American League West
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Last year’s record: 95-67
It isn’t fair at all that the first thing that pops into my head when seeing those two words — Houston and Astros — put together is “Cheaters.” I am fully aware that the Astros were hardly the only team to push the edge on sign-stealing technology. I am fully aware that whatever advantages they might have gained through the garbage-can scheme do not change the fact Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa and George Springer and the rest were and are incredible hitters.
And I am fully aware that 2017 was five years ago now and, at some point, we all have to move on.
But it’s reflexive now — when I see the words “Mel Gibson” or “Ryan Lochte” or “Trouble With the Curve” or “Houston Astros,” my mind goes to a place whether I want it to or not. And I totally get Astros fans who are sick of it, who find it unfair, who just want to go on with their lives.
But we only have so much control over where our thoughts roam.
It’s funny … I think now about what the words “Houston Astros” meant to me BEFORE all this nonsense. For a long time, “Houston Astros” meant Jose Cruz. Remember that awesome batting stance he had? The high leg kick? The way he held the bat as far from his head as possible? We don’t talk enough about Jose Cruz. More to the point, we don’t talk enough about guys LIKE Jose Cruz. I mean, think about how many times in your life Jim Rice has come up in conversation. Probably quite a bit if you’re close to my age. Now think about how many times Jose Cruz has come up in conversation. Probably never.
Was Jim Rice that much better a player than Jose Cruz?
Or for that matter, was Jim Rice ANY better a player than Jose Cruz?
Jim Rice: .298/.352/.502, 2,452 hits, 373 doubles, 79 triples, 382 homers, 58 steals.
Jose Cruz: .284/.354/.420, 2,251 hits, 391 doubles, 94 triples, 165 homers, 317 steals.
So, Rice has the higher batting average and more than twice as many home runs.
Cruz has a slightly higher OBP, more doubles and triples and almost six times as many steals.
Rice played half his games at Fenway Park, which was a ludicrous hitters’ park then (much less so now).
Cruz played about half his games in the Houston Astrodome, which was a hitters’ dungeon.
Cruz was a better outfielder and hit into fewer than half as many double plays.
I don’t know who was better. Baseball-Reference WAR has Cruz well ahead (54.4 WAR to 47.7 WAR). FanGraphs has them with identical WAR (50.8). Rice is certainly much more famous. He won an MVP award. He played in four times as many All-Star games. He played in Boston. And it is true that fame is a big part of the Hall of Fame. But that doesn’t mean that we should overlook how good Jose Cruz was.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with the 2022 Astros but you should know that these team essays will just go where they go, and anyway, it’s better than writing about them cheating, right?
Justin Verlander has pitched one big-league game in two years and he’s 39 years old, So what can you really expect here? Before answering that, you should know that Verlander has proven the doubters wrong time and again over his career, and he insists that now he’s feeling good, really good, so good that he insists he has a chance to win 300 games. Really.
He currently has 226 wins, which isn’t very close to 300. It seems to me that his best path to 300 would be:
To win 20 games in each of the next four years (well, if he followed this path he’d have to win only 14 games in his age-42 season .. win-win!).
To win 15 games in each of the next five seasons (again he’d have to win only 14 in the last of those seasons).
To win 10 games a year until he’s 45 (and then he’d have to win only four games in his age-46 season).
Are any of these possible? Well, that word, “possible,” contains multitudes. Obviously, I’d love to see it.
Framber Valdez had one weird 2021 season. His strikeout rate went down, his walk rate went way up, and yet he still had a 3.14 ERA because, get this, he had a 70% ground ball rate. SEVENTY PERCENT. Nobody in baseball was even close to that. In fact, no pitcher in the past decade has been close to that. Valdes would toss his keys to a valet, and somebody would hit a ground ball off it. I don’t know how sustainable that is, but a 70% groundball rate is a cool fact for you to kick around at the office.
The Astros do have a lot of pitching depth with Luis Garcia, Lance McCullers Jr., Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier … any of them could jump up and be a top-end pitcher for this team. I’d keep a particular eye on McCullers, who still has that obscene curveball that he now throws almost exclusively to lefties, but he has added an almost equally wicked slider that liquifies righties.
