The Astros should go farther in 2019 than in 2018

Why the Astros are the team to beat this postseason

George Springer Batting
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Going into October in 2018, it appeared that the Astros were poised to be repeat champions. They cruised past the Indians in the ALDS, sweeping them in three games to indicate that the team that won the World Series in 2017 had gotten even better. They continued that momentum into the ALCS against the Red Sox, stealing Game 1 on the road in Boston. Then, the Astros met a disappointing fate by dropping the next four games, including the Game 5 loss at home in Houston which sent Boston on to their eventual World Series win.

While losing in the ALCS and not being able to defend their crown in the World Series was a disappointing result to 2018's season considering the high expectations, it was not completely a result of underperformance. There were several components to last year's playoff run that the Astros have improved on, making them once again the team to beat going into October:

They're more healthy this go-around

Probably the most significant difference between this year's team and last: their core players are mostly healthy. One of the disappointments of last year was Jose Altuve unable to perform to his usual level due to lingering injuries. This year, he appears to be at 100 percent, along with most of Houston's roster. The biggest question mark in regards to the team's health going into Friday's ALDS Game 1 is Carlos Correa. While the current report is that he could be ready to play, until he's in the lineup and looks to be at his best, his track record of injuries and re-injury will leave concern with many heading into October.

They've got the best pitchers

I do not envy Cy Young voters. Picking between Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole is going to be such a hair-splitting task that it very well could end in a tie. While that will be interesting to see come November when it's announced, in October the duo will lead the Astros as the best two starters of the bunch. Sure, the fourth spot in the playoff rotation will be interesting, but when you have Verlander and Cole starting the first two games of the series, the Astros have as good a chance of anyone of starting each series 2-0 with two more starts from them in the seven-game sets. Add to them the freshly acquired Zack Greinke, and any offense going up against the Astros in the postseason should know they have an uphill battle in front of them at the plate.

The bullpen is also shaping up to be successful for the Astros. As was on display this past weekend in the series with the Angels, the trio of Will Harris, Ryan Pressly, and Roberto Osuna could be lights out against anyone in the final three innings of a game. While we await the playoff roster to see who else will join them, they should be able to pick the best few arms to add to the before-mentioned trio to close out these tightly contested games.

Their offense is better than ever

Yordan Alvarez. That's it, that's all I need to say. Seriously, though, the potent offense that Houston's fans have become accustomed to over the last two years has gotten even better in 2019. One piece of that is the rookie phenom Alvarez who has shattered records and been a force to reckon with, but it's also potential MVP winner Alex Bregman who took another step forward in his career this year. Then, there's Michael Brantley, new to the team for 2019, who despite a down September has been the epitome of consistency in Houston's lineup.

You also have to consider George Springer, who had an even better season at the plate than he did before going on to win the 2017 World Series MVP. If he takes things up another notch in the playoffs, as he's been able to do the last two years, then we could be in for a lot of dingers. You add to them a healthy Jose Altuve and possibly Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel who broke through with a 31 home run 104 RBI season, and the cliche of "there's no easy out in this lineup" becomes as accurate as ever for this team.

They're seasoned and experienced

The core of this team has tasted success and defeat in the playoffs. With that, they also realize that the key to them finishing the playoffs on top is the same as the one they used to finish the regular season with the best record: be themselves and play their brand of baseball. Don't expect them to get overly aggressive at the plate or on the mound for the sake of having a personal highlight, because they should know that's not what led them to 107 victories this year.

Instead, I would expect the veteran leadership of this team, much like Carlos Beltran did for the younger squad in 2017, to help keep the clubhouse loose and upbeat. With a team this stacked, the only ones that should be able to beat them is themselves, so they have to avoid getting in their own heads.

Having said all this, when the playoffs get underway this week, regular-season success (other than home-field advantage, which the Astros will have all the way) is no longer significant. All that matters is winning the game ahead of you, and I think that this Astros team's makeup puts them in position to beat anyone in that scenario.

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Justin Verlander is heading to the injured list. Composite Getty Image.

Astros ace Justin Verlander missed his start over the weekend due to neck discomfort, which had many fans concerned. The last Houston pitcher (Cristian Javier) to miss time with the same injury would end up out for the season and having to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Fortunately, it doesn't look like that will be the case for JV, and the team didn't anticipate having to put Verlander on IR. They hoped he would be able to start Thursday's game in Chicago.

But manager Joe Espada told the Astros flagship station on Tuesday that his progress “is slower than we expected.”

Fast-forward a few hours and JV is headed to the IL, with Nick Hernandez joining the club from Sugar Land.

Hopefully, this is just a short stint on the injured list for Verlander. Quite frankly, the Astros are running out of big league caliber starting pitching options.

One has to wonder, how many more injuries the team can sustain in 2024? The injury bug is biting hard, and the club is currently nine games behind Seattle in the AL West.

Up next

Framber Valdez takes the mound for Houston against the White Sox on Tuesday night.

The Athletic's Chandler Rome shares some possibilities the Astros might explore to replace Verlander in the post below.

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