Sunday, July 5, 2020

Houston Astros 2020 Season Preview 2.0


      It was not a fun offseason for the Astros. It started with their World Series loss, and the reality  that ace Gerrit Cole was leaving. It got even worse when it was revealed by former pitcher Mike Fiers that the Astros stole signs in their championship season of 2017. In a well documented scandal, fans and opposing players ripped the Astros players and staff. The Astros ended up parting ways with manager AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow over the cheating. With Dusty Baker now at the helm, the Astros will look to prove everyone wrong.

       Offseason additions: RHP Austin Pruitt, C Dustin Garneau.

       Offseason subtractions: RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP Will Harris, OF Jake Marisnick, C Robinson Chirinos, LHP Wade Miley, RHP Collin McHugh, RHP Aaron Sanchez.

       Rotation
With Cole gone, the Astros will rely more on Justin Verlander, who was their second best starter last year, but still won his second Cy Young award. Verlander struck out 300 batters over a league leading 223 innings, with a 2.58 ERA. He lead the league with a low 5.5 hits allowed per nine and a .803 WHIP. Like many pitchers around the league, the long ball haunted Verlander. He allowed 36 home runs, and only allowed 66 runs in total. Even at age 37, Verlander's fastball is still in the mid-90s, with a great spin rate of 2577 rpm. The Astros traded for Zack Greinke at the deadline to almost be Cole's replacement. Greinke had a 3.02 ERA in 10 games for the Astros after the trade. Combined for Houston and the Diamondbacks, Greinke had a 2.93 ERA with 187 strikeouts in 208.2 innings. He won his sixth consecutive Gold Glove and his second consecutive Silver Slugger. Greinke's niche is that he throws the ball really slow. His fastball averages under 90 miles per hour, and of the eight pitches he threw in 2019, two of them stand out. The first is his slow curveball, which averages 70.6 miles an hour. Greinke also throws an Eephus pitch, and throws it more than anybody. Greinke threw the Eephus 28 times last year, and struck out three batters and didn't allow a hit with it. Lance McCullers Jr. is back after missing 2019 with Tommy John surgery. When we last saw him in 2018, McCullers had a 3.86 ERA with 142 strikeouts in 128.1 innings. McCullers threw his curveball 46.6% of the time in 2018, something that you don't see often for starters. That could suggest that McCullers could be better off in a relief role in the distant future. Mexican 24 year old Jose Urquidy debuted last year, with a 3.95 ERA in nine games (seven starts). He struck out 12 batters with a 0.90 ERA in 10 innings in the playoffs. Urquidy is Houston's second best prospect, per MLB Pipeline. Swingman Brad Peacock will likely move to the bullpen, opening up the competition for the 5th rotation spot. Josh James was primarily a reliever last year, striking out 100 in 61.1 innings over 49 games. However, he had a 5.1 BB/9 and a 4.70 ERA. James' xBA against of .171 put him in the top one percent of the league in that category. In 14 games (two starts) for the Rays last year, Austin Pruitt struck out 39 in 47 innings. His curveball was very, very close to the exclusive 3000 rpm club, averaging out at 2999.

