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The Season of COVID-Ball: Astros 2020 Preview

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The season preview you’ve been waiting four months to read.

Houston Astros v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

It feels like a lifetime (or two) ago when I attended Game 7 of the World Series last October. So much excitement, so much hope all for one game. That one game was to set the tone for the entire off-season. Heck, we all knew somewhere deep within the recesses of our souls by this point, whether we’d like to acknowledge it or not, that the upcoming winter was shaping up to be a bit turbulent with co-ace Gerrit Cole most likely leaving. Additional departures were bound to follow as flexibility with player payroll was going to be alarmingly tight, if non-existent. A second World Series title in three seasons was supposed to mask that pain. Players may come and go but championships never leave, even following a sign-stealing scandal.

Then the clang from hell happened.

I am not going to rehash the entire off-season today. It has already died once only to be reanimated and dealt with again about 14 additional times. Public shaming and bean counts are still going strong on Twitter even in the midst of a pandemic and a potentially wild, and possibly irresponsible, 2020 season. You know, the one with just 60 games and 16 teams who will qualify for the postseason.

2020 is going to 2020, right?

Today is Opening Day for the Astros and it would be remiss not to do a season preview of some sort. Even with the buzzsaw of an off-season that took place, Houston is in a cautiously good spot. Not the best spot, yes, but better than roughly 85 to 90 percent of the league. Here is how the Opening Day 30-man roster breaks down.

Pitchers

  • Justin Verlander
  • Zack Greinke
  • Lance McCullers Jr.
  • Josh James
  • Framber Valdez
  • Ryan Pressly
  • Roberto Osuna
  • Cy Sneed
  • Chris Devenski
  • Bryan Abreu
  • Joe Biagini
  • Cristian Javier
  • Enoli Paredes
  • Blake Taylor
  • Brandon Bailey

There are some notable names obviously missing from the Opening Day roster as pitchers Jose Urquidy, Brad Peacock, Joe Smith, and Austin Pruitt are all on the IL to start the season. There is no official word right now about the situation behind the absence of Urquidy while Peacock and Pruitt are still working their way back from injuries. Smith is a potential opt-out candidate at this point. The biggest area of concern for Houston in 2020 — besides COVID-19 — is the alarming lack of proven depth in the bullpen. Odds are Ryan Pressly starts the season as the closer as Roberto Osuna gets closer to game shape or something. The next best option in the bullpen is likely Chris Devenski. Um, yeah, that bullpen depth is paper thin right now.

Thanks to the unavailability of Urquidy, Peacock, Smith, and Pruitt, the Astros are going to rely upon some new faces to fill out their pitching staff to start the season. One of those pitchers is Minor League Pitcher of the Year Cristian Javier, who struck out an impressive 13.5 batters per nine innings last year amid his stops in Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. Blake Taylor, who the club acquired in the Jake Marisnick trade to the Mets last December, is the lone lefty in the bullpen. Both pitchers have only three games combined on the ledger at the Triple-A level. Throw in the additions of Enoli Paredes and Brandon Bailey, who don’t have any experience beyond the Double-A level, the Astros are leaning on a lot of promising, yet inexperienced arms to round out their pitching staff.

The success of the starting rotation naturally hinges on the performance of Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, and Lance McCullers Jr. For the fourth and fifth spots, the Astros are turning to Josh James, who started three games for the Astros in 2018, and Framber Valdez, the inconsistent lefty, but who possesses some impressive stuff. If Mike Trout compliments you, then you’re doing something right.

Catchers

  • Martin Maldonado
  • Dustin Garneau
  • Garrett Stubbs

There are no surprises here as the Astros will lean on Martin Maldonado and Dustin Garneau as the two primary catchers. Both represent an upgrade from Robinson Chirinos behind the plate, although they aren’t measured highly in Runs Extra Strikes from Statcast and have roughly comparable strike rates to the former Astro. The key drop off from Chirinos to Maldonado and Garneau is primarily with the bat. Garrett Stubbs, who also has experience in the infield and outfield, will afford Houston some roster flexibility as an emergency third catcher if the situation ever arises.

