These mammoth x-factors now stand between Houston Astros and history
The time will come when the Astros don’t have an outstanding team. Barring a series of calamities over the next six months, that time will not be 2023. Are the Astros likely to win the World Series again this year? No they are not. However, as the season starts no team has a better shot at 2023 glory, and only the Astros have the shot to end the more than two decades long drought without a repeat champ in Major League Baseball. A seven game homestand can make for a nice springboard into the season. Winning three of four from the White Sox is the most logical outcome for the opening series, then the likely still lousy Detroit Tigers visit for three.
The Astros begin the season as a lesser squad than that which rolled through the postseason with eleven wins in 13 games to post World Series title number two. Justin Verlander is gone for good. That indisputably weakens the starting rotation. Jose Altuve is gone for the first quarter or so of the season. That indisputably weakens the everyday lineup. Still, the Astros won 106 games last season in taking the American League West for the fifth time in six years and doing so by a whopping 16 game margin. They have room for some fall off while remaining king of the mountain. The runner-up Seattle Mariners look improved over the squad that won 90 games then pushed the Astros hard despite getting swept in their three game Division Series, but not so much improved that they look better than the Astros. That is where injuries and unexpected jumps or declines can flip a division.
In 2021 the Astros faced an entire season without Justin Verlander and won 95 games. In 2021 Yuli Gurriel had his overall best season (his 31 homers in 2019 was a juiced ball driven aberration), so did Carlos Correa. Jose Altuve played 146 games. While new first baseman Jose Abreu is maybe 50/50 to be better than 2021 Yuli, he is a near lock to be a lot better than 2022 Yuli. What is Jeremy Pena in his second season? He’s not going to hit .345 with an OPS over 1.000 as he posted in a superstar postseason tour de force, but with solid improvement over his rookie regular season Pena can become a bonafide star. The big Pena issue is plate discipline. Swinging at more hittable pitches should boost his batting average from .253. Not swinging at more balls is a must. Pena simply must walk more if he is to be a good regular leadoff batter in Altuve’s absence. Last season Pena walked just 22 times in 558 plate appearances. That is horrible and resulted in a poor on base percentage of .289. Coupled with his power, even a .333 OBP from Pena would be acceptable. Altuve is looking at playing 100 games or so max. That is a problem without resolution, unless David Hensley is a revelation.
While there are notable question marks, the Astros have potentially very good answers to most and a talent baseline second to none. If picking trios off any roster for their 2023 production, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Alex Bregman might be top five. If given to prayer, say one for Yordan’s hands being and remaining fine. The loss of Verlander should not be downplayed. Every time he went to the mound the Astros rated the pitching edge going into the game. Framber Valdez had a fabulous 2022 and may have another level yet in him, but there are a dozen or so teams for which Framber would not be the opening day starter. Well, maybe Cristian Javier is the new ace-to-be. All Astros’ starters are backed by the best bullpen in the game, which returns essentially intact.
AL West outlook
As for the rest of the AL West apart from the Mariners, the Texas Rangers have spent gobs of money in back-to-back offseasons trying to matter again. In Altuve’s absence, their lineup could be better than the Astros in five spots. If starting rotation additions Jacob DeGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, and Andrew Heaney all stay healthy all season, the Rangers can be in the race. If DeGrom, Eovaldi, and Heaney all stay healthy all season, look up for the flying pigs.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Orange County in Southern California still have Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. Yeah, and? They actually had a good depth-building offseason and come September should at least be in the wild card picture.
The (future, bet on it) Las Vegas Athletics are again garbage.
The Rockets are winding down their third consecutive laughingstock garbage season. The Texans have renewed hope of competence but are still more than five months from playing a game that matters. So amen to Astros baseball being back, if not better than ever, plenty good enough for another season of excellence. Let’s say 95 wins worth.
Here's where you can find more Astros content this season!
Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as: