With new pieces in place, Astros rookie skipper must address these intriguing decisions ahead of season

Astros Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole
Who will take the ball on Opening Day versus Gerrit Cole? Composite Getty Image.

There is a much better indicator that spring is just around the corner than if Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t see his shadow on Groundhog Day. Next week the Astros’ equipment trucks hit the road for beautiful West Palm Beach, Florida. Appropriately for all right-minded folks who love baseball, the Astros’ first workout of spring training is on Valentine’s Day. February 14 is day one for pitchers and catchers with the full squad on the field together for the first time February 19. 38 days later the Astros face Gerrit Cole and the Yankees on Opening Day at Minute Maid Park. Who does new manager Joe Espada hand the ball to start game one of 162 for the Astros? Barring injuries there are only two candidates. Framber Valdez started the opener the last two seasons. Does Espada stick with Valdez as an early show of belief after Framber largely fell apart after the All-Star break last season? Or does he go with Justin Verlander because, well, he’s Justin Verlander? I wouldn’t call it a high drama decision, but interesting nonetheless, and it means we’re talking Astros baseball!

Gratuitous sidebar: Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I are raring to go for a second season of our Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Available on YouTube and wherever you get your podcasts.

With due respect to the Astros’ acquisition this week of Trey Cabbage from the Angels’, the big get of the Astros’ offseason was the “Wow!” signing of relief ace Josh Hader. The loss of Kendall Graveman for the season made it clear the Astros needed another quality bullpen arm. It also made it clear that the Astros could not stay under the first Collective Bargaining Tax threshold and with a straight face say they were doing all they could reasonably do going into a season in which they take aim to repeat as American League West Champion, reach an absurd eighth consecutive AL Championship series, and hopefully go beyond. So Jim Crane signed off on the whopping five year 95 million dollar guarantee to Hader. 19 million dollars per season is quite a chunk for a guy who last reached 60 innings pitched in 2019.

Hader joins Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu to give the Astros an epic three man back of the bullpen. The comparisons to the Astros' 2003 pen threesome of Billy Wagner, Octavio Dotel, and Brad Lidge are natural and fun to make for those who remember that squad. One key comparison that better not apply eight months from now: the 2003 Astros missed the playoffs. Hader is a tremendous addition but let’s remember that the Astros got a 1.71 earned run average from Hector Neris last season. Hader posted a teeny 1.28 ERA, but it should be noted he pitched in home games at San Diego’s very pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Hader’s ERA at home was 0.31. Not that anyone should be scoffing at his 2.30 road mark. So Hader joining the pen actually doesn’t figure to make the Astros’ big three relievers much better than last season’s performance. The trickle down positive is big though, with questionable relievers (i.e. Rafael Montero, Forrest Whitley) pushed down the bullpen totem pole.

In games they led at the end of six innings last season, the Astros went 72-6. They’re not going to improve much upon that. As frame of reference, in games the Astros trailed after six innings they went 9-54.

Hypothetical: would you rather have Hader inked on his 19 million/year deal, or re-signed Neris, Phil Maton, and Ryne Stanek? Neris got nine million from the Cubs with another nine million guaranteed for 2025 is he appears in 60 games this season (Neris has reached 70 appearances each of the last three years). The still unsigned Maton and Stanek seem unlikely to get much more than 10 mil between them. I’d go Hader but there is a case for three over one. Neris had a fabulous 2023 but some of his underlying statistics raise question marks. Maton was much better in the first half of the season than in the second. I will miss Stanek’s Minute Maid Park entrance music, “Still D.R.E.”

Briefly re: Cabbage, the Astros now have a Cabbage and a Cubbage in their history. Mike Cubbage was a coach on Larry Dierker’s staff from 1997-2001. Trey Cabbage has a shot to beat out Jon Singleton for an all-or-nothing left-handed swinger bench spot. Singleton is 32 years old and has pretty conclusively shown he can’t hit Major League pitching. Cabbage turns 27 in May and is coming off a 30-homer 32-stolen base season in AAA. He’s not a notable prospect however. Cabbage amassed his numbers as a Salt Lake Bee. If Salt Lake City had a big league team, only Denver would rate as a better place for hitters. Denver is the Mile High City. Salt Lake City is the 4/5 of a mile high city. The ball flies there too. Cabbage was overmatched in his initial sampling of big league pitching. Cabbage stunk (skunk Cabbage?) with 26 strikeouts in 53 at bats. But that he can play the outfield in addition to first base, and has speed, give him some edges over Singleton.

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Cristian Javier is in better shape this season. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

As the Astros prepare to play their first game of spring training against the Nationals this Saturday, we're starting to see reports about how the players approached the offseason, and what tweaks they made to improve in the 2024 season.

Cristian Javier is a player Astros fans are hoping bounces back this year, as his ERA jumped from 2.54 in 2022 to 4.56 in 2023. Workload was thought to be one of the main factors causing his regression, he dealt with a dead arm last season and threw more innings than ever before (162).

Another explanation could be the pitch clock. This was another new element all pitchers had to deal with last year, and that also likely played a role in his struggles.

But according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Javier believes he was carrying some extra weight last season. Add that to some mechanical issues he was experiencing, and his struggles in 2023 make a lot more sense. And to be fair, he wouldn't be the first person to get a little fat and happy after winning a World Series.

In an effort to get back on track in 2024, Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. With the pitch clock not going anywhere, pitchers need to be in better cardiac shape than ever before.

Hopefully this modification helps Javier return to form and put up jaw-dropping numbers like he did in 2022. This rotation needs Javier to be the dominate pitcher we all know he's capable of being. With Justin Verlander behind schedule and Framber Valdez trying to bounce back from his own down year, Houston will depend on Javier like never before.

The Astros are certainly counting on it after giving him a 5-year, $64 million contract last season. Javier will definitely be a player to watch this spring.

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