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The Starting Nine Predicts Astros Wins, Standings, and X-Factors for 2021

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Can the Astros make at least one more run? Add your thoughts in the comments

MLB: Houston Astros at St. Louis Cardinals Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day, 2021 is upon us. Yes, April Fool’s Day, but hopefully 2021 is a real season, not like the faux 2020 version of baseball.

I think it is fair at this point to call the 2021 Astros part of what I call the Championship Era of Astros baseball that began in 2015. Since 2017 the Astros have been to four straight ALCS’s and won two. They have been to two World Series and won one. They have knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs three times during this era.

But whether or not the 2021 team really deserves to be considered in the same light as these earlier teams remains to be seen. There’s new management in its second year, and the only players remaining from the 2017 champions are the infielders, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and an aging Yuli Gurriel. Oh yeah, and newly re-signed Lance McCullers.

For pitching the Astros are going to rely on old-man Zack Greinke, McCullers, Ryan Pressly, a few other veterans, and a whole bevy of promising, although largely unheralded and untested young arms. Many got their first taste of the big time in 2020...without fans. Are they ready for the long haul of 162 games with at least some kind of crowd watching?

Besides the young pitching, there are a number of other questions about this team that could cause one to wonder if the 2021 Astros belong in the category of Championship Era Astros.

First, the face of the championship team, the first piece of the re-build, the man who graced two Sports Illustrated covers, the second after attaining World Series MVP status, yes, George Springer, is gone.

Of course, Myles Straw cannot replace George Springer in the lineup. But can he at least mitigate the loss by getting on base a lot, and using his speed to do damage on the bases and in center field?

Perhaps even more importantly, what effect does the loss of Springer have on a clubhouse known for its joy and spirit, with Springer as lead DJ of “Club Astros.”

Second question. The man who emerged in 2020 as the staff ace, Framber Valdez, broke his finger in his first and only Spring Training game. The time of his return is uncertain. Meanwhile, newly acquired Jake Odorizzi has only pitched about three innings in Spring Training and will not be ready for much action when the season begins. How long will Valdez be out, and what effect will this have on the starting rotation? (Of course, we all know that Justin Verlander and his $30 million salary are unavailable to the Astros this year)

Thirdly, there are questions about certain veteran and young position players.

Will 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez repeat as one of the biggest slugging threats in baseball, or will a combination of sophomore jinx and the gimpy knees that kept him out in 2020 limit his effectiveness?

To most observers, Kyle Tucker proved himself in 2020, but small samples limit the validity we attach to both good performances and bad ones. Is this the year Kyle Tucker finally becomes “Ted.” Or, at least, “Ted lite.” Could Kyle Tucker and Michael Brantley replace Springer and Brantley as the Astros All-Star tandem in the outfield?

Now to the veterans. At age 30 you’d think Jose Altuve is not far removed from his prime. But last year’s (small sample) performance has made some among us wonder if Altuve is another Rogers Hornsby (lite): early bloomer, early fader. Or maybe, has the cheating scandal gotten into his head? The team will face jeering fans this year. Is Altuve up to it?

The advance of age is no hypothetical for first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who was also terrible in 2020 and turns 37 this season. Does he have another 2019 season left in the tank, and if not, is there a legit big-leaguer waiting in the wings to fill his gap at what should be one of the slugging positions in the field?

These are some of the questions that the Astros must answer in 2021. Now onto the predictions by the TCB Starting Nine. Add your own in the comments.


Bilbos

Record: 92-70

AL West Standing: First place.

X-Factor: The Astros will surprisingly have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball with a group of mostly almost no-names and a just average Greinke. (OK, McCullers and Odorizzi were once All-Stars but their stars don’t shine so bright right now)

Brent Strom deserves at least $30 million/year. He is the DaVinci, the Edison, the Elon Musk of pitching coaches. He is worth more wins to the entire staff than Justin Verlander in his Astros Cy Young prime. 2020 young pitching was no fluke. It will be next man up, who dat? all season, and they will continue to amaze.

Plus, a breakout season for Lance McCullers.


Cody

Record: 90-72.

AL West Standing: First place.

X-Factor: Pitching depth is going to be an issue to some degree for the Astros in 2021, which is a similar plight for most clubs if you’re not named the Dodgers or Rays. The days of relying upon just five starters are long gone as there will be instances when the lower reaches of the depth chart will need to absorb some innings. That said, it’d be nice to see the recently extended Lance McCullers Jr. take the next step in his progression, especially with Justin Verlander sidelined for the entire 2021 season. I’d also feel better if Framber Valdez returns to the rotation sooner rather than later. Overall, this collection of pitchers undoubtedly has a high floor, although that ceiling is somewhat limited across a 162-game season.

