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2019 AL West Preview: Houston Astros, position player overview

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They gon’ be good

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This week we continue on with our preview of the American League West, looking at each franchise’s past, present, and future. If you missed last week’s start of the series with the Rangers, you can find that here. Yesterday, Zach kicked off AstroWorld here. Next, let’s do a position player breakdown of the Houston Astros, who, barring the spread of an incurable disease across eastern Texas, will be crowned division champs again this October.

Significant Departures: Evan Gattis, Marwin González, Martín Maldonado, Brian McCann

Significant Arrivals: Michael Brantley, Robinson Chirinos, Aledmys Díaz

Projected Lineup:

CF George Springer

3B Alex Bregman

2B José Altuve

SS Carlos Correa

1B Yuli Gurriel

LF Michael Brantley

DH Tyler White

RF Josh Reddick

C Robinson Chirinos

Bench:

C Max Stassi

IF Aledmys Díaz

OF Tony Kemp

OF Jake Marisnick

The names at the top remain the same, supplemented by the relatively cheap addition of Brantley (although Houston gave him more money than the Twins ultimately paid for González). While players like Brantley, Chirinos, Díaz, and Reddick all arrived from different teams, none of the top five hitters in the Astros’ projected lineup have ever known another MLB organization.

Springer – First-round pick (11th overall) in 2011

Bregman – First-round pick (2nd overall) in 2015

Altuve – Signed as amateur free agent in 2007

Correa – First-round pick (1st overall) in 2012

Gurriel – Signed as free agent in 2016 after defecting from Cuba

Houston’s core four is largely responsible for the franchise’s remarkable turnaround, with Gurriel helping push them from playoff team to World Series champion. While the Astros pressed for another shot at the title last year, they ultimately came up short, losing to Boston in five games. After charging out to a hot start, the Astros faded down the stretch, barely scraping .500 ball in July and August, and much of that slump falls on the offense. Gurriel took a Harden-sized step back last year, losing 50 points off his ISO, and in his age-35 season that trend bears monitoring if it continues, as Gurriel’s defensive limitations and allergy to walks require him to hit, loudly and often.

Injuries have impacted the other members of the core four, with Springer, Altuve, and Correa all losing time last season with various ailments (Alex Bregman remains unaffected thanks to signing the same pact with the devil Grayson Allen signed). With healthy seasons from the core, the Astros are heavily favored to make another deep postseason run, with Vegas giving them the same odds as the Red Sox to win the World Series. But the Astros’ window is now: Bregman and Correa are still just 24, but Altuve is 28 and, like the fresh-faced youth you cannot believe is allowed to drink at the same bar as you, George Springer is somehow 29.

2013: 51-111 (5th in AL West)

2014: 70-92 (4th in AL West)

2015: 86-76 (2nd in AL West – lost ALDS to Kansas City)

2016: 84-78 (3rd in AL West)

2017: 101-61 (1st in AL West – won World Series)

2018: 103-59 (1st in AL West – lost ALCS to Boston)

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Jeff Luhnow’s front office reinforced the roster with sharp free agent deals (Reddick, Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander), and savvy trades (poaching González in a 2011 swap for Marco Duarte) that resulted in a shiny ring, but they have also shown a Belichickian knowledge of when to cut ties with certain players. After winning the title, Houston let key contributors Mike Fiers and Luke Gregerson bolt in free agency while using Michael Feliz, Colin Moran, and Joe Musgrove to trade for Gerrit Cole. This winter, the team bid adieu to a World Series hero in Morton, let González escape in free agency, and appear comfortable doing the same with Dallas Keuchel. Yet, Houston’s roster still feels galaxies ahead of any AL West foe.

While they lose Evan Gattis’ power and proficiency against lefties, Houston still has 28-year-old Tyler White, who has the physical appearance of a Diet Gattis but is likely the more complete hitter. In limited playing time last year, the right-handed hitting White showed an impressive .276/.354/.533 slash line and a 143 OPS+. Having been blocked at the MLB level for his entire career, White has never topped 276 plate appearances or 85 games in a major league season. He stands to eclipse those numbers easily this season, especially with Houston lacking a left-handed bat to fill in at DH against right-handed starters. Given Brantley’s medical records and declining speed, though, the Astros could always slide him to designated hitter and start Tony Kemp in left field.

