For the second time in three years and the third time in the last five years, the Houston Astros were the American League champions in 2021. And for the second time in three years, the Astros watched another club celebrate a World Series title at Minute Maid Park. In 2019 it was the Nationals, and in 2021 it was the Braves that left Houston with the commissioner's trophy.
"It's tough, but you know something, you've got to keep on trucking, and that gives you even more incentive next year. It's tough to take now, but this too shall pass. I mean, it really hurts, but it's over," Astros manager Dusty Baker said following the World Series defeat. "... What can you do except go home, take a shower, figure out how you're going to come back and win it next year."
When the Astros begin the regular season April 7 in Anaheim, they will do so without Carlos Correa, who signed a free-agent deal with the Twins a week-and-a-half ago. Houston tanked to select Correa with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, developed him into an All-Star and MVP candidate, and yet never seemed to make a sincere effort to retain him this past offseason.
That all said, the Correa-less Astros remain a formidable group that is again favored to win the AL West, and will again be on the short list of World Series contenders. But with Correa (and George Springer) gone, and other core players on the wrong side of 30, this group's chances to bring home another title appear to be dwindling. Let's preview the upcoming 'Stros season.
Win total projection, odds
- 2021 record: 95-67 (won AL West, lost World Series)
- 2022 Sportsline projection: 91-71
- World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): +1000
- 2B Jose Altuve
- LF Michael Brantley
- 3B Alex Bregman
- DH Yordan Alvarez
- 1B Yuli Gurriel
- RF Kyle Tucker
- CF Chas McCormick
- SS Jeremy Peña
- C Martín Maldonado
Outfielder Jake Meyers will miss the start of the season following November shoulder surgery, opening the door for Siri to make the Opening Day roster. Although Bregman struggled greatly down the stretch last year, so much so that he was dropped to seventh in the lineup in the World Series, Houston's top six hitters are good as any in the game. Tucker had a breakout season last year and Gurriel only seems to be getting better with age. Also, Alvarez is an absolute monster. He is one of the best (and most physically imposing) hitters in the game right now. The bottom third of the order is lacking. The top two-thirds though? As good as they come.
Odorizzi is not locked into that No. 5 spot, righty Cristian Javier is still very much in the mix, though I'll give the nod to the veteran for our season preview purposes. Anyway, Lance McCullers Jr.'s rehab from last postseason's flexor tendon injury has been "choppy," and he will not be ready for the start of the season. There is no firm timetable for his return, meaning Houston will lean on Verlander to lead the rotation in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. As it stands, the Astros have solid rotation depth, albeit some questions (Verlander's age and return from elbow reconstruction, McCullers' health, etc.).
- Closer: RHP Ryan Pressly
- Setup: RHP Héctor Neris, RHP Ryne Stanek,
- Middle: RHP Pedro Báez, RHP Phil Maton, RHP Rafael Montero, LHP Blake Taylor
- Long: RHP Cristian Javier
As always, the Astros will run a parade of hard-throwers and spin-rate guys out to the mound in the late innings. Teams will have two extra roster spot in April following the truncated spring training, creating room for righty Josh James and someone like Bryan Abreu, Brandon Bielak, or Enoli Paredes on the Opening Day roster. Baker is adept at mixing and matching and putting the "right" relievers on the mound in the game's biggest situation. The Astros project to have a really good bullpen again. No further notes.
And now for three questions about the 2022 Astros.
1. Is Peña ready to replace Correa?
Through no fault of his own, Peña will be compared to Correa all season. The Astros are trying to win a World Series and they let a homegrown star shortstop (Correa was second among all positions player in Baseball-Reference WAR in 2021) leave as a free agent, and they're going to replace him with an unproven rookie. It is a situation ripe for second guessing.
"I never look it as, 'I'm replacing Carlos Correa,'" Peña told MLB.com's Brian McTaggart last week. "Carlos Correa is a great ballplayer. He's done great things in Houston, but I'm Jeremy Peña. I want to play my game. I don't need to fill anyone else's shoes."
