Ol’ Man Greinke: He just keeps rollin’ along

It is funny how we form impressions of people based on the latest news or views. Mention Zack Greinke and you will probably envision a quirky Eddie Lopat-ish fluff ball tosser, who somehow gets by. (And you may have to ask your great grandparents about Eddie Lopat, cause your parents and grandparents may not know).

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The Astros’ bullpen may be getting crowded

The off-season has gotten a bit more interesting with the signing of Cuban top OF Prospect Pedro Leon by the Astros. The Astros have been making smaller under the radar moves up to now, including signing two veteran relievers in Ryne Stanek and Pedro Baez. There have been long term rumblings of the Astros having an interest in other higher-end relievers from Liam Hendriks (since signed by the Chi-Sox) to Brad Hand to Joakim Soria to Alex Colombe and others.

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Astros and their breakout kings

Father of the blog, Chip Bailey, often stated as the Astros were re-building, that all the team needed to do was find two solid players every year to build into a contender. Since it didn’t seem like they had two solid players on their roster in the dark days, that was not as simple a chore as it seemed. Well, the Astros did a good bit better than having solid players appear as they suddenly had breakout players showing up all over the place.

The breakout players listed below are a cross between the expected from top draft picks to the unexpected from international signings and to later draft picks and waiver pickups. in each case these players had seasons that were top-notch in the league and it came out of almost nowhere.

2014 – Coming after the three worst seasons in Astros history, this was the start of the turn-around behind some big-time breakout seasons.

Collin McHugh – When the Astros picked up McHugh off the waiver wire from Colorado, there were really no expectations that he would even make the team. He was about to turn 27 years old and he had 47 innings of 9+ ERA between the Mets and the Rockies. Suddenly with some changes to his pitch selection, he became one of the Astros two best starters and his 11-9 record and 2.72 ERA over 154.2 innings earned him the 4th spot in the Rookie of the Year voting. He went on to give the team some fine pitching, highlighted by his 19 wins in 2015 and his 6-2, 1.99 ERA season out of the bullpen in 2018.

Dallas Keuchel – Keuchel had a lot more MLB experience than McHugh heading into 2014, but it was not a very good experience as he was 3-8, 5.27 ERA in 2012 and 6-10, 5.15 ERA in 2013. In 2014, Keuchel took off with a 12-9 record and a 2.93 ERA in 200 innings putting up 5 complete games and winning the first of his four Gold Gloves. He went on to more success with the Astros, taking home the Cy Young in the improbable 2015 playoff run (20-8, 2.48 ERA) and a nearly as good, injury-shortened run in 2017 (14-5, 2.90 ERA).

Jose Altuve – We can argue about this being a breakout season as Altuve had made the All Star team in 2012, but after a very disappointing 2013 year when he only put up a crummy .316 OBP and .678 OPS and was caught stealing a league-leading 13 times in 48 attempts, it appeared he might be a flash in the pan. In 2014, he totally broke out leading the league with 225 hits and a .341 BA along with other fine numbers such as 56 SBs, .377 OBP and .830 OPS. He, of course, has gone on to be a team icon, with his 2017 MVP, his 2019 ALCS walk-off HR, his 6 total All Star appearances, 5 seasons of .300+ BA and 4 seasons of 200+ hits.

2015 – After a baby step up in 2014, the Astros improved significantly with the help of these breakout stars.

Carlos Correa – The two players highlighted here in 2015 could not be any more different in expectations, but more about that later. Correa was the top pick in all of baseball in 2012 and his debut in the majors in 2015 was highly anticipated. Still, the Rookie of the Year season he put up usually is not by a first overall pick. But after spending the first two months of the season at AA and AAA, he was brought up and performed at a high enough level (.278 BA/ .345 OBP/ .857 OPS/ 22 HR and 68 RBIs in only 99 games) that he earned the honor. His time since then has been accentuated by high-level performance paired with too many injuries. When healthy, he has been in the top two or three SS’s in the game during his time in Houston.

