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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Framber Valdez injured his ring finger on Tuesday. Composite image by Jack Brame.

That sure escalated quickly. The news on Framber Valdez went from bad to vastly worse for the Astros with the fractured ring finger on his pitching hand concerning enough that season ending surgery is on the radar. Valdez is/was no sure thing to have been a first time quality full season starting pitcher, but seemed a decent bet after his maturity-driven albeit short season breakout 2020.

37-year-old Zack Greinke is the only member of the Astros' starting rotation to have thrown even 130 innings in a big league season. Greinke showed notable slippage in 2020. A by-product of the funky short season, or Father Time making a move? If Greinke further erodes, uh oh. It's all question marks behind him.

Lance McCullers got to the big leagues in 2015. Six years later McCullers has zero seasons under his belt in which he both pitched well and stayed healthy. If he hits that exacta in 2021 it's great for the Astros of course, greater for McCullers with free agency arriving at season's end. Particularly confounding with McCullers is that over his career he's been outstanding at Minute Maid Park, and basically sucked on the road. Career earned run average at MMP: 2.51. Career ERA everywhere else: 4.99. That's absurd. It's certainly not as if MMP is some great pitchers' park.

"Crafty" is typically applied to left-handed pitchers. Jose Urquidy seems a crafty right-hander. But since missing the 2017 season recovering from Tommy John surgery Urquidy has topped 100 innings worked once. Cristian Javier has some electric stuff and showed very well as a rookie. Javier has never thrown 115 innings in a professional season.

The odds are long against McCullers, Urquidy, and Javier all pitching well and staying healthy all season. Valdez didn't come close to making it to Opening Day. The best internal candidates to replace Framber (or anyone else) are Luis Garcia and the extremely-hyped thus far dud but still just 23 years old Forrest Whitley.

Woeful Rockets

It certainly isn't paying homage to James Harden that has the Rockets on a 13 game losing streak as they mercifully take their All-Star break. They're just that bad. Watching them is like watching a helpless fly tossed into a spider web game after game. Out of the break the Rockets play at Sacramento Thursday. The Kings are no good, but the Rockets are worse. A loss there all but guarantees matching the Houston Rockets' longest ever losing streak of 15 since the following night they play at Utah. If you care about them the Rockets are painful to watch. Hapless, helpless, hopeless. Their best shot at accelerating what might be a years long path back to relevance is to keep on stinking. The Rockets have the third worst record in the NBA. The three worst teams have equal chances at getting picks one through four in the draft. It's a 14 percent shot at number one, a 52 percent shot of being in the top four. The fourth worst team has a 48 percent chance of picking in the top four. If the Rockets are not in the top four, they lose their pick to Oklahoma City as a payoff of the awful Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade.

Watt signs with Cardinals

J.J. Watt could have least acknowledged "Of course the money the Cardinals offered had plenty to do with me picking them!" Off an 8-8 season in which they faded down the stretch the Cards have an interesting squad with some serious upside, especially if Kyler Murray makes a leap in his third season at quarterback. But no way are the Cardinals presently a first tier Super Bowl contender. We don't know for certain who Watt's other "finalists" were and what they offered. Seems a lock that none of them offered 23 million dollars guaranteed or two years 31 million total. Money is another scoreboard and J.J. is a huge winner on it. No one should ever blame a player for going for every dollar he can get. But Watt can't honestly say the best shot at a Super Bowl was his top priority then sign with a team which last had a winning season in 2015 and in Kliff Kingsbury has a guy who has accomplished nothing meaningful as a Head Coach at either Texas Tech or Arizona. Doesn't mean it can't happen in the desert, but there had to be better teams interested if a ring shot was of paramount importance.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Les Miles, what a slimeball. LSU, what a slimy institution in its handling of serial sexual misconduct in its football program

2. NBA All-Star Game Sunday. In 1993 more than 22 million people watched. Last year, 6.8 million. Not sure 5 mil watch Sunday.

3. Greatest ever NFL free agent signings: Bronze-Packers, Reggie White Silver-Buccaneers, Tom Brady Gold-Saints, Drew Brees

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