All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Michael Shopoff takes a look at the Houston Astros!
[I]t was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
The Houston Astros entered the 2020 season in the darkness, having endured one of baseball’s largest scandals since the Steroid Era (or since Watergate, or since the Black Sox, or since Eve and the serpent, depending on your level of hysteria). COVID-19 and a 29-31 record pushed them further into the darkness, but a strong postseason, culminating in an almost-comeback for the ages, gave fans the light of hope. So what will become of the rest of the quote? Let’s look at the offseason to come.
2020 Record: 29-31, 2nd Place in AL West
Team MVP: George Springer (1.9 fWAR)
Team Cy Young: Zack Greinke (2.1 fWAR)
Biggest Positive Surprise: Kyle Tucker (1.6 fWAR)
Biggest Negative Surprise: Jose Altuve (0.2 fWAR, -0.5 bWAR)
You could really expand the above to frame the biggest positive surprise as “all the young pitchers”, given that a full 33% of the team’s innings came from rookie pitchers. Combine that with the losses of Justin Verlander (Tommy John surgery) and Gerrit Cole (free agency), and the team did well to see their runs allowed per game rise by “only” 0.63.
Conversely, Jose Altuve stands in for the real negative surprise – the Astros offense as a whole. Despite losing only Yordan Alvarez to major injury, the Astros saw their scoring drop by more than a run per game. Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel suffered significant declines in regular season production, and Josh Reddick basically collapsed at the plate.
Given the above, only the absurdly expanded playoffs allowed the Astros a chance at postseason success – but once given that chance, they seized upon it. The Astros quickly disassembled the Twins and A’s, but just as quickly found themselves down three games to none against the Rays. The team then became only the second team ever to force a Game 7 after dropping down 3-0; unfortunately, they became the first to lose that Game 7.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Key Losses: George Springer (free agent – tendered qualifying offer); Michael Brantley (free agent); Justin Verlander (Tommy John surgery); Roberto Osuna (waived/non-tendered)
Areas of Greatest Need: Outfield, especially center field; experienced relievers
The Astros must focus on George Springer. They have no way to replace him. Myles Straw is the only other major league ready option to play center field; Kyle Tucker probably could not manage even Lance Berkman levels of comical adequacy. Should Springer leave for a bigger paycheck, the team will have to fill the position from outside the organization.
The bumps and bruises of the 2020 season left the Astros with several viable bullpen additions, including Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor, and Brooks Raley. However, Ryan Pressly looked shaky at best in his closing duties, and while Joe Smith should return from his COVID opt-out, the team looks likely to reinforce the pen with veteran arms, especially at closer.
George Springer (6 yrs, $156M)
The Astros have every reason to bring Springer back – his current and recent production, his continued skills in the outfield, the lack of organizational alternatives, and not least, their desire to keep their own “Core Four” – Altuve, Springer, Correa, and Bregman – together. FanGraphs (https://blogs.fangraphs.com/the-cost-of-a-win-in-free-agency-in-2020/) last year estimated that free agents would receive approximately $8M per projected win above replacement; this contract would work out to 3.25 WAR per year, which falls right in line with his future projections.
Jackie Bradley Jr. (2 yrs, $24M)
Bradley walks away from the Red Sox after an uptick in his 2020 offense that corresponded with a less pull-happy approach. Giving Bradley, a left handed hitter, the target of the Crawford Boxes in left could only lead him to drive the ball the other way even more, potentially making him a very good fit in Minute Maid park. In either case, you know you’re getting superlative defense from him, and if the Astros have some combination of Michael Brantley, Kyle Tucker, and Yordan Alvarez at the corners, they’ll need all the help on defense they can get. I would give him fewer years to see if the offensive surge is legit.
Brad Hand (3 yrs, $27M)
Hand cleared waivers at a 2021 price of $10M, so teams clearly won’t pay that much for a reliever who strikes out over 13 batters per 9 innings from the left side and consistently holds down the ninth inning. I can’t understand why, and I’d easily pay it to him. That is, if I owned a major league team. Apparently the owners won’t pay nearly as much this offseason, but the Astros should lock him up, especially if that’s the highest his price goes.
Trade 1: Astros acquire David Dahl (CF) from the Colorado Rockies for Christian Javier (P)
Dahl enters his first year of arbitration after struggling through 2020 and then undergoing shoulder surgery. The Rockies may look to limit any payroll increases and probably recognize the need to rebuild before making a run at the Dodgers and Padres. Javier gives them a young starter with a live fastball who could make it in the Mile High air.
Trade 2: Astros acquire Jesse Hahn (RP) from the Kansas City Royals for minor league pitcher Jose Alberto Rivera.
Hahn features a top-10 spin rate on his curveball and plus spin on his fastball, and enters his final year of arbitration before hitting free agency after 2021. Rivera may or may not stick as a starter, but could appear in the majors soon enough that the Royals could view him as a valuable piece.
Trade 3 (doomsday edition): Astros acquire Nolan Arenado (3B) and David Dahl (OF) from Colorado for Carlos Correa (SS).
Imagine that Springer leaves in free agency, and Correa indicates he won’t sign a long-term extension. Arenado has been rumored to want out of Colorado after signing his extension, and could allow Bregman to move to short, still giving the team elite defense on the left side of the infield. Dahl give the team a short-term, and potential long-term, answer in center field. The Rockies get out of Arenado’s contract and get the first shot at persuading Correa to keep hitting in the thin air.
2021 Projected Roster
1) George Springer (CF)
2) Jose Altuve (2B)
3) Kyle Tucker (LF)
4) Alex Bregman (3B)
5) Yordan Alvarez (DH)
6) Carlos Correa (SS)
7) Yuli Gurriel (1B)
8) Chas McCormick (RF)
9) Martin Maldonado (C)
- Zack Greinke (RHP)
- Framber Valdez (LHP)
- Lance McCullers Jr. (RHP)
- Jose Urquidy (RHP)
- Forrest Whitley (RHP)
- Brad Hand (LHP)
- Ryan Pressly (RHP)
- Enoli Paredes (RHP)
- Joe Smith (RHP)
- Blake Taylor (LHP)
- Brooks Raley (LHP)
- Josh James (RHP)
- Andre Scrubb (RHP)
Jim Crane hasn’t indicated a willingness to splash the cash this offseason, but the willingness to keep the core intact, along with a soft free agent market, should prove enough to keep Springer in Houston. That spending will preclude any return by Michael Brantley, leaving the team to make do with rookie Chas McCormick.
Forrest Whitley looked like he could finally turn the corner after his appearances in this year’s “summer camp”, but a shoulder issue cut his season short. I’m betting he’ll finally prove himself this spring and either break camp as the fifth starter, or take the job from Javier shortly thereafter. Hand looks like too good a fit as the new closer to pass up, and the other relievers largely earned another chance to prove themselves in 2021.
The future of George Springer largely determines the future of this team. If he returns, there’s no reason to think the Astros won’t return to challenging Oakland for the AL West title and aiming for a deep playoff run. If Springer leaves, and the Astros have no ready replacement, their ceiling may come down to the wild card in whatever format occurs for 2021.