WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Astros, who were eight outs away from winning their second World Series title in three years, head into a new era with manager Dusty Baker and general manager James Click taking over a team thrust into controversy this offseason.
The sign-stealing scandal cost general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch their jobs, but the Astros return a star-studded roster that’s trying to win at least 100 games for the fourth year in a row. No team has ever done that. The Astros will be more motivated than ever and have a chip on their shoulder as they aim to get back to the World Series for the third time in four years in 2020.
What’s the goal?
Redemption. The Astros faced questions all offseason and into Spring Training about the legitimacy of their 2017 championship after an MLB report detailed how they used electronics to steal opposing pitchers’ signs during that year. The scrutiny and the pressure have taken their toll on the players, and to a man they say the best answer is to win.
Despite losing pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, the Astros are still one of the top three or four teams in the big leagues and should win a fourth consecutive AL West title. How they deal with the distractions concerning the fallout from the sign-stealing scandal will help define their season.
How do they get there?
All eyes will be on Houston’s core players -- Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer and José Altuve -- and how they perform at the plate this year. They’ll also have 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez for a full season, and Yuli Gurriel is coming off a big year. The Astros are going to score a lot of runs.
Of course, starting pitching will be a huge key, and having 2019 AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation, in addition to a full season of Zack Greinke and José Urquidy and the return of Lance McCullers Jr., should help them absorb the loss of Cole.
What could go wrong?
Injuries. Will McCullers, who missed all of 2019 following Tommy John surgery, make a full comeback? Will Correa finally put a full season together and avoid injuries? Can Springer and Altuve avoid the injured list, as well?
And there’s some legitimate concern at the bottom of the rotation, where the Astros are putting a lot of faith in Urquidy to blossom after a promising rookie season, and hope that Josh James or Austin Pruitt will step up and fill the fifth starter spot. They don’t have the rotation depth they’ve had the last three years.
Who might surprise?
How about James, who’s got a chance to win a rotation spot after being used in the bullpen the last two years? Pitching coach Brent Strom’s work with Pruitt makes him another interesting player to keep an eye on, and does Forrest Whitley get it all together and knock at the door of the big leagues?
A strong season from Kyle Tucker could qualify as a surprise, but he was a former top prospect who’s dominated in the Minor Leagues and had a nice showing in 22 games in the big leagues last year. Keep an eye on versatile infielder Abraham Toro, a switch-hitter who hits the ball hard.