And although still a bit nasty for Houston’s standards, Spring has arrived for the pitchers and catchers of our World Champion Houston Astros! Position players join them on the 19th at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches for their first full squad workout. The first spring training game set for the 23rd vs The Nationals. Hope SPRINGS eternal. Baseball is back and with that the dreams of all ball clubs as the boys of summer limber up and push to make squads, contracts and championships. Every team is in it, except maybe the Marlins. (Who am I kidding no other team has a shot….GO ASTROS!)
Filthy I tell you, FILTHY.
This season the Astros return the core of the their 2017 roster intact, minus Carlos Beltran (retired), Joe Musgrove (trade to MIA), Mike Fiers (to DET), Luke Gregerson (new closer for STL) and various bench players that have yet to sign anywhere in Maybin, Liriano and Clippard. They also made some key acquisitions to the pitching staff. Gerrit Cole (from PIT via trade) as a starter, and Joe Smith (from CLE Free agent) and Hector Rondon (from CHI Free agent) as relievers. Of course you also get Mr. Upton errr Cat Daddy errr Justin Verlander for a whole season.
Cole projects to be a middle of the rotation arm which essentially means the Astros will have one of the deepest and most talented starting rotations in all of the majors. They will be FILTHY. Verlander, Kuechel, Cole, McCullers and Morton should eat innings, keep you in games. and keep the bullpen rested. Barring injury any one and all of these pitchers will push 20 wins with Verlander almost a lock to get that many. This essentially leaves Brad Peacock and Colin McHugh out of the rotation. Peacock will return to his long relief role while McHugh has been rumored in trade talks with Baltimore. The Astros had been interested in Zach Britton last season to bolster their bullpen however with Britton recovering from a ruptured Achilles he won’t likely be pitching until July.
The additions of Smith and Rondon bolsters an already capable bullpen. Smith struck out 71 batters in 54 innings of work while pitching for both Toronto and Cleveland last season. He has a plus slider that has a lot of movement due to his sidearm delivery and gives the Astros the odd look out of the pen they haven’t had since Pat Neshek left. Rondon likely wants to improve on his performance last year as he struggled with a 4.24 ERA while allowing over a base runner per inning. He also struck out 69 in just over 57 innings of work for the Cubbies. He’s just two years removed from his championship with the Cubs and three years since he saved 30 games. He has a 97 mhp 4-seam fastball and great command of the slider and sinker. He will also bring some toughness to our pen.
The rest of the bullpen remains intact. Ken Giles will be back as the closer much to some people’s chagrin. While Giles seemingly imploded in the playoffs pushing him into a multiple inning role was not what he was accustomed to during the season. With only 4 blown saves out of 38 chances he actually did pretty well during the regular season. He also dropped his ERA by almost 2 runs while striking out 83 in just over 62 innings of work. The base runners remain an issue and it certainly seems like it is an adventure with him but its his job to lose. His fastball remains his go to pitch. Teams will catch up to it occasionally.
Along with Giles, Rondon, and Smith the bullpen will round out with Chris “Devo” Devinski, Will Harris, Brad Peacock and McHugh (barring a trade) as virtual locks while the rest of the spots come down to some questionable situations. Sipp, Gose, Boshers, Gustave, Hoyt, Martes, Paulino, Guduan, Rodgers, Perez, will all compete for the remaining spots. Hopefully a couple of these guys pan out.
The Juicebox Heroes return
The Astros offensively will look to dominate again this season. 2017 saw the team first in almost every major offensive category. Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa anchor a lineup that has very few holes. Alex Bregman is a soon to be All Star at third base and Marwin Gonzales returns at his role as super utility man (let’s get him into the All-Star game this season). Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, Yuli Gurriel, Jake Marisnick and Derek Fisher will round out the fielders. Fisher will need to prove he belongs with a glut of talent that will be pushing him in the OF or for the bench spot. Evan Gattis benefits the most from Beltran’s departure as he is slotted to get more at bats as our DH. He should easily improve on Beltran’s average of .231 from the DH spot last season. Gurriel will open the season with a five game suspension for his questionable gesture about Darvish in the World Series.
