Sorry haters. The Astros are officially a dynasty after winning their second World Series in six years, going to their fourth during that time, and appearing in the ALCS all six years.
The question before us now is, how long can this string of excellence last? Is 2023 the year the Astros’ inevitable decline begins, or is there more glory ahead in the Astros' future?
Of course, there are changes ahead in 2023. Cy Young winner Justin Verlander is out. But in the field, the Astros replace weak-hitting first baseman Yuli Gurriel with one of baseball’s best, Jose Abreu.
The Astros were blessed by relatively few injuries in 2022. But in 2023, it already appears that if anything derails the 2023 season, it could be injuries. Jose Altuve broke his thumb at the WBC and could easily be out until mid-June. Re-signed Michael Brantley, who missed the second half of last season with a shoulder injury and missed Spring Training for reasons not fully explained. Lance McCullers likewise missed Spring Training with his annual arm troubles. And most troubling to me, Yordan Alvarez arrived at camp after three months of rest with his chronic sore hand. He did participate in the last week of Grapefruit League action, but how long before the hand acts up again?
For the first ten weeks of the season, the Astros will rely on David Hensley and Mauricio Dubon to pick up as much of the slack left behind by Altuve as possible. Dubon is the better player defensively, but we hope that Hensley's offensive flashes last year were no mirage. Let’s hope Hensley is the surprise next-man-up that the Astros seem to find every year.
Fangraphs projected that the Astros’ starting rotation will produce 8 fewer WAR in 2023 due to the loss of Verlander and regression. Perhaps they underestimate the remaining arms. I expect Cristian Javier and Luis Garcia to buck that negative trend.
Furthermore, the Astros will rely on rookie Hunter Brown to replace some of the production of Verlander. In a small sample last year, he looked All-Star. Can he stand the stress of a whole season and adapt to the league as the league adapts to him?
The Astros are bound to have some World Series hangover and face much tougher competition in the West. You must be a super optimist to expect the Astros to repeat as World Series champions or win 106 games. But the projections for the Astros look very similar to those of the last two years, and the Astros made the World Series both years. Let’s look at those projections.
It seems like it’s an annual ritual. ZiPS projects the Astros to win the AL West with 90 wins this season, with the Mariners and Angels five games back. They have the Rangers 11 games back. ZiPS gives the Astros the best chance in the AL to win the World Series with a 9.1%. Only the Braves and Mets have better odds.
PECOTA is more generous to the Astros in terms of wins, although they are more generous to the top-tier teams in general. PECOTA has the Astros winning 93.8 games, almost eight games ahead of second place Los Angeles. They project the Astros’ World Series chances at 12.3%, second in the AL to the Yankees.
Projected record: 92-70
Projected Standing in AL West: 1st
X Factor: Ronel Blanco will be the next Astros Latin American arm to come from obscurity to achieve unexpected success in the majors
Standing: First in AL West
Playoff Outcome: Lose in ALCS to Blue Jays
Analysis: Not having Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley to start the season leaves the lineup feeling a bit thinner, at least for the first couple of weeks until the latter’s debut. The addition of José Abreu will help the offense from falling off too much in the short term. Personally, I think David Hensley’s offensive profile will somewhat mask Altuve’s absence, especially if contained to only an eight-to-ten-week period. Even Mauricio Dubón is due for some regression — in a good way! — at the plate considering his career-low strikeout rate (11.3%) coincided with a career-low BABIP (.221). Still, the lineup will probably have its fair share of suboptimal moments until our favorite second baseman returns. However, the pressure is higher for the rest of the lineup to produce early on. But for what it is worth, based on FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections, the Astros are still sixth in forecasted offensive value, even when accounting for Altuve’s absence.
On the pitching side of the equation, there is still plenty to like about this staff, even with Justin Verlander now in Queens, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the organization inquired about external reinforcements by the trade deadline. At its best, the rotation is arguably six to seven pitchers deep. Unfortunately, not having Lance McCullers Jr. is becoming a recurring trend, but the goal with him remains keeping him healthy until the season’s second half and hopefully the postseason. Framber Valdez is the de facto ace, but Cristian Javier has the highest ceiling of any starter on the roster. Luis Garcia and José Urquidy provide some valuable stability in the middle of the rotation with Hunter Brown in the mix.
