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The Starting Nine’s Predictions and X-Factors for the Astros’ 2022 Season.

Opening Day is tonight in Anaheim. Here’s the view of the 2022 season from the Crawfish Boxes.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Houston Astros Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s face it. We Astros fans are spoiled. We’re all upset that our team has only won one World Series in the last five years while losing in 2019 and 2021. Woe is we. We’ve only been to the World Series more times in the last five years than all other AL teams combined. And in the last five years, we’ve competed in every ALCS. Quite a run.

I doubt there’s much sympathy for our sorrows in New York. Or any other MLB city for that matter.

Yet, the roster that won the 2017 World Series barely exists in 2022. Only Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, Justin Verlander, (back on a new two-year contract), and Lance McCullers Jr. survive from that squad, and McCullers starts 2022 on the IL.

Probably the best team the Astros have fielded during this time is the 2019 squad, and since then the Astros have lost superstars George Springer, Gerritt Cole, Zack Greinke, and of course, Carlos Correa.

The big question for 2022 is: How many losses of that magnitude can the Astros endure and still remain at or near the top.

Well, despite having a depleted farm system, the Astros have managed to grow a new group of young stars, much-heralded players like Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez, and sleepers like Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia.

This year all eyes are on the next big thing, the replacement of Carlos Correa, the universal x-factor, Jeremy Pena. Hopefully, he ignores the hype and the pressure and just plays with the joy he has shown so far in Spring. Some think he might be as good as Correa eventually, but he doesn’t have to be for the Astros to be successful. But for what it’s worth, he was one of the team’s top producers in this year’s shortened Spring season.

Professional prognosticators still like the Astros. Sporting News has the Astros with 91 wins, a 77.6% chance of winning the AL West, and a 43.8% chance of a first-round bye in the playoffs. They give the Astros a 13.9% chance of winning the AL pennant, third behind the Blue Jays and White Sox, and a 7% chance of winning the World Series, sixth-best odds in baseball but not far from the five teams ahead.

Fangraphs has similar numbers, giving the Astros 90 wins, a 67.5% chance of winning the division, a 43.4 % chance of getting a playoff bye, and an 82.2% chance of making the playoffs.

So six years after winning the World Series, the Astros’ championship window has remained open the whole time and, amazingly, still is.

So much for what the outsiders think about the 2022 Astros. Let’s take a look at what your resident experts at The Crawfish Boxes think.

Bilbos

Record: 90-72

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose to Blue Jays in ALCS

Analysis: It will be hard for the Astros to repeat their 95 win season of last year for two reasons: the loss of Carlos Correa (unless our best hopes for Jeremy Pena come true) and a much tougher division with the exception of the rebuilding As.

The Angels are a major wild card. How good can they be if Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and Jared Walsh all stay healthy and have the kind of seasons they are capable of? Plus, they add Thor to the rotation.

And the Rangers don’t figure to be a pushover either, adding Corey Seager and Marcus Semien to their squad.

Still, I’d rather be in the AL West than the AL East.

The Astros’ lineup, defense, and starting rotation look solid. I expect even better production from Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker than the considerable production they gave last year. Michael Brantley appears to be in decline, but he did flash power in the Spring. Jose Altuve’s efforts to break his pull-happy habits of the last two seasons seem promising as well. And hopefully, Alex Bregman’s numbers will rebound if he can avoid the nagging injuries of the last two years. Yuli seems ageless.

The questions we had about centerfield from last year remain this year. Jake Meyers begins the season on the IL, and although Chas McCormick and Jose Siri flashed some good potential last year in limited duty, neither can be said to be proven commodities. If these three all falter, there’s the Cuban defector, Pedro Leon waiting in the wings.

But the biggest question mark for the Astros is the bullpen. The Astros lost left-hander Brooks Raley and now have to rely on Blake Taylor for left-handed relief. They added a historically reliable arm in Hector Neris, but Phil Maton was ineffective in his brief appearances in Spring Training. Rafael Montero, acquired in the Abraham Toro trade, appeared in only 0.1 innings and allowed three runs. Bryan Abreu has had flashes but still appears to be struggling with command. And let’s face it, with his velo stuck in the eighties, Pedro Baez is washed up.

