44 at-bats with no extra-base hits.
The left side of the infield has just as much potential as any in MLB. Bregman is just a year removed from an MVP caliber campaign and will look to regain form after a disappointing 2020. Also in his prime years is Correa. The multi-talented shortstop will be looking to avoid the injury bug as he has not played more than 110 games in any one season over his six-year career. We haven’t seen the full potential unleashed yet, however, Correa elevated his play in the postseason clubbing six round-trippers with 17 RBI in 13 games.
The catching duties will be mostly taken care of by Maldanado with a bit of help from the reacquired Jason Castro. Maldanado brings a veteran presence and good defensive skills to the table.
The outfield will have a different look to it in 2021. Springer was one of the bigger free agent tickets available and got paid in full by the Toronto Blue Jays. His presence on and off the field will surely be missed. Straw will get the call in centerfield for Dusty Baker but he isn’t expected to club homers as Springer did. What he can do is play good centerfield and swipe some bags. Straw has appeared in 98 career games and has scored 39 runs while stealing 16 bags. He has a career .246 AVG with a .327 OBP.
Brantley was brought back in on a two-year deal. He will bring plenty of stability to the top portion of the order. The career .297 hitter is just a year removed from slugging .503. If Brantley can stay healthy the Astros will get consistent performances nightly from the 10-year pro.
As for Tucker and Alvarez, the sky is the limit. Tucker had a mini-breakout campaign last season and is expected to do big things over the course of a full season. He drove in 42 runs over just 58 games while hitting a respectable .268. Tucker also stole eight bases. He appears to be on pace to be a very well-rounded player that has a very diverse toolset. Then there is the monster that is Yordan Alvarez. Alvarez missed all but two games in 2020. His bat will add another dimension to Houston’s lineup. The 23-year-old has shown massive potential over a small sample. In just 89 career big league games he has put up 28 HR, 82 RBI, a .312 AVG, and a .654 SLG.
Starting Rotation Projections
It’s been known for quite some time that Justin Verlander would not be ready for 2021. What wasn’t expected was workhorse Framber Valdez not being ready for a full campaign. Almost immediately Astros management filled the void by acquiring free agent and former Minnesota Twin Odorrizi on a three-year 23.5$ million contract. The seven-year pro slots in nicely behind innings eater, Greinke. Odorizzi will be looking to replicate his career-best season of 2019 where he secured 15 wins with a 10.08 k/9 rate. Greinke will be leaned upon again to eat up innings. Prior to 2020, Greinke was good for at least 200 innings in five of six seasons. 2019 was one of the 37-year-old’s best campaigns in recent memory. 18 wins, 2.93 ERA, and a 0.98 WHIP.
McCullers still has an “x” factor that many feel hasn’t been unleashed yet. Coming off of Tommy John, McCullers put up a serviceable 3.93 Era in 11 starts last year. This year will test the 27-year-olds endurance as the Astros are hoping he can stay healthy and take the mound every fifth day. Another interesting tidbit is the wild range of results McCullers has put up at home versus the road over his five-year career. It’s lights out at home(2.51) and not so much on the road(4.99).
Rounding out the rotation are Urquidy and Javier. Urquidy has improved his numbers since getting the call to the big club. In 12 starts at the AAA level, he had an ERA of 4.63. In 12 starts over 2019 and 2020 with Houston, he has bettered his numbers to a 3.44 ERA. Javier, who has pitched in all of five games in his career, is rated as the team’s 2nd ranked prospect. He looked more than capable out of the bullpen during last year’s playoff run as he allowed just three earned runs over 9.1 innings of work while fanning 13.
Another player looking to build on the success of 2019 is closer Pressly. Pressly was tied for first in holds(30) and ranked sixth in WHIP0.88. Last year he pitched well over 23 appearances picking up 12 saves with a 12.43 k/9 rate.
Baez was brought in after a very successful seven-year tenure with the Dodgers organization. He can act as a table-setter for Presley to secure games. He most recently was diagnosed with covid-19 and will miss the start of the season.
Taylor is just 25 but has the team’s confidence to make the roster. He has plus stuff and a highly graded curveball. Another highly touted young reliever, also 25, Paredes will look to build off a successful rookie season. Over 20.2 innings pitched last year he held hitters to a .231 average and pitched to a 3.05 ERA.
The wiley veteran Smith will look to bring stability to the reliever core yet again. Smith last toed the rubber in 2019 when he pitched to a career-best 1.80 ERA over just 25 innings.
Brooks Raley profiles as a potential long reliever after posting five consecutive seasons of at least 30 starts in the KBO from 2015 to 2019.
Plenty of capable arms will round out the rest of the pen with Cishek perhaps having an inside track to stay up with the big club. Josh James is listed as day-to-day with a hip injury. Pruitt is also considered day-to-day with an elbow issue. Luis Garcia may get a chance out of the gate. He has just 12.1 career innings to his name and was touted 13th amongst Astros prospects in 2020.
Players to Watch For
There are few players that have the potential to impact the game at the plate than this super slugger. Alvarez showed his massive power skills hitting a lot of bombs in a short period of time over his rookie 2019 campaign. His 16.7 barrel per batted ball percentage rated him 6th overall for players with at least 200 events. What makes Alvarez so unique is the contact skills he has shown at all levels(Something that is usually rare when we talk about power hitters). If Alvarez can stay healthy(he will enter this season having had surgery on both knees) we could see the next coming of Nelson Cruz.
Tucker finally delivered over the abbreviated campaign last year. If he can continue to cut down on the strikeouts(2nd on 2020 team K%, 20.2) the Astros lineup could be considered as one of the best in baseball. There are a few factors that we won’t know until the season really gets going. Will Baker slot him lower in the lineup? How much will he try to steal? The potential is for sure there for a 20/20 type player, and even a 30/30 player down the road. If he hits lower in the lineup he might not score as many runs, but he will get the opportunity to drive in plenty of runs.
There is no question that the lineup is stacked with high-end talent. Can they deliver after many having bad regular seasons over the abbreviated 2020? Can Alvarez stay healthy and repeat his rookie performance? Most will agree that the Astros offense should be good enough to pace them through a full 162. You can even make an argument that, as a whole, their pitching can match any in the division. This is a very winnable division, the Angels may challenge them, but they are a few pitchers away to make the jump. The Athletics are always pesky, but this could be the year that they take a few steps back.
Record: 94-68, 1st place, AL West
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