A Closer Look: Houston Astros

This Astros article will not talk about sign stealing. You’re welcome.

Continuing the series I started last week, let’s take a closer look at the World Series runner up!

OTHER TEAMS:

3 QUESTIONS

Can Justin Verlander continue to hold up at age-37?

While Verlander has gone as one of the top starters throughout the early 2020 drafts, there is always a tinge of trepidation because of his age. But should we be worried? It’s hard to say yes. I understand that anyone age-35 or older carries a bit more injury risk, but outside of his age there is nothing in Verlander’s profile that should cause panic. Not even the homers. I mean his 1.5 HR/9 mark was high, but he allowed so few base runners that it didn’t really matter. His ERA went up 0.06 from 2018.

Arguably the biggest effect of the 2019 ball was the number of opposite field home runs that carried out and no one was affect more than Verlander. His 9 oppo tacos tied him for the league lead with Shane Bieber, Noah Syndergaard, Yusei Kikuchi, and his teammate Wade Miley. Even with those homers, his .360 wOBA to the opposite field was still easily the lowest of that group (Bieber was second at .379). The rest of his profile was elite. Don’t sweat the age, draft the reigning Cy Young winner.

Will José Altuve’s SBs return?

Hamstring and knee injuries the last two years ended Altuve’s six-year run of at least 30 SBs and an average 37 as he swiped just 23 in the two seasons combined (17 and 6). He was just 6-for-11 this year. With the declining trend, it’s easy to suggest his running days are behind him. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, though. Altuve actually notched his best sprint speed (28.6 ft/sec) since it started being calculated in 2015, up a half foot per second from 2018 (his lowest mark).

Sprint speed alone doesn’t guarantee SBs, but I’m not ready to give up on Altuve as a 20-SB asset. That’s still a big drop from his peak, it’d be 14 more than 2019. This is anecdotal, but I’ve heard the notion that the Astros don’t run so that’s why Altuve’s SBs won’t return, but they’ve been solidly in the middle of the pack the last three years with the 15th-most bags since 2017. Steamer gives Altuve 12 for 2020, but I’d push closer to 15 and take anything else as bonus. I don’t think he’s done running.

What can we get from Lance McCullers Jr. in 2020?

He has put in the work since getting Tommy John surgery and now he’ll return with a full 16-month recovery under his belt. I’d love to see him reach the 147 innings that Steamer gives him, but his career high is 128.3 innings so I have a hard time projecting him much beyond that. I feel like putting him down for 130-135 and taking anything else as a bonus is the move.

In his innings, I expect more of the same: high strikeouts, difficult to hit, and a bit of a walk issue. Start with his career 3.67 ERA and 1.27 WHIP as a projection then go from there. He’s been priced to buy in early drafts, though his draft stock will soar once fantasy managers see him on the mound in Spring Training.

THE RISER

Jose Urquidy

Urquidy showed brilliant skills in a three-level season that ended with his MLB debut in a hybrid role (though his two relief appearances were essentially shortened starts at 4 and 3 IP). Across Double- and Triple-A, he posted a 31% K rate and 5% BB rate in 103 innings. Once in the majors, he didn’t quite match those numbers, but his 24% K and 4% BB rates were still quite good in his 41 innings.

With Gerrit Cole almost certainly signing somewhere else and Wade Miley only on a one-year deal, there’s a good chance for Urquidy to lock down a rotation spot. Verlander, McCullers, and Zack Greinke will lock into three spots, they will likely sign an arm and then Urquidy and Josh James will via for the fifth spot. I think James is a better fit in the bullpen so I’m betting on Urquidy in the fifth spot and scooping him late wherever I can.

THE FALLER

Yordan Alvarez

It’s hard to go anywhere else with this pick considering the 23-year old Rookie of the Year posted a 1.067 OPS and 27 HR in just 87 games. It’s certainly hard to envision him getting better. Just because he’s the Faller doesn’t mean he’s going to be bad and shouldn’t be drafted. The Steamer projection is still remarkably bullish on Alvarez with 37 HR and a .275/.365/.554 line over 578 PA. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but it’d still represent a 148-point drop in OPS hence he’s the easy Faller.