That leaves Ryne Stanek, a streaky pitcher who looked awesome in Spring, and Ryan Pressly as proven Astros short relievers. In his one appearance this Spring, Pressly’s velocity was around 90 MPH, a significant decline. He said he was too unmotivated to throw fast in front of a meager Spring Training crowd. Count me skeptical....and concerned. Nonetheless, the Astros just signed Pressly to a two-year extension.

The Astros have a way of finding/developing pitching help from unexpected places. They may need to pull off the magic again this year. And without Correa’s salary, they have a war chest for trading deadline moves.

X-Factor/Bold Prediction: Luis Garcia becomes a dominant pitcher and appears in the All-Star Game.

Hammer

Record: 92 -70

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose ALDS to

Analysis: Bilbos intro did a great job of highlighting how good the Astros have been, and how spoiled we have been as fans. But last year, while we finished at 95 wins, the Pythagorean W-L actually pegged us at 101 Wins, which is probably more indicative of the Astros talent level.

While it’s been tough to see Correa depart, Pena’s spring has been as reassuring as it possibly could be, providing strong defense and one of the better bats this spring. It’s unrealistic to expect any player to step in and repeat Correa’s platinum glove-winning, 5+ WAR season, but as mentioned the Astros are deep enough to absorb the blow of a third superstar joining another team in as many seasons. Offensively the Astros are still projected as one of the best teams in baseball.

Overall, the team had comparable wOBA vs xwOBA with only Yuli Gurriel seeming to gain a bit of a boost from pure luck, which is great for repeating their performance. Interestingly, essentially every Astro outperformed their xERA last year, which could be an indicator of significant regression, and that’s before adding any impact of the rule changes.

I think this year will have a lot more randomness introduced into the league. First, the shortened spring training I believe will likely have an impact more similar to the 2020 season in regards to starting Pitchers and a likely increase in injuries. The Astros luckily have some depth at the position, with 5-6 rotation candidates holding down the fort and potential reinforcements in McCullers, Whitley, Brown, etc. I believe this depth will be critical and provide a boost to the team.

Ultimately, I think their bullpen will be the downfall of the team unless we see some of the un-proven talent take a significant step forward. It was interesting to me that the Astros were not as aggressive as I anticipated with the reliever market, especially when relievers like Collin McHugh (1.55 ERA/2.26 xERA/10.41 K/9) went for 2/$10 mil.

X-Factor/Bold Prediction: I’m cheating and going with 2.

1.) The Return of Alex Bregman - After a handful of injuries and a crazy 2020, I’m hopeful to see him return to the level of performance he had in prior years (7.6 WAR in 2018, 8.4 in 2019)

2.) Hector Neris - I mentioned the bullpen as one of the largest weaknesses. While Neris’ 3.63 ERA across 74 IP doesn’t scream dominant reliever, there was a lot more under the surface and I believe he will surprise a lot of people. His 2.97 xERA was in the top 10% of the league and he was more than capable of missing bats. I think we’ll see him take the next step and become a solid piece for the back end of the bullpen.

Clack

Record: 89 -73

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose ALDS to Red Sox

Analysis: Agree with Bilbos that it’s a question of how much can the Astros lose in star power and still win the division? Against that backdrop, the Angels, Mariners, and Rangers have all improved their rosters which will make it difficult to win 95 games again. The Mariners overperformed last year, but I really like their team this year. The Angels are improved but always seem to lack the X-factor. Given that the A’s are no longer a major factor in the division, I guess LAA and Seattle will be the primary adversaries. I predict that the Astros edge out those two teams by 1 - 3 games. Starting pitching appears to be the foundation for this season’s Astros. My prediction is that McCullers will re-join the rotation around mid-season and provide a late-season boost. I expect the Astros’ run-scoring to decline somewhat this season, which means that we will see more games decided by 1 or 2 runs. And that means the season will be more dependent on the bullpen—which means, who knows? Basically, the bottom line is that the Astros margin for error has decreased. And that means the deficiencies that arise during the season (whether injuries, bullpen problems or player underperformance) have to be addressed with urgency. I am cautiously optimistic that one or more young pitchers in the minors will help the Astros address bullpen issues.

