Falcon Points

After the off-season from hell, what do the Astros look like on the field in 2020?

Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Astros apparently have a new manager in Dusty Baker. They soon will have a new GM. They have the same basic lineup as last year.

So with all the off-field turmoil, suspensions that became firings and high profile scandals, how will things play out on the field where it matters most?

One outlet had the Astros as the SEVENTH best team in baseball heading into the season. We will spare you the need to click on the story, and just tell you they had the Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, Rays, Nationals and Twins ahead of Houston.

Still a potent lineup

Unless you believe the only reason the Astros hitters were any good was the cheating scandal (and hey, there are those who think that), this is still one of the best lineups in all of baseball. While decisions will have to be made after the season on several key pieces (George Springer, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and Michael Brantley most notably) for 2020 they are still loaded with Springer, Altuve, Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yordan Alvarez, Gurriel, Brantley, Josh Reddick and Kyle Tucker all returning. No team outside of LA or New York can boast that kind of lineup. Jake Marisnick is gone, but presumably that opens up innings for Myles Straw, an exciting prospect with terrific speed, something the Astros do not have at that level in the lineup.

The bigger issue

The article's main issue is with the Astros starting pitching. Behind ace Justin Verlander and Zach Greinke are a lot of question marks. But few teams can match the Astros 1-2 punch. The names behind them though hardly inspire confidence. Lance McCullers will be on a pitch count coming off Tommy John surgery. Jose Urquidy has too small of a sample size. Forrest Whitley remains a myth. Austin Pruitt could be a sneaky good addition, however, and the Astros can always add someone at the trade deadline. More on that in a moment.

What about the bullpen?

The Astros lost Will Harris, but bring back Ryan Pressley, who was dominant until getting hurt, the controversial Roberto Osuna and Joe Smith on the back end. Josh James might be a contender to start, along with Brad Peacock. If not, they will help in relief. Harris was great for them last year, but the Astros in the past have done a terrific job of finding pitchers like that. Which brings us to the final question...

Loss of Luhnow

While the loss of A.J. Hinch can be mitigated - managers are not all that difficult to replace - life after GM Jeff Luhnow is a major question mark. Luhnow could be trusted to add players at the deadline (Verlander in 2017, Greinke in 2019), find some hidden gems (Charlie Morton) and add players that fit the Astros analytics approach. Will they still be that kind of team? Will Baker buy in if they are? Pitching coach Brent Strom remains, and should continue to work his magic. But will Luhknow's replacement be able to find the right kind of arms for him? Will the new analytics team be as effective?

These are all valid questions.

However...

Putting them seventh seems more like wishful thinking from a bitter media. The 2021 Astros will have serious questions and in fact might plummet out of contention entirely, depending on what moves happen in the next 12 months. But for 2020? Sure, Verlander and Greinke could both fall off the map, the other starters fail to stabilize and the team simply does not get it done. But that is a lot to go wrong. More likely, the lineup continues to pound the ball, Verlander and Greinke carry them and someone else emerges as decent 2-3 rotation pieces. That being the case, the only team that enters the season in the AL better on paper is the Yankees, who were almost as good as the Astros last season and poached one of their best weapons, and figure to be healthier in 2020.

Distractions?

Yes it has been wild off-season. But other than Luhnow, does it have any real impact on what happens on the field? Probably not. There could be some regressions - Alvarez most notably - but the offense has more than enough weapons. Straw could wind up being a sneaky good weapon. Tucker could finally emerge. If that happens, the so-called distractions will have minimal if any impact on the product on the field.

So yes, seventh seems a but silly, but fortunately, baseball scribes with their biases don't determine what happens on the field. The players do.

And the Astros still have plenty of those.

Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan

Oh, those Apologizin' Astros! If the sincerity shown by some was electricity, a 10 watt bulb might flicker. One hopes they truly grasp what chump, cheating behavior they took part in and that their shame should feel real, because it is real. Unfortunately, at least some are likely mostly sorry that they got busted and face scorn for it. Decency demanded apologies, but if not sincere they are worthless.

