In the wake of a sign-stealing scandal, the Houston Astros have had a rough offseason. General manager Jeff Lunhow and skipper A.J. Hinch were canned after receiving a year-long suspension for their actions in their World Series-winning year. After everything that happened, are they good enough to reach the Fall Classic again? Do they measure up against the New York Yankees in the American League?
Let’s start by saying that no matter the outcome of the season, the Astros are losers in many ways. They lost the respect of the league, which they slowly, but surely earned over the years by building a strong core of talented hitters and embracing analytics. They lost the respect of fans, and they lost the respect of fellow ballplayers—some of them sure haven’t been hiding their feelings in social media.
They still, however, are a powerhouse, a force to be reckoned with in the young circuit. Yes, they lost ace Gerrit Cole (to the Yankees, no less) and may not be the favorites to win the pennant in 2020, but they remain a dangerous team capable of winning it all again.
One thing they will have is motivation. Players like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Yulieski Gurriel and Carlos Correa will have a chip in their shoulders, a drive to win and prove to the world that 2017 wasn’t the product of buzzers, trash can banging, video cameras, and complex sign-stealing systems.
It is fair to wonder whether the Astros, after all that happened this offseason, have what it takes to compete with the best and make a run at the championship again. Are they good enough now?
They still have an elite offense
Martin Maldonado is not an offensive threat from the catcher spot, but the rest of the offense looks loaded once again. The infield will remain intact, with Gurriel (132 wRC+) and Bregman (168 wRC*) in the corners and Altuve (138 wRC+) and Correa (143 wRC+) as the double play combo.
Michael Brantley (133 wRC+) will man left field and George Springer (156 wRC+) will spend a lot of time in center. Uber-prospect Kyle Tucker (122 wRC+) is knocking on Josh Reddick’s (94 wRC+) door in right field and will likely receive the majority of at-bats sooner rather than later. Yordan Alvarez (178 wRC+) will continue to mash from the designated hitter spot.
Myles Straw will back up the outfield positions and Aledmys Diaz and Abraham Toro will do the same in the infield.
That exact group of hitters showed last year they could do damage against the Yankees. The Bombers’ hurlers shouldn’t be taking this unit for granted. They are smart enough to know that the Astros can still punish the ball with no outside help even if they incurred in illegal use of the technology for stealing signs in 2017—and maybe even later. How much advantage they gained while doing so? Well, a lot, but that doesn’t mean Altuve can’t hit a hanging slider if presented with one.
Pitching and defense worsened in the offseason
This is where the Astros suffered the most in the offseason. They lost a 7.4 fWAR starter in Gerrit Cole, arguably the best in baseball. Sure, Justin Verlander (2.58 ERA, 6.4 fWAR, Cy Young winner in 2019) and Zack Greinke still anchor the rotation, but the group is just not the same without Cole and both Houston hurlers are getting old.
Lance McCullers will be back after a year injured, and Jose Urquidy, a capable back-end starter, will try to claim a spot in the rotation. The options to round out the unit include Josh James, Framber Valdez, Brad Peacock and Rogelio Armenteros.
Not only they lost a crucial starter in Cole, they also let one of their most dependable relievers go. Will Harris is now a member of the Washington Nationals. Chris Devenski (4.83 ERA in 2019) is not what he used to be, but the Astros still employ Roberto Osuna (2.63 ERA, 28.9 K%, 4.7 BB%), Ryan Pressly (2.32 ERA, 34.1 K%, 5.7 BB%) and Joe Smith (1.80 ERA) among others. Josh James would make for a power reliever for high-leverage situations.
Fielding-wise, the club will miss Jake Marisnick prowess in center field, but Springer can more than hold his own out there (12.4 UZR/150 and 6 DRS in 540.1 innings in center). Bregman and Correa are fantastic defenders but Altuve, Brantley, Reddick and Gurriel rated negatively according to advanced metrics. Maldonado is a very capable fielding catcher.
It is certainly a possibility that the Astros’ rotation and bullpen, as currently constructed, could control the Yankees’ offense in a playoff series. However, the odds of that happening are considerably lower now that they don’t have Cole to send two or three times out there.
The Astros will be managed by the savvy Dusty Baker, whose guile and experience will make for a nice complement for the organization’s analytic excellence. He will have the huge responsbility of handling the (probably) endless on-field reminders of the sign-stealing scandal, the intense media pressure, and the never-ending questions about the 2017 incidents.
All in all, the Astros may not be the powerhouse from 2017 to 2019, but they can still measure up to anybody in a best-of-seven series. Odds are that they would lose more than they would win against these Yankees as currently constructed, but anything can happen in baseball, especially in October.