AL West Primer: Houston Astros
Is this the year division rivals take down the King of the AL West?
To date, our AL West primer series has discussed the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, and Los Angeles Angels. Now, let’s shift our focus to the defending World Series and AL West division champion Houston Astros.
Before discussing the 2023 club, we should first reflect on Houston’s championship campaign.
The Astros finished the regular season with an AL-leading 106 wins and a massive 16-game lead over the second-place Seattle Mariners. From there, manager Dusty Baker and his players marched through the postseason to win the team’s second World Series in six years. It’s worth noting Houston has now appeared in six straight AL Championship Series.
Baker’s lineup didn’t lead the league in runs scored, as it did in 2021. But the numbers tell us Houston had a top-10 offense.
The Astros run production machine was propelled by a long lineup boasting seven hitters with 250-plus plate appearances and an OPS+ greater than the MLB average - Yordan Alvarez (187), Jose Altuve (160), Alex Bregman (133), Kyle Tucker (128), Michael Brantley (125), Chas McCormick (110), and Jeremy Peña (101).
On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.
Perhaps one could argue the Astros offense suffered a slight dip in productivity last year. But the same couldn’t be said about a pitching staff that was one of baseball’s best.
Leading the starting rotation was 2022 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander. What stands out to me with Verlander is a .255 xwOBA, which ranked fourth among 105 pitchers facing at least 500 batters.
Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. Last year, the MLB average xwOBA = .309
Verlander was backed by four starters with a better-than-average xwOBA. Not only that, Cristian Javier (.244 xwOBA) ranked two spots ahead of Verlander in our group of 105 hurlers. Only Atlanta’s Spencer Strider (.242) rated better than Javier last season.
Once again, the bullpen was vital to Houston’s success. The relief arms called upon most by Baker were closer Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero, Héctor Neris, Phil Maton, Ryne Stanek, and Bryan Abreu. All are returning.
While the bullpen remains intact, the Astros did lose several notable names this winter, including their GM and Verlander.
If it ain’t broke…
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised much hasn’t changed in Houston. After all, the team is the reigning World Series champ and easily won its division thanks to the current core of players. But there were a pair of newsworthy additions: GM Dana Brown and first baseman José Abreu.
Key Position Players (and 2022 OPS+)
1B – José Abreu (133)
2B – Jose Altuve (160)
SS – Jeremy Peña (101)
3B – Alex Bregman (133)
LF – Yordan Álvarez (187)
CF – Chas McCormick (110)
RF – Kyle Tucker (128)
C – Martín Maldonado (69)
DH - Michael Brantley (125)
Signing Abreu makes the Astros younger at first base, although not by much. The outgoing Yuli Gurriel is 38-years-old, while Abreu is entering his age-36 season. Still, advancing age didn’t prevent the 2020 AL MVP from delivering an impressive .304 AVG/.378 OBP/.446 SLG last year.
Second base (Altuve) and third base (Bregman) remain the same. The duo, along with starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., are the only players to be with the club throughout its six-year run of excellence.
Also back at shortstop is Peña, who was World Series MVP. But we shouldn’t let this honor overshadow the sophomore’s difficulties with reaching base often enough (.282 OBP). Then again, Peña is only 25-years-old and still developing. Plus, he delivered outstanding defense at a premium position as a rookie.
The Opening Day readiness of Michael Brantley, who had season-ending shoulder surgery last summer, is unclear. The most recent comments by Brown suggest Brantley will be ready no later than the first week of the season. It’s important to note the five-time All-Star missed most of the 2016 season following labrum surgery on the same shoulder.
When he’s finally good-to-go, Brantley likely serves as the team’s designated hitter. This means Álvarez will see more left field time than preferred by me.
Advanced metrics differ on how well Álvarez played in the outfield last season. But my concern is keeping a larger man, who’s had surgery on both knees, available for the entire season. Something else to watch this spring, Houston’s best hitter is dealing with a hand issue and currently isn’t swinging a bat.
