HOUSTON IS STILL THE CREAM OF THE A.L. WEST CROP

Astros fans, here's why the grass is still greener in H-Town

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Astros fans are getting close to panic mode these days as they hold their breath waiting for MLB to make their ruling on the sign-stealing scandal and deal with whatever punishment is handed down. The fact that both AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow could be facing lengthy suspensions, and the team could lose draft picks and get strapped with a significant fine has every Astros fan biting every last finger nail in hopes of some last minute saving grace.

While I get it that until the ruling comes down and the ramifications are known, it's a very stressful situation, the good news is, regardless of that decision and whatever moves the team makes between now and late March, your baseball team is still in the drivers seat to win another A.L. West title and another opportunity to compete for a World Series crown.

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Unlike in previous years when the competition in the division has either stood pat with financial concerns (A's), went for it with a quick fix plan for one year of success (Mariners), or overspent for over-the-hill, veteran, free agents and journeymen (Angels), this offseason the competition has been very savvy in their attempts to get on par with Houston. The Angels opened their checkbook and added Anthony Rendon to compliment Mike Trout, but they are still forced to deal with the Albert Pujols contract and a lack of pitching talent and depth.

The Mariners are in full rebuild mode and don't seem to be doing anything but getting worse in the short-term and the A's are standing pat with a solid core of young talent and the hope that they can keep the train moving forward for another season. The hated Rangers have traded for Corey Kluber to give them a legitimate Ace at the front of their rotation but still have significant holes to fill in their lineup as well as their pitching staff. If the trend continues for the rest of the winter and these are the biggest and best moves those 3 teams can muster, Houston should feel very confident heading to Florida for spring training.

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I get it if you are concerned about losing Gerrit Cole and have questions about Lance McCullers and the young arms being able to pick up the slack and replace the innings and stats. I also understand if you worry about who will play catcher and how many arms Luhnow will re-sign and add to the pen. I'm with you if you wonder what they are going to do to shed salary obligations and free up money to be able to plan for the upcoming contract issues they will face with George Springer, Carlos Correa and others, but those decisions are at least a year away and none of that should significantly impact the talent and lineup that will take the field for at least one more season at Minute Maid Park.

As long as you still have Justin Verlander and Zack Grienke at the top of your rotation, the core four of Springer, Bregman, Altuve and Correa in the middle of your lineup, complimentary pieces like Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley and a back end of the bullpen that consists of Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna, you are better than three-quarters of the rest of the league. I know it's not the preview you have gotten used to over the last three years when almost everyone made you their odds on favorite to win it all, but it could be a lot worse. You could be the Mariners or Orioles.

Most front offices and most fan bases would kill to have a team like that to cheer for, even for just one year, you will have it in place for yet another campaign and that should be more than enough for all H-town faithful to be thankful for while sitting around the tree next week. Of course, it's ok to have asked Santa for another starting pitcher, a solid veteran catcher and some bullpen help or a trade partner for Josh Reddick, but all in all, even though you didn't get Cole in your stocking the holiday should be a time to feel hungry, happy and satisfied.

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The 2022 regular season is nearing its end and while for the Houston Astros the true test will begin in the postseason, now is a good time to look ahead at what the team’s starting rotation could look like in 2023.

The big question will be whether long-time ace Justin Verlander returns to the team. Heading into 2022, there was doubt whether he would even be with the Astros coming off Tommy John surgery. Verlander re-signed with Houston on a two-year deal with a player option for 2023.

His production in 2022 has been nothing short of sensational. Verlander has the most wins for the Astros with a week left in the season. He has a 1.82 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 5.2 wins above replacement. More importantly for both Verlander and the Astros, is that he has played in 26 games and counting this season.

Whether Verlander remains with the Astros will likely depend on whether Houston is willing to spend. It is highly likely Verlander opts out of his player option following the strong 2022 campaign he has put together and looks for a bigger payday. Houston has shown it is not afraid to let key players walk in the offseason, so let’s take a look at a potential rotation with and without Verlander.

If the 39-year-old, who will be 40 by the time the 2023 regular season starts, stays with the Astros, he will undoubtedly be either the No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher in the rotation along with Framber Valdez, who is right behind Verlander in wins this season at 16. If Verlander leaves, Valdez should be the new Astros ace at No. 1.

Behind those two should be pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who in seven games in 2022 has a 2.38 ERA and has cooled the concerns about his right flexor tendon strain being a long-term concern. He suffered the injury last postseason.

After those three, things begin to get interesting. Let’s say Houston opts to stay with a six-man rotation. The fourth starter could be Luis Garcia, who has a 3.90 ERA in 2022. The 25-year-old has shown he is more than a capable starter for the Astros.

The big question is if Hunter Brown can lock himself a spot in the rotation. Numbers wise, he makes a solid case to be more than Houston’s fifth starter as he has garnered 1.13 ERA through four appearances and two starts.

Brown’s starts have been against the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, so there is a bit of a caveat there, but the upside undoubtedly should put him in the conversation for a starting role in 2023.

If Verlander leaves Houston, it should be more of a guarantee that a spot in the rotation as a starter for Brown is locked. Another factor in whether Brown is a starter could be if the Astros keep Dusty Baker as manager. Baker has shown at times he is willing to side with veterans over younger talent.

Other factors in Brown’s role will also be Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier. Urquidy has a 3.88 ERA in 28 games, all of which have been starts. Javier has a 2.65 ERA in 29 appearances, 24 of which have been starts.

Javier’s role for the Astros the last couple of years has involved starting and coming out of the bullpen, but this season he has shown that he is a capable starter. Based on this season’s play, Javier should have the edge for a starting spot, which leaves the question, what should the Astros do with Urquidy?

If Verlander walks, and Houston opts to keep a six-man rotation, then he just slides in and becomes starter No. 6. If Verlander stays, then is he willing to accept a role out of the bullpen, or do the Astros continue to use Brown out of the bullpen? Over the course of the season, both Brown and Urquidy will undoubtedly have chances to start throughout 2023.

Because of the long grind of an MLB schedule, the Astros should not trade whoever doesn’t get a starting role if Verlander stays, but how likely is it that it is even a problem for Houston? Regardless of who leaves or stays, the Astros should also continue with a six-man rotation because over the course of 162 games, it is what is best for your starters.

If the Astros bring back general manager James Click, based on how the Astros have seen players like George Springer and Carlos Correa walk in the past under his leadership, it is likely Verlander leaves Houston, but at the same time, many didn’t believe he was going to be back at all for 2022.

One thing is for sure, the Astros have a great problem to have. So many starting pitcher candidates, many of whom can be under team control for several years. So even if Verlander walks, an unforeseen injury happens, or a player ends up being disgruntled, Houston has more than enough flexibility to remain among the American Leagues’s best.

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