Marwin González trudging to Minnesota certainly chips away at the Astros’ hard exterior, but a cushy depth chart should help soften the blow. Though Gurriel doesn’t have anywhere near the defensive chops of González, he’s the much better hitter of the two, and can mostly not embarrass himself in any non-shortstop position. Díaz and White also have brief experience playing corner outfield and can ping-pong between multiple positions if need be. Losing a Swiss army knife like González—who was worth 8.7 fWAR from 2014-2018—is never ideal, but the Astros may attempt to replicate his production by combining the skills of several players.

Of course, worrying about the bottom of the Astros’ lineup is like trying to stop The Beatles by kidnapping Ringo. Springer, Bregman, Altuve, and Correa are all megastars on the right side of 30 who reek of 90s Yankees. Even with Altuve’s American League MVP, Springer’s World Series MVP, and Correa’s Rookie of the Year accolades, Bregman might wind up as the best player of the bunch. The certified good guy secured his first All-Star nod and top-five MVP finish in ’18, while also surpassing the 30 HR/100 RBI thresholds, leading the league with 51 doubles, and finishing fourth among AL position players in fWAR. With the addition of Brantley, the club that recently lost 111 games now has four of the AL’s top 30 players in fWAR from last season.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game One Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Unfortunately for the Mariners, as well as the Athletics, Angels, Rangers, and every other team in the American League, Houston somehow still has prospects on their way up. Outfielder Kyle Tucker—the sixth-best prospect in the game according to MLB Pipeline—went to the Astros in the same draft as Bregman, as Houston’s failure to sign Brady Aiken in 2014 gifted the team two top-five picks the next year. All Tucker did last season was hit .332/.400/.590 in Triple-A with a double-digit walk rate, a 155 wRC+, and countless children saved from burning buildings. He also cashed in 24 homers and 20 stolen bases for good measure and recorded the highest line drive percentage of his minor league career. Here’s what it’ll look like when Tucker eventually joins this face-melting lineup.

GIF courtesy of Gfycat

Believe it or not, there are some holes in this lineup. As previously mentioned, the Astros don’t have a powerful left-handed bat on the big-league roster to plug in at DH if White struggles. That said, Tucker is a lefty bat who by all accounts is ready for the big time. Do not be surprised if he supplants White at some point this year, or takes hold of the left field spot so Brantley can shelve his glove. The strikeout-prone Derek Fisher represents another interesting possibility for the Astros. Just 25 years old with a data-supported history of walloping the ball, Fisher is part of the logjam Houston faces in its outfield.

Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle reported that Fisher showed up to camp with a “more ‘natural’ swing, eliminating some of the uncomfortable or abnormal adjustments he incurred while being so launch angle driven”. If Fisher can find a swing that works for him, and package it with his 70-grade speed, he could carve out a consistent niche on the team and become more than just a footnote from the epic showdown with the Dodgers.

If not, Fisher could still hold some value as an enticing trade target for a team looking to bolster its outfield speed.

The biggest hole in the Astros’ lineup is their lack of a credible catcher. Despite being allowed to go Supermarket Sweep-style through the draft over the first half of this decade, the Astros somehow forgot to snag a catcher. Triple-A repeater Garrett Stubbs lacks the physicality/durability of an everyday catcher, and Max Stassi hasn’t been able to put it together in The Show yet, leaving the Astros sacrificing either offensively or defensively with a string of veterans. Houston also wasn’t willing to meet the Marlins’ price for J.T. Realmuto, choosing to protect the long-term health of the franchise over a shot to go all-in on 2019. While that may not matter as Houston plows through a weakened AL West, it will be interesting to track that strategy as the Astros climb the playoffs ladder.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Mariners heroically had a winning record against the ‘Stros last year, eking out a 10-9 record despite being outscored by six runs in those 19 battles. As the Mariners begin their one step back, two steps forward plan, they probably will not match that winning percentage this summer.

Houston might actually have an improved offense from the one that finished sixth in scoring a year ago. Should Brantley continue to shake off his injury-related cobwebs and hit like he did in 2018, and if Tucker does indeed get called up to an everyday role, Houston might very well add more hardware to its trophy case.