Álvarez missed about two weeks last July with the same injury. Seeing it flare up again has to be a bit unsettling for Astros fans. Then again, the 25-year-old seemed just fine when he “single-handedly” destroyed Seattle in last year’s ALDS.
Sorry, Mariners fans.
Seriously, Houston could probably absorb the loss of Brantley or a diminished version of the veteran. Álvarez being out for a while would put a greater strain on the Astros lineup. Losing both players for an extended period would be a potential game-changer.
Chas McCormick is listed as starting center fielder, although Jake Meyers is also an option. Perhaps one of them occasionally slides over to help in left field. Expect Tucker to be the everyday right fielder for the foreseeable future.
To me, the current catcher situation is a bit precarious. Martín Maldonado isn’t a productive hitter and is entering his age-36 season. Behind Maldonado on the depth chart are Korey Lee and Yainer Díaz.
Both Lee and Díaz are 24-years-old and have appeared in 14 combined big-league games as a catcher. On the other hand, Peña was the same age last year and had zero MLB experience. That seemed to work out just fine for the team.
The starting staff could be good again. But there are several issues worth monitoring as Spring Training and the regular season unfold.
First, the good stuff.
Valdez finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting last season and has to be considered a contender to take home the hardware in 2023.
Garcia has been an extremely consistent performer over the past two seasons. It may pain Seattle fans to remember this, but the 26-year-old struck out six Mariners during the final five frames of the 18-inning marathon known as Game Three of the ALDS.
Now, my concerns.
Javier had a great 2022. But the issue for me is whether the 25-year-old can thrive as a full-time member of a rotation over a 162-campaign. The only time Javier has made over 20 starts in seven professional seasons was last year when he started 25 contests.
A muscle strain in his forearm will prevent McCullers from being ready for Opening Day. When healthy, the right-hander is superb. But his injury history is extensive. He’s made 25-plus starts just once since debuting in 2015.
Following Tommy John surgery, McCullers missed the 2019 season. The 29-year-old remained healthy during the 2020-21 campaigns, although he did miss the 2021 playoffs with a forearm injury. McCullers was subsequently absent for most of 2022, while recovering from a flexor strain.
Top pitching prospect Hunter Brown, who saw time with the Astros in 2022, likely steps into McCullers’ Opening Day rotation spot.
Number-five starter José Urquidy allowed a team-high 29 home runs last year. Moreover, his 4.3% home run rate was the worst in the majors (league-average was 2.9% last year). This is a recurring theme with the right-hander, who has a 4% home rate during four big-league seasons.
The departure of Verlander and his 25 starts/175 innings from a season ago is going to hurt. Sure, there’s a lot of talent remaining. But the organization lacks the rotation depth it once had.
Perhaps I’m being overly cautious regarding Javier’s durability. Maybe Hunter seamlessly steps into the rotation. But an extended absence by McCullers could have a cascading effect on a starting staff and bullpen that were pivotal to Houston winning it all in 2022.
As with the rest of the roster, the bullpen closely resembles last year’s edition.
Ty Buttrey - NRI
Matt Ruppenthal - NRI
Austin Davis - NRI
Joe Record - NRI
Devin Conn - NRI
It’s worth noting Houston relievers threw the fewest innings (495.1) of any bullpen by a large margin last season. The next closest group was Philadelphia (531.2 frames). If the rotation were to struggle more than in the past, it’s plausible the additional workload thrust upon the bullpen could diminish its effectiveness over a long season.
Still the King, but…
Picking any team other than the Astros to win the AL West in early March is silly talk. At least, that’s how I see it.
Still, Houston’s stranglehold on the division could loosen depending on the health of Álvarez, Brantley, and McCullers. The overall performance and sustainability of the rotation will also be pivotal.
In the end, the Astros may rule the AL West again. But the club will face stiffer competition from division rivals than it has in recent years. Perhaps enough to knock the King off the Hill.
Then again, the Astros always seem to find a way to repel challengers at crunch time.
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