The vaunted bullpen from last season returns relatively intact, with multiple options for high-leverage situations. I am curious to see if Rafael Montero continues his resurgence, but there were instances later in the season into the postseason when he was hit particularly hard, even if the results were still outs. Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu form an intimidating one-two punch on the backend, with Ryne Stanek and Héctor Neris on standby for a variety of situations. The specter of Phil Maton’s 2021 postseason form still lingers, but this feels like his last opportunity in Houston to overcome his maddening inconsistency. Also, keep an eye on Ronel Blanco, who is currently being stretched out as a starter. If deemed necessary, he could fulfill the role of a multi-inning option in relief similar to the one initially designed for Javier in 2021.
One thing to watch, especially for the groundball-oriented pitchers: The long-term effect of the new restrictions on the infield shift. I think the overall effect will be more muted than originally anticipated, but this is a staff that has had an above-average defense behind them, including a heavy reliance on the shift, in recent years.
Bold Prediction: Acquiring a center fielder. Last year, I predicted that the Astros would acquire a veteran shortstop or center fielder to help shore up those positions in case the internal options didn’t pan out. Ultimately, I was gladly wrong as Peña and Chas McCormick more than held their own in 2022. That said, I still don’t think Houston is entirely sold on McCormick or Jake Meyers as full-time starters in the outfield. With Dana Brown now in charge of the front office, I wonder if a change is possible, especially if McCormick’s and Meyers’ experience prolonged slumps at the plate. And, yes, I am not entirely sold on Pedro Leon being the answer internally.
X-Factor: Jeremy Peña. For as weird as it is to list the reigning ALCS and World Series MVP as the x-factor, it is worth noting that Jose Altuve’s and Michael Brantley’s absences will likely force Dusty Baker to insert Peña higher than usual in the batting order to start the season, possibly as leadoff as he did on Sunday against the Cardinals. If the improvement at the plate from his leg kick adjustment carries over into this year, I am willing to sacrifice a bit of on-base stability atop of the lineup, at least temporarily considering the power that the young shortstop brings to the table.
But Peña’s on-base skills do require some work as a .289 OBP in 2022 won’t cut it atop the lineup in the long term, especially from a club that had a combined .399 OBP from their leadoff hitter. Some may point to the club’s 49-7 record when Peña was hitting second last year as some definitive proof, but the reality is that this record was much more likely a coincidence than anything else. While it's true that Peña performed quite well hitting second last season — .290/.315/.522 in 219 plate appearances — there isn’t enough of a sample size to make any meaningful determination that he definitively performs better at the plate when positioned that high in the order. To be honest, the .289 OBP within a larger sample is more meaningful than the .315 OBP in a smaller sample at this point.
Regardless of where Peña hitters in the order, he will need to show continued improvement in hitting certain types of pitches in 2023, specifically breaking and offspeed pitches. Sliders, in particular, were a particular nuisance for most of the season until his leg kick adjustment in September. If he can continue this trend, then I feel good about his offensive potential considering the in-game power he has already shown. But a slump to open the season will only exacerbate an increasingly thin lineup.
Projected Division Standing: 1st
Season Ends: Loss in ALDS
Even before Spring Training, I just didn’t see the Astros matching the dominance from last season. The team does start at a disadvantage with two key bats in the line-up (Altuve, Brantley) not available to start the season and another (Alvarez) whose hand will be the most watched since Thanos slipped on the glove with all the Infinity Stones. Throw in a key starter (McCullers) who is also not available to start the season on the heels of losing a Cy Young winner (Verlander), and the team's margin is very small. A bad start can be hard to overcome (2016 Astros, please pick up the courtesy phone in the lobby; 2016 Astros…). It is not impossible that Houston will start its fourth straight season 7-9. Hadn’t hurt them that much the previous three, but with injury concerns and a theoretically much stronger AL West, a repeat of a 106-season is probably a bit much to ask.
A return to the playoffs is very likely, even if a top-2 seed is not a given. Until otherwise noted, I’ll put the Astros down for another AL West crown. On the one hand, penning in the Astros for the ALCS seems a smart move, as they’ve been there the last six. Still, this team seems due for a playoff trip up. I don’t know if it will come at the hands of Seattle or some unnamed AL East squad, but winning its seventh straight ALDS is not a certainty. That does not mean the Astros will be a bad team or that its championship window is about to close, but sometimes, things happen. Hopefully, they can repeat what no one has done in 23 years, but they are just as likely to be the 13th straight World Series champion not to get back to the Fall Classic.
X-Factor: McCullers. Wash, rinse, repeat. Yes, I had McCullers as the X-factor last season. The team only got a half-season out of him in 2022, and they managed to do well. However, there is no Verlander this year, and the squad is putting A LOT on the arm of Hunter Brown and other younger pitchers to cover down while McCullers is out. The 6-man rotation, mainly put in place to cover for Verlander’s Tommy John surgery recovery, proved quite beneficial to the rest of the rotation. Valdez, Christian Javier and Luis Garcia (when he did pitch in the post-season) did not have the worn-down arms that they did in 2021. Plus, the bullpen went into the 2022 playoffs with the fewest innings pitched, which proved vital to Houston’s pitching dominance in the post-season.
If McCullers is out for an extended time, that puts that much more pressure on the rotation and will ask more from the bullpen, even one as strong as Houston’s. That is a lot to ask for some young arms, especially if they have to pitch a lot of innings coming into the playoffs. Given that Houston does not have the most loaded of farm systems, a mid-season deal for a quality starter appears unlikely should McCullers continue to be absent and/or multiple pitchers struggle.
Bold Prediction: The Team Will Not Go Over the First Tier of the Luxury Tax…Again: Why change what ain’t broke? While the Astros improved its revenue and franchise value (again), Crane is not keen on paying the luxury tax. They’ve stayed out of the penalties for two straight seasons and done quite well. The team is still $26M under the CBT line at the time of this writing. Unless the team is under .500 deep into June and struggling to stay in Wild Card position, then maybe Crane and Dana Brown have to spend to get out of danger. Even then, it would be a desperate team to go over that first tier. They’ll work some contract extensions as able, but probably not at the expense of the 2023 tax bill unless they have no choice.
Projected Record: 96-66
Division Standing: 1st
Season Ends: World Series Loss (Padres)
Given the injuries out of the gate, I suspect the April-May months will begin a little rockier than we would like. But the Astros will take control of the division after mid-year. However, clinching the division will be more suspenseful until the Astros finally increase their lead in mid-September. Seattle will give the Astros a run for the money, as the Mariners tally a 92-win record. The Rangers will be on the Mariners’ heels and end up with an 88-win season. I always predict that the Angels will be better than they turn out. I’m not falling for that this season. Anaheim and Oakland will be battling for the basement.
I think there will be some regression on the starting pitching staff. Valdez will have a fine workmanlike season, but not as good as last year. Javier will be the rock of the rotation and comes into his own. It’s possible that regression and injury will cause the Astros to hunt for another starting pitcher at the deadline. I also predict that both Lee and Diaz will make solid contributions to the catcher situation.
X-Factor: The Astros will get some additional offensive help from their young players after at least a month or two into the season. The most likely candidate is Justin Dirden. Other possibilities are Cory Julks or Will Wagner.
Exile in St. Louis
Projected Record: 93-69
Division Standing: 1st place
Season Ends: Another WS ring
Last season I had the highest win prediction, and I was light. This season I’m going low. The Astros are a juggernaut, but there are a lot of injuries out of the gate: Brantley, Altuve, McCullers, and possibly Alvarez. That’s a lot of firepower and the Astros lack a bench bat with explosive capabilities.
Still, the top 4 of rotation look great in ST so far. They keep us in games. The team will struggle to score unless someone in the bottom third of the lineup turns into a difficult out. There’s a high chance Dusty bats Pena 1 or 2, despite only getting on base 29% of the time last season. And prepare for Dubon to hit leadoff 20+ times. All this leads me to think this season will be streaky. A bad month here or there, some uninspired ball, and we aren’t done with injuries. Still, this team is a killer in the playoffs, and they broke the NL East curse last year so nothing’s stopping it.
X-Factor: Hunter Brown. Can he step in and give reliable, even elite turns as a starter? Can he potentially rise to a #3 pitcher who makes playoff starts? Everything is lined up for Hunter, but I’m worried a wobbly April gets him sent down.
Bold Prediction: The Astros trade a semi-regular or valuable team member at the trade deadline. They may trade the weaker end of the Chas/Jake duo, or perhaps someone like Hector Neris or Ryan Stanek at the deadline. Despite the gaudy ERA last season, we saw how Stanek got dropped from high-leverage spots in the 2022 postseason. Why not trade him or Neris if it looks like Seth Martinez or Blanco can reduplicate? Similar to Chas or Jake. Dana Brown won’t like giving up those guys, but with a light farm system, they will trade a ML
Projected Record: 96-66
Division Standing: 1st place
Season Ends: World Series Win over the Padres
There are so many causes for concern going into the 2023 season, from Justin Verlander’s departure to Jose Altuve’s unfortunate injury in the World Baseball Classic. But at the same time... it’s hard to be too pessimistic about anything coming directly off a World Series win. It also helps that on top of the championship, this was a 106-win team that won its division, so there’s room to fall off a little while still being in a strong position.
Another mitigating factor is that there are some things around the edges to help offset those losses a little. More innings from LMJ and a strong rookie season from Hunter Brown should cut into Verlander’s departure a little, and José Abreu taking over first base and turning a negative into a positive helps ease the temporary loss of Altuve.
Ultimately, it’s a worse team than 2022, but still probably good enough to win the division. The A’s are still preemptively waving the white flag, and the Rangers and Angels look better on paper, but I’ve been burned saying that so many times before that I’m going to wait before believing in them. The Mariners are looking increasingly threatening, and coming off a postseason where they posed the biggest challenge to the champs of any opponent they faced, I imagine they’ll only become more threatening. I believe the Astros can hold them off for one more year, though. And if they make the playoffs... you know, anything can happen, so why not predict a repeat?
X-Factor: Jeremy Peña. This is the weakest the offense has looked in a while, and if Peña can resist a sophomore slump (or even improve his game), it would do a lot to ease concerns on that front.
Bold Prediction: Kyle Tucker takes another step forward and ends up getting the most MVP votes of anyone on the team. I don’t really have any reason here beyond a general gut feeling, but then again, that was all I was going off of last year when I said “Justin Verlander picks up where he left off”, and that worked out pretty well!
Projected Record: 102-60
Division Standing: First Place
Season Ends: Houston Defeats the Yankees, the Twins, and the Braves to take home another trophy.
I know my win total is a little high, but I’m always an optimist when it comes to predicting results. That’s why I don’t put money on these things.
So we lost Justin Verlander. Make no mistake, that’s not great news for the bottom line, but I think that the remaining roster options can make up for the loss. Despite the latest setback to Lance McCullers Jr.’s availability, a starting five of Valdez, Javier, Garcia, Urquidy, and Brown is certainly a group that can win a lot more than they lose.
Martín Maldonado is going to enjoy a serious bounce-back year. What we didn’t know at the time when he was hitting .186 with a career-high 15 home runs (and getting nominated for the AL Silver Slugger Award at catcher, btw) is that he was hitting through a broken hand and a sports hernia. Now healed and in notably better shape, I expect his batting average to rebound to somewhere in the .230 neighborhood with 20ish moon shots. I know I’m a homer, don’t @ me.
Javier wins the Cy Young Award. The pieces are all there, just look at his basic and his advanced stats. He’s only going to get better. His xBA, K%, curve spin, and xLG all grade out in the top eight percent of major league pitchers. In addition, and as I’ve said before, his 194 K’s and his 89 hits allowed results in a 2.18 K/H. That’s just stupid and the third-best such metric in recorded baseball history, by my reckoning. The question shouldn’t be “Is it possible?” but “How many?”
