The Houston Astros enter 2019 on the heels of four consecutive winning seasons, back-to-back 100-win seasons (2017: 101-61, 2018: 103-59), and back-to-back postseason runs. In 2017, the team brought home the first World Series Championship in franchise history. Last season’s team won a franchise record 103 regular season games and reached the ALCS before losing the series to the Boston Red Sox (the eventual World Series Champs) in 5 games. Despite last season’s record-setting success, the Astros’ title chances were foiled by injuries to critical players, including Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer. Each has been eased into action this spring and should be fully healthy by Opening Day on March 28th.
Before 2017, the Astros had only once won 100+ regular season games (102-60 in 1998) and postseason baseball was anything but guaranteed. Today, 100+ wins and postseason appearances are annual expectations. Where does the team stand prior to the 2019 regular season?
This year’s roster is loaded with superstars and magnetic personalities, and the minor league system is stocked with talent at key positions. Perhaps most importantly, the entire team epitomizes the so-called “growth mindset” that Astros management prioritizes in its approach to scouting and player development. No individual is “bigger than the team,” every player is internally motivated to improve, and (at least from an outsider’s perspective) everyone in the clubhouse genuinely enjoys being together. Lance McCullers, Jr., will miss the entire upcoming season while recovering from Tommy John Surgery, and several players from last season have left the team, including Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Tony Sipp, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis, and Martin Maldonado. Despite the departures, GM Jeff Luhnow and the Astros front office have brilliantly reshuffled the roster by acquiring players who fit perfectly with the team’s plans for 2019. Michael Brantley will provide crucial veteran leadership and a left-handed bat, Aledmys Diaz is well-suited to assume Marwin Gonzalez’s “super-utility” role, Wade Miley brings left-handed versatility to a heavily-right handed starting rotation, and Robinson Chirinos provides offensive firepower that Martin Maldonado lacked.
The team could re-sign Dallas Keuchel at some point to bolster the starting rotation, but additional offseason moves appear unlikely, as Jeff Luhnow recently suggested. A few weeks ago, I offered five “bold” predictions for this year’s Houston Astros squad and (to my surprise) each still seems possible. Now, let’s take a deeper look into the team’s projected 25-man Opening Day roster.
- George Springer — CF
- Jose Altuve — 2B
- Alex Bregman — 3B
- Carlos Correa* — SS
- Michael Brantley* — LF/DH
- Yuli Gurriel — 1B/DH
- Josh Reddick — RF
- Tyler White — 1B/DH
- Robinson Chirinos — C
*Manager A.J. Hinch appears to prefer hitting Brantley in the cleanup spot (with Correa at 5) against right-handed starting pitchers, and Correa at cleanup (with Brantley at 5) against left-handed starting pitchers.
- Aledmys Diaz — 2B/SS/3B/OF
- Jake Marisnick — OF
- Tony Kemp — OF/2B
- Max Stassi — C
Probable Starting Rotation
- Justin Verlander — RHP
- Gerrit Cole — RHP
- Collin McHugh — RHP
- Wade Miley — LHP
- Brad Peacock — RHP
- Josh James — RHP (Long-relief; potential starter)
- Framber Valdez — LHP (Long-Relief/Lefty-specialist)*
- Chris Devenski — RHP (Middle-relief)
- Will Harris — RHP (Middle-relief)
- Hector Rondon — RHP (Set-up)
- Ryan Pressly — RHP (Set-up)
- Roberto Osuna — RHP (Closer)
*Reymin Guduan (LHP) was optioned to the minor leagues on March 23rd, indicating that Framber Valdez will likely fill the last spot on the Astros 25-man roster. Guduan and Valdez had been in competition for a spot in the Astros’ bullpen.
