Playing Pepper 2020: Houston Astros

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

These answers were obtained very soon after spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed.  Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns but my hope is that this gives you a good feel for the Astros, even if some specific items may be affected.

Houston Astros
107-55, first in AL West, lost in World Series
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Last year’s Pepper

If you are an Astros fan, the silver lining to this whole societal shutdown is that, for right now, nobody is talking about your team.  A winter of scandal put a damper on the best era of Houston baseball ever seen.  How do you pick up the pieces?  Can you move forward?  Let’s talk about it.

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Jayne Hansen What the Heck Bobby? JayneWTHB

C70: Obviously the biggest news this offseason was the cheating scandal and everything that went around it. How did you react to everything? Were the punishments fair? How did this affect your relationship with the team? (Feel free to use this as a venting space.)

Jayne: My initial reaction in some detail can be found in this blog post

At the time, I was most upset with the thought that Jose Altuve might have participated in this scheme because, from what I know of him, I just couldn’t see it. I just felt that he was too serious and mature to have gone along with it. I was extremely relieved when Carlos Correa came out and firmly asserted that Altuve (as well as Josh Reddick and Tony Kemp) refused to have anything to do with it. My high esteem for Altuve is still firmly in place. And I think Mike Fiers is a passive-aggressive coward. The time for him to have come out publicly about this was 2017. Instead, he kept his mouth shut and accepted his World Series ring. He is no hero in this situation.

I do think the punishments were fair (see my post on that as well), but I also think that Rob Manfred is using the Astros as scapegoats. If he actually does anything to punish other teams who were doing virtually the same thing, I will be shocked. As far as my relationship with the team, that had been strained already ever since the Roberto Osuna signing. I let my season tickets go in response to that debacle. With that said, the two people who were primarily responsible for that signing are now gone (Jeff Luhnow and Brandon Taubman).

But to be honest, even before that signing, I had become less a fan of the Astros and more a fan of the individual players who I’ve gotten to know. After years of writing about this team and seeing how the sausage is made, I had already distanced myself emotionally and had become much more cynical. I still love baseball, but the owners, Rob Manfred and MLB? Not so much.

Since you sent me these questions, one thing has changed drastically. When the sign-stealing news first broke, the unbridled hatred of some fans of other teams for the Astros was absolutely disgusting. People threatening the players and their families, hoping that the players would suffer career-ending injuries … just foul and disgusting stuff out there. Fortunately, most of this came from knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who talk big on social media and are pathetic losers in real life, but still the fact that the players have to be concerned about their safety and that of their families is reprehensible.

There was, of course, a lot of booing and heckling at Spring Training. And I fully expected that to go on for a good while. But I felt like some of the rhetoric on social media was calming down a bit (or that might just be the fact that I block rather than engage the worst offenders). And then came Covid-19 and the delay of baseball season. People suddenly have real life stuff to worry about rather than about who cheated at a game. My thoughts go out to everyone as they deal with this very stressful time. I hope that baseball is back soon, but right now it’s more important to take care of each other. AND WASH YOUR HANDS!!

C70: On the field, the personnel hasn’t changed a lot save the loss of Gerrit Cole. Will a full year of Zach Greinke be able to offset that loss?

Jayne: No. Next question. Seriously, the Astros have been very lucky with Justin Verlander to date, but his being shut down by a lat strain may really hurt the team. The problem is that without Gerrit Cole and Collin McHugh (and with swing man Brad Peacock out with a neck issue), there are very few experienced pitchers to help fill out the rotation. Greinke will certainly help matters a lot, but I’m not sure how many innings the Astros can count on from Lance McCullers as he returns from Tommy John surgery.

Beyond those pitchers, there is very little experience at the major league level so, barring a trade or other addition to the mix, they will have to rely on Jose Urquidy (who had a great debut in 2019, but has limited experience), Framber Valdez (who has had mixed success in his short career), recent acquisition Austin Pruitt (who was on the frequent flyer plan between AAA and MLB last season), Josh James (who has very little experience as a starter at the MLB level), Bryan Abreu (with all of seven major league relief appearances under his belt), Cionel Perez (with zero starts and limited effectiveness/limited appearances in the bigs), and Cy Sneed (who was having a great spring, but has only pitched 21.1 MLB innings). Beyond that, the Astros have Cristian Javier (who I am very high on) and lefty Kent Emanuel (who had a very good season when starting in AAA last year), neither of whom have any MLB experience but are on the 40-man roster and arguably ready; Enoli Paredes and Nivaldo Rodriguez (who are also on the 40-man, but aren’t quite there yet); and Forrest Whitley (who isn’t on the 40-man roster and hasn’t shown sustained success yet despite his top prospect credentials).

So even if Verlander is healthy by the time the season finally starts, there are a lot of question marks further down the rotation and the Astros will have to rely fairly heavily on their young arms.

C70: There’s been buzz about a potential trade of George Springer this season. Will the Astros do that? Should they?

Jayne: With the new regime barely in place, I don’t have a feel at all for what they’re going to want to do with Springer. Personally, I would like to see him stay. Despite anything that may have happened in 2017, Springer is a special player with incredible heart and talent who inspires his teammates and gives back to the community. His intangibles bring more to the team than can be quantified.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Jayne: I have ZERO idea at this point. There are way too many question marks about this season.

C70: What’s the main topic Astros fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Jayne: Prior to Covid-19 rearing its ugly head (and outside of the reaction to the sign-stealing scandal), one of the main topics was the desire to re-sign Collin McHugh not only because of the rotation questions, but also because he’s a really terrific human being (unfortunately, he was signed by the Red Sox).

Another topic getting a lot of discussion right now is the abysmal treatment of minor league players by MLB. Those players haven’t gotten a paycheck in six months and are getting zero support from MLB. The idea of people who are by no means wealthy, people like you and me, being the ones “adopting” MiLB players rather than the billion dollar organizations they work for is ridiculous.

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Jayne: Having it actually start at some point.

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