5 questions facing Astros with new CBA

March 13th, 2022

HOUSTON -- Coming off their third trip to the World Series in five seasons -- and fifth consecutive appearance in the American League Championship Series -- the Astros’ window of contention remains very much open entering the 2022 season. And that’s true even if they don’t re-sign star shortstop Carlos Correa.

The Astros, who have won four of the previous five AL West titles, shook off the losses of free-agent pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton after the 2018 season, Gerrit Cole after the ‘19 season and center fielder George Springer after the ‘20 season, and they have managed to keep their place among AL royalty. The farm system has produced enough to fill some gaps, though that’s getting more challenging.

This year, the Astros return several members of their starting position-player core -- first baseman Yuli Gurriel, second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, designated hitter Yordan Alvarez and outfielders Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker. They re-signed Justin Verlander to place atop the rotation with Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez and AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Luis Garcia. And they should have a strong bullpen, anchored by All-Star closer Ryan Pressly.

With that in mind, there is still work to be done for third-year general manager James Click. Here are five questions facing the Astros now that a new CBA is in place:

1. What’s left for the Astros to do to their roster?
Look for the Astros to bring in a low-priced veteran player to help fill the void at center field. Jake Meyers was expected to see extensive time this year in center but will miss at least a couple of months of the regular season after undergoing left shoulder surgery in November.

Also, the Astros figure to be in the market for another left-handed reliever to join the bullpen. The club lost right-handers Kendall Graveman and Yimi García and lefty Brooks Raley in free agency, but it signed veteran right-hander Héctor Neris. Houston has right-handed options in the bullpen to get lefties out (Phil Maton, specifically), but the club is seeking another lefty to join southpaw Blake Taylor.

2. Who’s going to play center field?
Center field was a bit of a revolving door for Houston last year, with Myles Straw taking over for Springer before Straw was dealt to Cleveland in July to acquire Maton. Chas McCormick emerged as the starter and soon was joined by Meyers, who dazzled out of the box before leveling out. Meyers started 31 games in center in the regular season and McCormick started 28.

Meyers injured his shoulder crashing into the wall in the AL Division Series in Chicago and underwent surgery in November to repair a labral tear in his left shoulder. He’s expected to be out through May, so Tucker will slide over from right on occasion and share time with McCormick in center. The Astros could then play Brantley in right and have Aledmys Díaz and Alvarez get some reps in left field, as well.

3. Is Jeremy Peña ready to play shortstop?
Correa -- one of the most popular players in club history -- will leave huge shoes to fill. The Astros’ plan at shortstop entering 2022 is to turn to No. 4-ranked prospect Jeremy Peña, a terrific fielder who must prove he can hit Major League pitching. Díaz will play some shortstop, as well, but the concern for Houston is that both have injury histories.

Peña will be given a shot to show he’s the future, though. He hit .287/.346/.598 with 10 homers in 30 Triple-A games after losing the first three months of last season to a left wrist injury.

4. Is Bregman healthy?
Yes. Bregman underwent surgery on his right wrist Nov. 8 and is healed up and ready to go for the season. Bregman hit .270 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs in 91 games last year in the regular season, but he missed 58 games with a strained left quad. The Astros hope the leg injuries that have plagued Bregman the last few years are behind him.

If Bregman can return to his 2018-19 form -- he finished a close second to Mike Trout in the ’19 AL MVP Award voting -- that will be a huge development for the Astros.

5. Which prospects could make their debuts in 2022?
Peña could crack the Opening Day roster, but the three prospects ranked ahead of him also could make their way to Houston this year. Top prospect Korey Lee, a catcher, likely will make his debut in 2022 and could take over as the starter in ’23 once veterans Jason Castro and Martín Maldonado are no longer in the picture.

Right-hander Hunter Brown (No. 3) was untouchable at the Trade Deadline and could force his way onto the mound in Houston later in the season. Then there’s No. 2 prospect Pedro Leon, the 23-year-old who hit .220/.339/.369 across three levels last year in his introduction to the Minor Leagues. Considering the Astros’ center-field situation remains unstable, Leon could play a role late in 2022.