Playing Pepper 2021: Houston Astros

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Houston Astros
29-31, second in the AL West, lost in the ALCS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

When last we saw the Astros, they were about to embark on the first season after the devastating revelations about the trash can scandal had broken.  There’s no doubt that, had a sub-.500 Astros team made it to the World Series, much less won it, the angst among other fans would have been through the roof.  Now, another year removed from the situation, could things be better for the Astros?  Let’s find out.

Blogger Site Twitter
James Yasko Astros County AstrosCounty
Kenny Van Doren Climbing Tal's Hill thevandalorian

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

James: I didn’t actually watch that much regular season baseball. For one, I live in the blackout area and the computer that I had reliably VPNd crapped out. Second, it just felt like there were bigger things to worry about than Dusty Baker‘s lineup or Jose Altuve‘s hitting struggles. And third, it can’t be a coincidence that a dip in enthusiasm for the Astros came on the heels of [waves hands around head] the most devastating offseason in franchise history. Once the postseason hit and basically any decent team made it to the playoffs, I started to get back into it, but it still wasn’t quite the same.

To the baseball side, it was kind of fun to see kids making their MLB debuts who had been in High-A or Low-A the previous season, and to see them perform well. Watching Cristian Javier emerge, and Framber Valdez turn into a seemingly legitimate frontline starter. I hated the rule changes, and I think Rob Manfred needs to be fired into the sun.

Kenny: My first thought on the 2020 season is that it isn’t something to define players. We saw a lot of change to the game, but we also saw a lot of regressed campaigns. I was not a huge fan of some of the rule changes including the runner on second during extra innings. I feel like this hurts a pitcher’s numbers even though it might not be earned run. Although, I was fine with the 7 inning double-header rule, as I know they wanted to speed up the game. Following baseball was actually easier for me, since I couldn’t go to the games, I watched all of them on 

C70: The fact that there were no fans in the stands meant the expected backlash against the Astros never came. Do you think enough time has passed that there will be less booing, etc. on the road or is that still going to be an issue?

James: Oh ho ho ho I think there will be booing. Time has passed, but it’s been spent mostly inside, mostly in quarantine, and when the Astros come to town (if fans are allowed back in the stands) it’s going to be an apolitical way to vent an awful lot of frustration, whether the source of that frustration is the Astros or anything else. So, no, I think the Astros still have a rough ride ahead of them.

Kenny: We saw the booing and backlash was there in Spring Training before it was cancelled in 2020, but I do not think it will be as tough on the players. They deserve the backlash, and it comes with the game. There will be fans for the next couple years that will boo the Astros, but it will die off with time.

C70: George Springer is gone but Michael Brantley remains. What are your thoughts on those guys and their destinations?

James: I think most of us Astros fans were resigned (lol) to the idea that Springer was going to leave. The rumor that he wanted to be closer to home had been circulating for a while (Springer is from Connecticut), and it wasn’t hard to put it together. I mean, Toronto summers are a little easier to deal with than Houston summers. So, unsurprising on that front. But there were about three hours where we all thought Springer AND Brantley had gone to Toronto, and it was time for some War of 1812/INVADE CANADA jokes. George Springer is – and will always be – an Astros legend, and I don’t know a single person who has a negative thing to say about George Springer. It’s going to be hard to replace him in the lineup. But having Michael Brantley back for another two years is a massive boost (it’s hard to say it’s a boost when he has been in the lineup for two years already), and it was a universally-applauded move.

Kenny: George Springer is an all-time great in Houston and the only Astros player to ever win a World Series MVP. It will feel weird to not see him in center anytime soon, but it wasn’t like his move came as a surprise. The Astros knew how much Springer was worth, but they also knew they weren’t willing to spend big, long-term. We all wish him the best. Having Michael Brantley back signals to the Astros wanting to contend. For a few hours, I thought the dynasty was over when it was reported that Brantley signed with Toronto. 

C70: Carlos Correa is going to be a free agent at the end of the year. Will the club be able to work out an extension beforehand or will he test the market?

James: I know who the audience for this Q&A is, and I don’t expect anyone to be sympathetic towards the Astros (but come on, cut the fans some slack. I didn’t bang on any trash cans). But Carlos Correa deserves an extension, and the Astros would be fools not to offer him a chance to be a lifer with the organization. Correa stepped up and became the face of the franchise in the wake of the fallout from the Mike Fiers/Athletic article. He put the team on his back and took everyone on. He’s also going to play almost all of 2021 at Age 26. He had some injury issues from 2017-2019 but those were more freak accidents (breaking a rib getting a massage – something I can unfortunately relate to, though I am not elite) than they were a referendum on his health as a whole. When he’s healthy he’s an elite shortstop, and playing 58 out of the 60 regular season games with a monster postseason in 2020 (.362/.455/.766), was a big positive step. And you don’t let an elite 27-year old shortstop test free agency.

Kenny: GM James Click has been a slow mover in the front office, and though it might be nerve wracking, he gets things done. Both Click and Correa want a return, and by the looks of them avoiding arbitration, it is a good sign that they can negotiate. Arbitration can affect player’s relationships, but the Astros ended up giving him more money than they had expected. At this point, I think they wait it out, but eventually re-sign him.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

James: Not only is Correa a free agent at the end of the season, but so is Lance McCullers, Zack Greinke, and the Tommy John-rehabbing Justin Verlander. There may be a sense of “this is our last guaranteed year together, so let’s make it count” throughout the season. They’re going to be good. They’re going to hit – Jose Altuve is not a .219 hitter – and the Astros also get 2019’s unanimous AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez back after he missed all of 2020 with knee issues. And the Astros have Greinke, McCullers, and Framber Valdez at the front of the rotation. I fully expect the Astros to win the division again and then we’ll just see how the postseason shakes out.

Kenny: My expectations are another World Series push. Although down Springer for 2021, the Astros were one game away in 2020. There are six players from the 2017 team still on the roster, so a youthful core will have to standout.

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

James: I mean, they haven’t done anything egregious. Nothing about James Click’s tenure as GM in the wake of Jeff Luhnow’s firing has been anything you could consider “normal,” through no fault of his own. The draft was shortened, and the Astros didn’t pick until the 3rd Round, again because of That Whole Thing, something that will happen again this year. The Astros weren’t big players in free agency, though that’s kind of an organizational philosophy at this point (the largest free agent contract given out by owner Jim Crane is Josh Reddick‘s 4yrs/$52m deal prior to 2017). I guess I’d give them an A-?

Kenny: I would honestly give it a B+ at the moment. Spring Training will come with a long list of evaluations, so we can only hope there are hidden gems found in West Palm Beach Florida. I think a short-term deal with Jackie Bradley Jr. was something many people were wanting, but the outfielder is looking for long-term and that’s something the Astros aren’t willing to do.

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