ASTROS SEASON PREVIEW
5 exciting Houston Astros notes to keep track of during the 2022 MLB season
Between the lengthy lockout between the owners and players that almost doomed the season entirely, and the subsequent flurry of activity as teams rushed to sign and trade players to prepare their rosters, it's safe to say the offseason leading to the 2022 MLB regular season was one of the craziest ever and has led to one of the most anticipated regular seasons. For the Astros, while they made some less-notable additions of their own, they too have made their preparations to begin what they hope will be another season that ends with a World Series appearance and ultimately the second Commissioner's Trophy for the franchise.
With Spring Training behind them, Houston will start the 162-game grind when their regular season begins Thursday night in Anaheim against the Angels. That'll set off a campaign with many intriguing and notable facets to follow and watch as the year unfolds.
1. Verlander's march up the all-time leaderboard
The biggest deal the Astros made in the offseason was re-signing Justin Verlander on a 1-year, $25 million deal with a player option for a second year at the same rate if he reaches 130 innings this season. Before suffering an injury that resulted in Tommy John surgery after his only start in 2020 and sidelined him entirely in 2021, Verlander was coming off a Cy Young year in 2019, where he posted a 2.58 ERA and struck out 300 batters in 223 innings pitched over 34 starts.
Now that he's finally healthy again, he will take the ball for Houston on Saturday to begin his seventeenth season in the big leagues. He's done nothing short of building up a great Hall of Fame case over the first sixteen, specifically in the strikeout column. He currently sits 19th on the all-time leaderboard with 3,013 in his career, second amongst active pitchers behind Max Scherzer, who is just one spot and seven K's in front at 3,020.
While they battle each other this season, if both should stay healthy, they are poised to overtake some incredibly notable names along their way to the top-15, including current Hall of Famers John Smoltz (17th with 3,084), Bob Gibson (14th with 3,117), and Pedro Martinez (13th with 3,154).
2. Tucker looks to keep the success rolling
One of the many storylines from 2021 was a breakout year for Kyle Tucker. Despite a sluggish start to the year at the plate due to no lack of contact, but instead hitting right at opposing fielders, he was still able to put up a great season, finishing with 92 RBI and 30 homers to go along with a .917 OPS.
If you exclude the tough April and look at just May onward in 2021, he was one of the best hitters in baseball with a sixth-best average and OPS at .320 and .986, respectively. If he can replicate that for an entire season, the sky will be the limit for the 25-year-old outfielder.
3. A new face at shortstop
The most significant blow to Houston's roster over the offseason was, without a doubt, losing Carlos Correa. After it seemed his former club was a frontrunner to bring him back, Correa shocked many by taking a short-term deal with the Minnesota Twins, ending his tenure as part of the middle infield alongside good friend Jose Altuve.
Instead of bringing in a veteran to fill that gap, the Astros have instead handed the keys over to Jeremy Peña, a third-round pick by Houston in the 2018 draft. He has impressed in his time in the minors, sporting a .291 batting average with 85 RBI over 690 at-bats. In his 2021 season with AAA Sugar Land, he went 35-for-122, resulting in a .287 average with ten homers.
Jeremy Peña delivers for the @astros.
More on Houston's No. 1 prospect: https://t.co/pm8qk0ptUjpic.twitter.com/VqGuovsOj0
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 29, 2022
If there was any trepidation in whose shoes he was looking to fill, he showed no sign of it in Spring Training, slashing .389/.421/.778 in 19 ABs, including a two-homer game this past Sunday as he ramped up to become Houston's everyday shortstop.
4. Looking for continued growth and health
Among the rest of the roster, core pieces could help put Houston over the top in 2022 if they can take a step forward or stay healthy throughout the year to provide their already high-level performance. Alex Bregman appears to be fully healthy again, and the last time he played an entire 162-game season finished second in the 2019 AL MVP voting.
Yordan Alvarez, who debuted with a Rookie of the Year season in 2019 before being sidelined in 2020, showed in 2021 that he is a force at the plate and will be looking to repeat that for another season. Yuli Gurriel, the winner of the American League batting title last season along with a gold glove, will turn 38 this season and is showing no signs of slowing down, showing up to Spring Training slimmer and going 8-for-19 with three homers. With all of that, you still have the likes of Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley in the lineup to get things done.
On the mound, the Astros will start the season without Lance McCullers Jr., who continues to rehab a flexor tendon injury that he experienced in the 2021 ALDS. However, he is hopeful of ramping up and joining the team this season. Framber Valdez will get the nod as the opening day starter for Houston against the Angels on Thursday, followed by Jake Odorizzi, Verlander, then Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia to round out the rotation to start the season.
5. Keeping the window open
Despite losing Correa, the Astros remain one of the best teams in the league on paper. They have made it to five-straight ALCS appearances, winning three of them to participate in three of the last five Fall Classics. First, they have to deal with their division, and outside of the A's, who spent the winter offloading players, the other three teams looked to improve to take down Houston, who has won the division in the last four 162-game seasons.
The Rangers made splashes by signing Corey Seager and Marcus Semien; the Mariners picked up Robbie Ray and Jesse Winker, and the Angels brought in Noah Syndergaard to pair up with two of the best players in the league: Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout. While Houston remains the favorite, anything can happen throughout the long MLB season, so, as always, it will be imperative for the Astros to take care of business against division rivals so that they can be around in October to face potentially mightier foes.
That goal will be tested on Thursday night when they look to start things off on the right foot with a win against the Angels on the road.
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