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How will the Astros respond to their self-inflicted drama

After an offseason of turmoil, the Astros might be the hardest team to predict in 2020.

Washington Nationals v Houston Astros Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Houston Astros are simultaneously arguably the most talented team in Major League Baseball and its biggest question mark. Coming off an offseason of scandal — beginning during the World Series with erstwhile assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman yelling “thank f***ing God we got Osuna!” at Alyson Footer, then culminating in a cheating scandal you might have heard about that cost General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch their jobs.

It’s not only off-field issues, but Houston also lost co-ace Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, key setup man Will Harris to the Nationals, and top prospect Frances Martes to a performance enhancing drug suspension. Owner Jim Crane has badly botched his team’s response to the scandal-ridden offseason, with player half-apologies compounded by rumors of players using wearable buzzers in addition to their other cheating efforts.

In short, it’s hard to imagine a team having a more disastrous offseason overall. The Astros return most of a team that made two trips to the World Series in three years, but face legitimate questions about just how good that team really is. New manager Dusty Baker was a brilliant hire and one of the best skippers around; he’ll provide a badly needed steadying influence for a team that needs to regain its moral standing and prove it wasn’t a fake at the same time.

So what, then, can we expect from the 2020 Astros?

The good news is that the starting pitching wasn’t cheating, at least far as we know, and the top two hurlers, despite the loss of Cole, both project as future Hall of Famers.

Ace Justin Verlander just turned 37, but has eclipsed 6.0 fWAR in each of the last two seasons and 5.0 fWAR in three of the last four. In fact, Verlander in 2019 was as good as ever; is 2019 ERA- (58, tied with 2011), K% (35.4%), and k-BB% (30.5%) were all career bests.

Verlander has now racked up 72 career fWAR with a 225-129 record across nearly 3,000 innings, and is bound to slow down at some point. He just hasn’t shown any signs of that yet.

Zack Greinke might be again be the best #2 starter in baseball; at 36, he’s continued to thrive despite seemingly annual concerns about reduced velocity, and he has posted numbers that back-it-up — about 5 fWAR in two of the last three years. He, too, has already accrued Hall of Fame caliber numbers (60.5 fWAR, 205-123 W-L record in 2872 innings), and he, too, will at some point start to slow down, but hasn’t yet.

The Astros will need Verlander and Greinke at their best, because the back-end of the rotation is littered with question marks thanks in large part to the departure of Gerrit Cole.

Lance McCullers Jr. has a great arm, but has never thrown more than 130 innings in a season in his career at any level, and he missed all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Projected fourth starter Jose Urquidy was good across 41 MLB innings in 2019, but posted a 4.63 ERA and identical FIP in 70 innings at triple-A last year and has never eclipsed 150 innings in a season at any level.

Journeyman Austin Pruitt and longtime swingman Brad Peacock will compete with top prospect Josh James for the last spot in the rotation; all have shown flashes, but none is a proven big league starter.

In short, the Astros’ rotation could be very good, if Verlander and Greinke pitch to their career norms and McCullers and Urquidy stay healthy. It could also, however, be an uncharacteristic weakness - and it’s not hard to see how that could happen.

The bullpen should continue to be a baseball strength and a moral failing, anchored by closer and domestic abuser Roberto Osuna. Ryan Pressly is a good setup man when healthy, and Joe Smith will probably lull right-handed batters to sleep forever. If Josh James doesn’t win a spot in the rotation, he and his high-octane fastball could well end up closing if Osuna falters as greatly on the field as he already has off of it.

As for the Astros’ position player corps, you know the names — but how good are they really?

Between 2011, when he broke into the league, and 2016, the last season before Cora came on board as bench coach, [Jose] Altuve hit .311/.354/.437, good for a 119 OPS+. Between 2017 and 2019, Altuve hit .321/.385/.517, a 142 OPS+. . . .Alex Bregman hit .264/.313/.478 (116 OPS+) in 2016, and .285/.374/.504 (139 OPS+) across 2017 and 2018. Carlos Correa hit .274/.361/.451 (124 OPS+) in 2016, and .315/.391/.550 (155 OPS+) in 2017 before an injury-ruined 2018. George Springer hit .261/.359/.457 (125 OPS+) in 2016, and .283/.367/.522 (141 OPS+) in 2017, before falling back in 2018. Every major Astro made a significant leap in performance at the plate between 2016 and 2017, when [Alex] Cora joined the team and the sign-stealing began.

Altuve, Correa, Bregman, and Springer are the soul of this Astros team and the beating heart of the offense. If they hit like the superstars we think they are, the Astros’ offense will be fearsome. And as far as we know, the Astros weren’t cheating in 2019. But the reality is that we don’t actually know for sure how much and when the Astros’ hitters cheated, and, worse, even simple regression — or the Astros hitters pressing - could well be interpreted as evidence their numbers were a mirage even if they weren’t tainted at all. In a very real sense, these Astros are playing in a no-win situation of their own making.

That said, not all Astros’ hitters are in this boat. Veteran left fielder Michael Brantley, who joined the team before last season, will probably flirt with a .300/.350/.450 triple-slash forever, though he’s unlikely to repeat his 2019 breakout at 32 years old. Long-touted prospect Kyle Tucker will at some point supplant veteran Josh Reddick in right field, perhaps as soon as Opening Day, and is probably the better player right now. And, of course, the exciting name is Yordan Alvarez, who has posted video game numbers at every level of affiliated ball and in 2019 followed up a 170 wRC+ and .343/.443/.742 triple-slash at AAA with a 178 wRC+ and .313/.412/.655 triple-slash with 27 homers in Houston. There’s a lot of David Ortiz in him, though to my eyes he looks a lot like early career Ryan Howard. Either way, he’ll be fun to watch in Houston for a long time.

So what will the 2020 Astros be?

The talent is here for another pennant run, and on paper ,this is probably the most talented team in the American League West. Dusty Baker is the perfect manager to weather the numerous scandals washing over the franchise at the moment. But it’s only a matter of time before things start to fall apart for Verlander and Greinke as both approach 3,000 innings. First baseman Yuli Gurriel won’t hit 30 home runs again. Jose Altuve is about to play his age-30 season. This isn’t an old team, but it’s older than you might think, and they’ll be facing a lot of headwinds this year - including a division that includes the talented A’s, a Rangers team with Corey Kluber, and an Angels team that just added Anthony Rendon.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Astros won 100 games and swept their way back to the Fall Classic. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Astros won 88 games and just missed the playoffs. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the wheels fell off everything, and a chastened Astros squad collapsed to fourth place as its once-probable dynasty reached a final ignominious end.