What will the Astros have to look out and forward to this year to get back to the top?

10 things to watch for in the Astros' 2019 season

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With Spring Training officially wrapped up, and the 2019 regular season for the Astros getting underway on Thursday, it's time to get hyped up and see what the 2017 world champions can accomplish this year. With that in mind, I've put together a list of ten things I'm going to be watching closely as the year progresses:

10. The Opening Series

Yes, an MLB season is a sometimes excruciatinging long 162 games, so one series in April is not going to make or break any team. However, we get a juicy matchup to kick off the season on Thursday when 2018 AL Cy Young Winner Blake Snell for the Tampa Bay Rays will go up against runner-up and Astros ace Justin Verlander. Not only will the first game be important for both teams, but the entire four-game series should play out to be intriguing as the Astros continue to learn who they are with some new faces and shaken-up pitching rotation.

9. The Bats

Even though Carlos Correa is questionable for Opening Day, the Astros will still have one of the most potent lineups in baseball with George Springer leading things off followed by studs like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and newly signed Michael Brantley. Can they keep up the pace they've set over the last two years as one of the best offenses? To do so, they'll need contributions from guys further down the lineup like Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, and newcomer Robinson Chirinos.

8. The Rotation

After losing Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency, and Lance McCullers Jr. sidelined until 2020, the Astros will look to lean on Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. If they can put together repeat seasons of what they accomplished in 2018, the front-heavy rotation will easily keep them in the thick of things, but will they? Will Collin McHugh fit back into the rotation well, and will Wade Miley perform well in a Houston uniform? The month of April could be huge for these pitchers to start out on a good foot.

7. The Bullpen

After looking on track to potentially win the fifth slot in the starting rotation, Josh James had a major setback with a quad injury. Luckily, he was able to earn a spot in the bullpen, which provides another potentially strong arm to Houston's relievers. After a fantastic end to the 2018 season, Ryan Pressly earned himself an extension, so everyone will be looking for him to continue pitching at the level he did last season. Other relievers like Chris Devenski, Will Harris, Hector Rondon, and closer Roberto Osuna will need to shake off their disappointments from last season and help close out games, especially if they are needed to go for longer innings in some games.

6. The Prospects

With neither Kyle Tucker or Forrest Whitley making the Opening Day roster, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for them to make their way back onto the major-league team. Hopefully, the starting rotation does great with the five starters that have been named, but if injuries play a factor in the rotation or Whitley continues to dominate in his starts in the minors, we could find out if Whitley is on track to be a big league pitcher sooner, rather than later. Similarly with Tucker, although he has had some trouble performing as well in major-league action as he does on the farm, many see him in a similar situation as Alex Bregman when he struggled in his early stretch of MLB games, a star just waiting to break out. It will be interesting to see when or if he gets another crack at it and if he can finally produce the offense he's known for.

5. The AL West

While the Astros are clear favorites to win the AL West, it shouldn't be forgotten that just last year the Oakland A's were fighting tooth and nail to take over the top spot in the division, and ended up finishing with a strong 97-65 record before losing in the Wild Card game. The Astros should be able to handle business against division foes, but when you play in a division with Mike Trout, it may not be as easy as it was in 2017 when they had the division locked up in mid-September.

4. The Red Sox and Yankees

The trio of Houston, Boston, and New York are all knotted up at approximately 6/1 to win the World Series, and those odds put them all in a three-way tie as favorites. That would indicate that we could be in for another battle of Goliaths in the AL playoffs if these teams have to face each other. The Astros will play the Red Sox six times over a ten-game span in May and will play the Yankees seven times, all before the All-Star break.

3. The Trade Deadline

Another way-too-early topic to put too much thought or weight into, but what will the Astros need (and be prepared to give up) at the trade deadline this year? We eventually found out that there were a lot of trade offers on the table in previous seasons that ended up not going through. If the Astros are needing a boost to get them ahead for the playoff push, and other teams already out of it are dealing significant players, will Houston do what it takes to make some big splashes?

2. The Injury Bug

Despite the offseason procedures and rest, injuries have already crept their way into the storylines in Spring Training. As mentioned earlier, Carlos Correa is already in question for Opening Day. With the rotation arguably weaker than it was last year, and after losing Marwin Gonzalez to free agency, the Astros might not have the right amount of depth to combat several key pieces being injured at the same time. If they stay healthy, though, the ceiling is quite high for this team.

1. The Studs

Speaking of that ceiling, not only does the team at large have a high ceiling, but so do some of the key guys on the roster. With Alex Bregman getting his contract, everyone would love to see him continue to blaze forward in his career and put up numbers like he did last season which had him in the MVP conversation. Then there's Jose Altuve. If he can stay healthy this year, he could easily put together another 200-hit season and give Bregman some friendly competition for who's the best player on the roster. That duo paired with George Springer and Carlos Correa should keep the Astros on the scene as one of the most fun teams to watch in baseball.

Again, the MLB season is a long and winding road, so undoubtedly this list won't stand true until the end, but there are definitely some question marks, and exclamation points, for the Astros as they head into the first game of 2019.

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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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