Rising Prospects/Potential Call-Up Options
- Derek Fisher — OF
- A.J. Reed — 1B
- Myles Straw — OF
- Forrest Whitley — RHP
- Reymin Guduan — LHP
- Yordan Alvarez — OF
- Kyle Tucker — OF
- Brandon Bielak — RHP
- J.B. Bukauskas — RHP
- Corbin Martin — RHP
- Garrett Stubbs — C
- Abraham Toro — 3B
- Cionel Perez — LHP
The Batting Order
Jose Altuve enters 2019 in the prime of his career (age 28) and under contract through 2024. He is the face of the franchise and a steady presence in the heart of the batting order. Shockingly, 2018 was a “down year” for Altuve and the least productive of his career since 2013: in 2018, he posted 5.2 WAR, and slashed .316/.386/.451 (133 OPS +) with 13 HR, 61 RBI, and 17 SB. The statistical decline was due largely to a late-season right knee injury (a patella avulsion fracture, to be exact) that lasted throughout September and the postseason. Anyone who watched the ALCS knows how much pain Altuve endured and it was truly astounding that he managed to don a uniform (let alone run) with a broken kneecap. Injury aside, Altuve was his usual productive self during the first half of the season (pre-injury). In the first half, Altuve recorded a .328 BA, with 129 hits, and a .865 OPS. He had surgery on his kneecap in October and is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season, despite dealing with lingering soreness in his left side. When healthy, Altuve is the same productive player that won American League MVP in 2017 (.346/.410/.547, with 24 HR, 81 RBI, 32 SB). The only question entering 2019 is whether Altuve can stay healthy for a full 162-game season (and hopefully another 19 games of postseason) while handling the everyday demands of second base. Perhaps the Astros will give him a break from the field by slotting him in at DH more often this season? Aledmys Diaz is perfectly capable of filling in as needed.
Like Altuve, Carlos Correa‘s 2018 was derailed by injuries. An early-season oblique injury, breathing issues from a deviated septum, and general lower-back soreness led to his worst season as a pro: he entered 2018 slashing .288/.366/.498 for his career, but proceeded to hit .239/.323/.405 (102 OPS+), with 15 HR and 65 RBI. In 34 games during the season’s second half, Correa slashed a measly .180/.261/.256 and hit as low as seventh in the lineup. Worse still, he was benched during the final home series of the regular season. Correa had surgery on the deviated septum in November and is motivated to prove that 2018 was a fluke. His range of movement at shortstop and the return of his power stroke at the plate have been among the leading headlines from Astros spring training. Health has been a persistent concern for Correa (he’s played in just 109 and 110 games, respectively, in the last two seasons), but the sky is the limit if he remains healthy for 140+ games in 2019.
The leadoff spot in 2019 will once again be entrusted to George Springer, the “ignition switch” for the offense. Few things jump-start the batting order like a lead-off “Springer Dinger.” For the second straight year, Springer hit a home run during his first at-bat of the season (he’s now the only major leaguer to ever hit a leadoff HR on consecutive Opening Day games), and his 6 total leadoff HRs ranked second in the AL. Beyond his “pop” atop the bating order, 2018 was a subpar year for Springer, as he dealt with a prolonged slump from June 10 through July 10 (127 PAs, with a .154 BA, 13 singles and only 3 XBH) and a lingering thumb injury (sprained while sliding into 2B). His 2018 statistics relative to 2017 belie his struggles: in 2018, he slashed .265/.346/.434 (116 OPS+), with 22 HR, 71 RBI, and 6 SB. In 2017, he slashed .283/.367/.522 (141 OPS+), with 34 HR, 85 RBI, and 5 SB.
Entering 2019, Springer has dropped weight in an effort to steal more bases and remain healthy during the latter months of the season. If Springer can maintain his 20+ HR power while also emerging as a threat on the base paths (perhaps returning to 2015 form, when he stole 16 bases in 102 games), he should be primed for a rebound year. Springer has the physical tools to excel atop the Astros lineup, but he must remain patient and “regulate” his pace of play. Michael Brantley‘s availability as a mentor will help Springer in this regard.
Alex Bregman‘s confidence is contagious and he’s quickly becoming an annual shoo-in for AL MVP. Simply put, Bregman carried the Astros in 2018. When Altuve, Correa, and Springer were limited by injury, Bregman emerged as a difference-maker (6.9 WAR). How good was Bregman in 2018? Consider the following (per MLB.com): in 2018, Bregman recorded 31 HRs, 51 doubles, and 96 BB. Before Bregman last season, no third baseman in MLB history – not Mike Schmidt (HOFer), not George Brett (another HOFer), not Chipper Jones (yet another HOFer) – had ever hit 30 HRs and 50 doubles in a single season. Additionally, only 7 players in MLB history have hit 30 HRs, 50 doubles, and recorded 90 BBs in a single season (Lance Berkman, Carlos Delgado, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Todd Helton, Stan Musial and David Ortiz). Of those seven, only Helton recorded 30/50/90 more than once (he did so twice, in 2000 and 2001). When the 2019 season starts, Bregman will attempt to record 30/50/90 for a second season. If he does, he’ll enter elite company among the game’s premier third basemen … and he’s only 24 years old (25 on March 30th).
The Astros recently agreed with Bregman on a 6-year (incl. 2019), $100 million contract extension. With Bregman previously eligible for free agency after the 2022 season, the deal buys out his first two years of free agency as well as his arbitration years (which were set to begin in 2020). Among Astros position players past and present, only Carlos Correa and Jeff Bagwell have produced more WAR than Bregman in their first three seasons. Bregman is now under team control through 2024 (his age 30 season); by that time he could be one of the top players in the game.
The Astros signed Michael Brantley on December 19, 2018, to a 2-year, $32 million contract. Prior to the signing, Brantley had spent his entire career with the Cleveland Indians, where he built a solid reputation as one of the game’s most selfless clubhouse leaders. Beyond his leadership value, Brantley is capable of All-Star level production on the field. In 2018, he recorded the second-best season of his career (in 143 games, he hit .309/.364/.468, with 17 HR, 76 RBI, and 12 SB). Over the last 5 seasons, he has hit .311/.371/.846, and he’s also recorded no more than 76 strikeouts in any single year during his 10 years as a major leaguer. Brantley’s career strikeout rate (10.7%) is better than teammates Jose Altuve (11%) and Alex Bregman (15%). While he’s no longer a prolific base stealer, Brantley is a “smart” baserunner, and is rarely caught when he attempts to steal (62 SBs in the last 5 seasons; only caught stealing 6 times).
For several reasons, Brantley is a perfect fit for the Astros and his signing may go down not only as the best of the 2019 MLB offseason, but as one of the best additions in Astros franchise history. The Astros targeted him early in the offseason and prioritized his signing for a reason. Brantley’s left-handedness will bring flexibility to a heavily right-handed lineup. His presence in left field also provides an immediate upgrade at arguably the Astros’ weakest position – in 2018, Astros LFs combined for a .232 BA (13th in AL), .312 OBP (11th in AL), and .702 OPS (11th in AL). Brantley is also a natural fit for the role of “clubhouse leader,” previously held by Brian McCann (signed with Atlanta) and Carlos Beltran (retired), and his consistent approach to the game should offer a model for George Springer to emulate. At best, Brantley shines as an All-Star level talent, capable of mentoring less-experienced teammates and carrying the team throughout the season. At worst, he could be limited to a DH role if his past injury history resurfaces (limited by injury to 101 total games between 2016-17) . In either situation, he’ll bring significant value as a veteran leader in a young locker room (think Beltran during the 2017 World Series). I could not be more excited to see how Michael Brantley contributes as an Astro during the next two seasons.
