Even after falling to the eventual World Series Champion Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros have work to do to make it back to that point in 2019. Having lost key contributors in free agency, this team has holes that need to be plugged efficiently in order to replicate their 2018 success.
With Dallas Keuchel still in free agency but not likely to resign, and Marwin Gonzalez having finally signed with the Minnesota Twins, the Astros need to address their starting rotation and their utilityman role for this season. Both integral parts to their success last year, they will be hard pressed to find two better contributors with what is left in the free agency and trade markets or currently within their organization.
Former Milwaukee Brewers left-hander Wade Miley was signed for a cheap, one year contract in hopes of being a stopgap for the Astros in their rotation. Miley, who underwent a career resurgence in 2018 with the Brewers, waited out the stale free agency market before latching on with the Astros in hopes to return to the American League and regain some of his success, as he used to be a dominant lefty for the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners.
Even with these holes needing to be filled, the Astros are fielding a team that ranks in the upper echelon of competition in the AL. Along with the mainstays of Boston and the New York Yankees, Houston ranks right up there in terms of potential and competition.
Here are three big-time factors for the Astros that much go right in order for them to make it back to the World Series.
Brantley needs to play likes its 2014
For those who do not know, 2014 was seemingly Brantley’s career year, as he accomplished career highs in batting average, home runs, RBIs and season WAR. For Houston to keep moving along without skipping a beat, Brantley will need to play up to those standards, or at least close to them, in 2019.
While his health has been a worrisome aspect that has plagued most of his career, the former Brewers farmhand was sent to the Cleveland Indians all the way back in 2008 in the infamous C.C. Sabathia trade. Never having played an inning of MLB ball for the Brewers, Brantley rose through the minors with Cleveland and supplanted himself as their center fielder of the future, showcasing the type of talent they saw when they acquired him.
Having not been resigned in Cleveland due to cutting costs, Brantley went off the market by signing a two year, $32 million deal on Dec. 17, ending his foray into free agency rather smoothly. Listed as their left fielder for 2019, Brantley should help alleviate some issues with Gonzalez leaving, provided his health remains in good standing.
Verlander, Cole must shoulder the load
Losing Keuchel not only hurts the team but pressures the remaining starters to perform at a higher level, as they must now take on more responsibility when starting games. Bringing in Miley should only be seen as a lower move, as Miley will have a much harder time replicating his 2018 season with the Astros, only because the AL is more solid top to bottom and his ground-ball reliance will be hard-pressed to be efficient now.
The league knows what kind of pitcher Miley is now, as in his reinvention he relied heavily on the cutter to get in on hitters hands and force weak groundouts. Backed up by a stout infield in Milwaukee, Miley could afford to go inside on hitters time and time again, knowing that his slower pitches looked too tantalizing to hitters to pass up.
Verlander and Cole were both masterful in 2018 but may undergo some relapses when trying to pitch in 2019. While not saying injuries will occur, these two pitchers will become even more of the face of the pitching efforts, hoping to go longer in games and save the bullpen from having to pull more than what they are expected to.
While in Milwaukee, Miley would average around five innings per start, but with how dominant the bullpen was behind him, there was not much of a concern with that workload. With the Astros, their pen is good but not built like Milwaukee’s, increasing the chances of burn out on arms earlier in the year, potentially forcing Jeff Luhnow’s hand in making a trade to get a few pieces into the bullpen to freshen it up.
Role of a catcher even more important in 2019
The position of backstop has been an issue as of late for this team, relying on mid-season acquisition Martin Maldonado to handle the brunt of the catching throughout the majority of the season in which he was there. With Maldy now gone, the starting job looks to be in the hands of Robinson Chirinos, an unheralded and offensively-challenged catcher who will be asked to carry much more than he is used to.
Chirinos, who is battling with Max Stassi to start, is only projected to hit for a .232 average by RotoChamp. Not known for his offense, Chirinos will be called upon to not only handle the bat, but to also handle a pitching staff who has undergone big changes this offseason.
By losing Keuchel, this opened the door for famed prospect Forrest Whitley to enter the picture for a spot in the starting rotation. Currently listed as the no. 6 option, behind Miley and Brad Peacock, Whitley needs to use spring training to reign in his control and work against MLB-level hitters to get his confidence up and improve his stuff so he can factor more into Houston’s plans for 2019.
Houston has a great chance to make noise in the AL playoffs in 2019, but they are in desperate need to fill a few gaps in their lineup. Losing Keuchel will be a big blow to them, forcing them to rely more on the likes of Miley, Peacock and Whitley, but losing Gonzalez will hurt even more. Gonzalez afforded them a great deal of positional flexibility, something that the franchise is not given with him out of the fold.
While the Astros are only a few pieces away from making it back to the World Series, those pieces could ultimately lead to their downfall as well.