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

Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa celebrating in game one of the ALDS
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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Coogs beat the Sooners, 87-85. Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images.

Jamal Shead hit a short follow shot with 0.4 seconds left and No. 1 Houston beat Oklahoma 87-85 on Saturday night, giving coach Kelvin Sampson a victory over one of his former schools.

Shead missed a driving layup attempt, but corralled the rebound and put the Cougars back ahead after they blew a 15-point lead. Emanuel Sharp tipped away a desperation pass by Oklahoma’s Milos Uzan as time expired.

“The main thing (on the last shot) was to get it to the rim,” Sampson said. “We weren’t going to shoot anything outside of 5 feet. There were three ways to win that game — a whistle, make the shot or (grab) an offensive rebound and put it in — and we got the third one.”

Sampson credited the result to Houston’s “winning DNA. We had a lot of things go against us tonight. … We were just plugging the holes in the boat up.”

L.J. Cryer led Houston (26-3, 13-3 Big 12) with 23 points, making 5 of 9 3-pointers. J’Wan Roberts added 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, and Shead scored 14 points. Houston shot 56.7% from the field and Oklahoma was at 52.7%.

Rivaldo Soares had 16 points for Oklahoma (19-10, 7-9). Le’Tre Darthard had 15 points, finishing 5 of 7 from 3-point range.

Sampson coached Oklahoma from 1994 to 2006 and ranks second in program history with 279 wins and first in winning percentage (.719). Before Saturday, he’d never coached against the Sooners, but Houston’s entry into the Big 12 for this basketball season provided that opportunity.

Sampson received a warm welcome as he entered the Lloyd Noble Arena court, with many fans applauding, cheering and standing. Just before player introductions, Sampson and his three assistants with Oklahoma ties — former players Hollis Price, Quannas White and Kellen Sampson, his son — were individually recognized with announcements and pictured on the video board.

“The memories that I will take from here are just amazing,” Kelvin Sampson said. “Oklahoma will always be home in a lot of ways.”

Houston made its first week this season at No. 1 a successful one, with two wins. The Cougars are a game ahead of No. 8 Iowa State in the conference standings with two games left in the regular season and remain in the conversation for the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Houston has won eight of the last nine games it has played as the No. 1-ranked team and is 35-5 overall while atop the AP poll.

Oklahoma dropped its second game of the week against a top-10 opponent, having lost 58-45 at Iowa State on Wednesday night.

The Sooners pushed Houston to the limit. Houston led 67-52 with 12:01 left, but the Sooners methodically closed that gap and Javian McCollum’s layup with 11.8 seconds left tied it at 85. It came after a hustle play by Uzan, who tracked down a rebound off a missed free throw and threw it off the leg of Sharp, allowing it to carom out of bounds.

Oklahoma coach Porter Moser said the vibe in the Sooners’ locker room was “tough. It wasn’t like they were happy to be close. They’re hurting. That’s a good sign. … That’s the elite of the elite and we’ve got to find a way to win that. That’s my job.

“I thought they were resilient battling back. Houston made tough shots, open shots, good shots. They do a lot of good things … but I thought we did too. We played the best team in the country, but we fell short. The margin of error when you play a team that good is small.”

Godwin went 6 of 6 from the field and led Oklahoma with 17 points, missing only the one free throw in six attempts as well. He also had seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: Sampson surely appreciated the warm welcome from fans on his return to Oklahoma, but he’s undoubtedly glad to have the emotional game against the Sooners over with. Now he can push the Cougars to focus on finishing the regular season strong and prepare them for the postseason.

Oklahoma: A win over the nation’s No. 1 team might have pushed the Sooners up a line or two in NCAA tournament seeding, but the loss shouldn’t damage their postseason hopes too much. Oklahoma probably needs at least one win next week — at home against Cincinnati or at Texas — to stay comfortably off the NCAA bubble heading into the Big 12 Tournament.

UP NEXT:

Houston: At Central Florida on Wednesday night.

Oklahoma: Host Cincinnati on Tuesday night.

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