X-Factor/Bold Prediction:

I was going to say “Bregman” but Hammer beat me to it. So, I will predict that the X-factor is the trade deadline. Trading costs are likely to be higher than usual this year (due to the larger playoff format), but I think the Astros will make solid trades at the deadline which will bolster their position in the standings. This could include another remaking of the bullpen. It also could include the acquisition of a power hitter, or even a starting pitcher (if injuries have hit the rotation).

Juan

Record: 91-71

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose to Blue Jays in ALCS

Analysis: The Astros are still a pretty good team. But you can’t hide the loss of Carlos Correa, which weakens the infield and leaves Houston without an unquestionable leader. Unless Jeremy Peña provides the Astros with a great offensive production, they’ll be missing one of the greatest shortstop of the game right now (if not the best).

Along with uncertainties regarding their bullpen and their starting rotation, this will influence how the Astros perform. However, I believe the Astros are still the best, the most experienced, and the most productive team in the AL West, at least for one more year.

Among the biggest ifs around the Astros, are Yuli Gurriel’s performance in another contract year, Alex Bregman and his return to his old self, Justin Verlander and how good he can be after Tommy John surgery, and whether the starting rotation can have enough stamina to cover a long 162-game season and, hopefully, the postseason.

Even though there are lots of question marks for Houston entering 2022, if Dusty Baker remains a wise man and the stars can stay healthy and productive, the Astros will be ready to show how big their heart is and give us at least one more year of great baseball.

Bold Prediction: The Astros acquire an offensive outfielder at the trade deadline if Pedro León isn’t ready to hit against MLB pitching.

X-Factor: As I said days ago, the starting rotation will play a huge role for the Astros in 2022. If Houston can get good production out of its starting pitchers, the offense will do the rest and the team will be in a good position.

Cody

Record: 93-69

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose to the White Sox in ALCS

Analysis: Losing Carlos Correa in free agency was the defining story of the offseason for the Astros, especially in the manner that they did. Jeremy Peña has some large shoes to fill at shortstop, but if his improved batting profile translates to the majors, the loss of Correa will be mitigated to some degree. The rest of the lineup remains intact from last season when they posted the highest wRC+ in baseball at 116. Based on FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections, only two clubs are forecasted to produce more offensive value than the Astros in 2022: The Dodgers and the Yankees. There is more than enough firepower within this lineup to reach that level again, especially if someone like Alex Bregman rediscovers something closely resembling his 2018-19 form.

The general consensus from what I can gather is Lance McCullers Jr. may not return until the mid-season point from his flexor tendon injury in his right arm. Considering how well he pitched last season, it is a hard setback for the rotation. Thankfully, the Astros did gain back the services of Justin Verlander, even if he is only 70 to 80 percent of his former self at the start of the season. Plus, they also feature one of the deepest rotations in baseball, with Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis García, and Jake Odorizzi all on the staff. And don’t forget to include Cristian Javier, who is currently the long man in the bullpen.

Talking about the bullpen, the Astros have the recently extended Ryan Pressly in place in addition to Héctor Neris, Ryne Stanek, and Phil Maton to form a decent enough quartet of late-inning relievers. But there are concerns as Pedro Báez can’t seem to rediscover his past velocity, in addition to the lack of proven depth on the roster. A trade for another reliever or two by the trade deadline appears the most likely course of action for this front office.

Overall, though, Houston has arguably one of the deepest rotations in baseball — if health permits — with an adequate bullpen and a still formidable lineup. The bullpen is the weak link to watch, and I am also curious to see how James Click addresses shortstop and center field if those positions struggle to produce. The AL West has only become more competitive since the conclusion of last season — minus the A’s — but Houston ought to have enough talent to win their fifth division title in six seasons. The real test may lie in the postseason as the other contenders have taken steps to shore up positions of concern while the Astros largely stood pat.