Altuve will follow up his MVP campaign with hopes of repeating his past success. Having won the batting title 3 of the last 4 years and having over 200 hits 4 years in a row it is hard to believe he has room to improve. Maybe RBI’s? He is possibly the only player in the modern era that has a shot at batting over .400. In the last 6 years he has had 30 stolen bases or more. He’s fast, patient at the plate (except when he drives the first pitch) , hits for power, hits for average, hits lefties, hits righties, hits the fastball, hits on the road, hits the curve, hits, hits, hits and he’s got mad hits like Rod Carew. He even won a Golden Glove in 2015. Mighty Altuve can do it all. He will compete for the MVP again this season. Don’t be surprised if he wins it. He’s a Sure Shot. Again.
Altuve’s middle infield counterpart, Correa will also be looking to improve on his 2017 campaign. His thumb injury was a major concern last season but he overcame it just in time for the playoff run. He showed no ill affects in the playoffs going a robust .288 with 5 HR’s and 14 RBI’s. He will return to his clean up spot in the Astros lineup where he ended up the initial 162 with a .315 BA along with 24 HR and 84 RBI’s . It could have been a whole lot more. Arguably when he got injured last season he, along with Altuve, were both MVP candidates. This season will be his 4th and we still haven’t seen his ceiling. 30 HR power and 100+ RBI’s should become a staple year for him. He also pulled the smooth move and asked his girlfriend to marry him right after clinching game 7 in LA. Hopefully he hasn’t been too distracted. That may be wishful thinking.
The Infield rounds out with a stud youngster, a wily veteran and a should be All Star. Bregman proved last season that he has the talent to be one of the best third baseman in the league. Starting with his grand slam on Derek Jeter night in NY, to his game winner off of Jansen in game 5 of the World Series. He just oozed clutch. His throw out at the plate of Frazier vs NY in the ALCS was also a one in a million throw. Nobody but nobody gets that out. But he did. Don’t forget he hit down in the lineup most of last season, this season he should be hitting in front of Altuve. He will see a lot of pitches to hit which should prevent some of the slumps he has been prone to have over his first 204 big league games. He also went beast mode in the weight room for three months. BAM POW!
Gurriel despite his gestures and Sideshow Bob hair flirted with .300 all year long. He also hit a crucial game tying HR off of Kershaw in game 5 of the World Series. That hit changed that game and it was awesome to see him jog to first while looking at the dugout as if to say. “See. I told ya.” Worries about his glove and handling first base are largely gone now. He is just a good fit for this squad. His numbers were virtually identical to Bregmans. Almost 20 HR, 75 RBI’s .290-.300 BA. Expect pretty much a repeat to those here in 2018.
Marwin Gonzalez plays all infield and outfield positions. Need a Left Fielder? Marwin. Need a Shortstop, 1st base? Marwin. Pitcher? Marwin??? Well this player without an everyday spot probably could pitch after we saw him gun down Bird in Game 1 of the ALCS (After which he spent the night at the hospital welcoming his third child into the Astros family). His HR off of Jansen in game 2 of the World Series was also as clutch as it gets. He didn’t try to pull the pitch. Just swung where it was and tried to drive it. As contract situations loom for this squad many believe Marwin will be the odd man out. If he keeps the power numbers rolling and the average above .300 it will be a tough player to possibly let go. He’s also the only switch hitter left in the lineup which again emphasizes his flexibility. How does a guy that finished 19th in the MVP voting not make the All-Star team?
Outside the Diamond
Oh George. How we love thee. Your World Series MVP run is the stuff that legends are made of. I will note that Hinch stuck with Springer despite his struggles in the ALCS vs the Yankees. Hinch’s confidence was repaid a thousand times over with 5 World Series HR. #SpringerDinger alone was responsible for over $100,000 being donated to #HR4HR the campaign T-Mobile tabbed as Hurricane relief during the World Series. He isn’t the prototypical leadoff batter but he certainly makes it work with 34 regular season HR’s and a .367 on base percentage. He is also a plus defensive player in Centerfield even if he occasionally gambles as he did in Game 5 of the World Series. His play will land him a gigantic contract soon and at least he was rewarded with a raise to break arbitration at 12 million per year for the next two. He is an anchor for this club. His importance cannot be understated. Hinch is right to have him in the leadoff spot because he simply sets the tone.