Despite missing the start of the 2018 season after undergoing hamate surgery, Yuli Gurriel was reliable both on offense hitting out of the 5-hole and on defense as a corner infielder. For the second straight year, he appeared in 136+ games, recorded a .290+ BA, drove in 75+ runs, and provided 2+ WAR. Gurriel epitomizes the Astros’ contact-oriented, “bat-to-ball” approach: he was 2nd in the AL in AB/SO (8.5) in 2017, and 4th (8.5) in 2018. Gurriel’s contact skills are an ideal fit for his position hitting behind table-setters like Altuve, Bregman, and Brantley. After a surgery-free offseason, Gurriel could potentially improve upon last season’s numbers and hit .290+ with roughly 15 HRs and 85 RBI out of the 6-spot in the batting order. There are some reasons for concern, however. Gurriel’s OPS+ dropped from 121 in 2017 (well above league average) to 108 last season (slightly above average). His GIDPs also spiked from 12 in 2017 to an AL-leading 22 in 2018. Gurriel’s “barrel rate” of 1.6 Brls/PA was also significantly lower than other players with a similar average exit velocity (Yasiel Puig – 7.7 Brls/PA; Alex Bregman – 5.5 Brls/PA), indicating that his patented contact skills may be dwindling. Perhaps it’s time for the Astros to transition Tyler White into a role as the team’s primary first baseman, with Gurriel a part-timer at DH? In any event, Brantley and Gurriel comprise one of MLB’s most “plate disciplined” combinations of 5- and 6-hole hitters, and their ability to work deep into pitch counts will give opposing teams headaches this season.
Like Brantley, Robinson Chirinos was acquired (1 yr/$5.75 million) in the offseason to take over starting catcher duties from Martin Maldonado, who declined to return to the team on a 2 yr/$12 million contract. Chirinos is a quality player, both offensively and defensively, and has shown throughout spring training that he is committed to learning the intricacies and preferences of the Astros starting rotation. With the Texas Rangers in 2018, Chirinos slashed .222/.338/.419 (97 OPS+), with 18 HRs and 65 RBI. His offensive “pop” at the bottom of the order will perfectly complement the “on base” emphasis of his teammates. Chirinos is also a capable defensive catcher, albeit not as effective at throwing out baserunners as Maldonado. Chirinos has a career CS% of 25.09%, whereas Maldonado has a CS% of 38.0% (Maldonado also led the AL in 2018 with a CS% of 48.6%). Ultimately, what Chirinos gives up in defensive prowess, he will make up for with offensive firepower in the 9-hole of the batting order. He’s also a genuinely friendly guy and was kind enough to talk and snap a picture with me during Spring Training (pictured above).
In his two seasons with the Houston Astros, Josh Reddick has averaged 134 games per season, while slashing .280/.342/.444 (116 OPS+) with 15 HRs and 64 RBI. Every team has a player that exudes toughness, grit, and determination. Reddick is that guy. He’s scrappy and his hard-nosed style never takes an off-day (even during spring training). In addition to his offensive production, Reddick’s defensive acumen in right field is incredibly underrated – last season, he led all eligible outfielders in fielding percentage, with a perfect 1.000 (tied with Mike Trout and ahead of Mookie Betts). Entering 2019, Reddick has adjusted his approach at the plate to help him hit more effectively to all fields. His adjustment seems to be paying off this spring: entering play on March 17th, in 11 spring training games, Reddick has 8 hits in 21 ABs and is slashing .381/.462/.619, with 3 doubles and 1 triple. One thing to track early in the season: Reddick has been working lately with Astros legend Jeff Bagwell on defensive positioning at first base. The Astros could play him at first base to make room in the outfield for Kyle Tucker or Yordan Alvarez. Wherever he fits in the Astros’ plans, Reddick appears primed to offer his typical production and a little grit, to boot.
Tyler White showed in 2018 that his 2017 contributions (albeit in only 22 games) were no fluke. White appeared in 66 games last season at first base and DH, slashing .276/.354/.533 (143 OPS+), with 12 HRs and 42 RBI. Those numbers may seem pedestrian at first glance, but advanced metrics demonstrate that White was actually incredibly productive in his limited role: among batters with at least 200 PAs, White’s wRC+ ranked 14th in MLB, ahead of superstars like Ronald Acuna, Jr., Manny Machado, and Anthony Rendon. White also led all Astros in barrel rate, with 6.3 Brls/PA (83rd in MLB among qualified hitters, just ahead of David Dahl, Justin Bour, and Jorge Soler). White is under contract through 2024 and it’s obvious that he is capable of hitting in the heart of future Astros lineups. This season will be White’s first with an established roster spot and the team will be counting on him to parlay consistent opportunities into consistent run production.
The Astros bench will be crucial this year, as in years past when Marwin Gonzalez consistently received 450+ ABs as a utility infielder and outfielder. Aledmys Diaz will fill the “Marwin” role this season, particularly at second base and shortstop. Diaz had his best season as a pro in 2016 with the St. Louis Cardinals, when he made the All-Star team and finished 5th in NL Rookie-of-the-Year voting by slashing .300/.369/.510, with 17 HR, 65 RBI and a 3.5 bWAR over 460 plate appearances. He’s had difficulty replicating the same production over the last two seasons with St. Louis and Toronto, slashing .261/.298/.428, with an average of 354 ABs, 12 HR, and 38 RBI per year. The Astros will be counting on Diaz to return to his 2016 All-Star form, particularly if he will be given 450+ ABs per year in the critical “Marwin” role. Diaz outproduced Gonzalez last season, so it seems the Astros have made up for Marwin’s departure at the plate (Diaz – 422 AB, .263/.303/.453, 106 OPS+, 18 HR, 55 RBI; Gonzalez – 489 AB, .247/.324/.409, 103 OPS+, 16 HR, 68 RBI), so he should be able to fill the hole. Jake Marisnick will once again provide superb defensive range in the outfield, where he ranks 34th in MLB among active position players in fWAR, ahead of rangy defensive stalwarts Billy Hamilton, Starling Marte, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. Tony Kemp‘s value to the Astros is immeasurable. Beyond providing a left-handed bat, Kemp is a “spark plug” and ignites the team with his enthusiasm much like Jose Cruz, Sr. did for Astros teams of old. Kemp also played a crucial role in last year’s postseason run, when he slashed .286./474./571 (1.045 OPS), and made several meaningful plays against Cleveland and Boston. Max Stassi will spell Robinson Chirinos at catcher and provide solid defense behind the plate. In 2018, Stassi ranked 4th among AL catchers in Fielding % and 2nd in Range Factor/9inn. Off the field, his experience has already proven invaluable this offseason, as he’s been credited with helping Chirinos learn the intricacies and preferences of the Astros pitching staff throughout spring training.
The Starting Rotation
Despite losing three key starters from 2018, comprising more than half of the 2018 starting staff’s total IP (500.0/955.1 IP), the Astros enter 2019 with one of MLB’s best starting rotations. The one-two punch atop the rotation is one of the best (if not the best) in MLB. Before Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole each struck out 250+ batters in 2018, the last pair of teammates to accomplish such a feat was Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2002 with the Arizona D’backs. Justin Verlander entered the 2018 season averaging 8.6 K/9 with a career 3.45 ERA, and he exceeded expectations in Nolan Ryan-esque fashion: in 34 starts, Verlander recorded 214 IP, 16-9 W/L, a 2.52 ERA, a minuscule .902 WHIP, and 290 K/37 BB. His total strikeouts (290) and 12.2 K/9 were career highs. Verlander is reportedly adjusting his pitch selection this year to incorporate a changeup with greater regularity (he typically relies on a straight fastball-curveball combo).
On March 23rd, the Astros and Verlander reached agreement on a 2-year, $66 million contract extension to keep him in Houston through his age 38 season. Despite his advanced age, Verlander has shown no signs of decline: since his September 2017 arrival in Houston, his regular season performance ranks 1st in MLB in WHIP (0.87), 2nd in Ks (333), 3rd in Opp. BAA (.193), 3rd in IP (248), 3rd in K/9 (12.08), 4th in ERA (2.32), 4th in Opp. OPS (.548), and 5th in FIP (2.66). The extension makes Verlander the league’s highest-paid pitcher in terms of average annual value ($33 million, slightly ahead of Zack Greinke‘s $32.5 million), and the second highest-paid player in MLB history, trailing only Mike Trout ($35,541,667 million AAV).