A MOVE TO MAKE

Sign Yasmani Grandal

With both Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado becoming free agents, we have Garrett Stubbs penciled in as their current catcher. Nothing against Stubbs, but there’s no way he’s coming into the season as their starter. They could bring back one of Chirinos or Maldonado, but I think going for the premium catcher on the market will be their one big move of the offseason.

Grandal signed a one-year deal last year after declining the qualifying offer and now he doesn’t have a pick attached to him making him even more attractive. Grandal is one of the league’s best backstops combining a fantastic bat and top-flight framing. He could also shift to 1B later in a multi-year deal as Yuli Gurriel will be 36 years old next season. I could also see one of the second or third tier starters going to Houston (Zack Wheeler, Homer Bailey, Kyle Gibson, etc…), but Grandal is the best fit in the market for them.

PLAYING TIME BATTLE(S)

Starter: Urquidy v. James v. Brad Peacock

I already discussed Urquidy and James earlier, but Peacock could also muddy up the waters a bit for that fifth role. If they don’t sign anyone, then these three and I guess even Rogelio Armenteros would be vying for the last two spots behind Verlander, Greinke, and McCullers. Apologies to Armenteros, but I’m dismissing him from this battle for now. I obviously favor Urquidy based on my earlier write up of him.

Peacock has been quite good the last three years, but he hasn’t really shown the ability to put up a full season as a starter so while he will likely factor into the rotation at some point during the season, I don’t see him as a major threat to own a spot all year. As mentioned earlier, James feels like a reliever to me. He has some electric swing-and-miss stuff but doesn’t command it well enough to consistently log 5-6 solid innings. There could be some development, but he’s already entering his age-27 season.

PROSPECT CONTRIBUTORS FOR 2020

Hitter: Kyle Tucker | Outfielder

If you don’t really follow prospects, you might’ve missed that Tucker put up a 34 HR/30 SB season at Triple-A before finally getting a September call. He had a slow April (.599 OPS) before absolutely exploding with a .288/.383/.593 line, 29 HR, and 26 SB in 446 PA from May through August. I know Josh Reddick was making $13 million dollars in 2019 and generally adds a solid glove, but it didn’t quite make sense that Tucker kept getting skipped over for a call up prior to September.

The Reddick roadblock remains as he’s set to make another $13 mil, but I just can’t see how Tucker spends another season in Triple-A. It seems Reddick should be a 4th OF at this point. He has a 96 wRC+ the last two years while his defense is slightly above average – the perfect profile for a part-timer. Maybe the Astros will make a trade or two clear up playing time for Tucker, but if they play Reddick over him, fantasy managers will lose their minds.

Pitcher: Forrest Whitley

Whitley entered the season as our #4 prospect, but injuries and poor performance tanked his season. He wound up with a 7.99 ERA and 1.73 WHIP in 59.7 innings across four levels. However, he did salvage the season a bit with a standout performance at the Arizona Fall League, tallying a 2.88 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 25 innings. He’s still remarkably talented and now there’s a strong buying opportunity thanks to the awful season. He doesn’t have a guaranteed spot and will almost certainly start the season in Triple-A, but if you can afford to stash him for a month or so, his price outside the top 70 starters is worth a shot.

UP NEXT: Baltimore Orioles

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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Fromage
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Fromage

Hi, just observing it seems you evaluate the starting pitching options with an expectation that someone will claim the 5th spot to some level of exclusion … “betting on Urquidy in the fifth spot .” Isn’t the more likely scenario that the Astros will mix and match Urquidy, Peacock, James, and others throughout the season? Keep everyone fresh, begin James’ indoctrination as a starter, evaluate how to use in the postseason, etc. Of course this only matters to those for whom roster spot constraints or a minimum IP threshold apply. Also, this group might be more vulnerable to being pulled before 5 IP … in this case, only relevant to those interested in wins.

whiptydojoe
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whiptydojoe

This is the correct answer and almost a near-certainty how the Astros will actually deploy these arms. They had 9 guys start 5 or more games in 2019 (and would have had a 10th if not for Sanchez’s injury.)

stever20
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stever20

are teams going to be able to mix and match like that as easily with the 15 day IL rules now in place for pitchers?