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Rival Preview: Despite a quiet winter and some injury concerns, the Houston Astros are again a contender

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Photo credit:© Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Stack
18 days ago
Some up-and-coming MLB teams may claim themselves dynasties, but it’s hard to argue with the success and consistency of the Houston Astros over the last decade. Houston had another winning season last year and sent Dusty Baker out on a high note with another deep post-season run.

2023 Recap

Last year made it seven consecutive trips to the ALCS for the Houston Astros, whose 90-72 record was just enough to win a tight AL West race. They were far better on the road (51-30) than they were at home (39-42), but they still posted an impressive +129 run differential. They held second place for the majority of the season and didn’t move into first until late August. They went into the final day of the season in second place, but an 8-1 win over Arizona, plus a Texas loss on the same day, secured their third straight division crown.
In the postseason, the Astros defeated the Twins in the ALDS but lost a seven-game war in the ALCS to the Texas Rangers. Houston’s biggest kryptonite in that series was facing Jordan Montgomery, who allowed only two runs across 14 innings pitched.
Offence: This is nothing new, but the Astros were, once again, a very healthy offensive team. They ranked seventh in the MLB in home runs, and fifth in RBIs, batting average, and OPS.
Moving into the top 5 in WAR in Astros franchise history last year was 2B Jose Altuve, who continues to serve as an example of consistency. He played in only 90 games last season due to a right thumb fracture he suffered during the WBC and oblique discomfort that put him on the IL in July, but he still managed to slash an elite .311/.393/.522 with a .915 OPS, 17 homers, and 51 RBIs. Excluding 2020, 90 games is the fewest Altuve has played since his rookie year in 2011, but he is reportedly back to full health as of Spring Training this year.
Altuve’s 2023 season included several high points; he hit for the cycle on August 28th against the Boston Red Sox, he had a three-homer game against the Texas Rangers on September 5th, and he also became the first Astro to ever hit five home runs in a two-game span. Furthermore, he became the fastest player in MLB history to reach  2,000 hits, 200 home runs, and 200 stolen bases. All of that culminated in a five-year contract extension worth $125 million starting in 2025. I think he’s doing fine, wouldn’t you agree?
They’re not breaking those historical records yet, but they are still as effective; last year was a couple of Houston’s offensive centrepieces in RF Kyle Tucker and DH Yordan Alvarez. Tucker has followed Altuve’s lead with consistency, falling just one home run shy of his third consecutive 30-home run season. Nonetheless, he set a career-high and led the American League in RBIs with 112, accompanying those numbers with 37 doubles and 30 stolen bases. He finished 5th in AL MVP voting, earned his second straight All-Star nod, and won his first Silver Slugger Award. I’d say a contract extension is coming any day now for the 27-year-old lefty.
Alvarez, on the other hand, was once again a hard-hit, high-exit velocity extraordinaire, slashing .293/.407/.583 with a .990 OPS, 31 home runs, and 97 RBIs. The former AL Rookie of the Year has kept his strikeout percentage below 20% for the second straight year and he also ranked in the top 7% of the league in walk percentage.
Houston filled their first base void last offseason with one of the best players at that position in Jose Abreu, but his first season in Houston turned out to be the worst season of his accomplished career. In 141 games, Abreu slashed .237/.296/.383 with a .680 OPS, 18 home runs, 90 RBIs, and 23 doubles. Saying that that was the “worst season of his career” is probably a tad harsh, but relative to the rest of his career, his slash line was a career low.
The Astros finally got a taste of offensive production from the catcher position as rookie backstop Yainer Diaz posted a 3.2 WAR (5th on the team) through 104 games. He slashed .282/.308/.538 with an .846 OPS, 23 home runs, 60 RBIs, and 22 doubles. That type of season has got to be refreshing for the Astros considering Martin Maldonado and Robinson Chirinos had batting averages of .191 and .238 as an Astro, respectively.
I haven’t even gotten to 3B Alex Bregman yet, who posted a steady .262/.363/.441 slash line with an .804 OPS, 25 home runs, 28 doubles and 98 RBIs. He placed second on the team with a 4.9 WAR, and it was the second straight season that he had hit 20+ homers and 90+ RBIs. OFs Chas McCormick and rookie Corey Julks helped fill in nicely while Michael Brantley was recovering from shoulder surgery, combining for 28 home runs and 103 RBIs, and UT Mauricio Dubon played all around the field and posted a solid .278 batting average.
All of this to say, Houston’s offense has rarely taken a step back for the last decade, and last season was no different.
Pitching: The so-called “pitching factories” seem to be the Tampa Bay Rays, Milwaukee Brewers, and Cleveland Guardians, but the Astros have probably earned their way into those ranks.
The ability to develop homegrown pitching was put to the test this season, as the Astros were without a few of their top-of-the-line starters for a majority of the season. Lance McCullers Jr. didn’t pitch at all in 2023 due to flexor tendon surgery, Luis Garcia made only six starts prior to needing Tommy John surgery thereby ending his season, and Jose Urquidy fought a shoulder injury but still made 10 starts and 16 total appearances.
Houston pivoted to rookies Hunter Brown and J.P. France and fourth-year man Brandon Bielak to cover those starts, and they were all good enough to keep Houston competitive despite some bumps and bruises along the way. Brown saw the most games amongst those three, starting 29 games and appearing in 31 total contests. He posted an 11-13 record with a 5.09 ERA, 10.3 K/9, and 1.36 WHIP. Brown, a former Top 5 Astros prospect, gave up a lot of hard contact despite generating a solid amount of strikeouts, and a 6.57 ERA in the second half offset a lot of good signs in the first half.
France posted an 11-6 record and a 3.83 ERA through 24 outings (23 starts). While he didn’t strike out hitters at as good a rate as Brown, his changeup generated a 30.8 whiff percentage and placed him in the 92nd percentile in offspeed runs value, and his curveball generated a 42.2 whiff percentage. Bielak only started 13 games and made two appearances out of the bullpen, and he pitched to a 3.83 ERA as well, but allowed quite a bit of baserunners that are reflected in his 1.53 WHIP.
Of course, with the depth that Houston has developed, they still leaned on veterans Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier for 31 starts apiece. Valdez, who has now made 31 starts in back-to-back seasons, posted a 3.45 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 9.1 K/9. Although his ERA increased from 2022, he saw increases in his strikeout percentage a slight decrease in his walk percentage.
Javier registered a 10-5 record, a career-high 4.56 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, and a career-low 8.8 K/9. His outings between March and May were stellar, but he fell apart between June and August, posting a 6.25 ERA and an opponent OPS of .856 in that time period. The Astros are relying on him to rekindle the success he had in 2022: less hard contact, fewer baserunners, and more swing-and-miss with his secondary pitches.
At the trade deadline, the Astros made one of the bigger splashes in the league by bringing back Justin Verlander, who had just signed a two-year, $86 million deal with the Mets prior to the 2023 season. Verlander would make 11 starts for the Astros, compiling a 7-3 record, 3.31 ERA, and 1.12 WHIP.
The Astros possessed a bullpen with the sixth-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball at 3.56. Ryan Pressly stayed sharp with his second straight 30+ save season, Hector Neris posted a career-best 1.71 ERA through 71 appearances, and Bryan Abreu looked untouchable with a 1.75 ERA and 12.5 K/9 in 72 outings. Houston is hoping for a better 2024 from Rafael Montero who owned a 5.08 ERA in 68 games during his first year of a three-year, $34.5 million deal.