       Bullpen
Roberto Osuna remains with the team, even after the controversial postseason situation that ended up getting Assistant GM Brandon Taubman rightfully fired, while in this instance Osuna did nothing wrong. On the field, Osuna had another great season, with 38 saves, leading the league. He also had a 2.63 ERA and a .877 WHIP with 73 strikeouts in 65 innings. Even as a hard thrower, Osuna does not have trouble limiting hard contact, with a great 86 mph average exit velocity against. Ryan Pressly started off really strong, not allowing his first earned run until his 20th appearance. His ERA was as low as 0.81 in late June. Injuries derailed his season, but he still had great final numbers, with a 2.32 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 54.1 innings. Pressly's curveball, which had a slugging against of .218, also had a league-leading spin rate of 3305 rpm. The Astros brought back Joe Smith after the 36-year-old posted a 1.80 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 25 innings last year. Smith's slider, a pitch thrown 41% of the time in 2019, had an average against of .080. Peacock will return to the bullpen, where he entered the game from in eight of his 23 games played. He had a 4.12 ERA with 96 strikeouts in 91.2 innings. Peacock had an xBA against of .224, as he was under the .230 mark for the 5th consecutive season.  Chris Devenski had a sub-3 ERA from 2016-2017, but has been awful since. 2019 was his worst year, with a 4.83 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 69 innings over 61 games. A .587 slugging against his fastball has to change. Joe Biagini had a 3.78 ERA in 50 games for the Blue Jays last year before being traded to Houston at the deadline with Aaron Sanchez. Biagini had a 7.36 ERA in 14.2 innings for the Astros. He had an xSLG of .505, a career worst. The Astros did not have a lefty on their playoff roster, which could help Blake Taylor's roster case, especially with Wade Miley gone. Acquired from the Mets for Jake Marisnick, Taylor allowed four hits and no runs in 7 innings this Spring. He had a 2.16 ERA with 10 saves and 74 strikeouts in 66.2 innings in the minors. However, only 0.1 of those innings were at AAA. Righty Bryan Abreu had a 1.04 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 8.2 games last year. He did not have good minor league numbers, though. Abreu is Houston's 5th best prospect, per MLB Pipeline. Framber Valdez, another lefty, has started 13 of his 34 career games. He had a 5.86 ERA in 70.2 innings with 68 Ks last year. Valdez is another Houston pitcher with a great spin rate on his curveball, at 2960 rpm. The Astros could carry Forrest Whitley, the team's number one prospect and only top-100 prospect at 19 (ranking, not age), due to the cancellation of the minor league season. Whitley finally made it to AAA last year, but struggled, allowing nine home runs with 29 strikeouts in 24.1 innings, and a horrid 12.21 ERA. The final roster spot could go to Cy Sneed, a 6-4 righty with a big, orange beard. Sneed pitched in eight games last year, with a 5.48 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 21.1 innings.

       Catchers
Robinson Chirinos left to return to the other Texas team, the Rangers. Martin Maldonado, Houston's trade deadline acquisition for two years in a row, will finally stay with the club, signing a two year deal in the offseason. An elite defender, Maldonado has mainly been a backup in his career, explaining him only winning one Gold Glove. He hit 12 home runs for the Royals, Astros and Cubs last year. Six of them came in his 27 games for the Astros, where he posted a .781 OPS. The Astros brought in Dustin Garneau as a backup. For the rival Angels and A's last year, Garneau hit .244 with a .757 OPS. He struggled against fastballs, with an xBA of .190. Garrett Stubbs, who played in 19 games last year, can play the outfield as well as catcher. He is an intriguing option with rosters expanding to 26. The team's 23rd best prospect, Stubbs has great speed for his position, at 28.0 ft/s.

       Infielders
The Astros have the best infield in the league. They had a really good infield entering 2019, but Yuli Gurriel's breakout season completed it. While he had hit over .290 in two seasons leading up to 2019, his power came along. He had a career high 31 home runs and 104 RBIs, swiping five bags with a .298 average and .884 OPS. Gurriel struck out just 10.6% of the time. Jose Altuve's 2017 MVP has come into question. While he hit a career high 31 home runs in 2019, he did not make the all-star team for the first time since 2013. A six time 30 base stealer, Altuve stole just six bases last year. That does not mean that he has slowed down, as a 28.6 ft/s average sprint speed was slightly his best in the last five years. He hit .298, his lowest mark since 2013. It was also the first time since that 2013 season that he did not receive an MVP vote. After a bad 2018 season, Carlos Correa was valuable when healthy in 2019. That was not often, as he played in just 75 games. However, he still hit 21 home runs with a .279 average and .926 OPS. Correa also had nine outs above average at shortstop. Alex Bregman played a lot of shortstop (his natural position) when Correa was injured. He had his best season, with an 8.4 WAR, 41 home runs, 112 RBIs, five stolen bases, a .296 average and a 1.015 OPS. He won his first Silver Slugger award, but finished just short of the MVP award. Bregman had a career high .418 wOBA. He led the league with 119 walks. Aledmys Diaz was a valuable utility piece. He can play all over the infield, with the outfield mixed in too. He started to walk more, with a career high 10.5% walk rate. He hit nine home runs with an .823 OPS in 69 games. Yordan Alvarez is technically a first baseman but will mainly be a DH. He won Rookie of the Year last year, hitting 27 home runs with a .313 average and 1.067 OPS in only 87 games. Alvarez had an xSLG of .602 and an average exit velocity of 92.2 mph.

