I never thought after the Astros won the World Series in 2017 that their World Series window would still be open as late as 2022. Especially since they have indeed lost two of the four main cogs in that machine, George Springer and Carlos Correa. Other key players from that team, and the team in general, have aged considerably past their supposed “prime.”
And yet despite a weak farm system, the Sporting News has the Astros projected to win the AL West, win the second-most games of any AL team and get a first-round bye in the playoffs. They have a 13.9% chance of winning the pennant, just behind the Blue Jays and the White Sox. But as everyone knows, once you make the playoffs anything can happen. Just ask the last two ( underdog) teams to beat the Astros in the World Series.
But I’d say this shortened Spring Training gives Astros fans reasons for even more hope than positive pre-season projections. Here I offer five of them.
Jeremy Pena belongs
I happened to catch a glimpse of ESPN sports highlights yesterday when they were showing Pena’s two home runs. The announcer concluded, “Jeremy Pena, remember that name.”
No, a career is not made from 18 at-bats in Spring Training, but they do show he sure isn't intimidated by big-league pitching. His Spring OPS of 1.199 was second on the team among players who saw major action, and his two homers against Josiah Gray yesterday were against a pitcher who was baffling the rest of Pena’s teammates up to that point. Yes, Gray surrendered five runs. All because of Pena’s two homers, one about 430 feet to straightaway center on an 0-2 count.
Pena’s performance so far makes you think that his potential is the reason the Astros low-balled Carlos...Carlos...Carlos who? The son of major leaguer Geronimo Pena, Jeremy may think greatness is his birthright. And if you think it’s true, maybe it is.
Justin Verlander is still Justin Verlander
Tommy John surgery and a two-year layoff don’t seem to have affected Verlander at all. He pitched 12.2 innings before allowing a run this Spring. Then in yesterday’s fifth inning the Nationals finally got to him but even that was impressive.
Getting near his pitch count, Verlander seemed to be tiring and/or losing concentration. He allowed three hits, a walk, and two runs before retiring a batter. I expected he would be taken out. Instead, he bore down, got a popup and two strikeouts to limit the damage.
The Astros will take Verlander a little slow to protect his arm, and I don’t expect a Cy Young performance, but he’ll definitely be an upgrade over departed Zack Greinke.
Jose Altuve is rediscovering what truly made him great
Numerous reports indicate that Jose Altuve has been working to correct his recent tendency to pull the ball and swing for the left-field fences. It was the more balanced approach to hitting that won him the MVP in 2017 and a return to that approach is welcome and has been advocated on this site. (See Here)
So far the results are encouraging. His Spring numbers look remarkably similar to his MVP numbers: .350/.364/.550 while hitting more consistently to all fields.
Yuli Gurriel isn’t getting older, he’s getting better
Supposedly the soon-to-be 38-year-old decided that winning the batting title last year wasn’t good enough. He needed to upgrade his physical conditioning by eschewing Cokes and pizza.
So far his leaner body is showing some mean results on the field. In 17 at-bats this Spring Gurriel has seven hits, three homers, nine RBI, and a 1.415 OPS. I’m just wishing he’d save a little bit of that for the regular season.
Who knows, maybe Gurriel can play into his forties! The Tom Brady of baseball. Or the Nolan Ryan of first base.
Luis Garcia may be ready to become an ace
Yes, he only saw 5.2 innings, small sample size is a given for any Spring Training analysis, but Garcia made batters look stupid. He had nine strikeouts, only one walk, and two hits.
Methinks Garcia is ready to expand on his impressive rookie performance in which he was second in ROY balloting with a 3,48 ERA. I expect more confidence, more command, and hopefully more stamina, as Garcia ran out of gas at the end of last season.
It’s Cinderella stories like that of Garcia, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, and others that have helped the Astros avoid the fate of recent World Series winners like the Cubs, Nationals, and even the Red Sox, i.e., rise to glory followed by a period of decline.
We Astros fans are becoming spoiled. And that’s fine with me. We boohoo because we’ve only won one World Series in the last five years and have lost twice. That means the Astros have been to the World Series more often in those five years than all other AL teams combined.
There’s one more Spring Training game. Be here for the thread today. The game starts early, 11:05 CDT.