A third straight AL West title and a third straight 100-win season? Those laudable goals hang in the balance for the Houston Astros, but their season won’t be considered a success unless they win the World Series for a second time in the last three years. In a sport like baseball, with so much built-in parity and randomness, that’s perhaps an unfair weight to carry, but that’s the reality for Houston. Now let’s have a closer look at what’s ahead for them in 2019 …
- George Springer, CF
- Alex Bregman, 3B
- Jose Altuve, 2B
- Carlos Correa, SS
- Michael Brantley, LF
- Yuli Gurriel, 1B
- Tyler White, DH
- Josh Reddick RF
- Robinson Chirinos, C
The Correa question
Correa endured a disappointing 2018 season. He came in with a career line of .288/.366/.498, but then he went out and slashed .239/.323/.405 in 110 games. To be sure, that’s not bad production for a shortstop, but it’s well shy of what we’ve come to expect from Correa. He missed almost a month-and-a-half with a sore lower back last season, and after he returned from injury in early August his numbers cratered. At the time he hit the injured list, he was producing at something close to career norms. However, from the time of his activation on Aug. 10 through the end of the regular season Correa batted .180/.261/.256 — more than enough to drag down his overall stats.
Correa’s going into his age-24 season and more often than not has performed at an elite level. That alone suggests a bounceback is likely. On the other hand, back problems are troublesome things for hitters, and it seems Correa wasn’t able to shake his last year. More broadly, he’s got durability concerns going forward, as Correa has managed to play in just 109 and 110 games, respectively, in the last two seasons. As well, look at his StatCast batted ball data, and it’s clear Correa’s (relative) struggles weren’t a function of overwhelming bad luck. To resume his place among the most compelling young talents in baseball today, Correa needs to rediscover his pre-2018 levels of productivity and his 2016 level of health. Finding his way back to both may be a big ask.
Young arms abound
Most teams with contending aspirations would be heavily dismayed by losing the likes of Charlie Morton and (presumably) Dallas Keuchel to free agency and then losing Lance McCullers Jr. to Tommy John surgery. The Astros, though, are positioned to withstand such losses. They still have the imposing combo of Justin Verlander and the coached-up Gerrit Cole at the front end. Wade Miley is new to the fold (more on him below), and Collin McHugh is set to return to the rotation after a highly successful 2018 stint in the bullpen.
However, the biggest reason not to sweat those aforementioned losses is the crop of young starting pitchers in place and on the way. Right now, 25-year-old lefty Framber Valdez seems likely to open the season as the fifth starter (although Brad Peacock could mount a challenge). As soon as he returns from a quad injury, 26-year-old right Josh James, who can hit triple digits with his fastball and is a consensus top-100 overall prospect, will enter the mix. J.B. Bukauskas, the 15th overall pick of the 2017 draft and another consensus top-100 guy, will likely begin the season at Double-A, which puts him in the mix for a promotion to the majors at some point in 2019.
The greatest of these, though, is Forrest Whitley, the top pitching prospect in all of baseball. The 21-year-old righty was the 17th overall pick in 2016, and across parts of three minor-league seasons he boasts a 3.28 ERA, a 3.98 K/BB ratio, and 203 strikeouts in 137 1/3 innings. He’s not yet on the 40-man, but he’s ticketed for the high minors to start the year. When it comes to a call-up, don’t be surprised if he forces the issue sooner rather than later.
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of the Astros’ young starters. An outgrowth of this is that they also have the farm talent necessary to swing a deal for a known-quantity starter leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline should they choose to address a need in that way. The Houston rotation took some body blows, yes, but help is on the way.
Can Miley repeat 2018?
Coming into 2018, the soft-tossing Miley would rightly be called waiver-wire fodder. He was in his thirties and coming off a fairly terrible two-season run with the Mariners and Orioles. In defiance of expectations, though, he overcame a serious oblique injury and provided the Brewers last season with ace-like results across 18 starts. He also kept it going in the postseason. Certainly luck had a little to do with it, but what raises hopes that Miley can keep it up is his cutter. He supposedly tried out a new version of the pitch at some point in 2017, but last season for the first time in his career it became his go-to offering.
No doubt Miley benefited from weak contact last season, but cutter-changeup guys, of which Miley is now one, often have a knack for limiting damage off the bat. By guaranteeing Miley $4.5 million for the season to come and installing him in the rotation, the Astros are betting he can keep it going. Houston also has a knack for helping pitchers make adjustments at the margins — margins that help them level up. Miley seems to have already done that, and the task is to help him stay there. It’s too much to say the Astros’ season will hinge on Miley’s continued ability to keep the ball in the park, but it’s not too much to say the stability of their back end may depend on it.
Gurriel in decline?
Will Yuli Gurriel be an adequate first baseman in 2019? He’s going into this age-35 season, and his dropped from 121 in 2017 to 108 last season. At the same time, his GIDPs spiked from 12 in 2017 to an AL-leading 22 in 2018. Look at his statcast batted ball data, and they suggest that Gurriel’s numbers should’ve been significantly worse than they were. Given his age, decline at the plate is to be expected, and he certainly doesn’t make up the ground in the field or on the bases. The offensive bar for first basemen is fairly high, and it’s not certain Gurriel in 2019 can meet it.
If that’s the case, then the Astros may need to look elsewhere. Tyler White could slide over from DH, and perhaps Michael Brantley could fill the DH spot once the Astros decide Kyle Tucker is ready for another shot. Also don’t forget about A.J. Reed, who not all that long ago was a consensus top-100 prospect. Yordan Alvarez — yet another top-100 prospect — is another option. He’ll likely begin the year at Triple-A, so he figures to be ready soon (although he’s not yet on the 40-man).
On one level, the Astros figure to get such strong production from premium positions that they can afford a little backsliding at first base. When you aspire to win it all, though, you seek every edge you can get, especially when those potential edges are in-house. Gurriel should have a fairly short leash in 2019.
Last season, the Houston bullpen was a pronounced strength, as it led the AL in relief ERA and relief Tony Sipp, who registered a 1.86 ERA in 38 2/3 innings last season, was granted free agency and recently signed with the Nationals. As well, McHugh, who authored a sub-2.00 ERA across 58 relief appearances (21 of which were of the multi-inning variety), is slated for rotation duty in 2019, so that’s another loss. If Peacock (3.55 ERA in 63 1/3 relief innings last season) wins the fifth starter’s job, then the bullpen will shed still more quality innings.— i.e., it was tops in terms of run prevention and in terms of key underlying indicators. The relief corps figures to be a strength once again, but a couple of possible changes are worth noting. Lefty
None of this is to suggest that the Astros’ pen will be any kind of a problem in 2019. Indeed, some of those young arms noted above could step into any breaches and fare just fine or better. Rather, the likelihood is that the Houston bullpen won’t quite reach the heights of 2018.
At the level of the run differential, the Astros last season played more like a 109-win team, which means their six-game gap over the Athletics may be overstating how close the two teams are in reality. The SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) is quite bullish on the Astros in the season to come and at the same time expects the A’s to regress. Right now, SportsLine tabs the Astros for 101 wins and the A’s for 88 wins. They also give the Astros an 84.4 percent chance of winning the AL West in 2019 and a 94 percent chance of making the postseason. That’s an encouraging forecast for Houston, but, again, the goal is to do more than “merely” win another division championship.