       Outfielders
George Springer had career highs in home runs (39), RBIs (96), average (.292) and OPS (.974) among other things. He did that while playing in only 122 games. Springer had a .591 slugging with eight outs above average. With Jake Marisnick on the Mets now, Springer will get more time in center field. Four time all-star Michael Brantley was a great addition to the team. He hit a career high 22 home runs with a .311 average and .875 OPS in his first year away from Cleveland. A 10.4% K rate shows Brantley's skillset. Josh Reddick did not have a great year. While he hit .275, he had a weak .728 OPS with 14 home runs. Like Brantley, Reddick doesn't strike out often, with a 12% K rate. He does not hit the ball hard, with an 86 mph exit velocity. Top prospect Kyle Tucker is coming for Reddick's job. The 5th overall pick in 2015 hit four home runs with five stolen bases with an .857 OPS in 22 games last year. He had a .909 OPS with 34 home runs and 30 stolen bases in AAA. Tucker has a 91.3 mph exit velocity in his career. However, Reddick should be the right fielder to start. Myles Straw is fighting with Stubbs for the last roster spot when rosters go back to 26 men. Straw is one of baseball's fastest players. In 56 games last year, Straw stole eight bases in nine attempts. Straw had a 30.1 ft/s sprint speed, in the top one percent of the league. He also had three outs above average at five different positions, including both middle infield spots. He had a .269 average, which is fine for a speed/defensive replacement.

       Projected Opening Day Lineup
CF George Springer (R)
LF Michael Brantley (L)
2B Jose Altuve (R)
3B Alex Bregman (R)
DH Yordan Alvarez (L)
SS Carlos Correa (R)
1B Yuli Gurriel (R)
RF Josh Reddick (L)
C Martin Maldonado (R)

       Projected Rotation
Justin Verlander (R)
Zack Greinke (R)
Lance McCullers Jr. (R)
Jose Urquidy (R)
Josh James (R)

       Projected Bullpen
Roberto Osuna, closer (R)
Ryan Pressly (R)
Joe Smith (R)
Brad Peacock (R)
Chris Devenski (R)
Blake Taylor (L)
Joe Biagini (R)
Forrest Whitley (R)
Framber Valdez (L)
Bryan Abreu (R)
Cy Sneed (R)

       Projected Bench
C Dustin Garneau (R)
C/OF Garrett Stubbs (L)
IF Aledmys Diaz (R)
OF Kyle Tucker (L)
OF Myles Straw (R)

Baseball-Reference OOTP Simulator Stats:
47-42 record, 4th in AL West
Most home runs: Yordan Alvarez (23)
Highest batting average: Michael Brantley (.384)
Highest OPS: Michael Brantley (1.052)
Best ERA, starters: Justin Verlander (4.42)
Best ERA, relievers: Ryan Pressly (2.19)
Most innings pitched: Justin Verlander (124.1)
Most strikeouts: Justin Verlander (145)
Best K/9: Brad Peacock (11.0)

Record through 60 games, last five seasons:
2019: 40-20
2018: 37-23
2017: 42-18
2016: 28-32
2015: 34-26

       Prediction
The Astros took a big hit this offseason. Losing Cole, Will Harris and others will definitely hurt. However, their lineup is still potent with Altuve, Springer, Bregman, Alvarez and more. Even without trash cans, the Astros are the best team in the AL West. They will once again win the AL West, and make the playoffs.

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