Welcome to Opening Day, one of the best days in sports. The defending world champion Houston Astros begin the defense of their title at home against the Chicago White Sox on Thursday with a first pitch from Megan Thee Stallion and a "Play ball" call from Mark Wahlberg. It will be quite the first day of the season.
But, like all baseball seasons, it's a marathon. Game 1 is a long way from game 162, never mind the playoffs and another potential World Series. The Astros had the shortest of off-seasons that was packed with big changes including a new general manager, the loss of an ace, and the injury of one of their most recognizable stars. It's already an intriguing year and Framber Valdez hasn't thrown out the first pitch.
We have some bold predictions so let's get it.
Most improved player: Ronel Blanco
Blanco had a rough go of it in 2022, but he is poised to help this team's dominant bullpen be even better. GM Dana Brown thinks Blanco could be a part-time and even eventual full-time starter. A a result, they have stretched him out to three innings in Spring Training and he has delivered allowing only one run in 14 innings of work with 17 strikeouts and only three walks. Expect big things from him this season.
Most likely to regress: Jose Altuve
This is not a knock on the second baseman's age or skillset, but simply the fact he is going to miss two months with a thumb injury. Altuve has always started slow. It took a blistering August last year to get him to .300 for the year and then he had a miserable postseason. He is still going to be an outstanding leadoff hitter when he returns, but we expect less production from him than in previous years primarily due to loss of time from his injury.
Best bullpen arm: Bryan Abreu
Abreu was arguably their best bullpen arm last year despite Ryan Stanek's remarkable team ERA record. Something clicked for Abreu last year and he went from being a guy with really good stuff and not great control to an absolute dominating presence on the mound. Things should be no different this year and he grows even further into his anchor role in the middle of an absolutely stacked 'pen.
Best starting pitcher: Christian Javier
Some around the league have suggested Javier could be a Cy Young contender this year and we don't necessarily disagree. His breakout year in 2022 displayed one of the most deadly pitches in baseball, his "invisiball" heater that befuddles hitters. And he's added a wicked slider that he controlled well in Spring Training. He won't be the first pitcher out of the gate this season, but he could be the ace by year's end.
Biggest surprise: Luis Garcia
We believe 2023 could be for Garcia what 2022 was for Javier. Everyone spent most of the offseason discussing how Garcia would have to change his pitching motion from the slow "rock-the-baby" motion he had employed thanks to new league rule enforcement. But, he has adapted quickly and already had the kind of stuff to make him a dangerous pitcher. He only missed the postseason because the team had SO many good pitchers ahead of him. The loss of Justin Verlander gives him a chance and we expect him to seize it.
There are few players more intimidating at the plate than Alvarez and that legend only grew with the two monster home runs he hit to propel the Astros in the postseason including the moonshot onto the batter's eye in game six of the World Series. Though he has had a sore hand throughout Spring Training, he switched to an ax-handle style bat and has come out just absolutely bombing away. If he can remain healthy, the sky is the limit for him. Oh, and he's playing a more credible left field now as well.
Most important defensive player: Jeremy Peña
With no more shift, the need for players on the diamond with range just went up and few are as fluid at short as last year's phenomenal rookie. He may have more range than former Astro Carlos Correa and that is saying a lot. Peña became the first rookie ever to win a Gold Glove at shortstop and it was deserved. Now that they will rely on him even more without the shift, we fully expect he will remain one of the game's best at the position.
Rookie of the Year: Hunter Brown
It's clearly his to lose for this team (if not for the entire American League). Don't blink on Yanier Diaz, who looks like he is about to start crushing at the big league level, but Brown could quickly rise into one of the team's three best pitchers, particularly thanks to the time he had last season, including the playoffs. After a slow start in Spring Training, he has come back firing. If he can command his pitches the way he did last season, he is headed towards becoming one of the best young pitchers in baseball.
There are some prognosticators out there who think Tucker could be on the shortlist for AL MVP when all is said and done. It has felt like Tucker was on the verge of a breakout and we think this is his year. He's already a Gold Glove winner and an All Star. With the new rules, he could hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. He nearly did that last year. Is 40-40 even out of reach? If he can avoid any big slumps like he has had in the past, he very well could be the best right fielder in the AL. It probably won't hurt him to think about losing arbitration every time he steps into the box.
Final Record: 100-62 - AL West Champs
Vegas has the Astros at an over/under of 95.5, just behind the Dodgers in terms of overall wins. This feels low even if they get off to a slow start while missing Altuve, Michael Brantley and Lance McCullers. There will be a moment midway through the season where they may even be behind in the division and they shift into a different gear. People will have forgotten how good the Astros are and suddenly they'll be battling for the best record in the majors. Watch it happen.
End of Year Prediction: Lose to San Diego Padres in the World Series
The Astros will make their seventh straight ALCS and move on to the World Series yet again, but repeating is incredibly difficult. We fear injuries and fatigue may finally catch up to them even after they get back to the biggest stage. We hope we are wrong, but it feels like they need a year off from winning another title just to be forced to prove yet again how great they are in 2024.