Houston Astros title defense could come down to 3 critical factors

It's that time of year again! Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

The defense of the 2022 World Series Championship has officially begun for the Houston Astros.

With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, the full roster arriving in the coming days, and the team playing its first game on Feb. 25, there are a few storylines to keep an eye on as the days go from February to March and eventually the regular season.

Here are three things to watch during the Astros’ spring training.

1) Hunter Brown’s progression

Right-handed pitcher Hunter Brown got a crash course on being a Major League Baseball professional last season. Making just seven appearances in the regular season, Brown started in two games for the Astros.

Giving up just two earned runs in his seven appearances, both of which came in the same game against the Detroit Tigers in mid-September, Brown was then thrust into some heavy pressured postseason moments.

Brown pitched in three innings in the American League Divisional Series against the Seattle Mariners and got crucial outs to help Houston sweep the series. While it wasn’t pretty, he also did enough to keep the Yankees at bay in the ALCS.

With Justin Verlander no longer on the Astros, there is an opening in the rotation that could be won by Brown. With Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Lance McCullers likely in the top three of the rotation, Brown is competing with Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy for a secured spot in the starting rotation.

With Houston fans excited for Brown’s future, how well he looks during spring training will be something to monitor to see if he truly is the next young star on the Astros roster that always seems to reload when they lose a previous key piece.

2) Jose Abreu’s first dance with the Astros

The biggest acquisition by the Astros this offseason was signing first baseman Jose Abreu away from the Chicago White Sox.

Abreu is already in Florida. With the 36-year-old replacing long-time first baseman Yuli Gurriel, Houston fans will be anxious to see how the big-name acquisition gels with the team. In his early stint with reporters, it is clear he is already making himself at home with Houston.

How quickly he adjusts to the Astros, and how fast he begins to impact the team on offense and defense will be what the Houston faithful will watch during spring training. After playing for nine years and posting .292/.354/.506 for his career, Abreu has a chance to elevate an infield that already has Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Jeremy Peña.

3) Michael Brantley’s return

The left-handed hitter is undoubtedly the Astros’ wild card heading into the regular season. After missing a bulk of the 2022 year with his shoulder injury, Houston was forced to pivot throughout its World Series run.

If Brantley, who is also already in Florida with the team, can get back to producing at the level he was at last season prior to his injury, it will be a huge bonus for the Astros. The biggest reason would be because of the flexibility it gives Houston.

Having a career .298/.356/.439 hitter that can play left field or just be a designated hitter option gives manager Dusty Baker another weapon in his arsenal.

With Kyle Tucker commanding right field, Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers and Mauricio Dubon will likely be the remaining players not named Yordan Alvarez that can join Tucker in the outfield. If Brantley is healthy, his bat and defense would be a welcomed get for the Astros.

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Numbers don't lie. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros better be mindful. The Texas Rangers are better than the Astros right now because while the Rangers’ offense has been awesome, the Astros’ attack continues to rate as screamingly average. The Rangers have opened up a four and a half game lead over the Astros in the American League West. 27 games represent one-sixth of the regular season schedule. Over their last 27 games the Astros have gone 19-8. Extrapolated over 162 games that’s awesome 114 win baseball. Over those 27 games the Astros have gained zero ground in the standings on the Rangers.

While 19-8 is an impressive stretch no matter what, it is notable that within that stretch the Astros went 11-1 versus the A’s, Cubs, and White Sox, three bad teams. Winning five of six from the mediocre Angels was good, particularly beating Shohei Ohtani twice. The Astros lost two out of three to the Brewers, lost two out of three to the Twins, and need a getaway win in Toronto to gain a split with the Blue Jays.

Maybe the Rangers will be akin to the 1979 Astros, rising but not quite ready yet. July 4, 1979 the Astros led the Reds by 10 and a half games in the National League West. Reds’ pitcher and top 10 greatest pitcher ever Tom Seaver said no worries, the Astros would “fall like a lead balloon” in the second half. The Reds won the division. Here is one stat that points toward Rangers' slippage: as a team they are batting a preposterous .335 with runners in scoring position. No way that holds up all season. The Astros and Rangers have a four game series in Arlington starting June 30. That series looms as much more important to the Astros than one would have thought back in spring training.

Here's the catch

Dusty Baker this week offered his most elaborate explanation for his playing time split at catcher. It was largely balderdash. Thursday’s series finale in Toronto is Martin Maldonado's 45th start behind the plate. Yainer Diaz has 15 starts, Cesar Salazar three. Dusty talked of how there is more to the catching position than hitting. Fair point. His “points” deteriorated from there. It’s definitely attention getting that General Manager Dana Brown has publicly acknowledged talking with Baker about Diaz playing more. Good for Dana.

Let’s leave aside that Maldonado is a lousy offensive player, while Diaz brims with potential and recently has translated some of that potential into results. The Astros’ record is better with Diaz catching than with Maldonado. The pitchers’ earned run average is better when Diaz catches. The “Machete” blade has dulled. Maldonado has thrown out just six of 28 base stealers. Diaz has nailed seven of 18. Maldonado has three passed balls (and at least a couple more that were generously for him scored wild pitches), Diaz has none. All upside growth lies with Diaz.

Dusty sees it as tough to have rookie pitchers throwing to a rookie catcher. I guess if they stink that’s true. Especially dubious is Dusty’s “point” in having Maldonado catch Hunter Brown’s last six starts so that should Diaz get hurt, Maldonado wouldn’t have to start catching Brown with little familiarity. How about the inverse? Diaz catching all the other starters more so that should the approaching 37 years old Maldonado break down, Diaz is more up to speed. Oh, Brown’s earned run average over those six starts with Maldonado is 4.81. Over his first six starts, five of them pitching to Diaz, Brown’s ERA was 2.60.

Wednesday Dusty gave Alex Bregman and Jeremy Pena the night off. Nothing wrong with that. The 29-year-old Bregman had played in all 61 games this season to date, the 25-year-old Pena in 60 of 61. Meanwhile, 36-year-old season long disaster Jose Abreu was penciled into the starting lineup for the 60th time in 62 games. Abreu’s ended the night with his OPS at .534. He is the worst player in the Major Leagues getting everyday run. Thursday marks his 61st start in 63 games. Another spot where Diaz should be getting more time.

All eyes on Texas

Some more on those Rangers, who last season finished 68-94. They are now 40-21, and that with their desperate five year 185 million dollar contract dice roll on pitcher Jacob deGrom crapping out. deGrom finishes with all of six starts and now faces a second Tommy John surgery that could sideline him until 2025. One of the very few pitchers to ever pitch viably again after two Tommy John surgeries is Alvin native Nathan Eovaldi. The Rangers gave him 34 million guaranteed for two years, which so far is the best signing of the offseason. Eovaldi has been every bit as good as Framber Valdez.

Will he hold up is a very fair and very important question. Since 2015, only in 2021 has Eovaldi topped 125 innings in a season. He’s on pace for about 200 this year. Overall, Rangers’ starting pitchers have a lower ERA than Astros’ starters. The Rangers weakness is their bullpen. There is virtually no doubt they will strengthen it by the trade deadline. Their offense has had no weaknesses. Only one team since 1950 (1999 Indians) has amassed more than 1000 runs in a season. About 40 percent of the way through this season the Rangers are on pace for 1025. Going position by position, Yordan Alvarez remains the only Astro who would crack the Ranger lineup so far this year.

Reminder that there are no one game tiebreakers to decide division titles or wild card spots. Season series winners win out. Astros-Jays Thursday outcome decides the season series. It’s conceivable that could be very important come season’s end.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule a first video segment goes up at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, with the complete audio available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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