Offseason Moves

Houston was one of the quietest teams in the transaction market this season. However, they were rumoured to be in the mix for Blake Snell during Spring Training.
The biggest move they made was signing RP Josh Hader to a five-year, $95 million deal. Since breaking into the majors in 2017, Hader has become one of the league’s most accomplished closers, amassing 165 saves and a career 2.50 ERA. Last season with the Padres, Hader collected his fifth All-Star game bid while posting a 1.28 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and a 13.6 K/9 over 61 outings (tied for his career-high). Given how successful Houston has been in the past 10 years, there are few gaps in their roster that they need to attack, but adding Hader to an already capable bullpen that includes Pressly, Abreu, Kendall Graveman, and Montero makes the Astros more potent than they already were.
Along with his impressive stat line, Hader also posted a 51.7% whiff rate on his slider and ranked in the top 3% in the league in hard-hit %, strikeout %, and XERA, among other things.
Veteran backstop Martin Maldonado signed with the White Sox in free agency, and while the team appears set on rolling with Yainer Diaz as their starting catcher, the Astros signed Victor Caratini to serve as the team’s backup. Caratini played in 62 games last season with the Milwaukee Brewers, slashing .259/.327/.383 with a .711 OPS, 7 home runs, and 25 RBIs. The switch-hitting backstop makes Houston’s catching depth better offensively than they have been in recent years, as Maldonado never offered much at the plate.
Houston also dabbled in the trade market some, acquiring RP Dylan Coleman from the Royals in exchange for pitching prospect Carlos Mateo. Coleman just wrapped up his third major league season in 2023, but it did not go as well as he would have liked. Bouncing up and down between Kansas City and their Triple-A affiliate, Coleman posted an 8.84 ERA with 21 strikeouts versus 19 walks through 23 outings. It was a near-180 from his 2022 season, a campaign in which he held a 2.78 ERA in 68 games, with his fastball velocity going down a touch and his slider not being nearly as effective between those two seasons. Houston has already relegated Coleman to Triple-A to start the season, but there is nothing wrong with having experienced bullpen depth if/when they need it.

My take on Houston’s 2024 Outlook

If you’re looking for any surprises in this article, stop reading and keep watching March Madness, because the Astros will be very good again this season. Texas and Seattle had an opportunity to capitalize on the possibility of Houston being banged up and strengthening their own teams, but I don’t think either of them did enough to capitalize on that. When the Astros do get healthy, I think the AL West is theirs to lose.
Although very little, I love what Houston did this offseason. There were no offensive free agents that Houston had to have, so staying put in that regard kept their team and financials intact. They did, however, give Josh Hader quite the hefty contract for a reliever, but let’s be real, Hader only makes this team better, and other teams will just have to deal with having to face either him or Pressly (maybe both) at the end of games.
Starting the season with four starting pitchers on the IL will be a battle, but the Astros have enough insurance to cover them far into the season. The team shouldn’t skip a beat with first-year manager Joe Espada, who has spent the last six seasons in Houston as their bench coach. I think that hiring from within was a really good move for the franchise, which had no reason to switch up anything that was going right for them.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

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