With all the attention focused on the American League East last season as the Red Sox and Yankees dueled to the finish while reaching triple digits in wins, many overlooked the Astros and the 103 wins they piled up for themselves. In the process manager AJ Hinch‘s team led the big leagues in run differential (+263) and road wins (57).
President of Baseball Operations Jeff Lunhow was signed to an extension of his contract last summer which will keep him in Houston through the 2023 season. He’s had to address some personnel needs this offseason as starting pitcher Dallas Kuechel and super utility man Marwin Gonzalez headed to free agency. The hole in the starting rotation looks to be filled from within and appears to be Collin McHugh’s job to lose. The 31 year-old pitched brilliantly out of the bullpen last season (6-2, 1.99 ERA, 0.912 WHIP) but looks to be the only big league tested option the Astros have on their roster. McHugh won 48 games as a starter from 2014 to 2017 including 19 wins in 2015.
Gonzalez, who has played every position on the field except catcher and pitcher while with the Astros will be replaced in the aggregate with the acquisitions of infielder Aledmys Diaz and outfielder Michael Brantley. The Cuban native Diaz has hit 42 home runs in three seasons, with St. Louis and Toronto, was acquired in a trade with the Blue Jays for prospect starter Trent Thornton. Brantley signed a two-year $32M contract as a free agent to take over in left field for Houston.
Brantley’s addition looks to be a significant one as it makes the Astros even better at what they are highly proficient in doing. Houston was second in the majors in contact rate last season (78.9%) and Brantley was third overall in individual contact rate (85.7%). In addition, Brantley moves from the top contact rate team, Cleveland, to the second-ranked team, the Astros. His presence will likely propel Houston into the top spot in the category.
The Astros pitching staff will still be the heart and soul of the team. Justin Verlander needs to finish in the top five of Cy Young Award voting to trigger a $22M vesting option for the 2020 season and Gerrit Cole is in his final season before free agency, so both veterans have ample motivation to produce. Joining them along with McHugh should be free agent signee Wade Miley and returning starter Lance McCullers Jr. to round out the starting five. The bullpen is deep and experienced behind closer Roberto Osuna. Veterans Joe Smith, Hector Rondon, Brad Peacock, Ryan Pressley, Will Harris,
The star-studded infield of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel are all back and healthy. Brantley will join George Springer, who is himself in his final year before free agency, and veteran Josh Reddick in the everyday Astros outfield.
Down on the farm the Astros have more than a few young players on the verge of pushing into the big leagues. Everyone wants to know when starter Forest Whitley will arrive. The fire-balling righty reached AA last season and could very well get some big league meal money in 2019. Rogelio Armenteros, Dean Deetz, Josh James and Framber Valdez could all see Minute Maid Park this year as well. The Astros offense could be supported by prospects like Myles Straw in 2019. Straw stole 70 bases in 79 attempts in AAA last year and fared well in a cup of coffee with the big club late last season. He could get the call as early as opening day. Highly touted prospect Kyle Tucker will likely get another shot at the big leagues after a rough go in his first taste of the limelight in 2018. Catcher Garrett Stubbs along with infielders AJ Reed, Josh Rojas and Nick Tanielu will all be waiting in the wings for their opportunities to be part of Lunhow’s equation this season.
The Astros lost Dallas Kuechel and Marwin Gonzalez and look to be even stronger despite the departures. Verlander, Cole and Springer have major financial motivations to pursue. Bregman, Altuve and Correa are superstars of the highest order. And the minor league system has a number of young players nearing big league readiness. Overlooking the Astros in favor of the Red Sox or Yankees is a big mistake many are making this spring. Look for them in at least the American League Championship Series if not the World Series.