Infielders

  • Jose Altuve
  • Alex Bregman
  • Carlos Correa
  • Yuli Gurriel
  • Aledmys Diaz
  • Abraham Toro
  • Jack Mayfield

The starting infield, barring an illness or injury, figures to be the same as last season. This season, although shortened, is key for Carlos Correa as he attempts to put the injury troubles of 2017-19 behind him for good. When healthy, the star shortstop is one of the best in baseball as evident by his 3.2 fWAR in just 75 games in 2019. With Yordan Alvarez on the IL to start the season, the Astros will be forced to get creative a bit with how they delegate the DH duties. Indications point to Aledmys Diaz getting the lion share of DH appearances when a left-hander is on the mound.

Outfielders

  • George Springer
  • Josh Reddick
  • Michael Brantley
  • Kyle Tucker
  • Myles Straw

Like the starting infield, there is zero indication that the Astros will change the configuration of the starting outfield. Kyle Tucker will likely receive some at-bats as the DH when a right-hander is on the mound. There may be times when Tucker will get a start in place of Reddick. Myles Straw assumes Marisnick’s old role as a late-inning defensive replacement and pinch runner. The new extra inning rule where there is a baserunner on second base to start the frame was made for someone with Straw’s impressive 30.1 feet per second sprint speed.

Designated Hitter

  • Likely a combination of Aledmys Diaz and Kyle Tucker
  • Who the heck knows?

As mentioned above, the two position players in line for most of the DH duties appear to be Diaz and Tucker. The former will see mostly lefty pitchers while the latter will see more of the right-handed variety. Even if both prove to be adequate in the role, it is still a far departure from the impact Alvarez provided last season when he took AL Rookie of the Year honors with 27 home runs and a 178 wRC+ in just 87 games. Surely Alvarez wasn’t just a figment of our imagination, right?

The obvious caveat with the active roster above is COVID-19. Anything can change on any given day at this point. As the Nationals recently found with star outfielder Juan Soto and his positive test for the virus, the margin for error is extremely razor thin this season. If a position player misses, say, 14 games, we’re talking roughly 23 percent of the entire season. It is not a leap to imagine a situation where multiple players from one team could test positive at the same time, which could derail an entire team. Then there are the additional concerns about who may have been exposed on other teams. Just not an ideal situation all the way around.

As currently constructed, though, the Astros are in line to contend for their fourth consecutive AL West division title. FanGraphs currently gives Houston a 93.5 percent probability to qualify for the postseason. Thanks to how the 16-team postseason field alters the odds landscape, the Astros have a 61.2 percent chance to win the division with a 23.8 percent chance to finish as the runner-up. The A’s have the next closest odds at 21.7 percent to win the AL West. Unless COVID-19 just decimates this roster for large swath of the season, there is no logical reason why the club can’t be part of the 16-team field in October. And for what its worth with a 16-team field now, the Astros have a 12.9 percent chance to win the World Series, only trailing the Dodgers who have a 15.1 percent chance to take the Fall Classic.

In terms of the opposition, the Astros are going to be playing half of their 60 games against teams from California. Yes, this also includes the Dodgers, who come into town next Tuesday for quick two-game series. The Astros are also scheduled for a two-game set in Los Angeles in the middle of September. That’ll be some must-watch baseball.

The key of success for the Astros lies in how well they perform within the division, which accounts for 40 of the 60 games in 2020. Last season, Houston went a combined 56-20 (.737 winning percentage) against the A’s, Angels, Mariners, and Rangers. Apply that rate across 40 games and the Astros would finish with a 29-11 record within the AL West. Something akin to that rate would clearly put the team in the driver seat to determine their own destiny.

But, if I can be honest, this year’s roster isn’t quite as potent as last year’s. Still enough talent to support a top-five team in the league at its best, but there is definite step down from last year’s 107-win roster in the cards. For example, the subtraction of Alvarez and Cole by themselves represents 11.2 wins if you go by fWAR for last season. If you apply that 11.2 fWAR over a 162 game season and apply that rate to a 60 game season, you end up with roughly four wins between the two. That is a reasonable estimate in my opinion, even if WAR is far from the perfect metric. Losing both Alvarez and Cole, even for different reasons, is like taking a pound of flesh. No one is coming back from that type of injury easily. At the same time, it speaks to how impressively high last season’s team set the ceiling for success in the regular season.

Between the lack of proven depth in the bullpen, the precarious nature of playing baseball during a pandemic, and the various departures from last year’s roster, it is hard to envision how the Astros can dominate the league like they did in 2019. That said, the overall roster is still one of the best in baseball on paper and this club should make a deep run into the postseason — shall we make it that far— if everything aligns as hoped.