Gerrit Cole, the Astros’ other ace, also had a career year in 2018. After being traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates over the offseason, Cole made adjustments to his pitch selection (throwing more off-speed pitches, and working higher in the strike zone) with tremendous success. In 32 starts, he recorded 200.1 IP, 15-5 W/L, a 2.88 ERA, a 1.033 WHIP, and 276 K/64 BB. Cole led MLB with a strikeout rate of 12.4 K/9. Cole was simply a different (and more effective) pitcher with Houston, having entered 2018 averaging 8.4 K/9 with a 3.50 ERA during his career in Pittsburgh. Cole is in the final year of his current contract and it seems likely that the Astros will prioritize negotiating a contract extension at some point during the 2019 season.
Beyond Verlander and Cole, the starting rotation is solid, but not spectacular, and the Astros may reshuffle their 3rd, 4th, and 5th starters throughout the year. Wade Miley was acquired over the offseason on a low-risk 1 yr/$4.5 million contract, and he brings valuable left-handed versatility to the rotation. His signing may be one of the most underrated additions of the offseason. 2018 was a resurgent year for Miley. Despite being in his thirties and coming off of two subpar seasons with Seattle and Baltimore, he finished 2018 with 16 starts (80.2 IP), a 2.57 ERA, and a 1.22 WHIP (for his career, he’s recorded a 4.26 ERA and 1.39 WHIP). Miley’s FIP (3.59) in 2018 was also his lowest since 2012 (3.15) when he made the NL All-Star team and finished 2nd in NL ROY voting with Arizona. The advanced metrics suggest that Miley’s improvement in 2018 was legit. The Astros handpicked him from a plentiful market of free agent starting pitchers (Gio Gonzalez, Clay Buchholz, etc.), so the team likely has a plan to help Miley expand upon his 2018 improvements, particularly given that his skill set is similar to Dallas Keuchel‘s (both are left-handed and reliant on downward movement to induce ground balls). Miley has been working this spring with Astros pitching coach Brent Strom on attacking hitters up in the zone, rather than relying too heavily on his sinker. If he can replicate his 2018 success over 150-175 innings and incorporate the changes suggested by his new team, Miley could be primed for a career year. A successful 2019 would preserve the Astros’ bullpen and bring certainty to the back-end of the rotation. If Miley falters early this season, the Astros could insert Josh James into the rotation or call up one of the team’s many prospects from the minors (Valdez, Whitley, Bukauskas, etc.).
Collin McHugh will open the 2019 season as the Astros’ No. 4 starter after flourishing as a long-reliever last year. In his 2018 long-relief role, McHugh delivered the goods: in 72.1 IP, he recorded 6-2 W/L, a 1.99 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 94 K/21 BB. His 2018 performance as a reliever was superb, but he was also effective as a starter from 2014-16. During those seasons, he started 90 games (543 IP) and recorded 43-26 W/L, a 3.71 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 505 K/148 BB. Not bad for a No. 4 starter. McHugh has struggled thus far in spring training, but he typically takes time to adjust during the pre-season and should be just fine. McHugh is under contract through 2019 and will likely enter free agency after the season.
The final spot in the Astros’ starting rotation is in limbo. At the moment, the odds on favorite for the assignment appears to be Brad Peacock. Peacock was effective in a bullpen role last season, appearing in 61 games (65 IP) with a 3.46 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 96 K/20 BB. However, he was even better during his most recent stint in the rotation as a spot-starter in 2017, appearing in 34 games (21 starts), with 13-2 W/L, a 3.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 161 K/57 BB across 132 IP. Peacock is a steady, but not superb, addition to the back-end of the rotation and he should provide meaningful stability until the Astros decide to elevate a young prospect into the rotation, or to trade for a starting pitcher prior to the July 31st trade deadline.
