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The Starting Nine Makes its Bold 2020 Predictions and a few X-Factors

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It’s a short season competing against an improved AL West. Anything could happen. What’s in store?

2019 ALCS Game 6 - New York Yankees v. Houston Astros

Baseball is almost here, at long last!

In this year of THE VIRUS the season will be shortened to 60 games and compressed into two months. That means that Lady Luck is going to be more powerful than ever before, and every game will have almost three times the importance that a game during a regular 162-game season has. Sixty games is less than a normal basketball season, and I dare say the outcome of any given baseball game has more luck variables to equalize outcomes than the average basketball game.

So what’s going to happen? Will the Orioles beat the Yankees in the AL East and end up winning the World Series? Will Gary Sanchez actually catch a thrown ball from the outfield?Will Dodgers fans toss rose pedals at Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve when they take the field in LA?

I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict any of those outcomes. But the TCB Starting Nine would like to make a few bold predictions for this upcoming season, and maybe project a few X factors into the mix. (Injuries, Covid and small sample size in a short season don’t count as X Factors).


Bilbos:

Justin Verlander will be just as good as last year.

This might not seem bold but it is. I think It’s bold because, arguably, he had his best season ever last year at age 36. He had career highs in strikeouts, WHIP, ERA+, had only his second 20+ wins season, and got his second Cy Young. His ERA was only .18 off his career mark.

With a 2019 FIP almost a whole point higher than his ERA, and at age 37, regression would seem inevitable. But I think after his springtime surgery with ample time to recover, with some reported tweaks to his mechanics, and with a short season in which to let it hang out, age be damned, Verlander will come close to duplicating last year’s pace, and certainly surpass the projections that have him near 3.40 in ERA.

The AL West will be an exciting race and won’t be decided until the last week of the season.

I think the Astros squeak in. 35-25.

X Factor: Alex Bregman. Bregs, at age 26, in four seasons has improved steadily every year. We don’t yet know what regression looks like for him. This may be the year we find out. Plus, he is a historically slow starter, a trend that has held in each of his three full seasons. A merely “average” Bregman, last year’s MVP runner-up, in a short season and in a tight race, could make the difference between the Astros advancing into the playoffs or not in 2020.


Hatter:

You’re going to be surprised how much you enjoy 2020 baseball.

Apathy. You have it. I have it. Even the players have it. After all that 2020 has brought, we desperately want some baseball to divert our attention, but at the same time, Opening Day is finally almost here and we couldn’t care less. Compare your enthusiasm for the 2020 season right now to your enthusiasm for the 2019 season at the end of March in 2019.

Still, once these games start, we’re going to get really interested really quickly. A strikeout on a Verlander high fastball, a swing and a miss on a McCuller’s curveball we haven’t seen in two years, an Altuve single where he pokes a ball out of the zone into right field, a leadoff Springer dinger. The first time we see any of these, we are hooked again. I think we will all be surprised how invested we get into this 60-game season that we’ve all said is so short that it doesn’t really mean anything.

Because you know what’s also a short season? Every year’s postseason, and they are fantastic. A team can only lose 26 times this year and finish at the equivalent winning percentage of a 90 game win season. Every game is going to matter more, every at bat is going to matter more, and every pitch will matter more, and everyone is going to be reminded why they love not just Astros baseball, but baseball in general.

That is, until someone comes and breathes on Carlos Correa the wrong way, and the whole season gets broken up faster than that house party the teenage kid throws when his folks go out of town that gets out of hand only for Mom and Dad to return home early in those obligatory 1980’s sitcom episodes.

Yordan is going to see a downswing.

This one is pretty obvious. Any player would be hard pressed not to see a dip from a season where they posted a 1.067 OPS.

But the other thing to consider is that every MLB team only has to worry about 9 different opponents this year, rather than 20. That’s 11 fewer teams that each team has to scout, and all the more scrutiny that can occur on individual player opponents. Players who are slow to adjust may not have enough time to do so in a 60 game season. Not that Yordan is slow to adjust. It’s just that he’s the newest player on the team at the major league level whom the rest of the bigs have already decent chance to take a look at.

The Astros will have a top 3 Cy finisher again, but it might not be Verlander or Greinke.

The stuff has always been there. But getting through a 162 game season has always been a hurdle Lance McCullers couldn’t clear. That hurdle is gone now. Lance has a payday coming at the end of the 2021 season. This short season is his best opportunity to boost that payday. In 2017, through 13 starts, Lance was rocking an ERA around 2.5. If he can show a streak like that again with enough run support to get 8 or 9 wins, there are Cy votes in his future.

Kyle Tucker will finally arrive.

Yordan starting the season on the IL opens at-bats for Tucker and he’s not going to let him go. In fact, his 2020 campaign will be so strong that he’s going to be furious he had that 131st career at-bat in the last game of the regular season last year that removed his eligibility from 2020 Rookie of the Year.

X-Factor: Forrest Whitley. As for Whitley, he was supposed to have arrived last season. Now, it’s anyone’s guess how he’s supposed to arrive this season, when there are no minor league games for him to show the organization he’s figured it out.


Cohn:

I’ve always enjoyed this, and I actually agree with a lot of what Hatter said above, with Tucker and Whitley - and McCullers could be great. There’s a good interview with Strom talking about them knowing of the issues on McCullers and essentially “riding it out”. So go with some different ones.

Carlos Correa breaks out, earns the most WAR of any SS.

Correa likely has the highest upside of any player on the team, and unfortunately has been plagued by injuries, somewhat limiting the ability to show that potential. The additional time will hopefully have allowed him to heal up and maintain an explosive pace through the 60 game season. For his career, he’s hit significantly better in the first half (.285/.363/.513 vs .265/.346/.455). And the other element that often gets lost in the discussion about Correa, is simply how young he is. Correa made his debut at an extremely young age, so while it felt like he’s been in the MLB for quite a while, he’s still only 25 years old. He’s actually younger than Bregman and Myles Straw. As he gets closer to the peak age (~28), it could be amazing what he can put together.

Austin Pruitt will play a major role in the pen.

I definitely am higher on Pruitt than most, although I believe he will start the season in the bullpen due to an injury limiting his ability to prepare. I wrote an article on why I thought Pruitt could be one of the best Strom reclamation projects. With that said, I think he will reinforce the bullpen significantly after losses of Harris and potentially Joe Smith. If Strom can unlock his spin into useful spin and have him buying into effective velocity, we could see some astonishing things come out of Pruitt.

X-Factor: Josh James. In a 60-game season, I feel like this is extremely hard to predict as small sample sizes will play an incredibly huge factor. With that said, the Astros largest weakness is their starting rotation and their depth. Since Bill touched on JV and Hatter on McCullers, I wanted to go with bolder prediction that the back end of the Astros rotation will be better than it was last year, which is crazy given the loss of Gerrit Cole who was the best pitcher in the game last year (despite what the Cy Young said). In addition to the benefits of a shorter season for JV, Greinke, and McCullers, the back end of the rotation has some truly intriguing pieces that could deliver a lot more than people are anticipating.

I’ve been a fan of Josh James, especially as a sleeper pick since his surge in velocity, getting John Sickels to write a profile on him back in 2018. And while many view 2019 as a disappointing season for him, both from being derailed out of the rotation due to an injury and inconsistent results, the advanced stats actually saw a much different player than his 4.70 gave him credit for. While I took a quick look at this at the end of the season, it’s easy to simply look at the 2.99 xERA, 3.77 xFIP, and 3.33 SIERA as indicators of some poor luck in 2019. His arsenal is still as deadly as ever, averaging a blistering 97.1 mph with excellent spin rates. There was reporting on the changes made to his delivery as he was over-rating causing inconsistent release points. There’s a good interview with Brent Strom talking about the training to transform his delivery and he spoke extremely highly of James, which adds a lot more validity than the normal “showed up in the best shape of his life”

And while Whitley is the clear standpoint from a potential perspective, others such as Valdez, Abreu, Urquidy, Pruitt, etc will likely end up playing a huge role throughout the year given the strange nature of what we’re likely to experience.


Juan:

Abraham Toro makes his case to play regularly.

You can’t have bad luck forever and neither can Toro. I believe he will find success between his great contact abilities and his good exit velocity and play an important role for the Astros entering 2020.

I’m not saying you should expect Alex Bregman’s production level here, but the Canadian native should be better in 2020, especially if he improves his performance against lefties and stops hitting the ball to the ground so often.

With a breakout season this year, Toro could get himself into the Astros’ plans for 2021, when the team could lose players such as Yulieski Gurriel, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, and George Springer to free agency.

The Astros will acquire a catcher before the trade deadline

I find it unlikely that the Astros play a whole season (no matter if it’s a 60-game one) with Martín Maldonado as their number one catcher or Dustin Garneau as his backup. I know he’s great and his defense is off the charts, but 1) he’s never played a entire campaign as an everyday backstop and 2) he’s an awful hitter (.219/.289/.355 lifetime slash line).

The other two options in the 40-man roster are Garneau and Garrett Stubbs, who have played in 142 games combined at the highest level.

I would expect the Astros go after somebody before September 1. Perhaps, it’s not an All-Star caliber player but someone who can also help Dusty Baker’s lineup and shares time with Maldonado.

X-Factor: Forrest Whitley. It’s gotta be Forrest Whitley. I know the Astros will be fine as long as their rotation’s big three stays healthy, but the team won’t have Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole anymore.

