WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The post-Carlos Correa era has the Astros once again as one of the teams to beat in the American League.
Coming off a 95-win season in which the Astros reached the World Series for the third time in five years, Houston returns a deep and talented offense, led by third baseman Alex Bregman, second baseman Jose Altuve, designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, right fielder Kyle Tucker and first baseman Yuli Gurriel.
Despite losing pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. to a flexor tendon injury to begin the season, the Astros return Justin Verlander, who won the Cy Young Award in his last full season in 2019. And they have an All-Star closer in Ryan Pressly to lead a bullpen that has enough weapons to back up their starting pitching.
What needs to go right?
Let’s start with Jeremy Peña, the rookie shortstop who’s taking over for Correa. There’s little doubt Peña has the defensive skills to handle the position, but he will have to prove he can swing the bat effectively. The Astros will need to get consistent offensive production from center field, where Chas McCormick and Jose Siri are splitting time while Jake Meyers (shoulder) is out. The Astros have quality starting pitching depth -- even with McCullers out, Verlander is coming back from Tommy John surgery. They’ll need Verlander to return to form and young starters Luis Garcia, José Urquidy and Framber Valdez to continue to improve and stay healthy.
See above. Peña is taking over at shortstop for one of the most decorated and popular players in club history in Correa, who signed with the Twins. Peña, who’s the Astros’ No. 1-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, is the best defensive player in the system and is riding the momentum of a strong offensive finish to the season last year at Triple-A. He injured his left wrist diving for a grounder in Spring Training last year and had surgery that cost him much of the season, but he returned to set a career high with 10 homers while hitting .297 in just 37 Minor League games and claimed a spot on the 40-man roster.
Team MVP will be
Bregman. The third baseman, who finished a close second to Mike Trout in the AL MVP race in 2019 with a 1.105 OPS, is completely healthy and poised for a rebound. He’s had two injury-filled years, missing 58 games last year with a strained left quad, but he underwent hand surgery after the season which has returned the strength to his right hand/wrist. Bregman batted .270 with 12 homers and 55 RBIs in 91 games last year. He was out from June 17-Aug. 24 with a quad injury and hit .379 with three homers and 17 RBIs in his first 18 games off the injured list before the hand became an issue.
Team Cy Young will be
Valdez. With McCullers out to start the season and Verlander having pitched only one game in the previous two seasons, we’re going with Valdez. The lefty starter went 11-6 with a 3.14 ERA in 22 starts last year after missing the first two months of the season following a broken finger suffered in the spring. Valdez had a 3.57 ERA, 2.85 FIP and 1.12 WHIP in 70 2/3 innings in in the shortened 2020 season, earning some Cy Young votes. If he can limit the walks, he can be a workhorse starter.
The Astros will win their fourth AL pennant in six years and their fifth AL West title in six years. The Astros have lost high-profile free agents in Gerrit Cole following the 2019 season, George Springer after ‘20 and Correa after last year, but they keep on winning. That’s bound to catch up to them at some point, but their lineup remains deep and the rotation is good enough. Plus, if they’re in contention in July, owner Jim Crane will make a move to bolster their chances. This is an experienced club whose window to contend remains wide open.