The Astros’ bullpen was one of the team’s greatest assets in 2018 (even without Osuna and Pressly for most of the season), as it led MLB by a significant margin in “Runs Allowed/Game” (3.30 compared to league average of 4.45). Astros relievers also led the league in relief ERA and FIP. Much like the starting rotation, the bullpen is top-heavy entering 2019: Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly form one of MLB’s most prolific bullpen duos. Perhaps most importantly, both are under team control through the 2021 season. Osuna was stellar last season after being acquired from Toronto and handled the closer role in the second half: in 22.2 IP, he recorded 12 saves, with a 1.99 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 19 K/3 BB (7.5 K/9). Over his 4-year career (mostly spent closing games against offensive juggernauts in the AL East), Osuna has a 2.78 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and a strikeout rate of 10 K/9. All in all, the Astros’ 9th inning appears more settled than it’s been since the days of Billy Wagner. Osuna should be among the AL leaders in saves by season’s end.
While Osuna may handle the 9th inning and grab most of the attention, Ryan Pressly is the Astros’ best true relief pitcher. Comparing Pressly and Osuna’s advanced metrics, Pressly recorded a better xFIP (2.58) and strikeout rate (34.6%) last season than Osuna (3.72 and 21.3%, respectively). Pressly’s “stuff” is among MLB’s best and he was a game changer for the Astros after being acquired from Minnesota late last season. After joining Houston for the stretch run, Pressly was virtually unhittable: in 23.1 IP, he posted a 0.77 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, and 32 K/3 BB (12.3 K/9). For his career, Pressly holds a 3.54 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and strikeout rate of 8.3 K/9. While he appears to be due for regression, having “outperformed” his career numbers, the Astros knew what they were getting when they acquired Pressly last season and the coaching staff has urged him to throw more off-speed pitches to capitalize on his skillset. According to MLB’s StatCast, among pitchers who threw at least 200 curveballs last season, Pressly’s average curveball spin rate of 3,225 revolutions per minute ranked first in the majors. His slider spin rate ranked 17th, with an average of 2,734 RPM. The spin rate of his four-seam fastball (2,568 RPM) ranked eighth. Some may claim that Pressly is a flash in the pan. I’ll stand firmly behind the argument that he’s one of MLB’s most effective relievers. The Astros recently reached agreement with Pressly on a 2-year, $17.5 million contract extension Pressly will now make $2.9 million (under his previous contract), and $8.75 million in both 2020 and 2021. The deal is also reported to carry a vesting club option for a third season (in 2022), which could carry a value of $10 million.
Behind Osuna and Pressly, the Astros have a capable staff of relief pitchers. Hector Rondon returns as an effective set-up man for the 7th and 8th innings. As an added bonus, Rondon has served as a closer throughout his career (59 saves, 2.03 ERA across two seasons with the Cubs in 2014-15) and is capable of handling high-leverage situations on nights when Pressly and Osuna are unavailable. Chris Devenski and Will Harris will return to the bullpen as middle-relief options. Devenski had a down year in 2018, with a 4.18 ERA over 47.1 IP and the Astros will count on him returning to his form from 2016-17, when he pitched to a 2.38 ERA, with 9.7 K/9 over 189 IP and made the 2017 All-Star team. Harris was effective last season, but his 3.49 ERA was underwhelming compared to his performance as an Astro from 2015-17 (180.1 IP, 2.30 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 9.4 K/9). A return to form by Devinski and Harris could catapult the Astros’ bullpen into the upper echelons of the AL. Josh James is on the mend from a spring training quad injury and is set to begin the season in a long-relief role. Once fully-healthy, he will serve either in a relief role or in the starting rotation, where his innings would likely be managed over the course of the season. James was a revelation late last season (Astros fans certainly remember his first pitch – a 100 MPH fastball – upon joining the major league roster). He made 6 appearances (3 starts) during the postseason stretch run, with 23 IP; 2-0 W/L; 29 K/7 BB; 2.35 ERA and a .957 WHIP. Over a full 162-game season, those rates equate to 174 IP; 15-0 W/L; and 219 K/53 BB. It’s rare for a pitcher to receive ROY consideration – the last starting pitcher to win the AL ROY award was Michael Fulmer of the Detroit Tigers in 2016, when he recorded 159 IP; 11-7 W/L; 132 K/42 BB; 3.06 ERA; 1.12 WHIP. James could be in the conversation if he claims (and maintains) a spot in the rotation and comes remotely close to pitching as effectively as he did last season (perhaps 150 IP, 10 wins, 175+ strikeouts?). The Astros also have two left-handed specialists, Cionel Perez (Minor League career: 167.1 IP, 3.23 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 9.3 K/9), and Reymin Guduan (2018: 3.1 IP, 2.70 ERA, .300 WHIP, 10.8 K/9) who have performed well this spring and could serve as as valuable bullpen members during the season if they fail to make the 25-man Opening Day roster. As of March 20th, Guduan is the favorite to land the Astros’ final bullpen spot; Perez was slowed by injury throughout spring training and most likely needs extra time to strengthen his arm before joining the 25-man roster.
