Sunday, March 10, 2019

Houston Astros 2019 season preview

Tyler White. Photo from ESPN


           After winning the World Series in 2017, it looked like the Houston Astros could very well be the first team to win back to back World Series' since the Yankees in 1998-2000. Things didn't go that way for Houston. They lost in the ALCS to the eventual World Series winning Red Sox. The team saw pitcher Charlie Morton walk, along with utility man Marwin Gonzalez. Starter and former ace Dallas Keuchel is still a free agent, but he is likely gone as well. To add insult to injury, young starter Lance McCullers Jr. will miss 2019 because of Tommy John surgery. But, the front of the rotation, their bullpen and offense is still World Series caliber.

            Offseason additions: LF Michael Brantley, LHP Wade Miley, C Robinson Chirinos, INF Aledmys Diaz

             Offseason subtractions: LHP Dallas Keuchel, UT Marwin Gonzalez, RHP Charlie Morton, DH Evan Gattis, C Brian McCann, LHP Tony Sipp, INF JD Davis, C Martin Maldonado

             Rotation
In back to back seasons, the Astros added another team's ace to bolster their rotation. At the end of August 2017, Justin Verlander came from Detroit. Gerrit Cole came from Pittsburgh before 2018. Now, as pending free agents, the two lead the Astros rotation. Verlander was the AL Cy Young runner-up in 2018, and made his 7th all-star team, though the first since 2013. Cole's final two seasons in Pittsburgh were bad, but his 2.88 ERA carried him to a 4th place Cy Young finish. Collin McHugh was moved to the bullpen, where he was dominant, but Morton and McCullers' absence will have him move back to the rotation. Wade Miley invented his career with the Brewers in 2018, and will get a chance again to play for a winner. Josh James made his MLB debut down the stretch, making three starts with three more relief appearances, and impressed enough to make the playoff rosters. Framber Valdez impressed in five starts last year, and is the go-to starter in case of injury.

              Bullpen
After a domestic violence arrest, Roberto Osuna was traded to the Astros from Toronto. He had a 1.99 ERA with 12 saves after the trade. Hector Rondon was the closer for most of the year, converting 15 saves with a 3.20 ERA. Former starter Brad Peacock and Will Harris both made 61 appearances, with nearly identical ERAs (3.46 and 3.49). Joe Smith took a step back in 2018, and will miss the first half because of an Achilles injury. Ryan Pressly was a great trade acquisition, with a 0.77 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 23.1 innings. Chris Devenski was a big part of the Astros bullpen from 2016-17, but took a major step backwards in 2018. The last spot is between young pitchers Valdez, Cionel Perez and Rogelio Armentos.

               Catching
The team said goodbye to Brian McCann, letting him walk back home to Atlanta. Martin Maldonado, the defensive specialist acquired at the deadline, also left. They signed Robinson Chirinos from their rival, the Rangers. Chirinos is a defensive liability, but hit a career high 18 home runs in 2018. Chirinos has a .757 OPS or higher in each of his last four seasons. The Astros got a .664 OPS from their catchers, their worst since 2014. Chirinos should boost that. Max Stassi has played for the Astros since 2013, but had never made more than 31 Plate Appearances before the 250 he had in 2018. He hit eight home runs, and will be Chirinos' backup.

                  Infield
Entering 2018, the 'Stros infield included superstars Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, and rising star Alex Bregman. All three are still on the team, but the look towards them is different. Altuve still had a .837 OPS, but hit 13 home runs, his lowest since 2014. Due to injuries, Altuve didn't lead the league in hits for the first time since 2013. He stole just 17 bases. It was the first time ever he hadn't stole 30 in a full season. After winning the 2017 MVP, Altuve finished just 13th in 2018. Correa was injured, playing in just 110 games, but had career lows in home runs (15), batting average (.239) and OPS (.728). The team will need both the rebound to win the World Series. Bregman had a breakout season, hitting .286 with 31 home runs and 103 RBIs, plus 51 doubles as a 24 year old. He joins Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez as the only players ever to hit 50 doubles and 30 home runs in a season before the age of 25. Yuli Gurriel posted decent numbers, but his OPS dropped from .817 in 2017 to .751. Aledmys Diaz, acquired from Toronto in the offseason, can play three infield positions, and Tony Kemp can play second base.

                    Outfield
The Astros added Michael Brantley, who hit .309 with 17 home runs in 2018 and was finally healthy. His home run total was the second highest in his career to the 20 he hit in 2014 and his average was his best since hitting .310 in 2015. George Springer also fell in 2018, with his home run total dropping 12 to 22, and his batting average dropping 18 points to .265. Josh Reddick's 17 home runs was higher than his 13 in 2017, but his batting average and OPS dropped by a lot. Jake Marisnick is a good fielder and the fourth outfielder. Kemp can also play the outfield.

                    DH/Bench
Evan Gattis leaves after hitting 25 home runs, but the Astros didn't have to keep him because of Tyler White. White was a pleasant surprise for an Astros team that saw a lot of talent fall in 2018. He hit 12 home runs with a .276 average, but most importantly, a .888 OPS and 143 OPS+, both second highest on the team to Bregman. The bench will be Stassi, Kemp, Marisnick and Diaz.

                    Lineup
CF George Springer
3B Alex Bregman
2B Jose Altuve
SS Carlos Correa
LF Michael Brantley
1B Yuli Gurriel
DH Tyler White
C Robinson Chirinos
RF Josh Reddick

                     Rotation
Justin Verlander (R)
Gerrit Cole (R)
Collin McHugh (R)
Wade Miley (L)
Josh James (R)

                     Bullpen
Roberto Osuna (R)
Hector Rondon (R)
Brad Peacock (R)
Will Harris (R)
Ryan Pressly (R)
Chris Devenski (R)
Framber Valdez (L)

                      Bench
C Max Stassi
2B/OF Tony Kemp
OF Jake Marisnick
INF Aledmys Diaz

                       Additional Information
Ballpark: Minute Maid Park
Manager: AJ Hinch
GM: Jeff Luhnhow
World Series Championships: 1
2018 record: 103-59

                        Steal of the Decade
Looking to win the first World Series in franchise history, the Astros made a last minute trade deadline trade with the Tigers. They acquired pitcher and former MVP winner Justin Verlander for prospects Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez and Jake Rogers. The three prospects given up haven't played in the bigs yet, but they can play by 2021, and Perez could see time in 2019. Meanwhile, Verlander made five starts in September, allowing four runs in 34 innings. In 2018, he was the Cy Young runner-up with a 2.52 ERA. But the most important numbers are from the 2017 playoffs. He had a 2.24 ERA in 36.2 innings, including allowing just one run in 16 innings in the ALCS, earning MVP honors. The 'Stros don't win the World Series without him.

                          Prediction
The Astros are still, far and away, the best team in the AL West. They should easily win the division again in 2019.

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