It is a little bit of a trick in the title as the person we are talking about has never played for the Astros. He did play the game, pitching in 100 major league games in the 1970s, starting 75 of them, going 22-39 with a 3.91 ERA. Tommy John surgery was almost named after him as he was second in line for the groundbreaking arm surgery. But he may be the most critical person wearing the Astro uniform in 2021 and his name is Brent Strom.
He was an interim pitching coach for the Astros in 1996, but he has made his reputation in his second shot with the club between 2014 and the present. He came in the year after the three awful 100 loss seasons and lorded over the pitching staff as they rose from the ashes to the dominant team they were from 2017 to 2019.
He received his first big-time kudos with his work on reclamation projects (or in some cases clamation projects). Guys who had shown very little in the way of results, such as Collin McHugh, Will Harris, Tony Sipp and most notably Charlie Morton turned into good or great pitchers under his tutelage after journeyman type careers elsewhere.
But Strom was equally impressive in the way he worked with very accomplished pitchers such as Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who became Cy Young contenders under his direction. Houston was becoming a destination for pitchers based on his reputation for combining the old style baseball he grew up under with the next century electronic tools to improve his pitchers pitch choices, arm slots, etc.
Perhaps his most impressive job was what he did for the team in 2020. The team had lost top-notch starter Charlie Morton after the 2018 season and then after the 2019 season, they lost Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley, Will Harris, Hector Rondon and Collin McHugh to free agency. By the time the delayed 2020 season began, Joe Smith was sitting out due to his mother’s failing health, Jose Urquidy missed a big chunk of the season reportedly due to COVID, Justin Verlander, Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski made very short cameos before injury sent them to the sideline. Basically what Strom did was amazing as he held the pitching staff together, which was made up of Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Ryan Pressly and a whole lot of “who’s he”. Cristian Javier, Framber Valdez, Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Brooks Raley and Andre Scrubb all became solid performers under his hand.
It is impossible to picture this team making it to the cusp of the World Series without the masterful work that Dusty Baker and Brent Strom performed to bring the next man up and use him in the right situation.
So heading into 2021 without Verlander, Peacock, McHugh, and Devenski, 72-year-old Strom will again be so critical t the success of a team as he melds the leftovers from 2020 with newcomers like Pedro Baez, Ryne Stanek, and Steve Cishek, and prospects like Forrest Whitley, Bryan Abreu, Luis Garcia and many others. The staff will have to be handled in masterful fashion again to juggle the many pitchers who will need to fill out the rotation and the bullpen in 2021, especially coming off a 2020 season where no one pitched more than 71 innings.
So, again, a man who will not play a game for the Astros may be their most critical puzzle piece in 2021.