At 24, Peña is three years younger than Correa (to the day), and he's played his way into top 100 prospect status after being a relatively unheralded third-round pick out of the University of Maine in 2018. Here's what our R.J. Anderson wrote about Houston's new shortstop in January:
Peña may have made his big-league debut last season had he not undergone wrist surgery in the spring that wiped out most of his year. He did return for a 30-game stretch in Triple-A to close out the campaign, where he hit .287/.346/.598 with 10 home runs. (He's since hit .291/.364/.410 in 30 winter ball games, suggesting his wrist has healed up fine.) At his peak, Peña figures to offer a well-rounded skill set: he'll hit for average, some power, and provide value as both a defender and a baserunner. The one aspect worth monitoring with Peña's game as he nears The Show is his approach: between the minors and winter ball, he's posted a 3.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio; good for a pitcher, not so much for a hitter.
By all accounts Peña is a smart, driven player with a level head, but the fact of the matter is he could have a Rookie of the Year caliber season and still be a multi-win downgrade from Correa simply because Correa is so good. Consider that when Correa was Peña's age, he was a .277/.356/.477 hitter with 81 career homers and close to 500 games of big-league experience.
The Astros have not been shy about letting core players leave in recent years (Gerrit Cole, Springer, etc.), though it's one thing to let a 31-year-old Springer leave. It's another to let a 27-year-old Correa walk out the door. Any comparisons to Correa are unfair to Peña and any criticism about the shortstop position should be directed toward the Astros. It could all work out. Peña could be the game's next great shortstop. There's no denying a World Series contender is taking a major risk at an important position though.
2. Is Verlander still an ace?
The guess here is yes. Verlander is a Hall of Fame talent and those guys tend to defy the odds, and the odds in Verlander's case involve age (39) and Tommy John surgery. It's not unusual for pitchers in their peak years to need a few months (or even a full year) to get back to being themselves following elbow reconstruction. For a 39-year-old, it would be understandable.
"I felt good physically, so that's the important thing," Verlander told McTaggart following a recent spring start. "And then sharpening my pitches is the next thing. I threw some good ones, but consistency to me wasn't where I would like it. Just getting innings under my belt, I think that's the hard thing in spring training, a shortened spring anyway. Coming off two years not pitching, it would be nice to have a little more runway to go out there and get some innings under your belt and get the feel of it."
It feels like a lifetime ago because of the pandemic and the Tommy John surgery, but Verlander did win the Cy Young in 2019, his last healthy season. He showed no signs of slowing down prior to the injury, and while we can never truly call a major elbow surgery "routine," the success rate of Tommy John surgery is pretty darn high. Verlander may need some time to get back to being himself (command is usually the last thing to return following elbow reconstruction), but so far he's hit every rehab benchmark.
Like I said, the bet here is Verlander will get back to being an ace this year. We won't know for certain until he gets more innings in and is back on an every fifth day routine, but everything looks good so far. And given their on paper rotation depth and World Series aspirations, the Astros will live with Verlander shaking off the rust in the first half as long as he's ready to dominate come October.
3. Is this Dusty's last ride?
When the Astros hired Baker two years ago, it felt like he was being brought in as a stopgap. A respected veteran manager to be the adult in the room as Houston dealt with the sign-stealing scandal fallout. Houston gave Baker, now 72, a one-year contract with a club option. GM James Click was hired a few days after Dusty and it felt like Click would eventually bring in his own manager.
That hasn't happened. Baker and the Astros were one win away from reaching the World Series in 2020, then his option was picked up, and they went to the World Series in 2021. Rather than bring in a new manager after last season, Baker received a new one-year contract. Dusty spending three seasons with the Astros would have been considered a surprise when he was hired.
"We have an exciting future here, and present," Baker said during his re-introductory press conference. "I just had some unfinished business to take care of, but we're close. We're getting better every year."
Baker will become the 12th manager with 2,000 career wins this season (he's at 1,987) though he's still looking for his first World Series championship as a manager (he did win a ring as a player with the 1981 Dodgers). If the Astros win the 2022 World Series, it's easy to see Baker calling it a career and riding off into the sunset. If they fall short, will he get a chance to come back in 2023? Will he even want to go through the 162-game grind again at age 73?
Either way, Baker is one of the game's great characters -- at a time when most managers stick to the organizational script and reveal nothing to the media, Dusty provides colorful anecdotes and brutal honesty -- and his age suggests his career is winding down. The Astros want to send him out with a title. But as the Correa situation shows, this team doesn't make emotional decisions, and it's no guarantee Dusty gets another chance to manage in 2023.