The knee jerk reaction here is that the Astros contended in 2020 and came within one final rally of going to the World Series. But in reality, the Astros snuck into the last playoff spot in a field that had been expanded by 60% from five to eight for this most unusual of seasons.
If the normal cutoff had been in place the team would have ended up 7 games behind the first-place A’s in the division and six games behind the Wild Card White Sox and Indians. And here’s a reminder that finishing seven games back in 60 games is the equivalent to finishing 19 games back in 162 games. So what are the ten reasons that the Astros can really contend in a more normal 2021?
- Certainty – In some ways, there will be a lot more certainty for all the teams heading into the 2020 season. But the Astros had a lot of players that had no idea that they had a spot on the 25 man roster, much less that they would have a major role. Framber Valdez was fighting for any spot in the bullpen but became the Astros top starter. Cristian Javier thought he would be at one of the “other” camps at Corpus or the University of Houston, not a full-season starter. Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, and Andre Scrubb never thought they would be pitching high leveraged innings for the 2019 American League champs. Knowing they have a good shot at a role and what that role may help each of these players prepare for what is coming.
- Yordan Alvarez – In 2019 the AL MVP, Mike Trout, put up a .291 BA/ .438 OBP/ 1.083 OPS slash with 110 runs/ 45 HRs/ 104 RBIs in 134 games. If you project Yordan’s 87 game production in 2019 to 134 games – you get a .313 BA/ .412 OBP/ 1.067 OPS slash and 89 runs/ 42 HRs/ 120 RBIs. Not a bad comp is that? Perhaps he will be a flash in pan and certainly, he might regress a little, but Alvarez is a superweapon the Astros sorely missed in a mediocre 2020 offensive season
- Return of the MVPs – Alex Bregman fell just short of MVP in 2019, but he had established himself in 2018 and 2019 as the Astros MVP. Former MVP Jose Altuve fell with a thud in 2020 as did Bregman, but if they get back to just 90% of their norm it will be a huge improvement over very disappointing 2020s and a big boost to a revamped lineup that has to live without George Springer and has to slide Yordan Alvarez back into the mix.
- Carlos Correa plays for the big bucks – The upcoming season is critical to what Correa hopes to get in a free agent contract after the 2021 season. If he hits the sideline again and only plays in 100 games or so, teams will throttle back on those offers. If he plays a big chunk of the games like he did in 2016 and 2020, but puts up so-so numbers like he did in 2018 and 2020 his payout will be good, but not stellar. However, if he finally plays in 90+% of the games and puts up the type of production he showed in injury-shortened seasons like 2017 and 2019, he may be cashing his own Power Ball ticket. Author’s note – unless he is found to have visited Jeffrey Epstein’s island or said something nice about the former President, Correa will be in for more money than any of us can comprehend whether he stinks it up or plays well in 2021. But relatively speaking he could make or lose a ton of money in 2020.
- Spring Training – As others have stated including Dr. Bill in yesterday’s comments, the normalcy of a full uninterrupted spring training cannot be overvalued, especially for a team that suffered so much injury disruption (Justin Verlander, Jose Urquidy, Roberto Osuna, Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock) in 2020.
- Addition by Subtraction – If some of the bad innings thrown by Joe Biagini, Chase DeJong, Humberto Castellanos, Nivaldo Rodriguez, Carlos Sanabria, Josh James and Devenski get replaced by better innings from Joe Smith, Pedro Baez, Ryne Stanek and others that could be a real boost.
- Return of Yuli Gurriel – It has been speculated that Yuli played hurt for much of the second half of the season and playoffs in 2020. That would help explain the fall from his best season in 2019 (.298 BA/ .343 OBP/ .884 OPS/ 31 HRs/ 104 RBIs) to his worst year in 2020 (.232 BA/ .274 OBP/ .658 OPS). A return of the good Yuli would give this lineup so much more depth.
- The Three Young Guns Grow – You cannot complain about what the three youngest parts of the rotation (Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy) gave the Astros in 2020. But remember Valdez only had 107.2 major league innings under his belt entering 2020, Urquidy had 41 and Javier had 0. These pitchers all will mature and grow with more major league exposure and coaching.
- Tucker Takes Over – Kyle Tucker just turned 24 years old in January. He has only 108 major league games under his belt. He showed just a bit of his talent in his 2019 call-up and his 2020 short season. It feels like 2021 will be the season when he moves from budding star to star. His power/speed combination just needs a few tweaks to become a dominant player.
- More Newbies – Whether it is Cuban OF Pedro Leon or starters-in-waiting Forrest Whitley, Tyler Ivey, Luis Garcia, or Hunter Brown, some young buck(s) will make significant contributions to this team in 2021.
Beyond these ten reasons, you can point to the rock of the rotation Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr. being a year farther away from the TJ surgery, Jason Castro being a better catcher backup than Dustin Garneau, or even the team getting one year farther away from the scandal as pluses for the team.
This is a team that can contend and will contend in 2021.