Every generation normally shares one wish for their children. They wish that the next generation has it better than they had it.
In the realm of baseball, season to season, this is a wish that is difficult, if not impossible to fulfill over time. In fact, it is not always clear whether it has occurred. Were the 2018 Astros better than the 2017 Astros? Over the regular season – Yes. Over the vitally important post-season – No.
At this point in the Astros development, a point where they put together the two best seasons back to back in team history, what are they trying to do? It would be easy to say their goal is to create a team that wins the World Series, but what does that even mean? Do they build a team that they believe is even better during the regular season than in 2018 and hope that translates into a better postseason result? Do they try to build one to specifically address failings they’ve identified in the 2018 post-season version of the team? Do they go into 2019 with some question marks in the lineup or the rotation or the bullpen and then address the questions that are not answered before the trade deadline?
Here are some thoughts about the way forward here……
It would be darn near impossible for the Astros to maintain what their rotation did in 2018. The starting rotation was 1st or 2nd in the majors in wins, ERA, WHIP, Ks, IPs, Batting average against, OBP against, and OPS against. The five starters coming out of spring training, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. started 152 out of 162 games for the Astros. Note… in their World Series year the 5 pitchers who started the most games, only started 119 of the 162 games. Now add-on the fact that McCullers will not pitch this season, Keuchel is very, very likely elsewhere and that Charlie Morton is a question mark for ultimate destination and it is very difficult to see starting pitching as a possible area of improvement.
In 2018, Verlander and Cole were in the Top 5 in starting pitchers in the AL with Morton in the Top 10 and Keuchel in the Top 20. Can JV and Cole repeat their spectacular 2018’s? Can the Astros fill in adequately behind Morton (if necessary) and McCullers and Keuchel? If they find the free agent costs for pitchers and the prospect costs for trading for pitchers too steep, do they stay with internal choices like Collin McHugh, Brad Peacock and Josh James? Do they wait for the trade deadline and chase their next Verlander?
The gut feeling is that the best that may happen here is that the Astros have a rotation that is 90 – 95% as effective as they were in 2018, resulting in a top 5 instead of a top 2 rotation.
The Astros bullpen had the best ERA in the majors (3.03) which was .34 better than the next best team, the A’s. However, in the area of save % they were a pedestrian 68.66%, which was a middle of the pack 12th in the major leagues.
It is not likely that they will improve much on that bullpen ERA, but it is possible, especially with the addition of Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna in the back-end of the bullpen that they can improve on that save percentage.
A wild card here is who will be pulled from the bullpen to the starting rotation and whether the Astros go grab more bullpen help before the season or not. Without adding any more help and assuming that McHugh, Peacock and James fill the rotation, an eight-man bullpen could look like this – Pressly, Osuna, Hector Rondon, Joe Smith, Will Harris, Chris Devenski, Framber Valdez (or Cionel Perez) and Dean Deetz.
Bullpen production is generally unreliable year to year and tough to predict. The Astros would be lucky to produce at the same high level in 2019 as in 2018.
Every Days – Offense
If there is going to be real improvement in 2019 over 2018, this is going to have to be the area that leads the way. In 2018 the Astros were a decent, but inconsistent offensive team after being the very best team in 2017. The keys here are pretty simple:
- Carlos Correa needs to be a lot more 2017 CC (Top of the heap SS – .315 BA/ .391 OBP/ .941 OPS / 24 HRs/ 84 RBIs ) than injured 2018 CC (Middle of the road offensive SS – .239 BA/ .323 OBP/ .728 OPS/ 15 HRs/ 65 RBIs)
- Josh Reddick needs to come back from his worst offensive season (.242 BA/ .318 OBP/ .718 OPS / 47 RBIs) to get back nearer his best one (.314/.363/.847/ 82 RBIs)
- The catcher spot between Brian McCann, Max Stassi and Martin Maldonado was very below average on the offensive side. Robinson Chirinos may assist in this, but the fans are hoping for him to be a backup behind J.T. Realmuto or Wilson Ramos or Yasmani Grandal.
- Between Tony Kemp, Marwin Gonzalez and a bit of Kyle Tucker – left field was a bottom third in the majors offensive spot for the Astros. The Astros either need to obtain a left fielder (or perhaps this is where Aledmys Diaz will end up) or hand the spot to Tucker and hope that his early struggles were temporary like those of George Springer and Alex Bregman when they were first brought up (at much older ages).
- They need Tyler White to build upon his promising 2018 and prove over a season that he is the answer or part of the answer at the DH spot.
- The new hitting instructors will be under real scrutiny heading into 2019.
If the Astros can get 3 of these areas clicking they should be a much better offensive team in 2019.
Every Days – Fielding
An area of concern with the team is where they end up in both fielding and in catcher specific pitch framing, base stealing prevention and handling of pitchers.
- If they are only adding Chirinos behind the plate, they have weakened this area, because he is a much better offensive catcher than defensive, especially compared to Brian McCann and Martin Maldonado. On top of this, it seemed like the pitching staff lost faith in Stassi down the stretch.
- There is no way that Aledmys Diaz will match what Marwin Gonzalez brought to the fielding side as he moved around the diamond. It is very rare for an infield first player to do what Marwin did in the outfield.
- If Tucker is the answer offensively in left field, he will need to work hard on his fielding as he looked lost and tentative out there in 2018.
The bottom line is that the best way for the Astros to improve in 2019 will be to try to hold as close as they can to their 2018 pitching and get much more production from their hitters. Now whether that is from improvements back to the norm by the hitters already here or by adding a few bats to the mix, remains to be seen.
So do you think this team can improve in 2019 and what does improvement mean to you?