To put it bluntly, the 2020 Astros were not that impressive. While a deep — and surprising — postseason run was a welcomed development, the season ultimately left a bitter taste in my mouth. Unlike years past when I could excitedly point to the promise of the future, even as Houston was eliminated, there isn’t that same kind of optimism surrounding next year’s club. This poor attitude of mine is most probably linked to some major changes in store this winter and next. Although last offseason was clearly not a walk in the park on a crisp autumn day and more like an excruciatingly humid summer day in Galveston, at least the continuity of the roster was something to hang your hat on. But that reassuring familiarity is slowly fading away and it is only going to worsen as the offseason progresses. That said, there are a series of moves that can help stabilize the roster. As we found out in 2020, sometimes you don’t need to be the best to have a chance, but just stay in the race.
As currently constructed, the Astros plan to have a lineup consisting of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Martin Maldonado, and Yuli Gurriel. The only positions truly up for grabs are in center field and right, or left, field. That is not a bad core of hitters to build around, especially if there is some regression to the mean in store for a select group of players who struggled in 2020. The starting rotation will likely feature Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, and Cristian Javier. For relief, the main group of pitchers appears to be Ryan Pressly, Enoli Paredes, Brooks Raley, Blake Taylor, Joe Smith, and Andre Scrubb.
During the course of a regular 162-game season, with the players noted above, the Astros are likely an 85-win club or somewhere in that ballpark. Even in the likely scenario where both George Springer and Michael Brantley are collecting paychecks elsewhere, there remains enough offensive firepower and pitching depth where a winning season is certainly possible, if not likely. But that is contingent if a certain number of conditions are met.
Sign an outfielder (or two)
Here’s the Astros’ lineup wRC+ for each month of the shortened 2020 season: 111, 110, and 86. While the offense never truly took off, their performance in July and August was sufficient enough to win ballgames, but that showing in September was absolutely dreadful. Here’s the scary part: Springer and Brantley, who are both free agents, led the offense that month with a 180 and 138 wRC+, respectively. The next best hitter? Aledmys Diaz with a 105 wRC+. It is irresponsible to look too much into a one month sample — or a 60-game season, for that matter — but September did create enough pause to ponder life without Springer and Brantley.
The Astros are clearly in the market for at least one outfielder, perhaps two. While it seems all but official that Springer signs elsewhere, Brantley could feasibly return. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Marcell Ozuna are two names to watch this winter as well as possible external replacements. Both would represent an improvement over the internal options offensively, specifically Myles Straw. Keep in mind, however, that the Astros are projected to be $37.5 million under the $210 million threshold for tax purposes. I have a feeling Jim Crane isn’t willing to exceed, or even closely approach, that figure this offseason.
Address the bullpen
Dan Martin recently wrote about possible relief targets for the Astros this offseason. Out of that list, Oliver Drake and Brandon Workman catch my eye the most. Brad Hand and Trevor May are two other possibilities to keep tabs on. Honestly, there are a plethora of relief options available this winter and the Astros ought to be active on that front. It probably won’t take much salary to sign one or two proven arms in this market. While hopes are understandably high for a number of last season’s rookies, those must also stay realistic. Another veteran arm or two will go a long way in reinforcing the relief corps, especially one that finished second in walk rate allowed at 12.4 percent.
Determine who is the backup catcher
The outfield is the most pressing item to address while the bullpen feels more like a secondary issue. If there is a third area to watch, I feel like it at backup catcher. Relatively minor, yes, but still a position to monitor. After all, Maldonado caught 47 of the club’s 60 games in 2020. Primary backup, Dustin Garneau, only appeared in 17 games with 46 plate appearances while third string catcher Garrett Stubbs accumulated just 10 plate appearances in 14 games. While it is certainly possible that Stubbs will claim the backup job for next season, the Astros may want to go in a different direction. Of course, they could decide to sign either of J.T. Realmuto or James McCann, but the tightening of the budget most certainly prevents that pipe dream.
With the Astros still in the mix, on paper, for a postseason berth in 2021, I’d look for the club to add at least one free agent outfielder along with a reliever (or two.) Bradley Jr. seems like an ideal fit in center field with Springer heading elsewhere. If that pairing occurs, it is likely the club’s most significant offseason transaction. If not, we could see Brantley return if the price is right for Houston, but that remains doubtful. With the current payroll constraints along with the economic impact of the pandemic, the Astros are limited in their possible courses of action. That is a shame as there is enough talent, even with various departures, to make another postseason run if the stars aligned.