With the regular season but days and hours away, the Houston Astros appear well set to defend their championship crown. Even accounting for some recent injuries and off-season losses, most experts peg them as a money favorite to do what no team has done in over two decades: repeat as World Series Champions.
However, championships are not won in Spring Training. The contender of March can easily turn into the also-ran of October. What could derail the juggernaut that is Houston? Quite a few things actually. Here are just a few:
Injuries: The 2022 team did not sail through the regular season unscathed. Far from it. Key components like Michael Brantley, Lance McCullers, Justin Verlander, Jose Altuve, Jeremy Peña, Ryan Pressly and Yordan Alvarez missed significant time due to injuries. Still, the team possessed such depth that they could weather those losses. By the time of the post-season, the squad was perhaps the healthiest it had been injury-wise it had been all season. It didn’t hurt that the team blitzed through the early rounds of the playoffs, reducing the chance for injury and/or loss.
However, the timing and impact of injuries can be a fickle thing. The Astros did not escape the 2023 Spring Training injury-free. McCullers and Alvarez both went out in the first week. Unfortunately, the nature of those injuries (McCuller’s forearm and Alvarez’s hand) will keep Astros fans up at night. McCullers is as injury-prone a pitcher as any on the roster. Alvarez’s hand injury is a holdover from last season, and to date, the cause is unknown. Both players play significant roles on this squad. The starting rotation’s reputation is based on the linchpin assumption that McCullers will be healthy and pitching to his capabilities. Alvarez is perhaps the most dangerous bat in the Astros’ lineup. The lost of those two players for a significant time will diminish Houston’s title hopes.
Throw in the loss of Altuve from the broken thumb from the WBC and Astros fans could easily slip into dread. While the Astros should still have quality in the battling line up sans Altuve for the first part of the season, a player of his caliber is not simply replaced. Additionally, the team must wait for the debut of Brantley’s critical bat. Titles aren’t won in April and May, but seasons can be lost in that time frame (reference the 2016 Astros). The Astros will need good health from the squad to weather the early season setbacks.
Will the Instability of the Front Office in the Off-Season Hurt the Team?: It is hard to find an example in pro-sports where a team wins a championship and immediately sacks a key architect. The loss of Click was not completely surprising, based on reporting in the final part of the season, but still, not exactly a by-the-book move for a contender. While Houston did not come into the off-season with a lot of needs, they were relatively quiet on the free-agency front. The signing of Jose Abreu seemed to solve the weakness of the 1B bat. Yet, that constituted the sole “big” move by the Astros.
Otherwise, Houston made few moves outside of retaining some free agents and lower-end signings. They missed out on Contreras, a player they nearly traded for last season, seemingly leaving the catcher spot a weakness in the batting order. While the team lived on a strong 6-man rotation, letting a player the caliber of Verlander go was a gamble, however calculated. The farm system outperformed expectations the past few seasons, but it is hardly teaming with quality MLB-ready talent. The squad mostly stayed pat, which is a testament to the strength of the lineup. However, standing still is not always the path to consistent success.
The team now has its GM position set with Dana Brown. Coming from Atlanta, he should bring a reputation for offering team-friendly contract extensions and talent development. The front office should be well-positioned to handle any trade deadline matters. Yet, with the injury concern noted earlier, as well as the dangers of just standing pat while others make those improvements to catchup, will that led to some knee-jerk reactions in-season to solve issues that the off-season should have taken care of?
A More Competitive AL West…and This Time, It Actually Happens: Since the 2017 season, the Astros are the de facto owners of the AL West. Houston claims the full-length season division crowns for five straight years. The average margin the Astros finished ahead of the 2nd place team in those years: 11.3 games. That enabled Houston to start posturing for the post-season sooner, clearly made a positive impact (see the six straight ALCS berths).
As for the rest of the division, it has been a combination of tough-but-not-quite there squads (Oakland), a team with a lot of top end talent, but with zero depth/full roster quality (Los Angeles), a squad rebuilding but perhaps finally on the edge of real competition (Seattle) and whatever you call the actions of the Rangers. Oakland did take the 2020 division title, but still finished second-best to Houston in the ALDS. There is a sense that people outside of Houston are ready for someone else to win it. Yet, until otherwise noted, Houston lives in the top slot.
Could it finally change this season? LAA did start last season 27-17 and looked like they would finally play to their potential to keep up with Houston. That, uh, didn’t last.
Seattle got off to a poor start last year, but finished the season playing some of the best ball in the majors. While history shows they were swept by Houston in the ALDS, all three games were there for Seattle’s taking. Both of those squads looked to have improved for the 2023 season. Even the Rangers look like they might actually field a dangerous squad. All still have to get through Houston, but if any combination of those squads can play the best version of ball, Houston may have an actual dogfight to keep the division crown.
Circumstance, Luck, Je Ne Sais Quoi: It is said that luck is with those who don’t need it. Houston, with all of its talent, can make its own luck (pause for lame trash can jokes from non-Astros fans). That being said, sometimes, talent alone isn’t enough. Things have to go a team’s way. Fortune is fickle, and the foul ball of yesteryear is the home run of today and vice-versa. The MLB post-season is the ultimate laboratory for the whims of chance. Does the best team with the best record always survive? The Dodgers would like a word, as would the 2019 Astros. Maybe Houston is finally due for a playoff derp. Even the dominant New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves and other top-tier dynastic/dominant baseball squads suffered the inexplicable playoff derp from time to time. It wouldn’t be out of character for the Astros to get theirs in 2023.
Also, other things can and will happen throughout the course of a year. Top players could suddenly lose the ability to hit the ball, even if mechanics/metrics remain the absolute same. A sporting “Black Swan” could irrevocably upend a contender. An also-ran could have the season of seasons, derailing the expected order of the season. Or, a team could play, and it just doesn’t work out for a season. The Astros, strong as they are, do not have immunity to the fickleness of fate.
This does not mean that Astros fans should enter the season with existential dread. The season is long, and the team’s position as front runners is well-earned. It is just that for all the ways this team could be the first since 2000 to repeat, there are plenty of legitimate reasons that this squad will be the 23rd straight team to not repeat as World Series champions. Maybe Houston wins another, but maybe they don’t. Thus the agony and ecstasy of baseball.