The Houston Astros are coming off a 2020 season in which they advanced to the ALCS for the fourth straight season. The Houston Astros are also coming off a 2020 season in which they posted their first losing record since 2014. Such are the peculiarities of a 60-game season and 16-team playoff field.
The 2021 season will be a more exacting one, as the plan it to span the full 162 and revert to the 10-team playoff field. That raises the bar significantly, to say the least, but Houston should once again be in the contending fray. Can they win the World Series for the second time in five years (and, to hear some tell it, win it legitimately for the first time)? That's the heart of the matter for the 2021 Astros. Now let's have a closer look.
Win total projections, odds
- 2021 Sportsline projection: 95-67
- World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook):
- 2020 record: 29-31
- Jose Altuve, 2B
- Michael Brantley, LF
- Alex Bregman, 3B
- Carlos Correa, SS
- Yordan Alvarez, DH
- Yuli Gurriel, 1B
- Kyle Tucker, RF
- Myles Straw, CF
- Martin Maldonado, C
Last season, the Astros ranked seventh in the AL in run scored and ninth in OPS. That's a middling attack, and it's also one that lost George Springer and his team-leading 140 OPS+ to free agency. The hope for improvement lies in the bounce-back potential of Bregman, Altuve, and Correa and the anticipated continued development of Tucker. As well, Alvarez returns from knee surgery. The young slugger was limited to just a pair of games in 2020, but he's not far removed from a 2019 rookie campaign in which he slashed .313/.412/.655 with 27 homers in 87 games. The Astros had exceptionally poor production from the DH spot last season, and the return of Alvarez directly addresses that need. Expect the offensive attack in Houston overall to be significantly improved despite the loss of Springer.
Projected rotation, bullpen
On the run prevention front, the 2020 Astros placed eighth among AL teams in runs allowed and seventh in ERA. In the rotation, the concern is depth, as we're explore in further, um, depth just below. The Houston bullpen last season was largely a four-headed monster of Pressly, Paredes, Taylor, and Scrubb. That quarter is back in 2021. The addition of Baez helps with middle inning depth from the right side.
Now for three Astros-related questions -- burning in some cases, merely warm to the touch in others -- to ponder as the 2021 season approaches.
Will the rotation hold up?
The Houston rotation has taken some serious body blows in recent weeks and months. First ace Justin Verlander was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery, which means he'll miss the entirety of the 2021 season. Then emerging stabilizer Framber Valdez suffered a serious finger injury earlier in spring training. At first it looked like surgery would end his season, but now it appears he'll avoid the scalpel, which means it's possible he'll see the mound in 2021. That said, it's unlikely he'll be able to provide all that many starts. Prospect Forrest Whitley, who likely would've hit the majors for good this year, is out after tearing his UCL and undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Elsewhere, Zack Greinke is now 37, and Lance McCullers Jr. has yet to make more than 22 starts in a season, largely because of health and durability issues. Cristian Javier may not yet be ready for an "anything goes" workload at the highest level, and the same goes for Jose Urquidy. The signing of Jake Odorizzi was a nice late hour stop-gap after Valdez went down, but that doesn't fully address the depth issues facing Houston this season.
Is center field a problem?
The departure via free agency of All-Star George Springer leaves a hole in center field down in Houston, and the Astros are poised to fill it with Myles Straw. Straw, 26, has blazing speed but, really, not much else. At the plate, Straw has an OPS+ of 75 across parts of three major league seasons. In those 98 games, he's tallied only one home run and just 11 total extra-base hits. In the minors, he was similarly punchless. His speed has been noted, but in the outfield he doesn't take great routes, which is a problem in center. He's probably not a viable regular for a team that has designs on the World Series.
It didn't have to be this way, of course. Jackie Bradley Jr. would've been an ideal fit, given Jim Crane's unwillingness to make a competitive bid for Springer. Even Kevin Pillar would've been a more promising plug-in than Straw. Down on the farm, Jordan Brewer hasn't played above Low-A even though he's 23. He could be an interesting player at some point, but it seems doubtful he'll be ready for the highest level in 2021.
If there's a soft underbelly in the Houston lineup, it's probably center field. It didn't have to be this way, of course, but Crane doesn't seem particularly interested in fielding the best team possible.
Is this the last ride?
Speaking of not fielding the best team possible, this could be the last ride for many of the Astros' championship core contributors. Springer, Josh Reddick, Roberto Osuna, and Chris Devenski departed this winter, and next offseason they face the potential free agent losses of Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Michael Brantley, and Lance McCullers Jr. As well, Yuli Gurriel has a team option that seems likely to be declined. If all those players land elsewhere, then that is quite obviously a massive drain of talent. Even having Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman locked up long term can't withstand that kind of payroll disinvestment.
It doesn't have to be that way, of course, but once again Crain has shown little willingness to invest at levels necessary to sustain the winning in Houston. In 2021, the Astros project very well, as you can see up top. Given what next offseason will likely bring, however, this could be the last chance for Houston to add a second ring with the current core intact. It may also be Dusty Baker's last chance to cinch a spot in the Hall of Fame.