By Will Pharo
2018 Record: 103-59 (1st in AL West)
2018: Payroll: $163,524,216 (9th in MLB)
Projected 2019 Lineup
- OF George Springer, .263/.354/.460, 3.9 fWAR
- 3B Alex Bregman, .279/.370/.494, 5.4 fWAR
- 2B Jose Altuve, .303/.368/.460, 4.6 fWAR
- SS Carlos Correa, .262/.352/.466, 4.3 fWAR
- OF Michael Brantley, .282/.344/.445, 2.2 fWAR
- 1B Yulieski Gurriel, .283/.320/.437, 0.7 fWAR
- OF Josh Reddick, .262/.330/.424, 1.3 fWAR
- DH Tyler White, .249/.329/.436, 1.1 fWAR
- C Robinson Chirinos, .201/.297/.380 1.1 fWAR
Projected 2019 Rotation
- Justin Verlander, 202 IP/3.37 ERA/1.07 WHIP, 5.0 fWAR
- Gerrit Cole, 196 IP/3.49 ERA/1.13 WHIP, 4.5 fWAR
- Collin McHugh, 151 IP/4.29 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 1.7 fWAR
- Wade Miley, 105 IP/4.54 ERA/1.45 WHIP, 0.7 fWAR
- Brad Peacock, 77 IP/3.79 ERA/1.22 WHIP, 0.8 fWAR
- Forrest Whitley, 46 IP/4.59 ERA/1.38 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR
The 2017 World Champions did not make any big splashes this winter, but coming off 101 and 103-win seasons the last two years, they didn’t really need any major upgrades. The rotation has the familiar dominant duo at the top of Verlander and Cole, but there are question marks beyond them. They signed Wade Miley to a 1 year/4.5 million dollar deal. He pitched to a seemingly excellent 2.57 ERA but had an xFIP nearly 2 runs higher at 4.30. It still led to an fWAR of 1.5 in just 80 innings, but Miley has yet to prove to be a consistently reliable pitcher since his excellent rookie year way back in 2012. Catcher had been a bit of a weakness in this loaded lineup the last few seasons, but Robinson Chirinos was signed to a 1 year/5.75 million dollar contract. He is turning 35 this year, but he’ll give Houston some competence at a very weak offensive position in baseball. Dallas Keuchel is still a free agent and a mutual reunion may make sense for both sides. Aledmys Díaz was an All-Star his rookie season in 2016 and has been an above average offensive player when given substantial playing time. He should provide solid infield depth with a career 109 OPS+, particularly with José Altuve and Carlos Correa coming off less than healthy seasons. By far their biggest move of the winter, and one of my personal favorite moves by any team, was their signing of Michael Brantley to a 2 year/32 million dollar deal. Brantley missed essentially all of 2016 and half of 2017, but he bounced back in a big way in 2018 to post a 124 WRC+ and 3.5 fWAR. Brantley is one of the best hitters for average in the game and one of the most fundamentally sound player in the league when he’s on the field. While not a huge part of his game, he has stolen 62 bases in the roughly 3.5 seasons worth of game he’s played since 2014. This amounts to about 18 a year at an astonishing 91% success rate. Brantley can also make contact: in his last 3 healthy seasons he has had a single digit strikeout percentage to go along with his solid walk rate.
When taking into account their additions and subtractions this offseason, I’d say the Astros got very slightly worse. In their case, this “regression” would mean not passing the 100 wins benchmark they’ve hit the past two years. The lineup is what makes the Astros the Astros, as they have 3 guys who have MVP potential in Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman. George Springer and Michael Brantley can easily make the All-Star team, and Tyler White didn’t make the team last year, he sure played like one down the stretch in 2018. When Josh Reddick and Yulieski Gurriel are your 7th and 8th best hitters, you have a pretty good offense. The Astros led the league in runs scored in 2017 and with injuries last year they went all the way back to the 5th best offense in baseball. Even when Correa, Springer, and Altuve weren’t playing at 100%, the Astros still had a very good offense. With some slightly improved health, along with a healthy Michael Brantley and a full year of Tyler White, this group should return to its 2017 dominance.
