Will Astros be division favorites in 2021?

Beat reporter Brian McTaggart's thoughts as Spring Training nears

February 5th, 2021

HOUSTON -- The Astros’ equipment truck is on its way to West Palm Beach, Fla., which is one of the sure signs that Spring Training is around the corner. The Astros will enter this spring with more stability after having to hire a general manager (James Click) and manager (Dusty Baker) on the fly in the days leading up to camp a year ago.

In Click’s first full offseason as a GM, he bolstered the team’s bullpen (by signing veterans Ryne Stanek and Pedro Báez), added veteran catcher Jason Castro and re-signed outfielder Michael Brantley. That came on the heels of losing All-Star outfielder George Springer to the Blue Jays.

As we await the start of camp, there are a few things on my mind. Here are three things I’m thinking about:

The notion that the Astros were penny-pinching because they didn’t sign Springer isn’t true. The club’s payroll will top $200 million once again this year. It appears the Astros were never going to be in the running to re-sign Springer, who may have been looking for a change of scenery anyway. So his departure shouldn’t come as a surprise.

When the Astros built a championship team with a young, homegrown core, it was going to be nearly impossible to keep them all together long term. The Astros were able to sign Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman to extensions to keep them in Houston, but the idea of Altuve, Bregman, Springer and Carlos Correa staying together for their entire careers was a dream. The big question now remains: will they be able to re-sign Correa, who -- unlike Springer -- has publicly said he wants to be an Astro for life? He’s a free agent after this season, stay tuned.

With Springer in Canada, the starting center field spot will be Myles Straw’s to lose. What a great opportunity. Straw has elite speed and could be a great defender over time, but questions remain about his bat. He’s not George Springer, but who is? Considering the Astros’ lineup remains deep, Straw could make a positive impact by his contribution on the bases and in the field while his offense develops. Straw’s progress will be one of the season’s biggest early storylines.

The Astros should be the clear favorites in the American League West in 2021. After winning three consecutive division titles from 2017-19, the Astros finished seven games behind the first-place A’s in last year’s shortened season before coming back to dispatch Oakland in the playoffs.

Sure, the Astros lost Springer and won’t have Justin Verlander -- who made one start in 2020 before undergoing Tommy John surgery in September -- but they’re still deeper and better than the A’s on paper. In addition to their free-agent signings, the Astros will return 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez to the lineup after he played in just two games last year. And veteran reliever Joe Smith returns after sitting out all of the ’20 season.

It’s been a rough offseason for the A’s, who have lost closer Liam Hendriks, reliever Joakim Soria, outfielder Robbie Grossman, second baseman Tommy La Stella and shortstop Marcus Semien, who finished third in AL MVP voting in 2019. So far, Oakland’s biggest splash of the offseason was acquiring left-hander Nik Turley from the Pirates.

The Astros will have a better lineup (if everyone performs at their career levels), a deeper bullpen and a rotation (Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier) that compares favorably to Oakland’s (Jesús Luzardo, Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas and A.J. Puk). Make no mistake, the Astros are the team to beat in the AL West.

There’s still a chance the Astros could sign another relief pitcher before the start of the regular season. Click has been on record saying the Astros are done making major moves, but the club’s need for a closer remains, and the Astros haven’t completely shut the door on the idea. Free-agent pitcher Trevor Rosenthal is still a name to watch in the next few weeks.

Last year, the Astros had a middle-of-the pack bullpen in the AL, and that was despite the fact closer Roberto Osuna pitched in only four games before getting hurt and veterans Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock -- key members of the bullpen during the championship run in ’17 -- combined for seven games because of injuries. Neither of them will be back.

Retooling the bullpen was a priority for Click. Stanek is a depth piece, but Báez figures to play a big role at the back end of Houston’s bullpen with Ryan Pressly and Smith. Last year, right-hander Enoli Paredes and lefties Brooks Raley and Blake Taylor emerged as solid arms. Still, there’s not an experienced closer in the group, which is why the Astros may still add one in free agency.