Will Harris – In his three seasons in the majors, he had some decent success only in 2013, but when he was picked off waivers from the D’Backs in the off-season before 2015, he was a 30-year-old journeyman, coming off a very mediocre 2014 season (0-3, 4.34 ERA). In 2015, he became a consistent late-inning anchor for the team going 5-5 with 2 saves and a 1.90 ERA. Over his five seasons in Houston, he continued to contribute in leveraged situations going 18-13 with 20 saves and a 2.36 ERA. Many folks only remember him giving up big hits in the 2019 World Series, while forgetting he was the only reliable reliever in the late season and postseason that year.

2016 – In a season where the team as a whole regressed, one guy took the big step forward.

George Springer – Sure he had done a lot since debuting in 2014 with the team. But after both of his first two seasons ended in injury, there were questions about whether he would ever stay on the field long enough to fulfill his destiny. His breakout season in 2016 answered most of the questions about Springer as he played all 162 games and stepped up big time with 116 runs scored, 29 home runs and 82 RBIs. Springer over the next few seasons became the dynamic trigger for one of the best offenses of the 2010s.

2017 – As you might think, the Astros single World Series championship year featured more breakthroughs seasons than any other year.

Charlie Morton – There was really nothing relative to Morton’s past that would jolt the expectations meter when the Astros signed him before the 2017 season. His career numbers were bad going 46-71 with a 4.54 ERA in stops at Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. He had shown some good signs in a very short stint with Philly in 2016 that was shortened by injury, but jeez that was only 17 innings. He came to Houston and turned in a terrific season in support of the World Series run, going 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA and winning two Game 7’s in the postseason. He was even better in 2018 for the Astros and then moved on to the near home Tampa Bay Rays.

Marwin Gonzalez – In the five seasons leading up to 2017, Marwin the Swiss Army Knife was a decent, but not particularly good hitter. His best numbers from any of the five seasons included .279 BA / .327 OBP/ .759 OPS with 55 runs, 13 HRs and 51 RBIs. He did a total break out in the 2017 season as he slashed career highs with a .303 BA/ . 377 OBP/ .907 OPS with 67 runs, 23 HRs and 90 RBIs. He never came close to that type of production in the next season with the Astros or with the two seasons after with the Twins.

Alex Bregman – Fans were not positive what to think after the second overall pick in the 2015 draft made his debut towards the end of the 2016 season. Was he the guy who was hitting a paltry .032 BA after his first 34 plate appearances or the guy who hit .308 over the balance of his games? As it turned out he broke out in 2017 to put up an extremely solid season while playing a new position at 3B (.284 BA/ .357 OBP/ .827 OPS with 88 runs/ 19 HRs and 71 RBIs). Alex followed up with near MVP performances in 2018 and 2019, and a possible injury caused regression in 2020.

Brad Peacock – In the 2017 Spring Training, Peacock was a 29 y.o. pitching for his baseball life. Injuries and some ineffectiveness had dogged him since coming to the Astros from the Oakland A’s in the Jed Lowrie trade. Then Collin McHugh was too hurt to start the season and Peacock shoehorned himself into a fabulous 2017 as a starter and a long reliever posting a sparkling 13-2 record with a 3.00 ERA. Brad would follow up with another good season in 2018, a so-so year in 2019 and an injury sunk season in 2020.

Yuli Gurriel – Facing the 2017 season, Yuli was about to turn 33 years old but was earning a lot more than many of his teammates thanks to a 5 year / $47.5 MM contract he had signed after defecting from Cuba. In a quick tryout at the end of the 2016 season, he had hit decently for average, but for not much power and no one was sure what he could provide. Well, he also broke out in 2017 with a .299 BA/ .332 OBP/ .817 OPS with 69 runs/ 18 HRs / 75 RBIs. He followed up with a good season in 2018 and a very good one in 2019 followed by a poor one in 2020.

2018 – After having 5 players breakout in 2017, there was not as much room for a breakout in 2018.

