As long as this last year has felt, it's almost time for spring training again. Pitchers and catchers report in a week after what has been the most tranquil offseasons of the three major sports teams in Houston. While George Springer was lost to free agency, it was not unexpected. And keeping Michael Brantley certainly helped to ease the pain of Springer's loss.
While James Click was modestly busy adding arms to the bullpen and bringing back dependable names like Brantley and Jason Castro (remember him?), the Astros kept mostly under the radar, which is a welcome change to what happened prior to 2020...and during it as well.
As spring training approaches, here are a few names to watch early this season.
It could be argued that there will be no greater impact via addition to a major league lineup this year than the Astros getting back Alvarez, who missed all but two games last year due to a combination of COVID and knee surgery. Even in his first year when he was the unanimous rookie of the year, he likely wasn't at full strength thanks to his balky knees. If he is indeed healthy for good this time (and it is a critical "if"), there is no reason to think Air Yordan could not return to his rookie form or better. His impact to the team is undeniable when healthy and they didn't have to sign anyone to bring that back to their lineup.
No one is expecting Straw to replace George Springer. It's more likely that Straw is a stopgap measure until the Astros can find a permanent replacement in center field. But, Straw has the kind of wheels that could make him a plus-level defender in Minute Maid's vast outfield, never mind what that has already done for the team on the base paths. If he can give them anything at the plate, particularly at the bottom of the lineup, it will be a bonus. Expect some creative use of Straw's legs including bunt singles. Get him on base and he is a game changer. The hope is he can do the same in the field.
Everyone was ready to put a miserable 2020 in the rearview mirror, but perhaps no one more so than Altuve, who had one of the worst seasons of his career. No one takes that harder than the Astros second baseman and it would be shocking to see someone with his hitting ability suddenly fall off a cliff, especially since he remains one of the quickest players out of the box in the game. If 2020 was a fluke for Altuve, it will bode well for a team that relies on his bat. That is even more true when you figure he is likely to get time leading off this year with the departure of Springer.
The young pitcher opened some eyes with his steady demeanor and wicked stuff in 2020. Now, it will be all about building upon that success. Javier had the second best WHIP of the team's starters and his 4.37 ERA was solid for a rookie. He is currently penciled in as the fifth starter behind Zack Greinke, Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers and Jose Urquidy. That gives the Astros outstanding depth in the rotation, but it also provides some options in the pen where Javier will almost certainly spend some time this season.
Tucker's performance in 2020 (along with the Brantley re-signing) is one of the reasons fans breathed slightly easier at the prospect of losing Springer. Tucker had been touted as one of the team's best prospects for a few years, but had struggled to live up to the hype. Until last year. His nine home runs were nice, but his eye-popping six triples and 12 doubles added nicely to the fact that he walked a bit more last year and kept his slugging and OPS in the range of his much smaller sample size previous year. Tucker needs to continue to mature and turn into the "next" Springer for the Astros in the outfield. With Tucker, Alvarez, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman as a core, their future at the plate looks very solid.
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