It’s hard to talk about the Astros in a context-neutral way. They have been the perfect foil to the Yankees since 2015 and the better part of a decade now, eliminating the pinstripes in the postseason four times. There’s a little more downside risk in this year’s roster, but until proven otherwise, they are the team to beat in the American League.
2022 Record: 106-56 (1st AL West)
2023 FanGraphs projection: 91-71 (1st AL West)
It was something of a tumultuous offseason for the Astros, who began the winter watching their GM James Click walk away from a lame-duck one-year contract offer. Click had tensions with both owner Jim Crane and manager Dusty Baker, and those who make their living covering the club weren’t surprised he departed. Dana Brown, the now-former director of scouting for the Atlanta Braves, took over the big chair, a surprising pivot for a team that once famously furloughed all in-person scouts.
The second major loss was on on-field one, as reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander left town, and indeed the league, signing with the New York Mets. The team still projects to be a top-seven pitching staff in the game, with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, and Luis Garcia atop the rotation, but the depth isn’t quite what we’re used to seeing from past Astros teams. Rookie Hunter Brown will step into the fifth slot in the rotation, featuring three plus pitches but with real durability concerns, FanGraphs and other outlets still peg him for a fair amount of relief time.
Lance McCullers Jr., expected to take at least a partial swingman role for the club, sprained his elbow in the first week of camp. While there are no tears or need for surgery, McCullers didn’t start throwing until the 11th, and will begin the season on the injured list.
None of the four Triple-A arms on the 40-man, including former top prospect Forrest Whitley, posted an ERA below 4.00 last year, and three of the four didn’t even throw a pitch at the MLB level last season. The rotation’s potential is sky-high, but should the Astros run into a bad elbow or bum hammy from a couple of their starting five, the alternative options don’t inspire the confidence they may have in previous years.
Offensively, expect them to remain a juggernaut, with the possible exception of Yordan Alvarez. Darth Vader just started hitting soft tosses this week as he battles a nagging hand injury, and while Yordan himself is adamant that he will be in the lineup for Opening Day, I’m still going to consider him questionable until the lineup card is out.
Once Alvarez returns, the Astros will feature six hitters in their every day lineup that posted a 120 wRC+ or better last year, including free agent acquisition José Abreu. The 35-year-old first baseman notched a 137 wRC+ in 2022, and is projected for a 129 this coming campaign. Penciling Abreu in instead of the now-Marlins non-roster-invitee Yuli Gurriel is one of the biggest positional upgrades across the entire sport.
Outside of that, you all know the names. Kyle Tucker belongs in the Anthony Rizzo class of “players who will most benefit from the shift being eliminated.” Alex Bregman was finally healthy again in 2022, and was as excellent as he is when he’s on the field. Jose Altuve is coming off the best offensive season of his career (even better than his MVP 2017 by wRC+). If there’s a candidate for disappointment here, it’s ALCS/World Series MVP Jeremy Peña, who despite his torrid postseason is likely merely a league average hitter, albeit one who is also one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.
The Astros are the Nameless King of MLB. They will crush the Yankees, they will drain the Yankees, until New York finds a way to beat them. They cannot be parried, only beaten down with a relentless offense. So much of the Yankees’ season will be defined by how they do in relation to that squad deep in the heart of Texas, and with both teams projected to win their divisions, it feels as though the two of them are once again on a collision course.
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