For the third time in the past five years, the final game of the MLB season included the Houston Astros. They could not beat the Atlanta Braves, but just being there was impressive. George Springer had just left in free agency, while Alex Bregman had a bad season. Returning to the fall classic got a lot harder, with Carlos Correa darting for Minnesota and Zack Greinke returning to the Kansas City Royals. With other huge free agent shortstops available, the Astros stayed quiet in replacing Correa, turning to prospect Jeremy Pena. There has been a ton of pressure placed on the 24-year-old’s shoulders.
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The Astros went low-key this offseason, making their biggest splash before the lockout. They retained veteran starter Justin Verlander, who is coming off of Tommy John surgery. The biggest takeaway here is that the Astros believe in what they have. But when their best player by WAR in 2021 left, there is a reasonable doubt to be had.
Hector Neris, RHP, 2 years, $17 million
The wild former closer of the Phillies, Neris had a ton of adventures in Philadelphia. Now, the hard-throwing right-hander will pitch in front of Ryan Pressly in Houston. Neris struck out 98 batters in 74.1 innings last year while saving 12 games but also walking 32 batters. In his career, Neris has a K/9 of 11.5 with 84 saves. With the Philadelphia spotlight off him, Neris could prosper.
Niko Goodrum, Utility, 1 year, $2.1 million
The veteran option to replace Correa is Goodrum, who spent the past four seasons with Detroit. A speed threat with a bit of power and defensive versatility, Goodrum could join Aledmys Diaz as utilitymen on the Astros roster. With four outs above average across five different positions, Goodrum can be a weapon for the team. However, he also strikes out over 30 percent of the time with a dismal OPS.
Correa was not the only loss for the Astros this season. Aside from Verlander, Houston failed to retain any of their key free agents. Without a ton of replacements brought in to sever the losses, the remaining players will have to carry their weight. The list of departing free agents includes relievers Brooks Raley and Yimi Garcia, as well as Marwin Gonzalez, who returned to the team midseason.
Carlos Correa, SS, Minnesota Twins
The obvious head of the subtractions is Correa, the former first overall pick and one of the faces of the team. Considering Correa signed with the Twins for just three years at a high AAV, it is incredibly disappointing to see the Astros unable to match. Correa had a 7.2 bWAR while being outstanding at both sides of the field in 2021. He hit 26 home runs with a .850 OPS and .366 OBP.
Zack Greinke, RHP, Kansas City Royals
Losing Greinke may hurt morally, but he was not needed in the rotation anymore, especially with Verlander returning. In his age-37 season, he had a 4.16 ERA in 171 innings while only walking 36 batters. He is still valuable but with a rotation consisting of Verlander, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Urquidy, and eventually Lance McCullers Jr., letting Greinke go was the right choice.
Brooks Raley, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
The veteran reliever had a tough 2021 with a 4.78 ERA despite amazing peripherals. Raley had a 31.7 K percent with an 83 mph average exit velocity and 21.5 percent hard-hit rate. Those numbers are all amazing, helping Raley to a 3.27 FIP. It made a ton of sense to see the data-heavy Rays take a chance on Raley, giving him a two-year deal. The Astros bullpen was fine when he was allowing runs last season, so the loss should not be catastrophic for them.
Kendall Graveman, RHP, Chicago White Sox
Graveman came over near the trade deadline from the Mariners and was a solid addition to the bullpen. He had a 3.13 ERA and a 3.60 FIP in 23 innings pitched. He received a three-year contract from the White Sox, which is a ton for a reliever. Deciding to bring in Neris over re-signing Graveman makes a fair amount of sense.
The expectations for the Astros should be a bit lower after a tough offseason and the emergence of the Mariners. But, this offense can still mash. Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez are two of the top young hitters in today’s game. Yuli Gurriel is coming off a batting title, and Jose Altuve is still around. The major X-factor is Bregman, who was battling injuries for most of 2021, stinging his play.
The pitching will rely on Verlander’s return, as well as McCullers. The latter will miss Opening Day with a flexor strain, and it is unknown when he will come back. The team has developed a young front of the rotation with McCullers, Valdez, Urquidy, and Rookie of the Year finalist Garcia. They also have Cristian Javier in the mix, who can start and fill in from the ‘pen.
In the end, a lot of this season is hinging on Pena. The club’s top prospect had a .944 OPS and ten home runs in 30 AAA games last season, but that was the extent of his minor league play. There is reason to believe that we saw the real Pena there, but his 109 games in 2019 made up his last full season. The experience just is not there. If anything, the Astros could be big buyers at the trade deadline for an infielder, potentially moving Bregman to shortstop to acquire a rental third baseman.
Despite some pressure from Seattle and even the Rangers, Houston is still the big favorite to win the American League West. This team is not better than they were when they lost the World Series, but they still have a similar core to that American League-winning team. The Correa conversation will come up a ton during the season, but the Astros could easily win without him, especially if they have a great trade deadline.
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