THE PALLILOG

How the Astros can offset the loss of George Springer offensively

A healthy Yordan Alvarez would make a huge difference. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

With spring training scheduled to open in less than a month the Astros have more significant "ifs" attached to their hopes for success than they've had since exploding as elite in 2017.

Losing George Springer to the Blue Jays is an obvious bummer for Astros' fans. Springer and Jose Altuve were the last two player links to the Sucky Stros' era that built into the Golden Age that has now passed its peak. At six years 150 million dollars for a 31 year old, the Jays overpaid but did so tactically going for it as a large market franchise on an outstanding player of outstanding character.

The Astros cannot come close to replacing the overall talent of Springer who was clearly their best player in the shortened 2020 season, and second behind Alex Bregman in 2019. But the Astros did well in retaining Michael Brantley for two years 32 million, especially after multiple reports claimed Brantley was following Springer to the Jays. Unless Father Time makes a sudden move on him, Brantley, who turns 34 in May, is a rock steady dependable offensive player. Not as good as Springer, but very good.

Now for those "ifs." If Yordan Alvarez is healthy and hits at 85 percent of the clip he did as a rookie he offsets the loss of Springer offensively. If Jose Altuve rebounds from his horrid 2020. If Carlos Correa in his walk year finally has a healthy and heavy hitting season. If Bregman does what most expect him to do. With Brantley back that can be the nucleus of a very strong offense. Better if Yuli Gurriel bounces back from a wretched 2020 showing that was washed up looking.

The Astros need a plus defender centerfielder between Brantley in left and Kyle Tucker in right. Myles Straw is the cheap on-campus alternative. Free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. late of the Red Sox makes perfect sense if the price is deemed acceptable. Another plausability is a trade for gifted Tampa Bay glove man Kevin Kiermaier who Astros' General Manager James Click knows well from his time with the Rays. The defending American League champions would be probably be happy to send a check to cover some of the near 26 million dollars Kiermaier has coming over 2021 and '22 and a no-doubt buyout of '23.

Then there's the pitching. Any notion that Lance McCullers, Jose Urquidy, and Cristian Javier are all likely to deliver quality full seasons in the starting rotation…is silly. Framber Valdez looks like the truth, but he is yet to have a full-length season of success. If ready to answer the bell Zack Greinke should be the opening day starter April 1st. Here's hoping it's April 1st.

The Astros are fortunate to be in the AL West. In the East they'd project behind the Yankees and Jays, and no one should leave the Rays for dead even with their loss of Charlie Morton and trade of Blake Snell. In the Central the Astros would slot behind the White Sox and maybe Twins. In the West, the A's have gotten worse on paper, the Angels haven't gotten markedly better, the Rangers and Mariners are likely to stink again. We still don't know how many teams will be included in the 2021 postseason. As of now it would revert to five teams per league. MLB wants seven but cannot go to that without agreement by the Players' Association.

Rockets roll the dice

The Rockets are not good enough. Which is putting things nicely. The pall that James Harden's presence had become is gone, but so is his talent. Harden was right, the Rockets weren't good enough with him. They certainly aren't without him. They are 4-9 and going nowhere fast. They bought low Thursday night in acquiring 20-year-old guard Kevin Porter Jr. from Cleveland. Raw, gifted, and immature. The last trait is why the Cavaliers dumped the last pick of the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft, for a second round pick. Porter had behavior problems during his one college season at USC, and recently with the Cavs. The Rockets take a shot.

The Rockets have no one who would be any better than the third best player on good teams. Plenty of mediocre to bad teams have better forwards than do the Rockets. P.J. Tucker's days of playing 30-plus minutes per game should be done effective immediately.

John Wall lasting seven mixed bag games before soreness in his twice operated on left knee has had him shut down for over a week now? Geez. Only about 125 mil guaranteed remaining on his deal. At least Russell Westbrook has been worse with the Wizards.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Do the Texans have a Head Coach yet? How about a clue, do they have one of those? Nevertheless, Deshaun Watson should stop with the coy tweets, though they can be fun to parse.

2. The Bills Sunday become the 11th of the 16 AFC teams to play in an AFC Championship Game since the Texans entered the league. The zeros with the Texans: Jets, Dolphins, Browns, and Bengals.

