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AL West Threat Assessment: Houston Astros

The bullies of the AL West still have the sharpest teeth in the division, but they’re missing a few now, and Rob Manfred is hovering with the pliers

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros
Orbit instructing the crowd on how to bang on a trash can
Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When we’ve done these accountings of the AL West in past years, we usually start with the less-terrifying members of the division and work our way up to the big dogs. This year, however, with the Angels and the Rangers both theoretically Going For It and a handful of moves still up in the air for each team, we’ve flipped the order, as both Oakland and Houston have remained relatively quiet this off-season.

Another difference this year: with the Mariners in another stepback season, we’re taking a slightly different tack and looking at how the rest of the AL West stacks up, not just for 2020, but for the theoretical re-opening of the Mariners’ window of competition in 2021 and beyond.

The Astros in 2020:

The AL’s pennant winners have had as ugly a few months as a team with their on-field success could brew up. Their assistant GM was clumsily defended, then eventually fired for berating female reporters in the locker room, followed by the revelations of a sign-stealing operation reportedly orchestrated with sophisticated technological equipment and software, to grant their hitters an edge as far back as the 2017 season. MLB’s investigation is ongoing, and the league’s track record on punishment is as uneven as its inspections are interminable. All that leaves the team that came a win away from the title in a surprising amount of flux. Gerrit Cole is gone, their payroll is over $200 million, and they’re already past the luxury tax threshold which tends to make most owners nervously nibble their nails. Significant additions are unlikely, so barring a trade this is likely the club they run it back with.

The rotation:

Projected Rotation: RHP Justin Verlander, RHP Zack Greinke, RHP Lance McCullers Jr., RHP Jose Urquidy, RHP Rogelio Armenteros, RHP Forrest Whitley

As it stands, the Astros remain a duality. No team in the AL West has lost more productivity from their rotation, yet they retain the best unit in the division, though the Rangers are closer than Houston might prefer. Verlander and Greinke will cross 30 years of combined MLB service in 2020, and post-steroid-era 36-year-olds are not the sturdiest foundations in baseball, but if there are chinks in the armor of either ace they’ve yet to be revealed. Greinke didn’t miss a beat moving back from the NL to the AL, and when the 2019 Cy Young winning Verlander isn’t pitching in the World Series, he’s as unstoppable as ever. As long as both remain elite, Houston is a title heavyweight again.

Injuries or ineffectiveness from either, however, puts the onus on several unproven or uncertain names. McCullers has brilliant stuff, with mid-90s heat that is a literal secondary pitch to his impeccable curveball. However, the 26-year-old missed all of 2019 with Tommy John surgery, and has yet to crest 130 innings in a big league season. Urquidy put his name on the map with a star turn in Game 4 of the World Series, giving Houston a chance to rest their rotation. The usual concerns about a 6’0 starter are present vis-a-vis durability, but Urquidy has had just two IL stints in the minors, both for minor injuries. Armenteros is an outlier in the Houston system, with more simmer than sizzle on his heater, but he’s gotten results at every level. He probably fits the bullpen, but he’s liable to spot start on several occasions, and looked fine in an audition last year. He could share that swing role with Josh James, Framber Valdez, and Brad Peacock.

That leaves Whitley, who seemed like a lock to have debuted and claimed at least the No. 3 starter position this time last year. Instead, the top pitching prospect in baseball had a true year from hurler hell. After an outside shot at a 2018 debut went up in smoke from a PED suspension, Whitley dominated the AA level at 20 and handled the AFL. He began 2019 at AAA, where a combination of mechanical issues, the rabbit ball, and the PCL conspired to shoot his walk rate over 5 per 9 innings. Even when striking out 10 per 9, that won’t do. Whitley eventually was placed on the IL in May, missing over a month before a three-week rehab that finished him in AA and the AFL, same as 2018. Whitley looked sharper, albeit far from efficient, in the AFL, but the 22 year old has swing-and-miss stuff that fools hitters from both sides of the plate. Whitley is the greatest wild card in the Astros system: realizing his potential could supplant much of Gerrit Cole’s absence in the next few years, but whether he reaches that ceiling before the vets decline - or at all - is a massive question mark on the future of Houston’s success.

Lineup stalwarts:

Projected Lineup: CF George Springer, LF Michael Brantley, 2B José Altuve, 3B Alex Bregman, DH Yordan Alvarez, SS Carlos Correa, 1B Yuli Gurriel, RF Kyle Tucker, C Martin Maldonado

What is a stalwart in a roster where every starter last year was a league-average or better hitter?