Justin Verlander continues to defy the odds and remains a Cy Young candidate going into his age 36 season. Gerrit Cole is much younger and almost as good, as he is one of the best number 2 starters in baseball. Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock were effective as starters in the past for the Astros and were quality relievers in 2018. They return to the rotation in 2019 and there is no reason to believe they will not continue to be effective. Miley concerns me as he has not posted quality numbers in a full season since 2014 but he should be fine as a No. 5 with an offense this good. Keep an eye on Forrest Whitley as a potential wildcard (more on him later). The Astros had the best starting rotation in baseball last year, and though they might take a slight step back this year Cole and Verlander alone make this a very formidable unit.
The Astros arguably had the best bullpen in 2018, and the group is mostly the same. They do not have a huge name like an Aroldis Chapman or Josh Hader. Instead, they boast a collection of very good guys who do their jobs led by Will Harris, Héctor Rondón, and Roberto Osuna. Osuna figures to be the closer again, and from a talent-only perspective he is a very valuable asset to this group. McHugh and Peacock leaving the bullpen hurts, but they are both more valuable in the rotation without Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers.
As a whole, the Astros pitching is likely to regress, mostly because there is nowhere to go but down. The offense should counter this by regaining their 2017 form if they get 600 plate appearances apiece from their 4 homegrown stars in Correa, Altuve, Springer, and Bregman. Really, the Astros’ biggest mistake last year was being good at the same time as the historically great Boston Red Sox. While the Red Sox are not going anywhere, some regression is expected of them since almost everything went right for them in 2018. The Astros had a decent number of things go wrong last year, but their talent is so overwhelming that they still won 100 games and made the ALCS. The American League is a 3 team heavyweight race of the Red Sox, Yankees, and Astros (sorry Cleveland, you don’t make this group). While Oakland yet posted a magical season in 2018, 97 wins is unlikely for them to replicate. The division should be the Astros’ to lose for the 3rd straight year, and this year should be even easier than last. I hate the expression “championship or bust,” especially in baseball, but it does feel like that is the case while these young talented position players are still under team-friendly deals.
Predicted Record: 99-63
Player to Watch: George Springer
Is George Springer the best player on the Astros? Not a chance. He is probably not even in the top 5 if we’re including pitchers, but that says much more about this team than Springer because he oozes talent. The 2017 World Series MVP seems to get lost in the shuffle amongst his teammates. Springer had 2 excellent seasons in 2016 and 2017, but was just pretty good in 2018 with a 2.9 fWAR. He’ll be forced to play centerfield almost exclusively this year with Reddick and Brantley penciled in the corners. He is better in right field but he can hold his own in center. He has done a nice job reducing his strikeout rate the last couple years after that being a clear problem. I would not be surprised if Springer gets a bit luckier this year after posting a relatively low BABIP, and if that’s the case he could propel himself into the elite group his 3 teammates are already in.
Player to Watch: Collin McHugh
McHugh looks to rejoin the rotation after spending 2018 in the bullpen. Now with Charlie Morton in Tampa Bay and Lance McCullers slated to miss the whole year, McHugh is probably the No. 3 starter on this team right now. McHugh had established himself as a solid middle-rotation guy with 3 consecutive 3+ fWAR seasons from 2014-2016. After getting hurt in 2017, he was the odd man out in 2018. “Demoted” to the bullpen, he pitched to a sub-2 ERA and was one of the better relievers in baseball. Don’t be surprised if McHugh picks up right where he left off in 2016, and produces another 3-4 fWAR season.
Player to Watch: Forrest Whitley
Rated as the number 4 prospect in all of baseball and the number 1 pitching prospect, Forrest Whitley has the chance to make a huge impact for this Astros team. The team will be great without him, so there is not nearly as much pressure on Whitley when compared to a Vlad Jr. or Fernando Tatis Jr. He has very few professional innings to his credit, and if guys like Miley and Peacock perform he may not pitch for the Astros at all this year. However, if he excels in the minors and a guy like Miley struggles, then the 21-year-old could come up and make a big impact as its obvious he has a way higher ceiling than the back end of the current rotation. He sits in the mid-90s and at 6 feet 7 inches, Whitley carves an imposing figure on the mound.