The Astros should go farther in 2019 than in 2018

Why the Astros are the team to beat this postseason

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.

Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan

What a week.The Rockets look terrible in losing consecutive games to losing teams, and that doesn't register as the tiniest ripple in the week's pond of Houston sports woe. Pond? More like ocean.

The Astros are irrefutably confirmed for all-time as cheaters and liars over a multi-season period. Jim Crane is no idiot, but specifically on the issue of whether the Astros' 2017 World Series championship is tainted, Jim Crane is an idiot if he really thinks it is not. Astro lackeys, toadies, and homers should stop the "a bunch of other teams did it too!" and "Mike Fiers is an a-hole" lameness. The Astros were guilty, caught, and deserved to get hammered. If/when others are proven as guilty as the Astros, so should they be hammered.

So after Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred's lowering of a rightful boom, and then Jim Crane firing Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, what does it all mean for the 2020 Astros? It's a wow of a story, but really not a crisis. The loss of Gerrit Cole is much more meaningful. Luhnow's shoes are fairly easily filled for this season. Hence for now, Crane himself will head up baseball operations. The Astros weren't and aren't pursuing any meaningful free agents or major trades. Before his demise Luhnow finished the financial corner cutting moves that filled out the roster.

It's not as if Luhnow's personal expertise made all scouting, drafting, and signing decisions. And now the Astros have no first or second round pick to make this June anyway. 30 year old Pete Putila is the ranking baseball guy still employed by the club, but he is a branch of the Luhnow tree. If Crane's goal is the "housecleaning" he termed the Luhnow and Hinch firings as being, how can he promote a Luhnow lieutenant? Every front office in baseball has shrewd analytic minds, looking to move up. Crane can easily hire one of them.

As for field manager, Hinch was a great handler of people (well….with one kind of important exception) but this roster is strong enough to operate on autopilot to a good extent. Bench coach Joe Espada is highly regarded and been a finalist for other managerial gigs. But he was on Hinch's staff when cheating was ongoing in 2018. That seems pretty much disqualifying. Two known interviewees are quality options, though neither has skippered a team to the World Series. Buck Showalter was always extremely highly regarded, John Gibbons steered the Blue Jays to back-to-back American League Championship Series appearances in 2015 and 2016. Between those two I'd lean Showalter but either would be fine.

Remember The Texans

How thankful are Bill O'Brien and the Texans for the Astros' mess grabbing all the headlines not even 24 hours after the Texans' collapse in Kansas City? It's almost impossible to get blown out of an NFL game in which you lead 24-nothing. Almost. The Texans pulled it off! Won't that cute little AFC South Champion banner be extra cute when it hangs next season? Hangs like a dead man from a noose.

As I put it last week, the Chiefs' offense is better than the Texans' offense, the Chiefs' defense better than the Texans' defense, and the Chiefs' coaching better than the Texans' coaching. But the way the game played out was still preposterous.

If Travis Kelce had beaten Lonnie Johnson any worse than he did Johnson's name should have been legally changed to Rented Mule. J.J. Watt was essentially a zero. No tackles, no assists on tackles, no sacks, no quarterback hits. Are you going to pay 15 and a half million dollars to a 31 year old Watt after his three major injuries in the last four seasons. That's a yes.

At least we have clarity that the Texans must dedicate their first round pick to a pass rusher or a defensive back. Wait, they don't have a first round pick. Well, in 2021 then. Wait. Bill O'Brien traded that away too. Speaking of O'Brien…

Opting for the field goal on fourth and one up 21-0 early second quarter was not indefensible. However, O'Brien's explanation for doing so was pitiful. The fake punt? Most agree, dumb.But not absolutely indefensible. This was the O'Brien Is Not Fit For Command moment of the game: He needed to use a timeout, with 11:45 left in the fourth quarter, the Texans down 17, facing fourth and fourth and four, in Chiefs' territory, to decide to go for the first down rather than punt. A cinder block could have displayed the same game management IQ. O'Brien has three seasons left on his contract. Unless Cal McNair takes a decidedly different tack than his father did, O'Brien's job is as safe as any Supreme Court Justice's.

Speaking of Cal, since the loss he's been spotted as often and been as vocal this week as Alex Bregman.

Buzzer Beaters

1. So, if guaranteed the truth: For a million dollars is your bet Altuve was wearing something or not? 2. Alex Cora should be banned from ever again managing a Major League team. 3. Famous "scandals": Bronze-Teapot Dome Silver-Patty Smyth fronted band, had big hit with Goodbye to You Gold-Kerry Washington and the TV show.

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