Astros Good Bet To Repeat As Champs

Astros Good Bet To Repeat As Champs
(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The Houston Astros are a decent bet to repeat as World Series champions for a very good reason.

Make that at least 45 good reasons. Start with a powerful 26-man roster, guided by one of the best managers in baseball history in Dusty Baker. Toss in an exemplary coaching staff and then look to the entire 40-man roster, which has several prospects ready to come up if needed.

That’s not to say that commissioner Rob Manfred should just cancel the season and hand the trophy over to the Astros right now. Heaven forbid that would be another decision to change the course of the sport.

The Astros lost ace right-hander Justin Verlander (18-4, 1.75 ERA) to free agency. They did not replace him in the rotation but went a different route to beef up the offense.

Adding A+ Offense

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Welcome former MVP Jose Abreu, the slugging first baseman signed as a free agent from the Chicago White Sox.

It did not appear Houston needed more offense. Now, with sparkplug second baseman Jose Altuve sidelined for at least the first two months with a hand injury suffered in the World Baseball Classic, that big bat looks mighty nice.

Abreu replaces two free-agent losses at first base. Yuli Gurriel slowed down quite a bit last year at age 38 and went off to the Miami Marlins. Trey Mancini did not hit well at all after being acquired in a mid-season trade from the Baltimore Orioles and signed with the Chicago Cubs.

Long-Ball Lineup

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The outfield of super slugger Yordan Alvarez (37 HR, 97 RBI, .306) in left field, Chas McCormick in center, and Kyle Tucker (30 HR, 107 RBI, .257) in right is more than formidable. Add Alex Bregman (23 HR, 93 RBI, .259) at third, Jeremy Pena (22 HR, 63 RBI as a rookie) at short, Altuve (.307 career average), and Abreu around the infield – and Houston can afford to carry weak-hitting catcher Martin Maldonado.

Alvarez, Abreu, Bregman and Tucker are all MVP candidates. Any or all of them could drive in more than 100 runs. Abreu had 100+ RBI in six of his full eight seasons with the White Sox.

Sweet-swinging veteran Michael Brantley who missed most of 2022 with a shoulder injury is due back. If healthy he should provide additional punch at designated hitter. The lefty hit man was batting .288 when he got hurt, has a .298 career average, and hit .299 or above in seven full seasons prior to 2022.

Power-Packed Pitching

Maldonado’s job is to keep the prolific pitching staff on track. That’s what the veteran backstop does best.

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Who will replace Verlander as the ace? The top four in the rotation all have the credentials. Cristian Javier (2.84 ERA, 194 strikeouts in 148 2/3 innings) combined with relievers for a no-hitter in the World Series. Luis Garcia (15-8, 157 Ks), Framber Valdez (17-6, 2.82 EEA, 194Ks), and Jose Urquidy (13-8) could be No. 1, too. Any of the four could be on the All-Star team this year.

That goes for closer Ryan Pressly (33 saves). His job is usually made easier by a tremendous setup corps in front of him that includes Rafael Montero, Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, Phil Maton, and Ryne Stanek. Every one of that quintet throws hard.

More Riches Available

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The hardest thrower of all, Hunter Brown (2-0, 0.89 ERA in 20 innings) was ticketed for the starting rotation but is currently sidelined by a sore back. At Triple-A last year, he went 9-4 with a 2.55 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 106 innings.

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Don’t forget veteran Lance McCullers, who also will start the season rehabbing an injury. Getting back his big curveball and fastball at some point during the season is almost like making a trade for another starter. Only Houston will not have to give up any players.

Trying to replace Altuve at second base in the early going will be Mauricio Dubon and David Hensley. Dubon has hit .303 in his career in the minors. Last year at Triple-A, the 6-foot-6 Hensley batted .298 with 20 steals in 104 games.

J.J. Matijevic and Jake Meyers are other good young hitters available off the bench.

Added to the roster this week is young catcher Yanier Diaz, a veritable hit machine acquired from Cleveland with Maton in the 2021 trade that sent outfielder Myles Straw to the Guardians.

Diaz has a career .321 average in five years in the minors. In 2022 at Triple-A, he crashed 25 homers with 96 RBI and a .306 average. Right now, his primary job is to soak up as much instruction as he can from Maldonado. He also provides manager Baker potential pop as a pinch hitter.

All the parts are there, and then some. Sometimes, however, parts get broken. Such is the case with perennial All-Star Altuve. The Astros have the depth to overcome such things as long as too many misfortunes do not occur.

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Chuck Murr

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