Our response to questions from the Detroit SB Nation group in a column they call Behind Enemy Lines
Detroit’s esteemed baseball writers at Bless You Boys posed these questions about the Astros to our writers here at The Crawfish Boxes. Here are the questions and answers.
I think a lot of people assumed the Astros were going to run away with the AL West again, but right now they find themselves in a surprisingly tight division. What do you think is holding them back from being in first?
I’m not surprised that the AL West is tighter than some may have expected. First, the Astros lost superstar talent (Cole, Springer, and Correa) in each of the last three years. That reduces the Astros’ margin for error Second, both the Angels and Mariners have improved teams, and they are likely to stay in the AL West race over the coming months. But the Astros probably will come out on top in the end.
So far, the Astros have relied on pitching and defense for staying close to first place. The offense has been the primary culprit in the slow start to the season. In 2021 the Astros had the best AL offense, but so far this year the Astros offense is producing middle-of-the-pack stats (No. 17 in MLB wRC+). So, what do the Astros need to happen? Easy. Wait for the offensive performance to normalize. The Astros’ offense has started out with some bad luck. The Astros have the second-worst BABIP in the majors and fourth-worst batting average (.215). Yet the Astros are also among the top four teams in percent hard-hit balls. The Astros’ top offensive players, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker have only recently broken out of horrid batting slumps, and the result has been a .700 winning percentage over the last 10 games. Given their strong track record, Altuve, Brantley, and Bregman are likely to hit closer to their normal stats in the coming months.
Obviously quite a few of the key contributors to their World Series season are no longer with the team, which up-and-comers do you wish people would talk more about?
The one player who should start to get more notoriety is outfielder Chas McCormick.
As a rookie in 2021, McCormick quietly posted a 2-plus win season according to both fWAR and bWAR, and he did it in just 320 plate appearances. Getting him more playing time was ostensibly a key reason why the Astros front office traded the club’s starting center fielder last year, Myles Straw, at the trade deadline (Dusty Baker favored Straw).
McCormick displayed an impressive mix of tools and skills in 2021, hitting 14 home runs and making hard contact roughly half the time he put the ball in play while chasing pitches outside the strike zone at a rate below the league average. He received high marks defensively from metrics like OAA (97th percentile) and registered an 89th percentile sprint speed.
The one knock was a high strikeout rate of almost 33 percent, which was odd since it had never been higher than the mid-teens during McCormick’s minor-league career. It’s possible he sold out for power too much, though he still finished the year with a 109 wRC+, so it wasn’t a bad approach?
With that said, he appears to be making substantial progress in that department in 2022, as his K% entering Wednesday is below 20 percent — while sustaining a quality barrel rate.
For an unheralded prospect, McCormick’s profile is fairly refined and well-rounded. He has a chance to wind up being a legitimate everyday center fielder with his two-way ability.
Are there any exciting prospects waiting in the minors ready to take their first plunge into the big leagues?
We Astros fans are always rooting for you, (except tonight) as you’ve got our manager, who most of us loved although there were a few ugly game threads. Not that you know anything about pitchers getting pulled too soon in a postseason.
Regarding prospects, the Astros are probably a bottom 10 farm system, maybe bottom 5 due to so many recent trades and not having #1 and #2 draft picks the last two years. The good news for this season is that our best prospects are close to being MLB ready. Here are four that could make an impact:
- Korey Lee (C). He was our first round pick a few years ago. He seemed like a reach but has hit better than expected. Our regular catchers, Martin Maldanado and Jason Castro, are in their mid-30s and there’s no 3rd catcher on the 40 man. Dusty Baker loves defense and shutting down the running game, which is why Maldy continues to accrue starts. Between this year and last, Maldy has accumulated a WAR of 0.0. Castro hit last year, but Dusty didn’t trust him and this year he’s 1/22. Lee hasn’t hit in AAA so far, but if he starts to find his groove, expect him by July or August
- Hunter Brown (RHP): Ever since a Walker Buehler comp was dropped in the 2020 AFL, we’ve been excited for Brown, who seems like a legit #2/3 starter if he can be more consistent with his control. Last night he pitched 5 shutout IP with 8 Ks. The Astros have 6 good, healthy starters, not including injured McCullers. Still, with 40-man guys Dubin and Bermudez stinking up AAA, Brown has a lane to force his way onto a September roster and possibly be a multi-inning guy down the stretch.
