Photo credit: Keith Allison, KA Sports Photos
For the first time in maybe forever, the New York Yankees aren’t baseball’s most-hated team.
In the aftermath of one of baseball’s most egregious cheating scandals, the Houston Astros are taking on the new role of villain. Pretty much everything the Astros have done dating back to last October has been an unmitigated disaster. Between the sign-stealing, the sexist employees, the accounts of libel and the team’s utter lack of accountability, there are almost too many mistakes to count.
The club fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow in the aftermath of the cheating scandal. The club was stripped of their 2020-2021 first and second-round draft picks while also being fined the maximum $5 million. Many fans across baseball felt these penalties were too light and didn’t place enough blame on the players, which is a fair sentiment. It does not change the fact that the Astros will still be rolling out a very good team this season.
Multiple projection systems have the Astros winning 90+ games yet again. PECOTA has them at 98 wins while Fangraphs has them at 96 wins. I fully acknowledge that these projection systems can’t contextualize everything. These systems can’t gauge the impact of sign-stealing or the potential psychological impact this season could have on the players. Still, it’s far-fetched to expect the Astros to suddenly not be good now. Using the Fangraphs Depth Charts, the club projects to be elite or pretty close to it in most departments [Ed. Note: not the sign-stealing one, heh].
From an offensive standpoint, the Astros still have a boatload of talent. Their position players led baseball with 40.8 fWAR last season. Fangraphs projects them to lead the league again with 34.6 fWAR. With players like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, and George Springer, among many other quality players, this should come as no surprise. To reiterate, I acknowledge the sign-stealing impact and realize the potential benefits they offered these hitters. I still believe this is an elite position player group but this season should provide more color on their true talent level.
From the pitching side of things, they still have a ton of talent even after losing Gerrit Cole. Their projected 22.2 fWAR isn’t too far off from their 23.7 figure last season. The subtraction of Cole hurts but getting Zack Greinke for a full year and getting Lance McCullers Jr. back may offset that. Losing Will Harris out of the bullpen hurts, but there are enough quality arms to still be a productive unit. The biggest concern for this staff may be relying on a 37-year-old Justin Verlander, a 36-year-old Greinke, and a post-rehab McCullers Jr. There’s an inordinate amount of risk in this scenario.
Objectively, I think this is a very good team that will likely win a lot of games this year. I think the sign-stealing helped the club (obviously) in some way and the psychological impact of the scandal could be real. It still doesn’t make me think this team won’t be very good. Subjectively, and from the perspective of a playoff-deprived Angels fan, I hope the Astros crash and burn. Nothing the Astros organization has done recently has been in good conscience and seeing them miss the playoffs would deeply satisfy me. I would love nothing more than to see the Angels overtake Houston (and Oakland) for the division.
Will it happen? Who knows. It’s unlikely but the gap between the Angels and Astros has narrowed significantly since last season. Regardless of how the season plays out, the first month of action should be must-see TV considering the Angels and Astros face off a whopping 10 times (!!) in the first month.
My GIF to describe the Astros: