Astros: How the team could fall short of expectations

If the Houston Astros unravel in 2020, here’s how it’ll likely happen.

If there’s one thing I’ve taken from the Houston Astros teams of the past three seasons, it’s confidence. That’s why, coming into 2020, I’m confident they’ll have no problem adjusting to having a new manager and they’ll continue to be one of the best teams in the sport. But here’s something I hadn’t really considered until just now: What if they fall short?

CBS Sports’ Jim Bowden recently released his predictions for each division this season, and he actually picked the Astros to finish second in the AL West and make the playoffs as a Wild Card team. He picked Oakland to win the division, noting Houston’s bullpen concerns. While I don’t necessarily agree, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility, especially in a 60-game season.

That shortened schedule along with several other factors actually increase the chances of the Astros (and most other teams, for that matter) having a prolonged rough patch or just failing to fully get going this season. I still think they’ll win the division, but there’s the potential for more volatility than in a typical campaign.

So with that in mind, I’m stopping to look at the glass half empty for a change. If the Astros season does go off the rails and the team fails to win the division or even make the playoffs, how would it happen? Obviously a rash of injuries or COVID-19 cases would be a possibility, but that’s a risk for every team. Here’s how the Astros could fail to launch even without that.

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The Pitching Falls Apart

The Astros bullpen woes are already well documented, and the season hasn’t even begun. Joe Smith is on the Restricted List and may not play at all this season. Roberto Osuna doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to start the year. Will Harris is gone to the Nationals. Ryan Pressly is the only healthy, proven arm left. He’s basically the kid with his finger in the dike.

Even if Pressly is healthy and effective, he alone won’t be enough. If Chris Devenski and Joe Biagini don’t return to form, if Brad Peacock and Austin Pruitt can’t get healthy, and if manager Dusty Baker can’t find a young arm to rely on in the later innings, things could get really ugly.

The top of the starting rotation is fine with Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, but Lance McCullers Jr. is coming off Tommy John surgery. Plenty of pitchers aren’t quite the same in their first season back from the procedure, so it’s possible McCullers needs some time to round back into form.

The back of the rotation is less certain with Josh James and Framber Valdez, both of whom have high octane arms but also have bouts of control issues. There’s not much proven depth beyond them, so if anyone gets hurt or is forced to miss time with COVID-19 related issues, the rotation could become a real problem too. We still don’t know what’s going on with Jose Urquidy.

Then there’s Baker’s reputation for leaving his starting pitchers in the game for too long. With such a shaky and unproven bullpen, he might be even more inclined to get extra outs from his starters. It’s a short season, but there aren’t many off days. They could still get overworked.

The Offense Is Merely Average

Even if several things break right on the pitching side, this offense is going to need to mash. The division is tougher than it was last year and it’s a short season. The Astros are already missing Yordan Alvarez, whose absence hasn’t really been explained or given a timetable.

If Alvarez doesn’t return, or if he does but hits a sophomore slump, other guys will have to pick up the slack. They’ve already lost offense at the catcher position with the departure of Robinson Chirinos, and though the lineup is still deep, nothing is for certain. There’s plenty of risk.

The 36-year-old Yuli Gurriel and 33-year-old Michael Brantley could start showing their age. Carlos Correa could still struggle with injuries. Kyle Tucker might not get going and Josh Reddick’s bat could continue to decay. Martin Maldonado and Dustin Garneau could both flirt with the Mendoza Line. Even if George Springer, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman hit largely as expected, that wouldn’t be enough if the rest of the guys don’t follow suit.

While it’s not likely that all of those things will occur, there’s certainly the chance that some of them will. The pitching staff is going to have some holes even if some unexpected players step up, so the team can ill afford to have offensive slumps in such a short campaign.

Still the Favorites

In spite of all these negative possibilities, the Astros should still be the presumptive favorite to win the division. The lineup is deep, the rotation has some great arms, and this team is battle tested. If Osuna comes back and a couple more guys step up in the bullpen, that’ll be enough for Baker to cobble a relief corps together.

The Rangers’ rotation is improved, the Angels’ lineup is improved, and the A’s are going to be right in the thick of it. In a 60-game season, it could very well be a dogfight to get to the finish line in the AL West. But the Astros have been there and done that, and I still believe they’ll be the ones on top when the regular season ends.

Related Story: 2020 AL West Preview

But this is a reminder that it’s no certainty, and while the team has given us plenty of reason to be confident, it’s still going to be tough sledding. But that’ll just make it so much sweeter when they prove the haters and doubters wrong.

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