The Houston Astros have been one of the best teams in baseball over the past couple of years, and there is no reason why that won’t continue.
Their 103 wins ranked only behind the Red Sox, and despite being challenged by a surprising Athletics team, they easily won the AL West by six games. Houston led the league with a 263 run differential, and also led the league in BaseRuns with 198. PECOTA projects them as the best team in baseball with a 98-64 record, though FanGraphs gives the Yankees (98) a slight edge over the Astros (96).
The Astros obviously had a lot of things going for them last year on all sides of the ball, but the biggest driver to their success was their historically good pitching staff. They allowed only 3.30 R/G last year, which is a lower number than the 3.48 R/G that Cleveland’s pitching staff allowed the year before. Their starters led the league with a 3.38 RA9, 3.18 DRA, and 28.2 K%. Amazingly, their relievers also led the league with a 3.16 RA9, 3.10 DRA, and 6.8 BB%. Alas, they had to settle for second place in strikeout rate (29.1 percent) thanks the flamethrowing Yankees.
The major players from the bullpen are still on the team, though unfortunately that includes Roberto Osuna. Their starting rotation, on the other hand, did lose some key players. Charlie Morton revitalized his career in Houston, but they let him go to the Rays in free agency. Despite being 35 years old with an injury history, I would have considered bringing him back for two years and $30 million he got from Tampa.
Dallas Keuchel is also no longer with the team, but he is not with any team right now. The Astros can still sign him if they want him. There are some red flags associated with Keuchel, but he should still be at least an average pitcher. As we are already in March, I would not be surprised to see him return to the Astros at a good price.
Even without Morton and Keuchel, the Astros do have a fair amount of starting pitching depth here. They signed Wade Miley on bargain one-year deal after his shockingly good half-season with the Brewers where he had a 3.12 RA9. His 5.68 RA9 over the two previous seasons are another story, especially when considering he could not even strike out 15 percent of batters faced last year; one has to wonder what they are going to get with him in 2019.
Lance McCullers will miss the entire season due to Tommy John surgery, but at least Collin McHugh is ready to return to the rotation. It will also be exciting to see what Josh James can do in a full season.
The team has some prospects who could make their debuts such as Rogelio Armenteros and Forrest Whitley. Armenteros might get the call first, but Whitley is the best pitching prospect in baseball.
Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are about as strong of a one-two punch that a team can have at the top of their rotation. Still, when a starting rotation was as outstanding as it was last year, it is tough to repeat that performance. Then again, this organization is so effective at making pitchers better that I would not be surprised to see the rotation continue to be one of the best in baseball.
The starting lineup has seen quite a few changes this winter. The Astros parted with Brian McCann, Evan Gattis, Martín Maldonado, and Marwin González. Notable acquisitions include Robinson Chirinos, Aledmys Díaz, and Michael Brantley, the last of whom caused me to be critical of Cleveland for not bringing him back.
Brantley was a good signing, but they are presented with a logjam in the outfield. Right now I expect him to be the starting left fielder, with Josh Reddick in right and George Springer in center. That leaves Kyle Tucker as the odd man out, and I am concerned about how irregular playing time will affect his development. He hit only .141/.236/.203 in his major league debut last year, but that is a nothing sample size of 72 PA.
I am excited to see what Alex Bregman can do in the follow-up to his outstanding 2018 season that saw him be a top-ten position player in baseball. He hit .286/.394/.532 with 31 HR, and he led the league with 51 doubles. His 157 wRC+ ranked fifth among qualified players.
I am surprised that Bregman’s defensive metrics at third base are not better, because he looks solid there to me. In fact, if it were my choice, I would switch him and Carlos Correa. Bregman’s size has him better suited to the role. Moreover, when Correa played third base in the most recent World Baseball Classic, I thought he was excellent there.
Speaking of my fellow boricua Correa, he had a disastrous year in 2018 due to injury. He was hitting .268/.352/.480 before missing several weeks because of his back. That is 41 points of wOBA lower than his previous season, but nobody is going to complain about that level of production from a shortstop. When he returned from the DL, however, he was a cipher at the plate, hitting .180/.261/.256 over 153 PA through the end of the season.
José Altuve suffered a dip in offense last year, but a .316/.386/.451 line from a second baseman is still excellent, though unfortunately he saw his four-year streak of leading the league in hits come to an end. He just wasn’t the same as a result of a right knee injury that caused him to miss nearly a month in the middle of the season. Unlike Correa, he was still pretty good when he came back, hitting .276/.366/.409 over his final 145 PA of the season. As long as he is fully recovered from that injury, I see no reason why he can’t be a five-win player this season.
I am eager to see what Tyler White can do in a full season. He was excellent in 66 games last year, hitting .276/.354/.533. If he can hit close to that in 2019, he might challenge Yuli Gurriel for the starting first base job. Gurriel is the better defender, but he hit only .291/.323/.428 last year. It’s great that he rarely strikes out, but he does not walk much either. Though a 107 wRC+ isn’t bad, if White is outhitting that by a wide margin, one has to wonder if White will get the starting first base job to free DH for other players. It would be great if the Astros could frequently DH the injury prone Brantley and have Tucker play outfield instead.
As with Cleveland, the Astros should have no problem repeating in their division again. Unlike Cleveland, though, it will not be because the rest of the division is bad, but more because the Astros are just that much better than their AL West rivals. Even though the A’s gave them a run for their money last year, that was likely a 90th percentile performance from them, and Oakland is likely to see some serious regression this season (FanGraphs has them dropping to 84 wins this year, and PECOTA has them dropping even further to 79 wins!).
Barring catastrophe, the Astros should have a win total in the upper nineties or higher, and host an ALDS series. I would not be the least bit surprised to see them crack 100 wins and get home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.