Deep, talented Astros have eyes on the prize

July 22nd, 2020

HOUSTON -- Perhaps the most tumultuous offseason in Astros history -- which came on the heels of a 107-win regular season and an American League pennant in 2019 -- will finally be in the rear-view mirror when the Astros face off against the Mariners in Friday’s season opener, which also marks the debut of Dusty Baker as the club’s skipper.

After falling eight outs shy of winning their second World Series title in three years, the Astros were caught up in the fallout of a sign-stealing scandal that occurred in the 2017 championship season, forcing Major League Baseball to issue unprecedented penalties in January. That led to the team dismissing manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow -- the two men at the helm of the most successful era in franchise history.

The Astros lost star pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Yankees in free agency -- a move which may swing the balance of power in the AL from Houston to the Bronx -- but Houston returns a deep and talented roster that’s poised to compete for a fourth consecutive AL West title.

The coronavirus pandemic means no fans will be in the stands when the season starts, and a 60-game schedule will give us a season like no one has ever seen. Considering how difficult the last few months have been for the Astros, another championship would be remarkably fulfilling, even in a shortened season.

What needs to go right?
With several key departures in the offseason and some nagging injuries carrying into this season, the Astros’ thin and unproven bullpen will have to step up. Ace reliever Will Harris signed with the Nationals, setup man Joe Smith is on the restricted list and might not play this year and key arms Brad Peacock and Austin Pruitt are likely to start the year on the injured list. Then there’s closer Roberto Osuna, who hasn’t thrown to hitters yet this summer. Some of the club’s young pitching prospects -- Bryan Abreu, Cristian Javier, Blake Taylor and Brandon Bielak -- will have to grow up in a hurry.

With Cole and Wade Miley moving on, the Astros will need 37-year-old Justin Verlander and 36-year-old Zack Greinke to stay healthy at the top of the rotation. And Lance McCullers Jr. will have to show he’s back after missing all of 2019. The bottom of the rotation is a huge question mark with Jose Urquidy on the injured list, but hard-throwing Josh James is intriguing.

The lineup is deep, but designated hitter Yordan Alvarez -- the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner -- is on the injured list for undisclosed reasons and leaves a big hole as long as he’s out.

Big question
What can we expect from McCullers? When McCullers takes the ball Saturday against the Mariners, it will be his first big league start in nearly two years. He had Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2018 season that cost him all of last year, and he’s completely recovered and ready to take the ball.

McCullers, a former first-round Draft pick and son of a big leaguer, has ace potential when healthy. Will this be the year it all comes together? It’s been a long and grueling rehab for McCullers, and with Cole gone to the Yankees, the Astros hope he duplicates some of those quality innings and establishes himself as one of the best young starters in the game.

Prospect to watch
Because of expanded rosters and injuries to the pitching staff, several of the team’s young pitching prospects will make their big league debuts sooner than they would have during a normal season. That includes Javier, the team’s No. 6 prospect per MLB Pipeline. Javier barely got his feet wet at Triple-A at the end of last season, but he will now likely make the Opening Day roster out of necessity. But he’s also coming off an eye-opening season, which started at Class A Advanced Fayetteville.

Across three Minor League levels last year, Javier posted a 1.74 ERA with a 0.97 WHIP and 170 strikeouts in 113 2/3 innings and led all Minor League pitchers (minimum 100 innings) in opponents’ batting average (.130). Like most young pitchers, control will be the key to his success, but we’ll find out sooner than expected if his deceptive stuff can play at the Major League level.

On the schedule
Despite Major League Baseball’s regionalized schedule this year (AL West teams will only play teams from their division and the National League West), the Astros are still going to be earning a lot of frequent-flier miles. This year, the Astros will travel 13,954 miles, the second most behind the Rangers (14,706). That includes a nomadic September in which they will play 16 of their final 22 games on the road, including a nine-game trip to presumptive contenders in the Angels, A’s and Dodgers over 10 days (Sept. 4-13). The Astros will play all but eight of their 60 games in California or Texas.

Team MVP will be ...
Jose Altuve. Sure, you can’t go wrong with Alex Bregman -- who finished a close second to the Angels’ Mike Trout in the AL MVP race last year and is on an upward arc for his career -- but Altuve has a chip on his shoulder.

After battling injuries in the second half of ’18 and the first half of ’19, he quietly had an Altuve-like second half last year, leading the AL in hits and total bases after the All-Star break. Other players publicly questioning the validity of his 2017 AL MVP Award in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal are quietly driving him. Look out.

Team Cy Young will be ...
Verlander. He’s 37 and coming off March groin surgery -- and is once again tinkering with his mechanics -- but there is no better competitor. His career resurgence in Houston has been incredible, and last year he added a second Cy Young Award, a third no-hitter and struck out 300 in a season for the first time. Verlander is healthy and as driven as ever, and he is laser focused on 300 wins (he’s at 225) and pitching well into his 40s at a high level. Verlander is far from done.

Bold prediction
Altuve will hit .400 this year. For reasons mentioned above, Altuve is extremely motivated entering this season and he’s as healthy as he’s been since the first half of the ’18 season, when he was playing at an MVP level. And it’s not like he hasn’t done it before over the course of 60 games. From May 27-Aug. 8, 2017, Altuve slashed .420/.474/.645 with 103 hits in 60 games.