Welcome to what has got to be the strangest opening day in the history of baseball. The Astros get their abbreviated regular season underway on Friday night at Minute Maid Park against division rival Seattle. Like every other team in this 60-game mini season, the Astros will have 40 games against teams in their division and 20 games against teams in the same regional division of the National League (the NL West).
There are rule changes like the universal DH, the three-batter requirement for relief pitchers and the runner on second with no outs to begin any extra inning game. But, there is nothing overshadowing the start of the season more than the coronavirus. That was put into greater focus on Wednesday when it was announced Astros broadcaster Todd Kalas would miss the start of the season after testing positive for the virus and Royals outfielder, Hunter Dozier, got a positive test as well just a day after playing six innings against the Astros in Kansas City.
Still, baseball is here and there is certainly excitement among fans and those who follow the game. We have four thoughts on the start to what is bound to be the most interesting MLB season in recent history.
Astros are still not close to full strength.
The delay in the start to the season helped certain Astros, like pitcher Justin Verlander, fully recover from offseason injuries and surgery, but that doesn't mean the team is where it wants to be. Assumed back-of-the-rotation starter Jose Urquidy and rookie of the year Yordan Alvarez have yet to join the team. No one will say why, but COVID infections are assumed. Alvarez, in particular, was to play a major role in the middle of the team's already powerful lineup and there is still no word on when he will join them.
The bullpen is also suffering from the late arrival of closer Roberto Osuna, who hasn't started pitching from the mound yet, and Joe Smith who will likely not play this season due to the vulnerability of family members to the virus. That leaves what was likely to be a solid bullpen wanting, especially with the departure of Will Harris in free agency and the loss of second ace Gerrit Cole to New York. The Astros will need to piece it together with a lot of young arms to start the season.
All eyes on Lance McCullers, Jr.
After missing all of 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, McCullers, is clearly fired up to get back on the mound in real games and the team desperately needs him to perform well. If camp is any indication, he could be a valuable asset this season. In addition to one of the nastiest curve balls in baseball, the right hander appeared in midseason form against Kansas City, throwing fastballs with movement in the mid to upper 90s. That is a great sign for a team that really needs a full season from him and has him penciled in as the number two starter in the rotation. If that happens to be a breakout season as well, all the better.
How long before COVID complications impact the Astros?
More of a "when" than "if," the virus is bound to strike the team during the season. Unlike the NBA, where the bubble and lack of teams might actually help them prevent COVID-19 from spreading throughout the league, MLB teams travel to other cities and outside-of-the-ballpark interactions will potentially expose players and staff to the virus. Even with constant testing, there is no way to prevent someone from getting it and any kind of outbreak, particularly among members of the pitching or catching staff, could be a disaster.
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Shortened season puts pressure on big name free agents.
If the tumultuous and very public negotiations over the start of this season were any indication, the discussions regarding a new collective bargaining agreement between owners and players will be fraught with problems. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about that until after next season. But if you do feel like futurecasting into free agency 2021 and beyond, you can start right here with the Astros.
The entire starting outfield will be on the open after 2020 including George Springer, arguably the heart and soul of the team. Additionally, Yuli Gurriel is up for arbitration that could lead to free agency for him as well, as some have speculated. It seems a foregone conclusion that this will be Josh Reddick's final season with the team. Despite his popularity, the Astros are pinning their hopes on Kyle Tucker, who hopes to get time at DH and platooned with Reddick in the outfield. And stalwart pro Michael Brantley will probably be moving on as well. The team needs flexibility given how much they already have committed to a handful of players. That leaves Springer, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason, with a big contract negotiation looming.
And if you really want to dig into the prospects for the team and start freaking out, check out the free agent list for 2022: Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, McCullers, Carlos Correa and Roberto Osuna. Of course, we'll all either be dead or baseball will have blown itself up by then, so let's not worry about that and just PLAY BALL!