Being an Astros fan over the last month or so has not been easy. Starting with the January 13 announcement by owner Jim Crane that GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch would be fired, it's been hard to find a safe haven from the criticism of the team and fans of other teams shaming you because you root for a team caught up in a cheating scandal. Hell, there's even a former Blue Jay pitcher named Mike Bolsinger suing the Astros for ruining his career (because apparently his career wasn't ruined already by his 4.93 ERA).
Soon, Thursday to be precise, pitchers and catchers will assemble in West Palm Beach. Position players will be there shortly thereafter. The questions will rain down on the Astros players and management like a monsoon. So I feel it is my job to soothe some of you who are hurting from all this and talk about — wait for it, wait for it — ACTUAL BASEBALL!
What a novel concept! One thing we do know its that the Astros will still be one of the three or four most talented teams in the sport. We also know that perhaps their most irreplaceable player from 2019, ace pitcher Gerrit Cole, is gone. Even worse, he left to go to the Astros' main competitor in the AL, the New York Yankees.
Cole's 20-5 record doesn't begin to measure his impact in 2019. By the second half of the season, he was as close to an automatic win as any pitcher I've ever watched in my lifetime. The Astros finished the season with 107 wins, but now must replace Cole, who was conservatively worth 6.8 wins via the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) stat, but likely worth even more than that.
The Astros have one of the three highest payrolls in the game, and they're bumping up against the luxury tax threshold, so spending in free agency was not an option. The solutions to replicate 2019's regular season must come from improvement within. So here are four places that I feel can provide enough improvement to get the Astros back in the mix for a World Series title.
Kyle Tucker plays like a fifth overall pick
There's a reason why former GM Luhnow was insistent on keeping Tucker's name out of any trade proposals with teams looking to stock up on younger players — it's because he thought at some point Tucker would begin to swing the bat like a former fifth overall pick in the draft, as Tucker was in 2015. Tucker was decidedly better in his second go round in the big leagues in 2019 than his first in 2018. Tucker nearly doubled his OPS fro .439 to .857, and hit four home runs in 67 at bats in 2019, showing pop that the Astros will love to have on the cheap for a few more years. In a perfect world, Tucker displaces Josh Reddick in right field, and the Astros find a place to dump Reddick's $13 million salary. Tucker's upside as a hitter is in a different stratosphere than Reddick's.
Carlos Correa makes the "leap" forecasted two years ago
Two years ago, following the 2017 championship run, Correa was finding himself in the top ten on nearly every "best players in baseball" list. He showed the ability to hit for power, and hit in clutch situations, with five home runs in the 2017 postseason. Then came the injuries. First, it was a back injury that essentially turned him into the equivalent of an NL pitcher at the plate in the second half of 2018, then a mysterious rib injury caused by a wonky massage in 2019. Correa was batting seventh in the order for most of the postseason. It's practically imperative that Correa regain his 2017 form (.941 OPS) if the Astros are going back to winning games with big lumber, especially on non Verlander and non Greinke start days.
Lance McCullers is "first half of 2017" McCullers
Now, one way you increase your margin for error on those non Verlander, non Greinke days is to get better starting pitching in the three, four, and five spots in the rotation. Lance McCullers spent the entire 2019 season rehabbing his pitching elbow coming off of Tommy John surgery. McCullers is fully healthy now, but will be on a strict pitch count throughout the season. If McCullers can consistently give the team five strong innings every time out my the second half of the season — I'd expect lots of three inning starts early on in the year — then that's certainly one way to keep the starting pitching from becoming a potential flaw heading into October.
A full season of Yordan!
Other than telling every other fan base to shove it up their back side during another World Series run, this might be what I'm most excited about — a full season of hitting phenom Yordan Alvarez. In his rookie campaign, we was a runaway winner for AL Rookie of the Year, despite not arriving in the big leagues until June. This one is pretty simple — in just 87 games, Alvarez hit 27 home runs, drove in 78 runs, and had a 1.067 OPS. Extrapolated out, his 162 game numbers? 50 home runs, 145 runs batted in, and obviously that same 1.067 OPS. I am here for that, baby.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.