Standing: First in AL West
Playoff Outcome: Lose to Braves in World Series
Analysis: The Astros have lost yet another star player in free agency, but even with Justin Verlander gone, it’s difficult to envision another team in the American League besting the Astros in a playoff series, provided they avoid the dodgy Wild Card round and win the AL West, which they’re expected to.
Though José Altuve will miss the first several weeks of the 2023 season, it shouldn’t be a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. The lineup, which will also be without Michael Brantley until sometime in April, still projects to be fairly productive. Even if the offense isn’t terribly robust in the interim, an exceptionally deep pitching staff is there to carry the load, should that be necessary. And once Brantley and Altuve return, this Astros roster at full strength is as well-rounded as any.
Verlander missed virtually all of 2020, so 2023 won’t be the first time they’ve been without his stabling presence and dependability atop the rotation. That said, this will be the first time the Astros are without Verlander for a full season since 2017, when he was acquired midseason. The collection of starting pitching is still good and deep without him, but there might be a degree of vulnerability that hasn’t been there in recent years.
Jeremy Peña isn’t the Astros’ best player but his progression in year two may be the club’s most important storyline in 2023. Defensively, it goes without saying that he’s a special talent. However, questions are still surrounding the bat, even after his incredible performance in last year’s playoffs. The power is real, and the hit tool appears to be adequate. What could ultimately determine if he improves upon his rookie year is if he develops a more disciplined approach at the plate. He was too aggressive last season, and if that continues to be the case, he’ll at least need to make more contact, which is easier said than done.
It’s pretty imperative that he not hit a wall, as so many young players have in their sophomore year.
X-Factor/Bold Prediction: Forrest Whitley hit 96 multiple times during his March 28 outing. Despite the constant injuries, reports about his stuff over the years remained glowing. It seems he still mostly has the sharp repertoire that he possessed when he was widely considered baseball’s best pitching prospect. This is as big an ‘if’ as there is, but if he stays healthy this year, I think he’d make a substantial impact. Even after everything, the arm talent is still there.
Projected Division Standing: 1st
Season Ends: ALCS loss to Blue Jays
After winning the World Series in 2022, the Astros are an almost identical team in 2023 with a few significant tweaks, though, such as José Abreu at first base instead of Yuli Gurriel and the rotation being without Justin Verlander. They’re still the best all-around team in the AL West.
Even though there are some things that concern me, I truly believe that the Astros can go on and have an outstanding season that takes them to the postseason once again for the seventh year in a row. However, the Astros will have to keep an eye on their rotation’s stamina and health, plus how they will perform without Michael Brantley and José Altuve to start the season.
A great beginning will be a key point for them this year, as they’re playing without two huge contributors. They'll be okay if they can be in a good position when Brantley and Altuve make their debut.
Again, I don’t see a better all-around team than the Astros right now, despite the fact that some of them are better in certain areas. I know the Astros’ rotation is not the best of the American League anymore, as the Yankees, the Mariners, the Rangers are there too. But they’re still competitive and pretty good. I believe that the only AL team that could take the Astros down in the postseason is the Toronto Blue Jays. If they get to the World Series, everything can happen, but I don’t think the Astros can repeat their title as things are of now – since the Yankees won the World Series three consecutive times between 1998 and 2000, no team has taken the trophy home in back-to-back years.
You should read again the “as of now” part. If the Astros acquire a pitcher before the trade deadline or Hunter Brown develops incredibly well in the rotation, that could change.
Call me crazy, but I’ll go with Hunter Brown. Nothing worries me more about this Astros team than their rotation. Whether he can be a success this year and turn into a good MLB starter or be a failure this year, I think that’ll be kind of a turning point for the team not only for now but for the long run.
The Astros trade away Cuban prospect Pedro León (Astros’ #8 prospect) to get some pitching. If they don’t, they’ll try a healthy Forrest Whitley in the Majors.