As the 2019 season nears and the White Sox get ready to take on the rest of the American League, we're taking a team-by-team look at all 14 of their opponents.
There are three uber teams, three playoff locks in the American League. And these Astros are one of them.
The 2017 champs are coming into 2019 with a lot more questions than they've had since rising from the AL West's basement to be its dominant team (more on those in a bit), but they still provide plenty of reasons to be thrilled about their chances to put another ring on their collective finger.
The top four in their lineup is the best in baseball. Not even the New York Yankees with their Stantons and Judges or the now Harper-fied Philadelphia Phillies or the Cubs with three MVP candidates (when healthy) can compare. The defending-champion Boston Red Sox can, of course, with Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts. But I'll still take the Houston quartet of George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. That's a pitcher's worst nightmare right there, four MVP candidates who can put up a ton of runs in a hurry.
I mean, trying to pick which one of these guys is the best is like trying to pick your favorite ZZ Top album: "Tres Hombres"? "Deguello"? "Fandango!"? "Eliminator"? It's impossible to choose!
Bregman's taking his turn as the star of the show, coming off an MVP-caliber season (he finished fifth in the voting, behind Betts, Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez and Martinez) in which he reached base at a .394 clip, hit 31 homers, drove in 103 runs, led baseball with 51 doubles and played a sensational third base. None of that should overshadow just how good the other three guys are, household names the lot of them at this point. But, and this will become a theme with these Astros, they're coming off relative down years.
The 2017 season was spectacular, with everyone in the lineup seemingly firing on all cylinders. Altuve won the MVP, Correa and Springer combined for 58 home runs, and Marwin Gonzalez had a season that landed him in the top 20 in MVP voting. Well, all those guys saw their numbers dip in the follow-up season, which isn't unexpected, nor did it drop them to league average status. But they'll all be looking for bounce-back campaigns, with Gonzalez doing it as a Minnesota Twin.
What was electric and helped the Astros get back to the ALCS, was the pitching. Justin Verlander, again, is still one of the best pitchers in the game at 36, fresh off a remarkable first full season with the Stros. He posted a 2.52 ERA with an AL-best 290 strikeouts in 214 innings last season. In still fewer than 40 starts as an Astro, he's got a 2.32 ERA with 333 strikeouts. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he's still dealing enough to be a reason to pick the Astros to win the World Series. So, too, is his rotation-mate, Gerrit Cole. Cole was just as spectacular in 2018, with a 2.88 ERA and 276 strikeouts in 200.1 innings.
But Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 Cy Young winner and the owner of a 3.39 ERA over the last two seasons, is a free agent. Charlie Morton, who had a 3.36 ERA in two seasons in Houston, is a Tampa Bay Ray. Lance McCullers Jr., who had a 3.86 ERA last season, is out for the year with Tommy John.
Take those starting-pitching departures/absences with Gonzalez going elsewhere, a downgrade at catcher from Martin Maldonado (now on the Kansas City Royals) to Robinson Chirinos and the aforementioned down years for some of the hitters, and this is hardly a team without its issues. And that championship window could be shrinking sooner than anyone might expect from a rebuild that just recently bore championship fruit: Verlander and Cole are both free agents after the 2019 season.
The good news is they still have a fleet of All Stars, whether they're coming off elite seasons or not. Then there's the addition of another All Star in Michael Brantley, a big-time upgrade in left field who has quietly been one of the American League's most consistently good hitters in recent years, with a .311/.371/.475 slash line and a 1.15 strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2014. And the Astros' top two prospects are two of the highest-rated ones in the game: outfielder Kyle Tucker, who made 72 major league plate appearances in 2018 (with poor results), and starting pitcher Forrest Whitley, who had a 3.76 ERA at Double-A Corpus Christi last season.
So the good far outweighs the bad for a team that's going to be a runaway favorite to win a third straight division title in the AL West. This team would look a lot better, though, if it could convince the still-unemployed Keuchel to come back. We'll see how that works out.
But it's the Fab Four at the top of the order that will determine whether this is a second World Series season in three years for the Stros.
2018 record: 103-59, first place in AL West
Offseason additions: Michael Brantley, Robinson Chirinos, Wade Miley, Aledmys Diaz
Offseason departures: Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, Charlie Morton, Martin Maldonado, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis, Tony Sipp
X-factor: Brantley could turn that Fab Four into a Fab Five. No, he's probably not the MVP-candidate type like Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Springer, but he swings a nice bat, fresh off a .309/.364/.468 slash line, 17 homers and 76 RBIs - numbers that rate among the best of his career. As the fifth-best hitter in a lineup, those numbers are quite good and very valuable.
1. George Springer, CF
2. Alex Bregman, 3B
3. Jose Altuve, 2B
4. Carlos Correa, SS
5. Michael Brantley, LF
6. Yuli Gurriel, 1B
7. Tyler White, DH
8. Josh Reddick, RF
9. Robinson Chirinos, C
1. Justin Verlander
2. Gerrit Cole
3. Wade Miley
4. Collin McHugh
5. Framber Valdez
Prediction: First place in AL West