The Houston Astros may be the largest benefactor of the modified 2020 season. After the sign-stealing scandal rocked the baseball world and Astros organization, they surely had a target on their backs heading into 2020.
With such a condensed season, though, retaliation by opposing clubs (and the fear of subsequent suspensions) will likely keep the Astros’ hitters mostly safe. Furthermore, in a season that will likely see no fans in attendance for games, the Astros will avoid the certain jeering they were destined to endure.
Still, the Astros have a lot to prove as they aim to recapture the magic that was the 2017 World Series season while carrying the pressure of proving they can do it without the aid of knowing what pitches are coming. It wasn’t made easier when after his first start of the season ace Justin Verlander was diagnosed with a strained forearm and will be lost for a few weeks.
Houston Astros 2019 Results
Last season saw the Houston Astros bring another American League Pennant to the Lone Star State, yet they came up short when it mattered most in the World Series.
They had a franchise-record 107 wins (versus 55 losses) in the regular season. This was good enough to win the American League West by 10 games over the Oakland Athletics.
After going through the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees to win the American League pennant, the Astros matched up with the Washington Nationals in the World Series. It was a peculiar series as the visiting team won every single game.
What that means is that Houston, which had the best home record in baseball last year at 60-21, came back to Houston up three games to two yet couldn’t seal the deal.
In Game 7 of the World Series, the Astros rode Zack Greinke through 6 1/3 solid innings (two hits, two earned runs, two walks, three strikeouts) before turning to the bullpen, which ultimately surrendered the lead.
In total, Astros pitching held the Nationals scoreless through six innings before surrendering six runs in the final three innings. To the dismay of Astros fans, the bullpen failed while Gerrit Cole waited, ready to enter the game, but manager A.J. Hinch never pulled the trigger.
While the 2019 season ended in disappointment, that was nothing compared to what the organization faced after it. After The Athletic broke the sign-stealing scandal, one that will forever taint the 2017 World Series season, the Astros fired both general manager Jeff Luhnow and Hinch.
As part of the fallout, those two were banned from baseball for one year, but owner Jim Crane ultimately felt it was best to cut ties and start over. They have been replaced by James Click as general manager (formerly with the Tampa Bay Rays) and Dusty Baker, who came out of retirement to manage the team.
One of the biggest additions is a player who is coming back from injury. Lance McCullers Jr. missed the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery but is expected to slot in as the Astros’ number three pitcher. He will have to move up a slot for a bit with Verlander out.
In 2018, McCullers Jr. went 10-6 with a 3.86 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and had 142 strikeouts in 128 1/3 innings pitched. During the 2017 World Series, he was absolutely filthy, so he could be a big boost.
Most importantly, as he is coming off of an injury, the shortened season will help keep him pitching the entire season as there was speculation he could have been on an innings limit.
The Astros signed Dustin Garneau as a backup to starting catcher Martin Maldanado. Garneau was given a modest $650,000 with incentives. Last year, with the Angels and Athletics, Garneau hit .244/.350/.407 with three home runs, 14 runs batted in and 14 runs scored.
Houston also traded for Austin Pruitt as a swingman for the bullpen. Playing for the Tampa Bay Rays, Pruitt went 3-0 with a 4.40 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and struck out 39 in 47 innings. For the Astros, he will likely fill a relief role but could also make a spot start if needed.
Aside from this, the Astros did not have a significant need to bring in impact players as they return most of their 2019 roster. Despite the small turnover, there were a few impactful players they will miss.
Undoubtedly, the biggest loss for the Houston Astros in free agency was starting pitcher Cole. After a season where he finished second to teammate Verlander in the Cy Young voting, Cole cashed in by signing a nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees.
Cole went 20-5 in 33 games with a 2.50 ERA, 0.895 WHIP, and 326 strikeouts in 212 1/3 innings. Given the troubles that the Yankees have had recently with the Astros in the postseason, this is a huge loss for Houston and an equally huge gain for the Yankees.
This will be magnified for however long Verlander, who was 21-6 and won the 2019 Cy Young Award, is.
