Playing Pepper 2023: Houston Astros

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Houston Astros
106-56, first in the AL West, won the World Series
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Justin Verlander (6.1)
Top hitter by fWAR: Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve (6.6)

No trash cans were harmed in the making of this championship.  (By the way, read Winning Fixes Everything–it’s great.)  The Astros took the mountain again, planting their flag at the top for the second time in six seasons.  Are they able to go back-to-back?  Let’s check in with the Houston experts, shall we?

Contributor Site Twitter
Kenny VanDoren Climbing Tal's Hill thevandalorian
Dan Martin The Crawfish Boxes Dan_Martin4

C70: A good bit of turnover this winter for the World Champions. What are your thoughts about what the Astros did and how the club is looking going into the season?

Kenny: Even without a general manager for much of the offseason, the Astros retained Rafael Montero and signed Jose Abreu to replace Yuli Gurriel at first base. While the backends of the contracts won’t please fans and the payroll in the future, the deals fortified a franchise looking to continue their reign in the American League for the coming years. Following the loss of Justin Verlander, the rotation won’t be the exact same without the Cy Young winner, but it’s still deeper compared to seasons past with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Lance McCullers Jr., who is delayed by injury, Jose Urquidy, Luis García and Hunter Brown leading the way. There wasn’t much roster turnover other than that with Aledmys Díaz moving onto Oakland, but the bench will have a few questions on who will make the Opening Day roster. Michael Brantley, who re-signed this offseason, isn’t ready for Opening Day, so it opened a three-man competition between J.J. Matijevic, Bligh Madris and non-roster invitee Justin Dirden to be depth.

Dan: Considering the bizarre circumstances of the offseason — namely not having a GM for several weeks and then landing a top free agent during that stretch — I thought the Astros did fine. Signing José Abreu significantly boosts the lineup and more importantly fills a key hole on the roster. Though Abreu is in his mid-30s, he’s still making a lot of loud contact and projects to be a well above-average hitter in 2023.

The man he’s replacing, Yuli Gurriel, is beloved in Houston, and while he did get hot in the playoffs (.347/.360/.490), he was simply not productive in the regular season, and finished the 2022 campaign with a negative fWAR for the first time in his career. With a notable dip in his exit velos, his selective approach of 2021 evaporating and the fact that 2022 was his age-38 season, all signs pointed in the same direction. With Abreu in tow and Michael Brantley back for another year, the Astros should have one of the top offenses in baseball.

From a pitching standpoint, the loss of Justin Verlander is not something that can be downplayed. He’s a bona fide ace, and those do not grow on trees. That said, perhaps no other team is better positioned to withstand his departure, as the Astros still have a quality rotation without him. Lance McCullers Jr. is dealing with an injury and won’t be ready for Opening Day, but the team has quite the plan B in top prospect Hunter Brown, who is big-league ready.

The bullpen may well be the league’s deepest, especially with Rafael Montero returning on a new contract. Bryan Abreu looks primed to become one of the game’s best relievers, and Ryan Pressly is still an exceptional closer even as he progresses into his 30s.

The Astros did lose more players than they gained this winter, but in the grand scheme of things, players such as Christian Vázquez and Trey Mancini weren’t expected to remain in Houston beyond 2022 — largely because they simply wouldn’t be needed — so overall the offseason was a reasonably successful one for the Astros. They remain one of MLB’s best, most well-rounded clubs.

C70: Last year’s club was the fourth 100 win team in the past six seasons and the second World Series title in that stretch. Does that success feel different than Houston’s early success?

Kenny: I would say it feels different, because of how much different the roster looks since 2017. There are three players — McCullers, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve — still on the roster from the 2017 World Series team, showing how impressive the player development has been and how much the front office has improved the roster even after two changes at general manager.

Dan: The last few years have felt different than 2017-2019, and I think there are two main reasons why:

1. These deep playoff runs have begun to feel increasingly normal. It’s an improvement for my blood pressure, but I do miss how unbelievably gripping and intense the first few years felt, especially the first time in 2017.

2. The sign-stealing scandal. It will always be the elephant in the room when this era of Astros baseball is discussed, and that’s fine. I’m not going to defend what they did. I’ll just say that my attitude and fandom in general changed in the aftermath of the initial report.

I don’t expect people to change their minds about the Astros even though they won it all in 2022 — a lot of the reactions to the scandal were just that visceral. But I do think that after last year’s result, the Astros changed their overarching narrative from “They won by cheating” to “They didn’t need to cheat.”

I don’t view 2022 as absolution for 2017 — I think that simplifies something that’s pretty complex. I do think, however, that last year closes that chapter in the franchise’s history. And in a way that restores my outlook as a fan going forward.

C70: Is there an unsung hero on this team and if so, who is it?

Kenny: Cristian Javier really came on the scene in 2020, finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, and after a rocky 2021 with walk issues, he solidified a spot in the rotation moving forward this past year. predicted him as a possible Cy Young winner in 2023, and after pitching in two combined no-hitters in 2022, he’s shown how underrated he is. After being on the cusp of being an every-five day starter, Javier cemented his name into the rotation moving forward.

Dan: Martín Maldonado has been the obvious answer to this question in recent years, but since he’s increasingly received more attention for being a key cog behind the plate, I’ll go in another direction.

He made one of the most memorable catches in World Series history last year, but I think Chas McCormick is still slept on — even by his own team. He’s a solid or better defender in center field per metrics such as OAA and DRS and looks the part from an eye-test standpoint, and through his first 727 plate appearances, he owns a 111 wRC+.

Replacing George Springer‘s consistently stellar play has been difficult. Myles Straw was supposedly the answer at one point before being traded to Cleveland — in part to give McCormick the everyday job. Dusty Baker openly questioned the trade at the time and in general does not seem to be a fan of McCormick, as evidenced by his hesitance to make McCormick the undisputed starter throughout 2021 and 2022 despite clearly being the best option. That lack of faith is still a thing entering the 2023 season, even after what happened in last year’s playoffs.

C70: Houston’s had a lot of success with home-grown talent. Is there a rookie or someone with limited major league experience that will make an impact this season?

Kenny: Hunter Brown is the easy answer, but I’m going with David Hensley. After starting the season in Triple-A Sugar Land, he was promoted to the Majors in August in response to Aledmys Díaz’s injury and Mauricio Dubón’s limited versatility of all infield positions. He appeared in four postseason games, making all three rosters and starting a World Series game. He can play five positions, and with Díaz off the bench, he’s going to be the first name called on this season, especially with Altuve missing likely two months with a broken thumb. His discipline at the plate is comparable to Bregman, but he’s just doing it in a 6-foot-6, 190-pound frame.

Dan: As the Astros’ projected utility guy, David Hensley looks ready to make an impact in 2023. While he’s old for a rookie (27), he possesses tremendous on-base skills — recording a 17.2 percent walk rate in Triple-A last year across 464 plate appearances — and is somehow capable of playing all over the infield despite being 6’6″. He’s unlikely to contribute much in the power department, but he looks like he’ll be a tough out at the plate and can fill in around the diamond as needed, while also providing some value on the base paths (82nd percentile Sprint Speed).

Hensley made several pinch-hit appearances in last year’s postseason partly due to the other bench bats appearing helpless against playoff pitching, but I think it also indicated the kind of confidence the organization has in him. Additionally, the willingness to let Yuli Gurriel walk in free agency was perhaps largely due to the top brass not wanting Hensley to lose the playing time he does get this year. ZiPS projects him to be exactly average in 2023 with the bat (100 wRC+). I’d imagine the Astros would happily take that.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Kenny: Of course, the best case is a third World Series title to complete a dynasty, and I think that’s the most likely scenario. The Yankees are stronger, but the Astros, who swept New York in the ALCS, are also more complete on paper. The Mariners will be a postseason team again, but it’ll come down to how the National League shakes out, too. The Padres, the Phillies, the Braves and the Mets all improved this offseason, so it appears to be a year where the National League will make the most noise.

Dan: The best case scenario is another championship. With the new season soon to begin, FanGraphs has the Astros virtually tied with the Yankees for having the best World Series odds in the American League. On paper, the Astros can match up with any other team, and considering their track record in the playoffs — reaching the ALCS in each of the past six seasons — it’s not difficult to envision them winning their third title in seven years.

The worst case scenario is an early playoff exit in the Wild Card round. Because Justin Verlander is gone, I do think there is a degree of vulnerability in the rotation that hasn’t been there in some time. Granted, he made only one start in 2020 before being shelved due to injury, but 2023 will be the first full season the Astros haven’t had JV atop their rotation since 2017, when they traded for him mid-season. While unlikely, I do think there’s a universe where they underperform enough to cede the division title to the Mariners, and no matter how great a team is, they can be bested in the Wild Card round.

The most likely scenario is another ALCS appearance. It wouldn’t be hard to make a case for the Astros being the AL’s top team, given the talent on the roster and the continuity in the clubhouse. Compounded with their ability to elevate their play in October, advancing to at least the ALCS seems perfectly feasible.

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