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Looking ahead to 2021 for the Astros

2020 is nearly finished and not a moment too soon.

MLB: Houston Astros-Workouts Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The year 2020 has not been kind to the Houston sports fan. Baseball, basketball, football, or soccer, it doesn’t matter. While far bigger problems currently exist in the world, it has been difficult to ignore the complete dismantling going on in the sports world down in the Bayou City. Once you remove the emotion of being a fan, the carnage is honestly a sight difficult to turn away from.

It all began with the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal of the Astros then followed by one of the worst postseason collapses in city history as the Texans blew a 24-0 second-quarter lead against the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Not to mention a disastrous trade in which then-head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien and his right-hand man in Jack Easterby decided to send away star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals in March. Although the Rockets were able to compile some impressive victories early in the year with both James Harden and Russell Westbrook in the fold, the hopes of a strong postseason run were also thoroughly dismantled by another eventual champion, only this time it was by the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Disney Bubble. With former club leadership in new cities and Westbrook now taking up residence at the nation’s capital, Harden is also requesting his way out of town. To compound an already terrible year, the Texans and Dynamo continued their journey into irrelevancy with another poor showing from both franchises during their respective 2020 seasons.

The high point for a Houston sports fan was likely the Astros unexpected run to the ALCS for a fourth consecutive year. Yes, the same franchise that lost a manager, general manager, draft picks, and the luster of its 2017 title as the sign-stealing saga came to a head. In an ironic twist of fate, the Astros are also the model franchise in Houston right now. Let that reality sink for a minute.

We’re now less than two full days away from 2021 officially commencing in Houston. Odds remain in favor of the Astros being the best team in their own city and one of the better squads in baseball next year. By FanGraphs, only the Dodgers, Padres, and Yankees have a higher depth chart WAR, but that gap is beginning to widen as we get further into the offseason. With George Springer all but officially gone and Michel Brantley’s status unclear, James Click will have to determine how to best rebuild an outfield that was a key strength last season. Not to mention the need to address the pitching staff and the backup catcher position. The task list for Click is long in his first full winter as the general manager of the Astros.

But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Astros in the new year, especially if you look hard enough. Here are a few for me, which I hope is a great assistance to you, the reader as we look forward to the new year.

The Emergence of Framber Valdez

When Justin Verlander was lost to a right forearm strain following his first start of the season — that would eventually turn into Tommy John surgery — the Astros depth in the rotation was immediately tested. Little did we know at the time that Valdez, who had a rough 2019, would step in and transform himself into the staff’s ace by the time of the postseason. His performance in 2021 will greatly determine the course of the club hoping for one last push during this contending window.

Kyle Tucker Proving his Worth

One of the better parts of 2020 was seeing the former top prospect finally receive consistent playing time. Yes, much was made of Tucker’s first 72 plate appearances back in 2018 when he had a .141/.236/.203 slash line with a 28 wRC+ and just three extra-base hits. Since then, however, the former first-round pick has a .268/.323/.518 slash line with a 124 wRC+ — 24 percent above league average — and 36 extra-base hits, including 13 home runs. While the jury is still out for deliberation on Tucker, there is now enough proof to give the soon-to-be 24-year old a starting outfield job in 2021.

The Bullpen Youth Movement

It is no secret that the Astros had to piece together a pitching staff a bit on the fly in 2020, especially in the bullpen. In turn, we saw many new faces make their major league debut for a club that was designed with championship aspirations. It was an up-and-down season for the group, which was highlighted by the emergence of Cristian Javier, Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor, and Andre Scrubb. Their continued development will be key to the upcoming season, much like Valdez in the rotation. The lowlights included the second-highest walk rate for all bullpens at 12.4 percent and a generally lackluster performance in August and early September. However, this group found some consistency with positive performances later in September and held up generally well in the postseason. Veterans are needed to help stabilize the ship in 2021, but the experience of 2020 should go a long way with this group.