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The Houston Astros are at an inflection point

This team is still good, but lacks the depth we have seen in years past

MLB: Houston Astros at Washington Nationals Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

If you only look at the Astros’ record from 2020, you might conclude that the took a step back. Once one of the league’s super teams, they snuck into the expanded playoffs with a 29-31 mark. When they got to the playoffs, though, they looked more like a super team, coming within one game of what would have been their second consecutive World Series berth.

Coming into the 2021 season, it’s hard to pin down what the Astros are. Are they the team that showed up in the playoffs? Are they the team that struggled in the regular season? The answer may be a little bit of both. While the Astros are no longer an American League Juggernaut, they are still really good. And while they may lack the depth they had at their peak, It is fairly easy to see why they are once again a favorite to take the division.

FanGraphs has the Astros finishing the ‘21 season as the second best team in the AL by wins with 89.3. The offense will be a strength here even with the loss of George Springer via free agency. Carrying over the likes of Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley and Yordan Alvarez alone should make for a potent lineup, assuming they are all healthy at the same time.

A few interesting storylines include how Jose Altuve bounces back from a horrendous ‘20 campaign. The former MVP saw his wRC+ get cut nearly in half. But like the Astros as a whole, Altuve too saw himself regain from in the postseason, posting a .508 wOBA and hitting as many home runs (5) in 13 playoff games as he did in 48 regular season games. Projections buy the bounceback, which would only add to the strength of the team’s offensive outlook.

Another interesting storyline is how Kyle Tucker will fare in his second full year in the big leagues. Listed as the everyday right fielder via Roster Resource, Tucker enjoyed his breakout season in ‘20, playing 58 games and mashing to a 126 wRC+. Other than not walking a ton, there isn’t much reason to believe that Tucker could take a step back. His performance showed that he is a major leaguer.

Outside of this, there are some questions around the diamond. Martin Maldonado and newly-added Jason Castro will make for a strong defensive albeit light-hitting catching core. Yuli Gurriel had a huge drop off in production and now enters his age-37 season. Finally, Myles Straw, who had a 40 wRC+ last season, is projected to be the starting center fielder, primarily serving as a late-inning defensive replacement.

The questions continue as we move on to the pitching staff. In the starting rotation, incumbents Lance McCullers, Jr. and Zack Greinke are the anchors, followed by a healthy Jose Urquidy, who dazzled in the 2019 postseason, but only made 5 starts in ‘20. After that, newcomer Jake Odorizzi is a fine fourth starter, and Christian Javier is interesting as well. That is about where it ends, as the Astros will be without the oft-injured prospect Forrest Whitley, who will be out for the season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Framber Valdez is the one to watch. The young lefty showed all kinds of promise last year but encountered a scare when he fractured a finger on his throwing hand this spring. Originally, he was recommended surgery that would have put him out at least a few months, but now it looks like that won’t be the case as he is listed as day-to-day.

The bullpen once again features the high spin high velocity arms you would expect an Astros team to have. Ryan Pressley and Enoli Paredes look to be the main ones to pitch in high leverage from the right side, with Brooks Raley and Blake Taylor coming from the left. Ryne Stanek is one of the more interesting additions. Once a stellar ‘opener’ for the Rays he is now a pitcher the Astros look to fix after a sub-replacement level campaign with the Marlins in ‘20.

It is my belief that had the ‘20 season lasted 162 games, the Astros would have passed the Athletics and ultimately won the American League West. While this team is a shell of the 2017-19 super team, the Astros are just too good (on paper at least) to put together another below .500 season. But as good as they may be, this is a team with a thin farm, and one that faces losing a number of key players after the season, including Correa and Greinke most notably. This Astros team may be a good one, but it may be one of the last good ones.

Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.