Bold Prediction: The Astros acquire either another shortstop or a center fielder, to help alleviate production concerns from those two positions. While Peña and Jake Meyers have bright futures, it remains too early to ascertain whether they are the best options to win in 2022.

X-Factor: Alex Bregman. Yes, I know it feels strange to list a player with Bregman’s past performance as an x-factor, but his performance in the past two seasons (18 HR, 117 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR in 580 plate appearances) is a disappointment. To be fair, various injuries in that time have robbed him of his power, and I am sure that an abbreviated 2020 season didn’t help matters. Hopefully, a full offseason to heal his body is exactly what Bregman needed to re-establish himself as one of the best corner infielders in baseball. With Correa’s presence in the lineup now gone, it is more vital than ever to see Bregman improve his offensive output. If not, the Astros’ lineup is likely more mortal than what we’ve seen in the past few seasons.

CKuno

Record: 93-69

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Win the World Series

Analysis: To be honest there’s not much to add here if I want to stick with the commonly accepted point that the Astros have lost a step over the offseason but are still competitive. It certainly seems to be generally accepted among the baseball intelligencia that Houston, while still likely to win the division, doesn’t have enough tools left in the box to make it back to the promised land of the World Series. There’s even talk among the oracles who get paid a fair amount more than I do that the Astros’ time atop the West is about to come to a close, with the Mariners as the sexy new pick to represent the division. In light of that, it would certainly be both easy and safe to say that Houston goes a respectable distance before bowing out of October to one of the hot new AL super teams.

But I’m not doing that.

I understand that the division is more competitive and that the Astros haven’t made any splashes during the offseason other than re-signing Verlander. I get that the calculus certainly gives an edge to teams who have put big, flashy names on their rosters. The “oohs” and “aahs” coming from big cities like Toronto and Anaheim threaten to overshadow the Astros in 2022. But we’ve heard that kind of stuff before. This isn’t to cast shade on the prognosticators. There wouldn’t be anything to write about if not speculation at this point in the season. But I just don’t think that the loss of Correa at the plate or in the locker room is enough to keep the Astros out of the Fall classic and I won’t believe it until I see it.

The one thing pretty much everyone agrees on is that this team has what it takes to get into the tournament at the end of the season. And, really, that’s all the Astros need. I think you put them in the playoffs and Houston has the tools to take them all the way to the final series and bring home another trophy, in spite of what the poindexters have to say. And the best part? If I’m wrong then, after 162 games and 6+ months, no one will remember.

Bold Prediction: Kyle Tucker wins MVP after spending a majority of the season near the top of the lineup.

X-Factor: I actually think the X-Factor will be the Front Office by making a trade at the deadline that pushes Houston over the top.

L4Blitzer

Record: 90-72

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose in ALDS

Analysis: The Astros enter the season as a favorite in the AL, but not THE favorite. That they are among the league leaders in offense and pitching is a testament to the machine built since the early 2010s. Much of the 2021 lineup that led the league in batting average and runs returns. However, there are some questions. Can Yuri Gurriel still be the type of hitter that will lead the league in batting average? Can Altuve recapture the better parts of his hitting at the plate? Can Bregman recapture the form from 2018-19 that had him among the best 3Bs in the game? Also, what of the bottom part of the order? Oh, and there is Jeremy Peña. Only replacing one of the top players in the game and a major force in Houston’s rise to power. No pressure.

As for pitching, this could be the best rotation in the AL, or a massive disappointment. Much will be made of Verlander coming off Tommy John surgery as a 39-year old. Early Spring Training returns portend good things, but what of the grind of the season once it starts? Can Valdez and Garcia pitch like their regular-season selves and get beyond their playoff stumbles? Can McCullers get back to health and Urquidy stay healthy? As for the bullpen (arm pen…eh, whatever), the early returns from Spring Training aren’t all that encouraging, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the relief corps struggle to start 2022 as they did in 2021. If the team is going to make any moves, I am sure a relief pitcher will be among them.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the team is an improving AL. The AL West may still be the Astros to lose, but the Angels and Mariners will be right on their heels and don’t underestimate the Astros’ ability to struggle against teams like Texas or Oakland, who should be among the bottom-feeders, just the type of teams that haunt the Astros. I’ll mark them for 1st in the West, but I don’t know if they will secure a top-two spot. They have been a force in the playoffs, and if they host a Wild Card series, I figure they will get out of that round. Yet, their playoff fortunes take a dip for once, and they can’t quite make it 6 straight appearances in the ALCS. Still, no one, not the survivor from the AL East Battle Royal, nor the Chicago White Sox, will relish seeing the Astros on the playoff docket.

X-Factor: Because of the flexor injury that lingers far longer than expected, the fortunes of Lance McCullers will do much to determine the fate of the team and any mid-season moves. If he can return to health and pitch as he did for much of 2021, the Astros could have 5 starters (Verlander, Valdez, Garcia, McCullers, Urquidy) that no one would want to face in a high stakes regular season/post-season series. If not, then the Astros could be playing pitching Tetris again, only to their detriment.

Bold Prediction: The Astros will work like crazy to stay under the CBT. They did it last year at the trade deadline, upgrading the relief corps without busting the tax line, which they were right up against. They are $35M under as of this writing. There is little to suggest that Crane and the front office will bust that line, regardless of the team’s status.

Theo

Record: 94-68

Standing: First in the AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose in ALCS to Blue Jays

Analysis: It’s hard not to feel a little more pessimistic about this season going in than is realistically warranted. The ending to last season was a little sour. The team lost its best player from 2021 on a deal that still feels fairly beatable. Their ace is still hurt from the injury that took him out of the playoffs. A young division rival made a whole bunch of flashy moves while they stood mostly pat.

But at the same time… this is still a good team, and it’s difficult to totally forget that, no matter everything else. Lance McCullers Jr. might still be hurt, and Brent Strom leaving stings, but if there was a year for both of those things to happen, it was probably this one, when the pitching situation looks deeper than normal. Last year, I said that Carlos Correa could step up for the departing George Springer, and that worked out pretty well, so I’ll try for that magic again and say that a return to MVP form for Alex Bregman would do a lot to offset Carlos’s departure. His rising to that level is also nice because it’s a lot easier to imagine “MVP-form Bregman and Jeremy Pena” replacing the production of “Carlos Correa and hurt Bregman” than a straight Correa-for-Pena swap.

It also helps that the AL West is still pretty confusing overall. The Rangers’ big spending would be a lot more intimidating in 2022 if they hadn’t been the second-worst team in the AL last year. Consistent thorn-in-the-side Oakland, meanwhile, has just preemptively given up on the season. That really leaves the Angels and Mariners as the biggest threats, and I have learned not to trust the Angels and their overwhelmingly top-heavy rosters. The Mariners stand as an interesting contrast, with their young and upcoming team, but they are still coming off of a season in which they were outscored overall. I think they’ll continue to improve going forward, and they’re probably again the biggest divisional threat this year, but at the moment, I think 2023 will be the tougher divisional race.

X-Factor: LMJ. Starting the year with an injury is scary, especially from last year’s #1 starter and doubly so when it’s because of admitted setbacks in his recovery. When will he return? Where will he be when he returns? Really, any outcome from “shortened Cy Young campaign” to “misses the rest of the season” wouldn’t shock me, and it’s going to have a big effect on the team even if everything else is running smoothly. Pitcher health is terrifying.

Bold Prediction: Justin Verlander basically picks up where he left off back in 2019, with an All-Star-level campaign that even draws a few Cy Young votes.

Spencer

Record: 90-72

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose to Toronto in ALCS

Analysis: The Astros aren’t as good this year as they were during their World Series runs. I don’t think that can really be argued. However, the teams in the AL that have made the biggest adds have a lot of ground to make up on Houston- their primary competition over the last few seasons hasn’t been the big offseason winners, and for that reason, I still feel that the Astros can be placed in the “contender” group for 2022.