GRADE (max 10): 7.0
Ryan Pressly has made himself into one of the most valuable relievers in baseball. The team was also really happy to pick up Philadelphia’s Hector Neris. It also looks like — as we try to get the latest news in the Pozeroski Baseball Preview — that the Astros have decided to make Cristian Javier, with his wipeout slider, a bullpen guy, at least for the time being.
GRADE (max 10): 5.5
With pitchers no longer hitting in baseball, we will need to scratch that “watching players who cannot hit surprise us” itch with guys like Martin Maldonado. During the postseason last year, he was as close as you could get to a sure out.
But the Astros believe his defense — and the way he handles pitchers — is so essential to this team’s success that they will have a .172/.272/.300 hitter in the lineup most days and enjoy the 10 or so times a year he knocks a ball out. Backup Jason Castro isn’t exactly Yogi Berra at the plate, but compared to Maldonado he is.
GRADE (max 10): 3.5
I don’t know about you, but I could not get over how helpless Alex Bregman looked in the ALCS and World Series last year. It was really jarring. Bregman is such a good player who does so many things well that you just never expect him to look that bad … but he couldn’t even touch the ball in October. Looking back, it’s pretty clear that a nasty wrist injury was bothering him a lot more than he was letting on.
But even beyond the injury, Bregman has not been anything close to himself since almost winning the league MVP in 2019. That year, he hit .296/.423/.592 with 37 doubles, 41 homers and a league-leaguing 119 walks. He also played Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base. He was making his case to challenge Mike Trout and Mookie Betts as the best player in baseball … but he hasn’t been anywhere near that level since. The hope is he’s healthy this year so we can see the great Alex Bregman again.
At age 32, Jose Altuve is not quite the offensive machine he was from 2014 through 2018, when he hit .331 and won three batting titles and twice led the league in stolen bases. He still hits, though; he just hits differently. He strikes out a little more, takes a few more walks, doesn’t take any chances on the bases and launch-angles a few more balls out of the park. Yes, that might make him a little bit less dynamic and a little bit less fun to watch, but he’s still a wonder and the very heart of this team.
With Carlos Correa gone, the shortstop of the present and future seems to be 24-year-old Jeremy Pena, son of former Cardinals second baseman Geronimo Pena. Jeremy has been catching scouts’ eyes with his glove for a while now, but there were always questions about his bat. Last year he showed a little more pop in the minors, and the Astros can’t wait any longer. Houston did pick up former Tiger Niko Goodrum if the moment proves to be too big for Pena.
First baseman Yuli Gurriel will turn 38 soon, but he still does Yuli Gurriel things, which means hitting the ball very hard. He won the batting title last year. And his defense turned enough heads that he picked up his first Gold Glove.
GRADE (max 10): 7.0
You might not have noticed it — I didn’t really notice it — but Kyle Tucker was actually the best hitter on the Astros last year. It was his first full season, but it didn’t feel that way because Tucker has been on every baseball radar since he was the fifth overall pick out of high school in the 2015 draft. Three straight years — from 2017 to 2019 — he was a Top 20 Baseball America prospect. Tucker had a 30-30 season in Class AAA Round Rock in 2019, then came up and slugged .537 in 22 games for Houston.
During the COVID season, he led the league in triples.
But, to me at least, he fell into the background. Why? I think it’s because everything else in Houston is SO FAMILIAR. We know all these players: Bregman and Altuve and Gurriel and Michael Brantley and all the rest. Adding Tucker is like when they add a new character on a show like “Mad Men” — oh look, there’s a new young ad salesperson! OK, I don’t care, I just want to see more Don and Peggy and Joan.
But Tucker IS Don and Peggy and Joan now. He’s the big star — 37 doubles, 30 homers, .557 slugging, plus-defense, excellent baserunner, and he’s only 25. Kyle Tucker is a legit MVP candidate right now.
I mentioned Jose Cruz a bit earlier for no apparent reason. Well, maybe there was a reason: