Poof! The World Series has now concluded and the 2023 season has come to a close. A long winter is now ahead of us. On the one hand, I am grateful for the break, considering how the conclusion unfolded. This team was a rough watch at times. On the other hand, though, it won’t be that long before I start to crave having baseball back in my daily life. Once your drawn into this silly sport, it really holds on to you like hardly anything else in life. Well, the trivial matters in life.
Honestly, it felt like the 2023 season was a weird one overall, at least from my point of view. Presumptive contenders were out of the race by July and August, with multiple teams not given much of a chance before the season in a contending position. While the Astros were indeed contenders this year, it always felt like something was missing. I mean, pitching depth was a problem, with injuries creating an early strain on the rotation and subsequently the bullpen. Regression was arguably a bigger issue, however, with Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier each having summers to forget. The lineup was without Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez for multiple weeks at a time, occasionally overlapping with one another. Yainer Díaz was kept on the bench for far too long in the regular season and postseason. Chas McCormick and banana pudding became a thing. Winning at Minute Maid Park became an increasingly uncommon occurrence, especially when it mattered most.
For 2024, the Astros will have to address a variety issues, namely who will be managing the club and how to address the possible departures of multiple free agents, primarily from the bullpen. Personally, I would like Joe Espada finally get his chance to manage this club. While him being interviewed numerous times and not getting a manager position somewhere else is a bit eyebrow raising, Espada has earned his shot to manage a big league club. If not Espada, then I’d like to see Craig Counsell in Houston, although I have reservations about him actually joining the Astros considering the number of other positions open across the league. Well, namely the Mets, for the obvious connection with David Stearns from their time together in Milwaukee. Jeff Bagwell’s influence with Jim Crane may determine how much of a candidate Brad Ausmus is for the position.
In terms of position of need, the bullpen has to take the highest priority. Sure, the outfield could arguably use another bat while backup catcher is another position to watch. But adding another reliever or two feels more imperative when examining the roster. While Héctor Neris was essentially Houdini for most of the season, there were indicators pointing to him being fairly lucky. With Rafael Montero’s contract still fresh on everyone’s mind, I don’t think the wise choice is to tie up another $10-plus million in annual salary to an aging reliever again. If anything else, Phil Maton, who was generally a solid option in a variety of situations before his arm was overused by June, is probably more likely to return if the contract demands aren’t too high. I wouldn’t even discount the possibility of Ryne Stanek returning as a depth piece in the bullpen. There are a variety of names available in free agency and with the Astros already pushing up against the first tax threshold of $237 million, I think Dana Brown will try to find a relative bargain with some upside.
More importantly than adding any new players, the Astros may need to address why some of the regression was more pronounced than expected among members of its pitching staff. Namely, Valdez, Javier, and, to some degree, Justin Verlander. While Verlander’s age is probably starting to win the battle with his velocity, the struggles of Valdez and Javier were a bit unexpected. For the former, his splits before and after the All-Star Game were telling.
Pre All-Star Game
111 IP, 26.2% K%, 5.9% BB%, 2.51 ERA, 2.80 FIP
Post All-Star Game
87 IP, 23% K%, 8.5% BB%, 4.66 ERA, 4.39 FIP
Whether due to the injuries he suffered or something else, it was clear that Valdez wasn’t himself to finish out the season, including his starts in the postseason. His Game 2 start against the Rangers in the ALCS, in particular, stands out as a what-if moment for their season.
For Javier, it became clear fairly early in the season that his fastball velocity was a bit lower than last season. His mechanics were not fine, as his release point and the deception involved greatly impacts the performance of fastball, including velocity. But, for a time, the adjusted mechanics and lessened velocity didn’t impact the results too much, as evidenced by his 2.59 ERA through June 15 (80 2⁄3 innings). There were warning signs, however, as he posted a 3.56 FIP and 4.59 xFIP in those same 80 2⁄3 innings. But his eventual struggles were far worse than what even his peripherals suggested in the middle of June, as he finished the season with a 5.77 ERA, 5.37 FIP, and a 5.77 xFIP. Strikeouts were noticeably down with walks inching higher. Sure, there were indications that his stuff was starting to bounce back at the close of the season with decent results in the postseason. Well, until his disastrous start in Game 7 against the Rangers.
For the Astros to contend for another title next season, they have some fine tuning to accomplish, regardless of the ultimate selection for manager. The bullpen needs some attention as some turnover takes place. Like I mentioned before, I think another outfielder could help matters. Backup catcher, of course. But the real test comes with internal improvement, especially in the starting rotation. Valdez and Javier, for example, will ultimately help determine this club’s ceiling. Verlander, too. How does Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis García bounce back from injuries. What about J.P. France and Hunter Brown’s progression as major league pitchers? There is a lot to still like about this team in 2024, but there is work to be done.