Playing Pepper 2022: Houston Astros

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Astros during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Houston Astros
95-67, first in the AL West, lost in the World Series
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Lance McCullers Jr. (3.5)
Top hitter by bWAR: Carlos Correa (7.2)

While it doesn’t feel like the Astros have shaken the label of the team most baseball fans love to hate, it obviously hasn’t affected them much.  A year after going deep into October with a losing record, the Astros went to their third World Series in five years in 2021 before the surprising Braves ended their run in six games.  Without their main man at short, though, can they keep the pace?  We’ve got some folks that have a thought or two.

Contributor Site Twitter
Kenny VanDoren Climbing Tal's Hill thevandalorian (podcast Astros Future)
Dan Martin The Crawfish Boxes Dan_Martin4

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Houston’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Kenny: There are a few things that I think went right for the Astros this offseason. They secured an extra hand in the bullpen in Hector Neris, who is not All-Star worthy but will add high-leverage innings to the backend of the bullpen. There were a few minor-league acquisitions bringing in outfielder Logan Cerny, who is a name they possibly had their eye in the draft, and signing infielder Edwin Diaz, who could be a project similar to Jose Siri last season. And of course, re-signing Justin Verlander adds that elite flamethrower to the frontend of the rotation, while the team waits on the readiness of Lance McCullers Jr. 

Dan: Considering how a certain shortstop’s free agency played out, it would be fair to say that the Astros’ offseason was disappointing. Or, to put it more bluntly: utterly befuddling.

After the club failed to extend Carlos Correa in March of last year, I knew that the 2021 season would be his last in Houston. His departure was basically a foregone conclusion, but the way it ultimately happened was frustrating to see as a fan. At the beginning of the offseason, Correa’s asking price well exceeded what the Astros were willing to offer — rightfully or wrongfully — but after the lockout, he then became open to a short-term deal, which was right up the Astros’ alley. Or, it should’ve been. By all accounts, the Astros were then considered to be the front-runner to sign Correa, which was quite the 180 since I had long given up hope that he would remain in Houston beyond 2021. Owner Jim Crane had stated to the media that he and Correa’s camp had reopened talks. Ken Rosenthal reported that a new offer was forthcoming. A reunion seemed likely. And then just days after, news broke that the Twins and Correa had agreed on a three-year, $105.3 million contract. Apparently, the Astros never did make a new offer, with Correa even saying that he didn’t hear from the organization after the lockout.

The purported explanation is that the two opt-outs in Correa’s pact with Minnesota is why the Astros wouldn’t offer similar terms. Why that was prioritized above bringing back a superstar shortstop on a short-term, relatively risk-free contract is something I’ll never understand. The reason that makes the most sense to me is that the Astros never intended to bring Correa back and are ready to move on to Jeremy Peña, the team’s top prospect, who is more or less MLB-ready. In passing on Correa, they’re roughly $30 million below the CBT threshold, enabling them to maintain what seemingly every team covets nowadays: payroll flexibility.

I did like the addition of ex-Phillies reliever Héctor Neris, who was inked to a two-year, $17 million deal. He has a history of missing a lot of bats and is generally tough to hit, and though he’s on the wrong side of 30, his velocity has stayed intact. Also, retaining Justin Verlander was cool. The Astros projected to have a fairly deep starting rotation even without JV but he appears to be himself so far this spring. With Lance McCullers Jr. out for the foreseeable future due to a slowly-healing injury, Verlander’s presence atop the staff will definitely help.

As far as hoping for something that didn’t happen (aside from Correa), I would have liked to see Michael Conforto in an Astros uniform. I think he’s a quality outfielder who’s still fairly young and would’ve been an ideal player to give a multi-year contract to. Kyle Tucker could have then been moved to center field, which is somewhat of a weak point on the roster. But since the Mets QO’d Conforto, it would’ve cost the Astros a pick (a third-round pick, I believe) to sign him, and that’s not something they’ve ever done during Crane’s tenure.

C70: Justin Verlander needs 130 innings to get a player option for 2023. What are the odds he reaches that level after missing almost all of 2021?

Kenny: I wouldn’t be surprised if Verlander and McCullers are limited to open the year. The Astros have about eight quality starters to pick and choose from with a solid bullpen to follow. If they look to piggyback starters again, then they would be in good shape to ease both pitchers back in from injury. The real question is what Verlander will we get? The last full season he pitched was in 2019, the year he won his most recent Cy Young. If he can reach anywhere near that form after aging two year without throwing, then the Astros won that signing. I think he does eclipse 130 innings, because Verlander was always known for deep outings, and it’ll come down to how well he pitched to see if he picks up the option or explores free agency again with a good season behind him. 

Dan: The last time Verlander pitched in a big-league game was Opening Day of the shortened 2020 season, so it would seem fairly improbable that he comes back and eclipses 130 innings at age 39. Having said that, it could be argued that he has one of the strongest arms the game’s ever seen — he’s thrown nearly 3,000 innings in the bigs, and he’s still pumping mid-90s heat this spring after having effectively missed the last two years due to an arm injury that eventually resulted in Tommy John surgery.

Before 2020, JV was as durable as any starting pitcher in baseball. His injury that year could be attributed to the rushed spring training. His age doesn’t help him here but he’s an incredible talent and possesses Max Scherzer-like competitiveness. He’ll still be building up in the early weeks of the season, but I’d say he has at least a 50 percent chance of reaching 130 innings.

C70: The late signing of Jake Odorizzi didn’t fully pan out for Houston last year. Why will this year be better, if you think it will be?

Kenny: Jake Odorizzi’s signing in 2021 made all the sense in the world, but with it coming late due to what at the time looked to be a season-ending injury for Framber Valdez, the right-hander couldn’t find his feet until September. Odorizzi did show displeasure with the management late into the season, but his September and October showed glimpses of the All-Star he was in 2019. He may not reach that form again, but a late start to spring training combined with an injury in 2020 did not help him ramp up after signing into early spring training in 2021. Odorizzi could be a trade candidate with the abundance of starters and teams looking for backend options, but for now, the right-hander has a clean spring in front of him, which could lead to more innings eaten in 2022. 

Dan: All things considered, Odorizzi’s 2021 could have been much worse. As you noted, he was a late signing. Then in his third outing of the year, he experienced forearm discomfort, which fortunately did not turn out to be serious. It just seemed like the abnormal start to his season had lingering effects. The Astros were rather lucky to get 104 2/3 innings of 4.21 ERA ball out of him.

As far as this year is concerned, I expect his 2022 campaign to be similar in terms of overall production, perhaps slightly worse than 2021. He was an All-Star in 2019, but going forward he’s more of a backend starter, and if/when the Astros rotation is fully healthy, Odorizzi will likely become a swingman.

From my perspective, his biggest issue is that he doesn’t have any secondary pitches that can miss bats often enough. He’s awfully reliant on a low-90s four-seamer that plays up at the letters, which was a successful formula in 2019, as his fastball missed a lot of bats that year — it was similar to Verlander, Scherzer and Chris Sale‘s four-seamers in terms of whiff rate. But barring his heater being that effective in 2022, I think ZiPS’ projection sounds about right: a 4.19 ERA in 118 innings. At this stage in his career, I think Odorizzi’s a decent two-times-through-the-order starter.

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Kenny: The obvious prospect is Jeremy Pena, who is likely to succeed Correa if he signs elsewhere. The shortstop is a magician in the field and has found new strokes of power. I have him making the Opening Day roster at the moment, due to who is healthy and available, but we will see him eventually early on in the season. There are other prospects that are off the 40-man roster that could be added, but I’ll stick to another name on the roster in Jonathan Bermudez. The left-handed pitcher made a huge jump in 2021, before being crowed Astros prospect pitcher of the year and added to the 40-man. He could help with lefty depth out of the ‘pen down the stretch.

Dan: There are probably better and more obvious answers than this one but I just can’t help myself: it’s Forrest Whitley. He’s barely pitched the past few years due to a number of arm injuries, with his most recent one requiring Tommy John surgery in March of 2021. But he’s back on the mound throwing and could return to game action during the summer, perhaps as early as June. We won’t really know what his stuff looks like until then, but when he was healthy, he was widely considered to be the best pitching prospect in the minors. If all goes well for him in 2022, I could envision him contributing in the big leagues sometime in August or September, with there being a chance that he could provide a significant boost down the stretch, whether he’s starting or coming out of the bullpen.

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Kenny: I see the 2022 Astros as contenders like last season, but without Correa, things could look grim in the Dog Days of the summer where the Astros usually thrive. If the postseason expands to 12, I think you can lock them in, but for now, I have them taking the AL West. The World Series could be a long shot, but another ALCS trip is in my thoughts.

Dan: Even with the loss of Correa, I think the AL West still goes through Houston in 2022. The lineup should remain one of the more potent offenses in baseball, and the pitching staff as a whole looks good and deep. Their farm system is not highly touted but I believe the Astros’ player development system is one of the finest in baseball when it comes to producing solid big leaguers — for example, outfielders Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers were thought to be bench-type players as prospects but both made an impact in 2021 as rookies.

I expect the Astros to finish the season with a record of 92-70, which should be sufficient for the division crown. And assuming they do reach the postseason, they have a track record of performing well in October, so another deep playoff run is possible.

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Astros Twitter accounts to follow.

Kenny: Astros Future (@AstrosFuture), Michael Schwab (@michaelschwab13), and Apollo Media (@ApolloHou).

Dan: My Crawfish Boxes brethren @astro_numbers and @mhatter106 are solid follows and offer insightful commentary on the Astros, but if there is one must-follow, it’s @AstrosCounty. He is the best of Astros Twitter.

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