The rotation, even down a man in the form of Lance McCullers, looks more than competitive, and they even have a great next man up in Cristian Javier in case they run into another injury before Lance is back. It’d be a bit much to expect Justin Verlander to pitch at his peak, but his velo is there and he’s looked very solid on the whole in spring, so I think we can safely expect some significant contributions from him. Valdez and Garcia, as good as they were in ‘21, still have a bit of room to develop, and it’s possible we haven’t seen either of them at their best just yet. I’m also very intrigued by Jose Urquidy’s addition of a cutter this offseason- I think that pitch can fit beautifully with the rest of his profile. You may not have household names top to bottom, but I think the staff can go toe to toe with the league’s best if they stay on the field.

On offense, they’re missing Carlos Correa. That obviously hurts, but the Jeremy Pena hype is well-founded. Going back to his days at the University of Maine, JP3 has been an ace defender, and even after adding 25+ pounds to his frame between draft day and today, that’s still very much the case. There’s also real offensive upside, which we’ve gotten a taste of in ST, but it will probably take a bit of time for all the elements of his game in the batters’ box to coalesce. Fans will need to be a bit patient as he finds his groove with his big league approach, but I think they’ll be rewarded if they do. I think he can be worth 2-3 wins as a rookie with an outside shot for more. Some might say that CF is a potential problem spot for them, but Meyers and McCormick both had wRC+s over 100 in 2021, and field the position more than adequately.

The offseason was perhaps a bit quieter than some fans hoped, but that does leave the team with significant maneuverability at the deadline, and it’s probably best that they wait and see what needs arise. As things stand now, the rotation, middle relief/setup or potentially CF could all need midseason reinforcement depending on how things go. They don’t have a ton of trade capital, but the ability to take on some salary should make dealing easier for Click and co. over the summer. If they’re willing to use the space they have remaining under the cap, they should be a formidable club into October. I still think they have a real shot to bring another one home this year, but if I’m being honest with myself I have to say that I think Toronto’s club is a bit better.

Bold Prediction: Jose Urquidy posts a career low ERA and a career high IP in the same season.

X-Factor: I’m not sure there’s an answer I can give other than Jeremy Pena. I expect him to succeed, but I think he may have a bit of an offensive adjustment period. If he can find his groove by summer, the Astros should still look plenty scary.

Exile in St. Louis

Record: 96-66

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Win the WS

Analysis I bet high last year, the highest of anyone, and was still low. People forget how bad the bullpen was, how many awful blown saves. Joe Smith threw 21 bad bullpen innings, Abreu threw 23, Yimi was bad until the playoffs, and even Andrew Scrubb threw 11 dumpster fire innings.

Relievers are volatile, but a back 4 of Maton, Stanek, Neris, and Pressly is very good. I think some combination of Abreu, Paredes, and Blanco ends up providing some high leverage, lockdown performances. And Bielak/Javier is effective in long relief. I’m bullish on the bullpen.

The rotation is the class of the division and maybe 2nd only to CWS in the AL. I just like our guys.

Our lineup’s top 6 is the best in the AL. The bottom 3 is a huge question. Still, we’ll score a lot of runs. The team played with a huge target on its back last season. It has JV back, plus a likely bounce back from Jake O.

X-Factor: Chas McCormack. Can he make enough contact to justify playing him in CF? Can he hit enough to provide protection for Yuli/Brantley and take the pressure off Pena? Can he give Meyers time to come back at 100%? And if these happen, can he or Meyers then be a trade chip, like Straw last year, to get a valuable BP piece given how thin our farm is?

Dan Martin

Record: 92-70

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose in ALCS

Analysis: Despite the loss of Carlos Correa, I still believe the division goes through Houston in 2022. At the very least, Jeremy Peña figures to provide above-average to plus defense at shortstop, so he should be a competent regular even as a rookie, his questionable on-base skills notwithstanding.

Aside from shortstop and, to a slightly lesser extent, center field, the rest of the roster is formidable. It remains well-rounded and flush with star power.

