Don’t know about you, but it certainly seems longer than 10 months ago that Major League Baseball handed down its punishment to the Houston Astros for stealing signs during their 2017 World Series run. Vilified in the press for their cheating ways, it ended with heads rolling in the organization just in advance of Spring Training.
Though the media was all over the franchise, the Astros arrived at camp in February as a favorite to win the 2020 World Series, presumably without secret outfield cameras and trash-can banging. Many of the top sportsbooks made Houston a close third choice behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, and fans across the country were licking their chops at turning out to express their disgust with the whole matter once the regular season began.
No Longer A Staff Of Aces
Of course, that regular season never came. Oh sure, we had the 60-game fixture that served as an official season, Houston slipping into the expanded playoffs with a sub-.500 record before making a pretty remarkable run to the seventh game of the ALCS. Tampa Bay stopped the Astros short of another pennant in their 4th-straight ALCS appearance.
Most teams that come up a game short of their third World Series in four seasons are in pretty good shape going into the next campaign. That’s not really the case for a Houston team with a lot of questions and a lot of work this offseason. BetOnline is currently carrying the Astros as a 25/1 pick to win it all in 2021, those MLB futures ranking them 12th on the list.
The team was already down one ace when the year began after Gerrit Cole bolted for a big contract with the Yankees last winter. Then, after making the 2020 Opening Day start, Justin Verlander went down with an injury that ultimately led to Tommy John surgery. He’s a longshot to return in 2020, and still on the Astros’ books for $33 million before becoming a free agent.
That leaves Zach Greinke, who’s due $32 million in his free agent 2021 campaign, as the de facto ace. Greinke had a decent, though not great 2020, and his velocity was down during three postseason starts.
Can Springer Be Re-Signed?
The good news was several young arms stepped up in 2020. Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier each broke out, with Javier in the running for AL rookie honors. Jose Urquidy looked good after sitting early, and Lance McCullers Jr. had a nice showing coming off TJ surgery. There’s at least some depth in the rotation with that foursome joining Greinke.
Houston also lost closer Roberto Osuna to an arm injury, and declined his contract for 2021. The Astros will presumably turn closing duties over to Ryan Pressly, though his durability is an issue. Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, and Blake Taylor return in bullpen roles.
The biggest decision the Astros have is what to do with free agent George Springer. A huge force in the lineup, it will be interesting to see what the market holds for him. The talented outfielder doesn’t have the same baggage as Colin Kaepernick for teams looking to sign him, but there’s still fallout from the sign scandal. Springer is looking for the big money and a multiyear deal, and Houston could sign SS Carlos Correa to an extension if the bidding gets too high for Springer’s services.
Injuries derailed several hitters during 2020. The lineup was never really in synch, finishing seventh in the AL averaging 4.65 runs in the regular season with nine of the Astros’ 13 playoff games finishing ‘under’ the MLB odds. They will definitely be in the market to sign another outfielder or two if Springer can’t be coaxed to stay.
Get Ready, Boo Birds! The Astros Are Coming!
One of the lasting images of 2020 will be LA reliever Joe Kelly’s ‘crybaby face’ after a testy game between the Dodgers and Astros in Houston during August. The Astros got a reprieve of dealing with hostile fans on the road, but that’s all it was, a temporary stay. After all, it’s 2020 and we still hear the 1919 Chicago ‘Black Sox’ come up in conversation.
It might seem pointless to discuss a 162-game schedule in 2021 at this time, but MLB has released one and you can bet fans have circled dates for when the Astros come to town. Dodgers fans get a chance to unload on Houston in a short set next August, as well as Yankees (May 4-6) and Red Sox (June 8-10) fans, the other two teams the Astros beat in the 2017 playoffs.
Another interesting series will take place early on the fixture when the Detroit Tigers come to Houston in early-April. Detroit just announced the hiring of former Astros manager AJ Hinch, who should receive loud applause at Minute Maid Park, much the opposite of what the Astros will be hearing away from H-Town.
Houston has the luxury of playing in the AL West. Oakland will again be a force, and maybe the Angels can finally get things in gear during Joe Maddon’s second season as manager. But Texas and Seattle are not to be feared. Again. The Astros could surprise with a 90-win effort, but unless the playoffs are expanded again, they won’t be among my MLB picks to be part of another postseason in 2021.