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