FALCON POINTS

These 5 teams of interest in Houston have the most to prove in the new year

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

As the calendar turns on a new year and new decade, the sports scene in Houston has not changed all that much. The Astros are going to be contenders again (and accused of cheating again), the Rockets will continue to tweak to try to take the ultimate step, and the Texans will be hard to get behind as long as Bill O'Brien prowls the sidelines. Still, when it comes to the local pro and college ranks, these five programs/franchises will have the most to prove in the new year:


1) Can the Texans rise above mediocrity?

They get their first chance Saturday against the Bills. While just winning A playoff game should not be the goal, considering the Texans past postseason appearances under O'Brien, a loss would render the season a major disappointment and call into question the entire operation (again). And make no mistake, the Texans can lose this game. A second-round setback against a better team would not really be a success, either, but it would be an improvement. Getting to an AFC Championship Game should be the minimum goal. Does anyone really believe that can happen? The window is now for the Texans, and a playoff run this season or massive improvement next year might silence some critics. Of all the teams on this list, they have the most to prove.

2) The big state schools

The Texans Longhorns did not proclaim themselves back after winning the Alamo Bowl, which is smart. They did follow up a 10 win season with an 8-win one, and eight should be the floor there. The Longhorns should be serious contenders for the Big 12 title and a playoff berth at worst in 2020. It's time to find out if Tom Herman is the right man to get it done.

In College Station, the Aggies went all in on Jimbo Fisher, and the results have been, like the commercial says, just OK. Fisher has gone 9-4 and 8-5, and this past season they lost to every good team on their schedule. They did play perhaps the toughest slate in the nation, but at some point, Fisher is supposed to win some of those games. It needs to happen this year.

3) Harden and the Rockets

The Rockets more than any other team in Houston keep pushing their chips in the middle and trying new things. The addition of Russell Westbrook is still a work in progress, although the team has shown some signs of life. The Rockets have at least been to a couple Western Conference Finals in the Harden era, but the franchise makes no bones about its goal of winning a title. They still look to be a little short of teams like the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks in the title hierarchy, but they aren't done tweaking, either. Mike D'Antoni's job remains in flux. This latest all-in move has to pay off.

4) UH's bizarre, bold move

When Dana Holgorsen took over UH's football team, expectations were high. But it did not take long to figure out the cupboard had been left awfully bare by Major Applewhite and his staff. So Holgorsen basically punted on the season after the Tulane loss, red shirting some key seniors and limping to a 4-8 record. Star quarterback D'Eriq King was one of those players. If King stays and is joined by a bevy of high quality transfers, the Cougars could be right back in the AAC race next season. If he leaves and the strategy backfires? Holgorsen's job is safe, but this year's moves will be defined by next season.

5) Does a controversial off-season derail the Astros?

The dumb sign stealing saga has dominated the off-season, along with the loss of Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, which makes New York the likely AL favorites. The Astros have not made any significant additions, and do not appear to be poised to do so, suddenly concerned about a bloated payroll. The off-field messes, from the sign saga to the former assistant GM saga to the forcing the Ryans out saga...To the on field: A.J. Hunch's bizarre handling of his pitching staff in the Game 7 Series loss. The Astros will have their lineup intact for another year, but the starting pitching - so strong last season - is a big bunch of question marks. While the off-field stuff should not impact things on the field too much, who knows? The Rangers and Angels will be better. The Astros are still the class of the AL West, but did their title window close? Probably not, but there will be real questions in 2020.

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Cristian Javier has proven he's a quality starting pitcher. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The 2022 regular season is nearing its end and while for the Houston Astros the true test will begin in the postseason, now is a good time to look ahead at what the team’s starting rotation could look like in 2023.

The big question will be whether long-time ace Justin Verlander returns to the team. Heading into 2022, there was doubt whether he would even be with the Astros coming off Tommy John surgery. Verlander re-signed with Houston on a two-year deal with a player option for 2023.

His production in 2022 has been nothing short of sensational. Verlander has the most wins for the Astros with a week left in the season. He has a 1.82 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 5.2 wins above replacement. More importantly for both Verlander and the Astros, is that he has played in 26 games and counting this season.

Whether Verlander remains with the Astros will likely depend on whether Houston is willing to spend. It is highly likely Verlander opts out of his player option following the strong 2022 campaign he has put together and looks for a bigger payday. Houston has shown it is not afraid to let key players walk in the offseason, so let’s take a look at a potential rotation with and without Verlander.

If the 39-year-old, who will be 40 by the time the 2023 regular season starts, stays with the Astros, he will undoubtedly be either the No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher in the rotation along with Framber Valdez, who is right behind Verlander in wins this season at 16. If Verlander leaves, Valdez should be the new Astros ace at No. 1.

Behind those two should be pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who in seven games in 2022 has a 2.38 ERA and has cooled the concerns about his right flexor tendon strain being a long-term concern. He suffered the injury last postseason.

After those three, things begin to get interesting. Let’s say Houston opts to stay with a six-man rotation. The fourth starter could be Luis Garcia, who has a 3.90 ERA in 2022. The 25-year-old has shown he is more than a capable starter for the Astros.

The big question is if Hunter Brown can lock himself a spot in the rotation. Numbers wise, he makes a solid case to be more than Houston’s fifth starter as he has garnered 1.13 ERA through four appearances and two starts.

Brown’s starts have been against the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers, so there is a bit of a caveat there, but the upside undoubtedly should put him in the conversation for a starting role in 2023.

If Verlander leaves Houston, it should be more of a guarantee that a spot in the rotation as a starter for Brown is locked. Another factor in whether Brown is a starter could be if the Astros keep Dusty Baker as manager. Baker has shown at times he is willing to side with veterans over younger talent.

Other factors in Brown’s role will also be Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier. Urquidy has a 3.88 ERA in 28 games, all of which have been starts. Javier has a 2.65 ERA in 29 appearances, 24 of which have been starts.

Javier’s role for the Astros the last couple of years has involved starting and coming out of the bullpen, but this season he has shown that he is a capable starter. Based on this season’s play, Javier should have the edge for a starting spot, which leaves the question, what should the Astros do with Urquidy?

If Verlander walks, and Houston opts to keep a six-man rotation, then he just slides in and becomes starter No. 6. If Verlander stays, then is he willing to accept a role out of the bullpen, or do the Astros continue to use Brown out of the bullpen? Over the course of the season, both Brown and Urquidy will undoubtedly have chances to start throughout 2023.

Because of the long grind of an MLB schedule, the Astros should not trade whoever doesn’t get a starting role if Verlander stays, but how likely is it that it is even a problem for Houston? Regardless of who leaves or stays, the Astros should also continue with a six-man rotation because over the course of 162 games, it is what is best for your starters.

If the Astros bring back general manager James Click, based on how the Astros have seen players like George Springer and Carlos Correa walk in the past under his leadership, it is likely Verlander leaves Houston, but at the same time, many didn’t believe he was going to be back at all for 2022.

One thing is for sure, the Astros have a great problem to have. So many starting pitcher candidates, many of whom can be under team control for several years. So even if Verlander walks, an unforeseen injury happens, or a player ends up being disgruntled, Houston has more than enough flexibility to remain among the American Leagues’s best.

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