But I do have faith in the organization’s pitching development and its ability to churn out quality pitchers on little notice. The bullpen, which was a weakness last season, now feels like a potential strength. As long as health permits in conjunction with this lineup, there ought to be enough there to help the Astros navigate another successful campaign in the AL West.


Astros Future (Jimmy)

Record: 94-68

AL West Standing: First place.

X-Factor: Yordan Alvarez’s knees. We know what he is capable of when healthy, but with Springer gone, we need Alvarez to step up, be healthy, and be the run-producing machine we know he can be. I think the Astros offense is still going to be one of the best offenses in the league again, but a great season from Alvarez, as he performed in 2019, can ensure that the Astros offense doesn't skip a beat. The top 6 is still really really good (in no particular order... Altuve, Brantley, Bregman, Alvarez, Correa, Tucker)


Dan

Record: 91-71

AL West Standing: First place

X-Factor: As it’s been said, general health is most important. Specifically, players such as Alvarez and McCullers need to stay on the field, and, ideally, Valdez returns in a few months. But the one player I want to highlight is Yuli Gurriel.

It’s not difficult to envision the kind of output that will come from each of the lineup’s top six hitters, but Gurriel, who is slated to hit in the 7-hole, is somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps he shouldn’t be, as before 2020, he’d hit in the .290s in each of the three prior years.

But at the same time, the data suggests that 2020’s drop in production was long overdue regression. It’s not yet known how legitimate that regression is, as it occurred during a highly abnormal season, and Gurriel playing through a hand injury only further complicates last year’s evaluation.

To be clear, no one expects Yuli to hit .232 again, but he’s also not expected to replicate his explosive 2019 numbers. Something in the middle, say, his 2018 slash line of .291/.323/.428 with 13 home runs and a 107 wRC+ could be doable for 2021. While unspectacular, that production could give the Astros a seventh bat capable of making an impact in any given game.

It could be the difference between the Astros’ offense being very good and great.


Exile in Saint Louis

Record: 95-67

AL West Standing: First

X-Factor:

I’m going with Abraham Toro as an X-factor. He’s been largely forgotten but was ranked as a 50FV prospect not long ago, by some tough graders. He switch hits, runs, and has the athleticism to play corner IF and OF, as well as emergency catcher.

He might not even make the team out of camp though. So why is he an X-factor? Injuries. Correa, Bregman, Diaz, and co. don’t project the Platonic image of health. And the Astros, not long ago a young, athletic team, have come to resemble a station-to-station, base path clogging group of guys.

2020 was a lost season for Toro, but there are a variety of scenarios in which he could be looking at 300-400 PAs in Houston. What if Correa and Diaz are down, and Bregman has to play SS? Toro becomes a likely option at 3b. This is a guy who destroyed AA and AAA pitching in 2019. It’s a guy 18 months ago who looked capable of taking over for Yuli in 2021. If he can return to that form (the Spring results were encouraging), then I think he could be the difference between a team whose lack of depth is exposed, vs. a team whose depth surprises. Plus, what a cool name and background!


Spencer Morris

Record: 90-72

AL West Standing: First

X-Factor:

I agree with Jimmy above who wrote about the importance of Yordan Alvarez’s health, but my pick is Kyle Tucker. If the Astros are to truly contend, Tucker needs to establish himself as a consistent, all-star quality player- this is doubly true past 2021, but it’s of major importance this year as well. With George Springer in Toronto, there’s significant pressure on Tucker’s bat and Alvarez’s health if the Astros hope to maintain a similar offensive output.
Personally, I think that he can do it. It didn’t take Tucker long to show promise as a big leaguer, and he has more or less improved steadily since that point, polishing his pitch selection little by little as he acclimates to baseball’s highest level of play, adding a bit of good weight along the way to boot. Tucker has physical ability in spades, and perhaps the prettiest swing on the team, so continued improvements to his plate discipline should allow him to settle into a role as one of the Astros’ key pieces on offense. He has posted identical .349 wOBAs over the last two seasons, and if he can reach a higher gear, the Astros offense should have enough firepower to secure another division crown.


Theo

Record: 92-70

AL West Standing: First place

X-Factor: Health is going to be a big part of what keeps me up this year. It’s not that it hasn’t been a factor in years past or anything, but the margin for error this year is a lot smaller. The Astros still look like the best team in the West, but it’s less because of looking them like an unstoppable juggernaut and more of nobody else seeming ready to challenge them for the crown over a full 162 games just yet. But if someone else puts it all together, that becomes precarious, especially given that the team’s apparent budget concerns drastically reduces the chances of bringing in outside reinforcements.

And not helping is just how many potential injuries and recoveries there are to worry about. Will Yordan pick up right where he left off, or will he take time to ease back in? José Altuve is a second baseman in his 30s, and that role is sometimes known for rapid deterioration from age; is 2020 an aberration, or the new normal? A fully healthy season from Carlos Correa is probably the best bet for a replacement for George Springer, but how likely are we to see that? Can 34-year-old Michael Brantley handle a lot more games in the field than he saw there in 2020? Alex Bregman’s issues were definitely just a one-year thing, right? And don’t even get me started on the pitching. There are just so many individual gambles being made, and it’s fine if only most of them work out, but I miss the contingencies upon contingencies it felt like the Astros had a few years ago.