Josh Reddick will reprise his roll in Right Field. Many will be quick to point out his .169 postseason batting average but that doesn’t tell the whole story on this veteran. His hit to tie Game 4 vs Boston was crucial. His presence in the locker room kept this team focused. His channeling of Ric Flair got the “WOOOOOO”s going for the fans. And his ceremonial wrestling belts gave the team something to strive for daily and kept things loose. A .314 average, 82 RBI’s and his gun in right field didn’t hurt either. I think he was pressing some in the playoffs so he certainly gets the pass there. His numbers should see no significant regression in 2018.
That leaves the Left Field spot which is generally up for grabs. Whereas Marwin was a fixture there throughout the postseason either Derek Fisher or Jake Marisnick will man the short porched area in front of the Crawford Boxes during the 2018 campaign. Marisnick is coming back from injury and more than likely will project as the defensive replacement for late innings or as a pinch runner. Although his average topped out at .239 through the 106 games before injury he did find some pop in his bat stroking 16 HR’s. The interesting situation may be with Fisher. He batted .318 at Triple A last season with 21 HR’s in 84 games. He will need to prove he is ready for the big leagues at the plate but he has the ability to field his position. He will struggle but should nail down a majority of the innings in Left Field barring another player having a stellar Spring.
Brian McCann and Max Stassi look to be our catchers going into the season with Evan Gattis, as mentioned before, primarily working in the DH spot. McCann isn’t the offensive player he has been in the past but he still commands great respect at the plate and certainly knows his way around hitters. His age is a concern and being that he may move on back to Atlanta following this season or next, I would not be surprised to see the Astros make a move in this area. The Astros have shown interest in the Marlins J.T. Realmuto but their asking price thus far has been fairly steep wanting phenom minor league OF Kyle Tucker. Realmuto projects to be one of the best catchers in the league for at least a 5 year window and trading for him might mean sharing some at bats out of the DH spot as well. The other option is signing Astros fan favorite Jonathon Lucroy who is still a free agent. Formerly with the Rangers he likely will want an everyday roll again meaning he might have to take some at bats at DH if he signs here. I don’t think this position is settled as of yet.
Best of the Rest
AJ Reed, Tyler White, Kyle Tucker, Tony Kemp and Max Stassi all look to compete this Spring for a roster spot. Reed, White, Kemp and Stassi have all had at least a cup of coffee in the bigs. None really doing enough to stick. Tucker is the real deal and if he doesn’t make the squad it will be because they want him to develop some more at Triple A. More than likely he will play for the Astros this season as a call up or injury replacement. Reed and White are both vying for the similar spot on the roster so their battle seems to be against each other. Stassi may make it as the back up catcher. Kemp batted .329 in the minors but only .216 in 17 Major league games last season.
I’m just playing a Hinch
A.J. Hinch returns to helm this 101 win team from a year ago. The major coaching change being that bench coach Alex Cora will now be sitting in a dugout in Boston. Hinch really works at being a player’s coach. He worked diligently at creating a great atmosphere and keeping the attitude of his players positive despite injury struggles, slumps and Hurricane Harvey. Does he focus on analytics too much or too little? Is he making the right decisions with making pitching changes too late? Has he ever ordered a hitter to bunt a runner over? 162 different lineup cards? He has the luxury of moving a very versatile lineup around. Why wouldn’t you want to tinker some to keep players both sharp and rested for a long post season run. He may lose a few games by having confidence in his players but sometimes it really truly works out. He will manage this team now with a huge target on its back. He also will have more pitching at his disposal than he has ever had as a manager. Criticism aside he is one of the better managers in the MLB.
Projected Opening Day Lineup and Bench
Verlander, Kuechel, Cole, McCullers, Morton
Giles, Smith, Rondon, Harris, Devinski, Peacock, McHugh, Sipp
Marisnick, Fisher, Reed
2016 showed that even with everything looking good on paper, teams can struggle. 2017 was a special year for the Astros. This season the Astros certainly look like an improved team. They have the makings of a elite dynasty. Teams will be circling their showdowns with the Astros and certainly the teams we played in the 2017 post season all have made incremental improvements. This season will be hotly contested, especially in the post season. I predict they will get to 100 wins again and win their division. They should also be able to repeat their Championship run becoming the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to win back to back championships. Go Astros!
Written by Trey Looney