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Astros’ depth, or lack of, will be tested early this season

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Depending on the health of a few key members of the roster, the start of the 2020 season could be unkind to Houston.

Houston Astros Workout Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Although the offseason, by all accounts, was an unmitigated disaster, the Astros still field one of the more talented rosters in baseball. That statement isn’t without some controversy, depending whether you were for or against player suspensions in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. Sprinkle in the loss of last season’s co-ace Gerrit Cole and, well, this offseason can go pound sand.

In any event, under the premise of current health holding, only the Dodgers are projected to post a higher WAR (55.1) than the Astros (54.0) in 2020. Outside of Los Angeles, the AL is again well-represented in the top-six in projected team WAR for the upcoming season. Even the AL West figures to be more competitive with the Athletics and Angels ranking among the top-ten clubs.

FanGraphs’ Depth Charts Projected Team WAR

TEAM WAR
TEAM WAR
Dodgers 55.1
Astros 54.0
Yankees 51.0
Twins 47.6
Rays 44.8
Nationals 44.8
Mets 44.7
Athletics 44.6
Braves 43.2
Angels 42.1

There is an important caveat to point out with these Depth Chart projections: The numbers are based on projected playing time, not the current status of the roster. In the case of the Astros, who are already dealing with a few notable injuries, their projected WAR total is subject to more volatility, like today’s stock market. That reality is mainly rooted in injuries surrounding two key contributors: Justin Verlander and Yordan Alvarez. FanGraphs has already accounted for the former’s expected stint on the IL to start the season with only 184 innings pitched being projected. For context, Verlander hasn’t thrown less than 200 innings in a season since the 2015 campaign when he threw just 133 13 frames, which is coincidentally the last time he had a lat strain. At this point in time, it does appear Alvarez could still avoid an IL stint if his sore knee becomes less of an issue as hoped for in the coming days, but his status for Opening Day remains murky.

For better or worse, the Astros are going to have rely on their thinning depth, especially in the rotation. Not only did Cole’s departure left a glaring hole atop the pitching staff, the loss of Wade Miley to Cincinnati also created an additional strain. Occasional spot starter Brad Peacock is also dealing with his own injury woes, which only magnifies the need for additional starter depth. The situation is a bit alleviated with Zack Greinke in place and Lance McCullers Jr. returning from Tommy John surgery, but those two cannot start every game. If there ever was a time for some combination of Jose Urquidy, Josh James, Framber Valdez, and Austin Pruitt to hit, now would be a good time.

When it comes to the lineup though, the Astros are built a bit better to absorb a short-term absence. The roster as constructed does afford some creativity to fill in for Alvarez at designated hitter, if needed. Michael Brantley, for one, is projected to have the second-highest plate appearance total behind Alvarez at DH for 2020. Brantley at DH, in theory, would open up playing time in the outfield for Kyle Tucker. While the continued knee soreness will likely prevent the twenty-two year old Alvarez from manning a defensive position during most games, his presence is all about being the DH. After all, he did slugged his way to an AL Rookie of the Year award last season with less-than-healthy knees. But if Houston loses another prominent regular for a large stretch of time in conjunction with Alvarez, the lineup suddenly looks less potent.

The key to the Astros success in 2020 has always hinge on the health of their best players. With depth lacking at certain positions, even a short-term absence would exacerbate the strain on this roster. Depth, for better or worse, will likely be tested early, and the team’s overall performance could be at stake as early as Opening Day.