Sports

The 2022 Astros: Five Thoughts to Open the Season

Justin Verlander is back and ready to dominate again.
Justin Verlander is back and ready to dominate again. Photo by Jack Gorman
Despite a long lockout on the offseason after yet another World Series appearance for the Astros, baseball is back. The Astros begin the season with 10 days on a West Coast road trip before their opening day at Minute Maid Park.

Despite losing Carlos Correa, this will be another very good ballclub. There are good reasons for optimism and also some concerns that will need to be addressed, but it's just great to have baseball back. Here are our thoughts to start the season.

Sorting out the outfield.

With Jake Meyers on the shelf after shoulder surgery last fall, aggressive youngster Jose Siri and veteran Chas McCormick will platoon in center field flanked by Kyle Tucker in right and Michael Brantley in left. The Stros haven't been the same offensively since they lost George Springer before last season, but without Meyers for the beginning of the year, the biggest concern will be defense.

McCormick is the better defender with Siri offering more pop at the plate, but whether or not Siri can grow into a regular everyday player is still a big question mark. Tucker and Brantley (along with Yordan Alvarez, who will spend some time in left field this season) will anchor the outfield, but figuring out what to do in center will be a persistent issue at least in the near term.

Will Alex Bregman return to form?

Two seasons ago, the Astros third baseman was on the short list of possible MVP candidates. But injuries have derailed the last couple of years including hand surgery in the offseason. At 28, Bregman should absolutely be in his prime in the field and at the plate. He was not that long ago. If he can get back there this year, few will worry much about the loss of Correa in the batter's box. It's going to be a big year for Bregs.

The bullpen is the weakest link for now.

The starting rotation, even without Lance McCullers, Jr. (for who knows how long) is remarkable strong and stable. But, the bullpen is a bit of a mystery. Ryan Pressly is the anchor closer and there are some solid names like Phil Maton, Ryne Stanek, Hector Neris and Christian Javier. But, there still remains just one lefty in the pen in Blake Taylor, and there won't be much confidence in throwing him against a lefty unless it is the last out of an inning given the three-batter rule for relievers.

Maton is likely their best option against lefties given his style of pitching and Javier should give them plenty of solid long relief against either side of the plate. But, no one knows if Maton can repeat his outstanding postseason play last year or if Stanek can be the set up man they hope. Far more questions than answers in the pen to start the season, which is why this will likely be the first place GM James Click looks for trade opportunities when the trade deadline approaches.

Patience is the key with Jeremy Peña.

The young shortstop has been simply outstanding in spring training showing a good eye at the plate, some pop with his bat and flashy glove work in the field. He's likely to continue his quality defense, a quality everyone can see is plus level already. Still, Peña, like all rookies, is likely to have his struggles at the plate. The key is going to be patience.

As rookies, both Tucker and Bregman were often derided by fans as busts early on. That has obviously changed and probably will for Peña eventually, but everyone will need to temper expectations. The good news is the Astros still have capable backup Aledmys Diaz, which should take some of the pressure off when things aren't going well.

Never underestimate Justin Verlander.

When Verlander came into spring training throwing 96 and 97mph, it was a signal that, regardless of age, this is still one of the most intimidating and dangerous pitchers in baseball. What the Astos will need to do is figure out how to give their big horse as much as he wants while still treating his season a bit with kid gloves.

There was no doubt they missed his big arm and dominating presence in the playoffs last year. As determined as he might be, they cannot afford to lose Verlander to another injury before getting to the postseason. But, it's not going to be easy to keep him out.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke