2020 Record: 29-31
Second Place, AL West
Team ERA: 4.31 (13th)
Team OPS: .720 (16th)
What Went Right
Despite finishing with a losing record, the Astros qualified for the expanded playoffs and took down the Twins and Athletics before losing in Game 7 of the ALCS to the Rays. They got a couple breakout seasons from young starters, as Cristian Javier posted a 3.48 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 54/18 K/BB ratio over 54 1/3 innings and Framber Valdez held a 3.57 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 76/16 K/BB ratio over 70 2/3 frames. Both hurlers pitched well in the postseason, as well, with Valdez looking ace-like with a 1.88 ERA. Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers were solid, too, and so was Jose Urquidy when he wasn’t sidelined by COVID-19, giving Houston a strong rotation even after losing Justin Verlander (elbow). The bullpen was filled with rookies and dealt with major control issues, but there were some bright spots, including Ryan Pressly at closer. George Springer had a strong walk year with a .899 OPS and a team-leading 14 home runs. Michael Brantley was also rock-solid with a .300/.364/.476 line. Kyle Tucker finally got his chance at everyday playing time and delivered a .837 OPS, nine homers and eight steals.
What Went Wrong
The Astros’ offense wasn’t as fearsome as anticipated. The biggest disappointment had to be Jose Altuve, who put up a lowly .629 OPS. He did rebound with a monster showing in the playoffs, popping five homers. Yuli Gurriel (.658 OPS, six homers) and Carlos Correa (.709 OPS, five homers) also weren’t great, and Alex Bregman (.801 OPS, six homers) wasn’t his usual self, either. Additionally, Yordan Alvarez played in just two games after being delayed by COVID-19 before then undergoing season-ending surgery on both knees. As previously mentioned, Alvarez wasn’t the only big loss, with Verlander making just one start before suffering an elbow injury which eventually required Tommy John surgery. There’s also All-Star closer Roberto Osuna, who missed most of the year with an elbow malady of his own (he’s attempting to rehab it in hopes of avoiding Tommy John). The Astros got next to nothing out of Josh James (7.27 ERA), Chris Devenski (14.73 ERA, elbow), Brad Peacock (7.71 ERA, shoulder) and Joe Smith (opted out).
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** If there was any silver lining to Yordan Alvarez essentially missing the entire season, it’s that manager Dusty Baker had no choice but to play Kyle Tucker regularly. The 23-year-old finished the year as the top-scoring Astros position player in roto leagues on the strength of nine home runs, eight stolen bases and a team-high 42 RBI over 58 games. The next item on Tucker’s do-list is to be better against left-handed pitching, as southpaws held him to just a .695 OPS in 2020 (he boasted a .905 OPS versus right-handers). If that happens, the talented young outfielder could help out in average in addition to being a 30-30 threat over a full season.
** Can Framber Valdez be a fantasy ace? He pitched like one in 2020, putting up a 3.57 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 76/16 K/BB ratio over 70 2/3 frames in the regular season before taking it to another level in the playoffs with a 1.88 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 26/10 K/BB ratio over 24 innings. Valdez has elite groundball skills (his 60 percent groundball rate led all qualifiers) and swing-and-miss stuff (his 26.4 percent strikeout rate ranked 16th in baseball), and it’s virtually impossible not to have success when you combine those two together. The only real question mark is whether his improved control in 2020 sticks. He held just a 5.6 percent walk rate this past season after a 13.4 percent rate in 2019 and 15.6 percent rate in 2018.
** Similar to Valdez, the sustainability of Cristian Javier’s surprise 2020 showing might depend on whether the gains in his control stick. The 23-year-old posted a solid 8.4 percent walk rate in his rookie season after showing major control problems during his time in the minors. Javier’s 25.2 percent strikeout rate nearly matched Valdez’s, but he doesn’t have nearly as much margin for error as an extreme flyball pitcher. The righty served up 11 home runs over just 54 1/3 innings.
** It will be interesting to see how Yordan Alvarez’s fantasy stock is affected following his lost season and knee surgeries. The young slugger has had knee problems for years and it finally became too much for him, as he had a cleanup procedure on his left knee and surgery to repair a torn patella tendon in his right knee in August. The anticipation is that Alvarez will be a full-go for spring training, but he’ll probably still have to be considered a health question mark going into 2021.
Team Needs: Houston’s rotation looks to be in pretty good shape even with Verlander unlikely to pitch until 2022, but they have some question marks on offense. The Astros have some decisions to make with their outfield and how hard – if at all – they want to pursue their free agents. Springer is obviously the biggest name in the group, but he will be among the most highly sought-after free agent position players, so he won’t be cheap.