Last spring most of the questions revolving around the Astros were concerning whether they could repeat as champions and not who was going to do the repeating. Their biggest loss was Carlos Beltran, who was also their worst everyday hitter. Of course, the loss of Beltran along with now World Champion manager Alex Cora may have had more of an effect on the offense than anyone following the club actually knew at the time.
The contrast is that this season there are major changes with this team. Three starters from the 2018 rotation will not be pitching for them this year. The injured Lance McCullers, the family man Charlie Morton, the disappointed (so far) Dallas Keuchel will all be out or likely elsewhere in 2018. Two of their three catchers, Brian McCann and Martin Maldonado are gone. Their main DH Evan Gattis is gone and the player they used all over the map and both sides of the plate, Marwin Gonzalez will sign elsewhere it appears and reliever Joe Smith will be sidelined for the second season of his two-year contract.
There are also coaching changes and front office changes, but those are not really areas that will get much attention during Spring Training.
There are a lot of moving pieces here, but here are 10 questions headed into this Spring Training:
1) Are the Astros done adding to their roster before the start of the season?
The answer is you never know. There could be injuries. There could be availability at a big discount of someone they never thought they could sign. But with GM Jeff Luhnow you never know in the best of circumstances and he seems to be clutching those cards very close to his chest. Will they chase another starter, big bat, or even catcher? Probably not, but…. you never know.
2) Will Carlos Correa be “back”?
Usually, injuries to younger players are not a huge concern. Players often come back from blown ACLs or Tommy John surgery as good or better than before. But backs can be another thing altogether – sometimes chronic and debilitating. Fans will be breathing easier if they see the “old” Correa in the spring.
3) Will Jose Altuve be all the way back from his knee surgery?
This is a lesser concern than Correa’s back, but this is the 2017 MVP. Altuve is a smaller player and the leverage of his swing, along with his second base pivot relies heavily on those knees.
James, Valdez and Brad Peacock are probably the most likely candidates fighting for the final spot in the rotation behind Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Collin McHugh and Wade Miley. Peacock was terrific as a sub starter in 2017, but his ability to go multiple strong innings out of the ‘pen is valued. Valdez’s control problems might be less harmful in the rotation. James’ big-time fastball and change would seem to work in the rotation or out of the bullpen.
5) Is Tyler White the main DH in 2019?
He shoved Gattis out of the DH spot with strong (but a bit inconsistent) numbers in 2018. Will he get the full season shot folks believe he deserves? Will the front office pick up a bargain power hitter to challenge him? Does Michael Brantley get more time out of the field and more time as a DH?
6) Does Forrest Whitley have a shot at making the team out of spring training?
The answer is no unless there is an injury run on pitchers. Now if the question is whether he will make his MLB debut in 2019, then there is a much better chance of an affirmative answer.
7) Does Kyle Tucker have a shot at making the team out of spring training?
He has a better chance of it than Whitley, but barring an injury or an out of the blue trade of Josh Reddick it is not likely they will have him on the team as the 4th OF. He had an uninspiring start to his MLB career in a short cup of 2018 coffee, but so did Alex Bregman and George Springer in their first small samples of major league life.
8) What does Michael Brantley mean to this offense and where does he fit?
Traditionally, a professional lefty hitter like Brantley who has some (but not overwhelming power) and who is a very good base runner, should slot into the second spot in the lineup behind Altuve. But this is not a traditional lineup as Springer will probably stay at the top. What would make sense is that if Altuve is still in the third spot, then put Brantley in the fourth spot with Altuve getting on base and holding that 1B near the bag. No matter what, the Astros should figure out how to slide this lefty somewhere in between the all-righty top of the lineup of Springer, Bregman, Altuve and Correa.
9) What can the Astros expect out of likely #3 McHugh and #4 Miley in the rotation?
McHugh missed a huge chunk of 2017 with an injury and in 2018 pitched great out of the bullpen, so it has been 3 seasons since he was a regular out of the rotation. Miley pitched a strong 1/2 of 2018 (missing time with an injury) after pitching poorly in 2016 and 2017. They are both only assured of being Astros through 2019 and there are a lot of pitchers knocking on the door from the minors including James, Valdez, Whitley, J.B. Bukauskas, Rogelio Armenteros and others. Are they half season placeholders until the trade deadline?
Again, injuries or signings/trades between now and April can affect things. However. the gut feeling is that unless Marisnick shows a solid bat (after an off-season swing change) that has been missing for most of his career, he may be the odd man out of this trio.
Bonus question for you to answer – Will they extend any of their players and who would it be…Cole, Verlander, Springer, others……?
So…..what are your answers to these 10 questions? What questions do you want to be answered in the spring?