Astros expect star power to return for '21

March 29th, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros’ window of contention remains wide open, despite the departure of another key free agent in the winter. The club will be hard-pressed to overcome losing outfielder George Springer -- the team’s 2020 MVP -- to Toronto, but Houston has the deepest roster in the American League West and will be a contender for its fifth consecutive trip to the AL Championship Series.

While losing Springer was a blow, the Astros return their starting infield for the fifth year in a row -- , , and . They were able to re-sign steady outfielder , and have emerging star players in designated hitter and outfielder .

The pitching staff has taken some huge blows the last couple of years, with Gerrit Cole signing with the Yankees after the 2019 season and Justin Verlander missing all of this year following Tommy John surgery, but , and stepped up as key rotation arms. is healthy and was signed to an extension, as he evolves into a rotation anchor, and the Astros signed veteran on March 8.

The bullpen, when healthy, has enough pieces to back up the starters, but general manager James Click perhaps put it best when he said it’s going to take the entire 40-man roster to get through a season in which pitchers will be asked to cover 162 games following last year’s 60-game sprint.

What needs to go right?
The Astros’ success will begin with bounce-back seasons from their starting infielders -- Gurriel, Altuve, Correa and Bregman, each of whom had a subpar performance at the plate in last year’s truncated season. Correa and Altuve rallied in the playoffs, though, helping Houston within a game of the World Series. The Astros will also count on Alvarez to return to form, after he played in only two games last year and then underwent surgery on both knees. His big bat could go a long way to making up for Springer’s lost production. Like most clubs, pitching depth will be a big issue and staying healthy will be paramount.

Great unknown:
Straw is taking over in center field for Springer, and no one knows what to expect. Straw had a nice spring at the plate and seemed comfortable, leading the club in hits. He’ll be given every opportunity to be the starter in center throughout the season, but the jury is out. Straw is one of the fastest players in the game and can wreak havoc if he can draw walks and slap the ball around the park. No one can replace Springer’s production, but Straw could help the Astros in many ways if he’s able to get on base consistently.

Team MVP will be ... Bregman
Bregman nearly won the AL MVP Award in 2019, finishing just shy of Mike Trout for second place. He had a breakout '19, hitting .296 with 41 homers, 112 RBIs, 122 runs, 119 walks and 83 strikeouts before, like so many star players around the league, slumping in '20. Coming off a season in which he slashed .242/.350/.451 with six homers and 22 RBIs in 42 games, Bregman gained 27 pounds so he could be stronger through his swing. He was slowed by left hamstring soreness early in camp, but he’s motivated to show his performance last season was a fluke.

Team Cy Young will be ... McCullers Jr.
Zack Greinke really doesn’t have ace stuff anymore and Valdez, who was Houston’s best starter last year, broke his left ring finger March 2 and is out indefinitely. Then there’s McCullers, who stayed healthy in 2020 coming off Tommy John surgery and pitched well, outside of two disastrous starts. The Astros rewarded him with a five-year, $85 million contract extension, and he’s hitting the regular season in the best shape and probably the best frame of mind of his career. In fact, pitching coach Brent Strom thinks he’ll finish in the Top 10 in the AL Cy Young Award race.

Bold prediction: Altuve will win the AL batting title
Altuve, a three-time batting champion, easily endured the worst season of his career in 2020 when he hit .219, which is nearly 100 points below his career average. Altuve didn’t seem to be in a good frame of mind, coming off a winter that was dominated by the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal. He was nowhere close to the same player who won the ’17 AL MVP Award, though he picked it up in the playoffs. Altuve’s teammates and coaches say he’s back to his old self this spring, which means he could be poised for a huge rebound.