We all have been waiting for Whitley to explode and show what he’s made of and that’s not happened yet. But at 22 and after an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League last year, it’s time for him to step up as the Astros’ long-term ace.

If that happens, the team will have an out-of-this-world rotation that would have a huge impact during a 60-game campaign. The Astros NEED Whitley NOW!


Cody:

Completing a shortened 60-game season will be extremely difficult .

Meaningful baseball is finally here in the States. Wow, I wasn’t even sure that was a sentence I would’ve typed a month ago. It honestly feels good to look forward to baseball again. But that feeling could be fleeting.

I do have my reservations about the logistics of finishing a shortened 60-game season. Legitimate concerns abound in regards to testing and the subsequent turnaround time in receding results. What if a team has a large scale outbreak? What if the league has a large scale outbreak? How would Major League Baseball respond? A lot has to break right for the shortened season to be a success. At this point, I don’t think the likelihood of success looks favorable in the face of this pandemic.

The Astros will need to acquire a reliever (or three) by the August 31 deadline.

If there is one true weakness on this roster, it is the lack of pitching depth. After all, Roberto Osuna has yet to throw in any sort of game environment this summer. Brad Peacock and Austin Pruitt are starting the season on the IL. World Series legend Jose Urquidy is currently not in camp. And not to mention reliever Joe Smith, who also hasn’t reported and may opt-out.

While I really like the potential of pitchers like Bryan Abreu and Enoli Paredes in long-term, the Astros aren’t quite as loaded in the pitching department as they were in recent seasons. That 2018 season, in particular, spoiled a bunch of us. That depth will be tested early and often this season. For better or worse, Houston will have to rely on some young pitchers to get the job done. We’ve seen a bit of that plan with Paredes and Cy Sneed against the Royals earlier this week. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Astros active with free agents or the trade market to shore up the bullpen at some point.

X-Factor - The New Guys. The Astros are built to win now. The roster is full of veteran players who are grizzled and experienced. But any club looking to extend its window needs a constant flow of young talent from the minors. Kyle Tucker, for example, is a possible breakout candidate. Forest Whitley hopefully makes a few strides this season, if called upon. Abreu is another pitcher to watch closely in 2020. Same goes pitchers like Framber Valdez and Rogelio Armenteros. With the possibility of COVID-19 taking out any players this season at any time, the importance of this depth is much higher than anyone originally anticipated back in February.


Theo:

I’m going to be honest, I’m also pretty skeptical that the season will happen. I just have my doubts that Rob Manfred and company have thought this through as much as it requires, and any doubts I had about my initial doubts were again re-doubted when we found out that one team actually doesn’t have a home park, with less than 24 hours to go before games start.

But maybe we’ll thread this needle, and everyone will stay healthy and the shortened season will get done. What can we expect then?

The Astros won’t miss Gerrit Cole.

It’s wild to think about this, to me, but the most recent team Gerrit Cole played a meaningful game on was the Astros. It felt like he left the team ages ago, but Houston still hasn’t seen the results of his absence yet.

Thankfully, I think it will be another year at least before they really feel the effects, and largely thanks to players who were already on the team. Between the return of Lance McCullers and a “full” season of Zack Greinke (as well as the shortened year), the Astros will get similar output to Cole. Granted, this doesn’t solve everything, but it does mean the Astros don’t have to worry about the top of the rotation for this year.

The offensive onslaught will resume, thanks in part to Carlos Correa.

Last year, the Astros’ offense put up some historic numbers. I think that will continue to a degree, and they will once again lead the Majors in offensive output. While there’s some reason to expect some regression from players like MVP-runner-up Alex Bregman, or 2019-career-season George Springer, I think that will be offset by Carlos Correa. The shorter season will do the shortstop some good, and he’ll play a mostly-full season, and at the level he’s teased in shorter stretches.

The AL West will be tight.

Despite those problems, the Astros are still worse at the margins, and the rest of the league is better. In the end, I think they’re still better than their direct competition, and will clinch the division, but it will be close. And the shortened season will only make things even tighter, given the extra variation involved. If we make it to the end of the regular season, I think the Astros will end up clinching the division sometime in the last half week of the season, say, within the final four games or so.

X-Factor: Dusty Baker. No one has said Dusty yet, so I’m going to go with that. I still think that the Astros hiring him was the best case in a bad situation, and I think his ability to get the most out of players and make them feel comfortable could be important in a shortened season where there will be a lot of distractions. But that also relies on him staying healthy, and as a 71-year-old, he’s at a higher risk than most of the players. Hopefully it doesn’t wear him down too much, although given the extreme circumstances, I wouldn’t blame him if it was getting to him a little.