With three World Series appearances in five seasons, the Houston Astros are once again the team to beat in the AL West. The only one of those five years the Astros failed to win the division was the COVID-shortened 2020 season, but they beat the Athletics in the playoffs when it mattered most. The Astros have won at least one round of the playoffs in five straight postseasons. Their closest competition during this run has been the Athletics, but Oakland cut costs this offseason. So the teams that will try to dethrone the Astros this season are the Mariners, who finished a distant second last season as the luckiest team in baseball, and the Angels, who have squandered the planet’s best player for a decade. The Astros are poised to not only win the division but again make noise in the playoffs.
Carlos Correa is gone, but everybody else remains from an offense that ranked second in wOBA last season at .336. The Astros led the league in batting average, OBP and K% while ranking third in SLG. They were also good enough defensively to lead the league in fWAR. Correa was a big part of that and led the team in fWAR at 5.8, but rookie Jeremy Pena, the son of former MLBer Geronimo Pena, looks poised to soften the blow.
What makes the Astros so good is that they have only one weakness in the lineup. The top six in plate appearances posted wRC + marks of 130, 134, 134, 138, 147 and 123 (100 is defined as average). Alex Bregman is not among that group after being limited to just 400 PA over 91 games. During last season, the Astros replaced Myles Straw with Chas McCormick, who was an offensive upgrade and provides a lot more power.
Martin Maldonado is awful with the bat but is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, so the Astros will take that trade-off. Maldonado shares time with Jason Castro, who is an above-average hitter. With few holes to fill, Houston had a quiet offseason but did acquire versatile bench player Niko Goodrum in free agency. Goodrum is a good bat on the thin side of the platoon against lefties.
As an organization, you don’t need to do a lot when you have three guys that hit 30+ home runs in Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, who emerged as one of the game’s most potent outfield bats with a .294/.359/.557 slash in his age-24 season. Tucker showed flashes as a part-time player in 2019 but really took over the job in 2020 and carried it over to 2021 with an outstanding season. He struck out less than 16% of the time, a rarity for a guy with power.
Altuve’s bounce-back season was a huge sigh of relief after posting a .219/.286/.344 slash during the COVID-shortened campaign. His 130 wRC + wasn’t on par with his MVP-caliber seasons in 2016 and 2017, but it was close enough to ease some concerns with three years left on his deal. Houston also got a healthy season from Alvarez, who played 144 games and had 598 plate appearances after dealing with chronic knee issues in 2019 and 2020. He put up strong numbers, as did Yuli Gurriel and the always-reliable Michael Brantley.
Teams have been willing to trade strikeouts for walks and home runs ever since “Moneyball” became a big deal about 15 years ago. What makes Houston’s lineup so special is the Astros don’t have to make that sacrifice. They still walk a lot but don’t have those empty plate appearances that end in a strikeout. They were the only team in baseball with a K% under 20% (19.4%) and it’s been that way in each of the last five seasons, as K% continues to increase.
The Astros are responsible for five of the 15 seasons with a K% under 20% dating to 2017. They were still 11th in BB%. Attacking this lineup is really hard. Even elite strikeout artists can run into problems because the Astros fight off tough pitches and won’t be run over. It’s why I had a piece of the Astros to win the World Series at 25-1 last season, even with some huge questions about the pitching staff. They didn’t win it, but they got there and it’s far from a stretch to see them getting there again.
The one worry about the offense is that it’s aging. Altuve, Brantley, Gurriel, Maldonado and three of the projected bench players are on the other side of 30, with Brantley in his age-35 season. After years of graduating top hitters and prospects to the majors, the Astros don’t have guys waiting in the wings anymore. They are one of the best in baseball at developing talent, so somebody will probably emerge, but a rash of injuries would hurt. With a high season win total that leaves minimal margin for error, it’s worth keeping in mind.
The Astros went into last season without Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Cole had signed with the Yankees prior to the 2020 season and Verlander was recovering from Tommy John surgery. The situation became more dire when Framber Valdez fractured his pitching hand in spring training trying to field a comebacker. All the Astros did was post the fifth-best ERA among starters at 3.63 with a 4.07 FIP that ranked 12th. One of the four components of FIP is strikeouts and the Astros fell behind the curve without Verlander and Cole, but they still had a very effective rotation.
