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AL West Threat Assessment: Houston Astros

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Yes, they deserve to to die, and I hope they burn in hell!

MLB: AUG 11 Giants at Astros
yes, that will do nicely. hold still...

Welcome to the last installment of LL’s annual overview of our division rivals in the AL West. While the Mariners won’t have to face a Russian Doll-like repetition of California and Texas teams day after day with some Colorado spice sprinkled on top again, make no mistake, these are the teams you will become so very sick of seeing. Our goal with this series is to do a deep dive on what exactly the flavor of that malaise will be (and talk lots of shit). As we do every year, we’ll be summarizing each team’s offseason moves, taking stock of the general state of the team, analyzing best and worst-case outcomes for 2021, and trying to peer into the future to try to predict what the team will look like when the Mariners are, as we are constantly reminded, on The Rise (just like the oceans).

You can check out Addie’s deep dive into the hapless Texas Rangers here, and Amanda and Connor’s look at the perpetual Mariner fun-suckers that are the Oakland Athletics here, and Tim and Matthew roasted the Angels into oblivion on Tuesday. Today, Eric and John are here (with a couple guest roasts from Matthew and Kate) to talk about the true heels of Major League Baseball, the morally reprehensible and vile Houston Astros.

2021 Overview:

Threat level: Nuclear orange, the color of the fire that is burning in the trash can being endlessly hit with bats as the eternal legacy of this garbage organization.

Key additions: Jason Castro, Pedro Baez, Ryne Stanek, and Steve Cishek

Key subtractions: George Springer, Chris Devenski, Roberto Osuna, Josh Reddick, and Joe Biagini

Key returns: Michael Brantley, Justin Verlander (recovering from Tommy John)

PECOTA projection: 93-69 (first place)

FanGraphs projection: 89-73 (first place)

LL Staff projection: Another season of dreading whenever HOU appears on the schedule and lustily rooting against them in the playoffs.

Matthew’s prediction: Houston’s window of contention gets ripped out, boarded up, and barricaded in preparation for a looming fire sale, one that the team’s army of front office cash registers have surely been planning since the final out of the 2019 World Series. Banking on the fans’ eager return to the ballpark, and the oceans of revenue that will come with it, is a way better plan than re-signing Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. Right? RIGHT?!

State of the team:

2020 didn’t go as planned for anyone in the country, let alone in Major League Baseball. But, no team was as uniquely impacted, and ultimately shielded, by the COVID-19 pandemic as the Houston Astros. Now we know our poor, smooth brains can’t remember shit about the Before Times at this point, but allow us to jog some memory banks. It was the offseason after the 2019 season and literally all the baseball world could talk about from November 2019 until the world ended in the following February/March was the Astros and their technology-assisted sign-stealing scandal. Pitcher Mike Fiers dropped the dime to Ken Rosenthal and we were off to the races with talking about how long the team had cheated, how they did it, who was responsible, and how they should be punished. It was a huge deal!

Houston Astros v Atlanta Braves
DRAG THEM.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Commissioner Fred Manfred blew it punishment-wise, as usual, but since he is beholden to the team owners, none of this should have been shocking. Among the fired and suspended: GM Jeff Luhnow, fired and suspended from baseball for a year; manager A.J. Hinch, fired and suspended for baseball for a year, who literally already has another job and is back in baseball with the Detroit Tigers; Alex Cora, a bench coach with the Astros at the time, was fired from his Manager position by the Boston Red Sox and suspended for a year, and immediately hired back by the Red Sox after his suspension ended. Cool. Only Carlos Beltrán appears to have really been affected, as he had just been hired by the New York Mets as manager when the scandal broke, was then fired, and hasn’t been rehired. Guess who basically lost nothing in all of this? Yep, that would be Astros owner, billionaire, and general shitbird Jim Crane, who put all the people in place that set up the system of cheating. He still got to keep the team after getting fined a pittance of $5 million by MLB and the team was stripped of its first and second round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. Pretty small price to pay for a World Series championship at the end of the day for ol’ Jim. A drop in the ocean.

Oh yeah, you know who else hasn’t really been held accountable? The Houston Astros players who actually participated in the sign-stealing and cheating, besides Beltrán. Do you know who held more Astros players accountable than the actual commissioner of baseball? Oakland Athletics center fielder Ramón Laureano, who finally had enough after being plunked twice AND an Astros bench coach said something about his mother. Screw a pandemic, you talk shit about someone’s mom from the dugout like a coward? It’s on, hoss.

Laureano is the only current Oakland A’s player I will root for. I got your back, Ramón!

Anyways! I wrote about this during the plague-shortened 2020 season that we, the fans, have not gotten our due in this whole situation. We deserve to give the Astros the business. This is about justice for Chase DeJong, god dammit [Ed. note: DeJong is currently a Pittsburgh Pirate, which only supports our case that all the wrong people have been punished]. We didn’t have a say in the Astros joining the AL West in 2013 while they were in the very early stages of becoming a powerhouse team through dubious means. We’ve had to sit through countless drubbings by a cheating super team that didn’t even really get punished properly after they were caught cheating. This is the team that repeatedly bashed the Canó/Cruz/Félix Mariners teams of 2014-2018 and helped prevent them from ever securing a postseason berth, WHILE CHEATING. The only real justice will come in the form of how the Astros are received on the road by fans when it’s safe to pack the stadiums again. That’s for us. That’s the only vengeance and catharsis we’ll get and we need to make it personal for the players who actively cheated. It’s bullshit and they know it. ~Eric

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners
we haven’t forgotten about this either, jerks!
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

What could go right:

The Astros are booed relentlessly in every city they go to that allows fans at the stadium. Oh! You mean go right for the Astros? I dunno, they’ll probably fuck around and win the division since no one else in the AL West seems to be really going for it this season? After finishing second in the division last year with a losing record (haha, losers, can you imagine?!), they won two playoff series pretty much out of spite before falling to the Rays in the ALCS. Given the pretty absurd amount of talent the team still has, they’ll likely easily make yet another postseason run, just like FanGraphs and PECOTA say they will. ~Eric

Annoyingly, things always seem to go right for the Astros, even when they should, in a just world, be going wrong. Framber Valdez has a fractured ring finger that could keep him out from anywhere from weeks to months, but because the state of baseball is currently broken, the Astros were able to just go pick up Jake Odorizzi, who was a 4-win player in 2019. On paper this bullpen doesn’t look as much of a murderer’s row as it has in the past (remember Steve Cishek? He’s in the running for a spot in the Astros pen), but it’s the Astros, so they’ll probably take Brooks Raley and turn him into a fire-breathing monster who shuts down the Mariners every time they get close to winning a game against Houston. That same broken state of free agency meant that the Astros were also able to return Michael Brantley if not George Springer on a very reasonable deal, so the lineup doesn’t look as diminished as it might have as Houston continues to cycle through their championship core. The general state of not-tryiness in baseball also works in favor of the Astros, who should have another relatively unchallenged path to the top of the AL West and another deep post-season push or three before the juice of this particularly bitter orange finally runs dry. -Kate

What could go wrong:

Another scandal gets unearthed, this one proving that the Astros were never even baseball players at all, just the result of a chemical reaction when too much pomade and a Red Bull vodka spilled on the spreadsheets that were left in their musical trash cans. ~Matthew, from the top rope

Reinforcements coming?

No! Thanks for asking.

Ah you wanted more, that’s fair. Well, to find Houston, you have to hit “See More” on the 2021 Baseball America Farm Organizational Talent Rankings, which shows you the top-25 clubs before any prompts, so that should be some indication. The only consensus Top 100 prospect in the organization is RHP Forrest Whitley, whose future is sadly (checks weather forecast) cloudy with a 100% chance of TJ. The 23 year old has electrifying stuff and and a fastball at the top of the food chain, but since 2017 he has had a 50 game drug suspension (not PEDs), oblique injuries, significant struggles with command, and about six different motion tweaks. TJ now will keep Whitley out for all of 2021, and perhaps sideline him until mid-2022.

Beyond Whitley, there is intriguing SS/INF Jeremy Peña, and a lot of Houston Guys, which is to say high velocity, high strikeout, high walk rate arms who might put it together or simply continue to terrify hitters with coin flips on if pitches will come at the plate or their elbows. The league is full of 40 grade command arms who throw 95 with a slider, but the Astros are the league’s greatest connoisseurs.

It may help them overcome the loss of their draft picks in the first two rounds of last year and this year’s draft, which they’ll feel the pain of as they’ve scraped much of the prime talent out in trades over the past couple years to augment their roster. Birds in hand supersede those in the bush, and even tainted flags fly forever if nobody tears them down. However, Houston’s farm has lost a lot of depth in the past few years that they’ll struggle to replace without picking until the end of the first 100 selections: Seth Beer, Albert Abreu, Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers, Ramon Laureano, Colin Moran, Jason Martin, Joe Musgrove, Patrick Sandoval, Jorge Alcalá, David Paulino, Hector Perez, Derek Fisher, J.B. Bukauskas, Corbin Martin, and a smattering of other names.

It’s a lot of folks, which contains about 2-3 solid big leaguers at this point, but Houston turned that array into Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, Brian McCann, Martin Maldonado, Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Aaron Sanchez, a mess of decent relievers, and a competitive balance pick for losing Cole. They don’t have the depth to do that again, and their big league club is gonna be worse for wear if they don’t whip up some surprise gems. ~John

The future, Conan?

Justin Verlander, Carlos Correa, Zack Greinke, Yuli Gurriel, and Lance McCullers Jr. are all free agents after next season. While I wish I could say that means Houston will be reduced to iron oxide-hued ignominy, Yordan Alvarez isn’t yet 24, and Kyle Tucker has barely finished celebrating his 24th birthday, while the back end of the club’s rotation is 27 or under in Jose Urquidy, Cristian Javier, and Framber Valdez. There’s also a wild card in Francis Martes, a former top-20 prospect in MLB who had Tommy John surgery in 2018, then got suspended for PEDs in 2019 and only only made appearances in the Dominican Winter League over the past couple years. ~John

[Banging on trash can] Ig-no-mee! Ig-no-mee! For personal worldview reasons, I need to believe that the Astros are on their way down as the Mariners are ascending. Their bottom-five ranked farm helps with that. Just read John’s preceding two paragraphs in backwards order, that helps too. -Kate

Summary:

Seems like quite a few LL readers didn’t quite understand the purpose of this Threat Assessment series, and that’s our fault for not being more up front about its purpose: to shit-talk the other AL West teams. And no, I don’t care about the glass house the Mariners reside in, I’m huckin’ rocks anyways. We will have plenty of thorough statistical breakdowns in our series previews and elsewhere, fear not, but we just wanted a place to rip on these four teams we don’t very much care for. All that familiarity has bred a lot of contempt for these rivals, but none deserve our collective scorn more than the cheatin’ ass Houston Astros. If there is any justice, the missed draft picks and general slow drain of talent that has been occurring since 2019 will continue and the team will keep on sliding into the cellar just as the Mariners are set to ascend. Like escalators at a mall, we can hold out our hand to high-five them as we pass, only to pull it back at the last second and give them the finger instead as they descend to hell, where they belong. The end. ~Eric