Gerrit Cole – Okay we are stretching it here because Cole was an established starter long before he came to the Astros. And after the news of today, we may wonder what was behind his fabulous 2018 and 2019 seasons, but we will throw him out there anyway. When he came to the Astros his career had been going the wrong way. He had missed half the 2016 season with injury and when he did pitch his ERA was a run higher than in 2015. In 2017, he put up a below-average 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA and he had given up 31 homers in 33 starts. In 2018 with the Astros, he turned his career around and busted out with a 15-5 / 2.88 ERA season where he led the league in Ks/ 9 IP with 12.4 and was voted 5th in the Cy Young Award voting. He put up a season in 2019 that arguably was better than Justin Verlander the Cy Young winner and then got the big bucks to head to New York.

2019 – Again, the Astros did need that much breakout in 2019, but they got it for a position that had been a sore point since their move to the American League.

Yordan Alvarez – The youngster, who was pilfered from the Dodgers in the Josh Fields trade in 2016 was tearing up the minors in 2019, just as had done in his previous couple seasons, but that was the minors. No one knew what to expect when he joined the big team almost halfway through the 2019 season. With a knee problem that limited his time in the field, he tore the majors a new one on his way to a unanimous Rookie of the Year win (.313 BA/.413 OBP/1.067 OPS/ 27 HRs / 78 RBIs in only 87 games). He gave the Astros the best DH performance by far that they had seen to date. He missed all but 2 games in 2020 due to additional knee problems and surgery, but the fans can only salivate when thinking of the young man returning with two repaired knees.

2020 – The extraordinary circumstances of 2020, which included wipeout injuries to Alvarez and a big chunk of the pitching staff allowed for some big breakout opportunities.

Kyle Tucker – He was the untouchable position player that the team would not include in any trades since he got drafted at 18 y.o. in 2015. He was the player who was overshadowed by the Alvarez explosion in 2019 after having two cameos (a terrible one in 2018 / a good one in 2019) with the big team. But when the team needed him in 2020 with Alvarez out and most of the core struggling he posted a breakout season leading the team in hits (56), RBIs (42) and steals (8) and being close to the top in almost all categories. The fans can’t wait to see the pairing of Alvarez and Tucker in the middle of this lineup going forward.

Framber Valdez – In an 8 game cameo in 2018, Valdez had some good numbers (4-1, 2.19 ERA) with one very bothersome number (5.8 walks per 9 innings). In a longer stint in 2019, the hitters seemed to catch up with him as he still struggled with walks and everything else going 4-7 with a 5.86 ERA. Though he had tremendous movement on his pitches he seemed to have no idea where they were headed. Flash to 2020 and he was given a shot to grab a starting spot with Gerrit Cole gone, Wade Miley gone and Jose Urquidy sick/injured. He stepped up to the challenge (which was even more important after Justin Verlander’s injury) and put up a team steadying performance with a 5-3 record and 3.57 ERA, which he only enhanced in the playoffs (3-1, 1.88 ERA). He gives the Astros a great lefty option for their rotation heading into the future.

Cristian Javier – Alert fans knew of the Astros’ 2019 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. But we had been teased like this before with the likes of Michael Feliz, David Paulino and Francis Martes. But Javier with the same opportunity presented to Framber Valdez stepped forward and gave a similar fine effort. His season (5-2, 3.48 ERA in 54.1 innings) earned him the third spot in the Rookie of the Year race in the AL. One of the pleasures of 2020 was seeing a pitcher like Javier earn the opportunity to pitch in the majors and then earn the opportunity to stay there.

Most teams are lucky to get 4 or 5 breakouts over a similar time period. The Astros with 15 were pretty extraordinary. Even if you don’t agree with a couple of those like Altuve and Cole, this was a special time to see so many players burst onto the scene and entertain their fans.

Writing about nothing…

I think it was in the fine Roger Kahn book “Boys of Summer” when he talks about his early sports writing career where he was supposed to be covering high school sports, but due to a teachers/coaches strike there were no sports being played. His editor basically told him that when you have nothing to write about, that you write about the nothing. So, he did stories about the strike and the effect of it on all parties.

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