Minor League Prospects/Potential Call-ups
For all of the homegrown talent currently on the major league roster, the Astros’ minor league system is still stocked with top prospects; many of the minor league crop could start on the majority of MLB teams. Forrest Whitley has pitched well this spring (12 IP, 1.50 ERA, .750 WHIP, 15 K/4 BB) and will likely be promoted to the major league roster by September, at latest (imagine Verlander, Cole, Whitley, and James as a 1-2-3-4 combination this October!). Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez are the team’s minor league position players with the greatest potential to reach the majors this season. Alvarez, in particular, has crushed the ball this spring. He’s only 21 years old and is still “raw” developmentally, but he has shown undeniable gap-to-gap power and impressive plate discipline for a 6-5, 225 lb power-hitter (I discussed his potential in a previous article). Entering play on March 17th, in 40 spring training ABs, Alvarez has slashed .300/.404/.375, with 7 RBI, 3 doubles, and 12 K/6 BB. He’s unlikely to break camp with the major league club (the Astros’ outfield rotation is deep), but Alvarez could make a late-season impact as a September call-up. Other prospects with potential to contribute in the majors include Derek Fisher (OF), A.J. Reed (1B), Myles Straw (OF), Framber Valdez (LHP), Brandon Bielak (RHP), J.B. Bukauskas (RHP), Corbin Martin (RHP), Garrett Stubbs (C), and Abraham Toro (3B). The Astros’ stable of prospects provides not only depth, but also a useful bunch of trade chips if the team decides to pursue a starting pitcher at or before this season’s July 31st trade deadline.
Predictions For the 2019 Season
FanGraphs projects the 2019 Houston Astros to finish the regular season with a record of 97-64, and a 94.9% chance of making the playoffs (88.2% chance of winning the AL West; 6.7% chance of settling for a Wild Card spot). The site also projects the Astros to finish with averages of 4.89 RS/G and 4.01 RA/G for a +142 run differential. These projections are down from 2018, when the team won 103 games while averaging 4.92 RS/G and 3.30 RA/G for a league-leading +263 run differential.
It’s not implausible to believe the Astros could finish with 55+ regular season wins against AL West division opponents. Last season, the Astros finished with a regular season record of 46-30 against the division (9-10 vs. Seattle; 12-7 vs. Oakland; 13-6 vs. Los Angeles; and 12-7 vs. Texas). This season, Seattle has lost several key players (Cano, Diaz, Paxton, Cruz, Zunino), Texas lost Adrian Beltre to retirement, and the Los Angeles Angels are already losing key starting pitchers to injury (Andrew Heaney). The Astros could conceivably win 15+ games each in their season series against Texas and Seattle, while maintaining a similar record (12 or 13 wins) against Oakland and Los Angeles (adding up to roughly 55 wins).
On an individual level, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer are all capable of playing well enough to receive MVP consideration, and Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole could easily win the AL CY Young Award.
Projections and speculation aside, one thing is crucial in order for the Astros to find success this season: HEALTH. If the starting rotation remains healthy and Altuve, Springer, and Correa can avoid the injuries that beset them in 2018, the sky is the limit for the 2019 Houston Astros.
Featured Photo: AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith