Playing Pepper 2019: Houston Astros

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Houston Astros
103-59, first in the AL West, lost in the ALCS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

Things sure have changed a lot in Houston over the past few years.  It’s getting harder and harder to remember that Houston was, at one time, a laughingstock of a team that was just hoping not to have triple-digit losses.  Now, with a World Series in the recent past and coming off another deep postseason run, it’s less about the season than it is what they can do when they return to the postseason stage.  Today we have Jayne Hansen from What The Heck Bobby? to let us in on some Astro knowledge.  Follow Jayne on Twitter @JayneWTHB!

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Jayne: I think most Astros fans were somewhat underwhelmed by the front office moves during this offseason. Collin McHugh (who hasn’t started for the Astros since 2017) and free agent Wade Miley (who missed big chunks of the 2018 season due to injury) have big shoes to fill as they replace departing free agents Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton, who combined for more than 370 innings in 2018, and Lance McCullers who is recovering from TJ surgery.

Plus McHugh’s move to the rotation further weakens a bullpen that has already lost Joe Smith to injury for the majority of the season as well as free agent lefty Tony Sipp who had a brilliant season in 2018. If the front office doesn’t move to bolster the bullpen with a veteran presence, there will be a number of younger, more inexperienced players who will be required to step up.

Aledmys Diaz and Robinson Chirinos were added to counter the free agency defections of Marwin Gonzalez and Brian McCann, respectively. Diaz and Chirinos have their work cut out for them as they seek to replace those two very popular and valuable team players. Of particular concern, Chirinos represents a significant defensive downgrade from McCann.

And lastly, I do not dislike the Michael Brantley signing; as long as he’s healthy, he should be a very productive member of the team. But I didn’t see an outfield addition as an urgent need. Plus it exacerbates the outfield logjam and presumably sends Kyle Tucker and Myles Straw to AAA to start the season no matter how well they may perform in Spring Training.

Overall, I would give the Astros an incomplete on their offseason maneuvering.

C70: Carlos Correa had the lowest OPS of his career last year. What are the expectations of him this season?

Jayne: I look for Carlos Correa to have a comeback year in 2019. He has addressed his back problems by revamping his routine and incorporating yoga as a means of keeping his back healthy, strong and flexible. As long as he keeps healthy, he is capable of putting up 2017 numbers (or better) once again.

C70: What would you say is the biggest strength of the team?

Jayne: To me, the core group of Astros-grown prospects who take the field day in and day out have become the heart and soul of the team. Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman have become the leaders of this team. They challenge themselves and each other in a way that sets the tone for everyone. When Carlos Beltran was brought in for his maturity and veteran presence in 2017, I felt like the players needed that. But I don’t think that’s the case any longer. This core group can now take on that mantle and set the example for the next group of rookies that heads to Houston.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Jayne: The Astros may not have made all the moves that I would have liked in the offseason, but that can probably be said by fans of the other AL West teams as well. Even though I have a few questions about this team, they should still be able to win the division.

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Jayne: I have concerns about the bullpen makeup and the catcher situation from a defensive standpoint, but the biggest question mark for the season is probably the starting rotation. As I mentioned above, replacing Keuchel, Morton and McCullers won’t be easy. With the recent quad injury to Josh James, the race for 5th starter appears to be between Brad Peacock and Framber Valdez as the front office doesn’t seem inclined to rush top prospects such as Forrest Whitley and Corbin Martin to the bigs. Since Valdez has much less experience (and has the tendency to be a little wild), Peacock probably has a leg up on the competition but Peacock, like McHugh, worked out of the bullpen in 2018 and his inclusion in the rotation will weaken the bullpen even further. There are a number of other pitchers who could force the issue with good outings this spring, such as Brady Rodgers and Rogelio Armenteros, but neither has really been mentioned as an option at this point.

If healthy, a one-two punch of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole heading up the rotation is about as good as it gets. And McHugh, Miley and Peacock are certainly all capable of putting up solid seasons. But unlike last season, when McHugh and Peacock were available out of the bullpen to start if needed, there really won’t be that level of experienced depth available. If injuries occur (and don’t they always?), the Astros will either have to rely on their young studs or trade for an experienced arm. The good news is that Whitley and Martin (as well as J.B. Bukauskas) should be ready soon. Valdez, Rodgers and Armenteros will be waiting in the wings. James should be healthy soon. And wild cards like Cy Sneed and Akeem Bostick could emerge. And, with the amount of talent in the system, an experienced arm could be obtained via trade without mortgaging the future.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Jayne: The joy I take in watching the Astros (and a number of other teams now) is seeing young players who I’ve talked with and gotten to know in the minors fulfill their dreams in the majors. I wasn’t quite as amped as Josh James was in his debut last September (hitting 101 and striking out 9), but it was close. It’s always a thrill when one of “my guys” gets the opportunity to shine and comes through in a big way whether it’s for the Astros or another team. I’m forced to pay more attention to other teams now to keep an eye on former Astros, and it’s made me a better fan of baseball. So, that’s cool.

Thanks much to Jayne for her contributions again this year.  The Cardinals will get an upclose look at them during the regular season and, who knows, maybe the teams will get to add to their outstanding postseason history together!

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