Another big loss for the Houston Astros is catcher Robinson Chirinos, who signed a one-year, $6.5 million contract with the Texas Rangers. Chirinos hit .238/.347/.443 with 17 home runs, 58 runs batted in and 57 runs scored. He also served as Verlander’s personal catcher, especially as the season progressed.
Lastly, the Astros lost a key bullpen piece as Will Harris switched World Series dugouts and signed with the Washington Nationals over the offseason to a three-year, $24 million contract. Primarily used as a setup man last year, Harris went 4-1 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, four saves and had 62 strikeouts in 60 innings.
Other players that the Astros lost either via free agency or trade include Wade Miley, Colin McHugh, Jake Marisnick and Hector Rendon.
Despite losing Cole to the Yankees and now Verlander to a strained forearm, the Astros have a second ace in Greinke. After being traded from the Diamondbacks last year, Greinke went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA in 10 games down the stretch. Both he and Verlander are signed through the end of the 2021 season.
Third in the rotation will likely be McCullers. In the fourth slot will likely be Jose Urquidy. The 25-year-old came out of nowhere last year toward the end of the season. He went 2-1 with a 3.95 ERA in nine games (seven starts). In the postseason, Urquidy went 1-0 in four games with a 0.90 ERA, allowing a single run in 10 innings.
The fifth spot in the rotation is the question mark. This is still an open competition, with the likes of Josh James, Brad Peacock, Bryan Abreu, rookie Forrest Whitley and others in the mix. Given the limited time to prepare in the condensed spring training 2.0, it wouldn’t be surprising to see any of these players getting a start at some point .
With the exception of Chirinos, the entire Houston Astros’ lineup returns. Most of the season saw the lineup featuring CF George Springer, 2B Jose Altuve, LF Michael Brantley, 3B Alex Bregman, DH Yordan Alvarez, SS Carlos Correa, 1B Yuli Gurriel, RF Josh Reddick and Chirinos.
This is a dangerous lineup. Last season, Bregman finished second in the AL MVP voting to Mike Trout. Bregman hit .296/.423/.592 with 41 home runs, 112 runs batted in, and 122 runs while playing a solid third base.
Perennial MVP candidate Altuve hit .298/.353/.550 with 31 home runs, 74 runs batted in, and 89 runs scored.
One player that did bring home accolades was Rookie of the Year Alvarez. In 313 at-bats, Alvarez hit .313/.412/.655 with 27 home runs, 78 runs batted in, and 58 runs scored.
While these three are discussed in more depth, the lineup doesn’t have many easy outs. Springer (39 home runs, 96 runs batted in), Gurriel (31 home runs, 104 runs batted in), Brantley (.311 batting average, 22 home runs), Correa (21 home runs) and others are all All-Star caliber players in their own right.
Houston Astros’ Three Key Players
One key will be Springer. Entering the final year of his contract, he has the potential to earn himself a big payday if he can produce. He hit 39 home runs while missing almost a quarter of the season (he played in just 122 games).
Speaking of health, Correa should benefit from a shortened season. He is one of the best hitters in the lineup, but he has struggled to stay healthy over the last few years.
In five seasons, he has played in over 110 games once (he only played in 75 games last season). If he can stay healthy, it is a huge boost to an already potent lineup.
Houston Astros Schedule Breakdown
The Houston Astros will play 40 games against their AL West rivals while playing 20 games against the NL West in interleague games. While they won’t be playing notable opponents like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox, one series to watch is against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Remember, the Astros beat the Dodgers in the World Series in the controversial 2017 season and will face off against them first at home on July 28 and 29 (the second series of the year).
Given the teams in the AL and NL West, approximately two-thirds of their games this year will either be played in Texas or California.
According to BetUS.com, the Astros are one of the favorites to win the World Series, as their current moneyline sits at +550. In fact, the only teams with better odds are the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees (both at +350).
In terms of regular-season wins, BetUS.com has the over/under at 35 games for the Houston Astros.
Between the coronavirus pandemic and sign-stealing scandal, 2020 has not been kind to the Houston Astros. With that being said, it would not be shocking to see them competing for a World Series title once again. With approximately half of their starting lineup destined for free agency at the end of the season, this may be their last best chance to get it done.