Houston remains the most imposing team in baseball until proven otherwise, with five players who could be the stars of lesser teams in their likely top six of the order. An obvious but underrated benefit of a young core of position players is the improved odds of health, and outside of Correa’s nagging back troubles, Houston has been fortunate in that regard. Bregman’s best season yet couldn’t quite beat Mike Trout minus a month, but he is an otherwise flawless baseball player. Altuve’s explosive 2019 return to health and production could be followed by Correa to somehow improve this lineup in 2020, particularly if Alvarez doesn’t miss a beat and the 22-year-old Tucker maintains his numbers and finally supplants Josh Reddick.

Simply put, unless it was all a sign-stealing induced smokescreen, Houston’s offense should be baseball’s best. Again.

Key losses:

RHP Gerrit Cole, LHP Wade Miley, C Robinson Chirinos, RHP Will Harris, RHP Aaron Sanchez, RHP Collin McHugh, RHP Héctor Rondón

Key off-season additions:

Re-signed C Martin Maldonado, re-signed RHP Joe Smith, signed C Dustin Garneau

Season projection:

Kate showed her hand a bit in the A’s projection, but she went out on a limb and said this is the year that Oakland ekes past the Stros. I’m close to that point, given Houston’s stagnancy, but beyond the impact we’ve outlined here, their bullpen remains a strength as well. Unless MLB drops the hammer in a major way on the current club, there’s just too much young talent still here to put them anywhere outside the top of the AL.

The Astros in 2021:

Houston’s free agent list in 2021 is short but of import. They’ll lose their entire 2019 outfield in Brantley, Springer, and Reddick, as well as their 1B/UTIL Yuli Gurriel and RHP Brad Peacock to boot. That creates three holes that, internally, the Astros aren’t exactly equipped to fill. The Greinke trade cleared out much of the middle of Houston’s farm, making the 2020 season a crucial one for their system. Does AFL attendee J.J. Matijevic have another gear in his bat to compensate for his defensive shortcomings? Can Abraham Toro learn the outfield and hit at the big league level? Have the stars improved, or even maintained, as Altuve reaches age-31, Bregman and Correa hit 27, and both Verlander and Greinke hit 38? Are Tucker, Whitley, and Alvarez the next wave at last as they approach 24? Is Jim Crane willing to continue footing $200+ million payrolls to keep the club in contention as their farm system clears the last of its current elite talent?

These are real issues, but they are the mosquitoes that swirl around the heads of titans. This all is said with the caveat of being uncertain whether a powerful, example-making hammer is dropped on Houston’s head, or if they get a newspaper-whack to the knee. Assuming a light, or draft pick/IFA cap and fines-heavy punishment that impacts the future of the org more than the present, Houston should continue to be a division favorite in 2021, though they could be easily undone by two things. The first: their aces will be aged ever further, and though hurlers like Brandon Bielak, Christian Javier, and Tyler Ivey may be ready, they’re not expected to be the impact type that Whitley has flashed. An average rotation makes this club a playoff favorite but drops them a step below World Series expectant, and the loss of Springer and Brantley only draws their margin for error more tightly.

The Astros in 2022:

The good news: a minimum of $68 million comes off the books from just two players!
The bad news: their two best pitchers are free agents!
The worse news: so is their third-best pitcher! And their closer! And Carlos Correa!

2022 is the first time it’s quite plausible the Astros won’t be good enough to make the playoffs. The club has committed contracts to just two players - Altuve and Bregman - and while they’re a good pair, the rest of the club is a question mark. Altuve will be 32, due $29 million in each of 2022-2024, while Bregman will be in the final cheap year of his extension, getting just $12.67 million in 2022 before bumping to $30.2 million for ‘23 and ‘24. All of 2021’s caveats of uncertainty on aging and development, as well as a simple lack of elite talent in the farm remain, looming larger as the team finds itself more limited in ways to augment its roster outside of free agency or taking on extra money in deals.

If Tucker and Whitley age into stardom and Alvarez maintains his early mastery of AL pitching, this is a more minor issue. The Astros will have to be big in free agency, but teams with young, cheap stars are always better off than those without, and if Houston sees the writing on the wall early with Correa, who has long seemed disinterested in a below-market extension, they could trade him, take a short-term hit, and try to boost their farm for 2022/2023 and beyond. The Lastros aren’t coming back, but they should be mortal again by this point in the decade at least. That’s all we can ask for, unless Rob Manfred feels like throwing out an SMU-style death penalty.