Richard Justice: The Astros are back in a familiar place, and baseball’s best team will roll again in 2023

Mandatory Credit: Photo by TRASK SMITH/UPI/Shutterstock (11665855a) A general view of Minute Maid Park as Houston Astros starting pitcher Brandon Bielak pitches to Colorado Rockies’ Garrett Hampson in the first inning in Houston on Monday, August 17, 2020. Photo by Trask Smith/UPI UPI Pictures of the Year 2020 – Sports

Richard Justice: The Astros are back in a familiar place, and baseball’s best team will roll again in 2023

   No one could have predicted that Bryan Abreu would end up being the Astros’ most dominant postseason reliever last fall. On Opening Day last year, he was penciled in as one of Dusty Baker’s middlemen, not the guy to pitch with a World Series game on the line.

   Six months later, he did just that and didn’t allow a run in 10 postseason appearances, covering 11 1/3 innings. That was the appropriate finishing touch for a season in which he got better and better.

   “He did everything we asked him to do in those big moments,” teammate Martín Maldonado said.

   Abreu’s only prior playoff experience had consisted of one appearance three years earlier in a mop-up role against the Yankees, and he had a 27.00 postseason ERA to show for that bruising evening.

   Nor would anyone have guessed that rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña would be the Astros’ best postseason hitter.

   Or that rookie infielder David Hensley would start Games 3 and 5 of the World Series.

   Or that center fielder Chas McCormick and first baseman Trey Mancini would make the most spectacular defensive plays of the World Series.

   Or that Cristian Javier—and not Justin Verlander or Framber Valdez—would nearly single-handedly change the momentum of the Fall Classic just as the Philadelphia Phillies were poised to take control.

   The Astros had just suffered a 7-0 beatdown in Game 3 and were in danger of falling behind three games to one when Javier stepped onto the mound in Game 4.

   He pitched six no-hit innings that night and kept the Phillies in check until the Astros scored five runs in the fifth inning. That pretty much was that. Three relievers finished the second no-hitter in World Series history, and the Astros would not lose again.

   And that’s the beauty of a baseball season. And that’s also why winning has not become boring for baseball’s most successful organization. Even as they win and win and win some more, the Astros keep changing right before our eyes.

    That makes the journey more interesting. We know where they’ll be starting but can’t know what they’ll look like at the finish line.

   All we really know for sure is that the Astros are again baseball’s best team. Remarkably, even after six straight playoff appearances, they’re not even an old team.

   Their starting rotation, one of the three best in the game, does not have a single 30-year-old. Their two best offensive players, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker are 25 and 26, respectively. And Bryan Abreu, he of the elite fastball-curveball combination, is also 25.

   The Astros of 2022 were a significantly different team at the end than they were at the beginning. While the stars (Jose Altuve, Verlander, etc.) did their usual thing, we were introduced to players like Hunter Brown and Hensley that weren’t even on the radar for most of us when the season began,

   The Astros could do that again this season. Be prepared for Justin Dirden and Ronel Blanco and probably others.

   Every team begins with a reasonable blueprint for maximizing its talent. That blueprint can’t completely take into account things like injuries, slumps, and players who take advantage of their opportunities. Even an experienced team like the Astros, a team with a proven core, can’t foresee the twists and turns.

   This is where the Astros begin this Opening Day, with the hoisting of another championship banner before playing the White Sox on Thursday at Minute Maid Park.

   Even with the departure of Verlander to the Mets and with the Rangers, Mariners, and Angels all getting better in the American League West, the Astros remain solid favorites to make a seventh straight postseason appearance.

   Spring training raised questions as Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, and Lance McCullers Jr. will begin the season on the injured list. Alvarez played only a handful of games because of a sore hand (or hands) that sidelined him for a portion of last season as well.

    The Astros are determined to play the long game with all of them, hoping they still have enough to get them through the first half of the regular season in good shape. But those injuries are forcing the club’s decision-makers to consider an array of other options and hope that players like Dirden and Blanco are capable of contributing.

   Only the Dodgers have won more regular-season games during these last seven seasons, and the most remarkable aspect is that the Astros have continued to win while maintaining a financial discipline.

   This almost never happens in baseball. Teams win big, then when they’re gutted by free agency, they undertake an ugly rebuilding period. Or they blow right through their budget to keep the core group together and end up with aging players and a bloated payroll. This is why MLB hasn’t had a repeat champion since the Yankees won their third straight World Series in 2000.

   The Astros have churned their roster every season and said their goodbyes to a boatload of talent, including George Springer, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole, and Verlander. But their minor league system has done a fabulous job of developing pitching as well as Tucker, Alvarez, and Peña. Only Altuve, McCullers, and Alex Bregman remain from the 2017 World Series champions.

   To continue to win at a high level despite such a high turnover rate speaks volumes about both the minor league system and the major league culture and leadership.

   Still, there are concerns. The Astros have control of the core of this roster for two more seasons, but the margin of error is thinner than ever.

   Rotation depth is at the top of the worry list. McCullers’ forearm issue has forced Hunter Brown into the fifth spot in the rotation. Before that, he was the rotation insurance. At some point this summer, the Astros are going to need a starter from their minor league system, and while there are interesting prospects—Forrest Whitley, Jayden Murray, Will Wagner—all are unproven.

   That was the case with Brown last summer, and he could not have been better. As for Dirden, he bolted onto the club’s radar screen last season when he tore up Double-A pitching and was promoted to Triple-A. Although he did not make the Opening Day roster, he figures to make his major league debut at some point this summer.

   As problems go, these are minor ones. If Alvarez opens the season on the injured list, it would leave manager Dusty Baker without the three players he projected would hit first, second and third.

   That’ll force some rearranging of the furniture, but as long as the pitching is good—and it figures to be excellent again—the Astros will be back in the mix.

   If you’re an Astros fan of a certain age, this is an era you once could not have comprehended. The Astros did not win a postseason series in any of their first 42 seasons. Here’s hoping we never take winning for granted. While this run is sure to end sometime, it probably won’t be in 2023.

Related Posts:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *