Right now we really don’t know what 2021 will bring after a 2020 that brought us tremendous pain in and out of the sports world. Will a vaccine knock COVID down from a pandemic to an annoying flu status? Will herd immunity bring us to a point where enough of us have antibodies that it just won’t spread?
But really what we want to know is when will life be normal again? When can we leave the house without thinking about masks and gloves? When can we stand near people, give them hugs when they need it, shake their hand without thinking we are some kind of carrier?
And for us fanatics that need baseball to forget about everything else, will we have a normal 162 game season?
We certainly don’t know that and probably won’t know until the spring.
But what we do know is that our team, the Astros, need to either improve or hold on to what they have got in a number of areas. Here is one writer’s top 10 items for Astros’ success.
- GM James Click makes the team his own. Last season was such a weird time and the Astros suffered enough losses to try Job, so there was no real heat on Click or any real expectations as the team was in survival mode. This year, he will be closely watched in how he fills the OF spots, how he pursues possible extensions with players like Carlos Correa, how he handles the injuries and regression that may occur along the way.
- You need three to play. The biggest hole to fill for this team is the outfield, where three of the top 4 OFs, George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Josh Reddick are all free agents. Will they re-sign Springer or Brantley (not likely to sign both or Reddick at all)? Will they pick up some cheaper options either through free agency or through a trade (Jackie Bradley Jr., Robbie Grossman, Jake Marisnick, Outfielder X)? Will they use some combination of Kyle Tucker, Yordan Alvarez, Myles Straw, Aledmys Diaz, Chas McCormick, Garrett Stubbs or other to fill from within?
- He doesn’t have to be an MVP, but he needs to be a VP – Part 1. Alex Bregman was 2nd in the MVP voting in 2019 with a kick-butt season. In 2020, his batting average was down, his power was down, his swagger was gone and he missed 30% of a season that was already less than 40% of a regular season. Was it injury-related or tied to the sign-stealing scandal? Fans don’t care, they just need their star back at full strength.
- He doesn’t have to be an MVP, but he needs to be a VP – Part 2. Jose Altuve at least showed some of the good Jose in the postseason after frankly being their worst everyday player during the season. That .219 BA/ .286 OBP/ .629 OPS slash was hideous for someone of Altuve’s talent and it was obvious that this was between the ears. He was trying so hard to make up for the scandal that he ended up looking like someone who needed trash cans banging to be a top-line player. Come back to the five and dime, Jose.
- Continued Leadership. What Carlos Correa did in the postseason (6 HRs, 17 RBIs and stellar defense) was critical to the team? But the way he stood up for his team and their talent in post-game interviews was also important and it seemed to inspire Altuve and Springer. With Springer and Brantley likely gone the team will continue to need his veteran leadership on and off the field.
- Comeback time. It is possible that his 36th birthday was like the clock chiming midnight in Cinderella and Yuli Gurriel is through as a major league quality player. Or it is possible that he was discombobulated by 2020 like so many and that his 2019 (31 HRs/ 104 RBIs/ .298 BA/ .343 OBP/ .884 OPS) is a better barometer than his .232 BA/ .274 OBP/ .658 OPS slash of 2020.
- Return of the Stud. With everything else that was going on in 2020, it was easy to overlook that the Astros had lost a transcendent talent in Yordan Alvarez. In 2019, the team scored 5.12 runs/game in their first 66 games without Yordan. After the Rookie of the Year was brought up to the big team, they scored almost one more run per game, 6.06 runs/game in their next 96 games. In 2020 (when scoring was down throughout baseball) the team only scored 4.65 runs/game when Yordan played in two games. He cannot come back too soon.
- Those Young Starters. It would be nice if Zack Greinke (3-3, 4.03 ERA) and Lance McCullers Jr.(3-3, 3.93 ERA) were a bit better in 2021, though inning eating is almost as important as a better ERA for these two. But it is more important that the three younger starters, Framber Valdez (5-3, 3.57 ERA), Cristian Javier (5-2, 3.48 ERA) and Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.73 ERA) sustain the fine performances they showed in 2020. Note – I am aware that Framber is only one month younger than Lance – but we are talking young as in MLB experience here.
- Those Young Relievers. If Joe Smith returns, if Austin Pruitt gets well and if James Click brings in a veteran reliever or two (Brad Hand?) perhaps the Astros will not have to rely on such a batch of green relievers as they did last season. All making their debut, Andre Scrubb (1-0, 1.90 ERA), Blake Taylor (2-1, 1 Sv, 2.18 ERA) and Enoli Paredes (3-3, 3.05 ERA) availed themselves well in 2020. They may not all have to pitch as many high leveraged innings as they did last season, but it would be great if they become long term reliable arms out of the bullpen.
- Bring on some Newbies. With Justin Verlander (who will likely not pitch in 2021), Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers all becoming free agents after 2021, there will be a need to supplement Valdez, Javier and Urquidy heading forward. The Astros just protected four young pitching prospects ahead of the Rule 5 draft, Forrest Whitley, Tyler Ivey, Jairo Solis, and Peter Solomon. It would help the long term health of the team if some of these pitchers get their feet wet this season at the major league level. Adding them to youngsters like Bryan Abreu and Luis Garcia and perhaps Paredes, the team can work on building a low-cost pitching staff, just like they had a low-cost nucleus to their everyday players in 2017. This is how you can extend that window of opportunity for the team.
So, do you agree with the 10? Any others you want to offer?