While lead owner Jim Crane shouldn't be criticized for not having sensational oratory skills, at Thursday's press conference he more than once came across as ridiculous. There was no graceful way to please close to everybody, but laughable contradictions and absurd assertions don't make anyone associated with the Astros look good.

How can anyone but a fool or someone lost deep in denial maintain that the Astros' 2017 World Series championship isn't permanently tainted? Lady Macbeth fared infinitely better getting that damn'd spot out than the Astros ever can fare removing the stain they themselves put on 2017.

On the bright side, we're inside six weeks from Opening Day.

Whose house?

The best sports team in this city at its level, discounting the marginally apologetic Astros? Kelvin Sampson's Houston Cougars. A nifty achievement for the program already tucked away, a fifth consecutive 20 win season. The great Guy V. Lewis never accomplished that. Not during the Phi Slama Jama, not during the Elvin Hayes era. Never means never! Granted, teams do play more games in a typical season now than they did back then.

Whatever. After mostly a 30 year hoop coma between Lewis and Sampson, Cougar basketball is again sustainably a national factor. The Coogs stand alone top the American Athletic Conference, are ranked number 20 in the nation, and absolutely have a chance at a major March Madness run. And Sampson has one senior on his roster.

It's a wide open NCAA Tournament coming next month (including the South Regional at Toyota Center). There are no superpower teams this season. Baylor has been marvelous and is rightly ranked number one, but the Bears offense can be verrrrrry shaky. Beyond any Cinderella making major noise at the Big Dance, there are a couple of dozen teams that can harbor very plausible Final Four dreams. Last year's national runner-up Texas Tech is one of them. The Houston Cougars are another. Like the Rockets, UH's outside shooting isn't very good. UNlike the Rockets, UH's defense is outstanding, and Cougar rebounding, astounding. The Cougars have played 25 games and amazingly outrebounded their opponents in every one of them.

Taking their shots

Speaking of the Rockets, with their 34-20 record they hit the NBA All Star break living in the league's upper middle class, though they are closer to the eighth place Grizzlies in the Western Conference than to the frontrunning Lakers. The early returns of "super small" ball are encouraging, but the likelihood that the Rockets can shoot, defend, and rebound well enough to win multiple best-of-seven playoff series does not seem especially high. In fact, the likelihood is close to zero if James Harden and Russell Westbrook don't end their seasons long streaks of worse play in the postseason than in the regular season.

The Rockets yet again lead the NBA in three point shots. The math works. High volume three point shooting, Harden's one man free throw parade, and Russell Westbrook's now relentless attacking of the rim combine to give the Rockets the second most efficient scoring offense in the league (Dallas is number one). This is Daryl Morey's 13th season as General Manager. His tenure has produced six seasons with at least 53 wins and zero losing seasons. But Morey has failed the last couple of years in not adding premium three point shooting to the roster. The Rockets are 23rd of the 30 teams in three point percentage. The seven teams worse all have losing records.

'Neck time

After a rousing success in their debut, do the Houston Roughnecks show signs of sustainability or growth in interest in game two, again home at UH's TDECU Stadium. Another lovely weather forecast with no possible arrogant bumbling decision to close a roof should again help the turnout. Plus, you know what they say: When the Roughnecks and St. Louis BattleHawks get together you can throw out the records.

The XFL on-field product quality is obviously way behind the NFL's, but it took June Jones and the Roughnecks' offense three plays to do something Bill O'Brien and the Texans' offense did in none of the 15 regular season games Deshaun Watson played last season. Score an opening drive touchdown!

Buzzer Beaters

1. NBA All Star Weekend? Yawn. 2. But it's still way better than the Pro Bowl. 3. Best sports Harts: Bronze-Corey Silver-Jim Ray Gold-Jim.


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