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

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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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Watson's accusers appeared on Real Sports on Tuesday night. Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images.

HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’s heavily promoted and much anticipated examination of Deshaun Watson’s legal mess involving alleged sexual misconduct shed little new light and merely presented a summary of well worn he said/she (x22) said accusations and denials.

The episode debuted Tuesday night on the premium cable service and will be repeated dozens of times throughout the week on HBO’s platforms. Check your local listings for times and channel.

The segment was hosted by Soledad O’Brien who presented compelling face-to-face interviews with two of the quarterback’s accusers: massage therapists Ashley Solis and Kyla Hayes. Their stories were detailed and graphic. Both cried during the interviews.

Solis: “As I’m working, he deliberately grabs himself and put his penis on my hand. I pulled my hand away instantly and I started crying. I told that I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Solis said she felt threatened when Watson, before leaving the session, allegedly told her: “I know you have a career to protect, and I know that you don’t want anyone messing with it, just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.”

Solis added, “That’s when I got really scared because that sounded like a threat to me.”

Hayes: “He wanted me to kind of make a V motion in his pelvic area. I just kept massaging and did what he asked, until his penis kept touching me repeatedly as I did it.”

Hayes said that Watson had an orgasm, which she said was “mortifying, embarrassing and disgusting.”

O’Brien asked Hayes why she continued to have contact via email with Watson after their encounter.

Hayes: "I wasn't sure what he was capable of. He could've physically assaulted me. He could've bashed my business, so I had to protect myself and my business the best way I saw fit. Did I ever see him again after that? No. Did I give him the runaround? Yes."

O’Brien pointed out that two separate grand juries in Texas heard criminal accusations against Watson and neither found enough evidence to indict him.

Solis and Hayes, and 20 other massage therapists have filed civil suits against Watson. The cases aren’t expected to reach a courtroom until next March. Both sides could reach a settlement before then which would effectively shut down any legal action against Watson. However, both sides say they aren’t interested in any pretrial settlements. That’s what they say now, anyway.

After being banished to the sidelines for the 2021 season by the Houston Texans, Watson signed a historic, 5-year fully guaranteed $230 million contract with the Cleveland Browns.

Hayes said she feels Watson “is being rewarded for bad behavior." Solis said, "It's just like a big screw you. That's what it feels like. That we (the Browns) don't care. He can run and throw, and that's what we care about.”

Watson currently is participating in preseason workouts with the Browns and, at the moment, is cleared to play the upcoming NFL season.

That is unless the NFL suspends Watson for some, most or all of the 2022 season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league is nearing completion of its independent investigation into Watson’s case and will reach a decision “shortly,” probably this summer. The NFL and NFL Players Association mutually agreed to have former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson decide whether or not Watson violated the league’s Personal Conduct Policy and what discipline should be handed down if he did.

The Browns are scheduled to play the Texans on Dec. 4 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

O’Brien said, while producing the Real Sports piece, she tried to interview Watson, his attorneys and the Cleveland Browns for their side of the story. All declined.

During a press conference in March to announce his joining the Browns, Watson denied any inappropriate behavior with the massage therapists.

Watson: “I never assaulted any woman. I’ve never disrespected any woman. I was raised to be genuine and respect everyone around me. I’ve never done the thing that these people are alleging. My mom and my aunties didn’t raise me that way.”

Leah Graham, a member of Watson’s legal team, sat for an interview after O’Brien’s segment was complete.

Graham: "It's 22 women. It's one lawyer. There's only one lawyer who was willing to take these cases. And as we know from Ashley Solis’ deposition, Mr. (Houston attorney Tony) Buzbee was not the first, probably not the second or third lawyer she went to, but he was the only one to take her case. Why? Not because it had merit, but because he would use these cases to increase his social media following and quite frankly to get on shows like this one.”

My reaction after watching the Real Sports segment? We weren’t in the room when the massage therapists worked on Watson. We weren’t in the grand jury room when evidence against Watson was presented. We don’t know what happened. We don’t know what will happen if these cases go to trial.

Until then all we have is one big, lurid, embarrassing mess. In American courtrooms, defendants are presumed innocent. That’s often the opposite in the court of public opinion. We’ll just have to wait while the wheels of justice grind painfully slow.

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