- Pedro Leon (CF/SS) He was a touted Cuban with a classic tools > skills profile. His exit velos are elite and he’s already stolen 8 bases. They tried him out at SS last season. Given the injury history of Astro OFs Brantley and Alvarez, and given the need for an emergency middle IF (especially with Goodrum looking washed), Leon might come up and swing a few games with his speed/power/defense.
- Emanuel Valdez (2B): This would be a surprise, but this unheralded prospect is doing his part to chart a course to MLB (see the emergence last year of 3 such unheralded OFs—Straw, McCormack, and Meyers). The team is very thin at middle-IF depth. Aledmys Diaz has gotten very old and creaky very fast. Goodrum has been a hot mess. Altuve has already been on the IL and Bregman has been injured the last two years. I’d like to see the Astros trade SP depth for middle-IF depth. But short of that, they will need to either find someone on waivers or look within. Ranked outside most org. top 30s before this offseason, Valdez hits for power, draws walks, and makes decent contact. He posted a wRC+ of 131 in 98 PAs at AA last year and his slash this year through 79PAs (.354/468/677) will probably force a promotion to AAA in June.
Otherwise, some 40-man pitchers will surely get up to Houston (Solomon, Dubin, and Enoli Paredes) and perhaps bolster a bullpen that is currently getting taxed on account of the 6-man rotation.
Exile in St. Louis
Do you think there was a chance to re-sign Carlos Correa, or had that relationship run its course?
The Astros chances to re-sign Carlos Correa never felt particularly high. Once it became apparent that extension talks went nowhere prior to the 2021 season, it was only a matter of when not if. Based on Correa’s comments at that juncture, however, a reunion with Houston wasn’t completely off the table. In short, no, the partnership probably didn’t run its course. But fit and money matter greatly to free agents, so it would take more than fuzzy, warm feelings to extend this marriage.
Fast forward to the most recent offseason, prior to the lockout, and it became increasingly apparent that the Astros were on the outside looking in. This writer felt as if the Tigers were a potential fit along with the Yankees and Cubs. But following the free agency frenzy just prior to the lockout and the general lack of movement in his market once the new CBA was in place, it felt as if the door creaked open ever so slightly for Jim Crane and company to come to terms with Correa. By March, with rumors and cryptic Martín Maldonado tweets abound, that confidence within the fanbase was growing. But we all know how those talks, or lack thereof depending on the source, unfolded.
The Twins stepped in with an offer that arguably fit the Astros’ short-term plan better. Houston’s decision not to at least match Minnesota’s offer was a major misstep. Even if Correa exercised his opt-out following the 2022 season, a one-year extension would’ve maximized their title chances for one more time considering the roster already in place. While top shortstop prospect Jeremy Peña has had a strong start to his rookie campaign, Correa’s departure lowered the ceiling for the Astros on-and-off the field. Not a season-killer decision, mind you, but one that could hamper how far this roster could advance later in the year.
If you had to place bets which Astros would be representing Houston in the All Star game?
With the success of the Astros from 2017 on, Houston was very well represented in the All-Star game until 2021 following the revelation of the trash can scandal, Consequently, Astros players aren’t the most popular to be selected into the All-Star game by fans. However, if the Astros are a good team in 2022, they should be well represented in the 2022 All-Star game. But who?
Justin Verlander is coming off Tommy John surgery, but it looks like he never left. He started against the Mariners yesterday, limiting them to two runs in 6 ⅔ innings with 3 strikeouts. Not impressed, Ok I raise you a 1.93 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 32 ⅔ innings. He trails only Frankie Montas in the American League in innings pitched.
Yordan Alvarez got off to a slow start, but has heated up recently hitting homers in 4 of 5 games. He didn’t homer Wednesday, but he is batting .268 with 8 homers and 15 RBI while sporting a 1.007 OPS. He is also getting a reputation for having a strong arm in left field.
Rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña has also gotten off to a hot start despite the pressure of high expectations following the departure of Carlos Correa. Not only is he playing great defense, but he has 5 homers and 15 RBI. However, he is only batting .229 with a .771 OPS. Not great, but he may get some notice across the league with hitting in clutch situations.
Relief pitcher Rafael Montero was DFA’ed by the Mariners last season, but he has dominated in the Astros bullpen this year. He has an 0.87 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 10 ⅓ innings with a 1.06 WHIP. Hector Neris could also get selected as he has an 0.75 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 12 innings pitched. One of these two relievers.
Would any Astros player get elected by the fans? Maybe Alvarez, but competition at outfield or DH is red hot. This is a good topic for the Locked On Astros podcast.