Six pitchers were able to make at least 20 starts in 2021. This season, they’re up against it already with Lance McCullers Jr. potentially out long-term after posting a 3.16 ERA with a 3.52 FIP in 162.1 innings, but Verlander returns and several guys that had big developmental seasons in 2021 are back in the rotation. One of those guys is Luis Garcia, who could very well have been the Rookie of the Year with a 3.48 ERA and a 3.63 FIP in 155.1 innings. He finished second in the voting to Randy Arozarena of the Rays.
What the Astros have done with guys such as Garcia and Valdez is impressive. All of them had some big strikeout rates in the minor leagues but also high walk totals. In all three minor league seasons, Garcia had a double-digit BB% then posted a 7.9% BB% in his first full MLB season. Valdez did regress in the BB% department to 10.1% last season, but that was still lower than most of his previous seasons.
Jose Urquidy walked only 19 batters in 107 innings. As a strike-thrower, he gave up 17 home runs, but an organization such as Houston’s should be able to increase his swing-and-miss upside and generate more strikeouts. His swinging strike rate was actually above the MLB average last season but didn’t translate to punchouts. I’d bet it does more frequently this season.
The Astros excel at some basic tenets of baseball. Don’t strike out and don’t walk people. Every team tries to focus on that, but none do it as well as the Astros.
It is fair to wonder how Verlander will come back from Tommy John surgery. He has almost 3,000 innings on that arm and has only thrown six innings over the last 23 months. However, he’s also one of the game’s most dominant hurlers and has more than 3,000 strikeouts to his name. His two-and-a-half seasons with the Astros have been absolutely incredible. The two-time Cy Young Award winner and former MVP has looked strong this spring.
The Astros bullpen was average last season but returns mostly intact and adds former Phillies closer Hector Neris. Ryan Pressly was used a lot last season and had some arm discomfort late in the year, but he was one of the league’s most valuable relievers with a 2.25 ERA and a 2.06 FIP in 64 innings. His velocity is down this spring again, so it might be tough to rely on him until he works through it. Fellow hard-thrower Ryne Stanek had 72 appearances with a 3.42 ERA and a ton of strikeouts and may take on a bigger role in light of Pressly’s velo drop.
I don’t think the bullpen is a strength or a weakness for the Astros. They’ll likely grade in the middle of the pack and do what they did at last year’s trade deadline to acquire stopgaps such as Rafael Montero, Kendall Graveman and Phil Maton. They also get Josh James back from injury and he’s got a big arm with strikeout upside.
Player to Watch
3B Alex Bregman: Bregman is a guy I have my eye on to win MVP. The 28-year-old has battled some injuries, but his 2018-19 run was nothing short of incredible with 16 fWAR, 72 home runs, 215 RBI, 47 more walks than strikeouts and above-average defense at third base. Standing out above the crowd is hard in this lineup, but Bregman is in the middle of everything and he’s well down the board at 45-1. In fact, he’s the fourth player on the board for his own team. Bregman had wrist surgery last November but was back to swinging a bat again in January and seems to have no limitations. I’m expecting his power to return, as he had a higher Barrel% in 2021 than he did in 2020 or 2019, along with his best Hard Hit% since 2018. He’s a good buy-low option as a player that has elite potential.
The Astros aren’t sneaking up on anybody this season with their futures price near the top of the board. Their season win total is in the 90s again, but this is a team that was -6 in Pythagorean Win-Loss and -5 in BaseRuns while winning 95 games last season. They could very well have won 100+ and that was with some major uncertainties in the rotation and bullpen. This is an Astros bunch that started 7-10 but didn’t have a single losing month and outscored AL West opponents by 154 runs in 76 games. Despite the additions that the Mariners, Rangers and Angels have made, nobody comes close to Houston. The -175 to win the AL West should be higher. The win-total line looks a little light as well and may ultimately be a bet, depending on the team’s health as camp breaks.
Win Total Lean: Over 91.5
Alex Bregman to Win MVP 45-1