Juan

Record: 93-69

AL West Standing: First place

X-Factor: I’m going with the old man here. The X-Factor for the long awaited 2021 season is going to be Zack Greinke, though I won’t ask for something out of this world. But if Greinke can pitch at least close to the way he did in early 2020, the Astros are going to be okay at least in terms of an ace.

Baseball-Reference

Even though we lost George Springer and he’ll be hitting bombs for the Blue Jays, I’m not concerned about the offense. The Astros still have a pretty good, powerful, dangerous lineup that can smash opponent pitchers. But I do worry about their pitching depth, and this is where Greinke’s name goes.

Greinke will be leading a rotation that has lost Justin Verlander (entire 2021) and Framber Valdez (undefined). And though Jake Odorizzi’s arrival is a pain reliever, Zack’s still the man to look at in front.


CKuno

Record: 90-72

AL West Standing: First place

X-Factor: Jose Altuve and the level of bloodthirst from fans denied for a year.

While the offense will most definitely be taking a step back this season, it doesn’t seem like it will be a complete drop-off. I don’t see many unknowns in the lineup except when it comes to where Altuve can perform on a season-long basis. Personally, I don’t believe that a shortened 60-game season heralds the decline of Houston’s superstar 2nd basemen, but the conversation about age and natural decline are warranted at this point in his career.

Altuve is also, in some ways, the light of this team. Without Springer, my guess is that his personality will be a big part of the clubhouse chemistry for the Astros, so a healthy Altuve mashing the ball should go a long way for the team’s morale.

And, unfortunately, a big part of that morale will also be how overbearing fans of other teams will be. My personal prediction is that we will probably be seeing throaty booing early in games that sort of fades by the end of it. Every AB will feature some schmuck, of course, but the casual fan is not going to spend all game screaming “cheater” just because someone told them they should be outraged. Hopefully, this becomes background noise after a while.

However, there will be exceptions. I expect fans of other AL West teams, the Dodgers, and the Yankees will seek the release of catharsis by yelling at a man in pajamas, but the question is whether it’s enough across the entire season to derail their division chances. Personally, I think not.


Cohn

Record: 93-69

AL West Standing: First place

There’s not a lot that hasn’t been said above. The Astros should still be able to take 1st place in the AL West, but they’re not the 800 lb gorilla that they once were. A rash of injuries could be troublesome for the team as the depth is not what it once was. The trade deadline likely won’t contain any reinforcements unless there’s some creative accounting with the AAV. I am more optimistic than most about Jose Altuve’s return to normal, although I’m dreading seeing the posts/commentary if he gets off to a slow start.

X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor to me will be the pitching staff’s ability to hold it together. I believe in Strom more than almost anyone but the team gave an illusion of an excellent staff, but none of it was supported by advanced stats last year. Offensively, we should still win slug-outs and with continued development, I’m cautiously optimistic about what Strom will do with the staff.


Hatter

Record: 88 -74

AL West Standing: First place

First off, let’s step back and acknowledge how remarkable this era of Houston Astros baseball has been. The Astros have made the ALCS in four consecutive years. They’re literally a 2015 Correa error from having FIVE ALCS appearances in a six-year stretch. And essentially a Jose Altuve error from 3 pennants in 4 years.

The Astros are not the juggernaut they were from 2017 to 2019 anymore, but Astros fans should still be excited about this season. Just temper your goals for the season. 100 wins are not the mark you should be looking to clear with this team. 90 wins are. And I’m genuinely surprised that every one of my colleagues here at TCB has the 2021 Astros meeting that threshold. I think they fall just shy of 90, but like everyone else, I still see a banner. Just because it’s going to be harder for the Astros to clear 90 wins than in years past, doesn’t make it any easier for the Angels or A’s. 88 wins will likely suffice to claim the division.

And they won’t be the favorite entering October either. But that’s okay. Because once October rolls around, the records reset and anything can happen. The 2020 Astros were a sub .500 team and yet you can make an argument they were the better team in all 3 postseason series they played in, including the 2020 ALCS. There’s no huge juggernaut in the AL either, excepting the Yankees, and I will remind those of you who remember 2015, 2017, and 2019: it’s another odd-numbered year.

Go Stros.

X-Factor: Lance McCullers, Jr. There’s no more Keuchel. No Verlander. No more Cole or even Charlie. The rotation depth is as thin as we’ve seen in a while. It’s no longer good enough for Lance to just be a solid rotation piece who shows flashes of brilliance. It’s time for him to be the ace. It’s time for him to get Cy votes.