A wild 2020 Astros season is over. It started in February with players finally addressing the sign-stealing scandal that marred their offseason. Once the season started, after a four month delay, the team battled injuries on the way to a 29-31 finish, but qualified for a fifth playoff in six years, advancing to a fourth straight ALCS, narrowly missing out on a trip to the World Series.
Let’s take a look at some of the good and bad that we saw over the last 73 games.
Tucker’s second cup of big league coffee in 2019 went much better than his debut the season before, but there were still questions he could be the hitter that earned the nickname “Ted” after Ted Williams during spring training in 2018. Those questions were answered in 2020. Playing in all but two games, Tucker hit .268/.325/.512. His slugging percentage was second best on the team, and he led it with 27 extra base hits, and he remained consistent, even as teams started to pitch him like the middle of the order threat he became. He also proved himself to be a solid base runner and he was more than solid in left field, where he is a finalist for a Gold Glove . It was absolutely imperative for Tucker to produce this season with George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Josh Reddick set to hit free agency, and he did just that.
Rookie pitchers come out of nowhere
The Astros knew they’d be without Gerrit Cole, Will Harris and Hector Rondon before spring training even started. Then Joe Smith opted out when the team re-convened in July for summer camp. Once the seasons actually started the team quickly lost Justin Verlander, Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock, and Chris Devenski, before Jose Urquidy even joined the squad. Yet, despite all those losses, the Astros pitching staff finished the regular season with a 4.31 ERA, 13th best in baseball. Not great, but all things considered, more than acceptable. In a season where the offense underachieved, the pitching kept them afloat, and it did so with a bunch of unknown kids.
Ten Astros’ pitchers pitched in the Majors for the first time in 2020. Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb and Blake Taylor helped solidify the bullpen, while Cristian Javier proved to be a well above average starter, before Dusty Baker deployed him out of the bullpen during the playoffs. Just as important as the emergence of the rookies, Framber Valdez, who is under team control through the 2025 season, finally realized his potential and turned in a great season, and don’t forget Urquidy, who turned in a 2.73 ERA once he recovered from Coronavirus.
With Verlander, Osuna, Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers, and possibly Ryan Pressly becoming free agents after the 2021 season the Astros were desperate for an injection of youth on the mound, and they got it.
Carlos Correa turned a corner
By looking at Carlos Correa’s 2020 offensive numbers you would assume he had a down season. He didn’t. Sure, a .709 OPS and a 92 OPS+ with 14 extra base hits across 58 games isn’t what you’re for, but Correa’s 2020 season was about more than offensive production. First of all, he only missed two games. That’s huge step after he failed to play in more than 110-of-162 games in every season since 2016, and he transformed into a monster at the plate during the postseason, slugging six home runs in 13 games, forcing his way back into the cleanup spot of the Astros lineup, but Correa made significant strides in other areas this season.
Correa ranked second amongst all shortstops with 8 defensive runs saved, one run off his career-high in 2017 despite playing in a shortened season and is a finalist for his first Gold Glove. Not only did he turn himself into an elite defender, but he became the Astros leader. Whether it was speaking up for Jose Altuve during spring training, speaking up for his teammates during the postseason, or keeping Framber Valdez focused during game six of the ALCS, at 26 years old, Correa became the face of the Astros.
Lance McCullers Jr is healthy
In a season where pitchers dropped like flies, the Astros ability to keep McCullers’ right arm healthy in his return from Tommy John Surgery was a major positive in 2020. He had one health issue in September when he had to miss a start because of a nerve issue that flared up when he slept badly on a flight to Anaheim.
Just as important, however, McCullers turned in a solid season. He finished with a 3.93 ERA in 11 starts, allowing 24 earned runs, 11 of which came in two innings, one in Arizona and the other in Anaheim following the before mentioned flight. His strikeout rate was down from where it was pre-surgery, but so was his walk rate, and while the velocity on his two-seam fastball dropped a smidge, the whiff rate on his curveball increased from 37.2 percent to 42.1 percent, his highest number since 2016. McCullers introduced a cutter to repertoire in September, and it helped him toss 17.2 innings to close out the regular season without allowing an earned run.
Yuli Gurriel’s second half
Gurriel enjoyed the best season of his Major League career when he posted an .884 OPS in 2019, and through 32 games of 2020 it looked like he was going to repeat that mark, but then September hit and his numbers cratered. Gurriel entered the Astros game on September 1 against the Rangers batting .292/.348/.517, but he finished 0-for-5 that night which started a month that would see those numbers drop to .154/.168./.217, so his OPS dropped nearly 500 points from where it was when the month started. Things didn’t get better in the postseason where he started all 13 playoff games and collected five hits in 53 plate appearances with six walks.
More troubling than the batting average is that he only struck out three times in postseason play, so he was putting the ball in play, but he wasn’t doing anything with those swings. There was some bad luck involved, but he hit just eight balls in play with a launch angle between 15 and 30 degrees in the playoffs, three of those came in the Wild Card Round against the Twins.
Position Player Depth
Dusty Baker said he never considered benching Gurriel during his struggles at the start of the postseason, and he never lifted him from a game because frankly, he had no other options. The Rays and Astros both carried 14 position players on their ALCS roster, and while Tampa started all 14 in at least one game during the seven game series, the Astros started just 11. Baker trusted nine guys plus Aledmys Diaz, and that’s a big problem when you consider three of those players, George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Josh Reddick are now free agents. For all the pitching depth the Astros have in their organization they have almost no position player depth.
Abraham Toro finished 2020 with a .513 OPS while Myles Straw ended the year at .500, Jack Mayfield was worse at .453. Because of all the injuries on the pitching staff there was really only an opportunity for one other position player, Taylor Jones, who impressed during summer camp, but in seven big leagues games notched four hits in 21 at bats. Nine of the Astros top 20 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, are position players, but only Jones at number 20 has ever played a game above A-Ball, so there doesn’t appear to be any help on the horizon.
Justin Verlander’s salary
The Astros will pay the 2019 Cy Young Award winner $33 million in 2021 and he won’t throw a single pitch for them. That’s a killer for a roster that is only getting older and more expensive. If you project out arbitration numbers the Astros payroll stands to be at around $150-$160 million next season and that’s without Springer or Brantley.
That’s a big drop from their $205 million 2020 payroll, but when you consider they just went through an entire season without fans inside Minute Maid Park, and there remains uncertainty over how many fans, if any, will be allowed in ballparks in 2021 it’s hard to imagine the payroll going much higher, which makes the Verlander hit sting even more.
The Astros top prospect was not among the 10 pitchers to make their Major League debut in 2020. Whitley was assigned to the Astros alternate training site in Corpus Christi when the season started, and a week later was shutdown with arm soreness. The team never updated his status and Astros general manager James Click said he didn’t have an update om him earlier this week. Whitley just turned 23 years old in September, but he’s never thrown 100 innings in any of the five seasons he’s been in the Astros organization, and the people who drafted him are gone.
Astros pitching coach Brent Strom said in July he thinks Whitley is going to be a superstar and Click called him “a big part” of the Astros future. Baseball America has rated Whitley as a top 25 prospect each of the last three years, but at some point he is going to have to make good on the hype.