Sean Pendergast

Four Intriguing Astro Storylines As They Head To Spring Training 2.0

George Springer enters a contract year at a most unfortunate time.
Photo by Jack Gorman
George Springer enters a contract year at a most unfortunate time.
So it would appear, Good Lord willing and the COVID hospitalizations don't rise, we are going to have Major League Baseball in 2020. Ultimately, the two sides, owners and players, after a series of half-hearted offers and counteroffers, buried in a sea of tone deaf public statements, didn't agree on anything. Instead, Commissioner Rob Manfred, who also had a rough month, had to mandate the players play a 60-game season with a normal sized postseason (ten teams).

There will be grievances filed down the road, and there will almost assuredly be a work stoppage of some sort after the 2021 season, when the collective bargaining agreement expires, but for now, we circle July 23 as the 2020 season opener. So we must quickly, if you so choose, transition from anger to eagerness, because the Astros' window as a title contender is shrinking. They have maybe two more years to stay at this elite level.

So let's talk actual baseball! Here are five storylines that I'm eager to watch play out in this truncated, weird, hopefully joyful 2020 season:

George Springer's unfortunate contract year timing
It feels like it's been forever for Springer to reach this point in his career, his contract year before finally hitting free agency, but here we are! Springer is playing this final year of team control on a $21 million salary (before being prorated for 60 games). Springer will enter free agency after the season, barring an extension in season (which would be TREMENDOUS), at age 31, playing a non-premium position, in the midst of there worst economy in and out of baseball since free agency began. That's bad timing, man. In an odd way, the pandemic may help the Astros get Springer locked up, as this free agency market is likely to be severely depressed, even for the big spenders. Losing Springer would mark the first truly painful departure of this era of Astros baseball, as he is the heartbeat of this team.

Lance McCullers, possible third ace
We know the Astros are counting on Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke to anchor the top of the rotation. Anything short of A-minus seasons from both of them, and the Astros will have trouble lasting long in the postseason (or maybe even MAKING the postseason, with the A's and Angels lurking in the AL West, closer than ever). McCullers is the x-factor. He missed 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and is reportedly back to his old self. When healthy, McCullers was literally an All-Star, back in 2017 after the best stint of baseball he's pitched for this team. Verlander, Greinke, and the 2017 version of McCullers is a top of rotation that can compete with ANYBODY in a seven game series.

The Correa Leap, finally?
Carlos Correa has been teasing the fan base for some time now. He started like gangbusters, winning the AL Rookie of the Year in 2015. Then, in 2017, he was as key to the run to a title as any of the core players. Most baseball lists of the "top 50" or "top 100" players heading into 2018 had Correa comfortably in the top dozen or so players in the game. The last two years, because of injuries (of all level of bizarreness, i.e. broken rib from a massage, of all things), he's not even considered one of the best five shortstops in the game, let alone top five players. Fully healthy, and obviously feeling confident as a team leader (he performed the apology tour for the sign stealing like a maestro), this needs to be the year he finally takes The Leap.

Can James Click make deals?
As poorly as he came off in his final chapter as Astros general manager — and make no mistake, he came off looking horribly — Jeff Luhnow is a big reason the Astros not only won a title in 2017, but remain in position to win for the next couple seasons, thanks to the deadline deals that brought Verlander and Greinke to Houston. The big question for first time general manager James Click is "Can he make deals?" That question cuts two ways. First, will Jim Crane give the green light for the resources to make a big deal, if necessary, and second, will James Click have the same deal making gene that made Luhnow the envy of every front office in the sport. Click's impact is probably going to be felt more down the road, in rebuilding the farm system, but if opportunity knocks around August 31 (the new trade deadline), he needs to answer.

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