3. Most likely Super Bowl LV matchups (presuming Patrick Mahomes is healthy to play Sunday): Bronze-Bills/Packers Silver-Chiefs/Buccaneers Gold-Chiefs/Packers

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Houston goes up 1-0 in the series

Altuve, Correa help lift Astros to ALCS Game 1 win over Red Sox

Carlos Correa's go-ahead homer in the seventh inning of ALCS Game 1 helped lift the Astros to a 1-0 series lead. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite one rough loss to the White Sox in the ALDS, the Astros looked like the dominant team they are capable of being, taking that series 3-1 to advance and taking ownership of home-field advantage in the ALCS against the Red Sox, who upset the Rays. In Game 1, despite trailing for the middle portions of the game, Houston would get more highlight moments from the faces of the franchise to start the series with a win.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 4

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: Ryne Stanek

Losing Pitcher: Hansel Robles

Houston strikes first, but Boston sends Valdez to an early exit

Both starting pitchers worked in and out of trouble in the early goings of ALCS Game 1, starting with Framber Valdez in the top of the first. After erasing a leadoff single by inducing a double play, he went on to load the bases on a single and two walks but would strand all three runners to keep Boston off the board. The Astros jumped in front in the bottom half, with Jose Altuve working a leadoff walk, moving to second on a one-out single by Alex Bregman, advancing to third on a wild pitch, then ultimately scoring on a sac fly by Yordan Alvarez to put Houston ahead 1-0 after one frame.

They had a chance to extend their lead in the bottom of the second, taking advantage of a shaky inning by Chris Sale, who loaded the bases with one out as Houston would get two singles and a hit-by-pitch. That flipped the order over to the top, but a great diving catch by former Astro Kiké Hernández would end the inning. Hernández led off the top of the third against Valdez, and he would tie things up with a solo homer.

Things went downhill from there for Valdez and the Astros, as a one-out walk followed by a single gave the Red Sox the go-ahead run in scoring position. On a groundball that likely should have been a double play to end the inning, it would get through Altuve's legs, scoring a run and keeping the inning alive for Boston. They took advantage, getting an RBI double to extend their new lead to 3-1. Valdez would get one more out before Dusty Baker would give him the early hook, bringing in Yimi Garcia, who finished the frame.

A battle of the bullpens, Altuve ties it up

Like Valdez, Sale would also not make it through three innings, getting two outs while putting two on base before Boston would start their bullpen's night as well. Both sets of relievers settled the game down, with the Red Sox stranding two of Houston's runners in the third as well as the fifth, maintaining their two-run lead. After Garcia finished the third, Cristian Javier entered to eat up a couple of innings, and he would do just that by getting through two frames with just one hit, four strikeouts, and no runs.

Next, Phil Maton took over in the top of the sixth and erased a leadoff walk to keep things in striking distance for the home team. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put another runner on base, getting a one-out single by Chas McCormick. Two batters later, with two outs, Jose Altuve provided yet another career postseason highlight, tying the game 3-3 with a two-run home to re-energize the Minute Maid Park crowd.

Astros take ALCS Game 1

Now a brand new ballgame in the top of the seventh, Brooks Raley came in to face three batters, getting two strikeouts while allowing a single before Dusty Baker would move on to Ryne Stanek, who would get the third out. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Correa continued his march to a monster off-season contract, putting Houston back on top with a solo homer, making it 4-3.

Houston kept the script after Stanek with the new lead in hand, going to Kendall Graveman as the setup man in the top of the eighth. Despite a two-out single, he would get out of the inning with the lead intact, putting Houston three outs away from the victory. After a walk, single, and hit by pitch to start the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, Altuve would drive in his third run of the game, getting a sac fly to extend the lead to two runs at 5-3.

That insurance run proved pivotal, as closer Ryan Pressly was met with a leadoff solo home run by Hernandez, his second of the night for Boston, to make it 5-4. Pressly refocused and was able to get the next three batters in order, though, wrapping up the win to start Houston off with a 1-0 series lead and putting them three wins away from advancing to the World Series.

Up Next: The two teams will have a moderately quick turnaround, with ALCS Game 2 scheduled to start at 3:20 PM Central on Saturday ahead of NLCS Game 1 between the Dodgers and Braves getting the night slot. The pitching matchup is expected to be Nathan Eovaldi for Boston, who is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA in his two starts this postseason, going opposite Luis Garcia, who had a rough outing in the ALDS for Houston, giving up five runs without completing three innings in Chicago.

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