As the off-season oozes on like a snail caught in molasses, today the blog will offer a couple points on which you fine readers may chew or opine…
Alex Bregman was second in the AL MVP voting in 2019 to Mr. Everything Mike Trout. He was without question the Astros best player in 2019. Jose Altuve was the AL MVP in 2017 and was coming off 2019 where he had flashed much more power with less, but still very good, hitting prowess.
Bregman went from a brilliant 2019 (.296 BA/ .423 OBP/ 1.015 OPS/ 122 runs/ 41 HRs/ 112 RBIs) to a mediocre 2020 (.242 BA/ .350 OBP/ .801 OPS/ 19 runs/ 6 HRs/ 22 RBIs in 42 games). Altuve went from a very good 2019 (.298 BA/ .353 OBP/ .903 OPS/ 89 runs/ 31 HRs/ 74 RBIs) to a personally abysmal 2020 ( .219 BA/ .286 OBP/ .629 OPS/ 32 runs/ 5 HRs/ 18 RBIs in 48 games).
Bregman’s hamstring injury and his perhaps too early return from it moved a solid 2020 to a below-average 2020. Altuve’s problems seemed to be less physical and more mental as he more than any other player seemed to suffer from trying to prove himself after the Astros’ cheating scandal. While he has never been much of a ball taker in the same area as Bregman, he was channeling his inner Joaquin Phoenix (go watch “Signs”) by getting himself out swinging at anything, and everything tossed up there.
It is probably critical that both players bounce back with George Springer and Michael Brantley likely playing elsewhere in 2021. But if only one of them bounced back in 2021, who would you pick? If Altuve moves back to the leadoff spot with Springer gone, he becomes an even more critical cog in setting the pace and kickstarting the offense. And he arguably fell off more than Bregman did in 2020, though his strong 2020 playoff surge gave everyone hope that Jose Altuve had exorcised the trash can demons in his head. On the other hand, Bregman’s fall last year seemed to take the swagger out of the whole team. Undoubtedly, their swagger would have been reduced as they showed remorse after the scandal emerged, but they looked like sad, broken ponies in 2020. Bregman after his return from injury in 111 ABs down the stretch including the postseason, hit poorly (.225 BA/ .331 OBP/ .691 OPS) with very little power (4 doubles and 3 HRs).
If you have to pick one to rebound, I think it has to be Bregman as he should be shifting into the prime of his career with another potential MVP run in the works. But again, they sure could use a return to the norm for both these two great players.
Who Will Be the Astros Best Starting Pitcher in 2021
This will be a fascinating story to watch with no certain answer. There could be a scenario where any of the five likely starters in this rotation, Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy, could turn out to be their ace.
Zack Greinke – By pedigree, Greinke should be considered the Astros ace as he is a likely Hall of Famer and had been one of the top pitchers in either league between 2013 and 2019. And on top of this, he is owed $35 million (about $10 million by his former team the D’Backs) for the 2021 season. He had a down year in 2020 (who didn’t) and while not bad, his 3-3, 4.03 ERA year was statistically the worst of the five starters. A spring back to his numbers from the previous 7 seasons would put him at or near the top of the rotation.
Lance McCullers Jr. – Even with his great stuff, it is hard to picture McCullers as the ace of the team. He has battled injury and never thrown a full major league season. His emotions seem to derail him at times, where he has problems pitching through errors behind him or errors by the home plate umpire. But if he is going to finally fulfill his promise, this would seem to be the year. He was solid in his return from Tommy John surgery with a 3-3, 3.93 season. He is 27 years old, which is prime time for pitchers, and most importantly this is last season of control by the team. He will be pitching for the big payday in free agency and can solidify that with a top-notch healthy season.
Framber Valdez – Framber bloomed in front of our eyes and was arguably their best pitcher during the regular season with a 5-3, 3.57 ERA season. But the most critical number for him was his walks per 9 innings which dipped from a poor 5.6 to a very good 2.0 per 9 IP. He followed the regular season up by being the Astros best pitcher in the 2020 playoffs going 3-1 with a sparkling 1.88 ERA. Framber’s curveball seemed unhittable at times, and if he can continue to control it in 2021, he has as good a chance as anyone to be the Astros’ ace.
Cristian Javier – While Valdez was always going to be in the mix for a starting spot in 2020, Javier received his chance thanks to the injury to Justin Verlander and the illness of Jose Urquidy, which left the Astros scrambling to replace behind them after also losing Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley in the offseason. The 23-year-old responded brilliantly with a 5-2, 3.48 ERA regular season. He then pitched out of the bullpen during the playoffs without a peep and contributed to the Astros run to the ALCS. If he takes a step forward in his second season as many pitchers do, he could be the top pitcher in this rotation.
Jose Urquidy – Urquidy missed a big chunk of the season, likely to COVID, though never confirmed. Just like he did as a rookie in 2019, Urquidy pitched at the end of the season and acquitted himself well in 5 starts with a 1-1, 2.73 ERA stat line. He then performed decently in the playoffs, except for one tough outing against Oakland and again could be the best of the bunch when 2021 works itself out.
This will be a fascinating area to watch in 2021 as the Astros could have multiple aces dueling for the top spot in their rotation.