Alex Bregman had wrist surgery early in the offseason and could be 100 percent physically for the first time in what seems like a while. Justin Verlander is still pumping heat despite missing the last two years, not to mention being 39 and having a ton of miles on his arm (almost 3,100 career innings, playoffs included).

The starting rotation has quality at the top and depth throughout, even accounting for the absence of Lance McCullers Jr., who looks like a budding ace. Ideally, he returns no later than August or September from his arm injury so he can get a handful of starts under his belt before the beginning of the postseason, which the Astros should reach in some capacity, considering there’s an extra spot up for grabs.

From my perspective, the rest of the AL West doesn’t pose a significant threat to the Astros. The A’s have obviously removed themselves from the equation by gutting their roster, and though the Rangers have foundational pillars in place after signing Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray, I think they lack talent as a whole and would be surprised if they sniffed .500.

The Mariners and the Angels appear to be preseason playoff contenders, but the former has a fairly unreliable lineup on paper while the latter’s hopes are hinged on the health of their best players — Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Noah Syndergaard and Patrick Sandoval, all of whom have durability concerns. On talent alone, the Angels are a playoff team — Trout, Brandon Marsh and Jo Adell is some outfield — but my view of them over the last few years has not changed: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Bold Prediction: Ryan Pressly will not allow a home run this season.

Though the increased exit velos from 2020 carried over to 2021, including a Barrel rate that crept up to 6.4 percent (which was still 71st percentile), Pressly posted an elite 2.6 percent Blast rate and a 55.8 percent ground ball rate in 2021, the latter marking a career-high.

He only gave up 4 bombs last season in 64 innings, so this isn’t a super-bold prediction like it may seem.

Eric Huysman

Record: 94-68

Standing: First in AL West

Playoff Outcome: Lose in ALCS to Blue Jays in Game 7 on Walkoff homer by Springer

Analysis: Yes, Carlos Correa is gone, and we have a new shortstop in town named Jeremy Pena. Are the Astros looking for Pena to replace Correa’s 7.2 WAR from last year? No, but he showed some positive signs with two homers Sunday and finished with a 1.081 OPS. If Alex Bregman can regain some of the power he lost over the last two seasons dealing with injuries, it would lessen the blow to the lineup. Robert Flores was on the Locked On Astros podcast and he thinks that Bregman and Lance McCullers could be the keys to the 2022 season.

Bregman played in only 91 games last year and hit .270 with 12 homers and a .777 OPS. In the playoffs, he played with an injury that caused him to not be able to grip the bat right, so he is looking to rebound in 2022. It appears that Dusty Baker may bat him third in the lineup, so he must regain so of his former glory. But the rise of Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will help shoulder the load if he struggles again. After hitting 7th a lot last season, it appears that Tucker may be moving up to hit 2nd behind Altuve. With the exception of Correa and the injured Jake Meyers, the majority of the lineup returns to wreak havoc in the league.

The rotation is one of the deepest in baseball, even without McCullers healthy to start the season. It’s funny how people wanted to trade Jake Odorizzi, but this is why you never get rid of your rotation depth. On that note, Odorizzi struggled last year because he signed late and didn’t have a full spring training. Am I the only one surprised that he’s only thrown 2 innings this spring?

The bullpen could be the Astros strength or weakness, depending on the success of Ronnel Blanco and Bryan Abreu to start the season. But then again, I believe that it’s going to be a revolving door in the bullpen with starters not stretched out as much as they would be in a regular spring.

The Astros are still the cream of the crop, but the Mariners could challenge them. Their record last year was skewed a little last year by their good luck in one-run games and having a negative run differential. The Oakland A’s have traded almost everyone and the Rangers added players, but I still don’t see them ready to compete for the West. A healthy Mike Trout could determine the Angels' fate.

X-Factor: Alex Bregman, as mentioned above has to find a median between his 2019 and 2021 versions for this team to be successful. He is an intimate competitor, as we discussed on last night’s podcast, he’s ready to prove all the haters wrong.

Bold Prediction: Pedro Leon will be up and patrolling centerfield by mid-June and make a late run for rookie of the year. This rookie class is too strong though.