Roughly eleven months ago, and before all hell broke loose, I wrote here about how the Astros’ depth across the roster would be tested in 2020. Although the season played out way differently than I could’ve imagined, ultimately the club relied heavily upon multiple rookies in the pitching staff while key hitters struggled during the shortened season. In spite of some success stories, it was still rough sailing as Houston limped into the postseason with a 29-31 record before catching fire that culminated in a surprise run to the ALCS.
Fast forward to the precipice of the 2021 Spring Training and the same thought that I had last year generally remains: Houston’s depth will be tested...again. To be fair, the same can be said for any club not named the Dodgers as most pitching staffs will have to carefully navigate a full season following a sixty-game abbreviation. In other words, look out for arm troubles. Even hitters will have to readjust to the grind considering there hasn’t been a full season since 2019. At least it’ll give the multiple star-level hitters we saw stumble out of the gate in 2020 more recovery time during the course of a full season.
The offseason itself for the Astros wasn’t particularly optimistic. While the club did re-sign Michael Brantley to a new two-year deal along with a few intriguing relievers, they also lost George Springer in free agency. Simply put, Houston lost talent this winter considering the scope of Springer’s impact on the roster. However, the club still ranks among the top-six in baseball based on projected team WAR for the 2021 season.
FanGraphs’ Depth Charts Projected Team WAR
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.
For the Astros, the bulk of their projected WAR (28.3) is primarily driven by position players, led by Alex Bregman (5.8), Carlos Correa (4.6), Jose Altuve (3.6), Yordan Alvarez (3.6), Kyle Tucker (3.3), and Michael Brantley (2.4). Based on those projections, that is the highest WAR figure for any offense in baseball, even better than the Dodgers (27.9) and Yankees (27.8). The pitching staff, on the other hand, only accounts for 13.1 of that total 41.4 WAR, or in the bottom 40 percent in Major League Baseball. Quite a dropoff, right?
The risk for Houston lies in their limited depth at certain positions (see center field) and when they will surely have to lean on it as the rigors of a 162-game season come back into full view. Losing a hitter like Bregman or Correa for extended periods of time is a clear concern as the team’s value is heavily driven by the lineup, especially with Springer now playing elsewhere. The starting rotation is about five deep with quality starters, however, there is little way in proven depth waiting in reserve. Incidentally, with the offseason additions of Ryne Stanek, Pedro Báez, and Steve Cishek, the bullpen has a bit of depth to utilize in the upcoming season. Sometimes it isn’t about flashy signings of the top free-agent closer that makes a difference, rather it is more about finding the right value to extend its depth.
I closed last year’s article on this same topic by stating that “the key of the Astros success in 2020 has always hinged on the health of their best players.” The same sentiment applies to the 2021 season where the lack of a player of Springer’s ilk is clearly noticeable and the fact that the team probably needs closer to seven to ten starters to get through a 162-game season. The depth that served the Astros well at times in 2020 will be needed again in 2021. All we can hope for is that internal improvement can help make up for the losses that are likely to come.