The Houston Astros get set to throw out the first pitch of the 2021 season, looking for a fifth consecutive postseason berth, which would be the longest stretch in the franchise’s history. In that time, they’ve advanced to at least the American League Championship Series in all four years, earning two World Series bids and one title.
Those 2017 World Series rings have since been tarnished due to the sign-stealing scandal that cost both the general manager and manager their jobs, and despite missing some key pieces to that run, this is still a supremely talented team that will likely contend to make another run in October this time around.
The Astros finished the pandemic-shortened 2020 season 29-31, their first sub-.500 record since 2014, but their second-place finish in the AL West was good enough to earn them a Wild-Card bid nonetheless. Houston proceeded to sweep the Twins in that round, knock off the division champion A’s in the ALDS, and then took Tampa Bay to a seventh game in the ALCS.
Their best stretch of the regular season came in mid-August when they won eight games in a row to climb five games over .500. They also experienced several swoons during the 60-game sprint, however, suffering losing skids of five and six games, as well as a three-game sweep from the lowly Rangers to close out the season.
Key Additions to Houston Astros
The team’s biggest acquisition was the signing of Jake Odorizzi. Houston inked the right-handed starting pitcher to a 2-year/$23.5 million deal with a player option for 2023 in early March. Odorizzi will immediately slide into the middle or upper half of the Astros’ rotation, one that has undergone significant changes over the last three years.
The signing does not come without risk, though, as Odorizzi began 2020 on the injured list with a right intercostal strain, missed time after being hit in the chest with a line drive, and was also placed on the IL late in the year with a blister on one of his pitching fingers. He only pitched in four games, but Houston is banking on the Jake Odorizzi from 2019 when he was an All-Star for the Twins.
The Astros also agreed to terms with Jason Castro, a free agent catcher from the Padres who will back up Martin Maldonado. Pedro Baez also joins the club to bolster the bullpen after winning a World Series with the Dodgers.
You can make an argument that the biggest deal in baseball this winter was Francisco Lindor being traded to the Mets, Nolan Arenado going from Colorado to St. Louis, JT Realmuto re-signing with the Phillies, or Blake Snell getting dealt to San Diego. But in Houston, there is no debate.
The Astros lost their center fielder and leadoff hitter when George Springer signed a 6-year/$150 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays in January. Springer was the team’s best offensive player last season, and replacing him at the top of the order will take time.
Justin Verlander is still under contract with the Astros, but there’s a good chance he’ll never throw another pitch for the franchise. The future Hall-of-Famer injured his arm on Opening Day last year and suffered another setback during the final week of the season. He underwent Tommy John surgery in September, likely forcing him to miss all of 2021 before he becomes a free agent.
The departure of Gerrit Cole during last year’s free agency and now Verlander’s absence automatically catapults Zack Greinke into the top spot in the rotation. Greinke’s 459 career big league starts are the most among active pitchers in the majors.
The team also locked up Lance McCullers, Jr, extending the right-hander with a 5-year/$85 million deal. McCullers may end up becoming the ace of the staff before that contract expires, with Greinke and Verlander nearing the end of their careers.
Signing Odirizzi was originally more out of desperation after Framber Valdez broke his left ring finger during a Spring Training game. Fortunately, surgery is not recommended for the 2020 breakout lefty. Still, he will be out for the start of the season, opening the door for Christian Javier and Jose Urquidi to battle for spots in the back end of the rotation.
And Verlander wasn’t the only Astro to undergo Tommy John, as the franchise’s top prospect, Forrest Whitley, also had the procedure and will miss all of 2021 as well.
Springer will be sorely missed. Houston could try several players in the leadoff spot, including Myles Straw, replacing Springer in center. But the fact of the matter is they still have Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, and Michael Brantley to form an extremely potent lineup.
The Astros will also have Yordan Alvarez back after double knee surgery kept the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year on the sidelines for the entirety of 2020.
3 Key Players
Correa recently turned down a 6-year/$120 million extension and has maintained a cutoff of Opening Day to reach an agreement on a new contract. If he doesn’t sign a deal before the season, it certainly merits monitoring his performance and whether the contract (or lack thereof) has an impact.
If Dusty Baker pencils in Straw at the top of the order, he’ll immediately draw comparisons to Springer, filling his shoes in both the lineup and positionally. There has been talk that they could start the year with Altuve or Correa leading off and bring Straw along slowly, which might be more beneficial to his psyche.
Odorizzi’s laundry list of injuries last year was more unlucky than anything, but he and McCullers will still need to prove their new contracts are justified.
While the Rangers are allowing fans to fill Globe Life Field for their home opener after the Texas state governor lifted the mandatory mask policy, the Astros will operate at limited capacity to start the season. They won’t play at Minute Maid Park until April 8 after starting two series on the road against Oakland and the Angels, respectively.
It will certainly be interesting to see the reaction opposing fans give Houston when they come to town after the scandal was uncovered, but attendance was restricted last year. Circle Aug. 3 and 4 on your calendars when the Astros visit the Dodgers, the team they beat in that infamous 2017 Fall Classic.
According to the BetUS sportsbook, the Astros are +1900 to win the World Series, not one of the top five favorites for the first time in four years. As far as the division goes, Houston is slightly behind Oakland as the favorites to be crowned AL West Champs, at +115.
In terms of regular-season wins, BetUs.com has the over/under at 87.5 games for the Houston Astros. If you are new to sports betting, please check out our MLB betting hub page to get started.
Bregman is currently running second, behind only Mike Trout as the favorite to win the AL MVP.